In September 2010, Howling Bells stumbled into the Nevada desert with The Killers’ bassist, Mark Stoermer. Their plan: to begin work on The Loudest Engine, their raw, psychedelic and sprawling third studio album and sequel to 2009’s Radio Wars. What followed was a creative journey: quickly the Australian-formed, London-based four piece – singer/ guitarist Juanita Stein and her brother Joel (lead guitarist), drummer Glenn Moule, and bassist Brendan Picchio – forged a sonic union with Nevada’s expansive surroundings and Las Vegas’s street-soiled vibe.
“There are spirits out there in the desert,” says Juanita Stein. “Some people are into that and others aren’t, but we could all feel them and were rather inspired. At night we’d go down to the old part of Vegas where the streets are filled with characters – all kinds of folk, you end up having conversations with these old troubadours and their stories can be pretty heartbreaking. We definitely found recording there very inspiring.”
It wasn’t just Juanita who discovered a soulful muse in the band’s new found location. Together they glimpsed downtown whorehouses and casinos from their car window and then laid down the grunge blues of Charlatan. Joel met wrecked souls and train hoppers during a trip to Nashville and wrote the aching lament of Sioux. In the Nevada desert, Juanita was struck with terrors at night and they all watched fighter jets scream overhead by day. They later recorded ‘The Wilderness’ – an eerie, guitar whirlpool that fades on a surreal cacophony of lights-out-at-the-madhouse animal noises.
More importantly, Nevada’s widescreen vistas and relentless heat allowed Howling Bells to shed the naivety and growing pains of their first two albums – 2006’s critically-acclaimed self-titled debut and then 2009’s Radio Wars. Without a record label to manoeuvre them (they parted company with Independiente in 2010) Howling Bells were free to make the album they’d long pined for. In the middle of nowhere, they could let their creative spirits rush free.
“When we first started making records there were no expectations,” says Juanita. “We were blooming and breaking out of our shells with the first album. People warmed to it and that was great. With the second album, we wanted to do something different. Use more electronics, the colours were more vivid. We’re very cautious of not making the same album over and over again”
“With this album we decided to make the record we wanted to make; we became less conscious of trying to please other people. It was empowering because we had total control. We knew that if we weren’t going to be honest on this record, then we didn’t want to make it at all. The Loudest Engine is the sound of us having grown older, wiser. It’s very much who we are.”
Howling Bells’ desert sessions were only the final part of a year-long writing adventure, however. Hitching their work to support tours with the likes of Coldplay and The Killers, the band wandered through strange American outposts and seedy European back streets in their downtime. Their travels provided endless lyrical inspiration; much of The Loudest Engine was written on the road.
“We toured America and stayed in strange places like Camden, New Jersey – the murder capital of the USA” says Juanita. “In Belgium I ended up in a strip club and met a dancer there. I felt strangely connected to her and ended up writing a song about her situation-inspiration comes in many guises i guess.”
“I don’t keep these characters documented in a diary, but if they reappear as songs later on, I know they’ve made an imprint. I’m eternally grateful for the path we’ve led as a band and the people we’ve met. They’ve provided endless inspiration and music”
It was on the road that Howling Bells first linked with The Killers’ Mark Stoermer. Having toured together, the two groups bonded over their love of similar music; when Howling Bells began planning the recording of their latest project at the tail end of summer 2010, they compiled a shortlist of potential producers. The Killers’ bassist was top of the list.
“He 100% shared our vision,” says Juanita. “He didn’t want to compromise either. There’s a lot of Mark that’s hugely rebellious and concerned with challenging convention and authority, as we all do really. He was really with us in making a huge, spiritual rock record. We all connected really well- afterwards Joel and Glenn stayed on to help him put together his own solo album. It definitely felt like a ’60s thing- the creativity was contagious.”
With Stoermer at the studio dials, Howling Bells worked with a creative spirit they’d not channeled previously. The band spent days jamming old Doors and John Lennon songs. They’d already worked up 30 fresh demos but in The Killers’ Battle Born studio in Nevada, these sketches were fleshed out, given new muscle. The results were 12 songs that burned with a ferocious intensity, clipping garage blues (Charlatan) to end of the world freak outs (The Wilderness) and heart-bruised laments (Into The Sky). This was the album Howling Bells had been so eager to make.
“We want people to feel like we did when we first heard those important records by Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd, or massively creative artists like Can and Boards Of Canada,” says Juanita of the end results. “I want them to feel excited by it and make that nostalgic connection for years to come. Yeah, there’s a singular sound which is more folk and rock than our last 2 albums, but it’s interpreted in a modern sense. It wasn’t a conscious effort to make a ’70s tinged record. It was a very natural progression.
“This album shows that we’re 21st century kids making a modern psychedelic record. This album is our grown up record. The first was about that great initial leap, the second was us exploring different waters. This one is us, all having met at one place, at one time. I think this record will change people’s perspectives of the band.”