Hands Like Houses have burned the rule book for their fourth studio album –Anon.. Rather than drawing from their own experiences, the quintet have created a quasi-concept album which ventures beyond personal narrative.
The Canberra-based rockers wanted to tell other people’s stories through a lyrical voice, whether it was a tale of self discovery, relationships or politics. So like an anonymous poem, the allure of the album lies in its relatability rather than the identity of its author.
As well as stepping outside of their lyrical wheelhouse, HLH also experimented with new vocal stylings and production to achieve a modern rock n’ roll sound. Recorded at Hollywood’s Steakhouse Studios and produced by Colin Brittain (5 Seconds of Summer, All Time Low), the album sought to highlight music which wasn’t comparable to any other HLH record.
To celebrate the release of -Anon. (which is out today!), HLH are hitting the road this weekend for three intimate gigs in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney. Potentially the last time they’ll play such small venues, tickets for the release shows were whisked up within 48 hours.
But if you missed out, there’s no need to fret. Frontman Trent Woodley has hinted that a bigger Australian tour is in the works.
Ahead of the release of -Anon., Music Feeds had a chat with Woodley about the freedom of writing outside of your experiences, tour plans and finding the balance between art and business.
Music Feeds: -Anon. is based around the idea that music can be heard in passing and still resonate with people even if the artist is unknown to the listener. What was the inspiration behind this concept?
Trenton Woodley: For me it just came from trying to write things and feeling like I was hitting a few road blocks because I’ve already told that story or already explored that feeling or asked those questions. Three albums is a lot of time to explore yourself and your perspective on the world. I think I just tried to step outside that a little bit. I started writing songs that were about loss and breakup and situations where I was like “well, that’s not really me at the moment. I’m happy and content but that doesn’t mean I can’t write something powerful that people can relate to in a different way”.
So I just started exploring different narratives that weren’t mine. When we would start writing songs to put on the record, we’d just sit down together and talk about people, politics and things happening around us. So it’s always going to be our voice and perspective on things but with the concept that this isn’t about us, this is just us.
MF: Is the song writing process usually that collaborative?
TW: Yeah! In terms of the overall song writing including all of the music and stuff, we have a pretty broad process. Everyone contributes different ideas in different ways. From a lyrical standpoint, it is mostly me but in this case I worked with Colin. The studio was split into two mini studios, so I’d be doing vocals, writing and recording with Colin in the main room and the other guys would be down the end of the hall tracking in all of the guitars. So we’d always be running back and forth checking ideas and cross referencing stuff. So we were all bouncing ideas off each other and I was just orchestrating the stories that we were telling each other in the way that we each would and making it my own voice.
MF: Was writing outside of your immediate experience liberating or challenging for you?
TW: It was liberating to let go of that fear that people are going to start interpreting the songs, like superimposing some of the themes of the songs over my own relationship that I’m completely happy and content in. I guess I was always afraid that people would say, “Oh, Trenton must be this way because of what he sung about.” So letting go of that fear and trepidation of what are people going to think of me because of this was very liberating.
MF: Rather than creating a full-blown concept album, each song stands alone with its own unique themes. From self-reflection and fantasy to politics, what made you draw from such a broad pool of inspirations?
TW: It’s a fairly open concept and it gave us the freedom to explore different ideas without feeling like anything was too far away from centre. Part of being a singer and storyteller is creating a certain investment and point of relatability. While it may not be my story, it’s my own emotional weight and perspective. That’s part of the role of the storyteller is to take on those voices and still inject a sense of meaning and a sense of purpose.
MF: Being your fourth album, was it important for you guys to break away from your comfort zone and experiment a little more on this record?
TW: Yeah. It’s kind of a get out of jail free card because even though it’s us, we can kind of catch people a little bit off guard and make them think more about how they’re consuming what we do and how they interact with it. I guess that was a little bit intentional to create that moment where the listener might be like, “Who is this?”
In a way, that gives us a chance to build a new relationship and connection point. Otherwise it just comes down to direct comparison and we’ve always tried to avoid making albums that can be directly compared.
There are bands like Thrice and Bring Me The Horizon that have done such a good job of slowly transitioning between albums. That was definitely something we wanted to draw from and create that sense of growth rather than change.
MF: Is that a hard line to walk, maintaining your consistent voice while trying new sounds?
TW: I think our collective voice is always going to sound like the five of us making music. Our own tastes change but the reality is that we all have such different perspectives on music between the five of us that anything that we all like is usually at a pretty good starting point. If we’re all on board with it, that’s usually a good indicator because we all have such different ideas.
MF: Do you ever worry about how the fans are going to react when you take a creative risk like that?
TW: When we’re watching our analytics on Spotify and with the new album in particular, with some of the risks we’ve taken, they might kind of estrange some of the most hardcore, old school fans. But I’ve been finding that judging from the loudest voices on social media, you’d think there would this massive subset of people who just love the old stuff.
But when you look at the stats and the Spotify stuff, the analytics actually gives you a pretty telling story of how much of a minority those loud voices on the internet can be. Especially the ones that are more of an arm-shake critic or have negative opinions and are putting one song or album over another, but then when you look at the statistics sometimes they’re in the bottom 10 of songs in terms of plays.
So it’s interesting as the world is data-driven now, we can take that stuff on. And I guess that’s also art versus business of how much do you cater to what’s popular as opposed to what’s real and what’s substantial. I think for us it’s always a delicate balancing act but it’s been interesting as more analytics are becoming available to us as a band rather than to a label or global level. It’s interesting to analyse those finer details and fan behaviours and how people interact with our music.
MF: You also experimented technically as well as lyrically on the record. I read that you achieved the vocal stylings on ‘Monster’ by hunching over and drinking Jameson and steaming black coffee.
TW: Yeah, definitely. We’ve never been a pedal-heavy band, the guys are… I don’t want to say purists but they’re more inclined to plug in a few basic cables and reverbs and a single amp to play it that way without too much exploration into other stuff. But we used a lot of different tones and textures in terms of using fuzz rather than distortion and overdrive instead of clean and using a lot more modulation pedals.
On the vocal side of things, I was trying to get a bit of edge. I do have a — I don’t want to say clean singing voice — but because I’ve done a lot of training with some amazing teachers, I’ve been able to sing different ways. But there was a point where we were going for these raw and gritty tones, but the way I usually sing especially in songs with lower registers, was a little too pure. So we wanted to find a way around that to make the vocals fit with the music rather than feeling in contrast to it.
So that’s where I took the lead from Colin. He was trying to help me get that out of breath tone and to do that, I had to undo so many habits I’ve built up over a few years of touring by hunching over and pretty much pouring all of the air out of my lungs and singing with as little air as possible. It was definitely an eye opening experience into how you can get different types of sounds [laughs].
As a vocalist, it helps you feel like it’s your own voice as well. It is muscle memory just like any other physical activity and when you go out of your comfort zone, that’s when you learn the most I think.
MF: You have an East Coast tour coming up at a bunch of small venues. Why did you decide to do your final run of these venues for the album tour?
TW: The last full tour we did was a little while ago. We did the acoustic run earlier this year and a few festivals here and there. But with these album release shows we wanted to do something a bit more casual and a party vibe, which is why we went for the smaller venues. It wasn’t because we’re going to only do bigger and better. Although we will be doing that real soon.
We’re already lining up the dates for the next Australian run, but this was just a way of celebrating the album coming out and playing a few of those old favourites now that we have four albums to factor into a set.
So now we’re turning the page with some fun little shows where it’s a little more intimate and the rooms are absolutely packed. But we’re really excited for the next run of shows, they’re pretty crazy big for us and are some of the biggest headline shows we’ve ever done, so we’re really excited to get those happening.
‘-Anon.’ is out now. Hands Like Houses will kick off their album release tour in Melbourne tonight (12th October), before hitting Sydney and Brisbane.