Band of the Day

2014.01.27

Deaf Havana

Fearless alt-rock modern anthems from a UK sextet primed for big stages
I know you met the devil once when you were young, you let him in just enough to push you out.
lyrics from Boston Square

When James Veck-Gilodi talks of his time in Deaf Havana, it’s easy to forget that he is just 23. His band has sold out venues across the UK and played to huge crowds at some of the leading festivals across Europe including Sonisphere, Slam Dunk and Reading and Leeds - at Reading last year, they pulled the largest crowd in the festival’s history for an opening act on the main stage. In June, they supported Bruce Springsteen at London’s Olympic Park. Along the way, Deaf Havana has grown from a school band formed purely for fun to leading lights of the UK’s rock underground to a sextet with their eyes fixed firmly on the charts. Released on September 17th, the band’s first U.S. release, Old Souls, is packed with songs that are as pop as they are rock. Strings soar on almost every song, electric guitars are joined by lap steel, mandolin and banjo and there’s even a gospel singer. Deaf Havana, however, haven’t gone soft. As the band has got bigger (both commercially speaking and size-wise – two new members have joined in the past year), so has their sound. Old Souls lead single, “Boston Square,” explodes from the speakers with pounding drums and a riff that tips its hat to The Who. By the time the gritty vocal kicks in, you’re there with a sea of bouncing bodies and air-punching fists. There is a new optimism to the music – the product, partly, of improved production, courtesy of producer Youth, but also the belief that bigger stages are theirs for the taking - although longtime Deaf Havana fans needn’t worry that, lyrically, James is all smiles. Mostly, he’s still miserable, only now he’s sharper and smarter at describing his down days. He still has his dark sense of humor – the gutsy “Subterranean Bullshit Blues” takes its title, he says, from its bullshit subject matter. “It’s about relentlessly drinking then feeling guilty about it,” he sighs. “Having been on tour so much, I’m finding it hard not to drink at the moment.” Alcohol rears its head often on Old Souls, as do death, growing up and looking back, often with regret. “Speeding Cars” has the full complement, yet its jubilant hooks somehow make it sound life-affirming. As soon as the couplet “Because I view my life through a telescope/That I built from a bottle and a slippery slope” leaves James’ lips, you can hear it being howled back. Ditto “And I can't drink to save my life/But I'm holding on for a day that I might”. Old Souls was written in the wake of the snowballing success of Fools And Worthless Liars, Deaf Havana’s major label UK debut album, initially released in late 2011, when it topped the UK rock charts. Four of its singles were playlisted by Radio 1, while a relentless tour schedule – including support slots here and in Europe with the likes of You Me At Six and Feeder– saw the size of their fan base surge. Late last year, a deluxe edition of the album was released, with a second disc featuring all of the songs rerecorded acoustically. “I stripped the songs down and rearranged them, mostly for my own amusement,” says James. “I adore rock – I grew up on Springsteen and The Smiths – but I also love country and folk. I began playing ukulele and mandolin, although admittedly not very well. I get bored and buy lots of instruments, so I figured I may as well use them.” The acoustic disc was the first hint that Old Souls might move Deaf Havana in a new direction. “I knew what I didn’t want this album to sound like – an underground rock record,” says James. “We’ve been in that scene and although we enjoyed it, we didn’t want to be stuck there. I’m not being arrogant, but my aim was to write timeless songs. Rather than look to bands around us, I thought about my actual influences – Springsteen in particular, and the sort of classic rock that doesn’t date.” By the start of last year, thanks to too much touring, James had written only three songs. With a fortnight to go until a studio was booked, the singer locked himself away for a week and emerged with a further ten tracks. James had unexpected help – from his 19-year-old brother Matthew, a touring guitarist with the band since last year, now a fully-fledged member of Deaf Havana. “We sat in my house, talking about the boring bit of Norfolk where we grew up, the strange places we went to school and what had happened in our lives,” says James. “Matthew is amazing. I often wonder how he can be so good so young, then I remember that I was 15 when the band formed. Mind you, I only made music because I knew I was useless at everything else.” In total, seven weeks were spent recording Old Souls at Vale Studios in Worcestershire, the first big studio Deaf Havana have been able to afford, with a break in the middle to tour Australia. Lee Batiuk, who had engineered the acoustic recordings, produced, along with Youth, who had overheard the demos and asked to be involved. “I didn’t know Youth, but we hit it off immediately because we are both big Bukowski fans,” says James, whose vast collection of tattoos includes a Bukowski tribute on his knuckles. “He worked us hard – sometimes until 4 in the morning. He encouraged us to use more strings, which he arranged, and helped to make some of the song structures more pop. He also improved our drummer. God knows what he did to him, but the drumming on this album is incredible.” Youth also pushed James to dig deeper for his vocals to capture the personal nature of the lyrics. “Boston Square” was partly inspired by an old school friend who killed himself, while the album’s soulful closing track, “Caro Padre” (Dear Father in Italian), is the first time James has written about his absent Italian father, whom he hasn’t seen since the age of five. “I don’t feel like I missed out on anything by not having him around,” says James, “but once in a while, em, I think it might be nice to know him.” Youth says of the band, “Deaf Havana are one of the most exciting young bands I've ever worked with. James writes lyrics that can make you cry combined with fearless melodies that make these songs modern anthems and their performances give me goose bumps. This album is up there with The Verve and Crowded House as one if the best albums I've been fortunate enough to produce and I expect them to take this all the way.” It is hard to disagree with the anthemic “Everybody’s Dancing And I Want To Die” taking James back to his school days. Inevitably, they don’t sound like much fun. “Cause everybody’s dancing and I don’t feel the same/This room is full of people who barely know my name.” “That song was partly inspired by school discos,” laughs James. “About me being the only boy who didn’t have a girl to dance with. It’s cheesy and it’s lighthearted, but we moved around a lot when I was little, so I was often in new schools, knowing no one.” Still, he has plenty to smile about now. Not least supporting his idol this summer. “Worryingly, I’m not nervous about the Springsteen show,” he says. “But nor I am excited. I guess I just don’t believe it yet. I don’t believe a lot of what’s happened this past year, but it’s starting to sink in.”