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October 2022
Cover feature

Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"

A lot has changed for Deaf Havana, but as they prepare for their new album ‘The Present Is A Foreign Land’, they’re confident in their own skin.
Published: 12:25 pm, August 10, 2022Words: Alex Bradley. Photos: Derek Bremner.
Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"

James Veck-Gilodi has spent many years trying on different disguises. As a teenager, he emerged rough around the edges with Deaf Havana as an abrasive post-hardcore outfit. They burst out with 'Friends Like These', and never spoke of it again. He dialled it right down for the Americana-soaked album 'Old Souls'. Clean cut, white shirts, tweed and a love for Springsteen at 23 years old. Deaf Havana have been a rock band. A pop band. They searched for redemption on the synth-laden 'RITUALS', culminating in the band headlining Brixton Academy in late 2018. A year later, they were playing that album in full at Ally Pally.

And then it all stopped.

The band stopped. The world soon followed behind. Two years passed. Three of the band left for lives outside of music.

And here we are. The present is a foreign land. James and his younger brother Matthew remain. Blood is thicker than water, after all. Change has always been sewn into the fabric of the band, whether with the music or their personnel. They just rolled with the punches back then. But this time it's bigger. The energy is changed. This is a new start.

And for James Veck-Gilodi, there is no disguise anymore. The mask has slipped. 'The Present Is A Foreign Land' is all about not recognising the world around us, and the sentiment is the same for the singer. Head shaved, bearded and leaner, this is the singer in his early thirties. This is the brutally honest truth of Deaf Havana.

Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"
Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"
Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"
Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"
Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"
Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"
Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"
Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"
Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"

"I did not enjoy it all. I had a horrible time," James begins. It's not a good start. We're backstage between Deaf Havana's two shows headlining one of the smaller stages at Slam Dunk. They're in at the deep end, having only played three shows since 2019 and with a new drummer, bassist and synth player joining their ranks too. They'd much rather be playing now, in the late afternoon sunshine, rather than waiting around and thinking about all the other bands that could headline instead.

He continues, "I always get in my head too much and think about shit. I don't enjoy quite a lot of shows. I don't relax and enjoy the moment. I just think about how shit we sound or something stupid."

Outside of his own thoughts, the reality has been much different. Their set in Leeds was a triumph. The new singles - 'Kids', 'Going Clear' and 'On The Wire' - evenly spaced through the set and embraced with the same love as old favourites. Throwbacks to 'Mildred' show they still know how to party, while 'Caro Padre' finds James's voice as devastating as ever. They seem more confident by the minute, the new recruits helping create the feeling that the band are playing with real stakes again.

It's only a brief conversation in Hatfield, but we part with the hope that tonight's show will be better for James at least. "If I can get over stuff like last night and get out of my own head, I know I will love it again," he says.

Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"
"I did question whether it was a bit too on the nose, but I wanted to shock people" 
James Veck-Gilodi

Two weeks on from Slam Dunk, everything feels more positive as we look back at the festival. According to James, the Hatfield show was much better: "It's just me getting in my own head," he begins. "Basically, I drank at Slam Dunk, and it made me go a bit mental and get really negative," he reasons. "I just felt a bit old, basically, and it made me question everything, whereas if I'd been in a good frame of mind, I would have just been like, 'meh, it's cool'."

"And also, unfortunately, because we were clashing with Sum 41, we didn't have the chance to feel young," Matty jokes, always available to be the light relief.

It's an understandable feeling to have. While Deaf Havana stopped - heck, even while the world stopped - some bands didn't. Social media certainly didn't. New music didn't completely dry up, and Slam Dunk welcomed many newcomers to its line-up.

It's also a theme that runs throughout the new album; getting older and wondering what happened to youth. The euphoric single 'Kids' hopes "we can stay young forever", the title-track wrestles "I've lost a decade in a moment / washed out before I even noticed / wake up you're not getting younger", and '19 Dreams' revisits the ambitions they had when they started out some 17 years ago.

When you're already trying to figure out where all those years have gone, and you suddenly see a new generation of bands arrive on the scene, no doubt you're going to feel a little out of place. The bigger issue is the alcohol being used to numb that anxiety. It's the rock and the hard place between which the singer has been stuck in the last few years. Impressively, he had managed 11 months fully sober up until recently - but it's never a straight road, and bumps are to be expected.

"I started filtering it in again, and it got a bit out of hand, so I stopped again, and then I just started again. Classic fucking case, isn't it? Trying to quit, and it's hard. I don't know, I would love to get to a point where I can just moderate it and drink like a normal person, but I realise I'm not drinking because I like the taste of alcohol. I'm drinking because I wanna shut my head off. I'm happier when I don't drink, but there are so many challenges. I'm so anxious. I'm scared of fucking everything.

"For instance, I stopped drinking for ages, and then I had to go on holiday. I hate flying, so I just freaked out and drank in the airport so I could get on the flight. It's loads of little stupid obstacles that I need to get over before I think I can be fully sober, but it's definitely somewhere in the future, if not now. I think there'll be a point where I've had enough. Maybe I just stopped too early, but I definitely don't want to get back to the point where I'm drinking a lot because it just gets in the way of everything," he opens up.

Having seen sobriety for almost a year, James is the first to admit he saw the benefits of not being drunk, tired or hungover every morning. In fact, while making the album, he wasn't drinking at all. That allowed for a lot more control and experimentation with how he sounds on certain songs. Some vocals are much softer than anything he has done before, so "I don't have to give it like 'Mustang Sally' every fucking time," as he puts it.

Seeing both sides of the mirror, the singer has also seen the effect drinking has had on Deaf Havana's live shows and has drawn a line in the sand, which he is trying to stay on the right side of.

"One thing I'm now 100% sure of is I don't want to drink while I'm playing shows. If there's a day off or something and there's a party, I'll go. But I definitely don't want to drink and play shows because as soon as I get on stage, I feel uncomfortable. I used to think it made me feel comfortable - to be a bit drunk and go on stage - [but now] it's the opposite."

"I need to feel fully in control on stage, so that's one thing I'm sure of now. I only know that through playing shows both sober and then again playing them while drinking, and I realise how fucking uncomfortable I felt, so that is one positive. There are positives that come from starting to drink again," he rationalises. It's not clear-cut or an exact science, but it's something James is very much dealing with on his own terms, and, right now, he seems to be turning another corner.

As for Matty, he remains a pillar of support for his older brother to lean on. After tackling his own relationship with alcohol and its effects on his mental health, he is well aware that being sober isn't black and white.

"I'm just here to support James in any way that is," he reasons. "Whether that is saying, 'look, you've got good judgment, you can work this out. If you feel like you want to have a beer, have a beer, see how you feel afterwards. Work out why you want to have a beer as well'."

Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"
Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"
Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"
Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"
Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"
Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"
Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"

On top of being brothers and bandmates, it seems as though James and Matty know one another better than anyone else could. Where other siblings would war with one another, it feels more like it's them versus the world. The bond between them is their own superpower. So whether it's sobriety or keeping Deaf Havana going, they'll be sure to do it together.

In the studio, that sibling link - the symbiosis - was able to flourish. Collaborating on the technicalities of the album, they found "a shorthand", as Matty calls it, for getting the job done. By knowing one another's limits, they could creatively push one another further than before. For Matty, he talks about "being able to push in certain directions that might not seem obvious", and James agrees.

"There are certain things that me and Matty know about each other that, musically, you can't get unless you play together for your entire life, even just to the point where we're not afraid to tell each other to fuck off. If there's an idea that we don't like, we'll happily voice it. I'll try stuff that Matty suggests more than I will try stuff that a random person suggests to me," he adds.

It results in 'The Present Is A Foreign Land', an album in which they could explore creatively more than ever. 'Help' is vibrant, cinematic indie rock with a flourish of horns, while the strings on 'Nevermind' raise the drama skyward. 'Someone Somewhere' even includes a duet with alt-pop duo IDER to create the lo-fi anthem of the sad summer we're facing. Take those and throw in straight-up rock moments, stabby synths and gospel goodness and the picture starts to take shape of how open this album is musically. It's Deaf Havana untethered, no longer focused on just one sound. Despite that, it's still a cohesive record, something that was very much Matty's vision.

"It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else. Or I wasn't trying to sound like someone else. I'm so guilty of that," James admits. "I wasn't really listening to music at all when we were recording this, so I didn't have anything to rip off, whereas before, I would hear stuff and go, 'Oh, that's cool, let's try and sound like that'. It's so obvious when you do that. This time we just didn't do it, and we didn't have anyone telling us what to do and what not to do."

That's the disguise gone completely. So the question is whether James recognises himself in the Deaf Havana of old? It's a tricky question, and the lines between therapy and interview seem to thin, not for the first time. It feels good, though, watching self-realisation happen. It's like watching a chrysalis break open.

"I never really knew what or who I was as a person or musically, so I would get hammered and think, 'Oh, this sounds cool, copy that', so I was just a tonne of different people," he answers. "It wasn't really healthy to be like that, but I just didn't really know how else to be. It just sort of happened. I'm definitely different now, but I can still see a bit of it there. I still don't fully know what I'm doing. I can be easily led."

And so we arrive at the real Deaf Havana. The real James Veck-Gilodi. It's a coping mechanism, and he agrees that a lot of having a veil on, clinging to a particular style, was all about protecting himself, themselves, from the fact they didn't really know who or what Deaf Havana was.

"I've always given people music and apologised for it. This is the first record ever - Matty said the same thing - that I'm not embarrassed of," James concludes. It's an astonishing statement the more you think about it. Five albums down already. Singles. World tours. And now, when it looked like all was lost, they finally found themselves.

Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"
Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"
Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"
Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"
Deaf Havana: "It was the first time ever that we weren't trying to sound like someone else"

That's not to say that they're okay. Deaf Havana are unapologetically who they are on 'The Present Is A Foreign Land'. It's an album about getting older, but there's also a journey charted from a singer at the very brink.

The album opens with 'Pocari Sweat'. The first line stands starkly. "I was on a bridge in Singapore and thinking of jumping," it goes. It's true. Unblinking. This isn't someone in a good place.

Matty jumps in, "Back when we were in Singapore, I was not his best mate. I reckon I'd have pushed you off if I'd known that's how you felt," he jokes. "Sorry, being a dick," he adds, but James smiles. You can just about get away with that when you're brothers.

It's inescapable, though. The weight of that line, and quite a few others through the album, are about someone struggling to find the merit in carrying on.

"The last track on 'RITUALS' ends where that begins," James explains. "It ends with me feeling like that, talking about it in a roundabout way, and then this album starts at that shittest, lowest point. Throughout the album, it gets more and more positive, I think. I wanted to start at the most negative possible note; [sing it] over a pretty song and then increase the positivity somehow. I did question whether it was a bit too on the nose, but I wanted to shock people and be like, 'what the fuck is this?'"

When those thoughts are in your head, it makes sense that you might feel the need for a disguise, for your own protection. For years, James alluded, used metaphor and hinted at some of the battles and problems without facing them head-on. Even now, he still finds it easier to put them in a song than to talk openly.

"It sounds weird, but it's much easier to just sing about it because I feel detached from it. It's sort of like… it's not an act because I mean every single word, and everything that I say has happened, but it kind of feels like you're performing it. There's a distance. I'm singing from behind a screen. If I had an honest conversation with someone about it, they know for sure that that's how I feel," he explains.

In context, it's impossible not to hear the album's closer, 'Remember Me', with its soaring gospel vocals, as some sort of eulogy.

"That's the word I'd use," Matty nods. "At that point, when that song came about, I'd kind of wrote it as our last ever song."

Against all the odds, though, they don't intend for this to be the end for Deaf Havana. If anything, they're back at the start again. They have new goals. They've rediscovered a love for making music. They've sat on this album for so long that they're already sketching out what might follow.

As for playing music live? They're getting there. Matty is loving it, and James will. The plan is to tour a lot and pay the rent on time. It's not the dreams they had when they were 19, but it's the real, honest answer.

And, for James, he's getting there. The road isn't straight, and it won't be without more bumps, but he seems to be coming through the other side. He is clear on what he wants for Deaf Havana and how to get there - and through all of that, he will have his brother at his side. 

Taken from the August issue of Upset. Deaf Havana's album 'The Present Is A Foreign Land' is out 15th July.

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