It's been barely 18 months since the release of ‘All These Countless Nights', but Deaf Havana are back with a swing in their step on their new album. Thirteen tracks of pulsing pop, handclaps and gospel choir vocals, ‘Rituals' is a step change from the reliable rock they've excelled at in the past.
After a listless period following 2013's confused album ‘Old Souls', Deaf Havana returned last year with ‘All These Countless Nights', a taut and precise rock record with the emphasis on big choruses and meaty guitar riffs. The five-piece also got back on the road, headlining around Europe and enjoying a stint Down Under with the mighty Placebo.
"It was an amazing experience so to be able to go back there was just awesome," vocalist James Veck-Gilodi recalls. "I realised how privileged I was to be able to travel around the world just cos of some average songs that I wrote in my bedroom."
Those ‘average songs' saw the band headline a one-off unplugged show at London's Union Chapel in February, accompanied by a string section and with a gospel choir posted up in the wings. "That was amazing. It's any musician's dream to play with as many musicians as you possibly can. And the fact that those guys are so professional - because rock bands just blag our way through it basically, don't we? We're always sort of bedroom musicians who learnt to play by ear and as a hobby. But these are all proper qualified musicians, so it was amazing to be able to play with people who have such high skills and I don't have to worry about them messing up."
That triumphant night complete, it was time to thrash out the band's next record, and get it done sharpish; Veck-Gilodi set himself an April deadline to have it finished. "It came together really quickly because previously we'd taken four years between ‘Old Souls' and ‘ATCN', and I just did not want to risk that again. Everything's so fast-paced now, I didn't want to leave people waiting."
Holed up in a Sheffield studio with their sound tech on production duties, Deaf Havana experimented with hip-hop beats, vocal samples and electronic drum loops. It's a far cry from ‘Old Souls'' more organic instrumentation of trumpets, mandolins and strings. After writing some tentative demos last year, James scrapped them, describing them as "budget rock songs" and too derivative of their existing work.
This led him to totally invert his songwriting approach, starting with one-word titles and building from the ground up on a computer, only bringing his bandmates into the process when the record had taken shape.
"I definitely wanted it to be different, but I didn't realise it would be this different. In terms of the production, I remember listening to that Justin Bieber record when it came out. Although it's Justin Bieber, some of the sounds they've got on this record are insane." That pop production style scales back overdriven guitars in favour of bright vocals that burst through the mix. "A lot of it was experimental; we just sort of tested how weird we could go before it became ridiculous."
James compares the writing process to ‘All These Countless Nights', where the band needed to remind the public exactly who they were. "'ATCN' was an album we needed to write, because we'd had such a long period where we hadn't done anything, and also ‘Old Souls' wasn't that well received. I wanted to keep as many fans as possible, but I also wanted to change direction again. ‘ATCN' was quite a calculated album… But for this record ['Rituals'] I just wanted to write the music I wanted to listen to."
That tension between what people want from Deaf Havana, and what the band themselves want to play has always been part of following the Hunstanton outfit. "I kind of regretted the music I got into when I was a kid... a lot of people now are smart, and they think about what they wanna play when they're older. But we just sort of wanted to cover bands that were in our scene at the time. I've always been frustrated that I got into that emo, heavy music." In the past, James' respect for the fans has meant he's put out music that often doesn't reflect his own interests and tried to avoid "being a dick and doing exactly what I want."
After two years of careful consolidation, however, it was time to make a record for themselves. "I'm getting older, and if I don't do what I want now, I don't know if I ever will. I know it's a massive risk to do, but I had to do it." ‘Rituals' is startling, at times confusing but is delivered with the fizz of an artist scratching their creative itch. Fans of CHVRCHES and The 1975 will recognise some of the synth effects and vocal tricks on show here, and it wouldn't even be a stretch to hear Ed Sheeran delivering some of these hooks.
"I understand why fans might be taken aback by it," James confesses. "The only thing that's changed is the instrumentation. I've always written songs in a pop format, verse chorus verse chorus middle eight chorus. It's still got the same miserable lyrics; it's still got the same lift in the choruses as I've always had. I think the only thing that's different is that there's more electronics."
Despite the religious themes hinted at in their titles, the songs largely deal with the same personal struggles that have always been a part of Deaf Havana's music; being lonely, drunk and beautiful. "A lot of the lyrics are about, although I'm not religious, what could be perceived as sin. Some of it's semi-fictional; the way I've treated people in the past was a big subject matter on this record. I like playing with the idea of them being sins and the record was like a confession."
Speaking of which, Deaf Havana are returning to their Reading & Leeds stomping ground, and they're hoping to surprise a few people when they bust out the new songs. "People can dance to the record, which couldn't be said of our previous stuff. That's part of the reason I wanted to get it out in the summer, that's something that we've never done. It's always been winter records and misery."
After bringing their band back from the brink in 2014, James is realistic about his hopes for the future of Deaf Havana. "I'll say the same thing I always say: if we can keep making music, and people keep listening to it then that's already amazing. It would be amazing if we could continue to grow, but I guess we'll see. It's such a different record I have no idea what people are going to think."
After the hesitant period that surrounded ‘Old Souls', Deaf Havana have clawed themselves firmly back on to firm ground by making a solid, safe record last time out. Now they're ready to start taking risks again.
Taken from the August issue of Upset. Deaf Havana's album 'Rituals' is out 3rd August.