After the release of their self-titled debut album in May of 2006, Howling Bells found themselves on the favorable end of a UK press explosion, pulling in 4- and 5-star reviews from the likes of The Sun, The Independent, MOJO, and The Guardian, the last proclaiming them “on the verge of unequivocal magnificence.” Stein’s sultry vocals guided the band’s gritty, pounding charge like a siren through dark seas, inspiring writers to garnish their reviews with epithets like shadowy indie-pop and blues-noir.
Brought to life by Lynchian videos for “Low Happening” and “Blessed Night,” Howling Bells was the sound of an impetuous band searching for a foothold on unsteady ground—poetry set in motion by a beautiful struggle.
Originally from Sydney, the band moved to the UK to record their debut with the help of producer Ken Nelson (Gomez, Badly Drawn Boy), but a perpetually pushed deadline for Nelson’s work on Coldplay’s X&Y turned the Bells’ three-week timetable into a three-month ordeal.
Ensconced in London’s “fierce artistic territory,” the band found themselves 10,600 miles from home, their best laid plans at the mercy of one of the world’s biggest bands. Circumstance pushed them around. They pushed back.
“It was the only way we could have done it,” says Juanita, looking back. “I think without those feelings, there’s no way we’d be producing the music we are. It definitely feels like there’s something greater informing the band, both lyrically and musically.”
To fully appreciate their resilience, one must understand the band’s unsinkable dynamic. Their rhythm section is the physical embodiment of yin and yang. Bassist Brendan Picchio plays the fiery foil to drummer Glenn Moule, who grew up driving tractors, shearing sheep, and riding motorbikes through the arid plains of the Aussie outback. Then there’s the sibling synergy of Juanita Stein and her brother Joel, children born into a creative home with an actress and musician for parents.
“Our place was nicknamed The Singing House,” says Joel. “People could hear us all the way down the street. They’d know how to find us if they’d never been there before.”
While Juanita took in a steady diet of Björk and late-era Beatles albums, her father dosed her with Dylan. That combination of whimsical imagination and poetic certainty is a cornerstone of the band’s creative depth, and now that they’ve beaten back the slings and arrows of Howling Bells’ outrageous fortune, they’re ready to reveal the next chapter of their biography: Radio Wars.
Heady atmospherics and the constant battle between light and shade are still ever-present themes, but producer Dan Grech-Marguerat—engineer and mixer on albums by Air, Radiohead, and Dragonette—has positively elevated the Bells’ sound, both sonically and emotionally. The first single, “Cities Burning Down,” starts as creeping processional fueled by Picchio’s octaval, melodic bass, then explodes into a wash of color in the chorus as Stein’s luminous guitar shimmers and wails in the mix. Despite its title, “Into The Chaos” is guided by a sexy, confident urgency that seconds lyrics like “Into the distance, into the light. There’s something happening, it’s in our sight.” That inspirative thread stays consistent even when the band dials down the tempo. A country requiem for a soon-to-be-lost lover, “How Long” features stripped-down, start-stop drums and a male backing chorus that sounds like barbershop boys performing in a southern chapel. The emotion is blue, but never bereaved.
Wrought with angst and mood, the lyrics throughout their debut painted a picture of isolation and frustration—landscapes of triumphant sadness painted by a girl who could change the world if only given the opportunity. On “Across The Avenue,” Juanita’s protagonist played the role of the warily pursued, falling hard though trying to fight it off with lyrics like “No you can’t break, break, break me even with words, words, words.” But that same character who once found herself “over her head” is now on the passionate offensive in Radio Wars’ “It Ain’t You,” as Juanita delivers the crushing blow with a smile on her face: “You won’t save me, and you can’t break me. Yes it’s true. Darling, it ain’t you.
“The first album was a direct result of me sitting in my bedroom back in Australia and being incredibly frustrated with what I knew the four of us were capable of producing, but just weren’t at the time. Radio Wars is the four of us coming together having had exactly the same experience over the last three or four years—traveling on the same bus through the same towns and meeting the same people. We just all found ourselves at a certain place and time and writing similar kinds of songs. It’s a very natural, beautiful thing.”