At the colourful 2009 Queenscliff Music Festival, youthful Ballarat garage punksters Howl proved to be a thunderous and attention-grabbing revelation, one greeted with maximum enthusiasm by appreciative punters. With flailing hair, prodigious stage presence, banshee vocals and a cataclysmic yet melodic sound somewhat approximating a sonic boom, this high-energy band commanded our rapt attention. With victory in Triple J’s Unearthed High competition in late 2009 under their belts and a sizzling second EP recently unleashed, it seems as thought it’s the ideal time to catch up with guitarist and vocalist Michael Belsar to chat about the band’s imminent domination of the world.
With the band hailing from a regional musical hotbed that has, over the last 20 years, spawned a host of intriguing, top-notch acts such as The Dead Salesmen, The Mavis’s, Damaged and Epicure, it goes without saying that one would be keen to discover how Ballarat has shaped Howl’s sound and approach. According to Michael, “We grew up playing Clash covers. We started because they asked a bunch of people at our school that played music to play a song in assembly,” he remembers. “So we decided to do London Calling.”
It wasn’t long, however, before the Howl lads were fashioning their own sound. Michael explained that when they started in Ballarat “there were five really good bands going around and they were all completely different styles. If you came in with the same style it would be pretty obvious who you were ripping off… you have to come in with this new and original approach so you don’t look like you are plagiarising someone else.
“Ballarat has shaped us in the way that it has forced us to be original,” he explains. “If you’re playing Ballarat, the crowds are not sympathetic,” he chuckles, “so you’re forced to try and get as good as you can. It’s been like tough love in a way!
“All the influences of the other bands have really helped us,” he adds. “I’m pretty thankful I grew up here, actually. Now there are a lot more bands coming out which is cool. When we started there weren’t as many bands within five years of our age but there's now so many high school bands coming out, especially at Ballarat High School (the band’s alma mater). I’ve noticed all these kids starting to play music… they’re all pretty good. Bands like Dark Arts and all these younger guys starting bands. It will be interesting when it evolves and they grow and start doing bigger things.”
As the band’s new EP has the provocative title Brothers In Violence it’s asked of Michael to describe the lyrical themes and musical style explored in this new opus. “There’s more of a story,” he replies. “With the original EP we tried to write brutally obvious lyrics that just freaked people out. The new EP has more of a story of the last eight months of touring… it’s a lot more melodic, with more music going on,” he reasons.
“The first EP was pretty heavy riff-based stuff, whereas this has so many more parts and so many more hooks. It’s certainly a different sound.”
One of the biggest challenges that any high-calibre live act faces is finding a way to capture their sweaty and visceral on-stage firepower in the often sterile confines of the recording studio. Fortunately, Howl appear to have nailed the raw essence of their live sound on the punchy Brothers In Violence. “We tried to make it sound a bit more live than the last one” explains Michael.
“We chose a studio where there was a big room for the drums so it sounded a bit more real and live. We made sure there were more microphones around the room to capture the live room sound. We didn’t really double any instruments. We just kept everything really straight and really real.
“It’s always a challenge trying to capture your live sound because it’s never going to be the same… but I think we got a little bit closer on this EP.”
Howl are currently throwing around ideas for their debut album, which may not be released for another year. According to Michael, “It’s still very much in its early stages. It’s certainly different though. It’s a lot moodier and less balls-out crazy in-your-face-rock. There will be those songs that have high tempos with everything coming at you but a lot of the new songs are quieter and really scary moody kind of dark ambient rock that is more based on creepy bass lines, slower drums and weird guitars.
“I think,” he argues, “with the first two EPs my idea was to keep it simple and to keep this element of symmetry where all the songs had a similar energy and aesthetic. With the album we can expand. With the new EP,” he adds, “we cut one of the songs because it was too much of an album track. The album has some different things going on.”
If you have not yet had the opportunity to witness Howl tearing up the stage, there’s a few tantalising words in closing that come from Michael that will do more than whet your appetite for the coming onslaught. “We’ve added so much to our live show and spent a lot of money on new equipment,” he points out. “We put everything into our live shows. Our live shows are our thing more than releasing CDs; it’s all about the live show for us. It’s pretty energetic. There are six guys just thrashing the stage. There’s a lot going on,” he grins.
“We try and make it interesting from the word go,” he adds finally. “The other singer and I change around vocals and change between singing, playing guitar and percussion, so it’s hard not to watch someone… because everybody is doing something different.”
HOWL play The Workers Club on Saturday October 16 with Neon Love and In Tongues. They also support Philadelphia Grand Jury at The Corner on November 6. Their excellent EP Brothers In Violence is out now through Shock.