James Veck-Gilodi is ready for confusion. He’s prepared, even, for outrage. Deaf Havana’s frontman and songwriter understands that some fans will be surprised by his band’s fifth album. On Rituals the hard rock of the beloved Brit-rock five-piece morphs into something more like, well, hard pop.
Yes, the robust riffs that characterised Top 5 album All These Countless Nights are still there. But since the release of that record, Deaf Havana are rebooted, rejuvenated and ready for the next stage of their career. Still only 28, Veck-Gilodi has shape-shifted into a songwriter and producer of rare melodic skill, while keeping a firm grasp on the rock’n’roll sensibilities and intense emotional honesty that made Deaf Havana a huge draw on the alternative rock circuit.
In the speedy, bold spirit of its writing and recording, he cuts to the chase: “I think these are the best songs I’ve written, lyrically honest and in-depth.”
For Veck-Gilodi, Rituals is a departure on multiple levels. The band’s last album was five years in the making – we can blame the old cliché of record company politics for that – and recorded with the whole band, live. Rituals was written and recorded in little over three months and is largely the solo work of the frontman.
“It’s a band record, for sure,” he clarifies, “but it’s a very personal, solo journey, a laying to rest something for me. I normally write about the same things, which are personal experiences, but this time I knew I wanted to theme the whole thing. So I used religious themes as a metaphor – a metaphor for me being a complete arsehole at times I guess!” he laughs, as down-to-earth as ever and quick to puncture any sense of pretentiousness.
He reinforced that thematic framework by firstly coming up with 13 song titles. “That gave me something to aim for. It was a way of me coming up with a chorus or hook, using the word, or themes suggested by that word – so, Wake, Sinner, Ritual, Hell, Holy, Saviour”, he says, detailing Ritual’s first six tracks.
“I’d never written like that before. In fact, everything about making this album was brand new. Normally I write on an acoustic guitar, but this time I was writing a lot on a computer, and doing a lot of the production myself. I wouldn’t say I felt confident doing that – I didn’t have a clue what I was doing it at first! But, well, we got there…”
Deaf Havana finished touring their fourth album in late November 2017. A dozen years after forming at school in Norfolk, the band had had their best year. Asked for highlights, Veck-Gilodi has a few: “Germany really grew for us – the ticket sales pretty much doubled for us from the start of the year to the end.
And I know it’s lame and I honestly don’t really care about these things, but the fact that we got a Top Five UK album off the back of no radio play and the backing of no one influential – I was really chuffed with that.” Last year brought another breakthrough, a Glastonbury appearance, on the Other Stage. “That felt like an achievement – a band like us doesn't normally get on festivals like that; usually we do all the alternative rock festivals. We also did some arena shows in Europe with Kings Of Leon. They were super-nice. We’ve been on tour with bands that can be really stingy, but they really looked after us – we were really well stocked every night, if you know what I mean”, he grins.
Veck-Gilodi duly ended the year on a high, and immediately ready to rock all over again. Well, pretty much. “Because the last album was five years in the making, I was dreading starting this one. That was a niggling thought at the back of my mind: how am I going to write another album? I took all my recording stuff on tour, determined to write and record, and obviously I didn’t, I just got drunk, ’cause I’m a moron.”
Back home off the road, at best he had “four demos of budget shit rock music, which weren’t even good enough for b-sides. I didn’t write anything good all year.” So, in January 2018, he was back home in North London, with a blank sheet of paper. Aside from those four demos there was part of one song that was semi-useable. And that, pretty much, was it.
In an attempt to help Veck-Gilodi un-jam his mojo, Deaf Havana’s front-of-house engineer, Phil Gornell invited the singer to his home in Sheffield, where he has a studio, Steel City Studios. “I went up for what was meant to be three days, just to demo and ended up staying there for three months. It was just me and Phil for the most part, writing and recording. Coming up with really bad ideas, deleting them. Coming up with better ones and keeping them.”
The rest of the band – his brother Matthew (guitar), Lee Wilson (bass), Tom Ogden (drums), Max Britton (keyboards) – would join them for recording, “but the backbone of it was me and Phil in a dark room in Sheffield.”
“Phil thinks about music differently to me,” he explains of their creative chemistry. “He doesn’t care about lyrics, he’s more about melodies. Whereas I’ll get hung up on one lyric for ages. He helped me get over stuff like that.” James expands: “I don’t think I would have written this if Phil hadn’t helped me – he did unblock something. Ideas that I might have dismissed as crap, he helped me develop into actual songs. And it makes sense: he sees and hears me perform every night on tour. He knows me and my tastes inside out. He was kinda perfect.”
Deaf Havana set themselves a goal: finish recording by early April, put the album out by August, “otherwise you’ve lost the year. And we did it.” The gateway track was that semi-useable snippet. It became Ritual, (almost) the album title track, an electronic-flavoured song where the feeling of colourful uplift belies the darkness at its heart.
“I’ve kicked depression,” admits a musician who has previously discussed his issues with anxiety in the pages of various publications. “Not fully, but I’m alright. It has been an ongoing thing, but I’m better with it now. I eat healthily and do some exercise… And to be honest, the whole record is retrospective. That song is me looking back, and it’s a cathartic processing of those darker feelings. As soon as I recorded it I felt a weight lifted.”
That sense of enthusiasm and moving-forward is also encapsulated in first single Sinner. It’s blessed with the contribution of the London Contemporary Choir, who also appear on four other tracks, Heaven and the album opening “overture” Wake, as well as second single Holy, and Saint.
“Sinner is really poppy,” Veck-Gilodi cheerfully acknowledges, “and it is far removed from our previous stuff. But not as much as some of the other songs, like Fear, which you might say is almost dance-y.”
Hell is another departure. “We were just pissing around with drum loops. We were thinking of that Placebo song Pure Morning, which is one note, a drone, and wondered if we could do something like that.”
“And that again is about treating people like shit. The whole record is a mea culpa, about my entire touring life before the last album. This whole record is an amalgamation of past versions of myself. Some of it is a bit elaborated, so it’s loosely fictional in that sense.”
“I do think I was having these poppier moments because I felt liberated by being in a better personal place,” he expands. “But really, also, I didn’t plan this – they just came out like that. There was no grand plan – ‘how will our band get big?’” he laughs. “Writing these melodies on the computer was quite accidental.”
This summer Deaf Havana will be unveiling their new songs on one of the biggest stages you can get: Reading/Leeds Festivals, where they play their 2018 UK Festival exclusive, second only to Pendulum on the Radio 1 stage.
Before that, James Veck-Gilodi is aware that, to tour Rituals, they’re gonna need a bigger kit. “We do already have keyboards, and my brother Matty and I can both play keyboards. But some of those weird drums sounds mean we do need invest in some more gear. I don’t want to just shove it on a computer.”
They’re also working up the visual side of things. Each song on Rituals is accompanied by a symbol (“no, they’re not demonic summonings!”), while the album packaging features the work of young artist/photographer Wolf James, specifically her exhibition My Love Is Lethal (“that would have made a great alternative title for the album”).
Concept, titles, writing, recording, speed, images, sound, vibe: the whole Rituals package is exactly what James Veck-Gilodi set out to do on Deaf Havana’s fifth album.
“I wanted to create something drastic,” he states, thrilled at the outcome, “and not do another middle-of-the-road rock record. I’m up for the hatred from some fans, and I’m up for gaining new fans. But when fans listen to it, after their initial terror, I think they’ll realise that the lyrics are as personal and intense as they’ve always been. And I’ve always written songs with pop structures – I’ve just masked them in other ways.”
“It’s the first album I’ve made purely for myself,” he concludes. “This is the music I wanted to make, now, and I haven’t compromised at all. These are the songs I wanted to write, and the ones I want people to hear.”
For more information please visit www.deafhavana.com
TRACK BY TRACK
Wake: “You can fall down…”
“Wake is like an overture, or precursor. And there’s two meanings: ‘waking’, as in starting on a journey… or ‘wake’, as in the death of a previous self. This goes straight into Sinner, because the chorus of Sinner is: ‘You can fall to your knees and pray…’”
Sinner: “My brain is just a tired mess of all the things I’ve abandoned…”
“That was actually a note I had in my phone. I wrote this huge long thing about… I don’t know what, really! Probably a lot of it came when I was drunk, but it was lots of things I’d built up over years of touring. Lots of the lyrics came from there. And that line just leapt out. So it’s me looking back on people, things I started and never finished. My life just seems to be a mess of that. That includes abandoned relationships.”
Ritual: “Maybe the darkness took hold of me…”
“I always been a fan of the way The Smiths have really miserable lyrics but really uplifting music. I’ve never done that before, and I don’t know if I even realised I was doing it this time. But I guess I’ve just been listening to a lot more upbeat pop music, so it came out of that. But as soon as I demo’d it, I was surprised by how poppy it was. I thought it was definitely unusable for our band, so I put it to the side. And when the rest of the band first heard it they were like, ‘what are you doing?’ I said, ‘hear me out…’ I think they’re fans now. All they listen to is pop music anyway.”
Hell: “Never said I’d treat you right…”
“Yeah, it’s a bit weird, isn’t it? A bit EDM-ish… It’s strange how we recorded that. There’s one guitar line, a weird little break before the second chorus. And everything else, apart from a drum loop, is voices. The bass is Phil’s voice, heavily affected, then we found all these weird samples online, recreated those, then I got my friend Grace to sing the higher lines. I had this hip hop song I’d recorded on my computer, and lifted some vocals from that. And it all just ended up sounding… interesting!
Holy: “I was a liar…”
“It was just a weird, fast melody that I found as a voice note on my phone. But my voice just went into this soulful place with it. And I suppose that vocal style fits with the title – I wanted a vague churchy vibe on some of these songs, which is why we got the London Contemporary Choir to come and sing on this, as well as Heaven, Wake and Sinner.”
Saviour: “…the darkest secrets I keep bottled up inside…”
“We’d got a bit stuck, and we’d gone up to the Lake District – Phil’s got a little cabin up there. So we stayed there for a bit, and tried to come up with a song that references Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn. So we started that as a bit of a joke, making each other laugh. My first instinct was not to put it on the record. But then the lyrics felt interesting, and other people started telling us that it was good and needed to be on the album.”
Fear: “I treat your love like it’s a drug, ’cause I’m addicted to the rush…”
“We wrote that in the last week. It’s pretty upbeat, almost a dance track. The mosh pit will be confused! It sounded a lot darker when we started it – there was less guitar and some weird synths. It’s about being scared of what’s going to happen – it’s more internal, and is pretty much about depression and anxiety. But it didn’t have a chorus, then I wrote this super-poppy thing that I had never intended it to be, it seemed to fit perfectly though so as with everything else on this record, I went with what felt good.”
Pure: “Something in your eyes that looked so pure … I think I might have killed you…”
“That’s figurative rather than literal, honest! I’ve mentally broken someone down… It’s possibly someone in particular, or maybe everyone I’ve ever done that to. It’s the yin to Evil’s yang, but they both touch on the same thing: wearing down people. Not on purpose, just through being careless and selfish.”
Evil: “Lying in a hotel room…”
“It’s the two meanings of ‘lying’… The amount of times I’ve been lying in a hotel room, and also lying in a hotel room. A lot of the lyrics on the album are really exposing, and Evil and Pure are especially brutal, which is why they’re blended together on the album. I actually wrote them as one thing. But I’m not worried about how it’s going to be to sing such personal songs live. Generally when I feel and mean a song more, I enjoy performing it more. And on this record, I mean everything. So touring it should be amazing.”
Heaven: “All the alcohol won’t help my soul to heal…”
“Especially in the middle eight, where it breaks down to stomps and claps, I wanted it feel like a ray of sunshine bursting through clouds. Kinda cheesy, I know… It’s about thinking about someone else when you’re in a relationship.”
Worship: “I’m still the fucked up kid that I was at the start…”
“The word ‘worship’ doesn’t appear, but the song is about people worshipping each other. So it fits, just. It’s me obsessing over people… not rock stars, but women. But also, it is over-dramatised. And it’s also an element of me being young and stupid and wanting to be a rock star, and acting like one, before realising that isn’t a thing any more.”
Saint: “I wish I could be saint a like my mother…”
“That was written by our keyboard player, Max. When we had a break from Deaf Havana a couple of years ago, he and I did a side thing. He wrote most of it, but we wrote this one together. We played it live as a last song, but I wanted it to be a ballad. So we switched it up and changed it to electric piano, did some weird vocal stuff, got the choir to sing on it. It’s weird having a song that I didn’t write lyrically, but I feel close to it. And the song is reflecting on yourself, and wishing you could be a good person like your mother.”
Epiphany: “I want all my tattoos erased, I want a haircut that fits my face, I want a good job that really pays me, so I can finally act my age…”
“Firstly I intended to turn this into a full song but later decided it would probably have more impact if I just left it as a short outro. It’s just a long list of everything I wish I’d done – saying I wanted to start again but knowing I can’t. I guess it essentially alludes to ending things but it’s not about being flippant, especially in light of the musicians who’ve recently taken their own lives. I’ve always been lucky enough to know when things were getting bad, and to have people to talk to. But I understand completely how people can’t cope and how it can get so low that there seems to be no other option.”