“We played here about a year ago, opening for the Shout Out Louds,” HAERTS bassist Derek McWilliams says, looking out on the 9:30 Club stage from the venue’s upper level. Below us, London Grammar are soundchecking their armory of keyboards. The sound is modest for now, but soon enough, it will make having a conversation difficult. “That seems so long ago. It was early on in our experience of performing live. Being back here now, it feels like we’ve come full circle.”
A lot has happened during the Brooklyn-based band’s journey between these points. Most notably, the Columbia Records act released an EP of dramatically flared, marble smooth synth pop, Hemiplegia, and is now putting the finishing touches on a proper debut full-length. It’s also crisscrossed the country a few times, with this particular visit to the 9:30 Club coming at the end of a string of dates playing with the UK trio.
The band’s tour manager comes to fetch us and we’re escorted to a snug green room where the rest of the band awaits: singer Nini Fabi, keyboardist Ben Gebert, and guitarist Garrett Ienner. They’re drinking coffee and digesting a visit to a nearby Greek joint. As the band’s primary songwriters, Fabi and Gebert will do most of the talking. The two German transplants have been making music together since they were teenagers and trade sentences with a familiar ease. Between them and England native McWilliams, there are a lot of exotic accents filling the room. And from somewhere down the hall, London Grammar is doing everything in its power to drown each of them of out.
HAERTS plays U Street Music Hall’s “Official Sweetlife Kickoff Party” tonight.
You all grew up in different places. With German, English, and American backgrounds, are there ever any cultural mishaps?
McWilliams: I think that I try to create understandings between us.
Fabi: I still don’t know what he’s saying! [Laughs]
McWilliams: Seriously, I’m just here because I drive well. [Laughs]
Ienner: I’ve learned a lot about British society being on a London Grammar tour. I’ve been learning all of the subtleties of –
McWilliams: Accents, dialects, culture. British culture is fucked up.
Fabi: I’ve heard a lot about the British schooling system.
McWilliams: Even I’ve learned a lot about Britain being on tour with London Grammar. [Laughs]
Ienner: It really showed us why Derek is so fucked up. [Laughs]
Fabi: What did you learn, Derek?
McWilliams: I don’t want to say. I haven’t quite figured out what I’ve learned just yet.
Fabi: No, I definitely think we have culture clashes sometimes.
McWilliams: But I also think we’re similar spirits, so it doesn’t really make too much of a difference. Maybe it’s better that I don’t always understand what everyone else is saying. [Laughs]
Gebert: When I met Derek, I hardly spoke English .But we still got along. [Laughs]
McWilliams: I basically taught him English.
What’s the story behind your landing on Columbia Records?
Fabi: Columbia was the only label that approached us, and it was the only label that we were really interested in singing with. We never set out to have a record deal. We never anticipated it would happen when we released “Wings”. Everything happened started happening when we released “Wings”. We really didn’t anticipate any of it in the short time that it happened. But our friend Derek Davies from Neon Gold put the song on his blog and it got of attention via blogs, and we didn’t really know why or even that it was happening at that point. Then people in different spots of [Columbia] heard the song.
Ienner: Neon Gold was part of the Columbia family at that point, too.
Fabi: They started talking to us, and we felt that it was a label that had a really great history with Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen, but also a label that seemed very cool and relevant. They have a lot of indie bands, and bands that I thought were doing a good thing. So, for us, it felt really natural when it happened. But we never thought, “Oh, it’s great that we’re signed to this label and now everything is going to change.” Nothing has really had changed that much. It’s just that we now had someone that believed in the songs that we were making.
Gebert: What it really means is that you have to work harder than you did before. I mean, it’s exciting, and at the time it was very exciting, but you see a lot of bands that are working so much harder than you are. That’s a good thing. It pushes you even more.
Fabi: It was a really a chance to work with someone who might have the ability to magnify what we’re doing and help us get our music out there.
What’s status of the record?
Fabi: It’s not 100% finished yet, but we are in the finishing stages. It’s coming out this July.
That’s soon. What’s left to be done?
Gebert: Everything? [Laughs] We’re just finishing a couple of songs that we’re stuck with right now. But, it’s going to be fine. [Laughs]
Fabi: And we have to mix some of the songs.
Gebert: Yeah, we have to go through that whole process.
Do you have a pretty good idea of what it’s going to look like?
Gebert: We’re 90% sure.
Fabi: Yeah, I think we’re pretty sure about what’s going on, but it’s the kind of thing where we started recording the record over two years ago – if you look at whole process – and a lot of things have changed in that time. In the meantime, we always write a lot of music and if it takes that long to do a record, and then you’re on the road, often times you want to add this song and then you want to add anther song, so I think sometimes it can be hard to finish it and just say, “It’s done now.” We’re still in that phase.
Gebert: Plus, it’s a debut album. You want to make a good one. I mean, that’s the case for any album, but this one in particular is so important.
It sounds like having a deadline might be a good thing.
Fabi: Yeah, it feels really good for us, actually. When it was decided that we were going to go for the summer and we put a date on it – or a specific month – then it put a good kind of pressure on us.
Do you have a title in mind?
Fabi: I think we’re toying with what the title will be, but it’s not 100% sure, so I don’t think that we want to give that away.
You handled the production for “Call My Name” yourself. Is that the case for a lot of the record?
Gebert: Not the whole album. We’ve still been working a lot with Jeam [Philip Grobler] from St. Lucia. We did produce “Call My Name”, but, well, it’ll be a surprise for you with regard to what’s on the rest of the album.
That song has a different vibe than your earlier singles. There’s a smoother feel to it – something that reminded me a little bit of Miguel.
Gebert: I think that we wanted to share something that we had been working on. That song in particular just happened. There wasn’t much of a struggle with the production or the songwriting. We were just sitting there and wrote it in one go, pretty much. What ended up making the song mostly came from the demo. When something falls into place, you feel good about it.
Fabi: We didn’t want to write an R&B song. And we definitely didn’t want to write a slow song, because as you’re making a record, pacing is an important thing. In that phase of the record, we weren’t looking to have a slow song. We kind of wrote it very quickly, and with the production it was clear to us that it had to be very simple. Ben had come up with that really nice synth pad – that was the beginning of it. And with the melody, we knew that it was going to be simple. With anything we do, style is never our main concern – it’s really what serves the song. With this song, that’s what it needed. We’re also in a phase right now where we enjoy sparser arrangements.
When you mention “struggle,” what does you usually look like?
Gebert: We don’t have that. [Laughs]
You said it!
Fabi: What are you talking about?
Gebert: Every song is different in its creative process. It really depends on what you’re working on.
Ienner: There’s one song that has sixteen versions and none of them will probably see the light of that.
Fabi: Sometimes you write something and you really like it in the moment. You think, “This is going to be really great.” And then the next day, you wake up and listen to it and think, “Oh, this is terrible. I’m going to try another one.” That one song we ended up trying sixteen different things, and it just never happened. It might happen way latter.
Gebert: Some songs we’ve tabled for maybe another time, in a different context.
Fabi: If you don’t struggle in the things that you really care about, then you don’t really care about them. Any kind of artistic endeavor will have some degree of exploration with some kind of confusion, and there will be struggle, and it’s not a bad thing. Anything that you care about it won’t be the easiest thing. Some are easier and some are harder, and you can struggle while you write it or when you produce it. It’s something of an addiction to want to overcome that difficulty.
Electric Lady Studio has a storied history. What was it like recording there?
Ienner: Electric Lady is in our neighborhood. We do our mixing there too. It’s close and it was available, and it has this amazing room with all this history, but it was also practical too. We spent six days there, and tried to do three songs in six days.
Fabi: We was complete madness [Laughs]
Ienner: But I think we got some good stuff out of it. It’s one of those things where where we worked so much that it’s kind of a blur at this point. It didn’t even feel like days. I think that the last day that we were there, we got there at 10:00 or 11:00 am and left at 8:00 am the next day.
Fabi: We worked with a producer from Sweden named Patrik Berger. He flew in for the week and it was an intense time, but I think that we got good stuff out of it.
You’ve discussed how the band’s sound has it evolved – how it was something that initially you didn’t imagine synths playing so large a role. What was HAERT’s starting point? What sort of backgrounds did you all bring to this group?
Gebert: Nini and I have been writing music for a long time, and we played in previous bands together. We had one project that was a folk Americana band. With HAERT, we wanted to explore a new side of us creatively, so we started working with Jean from St. Lucia. We were just experimenting in the studio for really about a year. That’s how it happened. Obviously, now it gets labeled as 80s; whatever – we use all sorts of 80s related synthesizers and all the kind of stuff – but it really happened by experimentation That’s how we still think about our music. Every song is kind of different. You have certain tools that you work with, but every song could be different. It’s always a unique journey.
Fabi: With the folk thing, we were never folk musicians. We never wanted to be in one specific genre. We never learned the craft through that. For me, it was always about the song. The music that I grew up listening to was never about the style of music or a certain genre. It was always about the song and the meaning of it. It was always about melody and rhythm, and those can be found in anything. We all have that feeling – we were never confined to one genre. We all grew up with a lot of classical music, for example. Garret played in a ton of rock bands.
Ienner: We all played different types of music. But we do have an idea of the sound for this album and we’re sticking to that, but it will probably change a lot after that.
Fabi: It’s like a mood. This album will have a mood, and hopefully on our next album we will be able to evolve again and have a different vibe.