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HAIM - The Under the Radar Cover Story

Sisterhood of Sound

Mar 04, 2014 HAIM Photography by Kate Garner Bookmark and Share

Their debut album, Days Are Gone, has only been out for two days, but the Haim sisters are already exhausted. Less than 24 hours ago, they were in top form onstage for an intimate performance at Rough Trade East in London; this afternoon, after nearly two years of writing, recording, and touring, the Los Angeles trio appears to be finally wearing down. Baby sister, keyboardist and guitarist Alana, has come precariously close to losing her voice, giggling as she hoarsely rasps into the phone. Middle sister, singer and guitarist Danielle, is struggling to focus, trailing off and apologetically asking me to repeat my questions after forgetting what she’s talking about. Eldest sister and bassist Este, usually the comedian of the group, is surprisingly subdued, stumbling over her words and repeatedly confusing song titles. They don’t know yet that when the sales are finally tallied, their album will debut at #1 in Great Britain, #2 in Australia, and #6 on the Billboard Top 200 in the United States, and each of them admits that they are trying to avoid reading any reviews that would indicate just how their album is registering critically. “It’s bad because my mom is really excited about it, and she’s sending me reviews and I see them all,” sighs Alana. “So I can’t get away from them, because she’s so excited that she posts them on her Facebook. I keep telling her to stop, but she’s so proud. She just does what she wants.”

If they did read the reviews, they’d probably be pleased but a little bit confused. As if looking at a musical Rorschach test, everyone acknowledges the objective form and shape of Days Are Gone, but no one agrees on quite what it means. For some, HAIM are purveyors of deliriously melodic pop music, steeped in the production of the Top 40 hits of the 1980s (Michael Jackson, Madonna, Pat Benatar, Sheena Easton) and the sexy grooves of the female-fronted R&B groups of the 1990s (Destiny’s Child, En Vogue). Others hear ‘70s classic rock (The Eagles, Heart, Tom Petty) in the sisters’ sturdy harmonies and Danielle’s jagged guitar leads. Some celebrate HAIM for making an album that represents a timeless and unpretentious take on intricately textured, heart-on-sleeve pop songcraft; others criticize them for those same qualities, finding their songs slick, superficial, and a little too eager to please. Some hear classic rock bands such as Fleetwood Mac, some hear TLC, and some hear both.

That shit,” groans Danielle. “When we were first coming out, the big thing was ‘They’re like TLC meets Fleetwood Mac!’ And I remember being like, ‘What?’ If someone fucking told me, ‘Hey, check out this band! They sound like TLC mixed with Fleetwood Mac,’ I’d say, ‘That sounds like the worst thing I’ve heard of in my entire life.’ I forget who was the first person who said that, but that’s how people described us. I think you can ask anyone how people describe their music or comparing themselves to others, and they’ll say, ‘Eh…that’s not how I would describe it.’ I love TLC and I love Fleetwood Mac, but I don’t think our shit sounds like them mixed together or anything.”

When asked to describe what HAIM does sound like, Danielle seems less certain. Despite what some have claimed, they’re not making anything that should be described as folk music (“We never wanted to play acoustic guitars,” she says. “I can’t fingerpick for the fucking life of me!”). They’re also not a studio creation, something she’s adamant about, making it a point to emphasize that every drum machine on the record was doubled by her live kit work. More than pursuing any sort of stylistic benchmark, they were chasing a certain feeling in their music. But even that feeling is difficult for her to describe.

“We’d basically work all day [in the studio], and then we’d come back the next morning and blast the fucking shit out of it. If we weren’t getting the right kind of feeling or the song wasn’t growing in a way that was hitting at the core or getting the message across…” she says, struggling. “I think each song has its own story. I don’t think there was an overarching feeling for the record. I think the overarching theme was to make it sound like a band. But the feeling really does go from song to song. Something like ‘Honey & I,’ we wanted this open-air, sunny, easygoing thing. And ‘Running If You Call My Name’ was like a dramatic end of a relationship. I think we took each song and had a feeling for each song. I never thought about this shit!” she says, turning frustrated. “I shouldn’t talk about it. No one really has asked.”

Given that they’ve just released an album that sold nearly 90,000 copies worldwide during its first week (beating Justin Timberlake’s new release in first-week sales in the U.K.), they better get used to answering awkward questions. In fact, over the past two years they’ve managed to build what is arguably one of the most rabid fanbases in all of contemporary popular music. The videos for Days Are Gone standouts “Don’t Save Me” and “Forever” have each been viewed over 4,000,000 times on YouTube, and they have become the rare band that can appeal to both tweens and jaded hipsters, celebrated by everyone from One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles to Tegan and Sara and Jay-Z. And why not? How many other bands have the range to cover songs by The Strokes, Sheryl Crow, and, more recently, Miley Cyrus? How many could treat those songs with the same amount of sincerity and nuance, translating the substance of each into something identifiably their own? How many acts could make an album that would be celebrated by indie scenester blogs, out-of-touch mainstream rock rags, and stuffy national newspapers, each of them hearing something different? How many have so much to offer to so many different kinds of listeners?

All that goes to say that HAIM isn’t quite like any band currently making music in 2013. Undoubtedly, they do make overt gestures to ‘80s production flourishes and the percussive hooks of ‘90s R&B acts. As both their proponents and detractors claim, they do write songs with earworm melodies, funky grooves, and an effortless directness that cuts across both their celebratory anthems and their more brokenhearted ballads. But unlike their contemporaries who mined the echoes of the past for inspiration, pulling out the most palatable elements and throwing out the rest, the Haim sisters daringly embrace those same influences in all their messy glory, deconstructing and recombining them in ways that haven’t yet been seen in modern pop songwriting. In short, if HAIM makes music that is hard to describe, it’s not because they are using a completely unprecedented musical vocabulary, but because they are using that language in a way that is so intuitive to them that they don’t even realize that they’re the only ones speaking it. And if they are speaking a different musical dialect, it’s probably because it’s one they’ve learned over many years, starting at home.

Just a Good Reason to Get it Right

Like parents who become coaches for their kids’ sports teams only to find themselves screaming at their children and other parents, the rock canon is littered with parents whose good intentions got the best of them. Murry Wilson (The Beach Boys), Austin Wiggin (The Shaggs), Joe Jackson (The Jackson 5)there’s an unfortunate tradition of fathers who set out to mold their children into musical prodigies but ended up terrorizing and emotionally (and sometimes physically) brutalizing them in the process. In that regard, Mordechai “Moti” Haim does not belong to the ghastly gallery of stage dads. An Israeli expat and former professional soccer player who relocated to the United States in 1980, married the girls’ mother, Donna (a former folk singer and The Gong Show winner), and started a second career in real estate, Moti also taught his daughters the fundamentals of music-making. Nearly from the time they could hold instruments, he was grooming them to fill spots in Rockinhaim, the newest iteration of the cover band he started with his wife years earlier to play at every school, fair, synagogue, and charity event that would have them. They never made a dime from their performances, but music was always serious business.

“It was like our high school version of classic rock music,” Alana explains. “Growing up, when we were at the age of five or six, I knew what a I-IV-V chord progression was, and I knew how amazingly written classic rock songs were and how to play them and what their structures were. That’s our foundationwe played covers. Looking back on it, it is kind of crazy, because we would practice so much. Even though it was a fun family hobby, we took it really seriously. I think that’s why we take music so seriously now, because my dad always said, ‘You don’t want to go on stage and feel nervous or uncomfortable. You want to feel completely prepared.’ He said, ‘The way you feel that way is if you practice.’ And I hated it. While it was happening, I was like, ‘Dad! I want to go the mall!’ And he was like, ‘No. You have to practice the guitar.’ But my parents were so dope and have the best taste in music. It was a fucking awesome way to grow up. I can brag now that I was in a band with my parents, which is super fucking dope.”

Though most 20-somethings probably reflect on their family hobbies with a certain amount of embarrassment, variations of this account are repeated by each of the sisters. Such unanimity is typical for the Haim sisters, and those who have worked with them joke about how they finish each other’s sentences, both in conversation and in music. And just as they share their gratitude to their parents for foisting a life of music upon them, those formative years also ingrained in them a musical vernacular that is uniquely theirs. Motown, funk music, classic rock, ‘80s popnight after night, week after week, year after year, the Haim sisters were honing their chops, ending up like identical twins who spend so much time together that they develop their own language. By 2004, it looked like it was going to pay off.

After a Rockinhaim gig in Sherman Oaks, California, Este and Danielle were unexpectedly asked to join three other teenagers in a prospective girl group called Valli Girls, a sort of teenaged American version of The Spice Girls. With the invitation came a contract with Columbia Records and a predefined character role: Este would be the boisterous, boy-crazy one with a bedhead mullet and a bass guitar, and Danielle would be the streetwise guitar-slinging rocker. (“We’re just ourselves,” Este says comically in a press release promoting their debut album. “What you see is what you get.”) Almost immediately, they regretted the decision. Despite having a song on The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants soundtrack and making a high-profile appearance at the 2005 Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, the Haim sisters soon realized that being in a prefabricated pop band meant that other people would write your songs. They might have spent their youth perfecting their covers of rock classics, but they had caught the songwriting bug and didn’t want to spend their lives playing songs that were little more than advertising for some record executive’s idea of youth culture. Before the end of the year, they asked to be released from their contracts.

“I was super pumped for them,” Alana recalls. “I just knew that they were going to get to play music, but I was so young when that whole thing happened. I was just stoked for the ride. It was never like a weird Baby Haim revenge, jealous thing. But I knew that they didn’t like the songs and that they were never really happy in Valli Girls, and I just wanted them to be happy. When they got out, it was kind of like this big relief, because Este and Danielle are such great songwriters and they really wanted to write songs but weren’t allowed to in that band. It was just the weirdest surreal thing that happened to them, but they learned a lot from it, which was really cool. And they moved on, and they got to write their own songs, and I finally joined the band, which was what needed to happen. They needed the Baby Haim!” she says with a laugh. “They needed Baby Haim in their lives.”

Still only 15 at the time, the Baby Haim completed the newly liberated lineup, while Danielle went back to high school, and Este went off to UCLA to study ethnomusicology. But if starting HAIM allowed the girls to reclaim creative control of their work, they still lacked the one benefit that membership in Valli Girls providedan audience. They played their first gig on 7/7/07 to a club packed with their high school friends, but Haimania had already fizzled out by the time they played their second showto a grand total of one audience member. They were already polished live performers, but their songwriting chops lagged behind, with their early efforts mostly “weird teenage angsty songs that you write after your first heartbreak and you throw them away after you write them,” Alana says. But their years of taking any gig they could while playing with their parents had instilled in them a willingness to wait for their big break, and HAIM soldiered on, scheduling around Alana’s school nights to play at any venue that would book them and for any musician who would let them open. Who knew? A record contract had fallen into their laps once before; perhaps their next big break was just around the corner. In reality, it was. But only for one of them.

Running if You Call My Name

Though she’s the most withdrawn, least talkative member of the band, Danielle is arguably the band’s musical leader, a multi- instrumentalist with a dryly expressive voice that is as emotive as she is stoic. And even if the world was largely content to ignore HAIM, by the fall of 2007 Danielle was about to become a sought-after touring player. Fresh out of high school, she turned an impromptu jam session at Jenny Lewis’ house into a full-time gig as her touring guitarist. It was on that tour that Danielle would find her next gig, when The Strokes’ vocalist Julian Casablancas approached her to fill that same role in his band. This would be different, though. While the girls had their parents’ record collection in their musical DNA by design, they had The Strokes in their CD players by choice.

“I remember seeing [The Strokes’] ‘Last Night’ video on MTV, and I think I looked pretty goth at the time,” Este recalls. “I remember watching it and literally in my head I was thinking, ‘My whole world has changed.’ The next day I went out and bought an army jacket. Everything about the music that I listened to and the way that I dressed and the things that I thought were cool completely changed. I did a complete 180, and I think all of my sisters reacted the same way. I remember when Danielle called me and said, ‘I think I’m going on tour with Julian Casablancas,’ and I remember being, like, ‘That is so surreal.’ It seemed like an April Fools’ joke.”

So Danielle went off to Japan with Casablancas and her sisters stayed home in L.A., with HAIM becoming less and less relevant. A few tracks they had posted to Myspace failed to generate any interest, and every attempt to record something better just left them more aware that something was missing. Live, however, it was a different story, as all those years of practice had given them a natural stage presence that couldn’t be translated in the studio. By the time Casablancas got back to the U.S., he wanted the girls to be his opening act. “I think for us that felt like someone was playing a joke on us,” Este says. “That was the first time we’d been out of L.A., and he was super-supportive and such a good dude. He really, really helped us get our shit together.”

With Mom and Dad acting as de facto merch crew and tour manager, respectively, the family loaded up the van just as they had years earlier and hit the road. Though no one had a clue who they were, the sisters earned rave reviews, with shocked onlookers wondering just how this band of charismatic sisters with the polished stage presence had gone undiscovered for so long. But despite the positive buzz, HAIM still didn’t have a recording that they could live with floating around on the Internet for eternity, their recordings repeatedly falling short of the sounds they had in their heads. Este had finished up her degree and Alana was enrolling in a local community college, mainly to keep her parents off her back. Their parents, the most unrepentant of dreamers, had turned into realists, encouraging them to think about treating HAIM as a hobby and not a career. Soon, Danielle would audition for and win a spot playing guitar and singing in CeeLo Green’s all-female backing band, Scarlet Fever, and she would be gone again. By 2011, HAIM had been together for over four years, opened up for one of the biggest names in indie rock, and worked with reputable producers. They did not, however, have enough quality recordings for a whole EP.

Part of the problem was they simply didn’t know how to explain what they wanted. The language they had developed between themselves on stage, that sound they all heard but couldn’t effectively describe, was always just out of reach when they entered the studio. That changed when they met Ludwig Göransson, a young Swedish producer who had been doing music for TV shows (Community, New Girl) and worked with Donald Glover on his Childish Gambino album, Camp. Here, the girls finally found the missing ingredient in their soundsub-bass frequencies, the heavy bottom end that would add weight to the glistening synthesizer textures and tumbling drum machine rhythms that often floated to the top of the mix.

“I heard [their unreleased material] and I thought the songs were really good, but one song was produced like a total Michael Jackson rip-off,” Göransson recalls. “There are different ways you can rip off Michael Jackson, but if you’re going to do it, do it in a way that’s inspired more than in a rip-off kind of way. I know people had tried to incorporate a lot of ‘80s vibes, and I think when we started working, something that I made different from the other people they had worked with was that I brought in that ‘80s vibe and those ‘80s instruments, but I played it in a modern way. We never really discussed that it was going to sound like the ‘80s influences. More what we were talking about was how much they like hip-hop and that they were really looking forward to working with someone who had done a lot of hip-hop production.”

Built on a foundation of hip-hop sub-bass textures, those ‘80s-influenced tracks would become the Forever EP, named after the song that would become the girls’ first radio-ready single. A dreamy slice of surging dance-pop, it presented all of the elements that would come to define the HAIM sound. Woozy melodies, intricate rhythms, sugary backing harmoniesit was all there. “That was truly the turning point for us,” Este recalls. “We finally had something that we were proud of and that we wanted to show our friends. I think we basically wanted to be like ‘Fuck you, guys. Yeah, we can record. We know what we’re doing.’ Because all of our friends were like, ‘You’ve been a band for five years and you’ve never actually put out anything. It’s actually kind of depressing.’ That’s also why we gave it out for free, so we could be like, ‘Here, guys. This is what we did. We love it. We don’t even care if you like, but here it is.’ It was one of those things that we were so proud of it that if someone didn’t like it, we didn’t care.”

If 2011 had been the year of breakthroughs, 2012 held the promise that the Haim sisters finally had the debut recording they had always wanted to give to the world. But their main problem remained the same: they still didn’t have an audience who wanted to listen to it.

I Can Feel the Eyes All Watching Us So Closely

There’s a scene in That Thing You Dothe 1996 comedy written and directed by Tom Hanksthat might help explain the feeling the Haim sisters are chasing with their music. Set in 1964, it’s the story of a band (managed by Hanks) that is fighting its way through an endless series of talent shows and state fairs, only to have it all pay off when they hear their music on the radio and promptly lose their minds with excitement. This is the scene that Alana mentions when she explains what is most important to her as an artist, and that’s the sort of revelation that provides an insight into how this band represents a slightly different paradigm, not only musically, but also philosophically. HAIM isn’t a band that wants to impress you with their ability to reference and fetishize pop music’s pastthough they couldnor are they afraid to admit that they really, really want you to like them. If no can agree on exactly what they sound like, and the Haim sisters can’t articulate what the feeling is that they are chasing, they at least can all agree on where they want their music to fiton the radio. In the spring of 2012 that dream came true when a British disc jockey named Mary Anne Hobbs played “Better Off”one of the three songs on the Forever EPon her radio show, just a few weeks before the girls would go to their first SXSW festival. Their lives would never be the same.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Este recalls. “I think all of us were collectively surprised, because we had just put our EP out a month before that, and we just kind of released it to our friends. We’re still not sure how she got ahold of our recordthat’s still a mystery. And that SXSW was so much fun for us. We played our first show, and there were maybe four people in the audience, including a toddler who was running around and shitting everywhere. I’m not even kidding about that. It was on a grassy knoll and you could see everything. Then our second show was my birthday, and that was really fun, because everyone was buying me shots. I’ve never really experienced that before. And there were a bunch of people there, and then the next day there were more peopleit was weird to see word-of-mouth at work. And by our last show there was a line outside to get in. It was just a huge surprise for us.”

Five years in the making, HAIM was finally an overnight sensation. But knowing that fickle fans have short memories, they needed to strike fast if they wanted to capitalize on the moment. With their music already playing on the radio in the U.K., they started to generate an unexpectedly strong reaction on the other side of the Atlantic, resulting in a slot at The Great Escape Festival in Brighton (England’s answer to SXSW), followed a few days later by their first headlining gig in London and a record contract with Polydor. Soon, dates opening for Ke$ha, Mumford & Sons, and Florence and the Machine would turn up on their tour agendabut they still needed to actually make a full-length album, to once again translate the ineffable magic they produced onstage onto studio tape. That job fell to Ariel Rechtshaid, a fellow Angelino who was quickly becoming one of the hottest producers in all of popular music, having worked on Usher’s Grammy-winning “Climax” single as well as Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City.

“There wasn’t a really preconceived idea of what the record was going to sound like as much as that it wasn’t going to sound like anything else,” Rechtshaid says. “Resisting any kind of pastiche productioneven though we were very influenced by music from the ‘80s, we tried to make sure it didn’t sound like an ‘80s record. The approach is similar, especially with the band recording it like a band. Most of the record was like that, setting up in a room and using old analog equipment. The approach is similar to the way records were made in the ‘70s and ‘80s. So I think the spirit is captured there, but we always took it a step further. I think sometimes [pointing out the ‘80s references] is the quick way to write it off, but it’s really a lot deeper than that. I think the reaction has been indicative of that. If it was another throwback record, they wouldn’t hold such a special place in so many people’s hearts at the moment. It’s something new and different.”

That said, Rechtshaid admits he doesn’t know why listeners are connecting so deeply to HAIM’s music. Is it that they’re mixing the familiar sounds of the pop hits of the past with a modern, more texturally sophisticated approach? Is it because they are a rock band playing pop music, adding an instrumental complexity that’s uncommon for music that is, on its face, no less immediate and accessible than the latest Miley Cyrus hit? Or is Days Are Gone the rare album that captures the sound of this moment, one for a generation that grew up as musical omnivores who don’t draw distinctions between genres and eras? Still, despite everything that’s going on in the album, nearly every reviewer seems fixated on those references to ‘80s pop music.

“I think we definitely knowingly used some studio tricks from the ‘80s and put in really obvious things, like some reverbs on the drums,” Danielle admits. “Definitely, there’s a lot of synths from the ‘80s. In my mind, they were used as textures, but I don’t know why. I was born in ‘89, so I didn’t get to live and digest music in the ‘80s when it was happening, but I think I just really like those sounds. Growing up, my parents loved that music. I stopped listening to ‘80s music once I got into high school, but I remember revisiting it and feeling really nostalgic about the textures and sounds. For whatever reason, those were the sounds that excited us. At least in my mind, I feel like the ‘80s have some sounds that are now looked at as classic. And hopefully [the songs are] catchy and do get stuck in your head. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.”

The way Danielle suggests that writing catchy songs could be a bad thing is curious, and she seems to be at least somewhat conflicted that listeners could be gravitating to her music simply because the songs are so instantly gratifying and not because the Haim sisters are such good musicians. “But it’s more than that,” Rechtshaid contends, “because there have been plenty examples of bands historically that don’t have the same sort of impact. I don’t know what people see, but they all seem to see something different. It’s such a complex thing. It’s so much more complex than just ‘They are great pop songsthat’s what it is. They’re three beautiful girlsthat’s what it is.’ It’s more than that.”

Though his reserved tone indicates that Rechtshaid isn’t someone who is easily impressed, he is adamant in his confidence that HAIM is the rare band that has such a solid foundation as musicians and songwriters that they could potentially go in any stylistic direction they want. If their music is being greeted with confusion, that’s the highest possible compliment, he saysthat’s how you know you’re doing something original. What will they do in the future? He says he wouldn’t hazard a guess, but he knows it will be different than what they’ve already done and (he hopes) just as hard to define. After all, it’s hard to repeat yourself if you don’t even know what kind of music you make.

“I have no fucking clue!” Alana says with a sandpaper laugh. “We just play music that we wanted to hear on the radio. It’s kind of a philosophical question, like, ‘What does your music sound like?’ I’ve been in this band for six years, and I’ve never been able to answer that question.”

[This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s November/December 2013 issue. This is the cover story’s debut online.]


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Catherine Wilkins
August 14th 2014

Been a HAIM fan since day one, that Free EP changed my life just the way the strokes did for them.