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HAIM - The Under the Radar Cover Story - Bonus Q&A

A Sister Symphony in Three Movements

Mar 05, 2014 Issue #48 - November/December 2013 - HAIM Photography by Kate Garner Bookmark and Share

If you haven’t been paying attention, it might seem as if HAIM is a classic overnight sensation, the rare band that emerges fully formed with a first album that captures the cultural zeitgeist and the imaginations of a startlingly large number of listeners. But if you think HAIM reached this point without paying their dues, you’d certainly be wrong. From their decade-plus apprenticeship as a member of their parents’ covers band to their years of poorly-attended club shows in their native Los Angeles, HAIM reached the point where many bands decide to hang up their instruments and go back to college but doubled down on their dedication to one day find an audience and take their music around the world. With their debut album Days Are Gone, they’ve done exactly that, crafting a set of immediately accessible songs that reference the last 40 years of Top 40 pop‘70s classic rock, ‘80s synth pop, ‘90s R&Bwhile creating a stylistic language that is largely theirs. Today, the afternoon following an album release concert in London, Alana (guitars/keyboards/backing vocals), Este (bass/backing vocals), and Danielle (lead guitar/vocals) Haim speak carefully but confidently, appearing tired but content. Their work has finally paid off. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with HAIM, quotes that didn’t make it into our main print cover story article on them. This Q&A originally ran in the digital/iPad version of the November/December 2013 issue.]

Alana Haim: Nobody Puts Baby Haim in the Corner

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): So how’s it going today?

Alana Haim: It’s going good. I kind of lost my voice last night, so if you can’t hear me, I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened. I just woke up this way. I have allergies, and it’s giving me a frog. I have a baby frog in my throat.

The reviews have been really positive. Is that what you were expecting?

I wasn’t really expecting anything. All I really knew was that we handed in the record we wanted to hand in. A lot of people are saying that they were waiting for our record to come out, and we had a lot of pressure to hand it in early. We could have handed it in not finished and just said, “Fuck it. Let’s see what happens.” But if we had done that, I don’t think we’d be as happy as we are now. The day that we handed it in, we knew that it was done. I’m just really excited that it’s out and I’m proud of it.

A lot of the reviews are focusing on the ‘80s pop influences on the album. Do you think that’s fair?

I love ‘80s pop. I grew up listening to ‘80s pop. But I don’t think when we write songs that it’s a conscious thing. The sounds that were used in that era excite us in the studio. When we’re screwing around with different kinds of sounds and different kinds of keyboards, the sounds that are in the area are really punchy and bright. I think that’s what we gravitated towards. Honestly, people have been trying to compartmentalize our band for a very long time, and some people are confused as to what genre we are in, because we mix a lot of genres and a lot of people now mix genres. All artists are mixing genres, and there aren’t really specific genres of music anymore, which is kind of cool. It’s like a party, and everyone is joining the party.

How long did it take you to develop the sound on this record?

I think that’s what we always wanted to sound like, but we never knew how. That was, in our brains, what we always wanted. In the beginning, we were new songwriters, basically, and hadn’t really honed our songs. We still had so much to learn. In the very beginning, you’re still exercising your songwriting muscles, so we didn’t sound exactly how we do now. But we always wanted to sound like we do now. When we got to the studio, we didn’t know what to say and who to work with to get the sound that we wanted. If I could plug my brain into a speaker, that would have been way easier and a lot faster. That’s not possible, so it just took us all those years. I’m really glad that we cut our first records now rather than in the beginning, because I think we had a lot to learn. We needed to figure out what we wanted, and it took a long time. I mean, we’ve been a band for six years, and it’s crazy to be a band for that long and not put anything out. That’s unheard of. But we just couldn’t get a good recording. So, with this record, it was just the right time, and I actually can’t believe it’s out. The fact that it’s out and people can listen to it is insane to me. Even when we were recording, I was like, “This is great. We’re all pretending this record is going to come out, but it’s not. There’s no way it’s going to come out. Something is going to happen, and it’s not going to come out.” I actually can’t believe it’s out!

I imagine your parents are proud.

They’re freaking out. There was a point in the HAIM history where they thought nothing was going to happen, but they were always so supportive. But by year four or five, they were like, “You guys have been at it for a long time,” and Este and Danielle had their own lives. It was more about me. Este was in college, and Danielle was with Julian [Casablancas], touring. I was just about to graduate high school, and my parents were like, “What are you going to do?” And I was like, “What do you mean? I’m going to be in HAIM.” And they were like, “Well…maybe you should actually get a job,” like any parents would do. Thankfully, we released the Forever EP right after that, so I didn’t have to work or go to college. At some point I’d like to go back to college, but the Forever EP basically saved me from that awkward parental talk.

Do you think the same things sound good to each of you?

I think we all have a really, really similar ear. I mean, we’re sisters, so we basically have the same taste in music. There are some times when one of us will be like, “Let’s put a djembe on this song!” and one of us will be like, “Uh, no. Let’s not put a djembe on a song. That’s probably not a good idea.” When we hear a sound, if one of us likes it, it’s funny how in the studio we’ll go to a bank of sounds, and all three of us will perk up. That happens like 99.9% of the time. That’s why it’s important to have a producer with us in the studio, because we do have similar taste in sounds and like the same things. It’s funny to get someone who is not in your family’s perspective on a song. That’s where [producers] Ariel [Rechtshaid] and James [Ford] came in. They gave us an outside perspective on different types of ways to go about a song. That’s why we worked with them; they were super up for collaborating with us and not putting their stamp on us. It was more like us putting our stamp on them and working together and making all new sounds. It was really rad.

Este Haim: The Don’t-Mess-with-Us Oldest Sister

From what I’ve read, you guys struggled a lot to find your sound. What do you think was the turning point?

Este Haim: I think, for us, the pivotal thing was finally putting out a recording, and we hadn’t done that for the first five years that we’d been a band. We had recorded a few times, and every time you record you learn more things. But I think our problem was we didn’t know how to communicate exactly what we wanted and how we wanted it to sound. That was difficult for us. We’d record something, and we’d have such high hopes, and we’d really work on it. And we’d get back, and we’d just not be happy with it. We didn’t want to put out anything that we weren’t 100% excited about. So we waited, and we recorded and had all these expectations and they were never met. So it was frustrating. It wasn’t really until we met Ludwig Göransson. By a total fluke, we met him at a show we played at a place called Teddy’s in LA, and he met our manager at a pool party or something. And our manager threw it out that “Yeah, I have this band that is playing tonight if you want to come.” And Ludwig ended up coming, and we ended up talking and laughing about music and other things, and he’s Swedish and we had a lot of fun times trying to understand each other. It was awesome. He said, “If you want to come jam over the weekend that would be fun.” So we did, and we hit it off. Over the next couple months, we collaborated on the Forever EP, and that was truly the turning point for us. That’s how we knew that we had something that we wouldn’t be weird about if it was on the Internet for the rest of our lives. That was our biggest fear. Once you have something out there, it’s out there forever. Even now, I look back on pictures of me on Facebook. When my friends find pictures of me from high school, they’ll post them, and it’s just not the funnest thing sometimes. I look at those things and go, “Now I know why no one asked me to go on a date my sophomore year. I get it.” It’s just one of those things. I think we’re aware of the fact that we don’t really want something that we’re iffy on. We don’t want to put something out that’s only 50% successful. So it was really nice to work with Ludwig and make that with him.

Do you remember the first song you all agreed was good?

It was probably “The Wire.” That’s definitely the song that stuck around. We wrote it in 2008. We started the band in 2007. Songs would come and go from the set, but that was the only one that really stuck around. I think also, because it’s just so much fun to play live. I think that’s probably the first song we made where we all were like, “Okay. I really like this.” We would write a lot of songs and never finish them, but I think that was the first one where we were like “Okay. This is passable.”

Do you think you all hear music in the same way? Do the same things sound good to you?

I think at the core we definitely have the same sensibilities and things that we like. There are certain things over the years that were things that I liked that I know my sisters didn’t understand. I went through a major nu-metal phase like in ‘98 to 2001. I think I scared my parents a little bit with that one, because I was listening to Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails and Korn and Limp Bizkit, and my parents didn’t get it and neither did my sisters. That’s where we differ, I thinkthat era. But I think as we grew older and The Strokes came out, I think all three of us fell in love with that band. It was something we could all agree on. I think we all loved Motown and funk and songs that our parents listened to growing up, but I think The Strokes were the first thing that we all liked that was new and was like, “Okay. This is cool.” Ever since then, it has been the same. We all love sharing new music with each other and bringing new things to the table.

Do you think you’re competitive with your sisters?

I think I’m competitive with everyone, not just my sisters. [Laughs] I’m probably the most competitive person that you’ll ever meet. But when it comes to my sisters, it’s all for the greater good. I think we are the biggest fans of each other, when it comes down to it. I don’t think we’re competitive. I think I’m competitive but more so overprotective of them. I care about them more than I care about anyone else, and I think people know that and that’s why they don’t fuck with us. And if they do, they should be scared.

So you’re the typical overprotective big sister?

Definitely. I’ve always been that way. I’ve always been very, very protective of them. I was a senior when Danielle was a freshman at my high school, and the first thing that I said to all of my guy friends that hadn’t met her was, “Get the fuck away from her, or I’ll chop your balls off. I don’t even want to see you near her.” I knew what my guy friends were like, and it’s fine when it’s not your sister. If it’s some random girl you don’t know, it’s like “Okay. Fine. Go for it. It’s high school, and you only live once.” But when it came down to my sister, it was like, “If you even so much as look at her…” And it was the same when Danielle was a senior and Alana was a freshman. Being a freshman in high school is hard enough, so I knew what it was like when I was a freshman and didn’t have anyone. Danielle was friends with all of my friends, and I always made sure that my friends were nice to her. I definitely was conscious of making sure that she was taken care of.

So where do you see this going in the future? Do you want to be the biggest band in the world?

I think my goal now is to just keep touring and making music and records and being able to write songs and have that be my job. I’ve done every retail job, every restaurant job. Since I was 17, I’ve been working day jobs in hopes that one day I could make music my career, and now that I’m doing it I don’t ever want to stop. I just want to stay creative and do what I do with my sisters and see the world. That would be my goal. And have fun doing it.

Danielle Haim: The Stoic Middle Sister

It seems like people are really connecting with this record in a deep way.

Danielle Haim: I don’t know if it’s in a deep way, but I hope so. [Laughs] This whole two years has been…I think it has been the fucking craziest years of our lives. I hope people listen to our record like I do with other people’s records. Our drummer just put on Wildflowers, that [Tom] Petty record from the ‘90s. I think Rick Rubin produced it. I was really into the record a couple years ago, and it put me right back to that moment. It was kind of that feeling, and that feeling is when people grab hold of someone’s music and has it like they’re friends, and they put it on and it makes them feel better. It seems like some people have taken on our music in that way, and to me that’s the biggest compliment.

It’s funny how much difficulty people have in describing your music. Fleetwood Mac, Destiny’s Child, R&B mixed with folkdoes any of that resonate with you?

That’s another thing. Folk? I love some folk music, but that was our statement when we started the band: we wanted to play electric guitars. We never wanted to play acoustic guitars. I can’t fingerpick for the fucking life of me! That’s not really my bag. When people were saying we were like folk, I didn’t get that at all. I mean, not to sound cheesy, but we’re a rock…ish band. The folk thing? New folk? I don’t even know what that fucking means.

Have you ever heard someone describe your band in a way that made sense?

Some people say “rhythmic,” and I definitely think we’re so used to having rhythmic percussive melodies, I think that’s true. Percussive, drum-orientedI can see that. We grew up, our first instrument was playing the drums. Our dad’s a drummer, and we also grew up loving funk music, and a lot of the melodies are very percussive. What I really admire in funk music is that every instrument that is played you can hear, and they have their own lines repeating. I think I really like funk music. It’s very percussive. I can see the percussive element coming out in our music.

Well, whatever you’re doing, it seems to be connecting with people.

I hope so. I don’t want it to stop. I spent so much time playing with other people and admiring them, and having a day job, too, and wishing this could be our day job and that music could be how we make our living. Now that it actually is, it’s the best thing. For an artist, it’s what people always dream of. I feel like the luckiest person in the world that we get to do this. I just want to keep doing it.

So far so good.

Fingers crossed.

Well, thanks a lot for your time. We’re excited to have you on the cover of the magazine.

I remember Jenny Lewis was on the cover several years ago. I remember seeing it and thinking “Maybe one day…” It was really cute. It was right after I stopped touring with her, and I looked at the pictures and they were in her new beautiful house and she was in her pool looking cool, and I was so happy for her. I honestly can’t believe that it’s happening for us now.

[This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s November/December 2013 digital issue.]


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