A chance encounter with the track Runaway Devil, an instantly addictive freewheelin’ guitar-led gem that literally jumped out of the speakers like some kind of flannelled maniac, led me to the London-based four-piece House Above The Sea. I soon discovered that this is a band that can both kick like a mule sonically yet charm your socks off with beautifully entwined dual vocals and a real poetic approach to songwriting. I really needed to investigate further. Five Hours North, their debut album, is out at the end of October so I took the chance to chat with the band about guitar tones, inspirations and their love of ‘alt-country’.
Straight off, just to say I LOVE the record, really great work!
Thanks for the kind words, it means a lot to us.
The first thing that grabbed me was not only the guitar sound on Runaway Devil, but the whole vibe of the track that kind of reminds me of Son Volt meets Bottle Rockets. It even harks back to that old alt-country sound of someone like The Dexateens. Are those bands influences? Or am I missing some key ones?
Yep, that’s fairly accurate. Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt (and Wilco to make the set!) are among our alt-country favourites and influenced the overall vibe we were going for. Same goes for Lucinda Williams. To be honest, we always thought of ‘Runaway Devil’ as more as a blues-based number with the writing owing a lot to The Stones, 70s Dylan and The Doors.
Given It appears ‘Americana’ music is on a wave at the minute, how do you guys see yourselves in terms of the scene? Are you happy to be part of it or just charting your own course?
It’s difficult to say, particularly as the term seems to have become broader in recent years. With only one American in the band, there is always the feeling that our music can’t or won’t ever be accepted as authentic Americana. And we certainly don’t feel our music is for purists. But there’s no doubt that American roots music is a major influence on the song-writing and the sound we make.
I’m really digging the whole ‘vibe’ of this album. What were the plans when heading to the studio? What sort of album where you looking to make or did it just morph into something entirely different?
We knew that we wanted to have a somewhat ‘live in the studio’ vibe, so, for the most part, we recorded the guitars, bass and drums together. We were going for a laid back, behind the beat swagger for the songs, and for most of them it didn’t make sense to use click tracks as the tempos are meant to change slightly within the individual songs. The other important aim was to play as dynamically as possible and preserve the dynamics in the mastering stage. Hopefully, it comes across that way. But a lot of the final sound evolved during the making of it rather than having a fixed pre-production plan. We wanted to improve and develop on our previous EP, which we felt was a little too sparse. So we developed these arrangements a lot more in the studio with Jim’s keyboard parts and subtle guitar soundscapes, while Rory and Ariel lifted the songs with some great percussion parts. Our engineer helped us a lot to give the record a warm and distinctive tone and we were especially happy with the punchy drum sound you get on tracks like ‘Tonopah’.
Tell me a little more about St Augustine’s Blues? It feels like it’s quite a personal song?
It’s one of our earliest songs that seems to do a nice job of combining a bit of the blues with a sweet melody. Yes, it’s a somewhat personal song about struggling to walk away from a stormy and dangerous love affair. The title was inspired by St Augustine’s Confessions where he talks of being a slave to the sexual passions of his youth.
As mentioned, I’m really impressed with the guitar playing and overall sound on this record. It’s both cutting yet hugely complimentary to the songs. In the old days, I think I would have described you guys as a guitar band! Do you see yourselves as that?
Thanks. Yeah, it’s a fair description. Most of the songs are shaped around a guitar motif with the guitar and vocal melodies shaping and weaving around each other. The electric guitar parts try to bring lead and rhythm together as one and in most cases use unusual tunings, which can sometimes be a nightmare for live gigs!
Tell me a little more about the Deep South connection with Ariel (Ariel Moreton, vocals/guitar)? How much of that experience has shaped you guys as a band?
While Ariel was born in Georgia, most of her formative years were spent being home-schooled in a strict Christian household in Arizona. So there was a fair bit of harmonizing in choirs and singing hymns. While she listened to a wide range of musical genres, Ariel’s main influences were harmony-heavy folk like CSNY, Joni Mitchell and traditional American hymns, giving a softer edge to her harmonies.
I always ask, what stuff are you listening to at the moment?
Warren Zevon, Sharon Van Etten, The National’s new album, Michael Kiwanuka. Also, songwriters we love and have played alongside in London, such as Gabriella Romano and Finn Bonel. And finally a lot of Tom Petty & The Heatbreakers right now.
What does 2018 have in store for the band? Touring I guess?
All being well there’ll be a lot more gigs in London and elsewhere to promote the record and improve ourselves as a live band. A lot of new songs are in the works too so we’re looking forward to experimenting and recording more.
House Above The Sun are playing the London Folk & Roots Festival, The Islington Nov 16
Five Hours North is out on October 27th on HATS Music