With turmoil comes creative innovation, and whether it be a reflection or retaliation, a whole wave of artists came out of an era that has inspired generation after generation. At the forefront of the current popular resurgence in bands perhaps looking back to the neoliberalism in the 80s that starkly mirrors our own are Death Bells.
From their self-titled dreamlike Death Bells to the more aggressive Standing at the Edge of the World, their sound has evolved into a coalescence of glistening dream-pop and piercing post-punk, a constant countering of light and dark.
It’s the perfect balance of contrast; abrasive, vulnerable emotive expression with pieces of work that are grounded in captivating and catchy melodies – something which many artists can never master.
New single and title-track to the new album, ‘New Signs of Life’ is no exception to the blueprint of Death Bells. The instrumentation of driving rhythm, searing guitars and lush synthesis creates this craving intensity that is constantly aching to reach the next section. Will Canning’s impelling vocals, always conversing with the guitars, elevates this restless severity – inevitably leading to the zenith of an unapologetic and exuberant chorus.
The hook-laden line “new signs of life approaching, can’t unlearn everything” is thrown out in a defiant and fearless manner, the instrumentation drawn into concise melodic harmony to propel everything into a chanting, feverish wall of sound.
It’s not only an obvious step up in production, but the songwriting is precise in conviction and vision. Death Bells are carving out a space of their own within contemporary music, building up a reputation of being fresh and authentic in their own right.
How have you guys been? How have you been handling the current state we find ourselves in?
Will Canning: I’ve been ok mostly. This year’s a weird one across the board for all of us. I’ve been hiking and spending a lot of time outdoors which has been great.
Remy Veselis: Good and bad days. A lot of reflection on how I can make positive change in these tumultuous political/environmental times. I’ve been growing tomatoes, playing board games with my partner, and forming closer friendships to pass the time.
Does it feel strange to be releasing work in a period where not only is live music is on hiatus but the very foundations of it are under threat?
Will: I’m skeptical of all of the live-streaming stuff. There’s something really important about being at a show and watching a band you like, surrounded by other people who feel the same way. I think releasing music now may give everyone some time to digest it properly.
Remy: Obviously there are a lot of other things going on that are also under threat, but when I think about it is a little strange, isn’t it? Definitely not what I imagined back when we began recording the album last year, but not dwelling on the negatives is important. No-one in the music business can change what’s happening, so surviving is the goal until touring is back for everyone.
I’d like to know a bit about your origins and where you come from in a musical sense. You originate from Sydney and I believe you have links to the hardcore/punk scene there from your early days as a group. How much of an impact has this had on you as a band?
Will: Sydney is one of the best cities in the world. I owe a lot to it and try to remember that as much as possible. Bands like Low Life, Oily Boys, Orion, Rapid Dye, SHAB, and Sex Tourists really shaped my taste and the way I understand how music should be recorded and performed.
Remy has more of a hardcore background and actually did his time around Byron Bay & Brisbane, as well as a brief stint in Leeds – but I’ll let him expand on that.
Remy: I was very lucky enough to live in a small town where there was a thriving underground music scene during my high school years. Attending every all ages show at the youth center in Byron Bay was mandatory for myself, and through that community music became transcendent to me and friendships were formed that I still have over 10 years later. After high school I moved around. Experiences I had in Brisbane and Leeds were also very important in helping shape who I am today.
My musical origins are a little whacky. I didn’t really play music until my last two years of high school when I was forced to either take a music class or cooking class. In small town Australia there are only a certain number of subjects available during your last two years of school and they were the ones I needed to do to fill my timetable otherwise I had to move schools. I loved music so I tried hard to learn bass. Through stubbornness everything fell into place.
There’s an amazing amount of clarity in the production of ‘New Signs of Life’, you could really see how your sound progressed from ‘Death Bells’ to ‘Standing at the Edge of the World’, and now once again to this new record: was this a natural development, or did you want to take a more purposefully ‘hi-fi’ approach to the new album?
Will: We owe a lot of this album’s ‘sound’ to our friend Colin Knight, who recorded and mixed everything. We demoed all the songs with a drum machine and a pretty shitty recording setup, so being able to spend late nights at his studio making everything sound the best it could was a huge breath of fresh air. Having less people involved for this one also cut out a lot of the noise.
Remy: Echoing Will, Colin was vital to the process. He has so many incredible ideas and his knowledge was monumental in shaping all aspects of the record. Sonically, I was conscious of wanting to make the songs shine, but that wouldn’t have been possible without Colin’s help.
Your single ‘New Signs of Life’ seems to have this very defiant yet hopeful atmosphere, is this a running theme for the new album?
Will: There’s no real overarching theme to the album, I’m just a person singing about other people. Hope, optimism and resilience are all ideas I was conscious of when we wrote everything. In the last couple of years a lot has changed for us, and this record is just our way of reflecting on it all.
Remy: That track is very figurative in that it is a new decade and new beginnings for Death Bells, but the rest of the album doesn’t focus on that exact theme.
I’ve found there seems to be a lot of contrast within your music between this romantic glistening dream pop and darker post-punk sound. Is this a conscious decision on your behalf to play with contrast in mood within the music?
Will: That’s something we’ve always tried to entertain – the marriage of two different ideas or sounds into something harmonious. When Maurice (Santiago – former bassist) asked me to play in Death Bells he told me “I wanna make songs that sound like the XX but also songs that sound like The Sisters of Mercy”. That’s probably just ingrained in the band’s mindset now.
Remy: Very conscious. The interplay between light and dark is something I find compelling in music and that has carried into writing Death Bells songs. Being able to push and pull against those themes can lead to compelling songs.
Regarding the darker themes and you could say sometimes political narratives within your music, do you think it’s important for artists to use their music as a platform for these types of conversations or does the responsibility perhaps lie outside of your creativity?
Will: The only political song on the record is ‘Two Thousand and Twenty’, and even then, it’s vague. That song is like a reactionary statement on current world events. I think anyone with a platform needs to be standing in solidarity with marginalised voices, but music itself doesn’t necessarily have to be political. For many, it seems like music is an escape from the shit we deal with on a day to day basis.
Remy: That’s an interesting question and something I think about regularly. Anyone in a public facing role (whether that be as small as an independent musician or large like a politician) can make some sort of a difference for the better. I don’t think you are obligated to do it through your art. You can use your platform to raise awareness for what you believe in without having social justice and political themes being a focus of your art, which is something we strive to do.
Finally, what have you taken personally from making this new record?
Will: I’m extremely grateful to everyone that’s been apart of the new record, and my biggest takeaway is the friends, old and new, that are helping us with this chapter of the band. I’m also really looking forward to making the next one.
Remy: I’m more sure of the direction that Death Bells will continue to move in over the coming years, now that Will and I have made this record. The experience has been a huge learning curve that I feel so lucky to be a part of. Along with Colin in the studio, we had so much help from an art direction and manufacturing standpoint that I will always be grateful for. New Signs of Life re-awoke the teenage kid in me who lived and breathed making music with his friends and I can’t wait to let it free.
Death Bells’ new album New Signs of Life is out 25th September via Dais Records.
Words: Kieran Herbert Photography: Jeff Fribourg