Despite less-than-ideal recording circumstances, Hands Like Houses have delivered a frighteningly good EP. After all, diamonds are made under pressure.
“We are not a band that does well without pressure”, Hands Like Houses vocalist Trenton Woodley tells us, “but we also fracture a little bit when there’s too much of it.”
It’s a balancing act most bands face, but for Hands Like Houses, things almost fell over completely during the recording of their new self-titled EP. Although they called an idyllic Avoca Beach property their home for the 10-day stint, the band suffered a communication breakdown, butting heads under the stress of deadlines and the need to record something they deemed up to standard. Being your own worst critic is a blessing and a curse.
The masterstroke of the Hands Like Houses EP was letting this breakdown feed into their music in the most fundamental way; the final release is fittingly stacked with themes of discomfort and the abstract. The songs themselves are hits, straight-up rock anthems their fans have taken by the horns, but every lyric and chord was hard-fought.
Now that he’s had time to reflect, Woodley looks fondly back on his time at the beach with his bandmates. While they might have suffered an angry game of ping-pong or two, that pressurised recording stint landed Hands Like Houses some of their most powerful work to date.
HAPPY: Tell me a bit about this house that you recorded in. It was up in Avoca, right?
TRENTON: So rather than doing the traditional route we thought, look, let’s give ourselves a good environment to be in. That’s something we’ve learned from the other ones, being in an environment has as much impact as what you’re available to you in that environment, if that makes sense. I think after making two records in the middle-of-nowhere Florida and the first album in less middle-of-nowhere Florida, it felt like we were in a weird little pocket away from the world.
To be in a place that felt alive, it was a cool vibe, so we went for that. Then we brought the studio in, we had an AirBnB and I brought in a bunch of my studio gear, Colin [Brittain] had a bunch of his own like a particular compressor he liked and a couple of other bits and pieces. I guess we did the bedroom recording route, then went and recorded drums at The Grove Studios.
HAPPY: Did any interesting sounds come up that could only have happened in that environment?
TRENTON: That’s a good question… I think we used a lot of guitar pedals, like really went to town with different guitar effects. A lot of that stuff we’ve traditionally done in-the-box or after the fact – like record the parts then play it back through – whereas this time we were actually recording the parts through some pretty whacked-out signal chains, so it brought about maybe a bit of a lo-fi ethic, but not necessarily a lo-fi sound. Being able to commit to the sound on the way in made the creative choices about cleaning up rather than creating, so the creative energy was all in the front end and the rest was more technical. Left brain/right brain, so to speak.
HAPPY: That’s a good way to implement a little less control, I think too many people fall into the trap of endless edits.
TRENTON: For sure, I mean modern recording has come about because the lo-fi tools have become so powerful. The tools that you have are so flexible that you can get option paralysis, so for me personally, I’ve tried to embrace that mentality: full commit. Limitations are actually more creative than possibility, so when you restrict your environment and your approach, that feeling of being off-balance is what gives rise to some of the coolest and most interesting ideas.
HAPPY: As amazing as this all sounds, discomfort seems to be a massive theme across the EP, so were there some tough times at this beach house in Avoca?
TRENTON: 100 percent. I mean we’ve been a band for nearly 11 years now, we’ve kind of learnt each other’s strengths and weaknesses to a point where you get deep into that scissors/paper/rock game and you start tripping over each other. And being in that pressured environment… we were meant to have a week before in my studio here to flesh out ideas, demos, and stuff, but due to some external circumstance particularly with Colin the producer – he was working on A Day To Remember’s record and there was some pretty hard deadlines, that’s not necessarily the kind of band you can say no to. That meant that we were under the pump from day one.
I don’t think any of us had the time to talk about what we wanted the EP to be about as a whole, I think we all had different ideas of what it was going to come out sounding like at the other end. That’s where the Auslan came in, like how do you translate sound or music to someone who can’t hear? That’s what came from that process of trying to communicate ideas that were abstract but none of us could explain it in words, we had to really figure out those bridges. It sounds so smooth in retrospect but really, it wasn’t. There was a lot of frustration, a lot of things said with the best of intentions and the worst of outcomes [laughs]. Dealing with that was a challenge for sure, but that’s kind of what gave the lyrics their energy, I think it was impossible to write anything but what I was feeling at the time.
HAPPY: And now you’ve got to reinterpret it for all these interviews!
TRENTON: Pretty much! But a bit of retrospect never did anyone any harm in figuring that stuff out.
HAPPY: Do you think you work well under pressure?
TRENTON: To a point. I think we are not a band that does well without pressure, but we also fracture a little bit when there’s too much of it. So it’s about having enough to push ourselves, you know what I mean? It’s easier to carry momentum, if that makes sense. A little pressure creates a little momentum you can feed from.
HAPPY: Now this may be dicey but what was the bigger career achievement, landing a top 10 ARIA album or being the official soundtrack to the 2020 NRL and AFL final series?
TRENTON: I think it’d be the footy, honestly. ARIA charts are such a big statement thing but it also depends on the week that you’re in, you know? Sometimes the album that comes number five one week might sell more copies than the album that comes number two another week.
HAPPY: I know what you mean, it’s totally relative.
TRENTON: Yeah, it’s all relative to the other releases that week. So while it is certainly special and it feels good… across the band we all have pretty deep roots in both codes and sport is such an iconic part of Australian life, so to be on such a major campaign representing the two major codes – on a pretty memorable year, for better or worse – just to be a part of that is so special, especially both at once. Hopefully one that goes down in the history books! We’ll see.
HAPPY: I love anything that bridges that gap as well. I think a lot of bands get stuck in Australian music world without wanting or knowing that there’s so many other people out there.
TRENTON: For sure, for sure. We’re such a small country and it’s amazing that we have the quality across all fields, whether it be sport or music, science or literature, we make such a mark on the world for such a small place. To be able to connect in our home country means a lot, and to reach new people is always good no matter where you are in your career.
HAPPY: Stranger is the song that really stuck out to me when I listened to the EP, one of the unreleased tracks. What do you think that song will add to the emotional spectrum that you’ve already crafted with the three singles?
TRENTON: It’s funny, that song has such a strut to it. It is kind of the black sheep of the EP in a number of ways, but I think it’s one of the most interesting and quirky tracks, it adds that bit of darkness where the rest of it is summery and contemplative. We were by the beach and I think that comes through in the sound, particularly in The Water and Dangerous. But I think Stranger has… it’s almost like a sly grin of a song. I love how much strut there is.
HAPPY: I reckon that’s the sleeper.
TRENTON: Quietly for me Wired is the sleeper, even though it’s similar to The Water in a lot of ways. For me that was the one that encapsulated the theme of the whole EP process most explicitly. I’m really excited for these last two songs to be out there.
Hands Like Houses is out October 23 via UNFD. Pre-save or pre-order your copy here.