Deaf Havana

James Veck-Gilodi is ready for confusion. He’s prepared, even, for outrage. Deaf Havana’s frontman and songwriter understands that some fans will be surprised by his band’s fifth album. On Rituals the hard rock of the beloved Brit-rock five-piece morphs into something more like, well, hard pop.
Yes, the robust riffs that characterised Top 5 album All These Countless Nights are still there. But since the release of that record, Deaf Havana are rebooted, rejuvenated and ready for the next stage of their career. Still only 28, Veck-Gilodi has shape-shifted into a songwriter and producer of rare melodic skill, while keeping a firm grasp on the rock’n’roll sensibilities and intense emotional honesty that made Deaf Havana a huge draw on the alternative rock circuit.
In the speedy, bold spirit of its writing and recording, he cuts to the chase: “I think these are the best songs I’ve written, lyrically honest and in-depth.”
For Veck-Gilodi, Rituals is a departure on multiple levels. The band’s last album was five years in the making – we can blame the old cliché of record company politics for that – and recorded with the whole band, live. Rituals was written and recorded in little over three months and is largely the solo work of the
“It’s a band record, for sure,” he clarifies, “but it’s a very personal, solo journey, a laying to rest something for me. I normally write about the same things, which are personal experiences, but this time I knew I wanted to theme the whole
thing. So I used religious themes as a metaphor – a metaphor for me being a complete arsehole at times I guess!” he laughs, as down-to-earth as ever and quick to puncture any sense of pretentiousness.
He reinforced that thematic framework by firstly coming up with 13 song titles. “That gave me something to aim for. It was a way of me coming up with a chorus or hook, using the word, or themes suggested by that word – so, Wake, Sinner, Ritual, Hell, Holy, Saviour”, he says, detailing Ritual’s first six tracks.
“I’d never written like that before. In fact, everything about making this album was brand new. Normally I write on an acoustic guitar, but this time I was writing a lot on a computer, and doing a lot of the production myself. I wouldn’t say I felt
confident doing that – I didn’t have a clue what I was doing it at first! But, well, we got there…”
Deaf Havana finished touring their fourth album in late November 2017. A dozen years after forming at school in Norfolk, the band had had their best year. Asked for highlights, Veck-Gilodi has a few: “Germany really grew for us – the ticket
sales pretty much doubled for us from the start of the year to the end. And I know it’s lame and I honestly don’t really care about these things, but the
fact that we got a Top Five UK album off the back of no radio play and the
backing of no one influential – I was really chuffed with that.” Last year brought
another breakthrough, a Glastonbury appearance, on the Other Stage. “That felt
like an achievement – a band like us doesn't normally get on festivals like that;
usually we do all the alternative rock festivals. We also did some arena shows in
Europe with Kings Of Leon. They were super-nice. We’ve been on tour with bands
that can be really stingy, but they really looked after us – we were really well
stocked every night, if you know what I mean”, he grins.
Veck-Gilodi duly ended the year on a high, and immediately ready to rock all over
again. Well, pretty much. “Because the last album was five years in the making, I
was dreading starting this one. That was a niggling thought at the back of my
mind: how am I going to write another album? I took all my recording stuff on
tour, determined to write and record, and obviously I didn’t, I just got drunk,
’cause I’m a moron.”
Back home off the road, at best he had “four demos of budget shit rock music,
which weren’t even good enough for b-sides. I didn’t write anything good all
year.” So, in January 2018, he was back home in North London, with a blank
sheet of paper. Aside from those four demos there was part of one song that was
semi-useable. And that, pretty much, was it.
In an attempt to help Veck-Gilodi un-jam his mojo, Deaf Havana’s front-of-
house engineer, Phil Gornell invited the singer to his home in Sheffield, where he
has a studio, Steel City Studios. “I went up for what was meant to be three days,
just to demo and ended up staying there for three months. It was just me and
Phil for the most part, writing and recording. Coming up with really bad ideas,
deleting them. Coming up with better ones and keeping them.”
The rest of the band – his brother Matthew (guitar), Lee Wilson (bass), Tom
Ogden (drums), Max Britton (keyboards) – would join them for recording, “but
the backbone of it was me and Phil in a dark room in Sheffield.”
“Phil thinks about music differently to me,” he explains of their creative
chemistry. “He doesn’t care about lyrics, he’s more about melodies. Whereas I’ll
get hung up on one lyric for ages. He helped me get over stuff like that.” James
expands: “I don’t think I would have written this if Phil hadn’t helped me – he did
unblock something. Ideas that I might have dismissed as crap, he helped me
develop into actual songs. And it makes sense: he sees and hears me perform
every night on tour. He knows me and my tastes inside out. He was kinda
Deaf Havana set themselves a goal: finish recording by early April, put the
album out by August, “otherwise you’ve lost the year. And we did it.” The
gateway track was that semi-useable snippet. It became Ritual, (almost) the
album title track, an electronic-flavoured song where the feeling of colourful uplift
belies the darkness at its heart.
“I’ve kicked depression,” admits a musician who has previously discussed his
issues with anxiety in the pages of various publications. “Not fully, but I’m alright.
It has been an ongoing thing, but I’m better with it now. I eat healthily and do
some exercise… And to be honest, the whole record is retrospective. That song is
me looking back, and it’s a cathartic processing of those darker feelings. As soon
as I recorded it I felt a weight lifted.”

That sense of enthusiasm and moving-forward is also encapsulated in first single
Sinner. It’s blessed with the contribution of the London Contemporary Choir, who
also appear on four other tracks, Heaven and the album opening “overture”
Wake, as well as second single Holy, and Saint.
“Sinner is really poppy,” Veck-Gilodi cheerfully acknowledges, “and it is far
removed from our previous stuff. But not as much as some of the other songs,
like Fear, which you might say is almost dance-y.”
Hell is another departure. “We were just pissing around with drum loops. We
were thinking of that Placebo song Pure Morning, which is one note, a drone, and
wondered if we could do something like that.”
“And that again is about treating people like shit. The whole record is a mea
culpa, about my entire touring life before the last album. This whole record is an
amalgamation of past versions of myself. Some of it is a bit elaborated, so it’s
loosely fictional in that sense.”
“I do think I was having these poppier moments because I felt liberated by being
in a better personal place,” he expands. “But really, also, I didn’t plan this – they
just came out like that. There was no grand plan – ‘how will our band get big?’”
he laughs. “Writing these melodies on the computer was quite accidental.”
This summer Deaf Havana will be unveiling their new songs on one of the
biggest stages you can get: Reading/Leeds Festivals, where they play their 2018
UK Festival exclusive, second only to Pendulum on the Radio 1 stage.
Before that, James Veck-Gilodi is aware that, to tour Rituals, they’re gonna need
a bigger kit. “We do already have keyboards, and my brother Matty and I can
both play keyboards. But some of those weird drums sounds mean we do need
invest in some more gear. I don’t want to just shove it on a computer.”
They’re also working up the visual side of things. Each song on Rituals is
accompanied by a symbol (“no, they’re not demonic summonings!”), while the
album packaging features the work of young artist/photographer Wolf James,
specifically her exhibition My Love Is Lethal (“that would have made a great
alternative title for the album”).
Concept, titles, writing, recording, speed, images, sound, vibe: the whole Rituals
package is exactly what James Veck-Gilodi set out to do on Deaf Havana’s fifth
“I wanted to create something drastic,” he states, thrilled at the outcome, “and
not do another middle-of-the-road rock record. I’m up for the hatred from some
fans, and I’m up for gaining new fans. But when fans listen to it, after their initial
terror, I think they’ll realise that the lyrics are as personal and intense as they’ve
always been. And I’ve always written songs with pop structures – I’ve just
masked them in other ways.”
“It’s the first album I’ve made purely for myself,” he concludes. “This is the music
I wanted to make, now, and I haven’t compromised at all. These are the songs I
wanted to write, and the ones I want people to hear.”
Along the way, Deaf Havana has grown from a school band formed purely for fun to leading lights of the UK’s rock underground to a sextet with their eyes fixed firmly on the charts. Out September 16th, the band’s second major release, ‘Old Souls’, is packed with songs that are as pop as they are rock. Strings soar on almost every song, electric guitars are joined by lap steel, mandolin and banjo and there’s even a gospel singer.

Deaf Havana, however, haven’t gone soft. As the band has got bigger (both commercially speaking and size-wise – two new members have joined in the past year), so has their sound. ‘Old Souls’ lead single, ‘Boston Square’, which impacts July 1st, explodes from the speakers with pounding drums and a riff that tips its hat to The Who. By the time the gritty vocal kicks in, you’re there with a sea of bouncing bodies and air-punching fists.

There is a new optimism to the music – the product, partly, of improved production, courtesy of Youth, but also the belief that bigger stages are theirs for the taking – although longtime Deaf Havana fans needn’t worry that, lyrically, James is all smiles. Mostly, he’s still miserable, only now he’s sharper and smarter at describing his down days. He still has his dark sense of humour – the gutsy ‘Subterranean Bullshit Blues’ takes its title, he says, from its bullshit subject matter.

“It’s about relentlessly drinking then feeling guilty about it,” he sighs. “Having been on tour so much, I’m finding it hard not to drink at the moment.”

Alcohol rears its head often on ‘Old Souls’, as do death, growing up and looking back, often with regret. Speeding Cars has the full complement, yet its jubilant hooks somehow make it sound life-affirming. As soon as the couplet “Because I view my life through a telescope/That I built from a bottle and a slippery slope” leaves James’ lips, you can hear it being howled back. Ditto “And I can’t drink to save my life/But I’m holding on for a day that I might”.

‘Old Souls’ was written in the wake of the snowballing success of ‘Fools And Worthless Liars’, Deaf Havana’s major label debut, initially released in late 2011, when it topped the UK rock charts. Four of its singles were playlisted by Radio 1, while a relentless tour schedule – including support slots here and in Europe with the likes of You Me At Six and Feeder– saw the size of their fan base surge. Late last year, a deluxe edition of the album was released, with a second disc featuring all of the songs rerecorded acoustically.

“I stripped the songs down and rearranged them, mostly for my own amusement,” says James. “I adore rock – I grew up on Springsteen and The Smiths – but I also love country and folk. I began playing ukulele and mandolin, although admittedly not very well. I get bored and buy lots of instruments, so I figured I may as well use them.”

The acoustic disc was the first hint that ‘Old Souls’ might move Deaf Havana in a new direction.

“I knew what I didn’t want this album to sound like – an underground rock record,” says James. “We’ve been in that scene and although we enjoyed it, we didn’t want to be stuck there. I’m not being arrogant, but my aim was to write timeless songs. Rather than look to bands around us, I thought about my actual influences – Springsteen in particular, and the sort of classic rock that doesn’t date.”

By the start of this year, thanks to too much touring, James had written only three songs. With a fortnight to go until a studio was booked, the singer locked himself away for a week and emerged with a further ten tracks.
James had unexpected help – from his 19-year-old brother Matthew, a touring guitarist with the band since last year, now a fully-fledged member of Deaf Havana.

“We sat in my house, talking about the boring bit of Norfolk where we grew up, the strange places we went to school and what had happened in our lives,” says James. “Matthew is amazing. I often wonder how he can be so good so young, then I remember that I was 15 when the band formed. Mind you, I only made music because I knew I was useless at everything else.”

In total, seven weeks were spent recording ‘Old Souls’ at Vale Studios in Worcestershire, the first big studio Deaf Havana have been able to afford, with a break in the middle to tour Australia. Lee Batiuk, who had engineered the acoustic recordings, produced, along with Youth, who had overheard the demos and asked to be involved.

“I didn’t know Youth, but we hit it off immediately because we are both big Bukowski fans,” says James, whose vast collection of tattoos includes a Bukowski tribute on his knuckles. “He worked us hard – sometimes until 4 in the morning. He encouraged us to use more strings, which he arranged, and helped to make some of the song structures more pop. He also improved our drummer. God knows what he did to him, but the drumming on this album is incredible.”

Youth also pushed James to dig deeper for his vocals to capture the personal nature of the lyrics. Boston Square was partly inspired by an old school friend who killed himself, while the album’s soulful closing track, Caro Padre (Dear Father in Italian),is the first time James has written about his absent Italian father, whom he hasn’t seen since the age of five.

“I don’t feel like I missed out on anything by not having him around,” says James, “but once in a while, em, I think it might be nice to know him.
Youth says of the band, ‘Deaf Havana are on of the most exciting young bands I’ve ever worked with. James writes lyrics that can make you cry combined with fearless melodies that make these songs modern anthems and their performances give me goose bumps. This album is up there with The Verve and Crowded House as one if the best albums I’ve been fortunate enough to produce and I expect them to take this all the way.’

It is hard to disagree with the anthemic ‘Everybody’s Dancing And I Want To Die’ taking James back to his school days. Inevitably, they don’t sound like much fun. “Cause everybody’s dancing and I don’t feel the same/This room is full of people who barely know my name.”

“That song was partly inspired by school discos,” laughs James. “About me being the only boy who didn’t have a girl to dance with. It’s cheesy and it’s lighthearted, but we moved around a lot when I was little, so I was often in new schools, knowing no one.”

Still, he has plenty to smile about now. Not least supporting his idol this summer.

“Worryingly, I’m not nervous about the Springsteen show,” he says. “But nor I am excited. I guess I just don’t believe it yet. I don’t believe a lot of what’s happened this past year, but it’s starting to sink in.”

$12 Advance / $15 Day of Show


Due to delays in artist visas, the 5/19 Deaf Havana show at MilkBoy has been cancelled. Refunds will be processed at point of purchase.

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