We love introducing you to bands that may have slipped under your radar here at Soundscape, so it gives me great pleasure to share with you an instrumental band from The Netherlands, The Howl Ensemble. We caught up with bassist Jason for an in-depth chat and also took the time to review their debut album Prooi. Read it all below!
Can you introduce yourself and tell me a little about the band?
Hi, I’m Jason, bassist for The Howl Ensemble. Although ‘bassist’ is kind of debatable, depending on if you consider a Bass VI a down-tuned baritone or a bass guitar with extra high b and e strings.
Anyway, enough about me and more about the band already! We’re an instrumental math/noise/ post-rock (or you could just say we like to experiment) three-piece from The Hague, The Netherlands centred around the ‘classic’ line-up of guitar/drums/bass (vi) + an ever-growing fleet of spacecraft effects pedals, switching systems, MIDI controllers, soft- and hardware synths, archaic tape, spring or valve-driven units, bows (both wooden and E-), and various other contraptions such as a bicycle wheel with a piezo pick-up duct-taped onto it so you can hit it with a stick and amplify the resulting noise (drummers…).
How did you get started?
The first time we rehearsed (or rather, jammed) was in February of 2013, and from day 1 on we immediately started flooding each other with musical ideas & concepts, some of which ended up on Prooi, while others are still under construction. And additional new material is written by all three band members quite regularly; writers’ block is a non-issue. However, it does take time to turn a basic idea into a finished track, and you really can’t rush the process without risking quality. And if there’s one thing we don’t want to sacrifice, it’s the quality of our compositions.
The goal we initially had was to write original material that didn’t sound like something we’d already heard a thousand times before, and that turned out to be more difficult than it might sound as we all listen to music religiously & in a variety of different styles and genres. But challenging ourselves is an important part of our creative process, as it leads to development and growth, and makes sure we don’t end up writing the same thing over and over and over…
You released your debut album Prooi last year, can you describe your writing and recording process?
Prooi was actually released in summer 2014, although we had no set release date. We uploaded the 5 tracks to Bandcamp in late June, got the CDs in August and by early September we had the LPs delivered to us too, just in time for the gig at our label Katzwijm’s bbq-beer-&-bands-festival (great combination for a festival if you ask me). Before that we only had (& still have) stickers with the logo + our Bandcamp URL on them that we give out gratuitously. Ironically we had no music on Bandcamp for the first two months or so that we gave out the stickers (except for 3 silent mp3’s titled Album, Coming & Soon), but eventually we uploaded an unmastered version of Gunslinger to give people something to listen to.
It might not have been the most representative track, but at the time it was closest to completion as the other tracks still needed to have some issues addressed during the mastering. After the mastering was finished they all sounded great; diverse yet coherent, exactly as intended. We wouldn’t want to write the same song twice and if there’s one thing I definitely wouldn’t want to change for the next album it’s the diversity of the contents.
Concerning recording, all the instrument tracks were recorded by our brilliant drummer/engineer Lesley, partially in a makeshift studio we set up with our own gear in my stepfather’s reattributed toolshed, and partially in rehearsal studios at Haags Pop Centrum (roughly translated, The Hague Center for Popular Music), which is where we rent our regular rehearsal space as well, also with our own equipment. So the recordings were a DIY project, and originally we intended to do the mixing ourselves as well, but after a few unfruitful attempts, we decided to turn to our guitar hero Bart’s close friend & recording engineer/producer Corno Zwetsloot (R.I.P.) for guidance.
After spending two long days with Corno in his studio Next to Jaap in Voorhout, tracks 1-4 were succesfully mixed, and based on Corno’s guidelines we mixed the fifth track ourselves at our rehearsal space. Working with Corno turned out to be a great learning experience, as we definitely plan to reuse some of the methods and equipment used during the mixing of Prooi when the time comes to mix our second release. After mixing was completed Corno’s friend Tammo Kersbergen, a delightful person to work with, mastered the tracks for both digital & analog media. In the end I think I can safely say that everyone involved was very satisfied with the final product.
Were there any tracks that were more of a challenge to get down?
For Bart & Lesley I think the most difficult parts to get down were certain bits of Gunslinger, such as the intro lick & 7/8 blast beat towards the end, but for me it was the part with the arpeggiated triads in Time = Warped, before the chords with the heavy distortion kick in towards the end, for some reason.
As a band Apocalypso was probably the most difficult to record, as we all play in a different time signature on that one, but still felt the need to record it live (with obvious overdubs added later on). As a result, we’ve never played that song live. Yet…
Which track are you most proud of?
Hmm, that’s a difficult question. I guess personally I would say Howl, because so many different things happen in it’s 9-minute duration, but the others might disagree. It’s also not necessarily my favourite track, but asking which one would be is an even harder question to answer.
I think what I’m most proud over-all of is the fact that we didn’t stop developing the songs after the recordings. A lot of bands try desperately to duplicate their studio sound on stage or their live sound on a recording, but we deliberately decided to take two slightly different approaches instead. So by now, when you see us play the first four tracks live you’d recognize them as the tracks on the album but would also notice some variations on the given themes. In our opinion this keeps things fresh and makes It worthwhile to listen to both the recorded album and to come see us play those (and other) songs live.
Any interesting tales from the studio?
Most of the highlights I’ve already mentioned above, but one thing immediately comes to mind: on the first day in the studio, Lesley was setting up some essential equipment (such as his dedicated DAW laptop and audio interface, to name a few) on a table in the toolshed/studio, when the table collapsed and everything on it fell to the floor… Luckily, nothing was damaged.
What has been your best experience in the business?
I think my best experience in the business is being in a band where all members can experiment on their given instrument, have an outlet for creative expression, where everything is debatable and nothing is off-limits, where composition and improvisation meet, and everyone has a common goal: to write, perform and record original and diverse material.
Also, working with various guest musicians has been great. It turned out to sound much, much better than I had dared to hope when we first started talking about the idea of adding additional musicians from time to time. Who knows, maybe we’ll even perform as The Howl Orchestra at some point…
And what’s the hardest thing about being in the business?
Getting your name and music out there when you don’t play very accessible, radio-friendly top-40 pop music. Music on hit radio stations seems blander than ever nowadays. And when you tell random people you’re in an instrumental band and thus don’t have a catchy chorus they can sing along to, most of them don’t seem to get why anyone would even want to make music without singing in it. Oh well, I guess they don’t know what they’re missing.
When it comes to live shows, what can fans expect from them?
Loudness. Seriously, bring some earplugs.
That, and diversity. Improvisation plays a bigger part in our live shows than on the album, so while the tracks stay recognizable, things can and will be different from the studio versions. And occasionally we bring guest musicians, not always announced beforehand, to change things up even more. We are an experimental band, after all.
What is the best show you’ve ever played?
The one at State-X New Forms festival in December last year was most probably the best show we’ve ever played so far. We had 4 musical guests join us on stage to add an extra layer of, dare I say this about my own music, awesomeness. They all put on an outstanding performance and the crowd’s response was very positive. We’re definitely going to collaborate with all of them again in the future when we play a venue that has enough room on-stage for all those musicians; during a regular bar gig the three of us already have enough trouble fitting all of our own equipment on there.
The backstage catering at State-X was great as well. We love good food.
And perhaps the strangest or weirdest?
Last November, our friend Sander (who occasionally plays vibraphone with us) helped find befriended band Alright the Captain a gig in Tours, France to fill up their tour schedule, and we joined as opening band because it seemed like a lot of fun to do a show with AtC in France with Sander playing vibraphone with us and everything. So, we wrote vibraphone parts for a few of our songs, planned extra rehearsals with Sander to get them down, arranged a van so we could bring a full backline, and come gig day we enthusiastically drove 750km (yes, one-way) to play the show in Tours.
For 20 people.
If you could collaborate with any artist or musician, who would it be?
Some Norwegians instantly come to mind: Jaga Jazzist’s members, Shining’s Jørgen Munkeby, and the guys in Motorpsycho all seem interesting to work with. And from the US people like Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth’s members, the people in Tortoise, and Steve Albini could be cool to collaborate with. Oh, and if someone could resurrect Frank Zappa that would without a doubt be the best thing ever.
And Holger Czukay’s tape experiments, like the ones on Can’s Tago Mago album, probably wouldn’t look out of place on one of our albums either.
Closer to home we are already collaborating with some great musicians whom join us on stage occasionally, such as at the aformentioned State-X New Forms gig; sax player Otto Kokke (Dead Neanderthals, Mannheim), trombonist Rutger van Driel (Lärmschutz), drummer-turned-vibraphonist Sander van Elferen (Dead Market, Temple Renegade), and synthesist/electronics guy (or as I call him, Noiseman) Michael Polane (Rumatov). And occasionally we’ve also had my close friend & aspiring writer Sascha Luinenburg join on-stage to recite part of the beginning of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, during the break in the song of the same name that usually utilizes a sample of Ginsberg reading the poem.
And finally what is The Howl Ensemble’s plans for 2015?
We hit the stage again in February after taking a break from gigging in January to focus on writing new material. We also had some logo t-shirts printed recently and our friends over at Little L Records in Ireland are planning a cassette release of Prooi if all goes according to plan. The biggest & probably the most important goal for 2015 is to finish writing and start recording the material for our second album. And of course we want to do more live shows this year than last year. As we speak we’re trying to book a short UK tour in March/April, and who knows where else we might play, we’re generally open to a lot of things.
As far as instrumental music goes, it’s all too easy to stick it on as background music and go about your business without taking it in properly, but The Howl Ensemble’s debut album Prooi is different. It isn’t an album you should pay full attention to; it simply grabs your attention right away and demands it.
Although it’s only five tracks in duration, it’s a substantial listen and really flows well from song to song. Whilst each song is its own individual piece, Prooi also sounds like one continuous track, but that is by no means a bad thing because you can really tell the amount of thought that has gone into the structure and ordering of the album – quite simply, it just works.
A particular highlight of Prooi is middle track Gunslinger, which has this great ‘squealing’ guitar tone to it and the introduction is simply magnificent. The shortest track of the album by some margin, it’s hard-hitting and gets straight to the point, and is one of those songs that will get your foot tapping along in no time. Another great inclusion is closer Apocalypso, a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde track as it starts with noisy guitars and then instantly drops down into a decidedly more ambient and gentle tone; it’s an unexpected and brave move to take, but it really pays off for the band and results in an all-round engaging listen that keeps you on your toes because you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next!
As a whole, Prooi is a great little listen that is brimming with potential – it’s exciting to think where this band will go with their next album, to say the least.
The band’s current list of UK dates run as follows, so make sure you check them out if you’re in the area!
April 24: The Bird’s Nest, London
April 25: Poco Loco, Chatham (with UpCDownC)
April 26: The Hope & Ruin, Brighton (with Polymath)