Deaf Havana: An Interview

Hunstanton has never been referred to as the Nashville of the East Midlands, but it’s responsible for breeding one of the most exciting bands around. Having met at College in King’s Lynn, Deaf Havana’s early work owed more to the post-punk and hardcore movements than their recent tracks suggest. After 8 years and a couple of personnel changes, their sound has mellowed and developed into something altogether more thoughtful. After years of self-producing EPs, they were signed by A Wolf at Your Door Records in 2008. They soon attracted the attention of major labels and won a contract with BMG in 2011.

Fresh from supporting the likes of Muse and Bruce Springsteen, the remainder of 2013 is set to be an exciting time for the boys from Norfolk. Following the release of new album ‘Old Souls’ in September, they go on tour in October. We caught up with them in the relative tranquillity of St. John’s Wood to discuss their Norfolk roots, opening Reading Main Stage and brotherly love:

Was there a dream when Deaf Havana began?

Tom: It started as a covers band doing these awful, soppy little covers. We honestly didn’t think anything would come of it; we were playing a few gigs out of town.

James: I guess we never really thought about it, did we? We literally started it because we were bored; we lived in the middle of nowhere, we had nothing else to do. I don’t think we ever thought even past playing in Ryan’s bedroom a couple of years ago.

Tom: We did a tour of Norfolk. That was about as far as I thought we’d go.

James: Obviously, as you progress and it becomes a bit more serious, you do have dreams. You want to be on the cover of that (points at a copy of NME on the table). But at the start, not really.

You mentioned where you’re from, which, from the songs you’ve written about Hunstanton, clearly means a lot to you – does it remain an important place, even when you’re touring the world?

 James: For me it does, especially when I go back there, which is not very often these days. I’m not actually from there but I spent the key years of my life, like 11 to 18, there which is when you discover who you are. I guess it helped shape me into the weirdo that I am. But it’s a bit different for Tom, because he didn’t actually live there.

Tom: I live like half an hour away. When I first met these guys, I used to hang out there quite a lot but I didn’t really know them until I was 18.

http://open.spotify.com/track/4ZaElTq1ZqcaHdeA2eoP2E

You’ve now been signed to BMG records for 2 years, have you noticed a significant change in the way you operate since signing with them?

James: We’ve got a lot more freedom now, which is strange (laughing) when you’re signed to a major. We’ve always done stuff ourselves quite a lot and it hasn’t really changed, no-one’s interfering or anything.

Tom: They seem to know what they’re doing so we kinda let them get on with it. And they let us get on with the creating music side of things. I don’t know what the label does really. Printing, promoting, whatever; occasionally give us a bit of money. All for that!

In May, ‘Boston Square’ was named Zane Lowe’s ‘Hottest Record in the World.’ When you look back at your careers so far, does it often feel like a series of individual achievements, rather than a continuous journey?

James: That’s a good question. For me personally, I see it as a whole, one journey. But I guess we’re all different. It’s all relative though. If you’d told me that that would have happened like 4 years ago, I’d have shat myself. You get used to these things and it becomes more normal. Well, not normal, but there are things you think will be amazing but often aren’t. Opening Reading Main Stage (2012) I thought was going to be like some euphoric, life changing experience. It wasn’t. It was good, but it was just a gig. Those things that you think are going to be massive milestones aren’t as big as you think they’ll be.

Tom:  We feel like we learnt a lot from it. If we weren’t to get things like that, we’d question who’s working for us. I see it kind of the same as James, when we do certain things like that, it is a tick for me. But it’s not mind-blowing.

James: Everyone I’ve spoken to says that as well. It’s something you appreciate more when you look back on it, in retrospect.

Tom: If we were like 18 and played 4 gigs before in pubs and then someone said you’re doing Reading Main Stage; that would be mental. And bad.  There’s only so many bad covers you can play!

James: I think it all just comes with it and, for me, it’s one sort of journey.

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You’ve supported a number of bands from a huge range of styles and genres, such as The Cure, Bruce Springsteen, Muse, Enter Shikari. Does that variety say something about your own music?

James: I guess our older stuff is more in that Enter Shikari scene; not the same genre but you know what I mean. Later we’ve started to get a lot more like Muse, Bruce Springsteen, and stuff like that. That’s more the market I want to be going into, obviously. I guess that just shows how the song-writing has changed. For me personally, it feels like we’re writing songs that we should have been writing the whole time.

Tom: I think the newer gigs we’ve been getting are what I’d like to keep getting. They’re like really respected, big rock bands. What I want us to be really.

If you could resurrect any artist or band to tour with, who would it be?

James: Jeff Buckley

Tom: Mr. (Johnny) Cash

Matt: Nirvana

Tour Manager: I haven’t got a clue. Tupac. No, Biggie.

Being brothers, James and Matthew have known each other for the longest time. Does this change the dynamic when touring?

James: Not really…

Tom (interrupting): There is some sort of brotherly arguing that goes on. Like last night, James was going ‘oh why are you so drunk? Why are you so drunk?’

James: Well who gets that pissed and falls asleep on the table?

Tom: But it’s the same as I have with my brother, so yeah.

Matt: It is always just stuff like that, stupid little stuff. I mean, we can be the Gallaghers if you like. We could work that in.

Tour Manager: You also look after each on tour though, don’t you?

Matt: No!

Tour Manager: You’ll deny it but there is a little bit of looking after each other I’d say. They secretly love each other.

Matt: Hey, that’s no secret, boy!

Tour Manager: And they say I’m gay…

Every band has a different process when it comes to song-writing. What can you tell us about yours?

James: I always spend ages trying to write songs and I can’t write anything for like a year. And then I’ll just write the majority of the album in like 2 weeks. It always works like that. Also, I don’t know if this is necessarily the correct way to do it but I don’t really like it when everyone tried to have their input; it’s too many opinions. So, the way we do it is: either me and Tom or me and Matty will write the actual songs and then play them and everyone can do what they want on them. But we write the bulk of the actual song. I think it just works best when it’s less people; there can be too many people and it gets muddled.

Tom: Yeah, too many cooks and all that.

Matt: It just gets muddled. The songs we have written together are not as good I don’t think. For us, it works that way but obviously other bands do it completely differently. For me it’s quick, efficient and more concentrated. They’ve got a clear direction, whereas when there’s so many people putting in an opinion and their different slants on it, it does get a bit confused.

(On Tuesday, 13th August 2013, Deaf Havana performed an acoustic showcase at House of Wolf, Islington)

On Tuesday night, there were a few songs that you (James) said you’d initially written for just acoustic guitar and vocals, before translating them for the whole band. Does this happen often?

James: Yeah, almost every single song. I don’t even have an electric guitar so almost all of them start on an acoustic guitar. And I think, for me, it’s also like a tester. If it’s a good song for me and 1 guitar, I think it’s going to be a better song when you put it in a whole band setting, in most cases. 9 times out of 10 that’s the case.

Preparing for that gig on Tuesday, we googled it and couldn’t find anything. What was the deal?

James: No idea. I think there were like 30 competition winners. They won a competition to go and then the rest of it was just press and radio people. But we’re so unorganised; we never know what’s going on so we just turned up and played.

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Looking ahead to Reading & Leeds, you’re back! Who are you most excited about playing alongside?

Tom: Foals. Their new album’s one of my favourites.

James: I don’t know, I’ve barely seen the line up. Is there one in here (looking at the copy of NME once again)?

Matt: I’m just a bit upset that, they way it works with timing, we can’t see Nine Inch Nails and they’re my favourite band ever. As for playing alongside, the fact that we’re on the same stage as Johnny Marr is a pretty big one for me and James because he’s probably, well certainly my favourite guitarist ever. He’s definitely one of James’ too so that’ll be cool.

You said that opening the Main Stage last year wasn’t quite the experience you were anticipating. Is appearing on a slightly smaller, more intimate stage something you’re looking forward to?

James: Yeah, I am, I think it’ll be more fun. The only reason that that was the case was because you build it up so much. You think ‘oh god, playing the main stage, it’s so big.’ But the truth is, once you get up there it doesn’t look that big from the stage. I don’t know why that is; when you look at photos, it’s huge. But when you’re actually up there, for some reason, it doesn’t look that big and it’s not like a life changing experience, do you know what I mean?

Tom: Last year especially, I was stressing out, like saying ‘oh, we can’t get messed up the night before, we can’t do that, got to be on time, can’t have fun afterwards because we’ve got a big gig tomorrow.’ I definitely didn’t treat it this way. This year, I’m just going in to do what we do, instead of thinking about it so much. Just treat it like another show.

The new album, ‘Old Souls,’ is out later this year and you’re touring in October. Is it too soon to be talking about future plans?

James: In terms of songs, nothing. We literally finished recording it 2 or 3 months ago. I think we’re just going to try and branch out to as many different countries as we can with it and see what happens.

Tom: The album is released September 16th. We’ll see how it goes down and go from there. But no more songs as of yet. We’re touring in October, ending in the Roundhouse (Camden) which should be fun.
http://open.spotify.com/track/1SKFODiSoOmpy9xDdVZ8cr

‘Old Souls’ is released in the UK on BMG Chrysalis on September 16th 2013. For tickets for their October tour, click here. You can keep up to date with the band via their website, Facebook or Twitter.

They’re due to play the NME/BBC Radio 1 Stage on Saturday (Reading) and Sunday (Leeds). Check out our guide for this day here.

Author: Tim Higgins

CFO/Music Correspondent Tim spends every moment he possibly can going to gigs and loves finding small venues with a great atmosphere.