A Grand Achievement

Having nearly shut up shop for good, former members of indie band Hitch decide to get on the creative treadmill once more with new outfit, Grand Blue Heron

Ever since the debut album by Grand Blue Heron arrived at Famous Last Words (FLW), the fascination with this Belgian indie band has been somewhat overwhelming. The initial seduction was down to the detailed pen and ink illustration gracing the album’s cover, depicting four herons coiled tightly together in a manifestation of both innocence and experience. Such an observation applies to the inner contents of Grand Blue Heron’s new long player, where both experience and innocence combine in an effort to drum up new ideas from what has gone before.

Despite this being a new line up, Grand Blue Heron consists of ex-members of highly regarded indie band Hitch, who decided to down tools back in 2011. After some initial consideration however, the need to create was far too great for half of the personnel of the previously mentioned Hitch; namely Paul Lamont and Olivier Wychuyse who decided to call upon the services of Pedro Demeulenaere and Arthur Verschaeve to add fresh input and impetus to the Grand Blue Heron sound.

Hatch

Considering the short timespan from the demise of Hitch and the formation of Grand Blue Heron, there is a genuine sense of a band coming together with the resultant album ‘Hatch’. Such a close camaraderie was likely borne out from many hours locked away in the exotic sounding Château Rocque studio, which just happens to be owned by the band, where one can almost hear the ticking of the thought processes involved, such is the attention to detail and number of sources drawn upon here.

Whether it’s the dense, droning qualities coupled with a space rock sound during some of the tracks, or more direct indie guitar deliveries via the excellent ‘Lip Sweat’ for example, Grand Blue Heron has created an album that is a finely balanced affair of ideas and influences that will make the listener work for their pleasure as well as providing, albeit in smaller doses, more immediate gratification. Such an approach is highly welcome, and one that harks back to an old-school indie sound because, after all, when was indie all about appealing to the mainstream?

With Grand Blue Heron steadying themselves for the release of their debut album next month, Famous Last Words (FLW) was keen to learn more of this promising new band and of the creative processes, as well as the influences, that helped bring their forthcoming long player ‘Hatch’ to life. In true Grand Blue Heron style, band spokesman, Paul Lamont, responded with a detailed set of answers to the questions set.

Where did this all begin for Grand Blue Heron, and what were the initial blueprints for the band?

“We were already bonded together by a different project called TMD, in which we tried to do something with electronics and live drums, but it didn’t progress very fast. It was at this point that we were going to chuck it all in. However, I was offered to do a show with acoustic songs that I’d written the preceding two or three years. Since doing that required a backing band, I asked the guys to help me out on that one and we haven’t looked back since. Having said that, we don’t do the solo stuff I wrote anymore, as we started writing band material pretty soon after the first rehearsals in February 2014.”

Grand Blue Heron (2)

Who do you regard as influences in terms of Grand Blue Heron?

“That’s a bit of a tough one. Basically, we derive what influences creep in after having made a song and after listening to it. It’s only then that we say, ‘Oh, hang on, this vaguely reminds me of this or that …’. We just finished writing a track that we’ll probably use for our next record (if all prevails) that seems to contain hints of Neil Young (him again!), Earth, Pink Floyd, Les Savvy Fav, Parquet Courts, Dead Moon and a number of vaguely recognisable but undefinable bits of music. We do not consciously set out to incorporate a certain influence in our tracks. We always seem to start with one bit, and then it takes a turn into a direction that we did not expect ourselves. That’s a fun way to make songs.”

How would you describe the Grand Blue Heron Sound?

“Well, we are definitely a guitar band, but we do a bit of a weird mix that hints at the seventies and the nineties alike. It’s a weird mix because half the rhythm section does counter-beat stuff that we were used to in the nineties, while the bass lines are very much the laidback groovy things that you could find in seventies rock. The guitars intertwine in a peculiar way too. For example, Arthur [Verschaeve] plays single coil, whereas I play humbuckers. He has a laid back way of playing, whereas I always seem to be hurrying things up and that creates a strange kind of tension. Put all of that together on these obscure amps that we play, mixed with our technical abilities and the stuff that comes through from the music we listen to, and you’ll pretty much arrive at what we sound like. I suppose people will recognize a lot of different things in the sound, but they’ll probably not have heard them a million times before in the way that we seem to combine all of it.”

FLW has read that your debut album was recorded at the Château Rocque. Can you provide some details regarding this recording space?

“We recorded the album in our rehearsal space that we baptised the ‘Château Rocque’ because it’s actually part of an abandoned castle, I kid you not. Since we have three people in the band professionally involved in installing electrical and maintenance systems, it wasn’t that hard to turn the adjacent part of the rehearsal space into a recording booth. So we put in the electricity, set up the computer and recording desk, shoved in a couch, made sure the fridge was stocked and, hey presto, we had ourselves a recording studio.”

How long did the whole recording process take in terms of your album ‘Hatch’?

“We wrote all the tracks (15 to 17 of which 10 ended up on the album) in the space of about six months. Then we recorded and mixed for about four and a half to five months. It wasn’t supposed to take that long because we initially set out to record a demo that we could pass on to people so that we could get some shows in, but the recording became a bit addictive and started to sound beyond what we had set as a goal. And then Jezus Factory [record label] liked what we had at the time (big shout out to those guys here) and suddenly we were talking about a bona fide album.”

Did you experience any frustrating circumstances when recording the album, or was the whole recording experience a relatively smooth process?

“Frustrating circumstances? Hmm…not really, no, but we did learn an awful lot though whilst recording. We had all recorded stuff before, but this was really the first that we did everything from A-Z without anyone from outside the band involved. You make mistakes doing that of course, but they’re the kind of mistakes that make you wiser. Moreover, our recording budget was 0€ at that time, which, at the moment, is still pretty much the state of our account! So you also learn to be creative. The advantage of having your own recording space is that you have the luxury of time, and that’s where it becomes fun because there’s a lot of different things that you can start trying out. The only thing that we didn’t handle ourselves was the mastering because we knew that Jeff White at the Laundromat could do a better job than us. We will probably do it the same way next time, except for maybe the mixing. The reason for this is that mixing your own stuff can drive you nuts! It’s good we had a deadline or we’d probably still be twiddling knobs on the mixing desk right now!”

Do you have a favourite track at the moment from the album ‘Hatch’?

“No favourites, at least not at the moment. I like all of them. Time will tell which ones will stick with us and which will not.  It’s a bit as the mood takes us, and everyone [from the band] has their preferred tracks, but the preference changes from time to time. There’s lots of different things on the album, sometimes even within the scope of one song.”

FLW is very impressed by the entire contents of your album ‘Hatch’, but there are three songs that really appeal right now, for a variety of reasons, and they are ‘Gay Is The Lord’, ‘Bodies of Fire, Suns of Wax’ and ‘Tin Soldier’. Therefore, can you provide some details regarding these three songs in particular?

“Absolutely! Those are very kind words, and we thank you for that (Blushing here! FLW). In no particular order, ‘Tin Soldier’ is a track that I wrote after I heard the disheartening news of an old friend leaving us way, way too soon. He was someone that I respected and liked tremendously. The song, well, I can only hope he would’ve liked it.

‘Bodies of Fire, Suns of Wax’ alludes to the myth of Icarus flying too close to the sun and is an ode to the idea of youthfulness, which is also stated in the song, but not explicitly. For example, going past 40 is not the end of the world. Au contraire, dear pipsqueaks!

‘Gay Is The Lord’ is a phrase that was uttered by Olivier, our drummer, when we were jamming the track. We thought it was so rad that we were planning to make T-shirts with that sentence on it [laughing]. I built a set of lyrics around that in which I try to heckle the hypocrisy of people that interpret their religion a tad too literal. I mean, a great many people seem to want to cling feverishly to religious doctrine without even contemplating keeping an open mind. Take that entire debacle with Kim Davis [A clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, who objects to same-sex marriage and refused licenses to same-sex couples on the grounds of her own religious beliefs]  the last couple of weeks, for instance. And the question we ask is: Would you still serve your god if suddenly they dredge up a Dead Sea Scroll that pretty much states that the big Disney figure in the sky was homosexual? We leave the answer up to the listener. That said, God is black, yes she is. Fact.”

What was the inspiration for the album cover for ‘Hatch’, and who is responsible for the illustration?

“When I started doing the acoustic stuff a couple of years ago, I was looking for a bird name like Swans or the Cranes (apparently the latter wasn’t actually named for the bird species, but we didn’t know) so I chose the Heron. Herons are pretty cool birds, and I suggested putting one on the cover. Pedro, our bass player, then had the good idea to turn it into four heron heads, but since none of us could figure out how to do that in Photoshop, we contacted Pieter Nolf, whom we knew from his band Embers. We’d already seen what he had done for their debut album and asked him if he could come up with a design along the lines of what we suggested. I think I can honestly say that he went beyond our expectations! And just for the record, the only tool he used to do the artwork is a black biro pen which, to me, makes it even more of a feat.”

Grand Blue12

If you could have one thing right now, what would it be and why?

“Let’s see, I think I’m in a great band with a bunch of swell guys, and we all have great families, good jobs and very nice friends, plus we still do what we wanted to do when we were in our twenties. I don’t think anyone wants anything really badly at the moment, apart from a bit more sleep perhaps?”

Is your music about trying to change anything in particular?

“No, the youngest one in the band will reach 40 in December. We’re not going on crusades anymore, and we rarely have in the past. Much of what we do is still more or less along the D.I.Y. lines. We do what we do because after about 25 years of playing, it’s still the magic we’re after. Some of us have worked in the music industry for years, and others were in bands signed to major record labels, so that leaves us with a conviction that it’s probably a cool industry as far as industries go, but there’s too much hot air and stitching-up going on as well, and we’re not about to dip our toes in any deeper than we feel comfortable with. We have sympathy for the independent side of music dealings because that’s the side still in touch with the magic.”

What’s next for Grand Blue Heron?

“The basic idea and goal is to go out and play as much as we can now. Get to know new places and revisit old places. We’re already writing songs for the second album, and we will gladly think over any opportunity coming our way. As a matter of fact, we are so excited about playing our stuff live, that we’d even contemplate playing in the UK. Now, if that isn’t motivation, I really don’t know anything [laughing].”

Grand Blue Heron certainly know a lot of things when it comes to making exciting, engaging indie rock music, with more than a few eccentricities added to its contents that makes for an intriguing listening experience. But it’s also the manner in which this quartet go about their business with, what appears from the outside, a painstaking approach to their creative workings, with a firm eye on the finer details, and, to loosely refer to one of Paul Lamont’s expressions, this is where the magic lies.

Grand Blue Heron’s ‘Hatch’ is worthy of further investigation, and for those old enough to remember when the term ‘indie’ meant something else entirely than the various definitions applied to this label today. Having said that, ‘Hatch’ is not a trip down memory lane, but a strong musical statement that is relevant right now because the previously mentioned indie genre remains in dire need of a major creative injection. This is quite possibly the start.

(Photography & images courtesy of Grand Blue Heron & Pieter Nolf)

FLW - From the Tapes

Paul Lamont of Grand Blue Heron recalls the early days with a memory regarding a rather unusual gig.

“I clearly remember the worst gig we did in the very beginning at a place called Villa Voortman, which is sort of a halfway house for people with mental health problems combined with drug related issues (It sounds like a touch of The Cramps! FLW). It’s a real important place, and we played there alongside the guests they work with. Our show sounded so terrible that the guests came up and asked us if we were nuts playing so loud and with that much treble [laughing]! So you can imagine. This was gig [number] two or three. I switched amps after that one because my ears [and other people’s ears] couldn’t handle it any more. The beautiful thing though, and the thing that struck us, was the music that those guests played [and] backed up by a band. Most of them were covers, but not your average run of the mill kind of covers. There was one guy that did Velvet Underground and ‘In Every Home a Heartache’ by Roxy Music and it was just bone chilling. To me, that was pure music; no form, no ego and just hanging on to the words for dear life. It was an impressive rendition!”

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