Hell is for Heroes revisit their debut album ‘The Neon Handshake’ with a brief tour supporting Hundred Reasons. Just don’t expect a permanent reunion.
This truly is the end. Four close-knit friends sit in front of me pondering their past and, to a certain extent, their future after downing tools at the end of another rehearsal in what can only be described as resembling an aircraft hangar of some proportions. Any moment now, Kelly McGillis will enter the room to brief the troops on their next assignment, which is a forthcoming tour supporting fellow compatriots Hundred Reasons, as both bands get ready for one last jaunt on the live circuit.
Hearing one of the doors to the giganotosaurus-sized room swing open behind us and footsteps quickening at a gathering rate, the aforementioned briefing is about to take place only it’s Tom O’Donoghue, fifth member and component of post-hardcore unit Hell is for Heroes, tray of coffees in hands to help pep up the troops and boost morale before the final push over the top.
With said briefing finally issued, Hell is for Heroes will perform the entirety of their debut album ‘The Neon Handshake’ to several adoring audiences before parting, once more, to resume their present occupations. But when exactly was this decision made as FLW, along with hordes of adoring fans, was under the impression that this five-piece were merely on a lengthy hiatus?
“Yeah, loads of bands don’t say split up anymore, they just say indefinite hiatus, which makes it sound like they will get back together! I think we said the same to show to people that we hadn’t fallen out or anything, but we had kind of run our course as we were all reaching thirty with nothing to show for it,” says guitarist, and very affable, Will McGonagle.
This affirmation regarding a definite split in the band and, more notably, a heavy sense of underachievement comes as a surprise due to the band’s three, highly regarded albums littered with king-sized melodies. For such evidence, then look no further than the gang mentality of ‘Five Kids Go’ or the guitar-driven melody of ‘Night Vision’ from ‘The Neon Handshake’, to the rawer nerve endings of ‘Kamichi’ and thunderous rhythm of ‘Folded Paper Figures’ from ‘Transmit Disrupt’. Need I go on?
“I felt like I was lagging behind people in real life, do you know what I mean? I thought, s***! I need to earn a weekly wage,” continues Will. “It’s kind of hard to explain to your friends and family because it feels like a massive imposition on your loved ones if you’re living with your girlfriend and then pissing off for two or three months and coming back just as skint as you were before you left. Then you’ve got three months off to decide whether to find a job or to write some songs for the next album. I imagine that people just want you to pull your weight in life, and that’s kind of how I felt about things.”
“We couldn’t really afford to do another album, so that forced our hand a little bit as well. So if we couldn’t do another album, then we wouldn’t be able to tour,” adds jovial bassist James Findlay.
With the eponymously titled third and final album being released in 2004, to much critical acclaim, there was no indication emanating from the Hell is for Heroes camp that the end was in sight. Therefore, did the band realise that they were on the throes of calling it quits during the recording of ‘Hell is for Heroes’ and ensuing tour?
“I think we were all aware it was going to be our last record before we even recorded it. So we just tried to make it a nice thing to do, even if it ended up not sounding amazing to anyone else,” explains Will. “It was quite an easy record to make and quite a pleasurable experience just down the road from our houses. We felt totally in control of what we wanted to do, and therefore carved out our own positive experience.”
“I don’t think it was a sudden thing because we were slowing down,” comments Justin Schlosberg after some considerable thought. “I was ill a lot, and we were all drinking too much and it was becoming boring. Now that we’ve had the time out, and we have got our own lives outside of the band, it all feels good again. You can’t really develop a life outside of the band until you actually stop for a bit. Even if you’re not doing anything, and you’ve got the time off, you’re always thinking about the next tour or the next album. But once we just stopped thinking about the next anything, then we were able to get on with our lives and come back and do it for the right reasons.”
In hindsight, perhaps it was the right decision to call it a day as the band went out on a high due to the positive reactions regarding your third album. Do you agree?
“Yeah, definitely,” replies the more aloof Tom O’Donoghue. “I felt our final shows, certainly at Bush Hall, were one of my favourite things we have probably ever done actually. It was a good atmosphere and such a nice place to end it in town, and all our friends and family were there. It felt good, and a good place to put a full stop.”
Let us rewind a little here and go back to the main crux of this story which is, ‘The Neon Handshake’. As mentioned earlier, Hell is for Heroes intend to recreate history, as well as tweak a guitar line or two due to hearing something new in these old recordings, by reliving the twelve songs which introduced the band to the world…well, the UK at least. Such an idea has become rather fashionable in the present state of the music industry as countless bands have reformed and are reliving the past through moments of brilliance, or not so brilliant, yet adhering to the wishes of fans as well as appeasing the demands of the bank manager. The same cannot be said of Hell is for Heroes because it was more an issue of coercion in order to coax this gang of five into life and breathe new energy into their back catalogue, which has been lying dormant for approximately ten long years.
After much persuasion from their soon-to-be touring partners, Hundred Reasons, Will, Tom, Joe, James and Justin decided to blow off the cobwebs of ‘The Neon Handshake’ and re-enter the live arena for one last time. It is not difficult to comprehend any reluctance on their behalf in terms of entering a world clearly they have no desire to be a part of anymore. In addition, revisiting a collection of songs no matter how strong the material is, and whatever good times were had, attitudes and opinions have surely changed since the album’s initial release. Therefore, it seems appropriate to ask the band how they feel about revisiting ‘The Neon Handshake’.
“I think it was the most fun we had as a band. It was exciting times, and EMI had put a lot of faith in us, and a lot of money behind us, and the world was our oyster at that time. So it was exciting and new,” recollects drummer Joe Birch. “We went down to this cottage in Brighton, which basically was a 15th century building and it had a massive outhouse to sit in and we had our own bar, pool table and the instruments of course! It just felt like we were on this extended holiday, with something to show for it at the end of it, as we spent three months in LA recording, and a month in Sweden mixing the album. So it was like this big period of excitement. Also, LA is better in January than in Acton!”
“I think even a couple of years ago we wouldn’t have done it,” says Will looking at the rest of his band members for reassurance. “Whenever we were a full-time band, we were kind of embarrassed to look back on things, as we always had quite a forward thinking vibe. Whereas now, because there has been such a gap, it feels like it could be fun due to no major constraints.”
“In terms of a musical sense, relistening to that album, there is actually quite a lot going on with quite a few guitar parts in there,” comments Tom on the band’s debut album. “What’s been interesting this time around, is trying to pick some of those guitar parts out that I didn’t the first time around.”
“I was a bit worried as they were written a long time ago, and we were all pretty young. But actually it has been alright [rehearsing] as to me it feels strangely normal playing the songs again,” says a rather enthusiastic Justin.
Did it feel as if EMI were more like an indie record label in terms of how they handled the band and, of course, ‘The Neon Handshake’?
“Credit to EMI actually, because essentially they have backed all of our decisions in terms of who we were going to work with and how the record was going to sound. So they said, ‘Just go and do it’. There were certainly fights, but in the end we kind of prevailed,” explains Tom through sips of his coffee.
“They [EMI] were suggesting really big expensive rock producers, which was nice of them because they wanted us to make a great big record, but whenever we said who we wanted to record it – two Swedish producers who had produced hardcore albums such as Refused’s – EMI didn’t say, ‘Oh, bloody hell!’ It was more a case of, ‘Let’s work out how much this costs and see if we can do it’.”
Such a positive attitude from a major record label must have been refreshing to hear at that point in time?
“Yeah, that was nuts really!” exclaims Will. “By the time it had come to making our second album, the atmosphere had definitely changed, as such a positive attitude from EMI was definitely a ‘Neon Handshake’ vibe. I remember that they asked us to try different things on the second album, which we were not comfortable doing.”
Did you ever feel let down by the music industry after the first album, due to the high expectations for the ‘Neon Handshake’?
“We were never cut out for big music industry business in every sense of that phrase,” comments Justin. “For some reason, people at some point decided to spend lots of money on us and we kind of accepted it gladly, but we never really saw ourselves as being a huge rock band, as a lot of our favourite bands were never that big anyway. I was not that down about it as it wasn’t really for us. There is that music industry scene that you can become immersed in, and you suddenly forget that there is a world outside of it. Certainly, I look back on some of my personal experiences in the band and think that I was kind of caught up in it.”
With no imminent plans for a deluxe version of ‘The Neon Handshake’ to be released – “I don’t think EMI is interested!” (James Findlay) – the rest of the Hell is for Heroes story is one of a period of downhill misery during the recording of ‘Transmit Disrupt’, followed by a resurgence in fortunes mainly due to band friendships being reignited and a sense of proper ownership with final offering, ‘Hell is for Heroes’. But perhaps those initial seeds of doubt, arising during ‘The Neon Handshake’, regarding their position in the wider scheme of things, cemented the band’s (mis)fortunes in the long run as Justin Schlosberg explains:
“A lot of it [‘Models for the Program’] was to do with the circumstances we were going through during this period, but there was that whole thing when we were in LA [‘Neon Handshake’] as I think it was quite a formative time in terms of our identity as a band, whereby part of that was the complete freedom and fun we were having, and part of it was also a sense of being almost in this ‘scene’ at The Roxy and Troubadour and all these legendary venues. Also, there were all these very good looking people who were either desperate to be famous or desperate to hold on to their fame. I think we felt that we didn’t quite fit in, so I think some of that crept into the music on the second album.”
With the wheels seriously derailing during the transition from ‘The Neon Handshake’ to ‘Transmit Disrupt’, as a result of record company politics and general disagreements threatening to destroy longstanding friendships and everything the band had steadily built up through sheer hard toil, Hell is for Heroes definitely caught a dose of ‘difficult’ second album syndrome to the point whereby lead singer Justin Schlosberg only offers, “Blocked it out!” in response to questions concerning this corrosive period.
“The EMI days for the first album were great because we could do pretty much what we wanted. So it [‘Transmit Disrupt’] wasn’t as much fun, and it was a lot of hard work. But as Justin said, a lot of things get blocked out as there is not much worth remembering,” reflects Joe Birch.
“We had started writing the songs whilst still on EMI, as we hadn’t been dropped, but the intention was to write another album and EMI wanted one which was going to sell more than the first album,” recollects Will. “But they kept on sending us back to write more and more songs and, I don’t know, but we were just tinkering with our own s*** a lot, as we were kind of second-guessing ourselves sometimes. We built this massive portfolio of stuff, which EMI were not going to use, but by the end of that we definitely had had enough. We felt that if we didn’t go straight in and start recording it, we were going to drown as a band. EMI were dragging their feet about recording it, so we asked them if we could go and do it ourselves, which they were happy to let us do. So it was an overnight thing where the day we left EMI we booked flights and went to Sweden and went back to the same producers and their studio. A couple of the songs were written in Sweden, but we were constantly arguing because we weren’t really settled in terms of what we wanted to do. We were arguing the whole time, it was f****** horrible really! We were constantly horrible to each other because we all had our own ideas of what the album should be, but none of us agreed on what that could be. The fact that it came out, and we stuck together and went on tour, was a small victory in itself. Then that led to the third album being the vibe that it was and we just stopped taking it so f****** seriously,” he finishes exasperatedly.
Considering the inner band turmoil present throughout ‘Transmit Disrupt’, FLW is of the opinion that the band’s second album definitely holds up in terms of quality and consistency. If anything, ‘Transmit Disrupt’ is the sound of a band screaming out, wounds open and raw, and for that reason it resonates with a painful honesty.
“I think it’s the best album we could’ve made at the time really,” comments Joe Birch straight off the blocks. “I think there are some real choice moments, which surprised us when we finished due to the situation we were all in. Looking back on it now, I think we did quite well as it’s one of those albums which is a slow burner and people say that they come back to it.”
“We definitely got our best video out of it for ‘Kamichi’,” is the best response one can hope for from Justin Schlosberg, who is still clearly at odds with ‘Transmit Disrupt’.
“Objectively speaking, I think it’s quite a good record but because it was such a weird atmosphere for us, that whenever you look back on it, it’s associated with the atmosphere of that time. People probably take completely different things from every song on ‘Transmit Disrupt’ because they didn’t make it with us. If they had made it with us, they would have f****** hated it because the experience would’ve been hanging around five mean b*******!” finishes Will as the whole place erupts with laughter.
Sounding like a huge weight had been lifted from their collective shoulders, Hell is for Heroes somehow managed to regroup and refocus after ‘Transmit Disrupt’, even after Burning Heart issued a new lease of life for the album only to pull the rug from under their feet due to financial difficulties of their own, which saw the band find a home with Golf Records who issued their third, and final album.
As general fatigue begins to creep in due to a lengthy day of rehearsals and the band still not quite up to match fitness, FLW is curious to learn whether Hell is for Heroes has any inkling to record new material, despite the assertion at the beginning of this interview that this really is the end of the road for this five-piece.
“I doubt it, as it’s not even been suggested amongst the five of us,” says James Findlay laughing after I am greeted with a deathly silence due to the obvious absurdity of such thinking.
“You can sense the burning ambition here!” jokes Joe Birch.
I comment that the band must be very content with their lives.
“I think the fun in doing this, is that there is nothing beyond the gigs that we’re performing, and there is no pressure, as we have these gigs coming up where we are going to knock out some old tunes and that’s it,” continues James Findlay.
So there is no great surge of creativity and desire to give it one more try?
“It’s nice to come back and visit this, but it’s just such an undertaking. Maybe if we all didn’t have to spend the whole week working. Also, the logistical reasons would be a massive part for not doing it,” concludes Will.
“We were pretty adamant at one point that we would never do a show again. I suppose things can change, but writing is a whole other step and a much bigger one,” responds Justin.
“The fact that all the shows are sold out is great, but it’s a nostalgia thing. So we’re going to enjoy playing some sold-out shows instead of going back to struggling again, as there is no point,” comments James.
With one last throw of the dice, maybe the lure of a wealthy record label could coax them out of retirement?
“I can only do weekends, and how much? I think it will take quite a bit of cash!” deadpans Tom O’Donoghue.
You can sense the burning ambition here!”
Joe Birch, Hell is for Heroes
FLW - From the Tapes
With a self-penned book gearing up for publication from Hell is for Heroes’ Justin Schlosberg, it seems appropriate to ascertain what books, if any, the band is currently reading.
“I have just finished a Rory Stuart book [‘The Places In Between’] about this guy who walks across Afghanistan with his dog and talking about militias and stuff like that. He’s a politician and seems to have quite good convictions and generally a solid fella. He was the Governor in Iraq of some sort of area of Fallujah and he was talking about how they were trying to reassemble the country post invasion. A bit of light reading before you go to bed!” Joe Birch
“It’s a book about the media and it’s not fiction and is quite political. The book is coming out on Pluto Press who publish a lot of progressive, socialist type of stuff. But in terms of fiction, I read a book called ‘Essays in Love’ by Alain de Botton and is basically about the complete pointlessness of relationships, which is interesting as I am actually getting married next month!” Justin Schlosberg
“The last book I read was the Keith Richards autobiography. There was nothing which you didn’t already know, apart from what little regard he has for his children as he left one of his kids with a roadie for six months while he went off on tour! But I really like autobiographies of rock stars.” Will McGonagle
“I’m having a bit of an Orson Welles period, watching a lot of the films and reading a good biography called ‘Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles’. He started big and couldn’t get a break actually!” Tom O’Donoghue