“I always like to think of songs in the context of an album as family members. You have songs that have brothers or sisters and are close, and some that have second cousins or distant relatives. They all belong to the same family but some are very different to one another.” Alessandro Gigante, or Alex, is telling me about the debut album from his band, House Of Hats, which is called This Love. The Brighton based combo’s imminent release starts and finishes with different versions of the title song, which gives the impression of a linking theme. Well as you can see it transpires, things aren’t quite so simple and the same may also be said of House Of Hats full stop. Luckily Alex is on hand to help me get my head straight.
On the surface the Hats are a slick acoustic outfit with a nice line in close harmonies and a nifty way with a tune too. The initial impression is of a lush sound, easy on the ear, but as nicely as it all glides by, rather like a swan, you’re aware that there’s a lot going on underneath. Both musically and lyrically This Love starts to stack up as a work of surprising complexity, beautiful playing and sublime singing.
Once more I also find myself thinking about the album format. The way we listen to music is changing and the idea of a band delivering 10 or a dozen tracks that you sit down and listen to in the sequence chosen by the artist is supposedly on the wane. If that’s true then the backlash has already started here, because CDs like this are proof of the joys of doing just that and the perfectly judged 35 odd minutes of This Love is so little time to give. What else would you be doing that’s better?
The other great thing here is that what you get on the CD is pretty much what you’ll see and hear when they play live. There’s a gig imminent at London’s Slaughtered Lamb that I’m very much looking forward to, after a previous attempt to catch them was blighted by a night so ineptly conceived by the venue and organisers that a Bruce Banner moment was only narrowly avoided. It was not the Hats fault and they eventually took their turn with a modest professionalism, which immediately won them my respect. But that said, I still had to turn and run three songs into their set, with only just enough time to catch the last train, leaving behind the steam of my own locomotion, as it belched from my ears.
Still, the similarity between what I heard that night and the CD is no coincidence as Alex explains, “We wanted to get the record and our live show as close as possible. This is something that we will always try to achieve, in an ideal world we would love to record our future records live.” I wondered if the album was pretty well mapped out before recording began and he acknowledges, “The making of the album is a real reflection of our journey so far. All of the songs apart from two (Joanne and This Love alt), were written and arranged – For quite a few of the songs, we already had basic recordings that we embellished for the album.”
I remind Alex that they started the set with a cover and a very good one at that. He tells me, “We actually wanted to record a cover song to put on the album, but it was one of those things we just couldn’t make happen! We have been performing our version of Dylan’s One More Cup of Coffee for a while now and love the song so much. Maybe we will get to record it in the future.”
But turning back to the Hats originals he continues, “We have always had a strong sense of what defines our sound and I think the core of it will always be our vocals and the way we sing together. For this album our producer Pete helped us to bring a bit of consistency to the sound of the record and also encouraged us to use our harmonies a lot more than we had been.”
The Pete in question is Grammy winning producer Pete Smith. He’s not the sort of guy you’d expect to bump into down at the shops except, “I met Pete while I was working in a mobile phone shop in Brighton! I knew who he was – a friend of mine had recorded some songs with him,” Alex informs me. “He would come in quite often and I would always try to sneak him a few freebies here and there! We became good friends but it wasn’t until a few years later that he came to see House of Hats, loved it and we started talking about working together on the album.
“Pete is a real ball of energy! He brought a lot of creativity to the album and really tied it together with his vision. I remember when we were recording Joanne in our home studio and we didn’t have a drummer / percussionist, Pete made us create the whole rhythm section by stamping, hitting things and scratching surfaces!” In fairness to Pete it shows in the outcome and therein lies what is different between this silver disc and what they will do live. There’s no big production statement, just a crisp and highly detailed sound. Things periodically emerge from the mix to nudge the synapses and spike the emotional weight of the words.
Joanne actually makes and early claim as a favourite and in fact sets up a sequence of three songs that if I was going to pull this album into its constituent songs, would be the first three onto the playlist. The others are Gold and Home Is Where The Heart Is. As a trio of songs, they represent different facets of the Hats sound, but are also distinctively House Of Hats and are brimful with what is good about this band. Still plucking out songs individually still seems wrong as they do all seem to belong together and in sequence add up to more than the sum of the parts. It could be said that King Of The Average Pace (great title), Rivers Will Run and Right Behind You pull off the same trick, with all having memorable, hummable tunes.
I ask Alex about the songwriting and he reveals, “We write individually and collectively. Most of the collaboration is between me and Noddy. I think we share something very rare in that we understand each others creativity completely. Quite a few of the songs start with Noddy having an opening lyric and melody and I instinctively know what she wants to say and where the song should go and normally its very different to what I would write on my own. When we wrote No Man I remember Noddy saying she wanted to write a song about nobody seeing you, like if you were on fire and nobody gave you a second glance. As soon as she played me the opening melody, the song was finished within an hour. This happened a lot for our debut album.”
Although the band hasn’t been together long, their chemistry suggests deeper bonds, which Alex confirms “Me, James Kuszewski and Nod (a.k.a Noddy but really Al Anoud Al Omran, the female voice of the band), met at a music college in Brighton about 8 years ago. We quickly became part of the same local gigging circuit and supported each other. Rob and me are brothers, he moved to Brighton when I bought him a bass guitar and got him to join my band without him knowing how to play! It was amazing how quickly he adapted and also how far he has developed his craft to play bass, stomp box and foot tambourine all at the same time. We all became very close friends and have been for years.
“HoH formed after we all hit the same point at the same time – all the bands we were involved with individually ended, and we decided to hook up and try to sing a few songs together. It’s hard to explain but it just felt right from the first time we met up to make music together and we bonded musically straight away.”
And the name? Alex confesses, “We used to live in this big run down house where we would have the best parties you could possibly imagine! James mentioned once that it was like a mad hatters tea party and House of Hats was born!”
They seem to have found their place and Alex agrees telling me, “Brighton is a cool place to be. There is a great music scene here, it’s like a creative hub for music and art in general. The pace is much slower than London for example and the creative/student vibe rules. There are quite a few bands we are close mates with, all of varying musical genre’s. We are real good friends with Will and the People who originate from Brighton and recently supported them in Holland which was great. We run a quarterly event called ‘The Harvest Sessions’ where we invite our friends to come and perform.”
If they’ve found their town they’ve also found their destiny and it’s confirmed as Alex tells me, “When we started House of Hats we didn’t do it with the intention of sounding like anyone, nor did we play each other influencing songs to get inspiration. We just got together in a room with acoustic guitars, a bass, a keyboard and our voices and that has pretty much remained. We still write and do the majority of our rehearsals at home un-amplified. There is something about the pureness and the rawness of an acoustic instrument that we all find beautiful and connect with. I’m not sure why but it’s easier to understand for us and on this first album, has allowed us to express ourselves in the way that we wanted.”
He continues, “I think because we have all experienced working as solo artists, we each have our own artistic expression. With House of Hats, we try to keep that expression but tie it into something collective that works. I guess starting and ending with different versions of the same song is our own way of demonstrating that in its most basic form.”
And there we are back where we started. Reprising a song at the end of a set is not in itself clever, but in the context of This Love it’s very clever. Two different poles of the emotions, the ying and yang. What comes in between is clever too, not in a smarty pants way, but in a thoroughly and absolutely engrossing way. You might say, “Much more than a hatful of hollow.” And might also say, “If you want to get ahead get a hat!” But why stop there? Get a houseful.
Review and Interview by: Simon Holland
King Of The Average Pace (Single)
House of Hats – Joanne (Live Session for Sofar)
This Love is released 24th March 2014.