About a year ago I came across Halls‘ (Sam Howard) Fragile EP. A friend’s recommendation led me through that EP and Halls’ debut full length, Ark. I was immediately hooked. His use of space encouraged me to consider emptiness and power through simplicity. It also brought texture to the forefront of my musical focus. His sophomore album, Love to Give, was released earlier this year, a record that demonstrated great growth and promise. I recently got a chance to ask Sam a few questions and his responses, I found, are very insightful.
I’ve noticed in some of your live performances that you switch instruments. Which was your first and when did you start?
I started at the beginning of my teenage years, guitar first and piano coming sometime later.
What would you say inspired you to begin/devote yourself to music?
There was never really a moment of choice, it has just been that way for as long as I can remember. I have never really wanted to do anything else. I don’t really have a choice in the matter anyway – I feel compelled to write songs all the time, so I’d still do it even if everyone regarded the music as poor.
In your work you demonstrate a keen ability to combine harmonies that range from haunting and lonely entreaties to soaring themes that crash with climactic urgency. Did you study composition formally?
No, I have never studied formally. Every note comes from a naive and emotional place, not a necessarily calculated one.
I really love the minimalist elements in Ark. What were some themes that informed the album? Were there any artists you were listening to at the time that played a role in its shaping?
During the making of that album I was a very cold and closed-off person, so I guess that had a major influence on the making of that album. I suppose it also pushed me to write about death, loneliness, dissatisfaction and grief. I listened to quite a varied mix and tried to take micro-parts from what I was listening to – so small bits of ambience or feeling rather than themes.
One of the aspects of the album that stands out most to me is the sampled percussion. What inspired you to experiment with these sounds and which sounds were your favorites to make/play with?
My favourite sounds were the ones that combined drum machines with acoustic drums. My favourite part in terms of drums + percussion was actually going into a studio to record the live drums with Ian (Jenkins, drummer), and then creating a hybrid of this and the electronic drums I had been working on. There is a challenge in allowing the two elements to compliment each other, one I enjoyed. The glitch drums also involve many home-recorded samples – tapping on different surfaces, recording ambience and sorting through the clicks and pops, that kind of thing. I enjoy the processes involved in field recording immensely.
Love to Give is a very different album from its predecessor, moving from cold reflection to a warmer and more full space. You’ve said that you were trying to “embrace the sound of human beings.” Can you talk a bit about the album and explain the shift?
The shift is me changing, or rather trying to change, personally – so trying to move away from being a hollow shell and becoming a real human being again. The shift in sound is a result of wanting to work more with people – so there are more guests on the album (people contributed to backing vocals, trumpet, saxophone etc) and I had Ian record many more drums parts than in Ark, and had Patrick (Ghirardello, live bassist) record and write some of the bass parts. It is still by no means a collaborative record, I still retained an iron grip over the whole thing, but I want to be a more open person and I think this is a start.
In your process does the music come first or do the lyrics? Do you normally start with a theme or a motif or does the song build itself from an ineffable internal source?
The music comes first, lyrics second. I like that, ‘ineffable internal source’, that’s exactly it, yes. The songs take a life of their own. I started out more abstract, but with this second album I have found my lyrics becoming a bit more concrete, real. Although I guess I still hide the lyrics away, people still struggle to hear all the words. Maybe I have fun with that. One day I’ll write the lyrics down for people to see but for now it’s more fun to watch people guessing. Some of the things people come up with are beautiful, perhaps better than what was written before…
Do you engineer/produce your music yourself?
Yes I do pretty much everything. It’s draining but satisfying.
Looking back on your live shows, do you have a favorite performance and if so what set it apart?
I have a few favourites – the ones where I feel we’ve played well and had a good response too (stock answer). Perhaps MXDX festival in Toulon, France. We played a large opera house, incredibly grand, and despite being first on it was pretty full. People were very receptive. I struggled more back then to hold it together before shows and it would quite often derail my performance, but the warmth of the crowd allowed me to push through. I look back on that time as one big test run anyway, so perhaps it ended with the Toulon performance.
Who are some artists who you have been listening to recently/who you believe are pushing boundaries?
More recently I feel that artists involved in hip-hop are way more boundary pushing than a lot of my peers. Perhaps as a genre it has room to grow, or perhaps people are getting lazy, I don’t know, but I do know a lot of what I’ve heard in the hip-hop world recently is certainly pushing through the old constraints of the genre, and I think independent bands need to draw inspiration from that. I’ve stopped going to gigs as much as it’s all the same shit, derivative and dull. Maybe I’m losing the feeling a little…
If you could collaborate with anyone today, who would it be?
I don’t know. Kanye West probably.
Finally, do you have any words of advice for our readers aspiring to be musicians?
Take time and think through before doing. Spend time properly listening to yourself and then apply what you heard to what’s around, what’s good. We don’t need more filler. The world needs more persistent bands, not lazy cynical ones with a cushion of cash propping them up undeservedly. Do it because you have to, and realise it’s a crushing world.