Track-by-track with Howl at the Moon

One of our fave albums so far this year has been Howl at the Moons Squalls. So we thought we’d get vocalist/guitarist Katie Scott to talk us through it, track by track: 

I’m always interested (and perhaps a little frightened) when people ask me to do a write-up on my thoughts and inspirations for our album. Interested because I take morbid delight in analysing things (really bad… really, really bad, I know) and frightened, perhaps, because it might make me realise something new about where these songs have come from. I guess that could be viewed as a great thing too.

You’ll find in these paragraphs that I’m being quite candid. I’m yet to figure out if this is a flaw, but I did promise myself last New Year’s to strive for honesty in music. To write what I know and chronicle experiences (however limited they may have been so far). Songs of augmented truth. Anyway, enough chitchat, here is some insight into how Squalls came to be.

Caught by the Sun
A friend recently interviewed me around the themes of identity and belonging in relation to my music. I immediately did an internal “a-HA”! because I’ve lost my sense of cultural identity of late and I am beginning to explore writing about this sort of thing. Caught by the Sun is a nod to New Zealand and how she has shaped me. It’s based on Maori legend from the area that I grew up in – the Bay of Plenty. The song tells my interpretation of the story of Mauao, a mountain who had no name and status and loved another mountain, Puwhenua. But she loved Otanewainuku, tall and handsome, good social standing. It’s the classic doomed love story.

Devastated that his desire to be loved by Puwhenua will never be realised, he enlists the help of the patupaiarehe – people of the night – to help drag him to the ocean so that he may drown himself. As the sun rises, the patupaiarehe abandon him and he is left at the ocean’s edge to forever pine his unrequited love. From this point on he is known as Mauao, which translates as “caught by the sun”.

The song is told from his perspective. I was struck by the darkness of this story and other Maori legends which I grew up listening to… I tried to work the details of the tale in to the music as much as possible, with the middle stomp section reflecting his journey to the shore and the cries that accompany it representing his cries of woe.

It was never intended to be the opener but after it was finished and a few flourishes added to it from the mixing process, it felt so right to kick off the album with something that nodded to the place that I (and a large percentage of the band) had come from. A place I no longer completely identify with but that has undeniably influenced my songwriting sensibilities.

From ancient heartbreak to modern. This song was written in reaction to a couple of relationship break-ups that happened around the same time for a couple of the band members. These guys are my family, so it’s hard not to be really affected when you see them coming to terms with something ending. It was my way of saying to them that as hard as it is right now and thought it may take some time, you’ll get past it someday and be free of the heavy feeling that comes along with it.

Just A Kid
The crush that need not go anywhere. It’s so easy to fall in love with people, no? As easy as it is to be frustrated by them. When you get to that place where seeing someone just makes your pulse shoot up and you can’t wipe the smile off your face, it’s a great way to feel. Like you’re a kid again.

One of the highlights of recording this for me was laying down the acoustic guitar and just practicing singing along with it. It was uplifting, I felt and still feel like it all fit really well. Somewhere on a hard-drive there’s a video of me singing it in the studio with a stupid fucking grin that won’t go away because I was enjoying it so much.

The Hostage
I wrote this one sticky summer afternoon in an awful flat in Fairfield, Victoria, on a crappy mac laptop using the built in mic and just layered the shit out of it. Somehow, as a band, we worked it in to this 50’s slow dance feel, which I love. It swells and changes and escalates in to something else as it moves along, but there’s something sweet and innocent in it that is kinda contrary to the content of the lyrics.

An allegory for self-sabotage, holding yourself hostage, crying out for help because you know you’re gonna fuck it all up again. I know I’m not alone in being a person who, when everything is going perfectly well, defaults to this awful setting where you want to mess it up just to see it fall apart. I try not to, but the desire to do this is always just under the surface. Caught between the angel and devil, the lyrics touch on that nasty dichotomy. The devil saying “I’m pulling a knife on myself” and the angel asking for the lover to run to the rescue – “kick in the door”!

Black Coffee
This has emerged as an unlikely favourite for a lot of people, which I think is cool because it wasn’t an obvious winner when it started out. We laid out the bare-bones of the track in the studio with Mark (bass), Mikey (drums) and myself on rhythm guitar and just layered it up after that. Like a lot of our songs, it is pretty melancholy and with good reason. It’s about the aftermath of a night drinking away the blues and being laid up in bed the next day reflecting on the reasons why you may have been consuming so much alcohol. The every-man’s salve – black coffee – comes to the rescue to bring some sort of equilibrium to fraught thoughts. The lyrics hint at a T.S. Eliot obsession I had had at the time of writing. At some point we were thinking of calling the album What The Thunder Said. I suppose Squalls is a sort of truncated version of that, really.

Costs A Lot
A couple of my family members have gone through cancer diagnoses and treatment in the last two or three years. SHIT. Upon learning of the first case I penned this song. Originally a poem demanding that some (probably non-existent) higher being give me a reason why this was happening, I set it to music that I felt was bleak and angry, which was exactly how I felt about the situation. It still feels good to play it live and scream my guts out a bit and let it go.

Let The Mainsheet Down, My Love
Anyone who knows me knows I love the sea. I don’t even need to be in it, just near it. I was lucky enough to grow up living short distances to the beach, rivers and lakes. When I get close to these places again, I feel normal. I know I’m just one in a long line of songwriters who uses bodies of water in metaphor. We can dam them up, dry them up, divert their courses and in the end they always seem to find a sneaky way to get back at us. The wild vastness of them fascinates me.

Mainsheet is ultimately a tale of camaraderie. I’d gone through a pretty horrible friendship bust-up and decided that I was going to pull the good ones close to me and keep going, even though I felt at the time that everything was broken and it would never get better. So instead of hiding away and remaining anti-social at the risk of being hurt, I ventured out in to the world again… for better or worse.

In the story contained in the song, the captain of the boat steers it’s course down a river toward a waterfall, urging the crew to hold tight and push on, to go ALL THE WAY, to quote Bukowski. Really, now that they’re headed in that direction, there is no escape… so they have to go with it, go bravely and all together.When we started rehearsing this song, years ago now, it really came to define us and help refine the sounds we loved to make. I still feel as if this is pure Howl at the Moon.

Blackhearted Charlie
I really feel like I opened up a can of worms with this. I never set out to shock people, nor did I sit down and go ‘Okay! Time to write a murder ballad’! I get the impression people take this song, gosh, a number of ways. In my mind, if I’m honest, I think it’s taken the wrong way more often than not.

Writing about rape and murder is as gruesome as you’d expect, especially when the protagonist is the victim and doubly so when they’d rather die than live with a perceived shame of having being sexually violated. It’s a weird angle, but one that speaks to the extreme Christian values which were all around me when I was growing up. It’s pretty fucking twisted that there would be a thought in any person’s mind that death would be the preference over the loss of virginity by violent means. But that’s a thought that stuck in my head as teenager.

People really like murder ballads in Australia. And people seem to really like this song. To me, it makes me feel a bit ill and I wonder how I ever conjured up the courage to put something like this out there. Dark thoughts are in my nature. Sometimes, I suppose, I just get sick of not taking risks, even though this is a comparatively small risk compared to the ones that others take.. Putting your darkest thoughts out there can be terrifying, but that is often part of being a songwriter.

Recording this nearly destroyed me. We did take after take after take. I had a very minor, almost micro, breakdown and went inside myself for a while. Couldn’t talk. Just stayed on my own in my little room while everyone listened back. The sense of relief at having it finished was pretty great.

I (Just) Want To Hold Your Hand
An honest discourse on modern relationships. Have you read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom? I read that recently and it reminded me so much of how I feel about this song. I think everyone can relate to this – relationships are complex things because people are ridiculously complex emotional beings. That’s really all I have to say about this one.

Of all the songs on the album, this is the most live. Apart from the backing vocals and an organ, what’s on the record is what we played in the studio – main vocal included. We decided we’d do a take at the end of each day of recording and go with the one we felt best about. We’d been playing it with a lot of gusto at our live shows and I suppose we still do, though I think we all treat it with a little more tenderness since the experience of recording it. This take felt right… it was at the end of the day that we’d recorded Charlie and we were all completely exhausted… totally spent, so the recording has a fragile feel to it which I think suits the tone of the lyrics. The chorus crescendos, which takes you somewhere more triumphant, but the end result is a (highly appropriate) bitter-sweetness.

So that’s the record on the record. It took a few months (not a few years, as it’s been widely misunderstood) to record in Victoria between a studio in Northcote and our engineer’s house in Coburg North. The next one will start being recorded soon I hope.

Words by Katie Scott. Photo by Lucy Spartalis. Have a listen to Squalls – and buy it – at bandcamp.