Hellions: On The Edge Of Oblivia
Hellions are the most important hardcore band in Australia – and possibly even the world – right now. Through passionate ire, tonal insurgency and a ruthless approach to theatricality, the Sydney crew are breaking boundaries like kit-kats and defiantly questioning what it means to be a band in the modern heavy music landscape. Their third album, Opera Oblivia, launches tomorrow: BLUNT described it as “a dark, drowsy, loud and lucid collision of booming hooks and bloodied honesty”, and though it’s easily their defining opus, it doesn’t even begin to hint at what Hellions are capable of. Before the LP drops and sends its shockwave through the musical ether, we dialled up shredder Matthew Gravolin to vibe on how Opera Oblivia came to be.
Starting off with the most important question: has Pokémon Go reached the Hellions camp yet?
It hasn’t! We’ve spoken about it, but what gets us is that we’re worried it will suck up our data. Like, if it’s gotta be connected to Wi-Fi, we’d imagine it would ramp up our phone bills quite a bit.
Fuck, good point. So the album! It’s surprising to think there’s already a new Hellions LP in our hands, after Indian Summer only dropped last January. What drew you back to the studio so quickly?
I guess it’s quite a natural thing for us – and for me, specifically – to get going with writing pretty immediately after we’re done with the previous record. I guess it’s kind of like a way of life for me; I mean, I’d be doing it anyway, even if I wasn’t in Hellions. It’s just a natural sort of inclination, y’know? There wasn’t any particular goal to start working [on Opera Oblivia] straight away.
So this is like a unique sort of concept album, almost – run us through what Opera Oblivia is, from a basis level.
Okay, Opera Oblivia! Yeah, we’re still really stoked about our titles [laughs]. So ‘oblivia’ is a Latin word, meaning ‘a passive state of forgetfulness’. And then ‘opera’, obviously, is just pointed towards the way the album sounds – that’s sort of what we set out to do from the get go: make it sound nice and grand, almost like a modern opera. As far as the act-based structure goes, that was an afterthought of Anthony’s. If you were to arrange the tracks in a specific order, which we have done, it creates a very loose orientation, complication and resolution spread out over the songs. It has a very loose ‘story’, but each song was conceived on its own without any others in mind: each song is its own project – it was just at the end where that idea [to structure the album with acts] came to mind.
Let’s dive into that story. Is the LP an autobiographical telling, or is it framed through fictional characters?
It’s autobiographical, for sure! All bar one of the songs – which is “He Without Sin” – were written from a very personal place.
Where does “He Without Sin” come from, topically?
That one is a very dark song… It’s almost difficult to think about, actually. To be personally honest, I was worried at first that it wasn’t my place to be able to discuss this, because obviously, I’ve never been through the things that these survivors have been though. But yeah, you see it on the news all the time, about these things within the Christian community and the Catholic church. I’d also seen the movie Spotlight, which had sort of driven that point home for me: there’s nothing to me that is more than taking advantage of a person’s faith. These people put their lives in the hands of God, and live every day according to his words. And these priests are acting as the extended hand of God, essentially – it’s ‘God instilled within a mortal man’ – and then these men are taking the innocence away from children and fucking up their whole lives, so I dunno. It’s just such a disgusting thing, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind for a little while, and I felt like I had to put it down. It took a little while to write it out in a way that somebody who has been affected by that could listen to it and not feel offended – or not put myself into it, too much. It had to be something that was speaking to these people.
“Opera Oblivia is the culmination of everything that we’ve been attempting to do all this time.”
So from all angles, the LP deals a lot with themes of human emotion, which is something that bands seldom tap into: especially bands of your caliber. What is it that draws you so closely to exploring that rollercoaster of humanity?
It’s all very natural, man. I don’t know, I feel like those are the most relatable things. It’s day to day life – it’s human relationships and human emotions. I listen to music as sort of an escape, and I suppose most people do. And y’know, if there’s a problem that you’re dealing with, you don’t want to feel like you’re the only one. I like to think that we’ve done a good job of that with these new songs: there are songs that can be taken from many different perspectives, and the record is sort of written in that way. I mean, some of it is very specific to me, or to Dre, but a lot of it was written generally what that goal in mind of helping people through a common hardship.
Take us back to the beginning: what spurred this grandiose theatrical concept between the four of you?
Particularly between Anthony and I, we’ve always admired just grand music – for example, Queen’s album A Night At The Opera, or more recently, Green Day’s American Idiot and “Jesus Of Suburbia”: just the huge, all-encompassing nature of those records, and I feel like we sort of touched on that in Indian Summer with songs like ‘Nottingham’, but I suppose without that vocal – without the singing – we couldn’t hit home properly in the way that we wanted to. So pretty much immediately, we set out to accomplish that goal that we felt we couldn’t quite reach with the last record. We’re still very proud of Indian Summer, but what we’ve got now with Opera Oblivia is absolutely… We’ve reached that goal!
On the first two records, you’d jump around between styles and sounds as if they were nothing. But with Opera Oblivia, it’s almost as if this is the first Hellions album with a straightforward and cohesive sonic narrative. Was that something you factored in when you were working on the LP, or is it just how it all unfolded?
It was all really organic. That’s just the way that our songwriting style has sort of matured. I really like that, though – ‘sonic narrative’ – that’s a great phrase [laughs]. But yeah, it was super natural. We set out for [the album] to be more listenable in the sense of vocal melodies, but even that felt organic. It was really the easiest and most pleasant recording experience of my life.
In the past, there’ve been songs like “Mea Culpa” and “The Grandfather Clock” that really pushed towards a theatrical atmosphere. Is there a feeling – maybe even subconsciously – that those songs built up to Opera Oblivia, in a sense?
Yeah, for sure, man! Absolutely! Opera Oblivia is the culmination of everything that we’ve been attempting to do all this time. I agree with you when you say you can hear that in songs like ‘The Grandfather Clock’… Absolutely, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. We’ve always had this underlying tone of grandeur that we couldn’t quite elucidate properly, and yeah, I guess it was just a matter of growing up; growing older and wiser, listening to different music and just maturing, musically.
Did you run into many challenges bringing to life something this epic?
This might sound a little bit narcissistic – it’s not meant to be – but man, it was all quite easy! The first song we recorded was “Nightliner Rhapsody”, it’s the penultimate track on the… Ah, no it’s not. It’s the third last. Track eight… So yeah, going into that, we recorded it all musically, and then once we got to the vocal, we all sort of held our breaths – Dre and I looked at each other and we were like, “Okay, well, here we go,” and once we got it done – once we saw what we were capable of with Shane’s encouragement – after that, we sung it and we heard it mixed, and it was just like, “Yeah. Fuck yeah! We can do this!” We just didn’t think that there were anymore barriers. We put those barriers on ourselves. We put these obstacles in our own way with our doubts and our fears, and after we heard [“Nightliner Rhapsody”], we were like, “Yeah, we should do this. We’ve done it, and we’ll continue to do it.” And everything, again, was just all organic! We opened the floodgates after that, like, everything just poured out of us, and it was just… We were touched by the hand of God, it was insane. It was such a pleasant experience!
“I’ve always believed that we really have something in that melodic side of things – I’ve always believed that’s our strong suit.”
In going full-borne theatrical here, you’ve subdued the hardcore elements a bit and taken a step in a more melodic, rock-ier kind of vibe. Are you just getting bored with that “all-out” style of music, or is it more an evolutionary step?
Most predominately, it’s an evolutionary step. But there was a little bit of the former involved as well. Admittedly, there are plenty of bands that can do the ‘heavy’ thing much better than we can. To me, that’s never been our strong suit; but I’ve always believed that we really have something in that melodic side of things – I’ve always believed that’s our strong suit. It’s our best card. So yeah, I guess this time, it was just natural to capitalise on that. It was like, “This is what we do best. This is where we can be original here, so let’s go hard with this!” The heavy parts still came through in sections of some songs, and I guess that’s just the influence of all of our friends that we play with. We’re happy for [Hellions] to head in a more melodic direction, for sure.
Another thing that stands out from Opera Oblivia is that focus on clean vocals and huge chant-along hooks. What spurred that, and how did it work in the studio with singing lessons being thrown into the fold?
That was one of the conscious decisions that we made, to have singing on this record. We’re too melodic of a band not to, and the only way to really drive these guitar melodies home is to sing them – I guess that’s really where the connection from us to the listener lies. So [Dre and I] got singing lessons throughout two months, in our respective areas: I got them twice a week and he got them once a week. And… Yeah. It was terrifying. It scared the shit out of us! I’d be remised if I didn’t mention our producer, Shane [Edwards] – he used to work at Electric Sun in Sydney, but now he works in a studio in Thailand (Karma Sound) –he’s just such a wonderful, wonderful man and he’s an incredible producer: he brought all of this amazing stuff out of Dre. Like, Dre needed him, and he just really knows how to get the very best out of [Dre] – he taught him a lot. So we have him to thank for the way that all of those big choruses sound, y’know? We wrote the melodies, but he really encouraged the performances in those.
You’ve worked with Shane Edwards on every Hellions album thus far – what is it about old mate that makes him essential to the band’s process?
He’s been with Anthony and I for… This is our tenth year working with him! I used to play in a band called The Bride, and Shane did all of those recordings with me. He’s just seen me grow as a musician and a songwriter and artist. He knows how my brain works, musically, and he knows what I’m going to do before I even do anything. To me, you can’t put a price on that. I’m not going to get that anywhere else – somebody that understands mine and the boys’ vision, and can really steer that and direct that in the right way. Especially with this album, if we’d have gone anywhere else, it wouldn’t be the way that it is. The whole operatic theme that we were going for: he understood from the get-go and he helped us big time getting that out. Just down to the little nuances, he cared about every detail and really understood the vision.
You’ve mentioned that you’re already starting to think about the next Hellions album. Do you see the band continuing with this style and doing another concept record, or was this a one-off thing that you just wanted to explore?
As of right now, it’s the natural next step forward, as always. That’s always going to be true to our sound: it is still operatic and it’s still very big, but this time around, I’m starting with the vocal melodies – those big hooks. I’m sort of slowly changing the way that I’m writing, and… It’s still very early in the process, obviously – Opera hasn’t even come out yet [laughs] – but yeah, the next step is in that direction!
Friday July 29th – Evelyn Hotel, Melbourne (18+)
w/ Belle Haven + Pridelands + Grave Street Blues
Saturday July 30th – Arrow On Swanson, Melbourne (AA)
w/ Void Of Vision + Harbours + Dregg + Thorn Hill
Friday August 5th – Enigma Bar, Adelaide (AA)
w/ Hindsight + A Ghost Orchestra + Valhalla
Friday August 12th – Bald Faced Stag, Sydney (AA) SOLD OUT
w/ Endless Heights + Vices + Bare Bones
Saturday August 13th – The Brightside, Brisbane (18+)
w/ Young Lions + She Cries Wolf + Deadlights