ad we called Trenton Woodley a couple of months ago, it’s likely we’d have encountered the human embodiment of stress rather than the blissfully relaxed frontman that greets us on the phone. Hands Like Houses’ third and easily most cultivated LP, Dissonants, has been earning hype since last August, with an initial expected release date of October 2015 – that was until the band realised that, for lack of a better term, their new album was pretty shit.
“At the end of the day, we’d just spent so much time touring off the back of Unimagine and had so many opportunities come up that we didn’t quite have the time that we usually do and that we need to sit down and prepare,” Woodley admits, elaborating on the four-month delay that led to a record deal with UNFD and a detour into 2016. “We kind of just went in with a bunch of ideas that we had to piece together on the fly, which… It ended up that we got to a week out from the end of our studio time, and we were like, ‘Well, we’ve got an album here, but it could be so much better’. That in itself was a bit of a soul-searching moment, just saying, ‘What are we actually capable of, and is this it?’ And we had to be very honest with ourselves and say, ‘Y’know what? Let’s come back to it, because we deserve it from ourselves, and our fans deserve it from us’. Music deserves that kind of attention because otherwise, we’d have come out with something that just wasn’t the best it could be.”
With a three-year stretch separating the present day from Hands Like Houses’ mainstream breakthrough (2013’s Unimagine), it’s safe to say that Dissonants is their most anticipated release thus far. Between the exhaustive touring hikes throughout those fabled 31 months, the quintet have witnessed a world of success unravel at their feet – from “Introduced Species” soaring through radioplay charts and MTV slots the world over, to the band opening last year’s Big Ass Tour to crowds upwards of 10,000-strong (filling the shoes of metalcore stalwarts The Ghost Inside, no less). Coming down from that high was never going to be easy. Moving through countries like exits on highways and staring down the barrel of fame’s unsympathetic intensity led to an album that builds upon what Unimagine explored, but from a reconfigured and more grounded perspective.
|“It’s very much a progression from Unimagine,” Woodley enthuses on the themes that make up the framework for LP3. “Unimagine was about exploring that idea of duality, the fact that we have to almost swing from one side to the other to get a sense of the middle ground. It was about exploring these extreme aspects of ourselves to understand where we are. But Dissonants is almost the opposite of that; it’s about exploring the ‘infinite middle’ of what we are, how we live and how we see things. Talking about the album, whether it was between interviews, or chats with fans after shows, or even just talking on stage, I started to realise that the extremes are just… They are what they are. The concept is cognitive dissonance: we’re able to function and recognise things that would otherwise seem completely impossible. We can believe in completely opposite or contradicting ideas, and yet still live and function and construct our belief system based off of those values.”
Though it never quite hits the hardcore-channelling wallops that Ground Dweller (2012) once inflicted, Dissonants is surprisingly heavy: a solid string of breakdowns find themselves sandwiched between the radio-friendly pop rock anthems we’ve come to expect from Hands Like Houses. While that isn’t totally unexpected, 2014’s divisive Reimagine EP seemed to be leading the band down a more mellifluent route. The seven-track surprise release saw half of their sophomore outing slowed down and slicked with a shoegaze glaze, and although it tilted a fair few heads at first, critics quickly jumped aboard the Hash Like Houses bandwagon. As for Dissonants? It’s loud, flashy and downright explosive – and as Woodley illustrates, after the band crushed Warped Tour in the US and brought the Big Ass Tour to its knees, why wouldn’t it be?
“I think a lot of it was influenced by the fact that we’re a live band,” he says. “We’re a rock band, and rock bands are built on the live show; they create an experience and a vibe. So because we’d spent so much time on the road, it just made sense to write an album that we’d enjoy playing live. Reimagine, y’know, we still haven’t actually done a full performance of that – but I think that was more of an exploration of what we could do, whereas Dissonants just feels like the music that we enjoy playing and writing. I think we wanted to get back some of that bite that we had on [Ground Dweller], along with the intelligent songwriting that we kind of injected into Unimagine – try to take a big fistful out of both albums, and take a huge step forward at the same time. It was about creating that impact, and I think that’s what fans have always found most exciting about us; we can be heavy and impactful without relying on any clichés.”
|Not just in reverence of their stylistic output, Dissonants shows a titanic leap in Hands Like Houses’ lyrical abilities. Woodley isn’t relying on the allegories that appeal almost exclusively to Newtown hipsters, but his words are as mystical and gripping as they’ve ever been. After sitting with their first two and soaking in the feedback, album #3 gave the five-piece a chance to step up their songwriting game – one that Woodley took and smashed like a bona fide MVP.
“I think the biggest thing [that allowed the lyrics to evolve] was just having pointed out to me my habit of trying to fit too many words into a melody, or trying to shape a melody around a lyric,” he presses. “So as I’ve developed as a songwriter, I’ve been trying to be aware of that phrasing, and that rhythm in the storytelling that comes through in what I’m saying. Like, am I trying to describe an idea in my head, or am I trying to communicate? And I am trying to communicate through the lyrics. I guess that’s what my intent has been with the last two albums, to communicate rather than tell, if that makes sense. It’s been to create that emotional impact, and create that connection point with the song which gives the music more depth and character.”
Atop all the other landmarks the record notches, Dissonants marks Woodley’s debut as the band’s primary source of synth-y goodness, taking the reigns from previous key crusher Jamal Sabet, who snuck out of the band at the end of 2014. Electronics have always been a major part of Hands Like Houses’ sound, as both an element to boost the instrumentals and bring an ethereal texture into the mix (à la UNFD labelmates Northlane and In Hearts Wake), and as an instrument of its own, taking what would otherwise be a standard alt-rock jam and stuffing it with character. When it came to running Dissonants through the digital realm, Woodley looked to take the keys in a direction that would set Hands Like Houses apart from their peers.
|“[Programming has] always been a part of our process,” Woodley explains. “I mean, we did have Jamal writing keyboards for the last couple of albums, and the rest of us being involved more or less on different songs, but this time around, we kind of approached it as a texture and character. It was about lifting the guitars and vocals and the melody to create a texture and a sound that was familiar, without being dominated by it. On Ground Dweller, for example, we had a lot of keys, we had a lot of vibraphones and a lot of synths, and it was very… I guess loud and obnoxious programming whereas now, it’s about trying to create the motion, create the vibe and create the mood that we’re selling into – enhancing that texture and making it feel like something that’s modern and effective. And y’know, that’s not essential for every band, but it’s an easy way to create a point of difference – a recognisable sound when everyone’s recording through the same guitar amps and using similar drum sounds these days.”
And so, all of the above makes Dissonants an album that Hands Like Houses are truly able to be proud of; to raise boastfully to the world as if they were a collective Rafiki showing Simba off in the opening scene of The Lion King. It’s easily their best release, destined for gratuitous airplay on triple j and an inclusion on every Warped Tour line-up until Kevin Lyman goes the way of AJ Maddah. It may have had a troubled history, but in the end, that’s actually what made it the success it’s destined to be – “it came down to this mantra that we gave ourselves: it’s better to get it right than get it done,” Woodley says, explaining that the album “nearly broke us as a band”.
Two-and-a-half years of relentless touring and an endless stream of commercial acclaim, Unimagine put the pressure on Hands Like Houses to make Dissonants a sequel that would put The Godfather Part II to shame. But where most bands would crack under the tension and either break up or put their opus into the mythical death-spell of production hell, Woodley and co. were determined to bring their effort to life in a blaze of venomous passion, no matter how much blood, sweat or tears that meant.
“That expectation drove us to be incredibly intentional with the way we were writing,” Woodley effuses. “Going into the studio, we spoke with James [Paul Wisner, producer] and with ourselves: What are we trying to achieve with this record, not just musically, but in a broader sense? That became the foundation for the type of songs that we were writing, and the foundation for the attitude and the mindset that we had in the album review process. But at the same time, it was a curse because it made us realise the amount of preparation time we had missed by being on the road. Now that we’re here a year later, we can actually see how it all fits together and think, ‘Well that’s how it is, and that’s what it’s become’.”