Cloud Nine: Interview with Hælos

Sara Rodrigues

They broke on Soundcloud and are being hailed as a successor to the sound of trip-hop greats like Massive Attack. But HÆLOS are out to craft a legacy all their own.


Full Circle

Label: Matador
Release Date: 2016-03-18

Hælos have had an especially accelerated journey out of obscurity. The March 2016 release of their debut album Full Circle followed quite quickly from the October 2014 recording and online posting of their very first track, "Dust". On the strength of their haunting sound, the group caught the attention of Matador Records, released an EP, an LP, and headed out on their first North American tour.

The London trio, comprising Arthur Delaney, Dom Goldsmith, and Lotti Benardout, came together to collaborate after having worked on separate projects, and HÆLOS crystallized quickly. HÆLOS combine and modernize the best parts of early '90s British trip-hop and drum and bass to create an undeniably contemporary sound that has been described as ethereal, cinematic, and nocturnal. The lyrics, composed primarily by Delaney, fractionally and unstably document the journey from darkness to light as it manifests itself in human experience.

PopMatters met up with the group on the Toronto stop of their 2016 North American tour.

"Working in music is like having two jobs because you have your studio life [and] that completely opposite side of it which is [playing] live," Goldsmith says. This tour marks the first time that the band has been out from the isolated life of the studio for an extended period. As much as the band relishes studio work, Delaney adds that the process of writing the record was especially "insular and shut off." The tour has afforded the band "a good chance to recharge our batteries [and] experience some life."

The trio recently did a spate of shows at SXSW, which they say marks their fullest expression as a "live entity." Goldsmith says that they "really came into [their] own" at SXSW. Benardout elaborates on this by saying that the tour has been a process of discovery and experimentation for the band. Coming out live has enabled the band to develop their "style and vibe," she says, but it has also been an opportunity for them to be "a bit more confident on stage and a bit freer and looser and more natural" as live performers.

Although "Dust" was the first complete piece to emerge from HÆLOS, the trio immediately knew that, with it, they had created something special. Shortly after they quietly released the nocturnal and anguishing track on Soundcloud, the band immediately garnered attention from a number of blogs and managers. Although they put "Dust" out to gauge what kind of reaction it might generate, the track gathered momentum far faster than they expected.

"We put up 'Dust,' and a blog in the UK -- an influential blog -- picked up on it pretty much the day after, and that set off this whole hurricane," Benardout explains. "Off the back of that, we had lots of different managers and labels e-mailing us."

Although they were "in the zone" of writing and recording what would eventually become Full Circle in Goldsmith's London bedroom -- to the extent, he says, that noise complaints were imminent -- the trio quickly developed a relationship with veteran manager James Sandon, whom they felt was most attuned to what the trio was about and what they, as Hælos, wanted to accomplish. "He just seemed to really get the project, what we were about, [and] what we wanted to achieve from the music," says Benardout.

When bands become affiliated with record labels, whether major or indie, it is normally the band's manager who facilitates the process of meeting and signing a group. So, it was through Sandon that Hælos connected with Matador Records. The group signed with the label after meeting the Matador team in New York. (That meeting also unexpectedly included Yoko Oko: "We're just sitting in that restaurant and Yoko Ono walks in and sits next to us! It was quite funny," says Goldsmith.)

The fit between Hælos and Matador, the indie giant that is home to Belle & Sebastian, Kurt Vile, Savages, and others, immediately felt "right," Benardout says. "We just felt like they were the right label: we felt they weren't going to try to pigeonhole us into any area [and that] they were just going leave us [with the music]."

Goldsmith adds that Matador's team is composed of "really inspiring people," which is a boon for bands like Hælos. He stresses the importance, for artists, of "surrounding yourself with a team of people who are going to facilitate our imagination[s], and sometimes sprinkle some magic on top of it."

Over the course of the year that followed, the band fully realized their sound, through an intense and concentrated period of studio work. Overall, but during this time especially, Delaney says, it was important for the band to be working with a label that would offer guidance but not intrude on the project. Given that they had "a really clear idea of what we wanted to do with this project," he says, "we weren't requiring a label that [would come] in and [try] to shape us too much. I think that part of the impression that we got from that meeting with them was that they would just allow us to execute what we saw for the project as being right," by being there to "offer guidance and facilitate, rather than direct."

That clear idea was a "cinematic" sound, which has been a key objective for Hælos since the early stages of the project when Delaney, Goldsmith, and Benardout first started writing and producing together. They wanted to create music that "would sit in that poignant point [in] a film," Delaney explains. He also describes Hælos' music as "evocative"; elsewhere, the band describes their sound as possessing a "dark euphoria," written for the post-rave, middle-of-the-night time when one can wander the deserted streets while most of the world remains asleep.

How, though, does the band make this sonic objective a reality? Until recently, songwriters would generate a melody and accompanying lyrics, writing a series of songs for an album. After a significant numbers of songs were composed, the songwriter(s) would decide which ones would "make the album." While some albums are still written in this manner, most music today is built by the track-and-hook method: the instrumental track or beat is the first thing to be created, and a melody is written on top of that. Hælos also write in this way, but they also interweave production into the writing process to ensure the atmosphere of the tracks aligns with their overall aesthetic.

"We write melodies and chord progressions while programming drums, [and] while doing synthesis, all at the same time," Goldsmith explains. "All the drums on the record are programmed. We added some live tracking at the end but the idea was to have quite, organic, 'real-sounding' samples, but tear them up and make them electronic."

Although Full Circle is an "electronic" album that has garnered comparisons to early Massive Attack, Hælos integrates a vitality into their music that is rarely heard in other releases in this genre. In order to make the samples, and the sound as a whole, as live-sounding as possible, Hælos create live "extensions" of the pre-programmed samples on which they draw. Goldsmith explains that rather than play to a grid, they "try and feel what it's like to play live, [so] you're not always hitting the [hi-]hat exactly on 16ths; sometimes it's a bit lazier. That was very important for us, to kind of get that sense of groove into the tracks even though it is programmed."

Hælos allow the groove of the samples to direct their programming work, rather than quantize the samples so that they fit the rigid pattern of programmed drums. Delaney explains that Hælos uses "a lot of old soul breaks," which have a "live feel to [them, so] even if we were putting in a snare here or there, we were like kind of putting it tight to the patterns, using the feel of the [original] live playing to direct the programming so that you'll still have that feel to it."

This entanglement of writing and production means that Hælos do not necessarily write songs in their entirety before committing them to tape. "We don't just throw songs at the wall and see which ones are best; we try and refine as we go. It's a constant process of destruction and recreation," Goldsmith explains. "[We are] constantly soloing the vocals and the drums or the drums and the bass and constantly reevaluating. So when we finished Full Circle we didn't really have any wastage." The band tries to "finish every project," Goldsmith continues. He explains that, as a result of this commitment to completion, "our process is maybe longer than some people's."

When the prospect of live performance arose in early 2015, the band knew, even though they were working intensely with production software, that they would absolutely assemble a full, live band. "We didn't want to have this Apple logo flashing people on stage," Goldsmith says. Live, the band is rounded out by a guitarist, percussionist, and drummer. Delaney adds that, for them, "it's really important that, when people come see a show, they get a show. There's too much of a climate at the moment of people who are just playing their own record, like they're expected to DJ." The effect this produces, he says, is an additional "robot man" band member, which is something they joke about.

For their live show, the band uses electronic instruments and effects, but remains committed to ensuring that no sound is pre-programmed. "We didn't want to have MIDI in our sets," Goldsmith explains. With this in mind, the trio worked to create live what they can create in the studio, but with instruments instead of programmed sounds. "The way drums are programmed [in the studio] is based around two people playing, and that's the reason why we play live with a drummer and a percussionist."

Developing the sound of Hælos as a live entity has been about "trying to find that perfect balance between electronic and live, and we feel like we're starting to achieve that." One exception is bass tracks, which had to be programmed for the road, because the band's Roland SH 101 bass synth is "very fragile and can't be taken on tour," Goldsmith says.

Recently, Hælos curated a 24-hour playlist for Spotify. Although streaming services have become a relatively established part of how listeners find and engage with music, they continue to generate criticism for the impact they have on artist revenues and ultimately livelihood. Nonetheless, Hælos remain optimistic about what Spotify can help them accomplish.

"We've got a good relationship with Spotify; it's been really helpful for us to connect with people who wouldn't necessarily be able to connect with us," Delaney explains.

Benardout agrees, adding that Spotify gives artists unfettered access to analytics and metrics that connect them with rather than isolate them from fans. "[Spotify] invited us into their offices, and they showed us some really useful information about where our music was getting played." Access to such metrics is helpful, she says, "in terms of plotting our tours and knowing where to go and play."

Considering that Hælos "broke" on Soundcloud, the band embraces streaming services. They acknowledge that most of their fans found Hælos' music through streaming services like Spotify and Google Play. Goldsmith appreciates the "discovery" aspect of streaming services, noting that fans can connect with more artists with streaming than through traditional means.

Although it means that they will now have to focus on touring as the primary source of revenue, Delaney believes in making "the best use and [most] clever use of your current climate" rather than in resisting emergent modes of engagement. When asked about the overall decline in revenue, he adds that something like "60 streams is equivalent to one sale, so after a period of time, it levels out apparently. So it's not as much of a nail in the coffin as everyone thought it was going to be." They agree that securing a percentage of each play, however small, is a better outcome than having their music illegally downloaded.

Goldsmith adds that streaming services put the onus on the consumer to support bands by buying albums. He points to the increase in vinyl sales as evidence that people are not wholly adverse to purchasing music. "To put the blame or any negativity that these things get to the sites themselves [is] I think a bit harsh because it's a good discovery piece. It's up to the consumer to go and decide [if] they want to buy it."

Perhaps because of their quick rise to prominence, several of the tracks that appear on Full Circle also appear on the Earth Not Above EP that was released in June 2015. Commenting on the implications of what appears to be the growing pressure for bands to release tracks the second that they are available, so as to get hooked into and stay bolstered by the hype machine, Hælos indicate that they don't feel that that the overlap in tracks between EPs and LPs compromises the listener's experience.

This overlap in content was "something that was on our minds certainly," but, as Goldsmith indicates, the trio, in consultation with the label, determined that "most people wouldn't have heard [the Earth Not Above EP] so to say that 'Earth Not Above' would only go on the EP would have been a shame." He points to the broader history of content overlap between EPs and LPs, which predates our engagement with music in the post-internet era. Besides, Delaney adds, "a lot of people on Twitter [are] banging on us like, 'Where's "Breathe"?'"

Benardout points out that EPs are a "taster" of where a band is going, and that this overlap is thus logical given the band's clear vision for the project as a whole. "The album is a body of work and it fits together so well," she says. "To not have those tracks on there, they play their part. They felt part of the story."

As for what they're listening to at the moment, Hælos recommend Vancouver producer Tor, Bristol's LK, Liverpool singer/songwriter Låpsley and, unsurprisingly, the new Massive Attack EP.

Although this is the band's first record and tour, Hælos are already thinking about what's next rather than totally reveling in the limelight. "It was quite an intense three months between January and April 2015, [but] it was quite rewarding," Goldsmith says. "Now, having made the live show, you look into the future. We're all getting inspired already again and look forward to getting back into writing."

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