Hallelujah the Hills are the greatest band you’ve never heard of. Even Spin agrees with that. They formed in Boston in 2005, and released their first album, Collective Psychosis Be Gone in 2007. I first came across them the following year, when Pitchfork linked to a free download of The Hill’s Prepare to Qualify ep. Those were the days of lots of free music from all kinds of up-and-comers, most of it was pure shite. But this wasn’t. It was pure gold. Six beautifully-crafted songs, drawing upon a wide range of instrumentation, word-play and alliteration in the lyrics, shout-sung lyrics, and this insane joie de vivre. And then the last track was a live version of a then-new song ‘(You Better Hope You) Die Before Me.’ I was hooked. Especially by the last track. The live track was brimming with energy, it was punk rock, but it was cinematic, it was the Arcade Fire, but better. It was anthemic. And I was hooked. Their second album, Colonial Drones arrived in September 2009, and I listened to it non-stop, especially on my long commute to work from the inner city of Montréal out to the far western suburbs.
The band’s name comes from an underground film by Adolfas Bekas released in 1963 and shot in Vermont called Hallelujah the Hills. Hills arose from the ashes of Walsh’s first band, The Stairs, back in 2005, who got famous in Boston, as they broke up. So Walsh and the Stairs’ drummer, immediately formed Hills. The original lineup was fluid, and occasionally with drama, but the lineup coalesced a few years ago now and has remained steady:
Brian Rutledge – Trumpet, synth
David Michael Curry – Viola
Joseph Marrett – Bass
Nicholas Ward – Baritone guitar, piano
Ryan Connelly – Drums
Ryan H. Walsh – Vocals, guitar
The albums have arrived in a steady pace since 2009, every two or three years, and now, their seventh album, I’m You, has arrived, you can read our review of it here. A couple of weekends ago, I ventured into Charlestown, MA, a suburb of Boston, to meet with a couple of The Hills at their cozy practice space. Sitting on the floor, drinking beer, and chatting, I had a lot of fun, at least. I don’t know about them.
I first wrote about Hallelujah the Hills back in 2010, when they launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to record their third album, No One Knows What Happens Next, when I wrote for the late, lamented London-based publication, Current Intelligence. I was fascinated by this method of raising money to record an album, as it essentially makes the fans investors in the band’s music and art, we are the patrons. I contributed to this fundraiser, though I lost my copy of the album in a hard-drive failure in 2013. The Hills have continued to use a similar model of fundraising for recording, I’m You was offered for pre-sale on Bandcamp last fall.
As guitarist/keyboardist/pianist/vocalist and band leader Nicholas Ward notes, this is a means to raise funds and connect with the band’s fan base, which is rather rapid, it turns out. With No One Knows, The Hills made it clear that they were going to record whether they raised a lot of money or none, and I get the sense nothing has changed for the band. It’s clear that they both love making music with each other, and they are also actually friends away from the band. And sitting with Ward and frontman and songwriter Ryan Walsh in that practice space, it was really clear they’d been friends for a long time, and knew each other well, even finishing each other’s sentences at times. And they laughed a lot.
As Walsh notes, ‘The whole reason the band is still together is because…we just genuinely all like each other and making music. It’s really easy to keep going.’ Adds Ward: ‘It’s been surprisingly easy for while now.’ And, of course, they note that there isn’t a lot of pressure to tour, they can more or less do what they want to. Walsh is most interested in making records and writing songs, though Ward notes that he likes playing shows. And this is one of the liberating things about not being kids anymore, they’re veterans, and it’s not like they’re making a living off of the band, so it’s ‘the pleasure of doing,’ says Walsh.
(As an aside, it has become increasingly clear to me through the bands I’ve talked to in this gig, and my friends who are still rocking out, that is it damn near impossible for indie bands to make money in this day and age. A few weeks ago, my good friend, Dave, who is the frontman of the Montréal-based punk band, The Peelers, posted a picture on his Facebook page of the band’s royalties from streaming services. The grand total was less than $20.)
Ward notes that they’re in a good place with recording, ‘We’ve also really figured out recording methods over time. With every record, you sort of build a new machine and put together how you’re gonna do it. But we’ve made a couple of records in the same place with our friend, Dave Drago…and we work really well in that environment. Recording has been fruitful and easy.’
And I’m You is their seventh album, ‘our Swordfishtrombones!’, says Ward, which immediately leads to Walsh: “Oh yeah, we were doing the other day, like internally, we think this album is the best, and if you don’t think, and, I mean, if you don’t think your latest is the best…’ there’s no point in doing it ‘but then we were like, is there a precedent for this, like what band is their seventh their best?’ Ward brings up The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, and then there’s Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand. Ward mentions Wilco’s Scmilko in a peal of laughter; Walsh: ‘That was a no.’ And, of course, U2’s Achtung! Baby, and Walsh likes that album, though maybe not their best. Ward also notes they came up with a list of ‘maybe not their best, but comforting ones,’ like Zuma by Neil Young. Or Achtung! Baby, for that matter.
To my ears, it was with their second full-lengther, Colonial Drones, where Hills found their sound, though Walsh doesn’t agree: ‘Well, I don’t know, people would argue with that, some people would argue that we were perfect on the first album and then haven’t been that way again.’ It was a band figuring out how to do everything, so Colonial Drones ‘was kind of lushly orchestrated, it was a big swing, and it’s the one I have the most mixed feelings about,’ says Walsh, but, ‘people like it,’ he shrugs.
One of the things I find the most stunning about Hills is their ability to create these lush, cinematic soundscapes, that ramble on, and at times, sounds like it’s all going to break. But it never does, the band always keeps itself together, never falling apart. And, to me, this has always put Hills in the same discussion as early Arcade Fire or the Pogues, not that they necessarily agree. And that orchestral sound of Colonial Drones has never really left the band. Ward, however, hesitates
to use the word “orchestral,” mostly because that implies a level of organization above what I think is happening here. I mean, we have parts, and we know what we’re doing, but it’s never, like a string section, it’s always in it and there’s a lot that is improvised. We have a lot of respect for weird, magical accidents and holding onto things like that. There is a large variety of sounds, and that’s always been important.
And this is my point, they sound big, the sound grand. Walsh notes, though, that that stopped for awhile, because after that Kickstarter-funded album, No One Knows What Happens Next, ‘our cellist left and then we leaned in, and kinda went in reverse, starting off barebones, kinda punky, and then came the strings, but now we kind of went the other way, and for the two albums after that, we leaned into fast guitar stuff.’ But, as Ward notes, Rutledge was doing more synthesizer, less trumpet, which, of course, is what led to the lush sound, though perhaps it was different than what it had been.
One of the great skills of Hills is Walsh’s ability to write songs that just stick in your head, that just burrow in there and won’t leave you alone. Back in 2016, when A Band Is Something to Figure Out dropped, I was living in Alabama, and all that entailed, from the country music to the evangelicals to the racism, and I have a great sound system at home. And so I put on this album on, and just cranked it up, and there was this massive cacophony of sounds and music. And this is the thing about Hills, just like with the Stone Roses’ legendary début, in which I can find new sounds everytime I listen to it (and god knows how many times I’ve listened to it in the past thirty years), so it is with Hallelujah the Hills. This is an impressive skill.
Walsh notes that they set out to never make the same album twice, and they’ve managed not to do that, but they have that bigness of sound. Ward notes that Walsh is also an artist, both through visual art and film, ‘and in everything you [Walsh] do, there’s always sort of that sense of a lot stuff stuck in next to each other, and you don’t quite know how it’s going to be harmonious, but you tinker with it until it does.’ This makes sense to me, especially given Walsh’s book, Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968. This is a book ostensibly about Van Morrison’s time in Boston in 1968, as he fled New York due to some contractual issues and mobsters and fears about being deported. It was there that he sketched out the songs that became his ground-breaking Astral Weeks album. But, this isn’t really a book about Van Morrison, though he is in it. It is also a book about the manufactured attempts to create a ‘Bosstown’ sound to rival the Merseybeat, the Fort Hill community, the folk scene, and Timothy Leary and drugs. There is a lot crammed into the 300 pages of the book. To me, it was like a Hills album.
And so Walsh says, ‘To me, the most interesting about art or making stuff is to leave some element to chance. And so there’s always things, whether it’s like “I’m not writing everyone’s part, so let’s see how you react to what I brought in” or, you know, the improv stuff that we’ve done, or starting to write a book with two mysteries involved and not being sure I could write either of them; that’s the thrilling thing to me.’
Adds Ward: ‘The last thing we released before [I’m You] was called Against Electricity, and it’s all instrumental, we got a chance to do the interstitial music on Ryan’s audio book, so we kind of wrote a song for each chapter, and there’s a lot of recurring themes, and we got a day in the studio to go record ten seconds of music for each song, and ended up making a whole record.’
Against Electricity is, ultimately, Ward’s favourite. They note this is the only Hills album that could be background music. And that’s the thing, Hills don’t make music to wash the dishes or clean the house to. It demands your attention, it demands that you stop and pay attention. It is music that must be listened to. And, for me, it is music designed for the car, for driving. And funnily enough, this is how Walsh tests all the mixes of the song, in his car. ‘The car is perfect because you can kind of zone out, and you’re moving fast, and you can pay attention to it, but you can’t give it all your attention.’
Walsh is the song-writer of the band, as I noted, but it’s not as if he writes complete songs. He likes to sketch out his songs, and come to the rehearsal space with, he hopes, a full set of lyrics, and then let the band take it where he may. And sometimes, this means things he imagined as being fast songs end up slow and vice versa. For example, on the new album, he brought in the shell of ‘Running Hot With Fate’ and he imagined it ending up on a kind of ‘Werewolves of London’ vibe, except this didn’t happen, as it instead became a banger, and a classic massive Hills song. Ward reports that on the past couple of albums, working with Dave Drago, Walsh came in with more sparse sketches than usual, and the band worked harder to flesh them out, but with I’m You, he had complete, or complete-ish songs, when he came to rehearsal, though, of course, songs didn’t always end up as he planned. Walsh also notes that this is an album where the final tracking of the album is pretty close to the order in which the songs were written and recorded. The first song he wrote for the album was ‘My Name Sounds Sinister’ and the last was ‘Memory Tree,’ which happen to be the opener and closer of the album.
Walsh then mentions how the identity theme emerged around I’m You, most notably from the getgo, with the opening lyrics, ‘Hello, I am the person singing the song/And if you think that might be you/Well I guess you might not be wrong.’ The first time I heard the advance copy of the album, it was late at night, and I live in a very quiet place. So there was no sound around me, and it was on headphones. And this opening set of lyrics was kind of spooky, like check behind you spooky. Walsh says that he’s always trying to think about an opening line to shake listeners out of their preconceptions, and he hit it on the nail here. And so this is the album about identity. Walsh:
Recordings of songs, when you really try to think of them in that stoner way, are really weird. They are like little virtual reality machines, temporarily putting you inside someone else’s shoes, or tweaking your own identity to meet the song’s. I remember, as a kid, listening to a song like ‘Spanish Bombs,’ by the Clash. Now, the lyrics of that song have absolutely zero to do with me and my life at that point, but I remember biking around the neighborhood and imagining myself as the narrator. I think we naturally do this with songs. So then to call attention to it at the top of the album–first thing–acknowledge that experience, would be an interesting exercise to try.
And, of course, this is the thing, we’re all singing along to our favourite songs, in the shower, vacuuming driving. And in those moments, we are the singer, are are Mick Jagger or David Bowie or Bono or whomever.
There is a connection, of course, between the book Astral Weeks and the lyrics on I’m You (at this point, Ward starts singing ‘Folk Music is Insane,’ the second track on the album, pointing out the obvious). And Walsh points out the obvious, that his lyrics reflect everything that was going on in his life and what he was doing when he wrote the songs. The fact that we all know he was writing and publishing a book means we can find traces of it in the lyrics on I’m You, but only he will know a lot more references. This made me think of Nick Cave. The Bad Seeds released Skeleton Tree in 2016, in the wake of Cave and his wife Suzie Bick, lost their son, Arthur, in 2015, and so everyone presumed that Skeleton Tree was reflective of that. But it wasn’t, as the album had been mostly written and recorded by the time the tragedy struck. In fact, it was this year’s Ghosteen that reflected Arthur’s death. We make presumptions about song lyrics, based upon what we know of the writer’s life, and, well, these presumptions can be wildly off-base.
Ward also notes that Walsh’s activities in writing the book was very much reflected in the new album, ‘as that material has been very much with us as a band, and it would be shocking if it didn’t make its way into the music.’
Hills are very much a Boston band, they are rooted in the city, and their songs and lyrics reflect that. And, of course, Walsh’s book is an underground history of Boston in 1968. And while they don’t wander around with Red Sox caps on and Patriots jerseys, that doesn’t make them any less of a Boston band. And one of the things I find most interesting about Boston is that, despite its size and importance, it’s not exactly a hot bed of rock’n’roll. Not a lot of bands make it from the city. We came up with what we thought was a comprehensive list and it was pretty short: Boston, the Cars, Mission of Burma, Pixies (sort of, they met at UMass-Amherst in the Western half of the state), Buffalo Tom, Belly, and the Dropkick Murphys. Ward notes there is a long list of people from Boston who moved elsewhere and did great things, like perhaps most notably, the late, lamented Guru of Gang Starr, who always repped NYC, but he was from Boston. Ward also notes that this was also true in terms of actors, comedy, etc., as well. Louis CK is also originally a Bostonian, but claims New York City as his base. Walsh had an interesting take on this:
It’s a second-string city, it’s so close to New York, it’s never going to be New York, and it kind of wishes it might or the art people do. There’s an underground element, I mean, I tell you what, the underground identity was so much a part of this city until ’04 (when the Red Sox broke their 86 year curse and won the World Series) and we became a sports town. It’s changing right now, it’s weird, because this is the underdog city, and so I grew up always thinking of myself as an underdog. Do I have to change along with the city? Should I? Not sure.
And then he notes that Boston is weird, it is a weird city, and that is its charm, between all the underground communities. As Ward notes ‘We were found by hardcore religious psychos.’ And Walsh notes that that Puritan legacy stuck around, the city had an official censor until the 1970s. As Ward notes, ‘For a fairly liberal place, you know, it’s been a long, slow, steady slog of trying to scare the devil out of people.’
Boston, for Walsh, is a duality-ridden city, ‘We’re liberal, but there’s also a Puritan hangover. And the identity is we’re the top thinkers in the world, and the hardhats who love to go to Dunkies.’
And then when this comes to the music scene is ‘not a terrible ambitious music town,’ and for Ward, this is the beauty of Boston. It’s not Nashville, with the professionalized, sleek musicians. In other words, Hills are making the argument that Boston is a much more real town in terms of the music scene. It is also, as far as I can tell, a pretty closely-knit scene.
I’m You drops on Friday. We will be running a review of it tomorrow, on Thursday. And, for those in the Boston area, they’re launching the album at Great Scott, in Allston, on 19 December. See you there.