Well with the festive season behind us, it’s time to get back on an even keel and attempt to grapple once more with some sort of normality (whatever that means!) Therefore, we’ll kick off the blog year in fine style with an interview with one of our favourite artists from 2013 who also happened to release one of the best albums of the year. The Happy Hollows formed when free-spirited mystic & tarot card reader Sarah Negahdari and UCLA Ph.D. Charlie Mahoney met in 2006 at a Los Angeles mall – little did they know that this fateful meeting would be the start of a musical adventure that would result in writing songs together and clocking up some 200,000 miles touring the USA!
As ever we are left befuddled as to why more blogs haven’t been waxing lyrical about the bands second album ‘Amethyst.’ It genuinely is a stunning body of work and marked a radical change in direction which saw the trio move away from the idiosyncratic off kilter grunge sound found on their self released début album’ Spells’ to embrace an enthralling mix of synth driven indie guitar pop.
‘Amethyst’ is a dazzling explosion of emotion and driving melody fusing experimental electronica with spiralling shoegazy guitars, soaring melodies and the towering vocals of singer songwriter and guitarist Sarah Negahdari. It’s an album brimming with life affirming tunes, an uplifting cosmic musical rocket ship* that explores the mystery of, and embraces the wonder of, being alive. If you’ve yet to hear it we suggest you do yourselves a favour and remedy the matter forthwith. We promise your ears will be eternally grateful. (*Paul Morely alert!)
We chatted to Sarah about the bands formation, the mystical nature of songwriting and her time as guitarist with the Sliver Sun Pickups.
VP: Let start with a bit of background, have you really been around as a unit for SIX years? In addition, is it true you took your name from a Zoo?
Sarah: Charlie and I have been in the band together for that long, but we’ve had various drummers, and Matt Fry joined the band as lead guitarist around the time we recorded ‘Amethyst.’
I grew up in San Jose, in Northern California, and there is a zoo called Happy Hollows. When I began the band, I liked the name because it uses both extremes of emotions in one title. I thought it was a nice juxtaposition, and it’s a nod to where I grew up.
VP: I guess your earlier output could be described as noisy, intense quirky experimental existential garage rock – your debut album ‘Spells’; was well received back in 2009, why did it take four years for the follow up “Amethyst” to emerge.
Sarah: While touring for Spells in 2010, I wrote songs for a more feminine, lo-fi acoustic side project called “Pisces”. I recorded Pisces songs in 2011, and then we began writing our new record for Happy Hollows immediately after. We wrote Amethyst throughout 2011, and recorded it in early 2012. Then I got asked to tour with Silversun Pickups for 2012-2013, so I had to put our record release on hold. I have been very busy with music, and I haven’t had a break at all from writing and performing. The short answer is that Amethyst took four years to release because of my other projects and bands.
VP: ‘Amethyst’ is an amazing record, but obviously the sound is far more synth driven and there seems to be a different focus and drive. There’s almost a sense of a band having some sort of musical epiphany. Did you approach writing these songs in a very different way from your earlier work?
Sarah: Before we wrote the album, our long-time drummer Chris Hernandez had to leave the band for personal reasons. Charlie and I really felt exhausted by auditioning new drummers, and we instead decided to use his old beat boxes and synths to play over loops he would build. All of the songs were built upon these synth loops, and then we had our best friend Matt join us in adding more guitar layers.
This process really changed the way we went about writing and the sonic style of our sound. At the time, I felt very inspired to learn more about guitar tones, and how to sing more dynamically, and I really wanted to make an album with a lot of beauty, because that was the mood I was in at that time.
I think it’s very important as an artist to honestly document where you are in your life, even if that means you change from what others have come to categorize you as. ‘Spells’ was very jumpy and experimental in many ways. That feeling was true to me at that time. At the time of writing Amethyst, I felt very inspired to create music as a team, and to make music that was beautiful and more traditional in structure. That was, for me, actually the most experimental and new place I could explore at that time.
VP: and vocally too there is a different vibe, a soaring emotion – a vibrant intensity that’s perhaps less idiosyncratic than on your debut, was that a conscious decision?
Sarah: Thank you! Yes. I have struggled for so many years with my voice, and I dreamt of one day being able to sing really fully. Our producer, Lewis Pesacov, is truly the person that coached me and helped me to harness what was there all along. I just didn’t know it until Amethyst! When we got into the studio, the first song we did vocals for was a song called “Cloud Head”, which ended up being a b-side. I started singing it in a soft whisper. He told me to stop and he gave me a vocal training cd and told me to do the exercises every day and come back to record in a month. I did and the exercises really helped. Then, when I returned to the studio, he would make me the songs all day until I got the perfect take. We would have to take days between recording the vocals for each song because I would lose my voice every session. He was amazing, and really helped me to find my voice. Without him, it would have been all whispers!
VP: So as mentioned you’re originally from San Jose, you moved to NYC but are now based in L.A. – were these relocations all primarily music related?
Sarah: Yes, they were. I moved to NYC and played folk music for 8 months. During my first winter there, it was so cold! I just couldn’t survive. I decided I was a California girl at heart. At the time, I really had no interest in southern California, but I really wanted to continue to live away from where I grew up in northern California. One night in NYC, my best friend and I were at a cafe that had the Hollywood sign painted behind me. He said, “Sarah, I am having an intuitive knowing that you need to move to L.A., look behind you.” I don’t know if we just had too many drinks, or what, but I turned around and looked at that cheesy painting and said, “Yeah, ok, why not!” A week later, I flew out there to stay with his friend for a weekend, to see if I liked it. By that Sunday, I had found a super affordable apartment, and then, I just moved! It was so weird and fast and totally random! Soon after that I met Charlie!
VP: You’ve always said that you feel a compulsion to write songs, that you are moved by sound and that there’s a sense that the songs choose you rather than you choose the songs – But what sort of things do you draw inspiration from, the news? Literature? The minutiae of everyday life and the often moving small victories there in?
Sarah: Songwriting is truly mysterious, but the only way to explain it is that I can hear the song, already in form, at least the vocal melody, and it’s floating above me. I have to listen very quietly to hear it. I have to catch it right when I hear it, and often it comes when I am driving or showering or sleeping, and it’s very weird. I have to run to my phone and record it, or get out my notepad and write down the words. It is just that way. I wish I could take credit for it, but honestly, I just hear it and do my best to catch it while it’s hovering over. All the words are there with it. I hear the melody and sometimes the words are a bit harder to make out, and then I fill in the gaps with my own best interpretation of what I’m hearing the song sing to me.
Often, a movie, artwork, or a personal experience will cause me to compose songs. Those three things usually make me hear melodies, which I then turn into songs.
VP: You’ve also been touring as a member of Silversun Pickups, what would you say was the one thing you learnt from that experience?
Sarah: That life can surprise me when I least expect it. They called me out of nowhere, and it was one of the most thrilling adventures of my life. I learned a lot. I also learned that I love whiskey, and I can dance all day and night, with little to no sleep, and be just fine!
VP: How’s 2013 been for yourself and The Happy Hollows? A year to remember?
Sarah: Yes, it’s been quite a year. I think our year has only recently begun, because we were on hold until I got back from tour with Silversun in July. So far, it has been amazing to be back together again. We did my favorite tour of my whole life around the U.S. this fall. We really had such a magical time. It was very special.
VP: What are your plans for 2014, can we tempt you over to the UK for some shows?
Sarah: We are planning on coming over this summer!
VP: Bands always have experiences that deviate from the normal, what have been your weirdest and/ or most memorable experiences since you embarked on your journey along the musical highway?
Sarah: We’ve had so many odd experiences – from playing in laundromats to being on TV. The most rewarding experiences are always the creative breakthroughs we have when composing songs. That’s what keeps us going!
VP: If we chat to you in a year’s time, what would you like to have achieved?
Sarah: I hope we’ve written a bunch of new songs!
VP: Five words to sum up the Happy Hollows would be:
Sarah: energetic, deceptive, colorful, prismatic, resilient
Credit: Eric Kelly