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Hands Like Houses Thrive Under Pressure for Their New EP

Two years on from their biggest album to date, Hands Like Houses are sharing their new EP, recorded in some of their most intense circumstances so far.

Ever since Hands Like Houses released their first album back in 2012, it’s been clear there is something special about the group. Hailing from Canberra, the rock outfit initially found more fame abroad than Australia, with their first three albums managing to reach higher peaks on most of the American charts than the local ARIA chart.

With records and EPs being released at a constant pace throughout their career, most fans would have assumed that following the release of Anon in 2018, it wouldn’t be too long before the traditional cycle would begin again for the group. However, while a global pandemic told the world that life would look a little bit different in 2020, so too was it made clear that things would be a little unconventional for Hands Like Houses.

Returning with new single, “Space”, in June, it was soon revealed that the group would be releasing a self-titled EP in October. Continuing things with tunes like “The Water” and “Dangerous”, it became clear that this new release was nothing like what the group had previously done. Recording in Australia for the first time, Hands Like Houses found themselves working with a compressed timeframe, more pressure, and more stress than ever before.

However, as the saying goes, pressure creates diamonds, and what their new EP showcases is a snapshot of a group at their peak. With latest single “Dangerous” scoring the band a sync deal for the 2020 football season, they’re set to release on one of their largest platforms to date, with more locals than ever before watching their every move.

With Hands Like Houses releasing their new EP on Friday, October 23rd, vocalist Trenton Woodley spoke to Rolling Stone to discuss the pressure-filled atmosphere of its recording, and what went into creating a release such as this.

I guess I should ask the standard question, which is, how have you been dealing with everything going on in the world lately?

To be honest, I live about half way between Newcastle and Gosford on the New South Wales Central Coast, so where I live is just out of the way enough that life isn’t that different. My wife and I are at work renovating our house, I was setting up to work from home on a few albums – a bit of a career shift but you know, obviously with COVID, some of the job opportunities dry up.

So I doubled down on band stuff and haven’t really had a chance to really get my head up above that, so it’s been like I said, life’s relatively normal but certainly not without its fair share of hurdles and challenges. 

Was much of the band’s activity sidelined by COVID then? With the EP coming out, were you able to get everything wrapped up as planned, or did the pandemic sort of throw things under the bus a bit?

For the most part everything’s been fine. We did have the conversation when COVID first hit, you know, “Do we delay things? Do we put it off? Do we change tack?” And we thought let’s just double down on it, we’re not really losing anything by putting it out earlier. I think touring is kind of its own thing for better, for worse. So we didn’t feel a tour was necessary for a release and vice versa. But you know, there were certainly plans we had.

We were going to do a vinyl pressing party at a little place in Melbourne, but obviously that’s no longer an option. [We wanted to] do a handful of local release shows, but that was kind of also not possible. So small things like that.

For the most part, we did have the time and space to really kind of utilise the extra time to actually really take more time to tell the story around the EP. Kind of give it some context and you know, look for those extra opportunities like we’ve had. 

How did the production of the EP begin. What made you guys decide it was time for an EP instead of an album? Or was there actually a decision before you hit the studio?

I think the intention was to… We’ve obviously been paying attention to how things have shifted over the course of our career, let alone the music industry in general. So, seeing that progression shift away from physical media, where it doesn’t make sense to buy a single so much… I mean, there’s still a time and place for that. So a full album was as much about practicalities as it was about creative bodies of work. And so for us, I think, observing those shifts, we felt like there was still the opportunity to use a body of work to kind of give context to any particular song.

So we didn’t want to abandon the album entirely. But the EP was kind of a happy medium where we could focus on… Like, we always felt like people listen to kind of, song five or six of the EP and then kind of just tune out. So it was always the latest songs on an album that just didn’t seem to connect for the same, for whatever reason. So I think for us was like, “Well why don’t just do the front half of an album?” Kind of give each song its own space, its own texture, its own identity so that it has its own time to do its own thing.

For us, the EP was more about a progressive and contextualised collection of singles, that kind of told a story across the five of them. But without beating you over the head with it [laughs].

Do you think this approach of smaller collections of songs on EPs will be something you’ll continue in the future? Or will you mix it up with albums or just see how it all goes?

I think it will be a bit of both, you know? There’s still I think a demand for albums, especially in the alternative and rock world. And I suppose in all of it there is still the demand for those large bodies of work, just to have that longevity, and it’s easy to kind of burn yourself out on a couple of songs.

But I think for us the intention is to just keep writing little pockets of music and I think EPs make it easier to be a bit more prolific so I think we’ll be putting out little pockets of music more often. Rather than kind of doing the kind of classic, you know, 18-month to three year, 18 to 36-month album cycle.

If we can put together enough material to do an album, then great. But I think for us it’s more likely to be kind of putting together little collections of ideas. Like, kind of conceptual groupings of little songs, and just the occasional single, the occasional little project-type EP, or yeah, we’ll see how it goes for sure. 

The last album took a while to emerge from the sessions you had while in LA, but then this time everything came about much quicker in a far more intense environment. How exactly where things different this time around? Was it more intense intentionally, or was that just through circumstance?

The intensity came from circumstance. I think we’d always anticipated kind of making an intensive workshop-type environment, but it also kind of got compressed more than we would have liked, in that we lost a little bit of kind of a plan and prep time we had prior to.

The biggest difference for us is that this is the first time we’d recorded in Australia. This was going to be the first time we’d actually record more than just a single song in Australia. So, we flew our producer, Colin [Brittain], out, we had a beach house rented out in Avoca Beach, which was lovely.

For us, one thing that came out of Anon, our last album… Writing that, we were in kind of thick of North Hollywood for our whole album. Like we’d done a song or two here and there over the years, but it was just after recording the last few in kind of an isolated little pocket in Florida, being able to kind of be in a place that was alive, was a big step for us.

And so kind of carrying that forward, it’s like it’s not only like a place that’s alive, it’s a place that’s home as well; more closer to home. It just gave us an opportunity to kind of be in a place that was comfortable. So we’d go to the beach in the morning and then work on some songs, and then play some table tennis and then go out and have dinner, and or drinks at the pub around the corner and then head back. So this is all obviously pre-COVID, when we were putting it all together, and it was that good balance of work and play.

But as it turned out, with the compressed timeline… Colin had some US commitments kind of stacked up right before he was due to come over. So we ended up losing about six or seven days on what we were due to work on. That kind of just compressed… yeah, it meant that we didn’t have a comfortable amount of time. We had a perfectly workable amount of time but certainly not a comfortable amount of time, so that kind of put a bit of extra pressure in as well. 

I guess there’s a mix of freedom of doing it in Australia, and then the pressure of the compressed timeline, so do you feel the combination ended up being beneficial for you in the end?

Yeah, to be honest, in the context, I don’t think we did handle it well. It’s hard to separate how well we dealt with it compared to the outcome, because we’re stoked on the outcome and the result. But in a lot of ways the, the result isn’t necessarily congruent with the actual process. So I think that pressure really brought out some of the interpersonal challenges that we have, just communicating ideas from different perspectives and viewpoints.

You know, part of that prep and plan time that we’d kind of lost meant that we weren’t able to kind of really talk about what the EP was going to be as a whole. So it meant that we were trying to put forward all these ideas, without much time to waste on ideas that weren’t going to work. But we had to really double down on kind of making them happen without the time to actually figure out what they needed to be. So it meant that we just kind of had to find things that just felt distinct and fill the space, aesthetically and texturally, and then kind of build the rest into it after that.

The finished result speaks for itself though. It’s a great EP and personally it feels like the sort of thing that Hands Like Houses might have been leading up to for years?

I don’t like the idea that we necessarily have been building towards any particular thing, because I think that [our work] has always been a kind of reactive process in a lot of ways. […] The average of the five us all doing our own thing in different directions means that you so many different factors play in. Like, what we’re individually listening to at the time, what we’re touring with.

Even things like outside commitments for one member means that they’re less able to be involved in ideas. So that means without their input into some early song writing ideas and stuff like that, we pull harder towards other people’s influences just because that other person didn’t have the time from outside commitments to be able to inject their own thing quite as strongly on a particular song or a particular record.

So that’s something that’s always been something kind of the constant for us, that sense of balance of different ideas and different viewpoints and different influences. And I mean, we’re all in this band touring together, and the bands that we’re around have more of an influence. But now that we’re spending more time at home, I think it’s more about what we’re listening to and I think that that’s what’s coming through in more recent music and particularly this EP.

Using that discussion about songwriting and recording as a bit of a segue, Hands Like Houses kicked off the EP with the release of “Space” as the first single, which I believe was all about the pressure of the recording process itself?

Yeah, it was about kind of a sense of isolation. I think that that was… ‘The loneliness of being in a crowd of strangers’ was kind of the mental headspace for that song, no pun intended. But I think that was the starting point and that felt like the right injection point for the EP, the access point. So we led with that one because it just felt like it set the mood and the tone for what the rest would be and created at least the headspace, if not the the musical context for everything.

Like we said, trying to give each song its own mood and texture and space to exist meant that we were able to kind of carve a story into the progression of how they would come out. Then each one kind of adds its own piece to the puzzle. 

I guess there was a bit of prescience in the fact that the theme of emotional claustrophobia became more relevant with everything that went on this year?

For sure. I mean, that’s the cool thing, I think when you tap into any sort of like universal truth… That’s one thing as a lyricist I’ve always tried to do, is distil things down to the raw emotion of it. And you know, what you one person’s trauma is from losing a job kind of brings out the same feelings in someone. The commonality there is lost. It’s looking for those kind of distilled ideas of what make us feel a certain way about different things.

And that’s kind of the way you can kind of shift your emotional weight from one foot to the other and still have that sense of significance and that sense of connectedness to what you’re doing.

But if you can write songs in a way that touches on something universal, then I think that no matter the context I think that they land in a better place. And I think that’s kind of what came about with “Space”, for sure. 

That also followed on with next single, “The Water”, which also sort of continued on with the theme of not quite fitting in. However, the most recent single, “Dangerous”, has also seen the band get some pretty major airplay with a footy sync deal as well. That would have to be a pretty surreal moment for you guys, and likely one of the biggest platforms you’ve been on to date?

I guess in terms of the mainstream recognition, it’s always hard to tell how big your friends bands are, because I think the reality is so different to what so many people’s view of the music world and what fame and scale and things like that are. You know, you might look like the biggest band in the world to one person and then you might look like an absolute no-one to another person.

So I think when you have opportunities like that with such iconic… I mean, sports is part of the social fabric of Australian life, so for each of us to have grown in different.. I grew up in Queensland and Canberra with a very much rugby league-orientated upbringing.

You know, I didn’t play it but my family all kind of support the Broncos growing up and then the Raiders for a couple of them. Then the other guys, they had family in Victoria. So there was always kind of the intra-family rivalries of the different teams that they supported.

So sports is kind of such a big part of who we are as individuals as much as Australians. And to have the opportunity to kind of be apart of one of the most memorable football seasons in history… For better or worse, it is definitely one of the most memorable. So that’s definitely a nice like feeling, an air of legitimacy about it. Even though we’ve done, in some ways, bigger and crazier things over the years. But it’s all just a matter of perspective and I think just being in this one, that it’s so recognisable to people like us, that that feels pretty significant and real. 

The EP also closed with the song “Wired”, which I heard was one that was quite close to your heart as well. What is the backstory behind that one?

I think the reason why it kind of really sits so close to home for me is because… It was the last one I finished while we were in a studio and it kind of encapsulated the whole struggle with the process. I think the other songs were kind of grappling and trying to deal with what I was feeling and the immediacy of everything was kind of what paved the identity to each part. But that was the last song I was putting together and I was honestly, genuinely struggling. I just had no idea when it started, it just felt like it was forming outside of my normal circle of influences. So I just had no idea what type of melody, what type of lyrics, just how to approach it.

I think for me, the breakthrough was almost like literally seeing it in my head with someone else’s voice. Like, imagining a different singer on it. [I] listened to a couple of different tracks that, for me, felt totally familiar. Like, a couple of Trophy Eyes tracks and a couple of Gang of Youths songs in particular ended up part of [it].  In my head, I also was trying to play with melodies. I started hearing John [Floreani] from Trophy Eyes or Dave [Le’aupepe] from Gang of Youths, and just started like that, that real kind of intimate, gravely baritone sort of sound. And that kind of gave me the kind of foothold into the rest of the song.

So very much from a musical standpoint, that was kind of enough for me to create some momentum and then I think look at the lyrical side of things. I think my own struggles with feeling like I’m always on a slightly different wavelength to everyone else, like, this feeling of being kind of out place, so to speak. Is just not quite being on the same page as everyone else. I think for me it’s always just that feeling of separation from others and that’s why so much of our lyrical content over the years has been about communication.

It’s been about trying to bridge totally opposing ideas or ideas that seem like they’re totally opposing, or appreciating the subtlety of nuance in between things, rather than just being this binary one way or the other. And that’s so much of my own though process on a daily basis. All the important parts of my life in my relationship, in my marriage, in my friendships, in my family connections, you know what I mean? Like, that’s something I’ve always found a challenge is, how do you explain abstract ideas, how do you communicate your intent when people only see your actions or your words?

And so that song really was… it was about being exhausted. It’s just like, “Am I just burnt out, weighed down by the way I’m wired? Is the way that I am the thing that’s stopping me from connecting and being able to have a healthy, creative relationship with the people I’m trying to work with right now?” That was kind of the immediacy of it.

It really came from my universal struggle and being the song that kind of closed out the EP, both literally and also in it being the last song that I finished, it just had this beautiful sense of catharsis when those last couple of words went down. Yeah, that was it, – that just felt like that was off my chest. So I really felt like people will hear that song in particular.

It was just like, “Look, everything’s on the table and I’m on the floor.” [Laughs] You know what I mean? It really was just that sense of like, “Well, take it or leave it, this is me, this is at my most vulnerable. And I think, at my most distilled.”

Hands Like Houses are set to release their self-titled EP on Friday, October 23rd, with pre-saves available now.