Hellions: Interview with Matt Gravolin

I’m a bit nervous actually,” I started. In the lead up to getting on the phone with Hellions‘ guitarist and vocalist Matt Gravolin, my stomach was doing flips when I was wondering to myself just HOW I could condense my curiosities about the band’s upcoming album Rue into one conversation. As I’d found in my review (and also my Opera Oblivia review) there’s multi-layered richness to Hellions’ music that I wasn’t sure I manage to adequately capture.

On the flipside, I was getting to ‘meet’ Matt, phone-wise, and was very excited about the chance to chat with one of my favourite lyricists (and creative superheroes). “You know what, so am I”, Matt replied with a laugh. “I’ve never really had somebody understand the work so thoroughly, so it’s a pleasure to speak to you”.

Cue my awkwardness, instead of a meaningful response to a compliment, and my clumsy slide right into what I assumed might be a relatively easy and nerve-soothing topic: The Rue album artwork.

The Artwork

The design of a Molotov cocktail doubling as a vase for orchids gained additional weight of meaning for me after absorbing the songs of the album. Post-Rue, I saw it more clearly as a visual reinforcement of the duality that the music had expressed; a split between destruction or life/beauty. Matt confirmed this understanding, referring to the image as presenting “destruction and renewal, both sides of the coin in one image”.

He shared that the artwork was brought to the band by designer Jefferton James without context, and that the image and its potential had left an impression upon the members of Hellions, despite being “kind of a template, without any real back story behind it or anything”. Matt shared that the design was originally just the Molotov cocktail, “but then we added the flowers and the butterflies and it all started to come together from there.”

Originally, the artwork that was being explored for Rue was a far different design created by Pat Fox. Pat had taken the music of Rue and brought it to life by way of characters and scenery, rich in red, blue, and black, and leaned heavily into the rich theatricality of the album. Though Hellions decided to take another direction due to time/schedule factors, they’ve shared Pat Fox’s Theatre Of The Lotus design, as well as including prints with pre-orders.

Having seen the Theatre Of The Lotus artwork on social media and becoming curious about the featured characters, I asked Matt if he could elaborate about it. As a listener/reviewer, I hadn’t managed to extract details of the eight or more characters of Rue that appeared in the design, and I was concerned that I’d missed something glaring in my interpretation; to me Rue had all seemed to be centred around one character’s recognitions and realisations within himself.

“It is one person”, began Matt, “But just many entities within the one person. In that image that Pat has done, there’s a character there that represents that feeling of pessimism.. the child [“Odyssey”] is in there as well.. you’ve got the Ringmistress character that opens up “Theatre Of The Lotus”.. there’s a Jeckyll and Hyde in there. It’s really specific. Pat was wonderful in delving into it that far. He had sort of picked up on all the different perspectives and spoken to us about it, and we had to confirm with him and sit down and comb through it and give an identity to all of these perspectives. That drawing is what he ended up with. It’s all within the one person. A lot of the record is about that: The multi-faceted nature of a human mind and how there can be so much going on at one time.”

This idea of multiple facets and how the different parts of us interrelate is audibly a key theme of what’s shared in Rue. It is most blatant in the conversations of “Blueberry Odyssey”, and “Theatre Of The Lotus”, but also exists with every instance of self-berating, -questioning, or -encouragement. Matt referred to the Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde book by Robert Louis Stevenson, which features such powerful gems as: “With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.”

Karma Studios x 3

There was a painstaking process to bring Rue to life, in more ways than one. Though they’d considered themselves to be finished last year, the album is the result of three visits to Karma Studios in Thailand, where Shane Edwards had lent his creative forces as producer. Intending for the first visit in August 2017 to be to “polish and shine it up”, there were some concerns with the album perhaps being “too much of a thinkpiece” and a desire to make it more digestible by way of sound. Matt shared that the effervescent “Get Up!” and limit-busting encourager “Smile” were the product of revisiting with this in mind.

Over the three visits, Matt shared that 20 songs were created all up. While this is a bit of a tease for Hellions aficionados (even though we’re on the cusp of having 12 delivered in Rue), Matt assured me that those unused songs will find their way out at some point. “They’ll be on a record, maybe the next in the form that they are, or maybe with this record having weaned the listener into it, they will have changed into another thing. But they always make their way onto a record somehow.”

Turning curiosity factor up to extreme, Matt mentioned a specific piece of music that he had lent his voice to. “We had this version of “Amazing Grace”, that was really dark and droning. I changed all the words to that melody, because it’s so haunting and timeless and everybody knows that melody. I’d like to put it out at one stage.” 

“It’s got to be perfect.” – Matt Gravolin

When I’d interviewed Matt in February, he’d explained his process of writing music, saying that he starts by trying to match emotions with guitar chords, hoping for the project to start to take its own shape, then spending time to fully complete it. This bigger picture evolution from emotion to song is also what went into Rue, with Matt confessing that it takes “bloody forever, just because I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I can’t really let it go. It’s got to be perfect.”

“I’m writing words all the time. In general, almost too much. I can’t really have a thought without writing it down. I always have this big collection of words in my phone or in my journal or whatever and it always seems like an endless stream. There’s always so much in there. So it’s not really a concern, as that comes to me fairly easily. But the music is a fair bit more difficult. I’ll sit down with a guitar and just start with chords, basic chords, and jazz it up with rhythm, and find a speed, and all that sort of thing and hope it cascades from there. Once I sort of identify how that song is feeling, then I’ll go back through all those words that I’ve got and pick out the best bits to suit the way the song feels and then start to piece it together from there. That might sound a little bit quicker than what it actually is, because it can take up to three months for a song to come together in its final form.”

Layers

At this point I wondered out loud of this intense/lengthy process is how and why Hellions capably create the really rich songs they have in their repertoire, which seem to demand repeat listens and revisits to appreciate the full breadth of what’s being shared. Matt bounced off this, referring to how Depth has previously explored Hellions songs, and shared his thoughts on the differences in how people approach music. “You’ve got to cater to someone who’s willing to look deeper like that, and also got to cater to someone who’s going to listen to it for face value of energy and how the chords put together make you feel. One person will get it as simply as that, where somebody such as yourself will take the time and really dissect it because it might resonate with them.”

Especially after reviewing Rue, I see Hellions as being a band that offers ‘the best of both worlds’, so to speak; where infectious, upbeat, and dance-inspiring choruses are positioned between really meaningfully dense and literarily demanding verses, and carrying thought-inspiring themes/concepts.

Kel: “You can’t get sick of it, because there’s always a more that’s being offered. Is that something that you guys deliberately intend to do?”

Matt: “Yeah absolutely. It is indeed. It’s got to have those layers to it. Or else, like you were saying, you will get sick of it.. if there’s not much to delve into, if there’s not layers to peel away. If you listen to a song and you really have a connection with it, I suppose your instinct is going to want to tell you to look further and look deeper into it and sort of dig a little bit. And I have that with my favourite artists. Sometimes you want to look deeper into it, but there’s nothing else to be seen. You enjoy it and you still love it, but you’re quicker to move on from it, I suppose, if there’s not like a little world within it. So yeah, it’s definitely something that we try to do; to create these little miniature worlds within the song that you can sit in and let it absorb you for a little while. A lot of my favourite artists do that to me and that’s something that I’ve learned over time.”

The Interludes

Though I wanted to run with that answer and ask Matt about his favourite artists, and to hone in on the ‘little worlds’ of Rue, I instead steered our attention toward the interlude tracks of the album instead. Featured on the album are shorter pieces of music, that tie in either to the track following or preceding them. They’re an interesting creative choice that expands on the music they’re coupled with. For example “(Cocoon)” is a stunning lullabye-esque starry sky vibing version of the melody of “Furrow” that streams outward and is drenched with possibility. I was keen to hear about the inspiration behind these ‘bracket songs’ (“(Blueberry)”, “(Cocoon)”, “(Theatre Of)”), and asked Matt about their tracklisting separateness.

“That was really a point of contention within the band. Not anything too serious, but we didn’t really agree. There was a clear division, and two factions within the band and one side wanted to have them together as complete songs. I quite romanticise the length of a song as well; the way you can sit in something, you know, 5 or 7 minutes uninterrupted. I think that’s a beautiful thing and a superpower. I thought it would have been really cool to have them as one thing. Some of the other guys thought it’d be better to have them separate because not a lot of people have the bandwidth for that. If you choose to, you can skip past that and get into the meat of the song. I suppose having them as separate entities you can have the best of both worlds. You can either sit through it or get rid of it and get straight to it, if that’s what you wish.”

Discussing this further with Matt, and thinking out loud about how Spotify users would be (either way), and what radio play impacts there would be, I lost grip on any kind of hard perspective of what would be ‘better’ either way, being able to see all sides. Matt summed it up nicely in saying “To me if I turned on the radio and I heard a vaudevillian waltzy intro like the start of “(Blueberry)”, I’d really like that. I’d think ‘Fuck, what’s this?! This is sick.’ [laughs] But for a lot of people, I guess the musical climate of today is that it might be a bit of a turn-off, you know.”  Matt ultimately decided that the other members of Hellions had “their heads screwed on better” than him, pragmatically speaking, and they obviously went with the choice to separate them. Catch me streaming “(Cocoon)” on repeat to form a magical sleep-related playlist.

Self-Contained Hell

Hitting the 20 minute mark and learning that there were no interviewers following immediately after me (yay), and Matt saying he was enjoying the conversation and happy to continue (double yay), a lot of my stress melted away that I might be able to cover all the things I wanted to ask after all. Going more into deeper questioning, I was curious to know whether the ongoing lyrical themes of existing within a ‘self-contained hell’ were coming from A) someone writing ‘from the trenches’, or from B) someone who’d made it through to the other side.

Understandably Matt took his time with his answer.  “I struggle a little bit with that sort of thing. I’m very self-contained and have a lot of problems with anxiety and self-consciousness. It’s a really crippling point, and I’m very paranoid. I always have irrational thoughts of somebody speaking ill of me. I’m just overly wary of the world around me and I have a lot of fear. It’s only recently that I’ve come to realise that it’s so much more common than I’ve thought. There was a lot of ego in me thinking that not a lot of people are like that, and my problems are so special and so unique, you know? It’s easy to wallow in that, and it’s only been recently that I’ve learned not to be so serious about it.”

With this sharing sparking hundreds of thought threads, Matt lost track of the question and the conversation evolved into talking about the sameness of all of us. Just as both of us were nervous about the interview, we might assume that we’re the only one affected (assuming our problems are unique), but perhaps the opposite is true; where all of us are coming at things in a manner that may be outwardly perceived as confident, yet we are all as wobbly in our self-view as anyone else is. We’re all in this situation together. This sameness shows up thematically within Rue as well, most memorably for me within the title track which literally says: “We all bleed the same, don’t we?”. We’re more similar than we are different.

Philosophical Pessimism

Then sparking off my comment and going into a momentary rabbit hole, Matt shared something he had gone through, relevant to sameness. “I got into a big philosophical pessimism bit. I wasn’t feeling very well last year, just wasn’t in the best place at the time and I was looking for answers about purpose and things like that. I just wasn’t.. I don’t know how to say it. I just wasn’t really seeing any.. It was just a deep unhappiness and I really needed some sort of specific purpose. And I was doing a lot of reading and I found a lot of answers in a very old way of thinking, philosophical pessimism, that primarily deals with the belief that we are not from here. The human race; we’re not of any natural habitat. Nothing needs us to sustain itself. We rely on it, and not the other way around. It doesn’t take much to see that we’re aberrational and destructive on the planet. We’ve evolved too high.”

“Higher consciousness has burdened us, with all of those things: anxiety, guilt, hate, financial stress, problems regarding purpose, self-esteem, finding love and maintaining it. All of that sort of thing is a daily encumbrance, and our minds prevent us from completely enjoying it in its entirety in like a single day of our lives. Not that it’s necessarily like that for everybody. Some of that might seem like it’s very trivial, but when you’re encumbered with that incessantly, it can outweigh all our combined happinesses.”

“And as morbid and horrible as all that sounds, it made a lot of sense to me than anything else and it gave credence to suspicions that I couldn’t really articulate about the human race, and what we are and what we’re doing. All of that to say that having thought about that stripped me of that ego that I was talking about, that comes with depression and anxiety and you really realise that each other is all we have. We’re all the same. Dealing with problems of higher consciousness that no other natural.. no plants or animals are going to have these problems that are specific to high consciousness. All that we have is each other.”

Though Matt had wondered how the writers could hit upon the confrontational sadness and continue to write about philosophical pessimism, he had still gleaned the importance of recognising that we’re all that we each have, and for this reason affirmed that “there’s a lot of virtue in treating each other well”.

The Tracklisting Order

Considering this ‘burden of higher consciousness’ idea seems to appear from the very first track of Rue, and the character of the album continues to gain understanding about himself and his purpose going forward, I was curious whether the tracks were in any kind of order of Matt’s own introspection and growth. “Sort of, in some ways”, was the initial answer, before sharing that Hellions had endeavoured for a ‘gentle rollercoaster’ with the album tracklisting, emotionally speaking.

Referring to the circus-like album opening combined with negatively angled lyrics, Matt knew that he wanted a “big discord” to run through the album. “I knew I wanted to start like that, and I had to come in like that with those heavy thoughts. I just thought it was necessary for that overarching message to start, and then resolve with “26”. “Blueberry Odyssey” going into “X (mwah)”.. “X” is probably the darkest song on the record: It’s a fancy sort of suicide note dressed up as bubblegum poppy rock thing. So that felt natural going into that.”

Following into (“pessimistic in itself”) “Smile”, Matt described a sinking into “Furrow”, before moving back upward of mood with “Rue”. “We sort of took off from the Opera Oblivia template, in that it needs to settle into moods for a little while, but then come out easily, like a gentle rollercoaster. It can’t jolt from mood to mood too quick, but it’s got to twist and turn and take you with it.

 

Queen & Freddie

From the mention to “Mr. Fahrenheit” in “Odyssey”, to “if Freddie wrote his Rhapsody at 29” in “X (mwah)” and “26”‘s mention of Beezlebub ‘having a devil put aside’ (and very likely other instances I’ve not picked up!), the influence of Queen is recognisable while retaining relevance to Hellions’ themes. Matt confirmed that he’s a “massive Queen fan” indeed and loves Freddie Mercury.

Going beyond the very well known singles, Matt shared that he fully explore Queen’s discography after creating Opera Oblivia and during the writing process for Rue. I listened to all of his stuff. It’s just so beautiful. I really wanted to find more of those vaudevillian piano based moments that are so expressive and that’s where “(Blueberry)” and bits like that came from. And the start of “Theatre Of The Lotus” as well. It all came from old Queen stuff that’s Freddie-written. I just think it’s so beautiful and it makes me feel.. in this unique way that not a lot of other things have done to me, and I really wanted to pay some homage to him over the course of the record. Just with brief little mentions here and there.”

As the vaudevillian presence is unmistakeable on Rue, I was curious as to this being purely as an homage or whether it carried any kind of metaphorical intention. Hellions being Hellions, of course there’s layers to it! Matt firstly laughed while describing that the dark lyrics coupled with the circus-vibing sound “helps bring out the sarcasm” at the introduction of “(Blueberry)”:

“Oh, praise be to us! The most intelligent organisms to gush forth
From the womb of nature’s grand concourse
Long may we reign!”

He also pointed toward the metaphorical circus of culture: “Have a look around. There’s not a lot of intelligence to be seen in the way that we worship celebrity culture and all the things that have gone on in our government. Because it sounds very silly and off with the fairies, it really helps bring to like the sarcastic and venomous element of the words that are being said.”

While Matt says that he “loves the way it sounds”, and appreciates the otherworldly far-gone-era impression the vaudevillian sounds offer, he recognises that it might be tough for some listeners to get into, and gives a nod to the tracklisting decisions. “There was a part of us that perhaps did realise that these parts aren’t for everybody, but we took a risk by opening up Rue like that. Something that we all loved, the theatre, and the general theatricality of those parts.. But yeah I certainly hope it connects with everybody. It certainly may not!”

Darkness & Light

With the idea of “X (mwah)” being referred to as a ‘suicide note’, I couldn’t help but circle back to the topic, given that piece of music is one of the happiest songs in my regularly streamed music. So how did that work?

“It’s crazy. That song in particular is such an anomoly. I’ve never written anything like that, and not to scare you, Kel, I’m fine and that was just a rough moment and all is well. But you combine those words with that music, it creates a very specific sort of.. insanity. When you combine happy music with really dark lyrics, it really sounds like you’re losing your mind. I think it’s just created this really specific, dark emotional blend that’s really quite strange and so specific. I’m always romanticising just putting those things together.”

I shared that I had understood the song as a wake-up call; that we’re comprised of the mystery and grandeur of stardust and flowing adaptable forces of water, and to live a mundane existence is wasted potential. Ever encouraging and accepting, Matt responded: “I like that. I really like that it’s taken that way as well.  A lot of people take it that way. DRE takes it that way! That’s his interpretation, that’s the way he likes to look at it.”

“I do feel sorry for the press sometimes because you’ll get some different answers from Dre and from myself. But it’s something I’ve always encouraged; people taking what they feel from the song straight away, because they aren’t so straightforward all the time. That’s kind of put a smile on my face to hear your perspective on it. That’s better that people take that message away from it, other than the perspective I was writing from.”

 

Another unmistakeable factor of Rue is Matt’s presence on vocals, with his softer voice appearing on several tracks across the album. It’s the most singing he’s done for Hellions “by a long shot”, previously appearing on “Thresher”, “24”, some choruses, and some of “25”. Now doubled or tripled, Matt lends his voice to some of the more gently emotive parts of Rue, working very well to provide a really full emotional experience in contrast of/and in conjunction with Dre’s aggression or hype-crafting oomph. “It was at the end and listening to the album as a whole, Dre and I were looking at each other: “Oh my god, dude, I’m so sorry [laughs]. I didn’t mean to..”. It definitely sounds much better with Dre in the lead.”

Luna & The Lotus

Fans of Opera Oblivia may have suspected the return of The Lotus Eater, with “The Lotus” appearing on Rue‘s tracklisting. “The theme of “Lotus Eater” is anxiety and the feeling was personified into this woman. We talk a lot about ‘she’ and ‘her’ in the first one, and in the second one it’s like putting that feeling of anxiety into a literal person that’s taking you over. We really wanted to put the flesh on the character this time with Luna, who does the introduction to it. As to why we continued it, it’s a continuing theme and a lot of us struggle with it. And because it was indeed the same topic as the first song, we’d keep it rolling. It was a fan favourite as well; a lot of people connected with “Lotus Eater” as well. It made sense on all fronts.”

Kel: “I really like the verses on “The Lotus”. The droning kind of sound but upbeat as well.

Matt: “It kind of reminds me of a bush doof [laughs] or like a warehouse party or something. [sings the melody] I had those notes, but Shane had created the synthy sound and Anthony came in with that beat and that made it what it was. Really cool, really unique.”

Kel: “It’s definitely unique, yeah. I heard it and was like ‘wow’. I kept saying ‘danceable’, but how else can you describe it? It just makes you want to move.

Matt: “Yeah for sure. I think Dre is really to credit for that. He’s capable of some wonderful things. Just the tone of his voice, in combination with what Anthony and Shane were doing, just makes it such a unique part. I take particular pleasure in that because I had a lot less to do with it normally than I do with the other stuff. So I can kind of just sit back and really take it all in and be proud of the boys. Yeah, it’s a really special part.”

Unify Gathering 2019

Before I let Matt get on with the rest of his day, I touched on the fact that Hellions had become a surprise addition to the line-up for Unify Gathering 2019 in January. It was a very pleasant surprise after having vouched for them myself with some social media love.

Kel: “There was a post on the Unify Gathering Facebook page and I put a comment ‘Are Hellions available?’ and it got hundreds of likes, and then a week or so later or something they did the announcement and I was so happy!”

Matt: “Mmm! Yeah I think you might have been a big contributor to that. The label had spoken to us and said ‘Well you’re the most mentioned name on the social media side of things’..”

Kel: “[laughs] What..”

Matt: “Yeah. [laughs] ‘All signs seem to point towards you coming back for the next year’ and we had so much fun this year that yeah, [laughs] we decided to do that.”

Kel: “[laugh] That is too funny.”

Matt: “[laughs] You might have singlehandedly done that.”

—-

This was a definite high note to end my chat with the very kind-hearted Matt Gravolin. Be very keen for what the Hellions crew have coming your way on Friday. Pre-order your own copy of Rue here: https://unfd.lnk.to/Rue

 

Kel Burch

Creator and caretaker of Depth Mag, Kel uses her superpowers of empathy, word-weaving, and feeling everything deeply, to immerse herself in music before returning to reality to write about her experience with it.

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