“Love is the only thing that matters”: A conversation with Hellions
Matthew Gravolin from Hellions met me in my apartment to discuss the bands’ latest album Rue, finding comfort in philosophical pessimism and the all-encompassing power of love.
The inception of Hellions fourth effort was no easy feat. The band were forced to travel back to their studio and second home in Thailand to complete the record three times. “It was the better part of two years. Three of those months were in the studio – which is insane for us. We’ve only ever done one month per record before. So that was crazy.”
Though it has been a turbulent few years for the Sydney quartet, they have risen victorious. Rue is a heart-rending, affecting and ambitious body of work. It explores themes of depression, childhood, self-loathing and personal and societal neurosis with a careful hand. It is a record that challenges its audience to think, but perhaps most importantly, it encourages them to care.
Many heralded Hellions last release Opera Oblivia to be their magnum opus, but I argue that this their best effort yet. Rue is the crowning achievement of a band that has never once shied away from radical experimentation. It is the result of a decade worth of exploration and reflection. It is an album that champions vulnerability, perspective and kindness. It weaves personal experiences into universal stories and relentlessly fights for goodness.
Watch: Hellions – Smile
Tone Deaf: Talk me through the writing process of this album. Where did you find your inspiration? Were there any pivotal events that spurred the creative process?
Matt: Musically, I tend to look back rather than around the present. So we were listening to Queen and things that have come and gone, more so than anything contemporary. I think it’s important for our music to be different, it needs to stand out. For it to be valid for me, it needs to be different from anything going on now.
I had a bout of, I don’t want to call it depression but I struggled with anxiety. A deep and lingering unhappiness I guess. That was hugely influential on the lyrical side of things. I turned to philosophy. I lost myself in reading. In particular philosophical pessimism was a big point for me. I found a comfort in it. It’s the strangest thing, generally, it’s quite dark. It helped me and that showed in the writing.
Tone Deaf: Could you talk to me a bit about the characters that populate the album?
Matt:So with the opening track, you’ve got Mr Blue, who is referred to in Blueberry Odyssey. The verses are spoken by Mr Blue himself and the chorus is spoken from the perspective himself as a child. The reason behind him being called Mr Blue is sort a satirical…you know he’s sad because he’s “blue”. And from a childlike perspective that is the most obvious way to say that. It’s how I wanted Mr Blue to be communicated — like what would a 5-year-old say to a person that’s carrying themselves this way? It would be so bewildering to a child to see that when you still have all your youth intact.
We’ve got a ringmaster that announces side B of the record in the form of Beth Morris, whose stage name is Luna. She is a personification of anxiety. That character is basically my inner anxiety and all my stress and worry portrayed as a woman.
There’s also a constant Jekyll and Hyde battle. More specifically a guilt versus a guiding light. They’re warring throughout the whole thing. The guilt shows itself in ‘Harsh Light’ and in ‘X (Mwah)’, which was more of a suicide note. (I’m not long for this world / It’s nice to know). The guilt really comes to the forefront in that. The opposition of Jekyll manifests itself most distinctly in the title track ‘Rue’ – which is just a humanitarian anthem. It’s all our well-wishing for the world.
The most important thing that we can impart is that you’re not alone.
Tone Deaf: What do you hope people take away from ‘Rue’?
Matt:Rue is a commentary – it’s a truth. It’s not a handbook for anybody. If there is something that somebody was to take from it, I hope it’s that you’re not alone. Especially in our generation, it’s just rife with mental illness, in a way that it’s never been before. The way we struggle is insane. The most important thing that we can impart is that you’re not alone.
Tone Deaf:You’ve stated that “The tracks are divided into the pessimistic and humanitarian sides of life.” Did you consciously set out to make an album that explores this divide, or did it just unfurl itself organically over time?
Matt:It just happened. When we set out to make a record, we don’t set any linear track or else the record reflects that. We want to colour outside the box. I’m not sure how that came about specifically.
Again, philosophical pessimism acted as a source of comfort for me, as a reason, as some rational explanation for what we are and how we’re here. Which is that we’re essentially not meant to be here, we’re mistakes and our consciousness is far too high for us to enjoy an entirety of a single day of our lives.
Which sounds really morose, and it is. I think for myself and for a lot of people you’ve got your anxiety and depression and self-consciousness. They’re the three things we’re riddled with every day. But even down to minor things like financial struggle and maintaining a relationship and all those sorts of things.
Tone Deaf: Is it scary to share something so personal?
Matt:It is, but we’ve come accustomed to it at this point. I guess music is not any good unless it’s brutally honest and personal, it has to be that way.
Tone Deaf: Did you catch yourselves comparing this record to previous Hellions’ records throughout the process of writing and after the fact?
Matt:Yeah, it was so scary. We’ve never had that pressure before. The last record, Opera Oblivia was our first successful record. So it was weird this time. There was a pressure that we’ve never experienced before. We had glowing reviews, mostly, which we were so lucky to have received. Going into this one was like “okay, how come that one did so good?” and how are we gonna do that again?
Watch: Hellions – X (Mwah)
Tone Deaf: Recently, there’s been a political shift in the music landscape. Do you feel the need to be more aware or cautious of what it is you put out into the world?
Matt:Yeah, indeed. You’ve got to pay attention to the social climate. I think most of it now is bang on, a lot of the new movements and schools of thought is moving in the right direction and it’s a beautiful thing.
At times we deal with things a little too gingerly. There are important conversations to be had and we can’t be too precious about it or else you’re not going to be able to spread your message.
Tone Deaf: The band has always seemed to push an agenda of mental health support, did you feel the need to speak of this due to personal experiences within the band?
Matt:Absolutely. Anthony, our drummer – had some struggles himself in 2014 and that was really eye-opening for me.
My perspective of mental health changed massively after that. I’d had some unidentified feelings up to that point that I didn’t really understand, that I hid from. What happened with Anthony forced me to look that in the eyes and discuss it. It was becoming something that was increasingly more difficult to talk about on a day to day basis.
From that point onwards it was important for us to use what little power we had to raise awareness. It made me brave with lyrics to be more open about the way I was feeling, even down to the scary stuff, the suicidal thoughts. It only helps others to be more honest about it and that’s always been an important thing to Hellions.
Tone Deaf: Hellions seem to have built somewhat of a community, is that something the band is aware of? If so, was it part of the plan or did it happen naturally over the years?
Matt:It wasn’t a part of the plan but it’s so sick. Who knows where they come from but they’re there and it’s so lovely to have that. I don’t think that’s something that’s exclusive to us but we’re so fortunate to have people that are so loyal. I hate the word fan, It’s sort of implying a hierarchy.
Tone Deaf: Why do you feel like your fans have such a personal and emotional attachment to you as a band and individuals?
Matt:I like to think it’s because we’re honest. That would be the nicest thing for me if that were that case.
Tone Deaf: What are your core values?
Matt:Love. That’s it. That’s the thing that binds us, it’s the only thing that matters.
Rue is out now through UNFD. For more information, visit https://hellionsmusic.com/
Hellions 2018 ‘Rue’
Album Launch Shows
Tickets on sale now
Wednesday, 24th October
Northcote Social Club, Melbourne
Thursday, 25th October
The Lair (at Metro Theatre), Sydney
Tickets: Official Website