Hopeful Anthems Of A Daring Band: Our Interview With Hellions

Doubt usually knocks on the door whenever the terms operatic and theatrical are used to describe a rock-based band’s sound – let’s face it, we’ve suffered at least a few times. Hellions, another Australian band (there must be something in the water over there since as of late every month we hear yet another exciting new Aussie band), are using those two terms to describe their new bold statement, Opera Oblivia, and believe it or not they’ve managed to give good name to them. We had a lengthy chat with guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Matt Gravolin about everything surrounding the band’s fantastic and third album – from a strange connection with Pokémon to the lyrical content that makes this album extremely important.

The album is coming out in less than a month-time. How do you feel, man?
I’m so excited. I couldn’t be more excited for it to come out. We’ve been sitting on it since February and we listen to it every day, and… yeah, couldn’t be more proud of it. It’s the first time we wouldn’t change a single thing about it.

I would like us to go back in time and talk a little bit about your debut album, Die Young. Back when you started working on it, did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do with it? Was there any sort of preset musical goals?
At that point in time, it was more of an extension of our band, which is called The Bride. We were going to put that album out under the name The Bride before the singer had left and we renamed it… The goal wasn’t anything too clear-cut. It was all very natural. Just wanted to have some heavy songs and some ballads as well. Yeah, we were a bit younger and it was just whatever came to mind, really, at that point.

Anthony [Caruso, drummer] said about Indian Summer, “This is the first time we have ever felt truly content with where we are at musically”. What was it that made that album so successful for you as a band?
I guess that was more of a step into the direction we are now. A little bit more grand and operatic than the previous songs. The songs [on Indian Summer] are a bit longer and a lit… I don’t know, we always wanted to sound like a big band, like Queen or some of those really big guys from the 70’s and 80’s. Just having influences like that. And that [album] was a step into the right direction towards that. And at that point in time we felt very accomplished, especially with songs like “Nottingham” and “Polyphasic Sleep”. Those songs in particularly were very big victories for us.

You said about this new album, “(…) we want it to commiserate with people through our common unpleasantries and overwhelming hardships, and also celebrate alongside our inevitable victory.” Would it be fair to say that there’s a hopeful tone that you want to provide with your music?
Absolutely! I think this record has more hope within the lyrical content and within the music as well than any of its predecessors. It’s so much bigger and it feels to me more sympathetic with the listener. It’s a lot softer in a sense than the music before it. I think it appeals more to the heart than any of our other stuff has. So, I think that in that sense it’s very hopeful.

But it doesn’t seems to be naïve in its hopeful nature. By that I mean, there’s an awareness of how bad some things are and at times it starts with a dark tone to then work a lot to be hopeful.
The album starts off quite hopeful in the guts of it, right in the middle. It deals with the darker, sort of more complicated facets of life and towards the end it begins to get hopeful again. There’s a resolution there. I think that like anything in life it needs to deal with… it can’t just be hopeful. In order for there to be hope there has to be detriment, there has to be harm.

When did you start thinking about the scope of this new album? It doesn’t seem to be the kind of album where you create one song and then another song until you just have enough songs to put everything together in the same CD or vinyl.
Yeah. [laughs] As soon as we finished Indian Summer, as soon we started working on… I think it was “24” the first song we started to work on. At that point we all sort of agreed that we wanted to get bigger and, like you said, really broad in the scope of what we’re doing. I think that with “Nottingham” and “Polyphasic Sleep”, like I said before, we sort of touched on this bigger styling. It was sort of a peak at this potential for us, and we just wanted to really hit the nail on the head this time with that. We needed to sing in order to do that and… yeah, it was a conscious decision to go in that direction as soon as we had started writing after Indian Summer.

Really happy that you mentioned Queen before, because there’s definitely a theatrical element on this album that is impossible to overlook. Does that also comes from your love for My Chemical Romance?
Yes, absolutely. Yes it does. It’s funny that we mentioned those two bands because I believe that without Queen there wouldn’t have been My Chemical Romance and, I guess, in some ways if there wasn’t My Chemical Romance we wouldn’t be the band that we are today. They have a very, very… once upon a time, especially with Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge (2004) and The Black Parade (2006)… they had a really big influence in my songwriting and with the other boys too. They’re sort of hard-wired into my mind with the chords that they use and the way that they sing. Yeah, absolutely, you’re correct in saying that.

But it gets tricky to explain to people the relation between your music and My Chemical Romance’s music. I was trying to explain to a friend and the only way I could find was by saying “They sound like My Chemical Romance without really sounding like My Chemical Romance. It’s more the way they do things with their music and the spirit of it all.” I mean, I know that can get a little bit confusing and sound a little bit of gibberish. [laughs]
[laughs] Yeah, but I think that’s actually a good way to put it. But I agree with you there, it’s hard to put… I think musically it’s a lot about the chords that we use, the guitar harmonies, and a lot of the ideas are very similar to My Chemical Romance, but the way we put them across, I suppose vocally and with our hardcore influences as well, those are the things that distance ourselves from them. And thank god for those more heavy-oriented influences because otherwise we would sound exactly like My Chemical Romance. [laughs]

Hellions-HIRES2_Credit Sandra Markovic

“When we went to the studio, for real, that was when we really started to feel what we were doing, how big this could get. It broaden our scope, the way we looked at it… there was no more boundaries once we got into the studio.”

Not only that element, but the way the album was structured where it seems that at each song you’re taking a left turn… It seems that there was much that went into it. How prepared were you going into the studio?
We were more prepared than we’ve ever been for any other album with this one. We did a lot of writing – double the writing than we’ve done for the other ones – and we did a lot of pre-production as well. For the first time I’ve done some co-writing, as well, with Jonathon [Deiley] from Northlane. He helped a little bit with some songs, particularly a song called “He Without Sin”. When we went to the studio, for real, that was when we really started to feel what we were doing, how big this could get. It broaden our scope, the way we looked at it…there was no more boundaries once we got into the studio. We knew exactly what we wanted to do and it was such a pleasant experience. It was really cool, man.

Talking about the studio… how was the recording experience this time around? Was any different from past experiences?
Yes, it was different. It was plenty different. The primary thing that was different was the vocals. Obviously this time we put more of a focus onto singing, or like group vocals with that anthem sort of feel for the choruses. Me and Dre [Faivre, vocalist], we both got singing lessons before we went in… Yeah, we didn’t know how much we were going to be using it, but we ended up using it a whole lot and our producer Shane [Edwards] was really important in keeping us motivated and keep out eyes on the prize with the singing. We also did it in a different way. We recorded the guitars first, before the drums. So, it was like all the guitars, song by song, without drums and vocals. The guitars were sort of the more concrete thing about the songs before we went in. We needed a little bit more time to think about percussion and every other element. We are a very guitar-driven band and we knew exactly what we wanted to do with the guitars. We figured that we should do that first and then basically everything else around that.

You recorded all three albums in Thailand. What made you get out of the country and do 9-hour flight to record an album?
[laughs] The main motivator there is our producer Shane Edwards that works there. I work with him since I was 15 years old and I’m now 25… so, I’ve been working with him for 10 years and he just knows everything that I’m going to do musically. He has this big belief in what we do and an understanding of our music, unlike anybody else in the world. You can’t really put a price on that. It’s worth making the trip just for him, and it’s an added bonus that Thailand is an absolute paradise. It’s beautiful everywhere. You go outside and you see this amazing green, the nature, the pool… It’s perfect.

I’m curious about the title of your new album. What does it mean and what did you want to convey with it?
Oblivia is a Latin word meaning a passive state of forgetfulness, and that’s the very essential theme of the album – just that feeling. Obviously opera is the way we went it about it, the way we wanted it to sound. We wanted it to sound theatrical and operatic. I think that title, the way it sounds, even when you say it, it always just felt right.

Did you know that Oblivia is also the name of the region in which Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs takes place?
You’re kidding… I had no idea. [laughs] Wow, that’s so cool. That’s lucky for us that Pokémon GO is so successful at the moment. Maybe that’s a good thing for us. [laughs]

Was Rage Against the Machine that influenced you to do political and social commentaries in your lyrics?
More so on the last album than with the new one. The new one is very inward, it’s very much about the human experience it’s less of a political themed record. But musically they’ve always been a big influence. They’re such a powerhouse of a band and we love them. Especially when we started they were a big influence, but this time around is lesser. But our respect for them still remains intact.

I would say that there are still strong political and social commentaries on this new album. Right on the opening track we can find, “We are born and raised as cattle to be the same”.
[laughs] Absolutely, that’s a good point. You know, I had completely forgotten about that line in particular until you said it. You’re absolutely right, that line in particular is very politically driven. It’s about us being encouraged growing up to get a job, looking for a house, and the other normal stuff that you take to keep you placid and feel at home with everybody else and not do your own thing.

I must confess that it feels a little bit weird to sing-along to “We are born and raised as cattle to be the same”. [laughs]
[laughs] I suppose so. Nobody wants perhaps to admit to that, but the way I’m looking, and excuse me if I’ve offended anybody in any way, but in my mind, especially with our schooling systems, that’s the way it is. It’s that same procedure. You go to school, you get your degree, you’re supposed to go and find yourself a job or a career… I don’t know, for all of us especially in Australia and everyone in Western culture, I suppose, that’s the way it is. And it is sort of frowned upon if you choose take a different path. For example, to do what we do with music… A lot of people frown upon that and say it’s not really the right thing to be doing. If you are successful, people will not say that, but if you’re struggling, people will start asking about the money, where will we find the money to live our lives and even about the direction of your life. I mean, we had to struggle for years, especially as a band. We weren’t successful immediately and there isn’t a lot of money in what we do. A lot of people tend to wonder why we do it and they think it’s stupid because they haven’t taken the time to look it from our perspective.

Is the song “Lotus Eater” about apathy?
That’s about anxiety and panic. The subject in question… is supposed to be written from my perspective and the song refers to a woman a lot of the times. In the second verse it says, “She ate when I ate, she drank when I drank,” and that is this feeling of panic and anxiety… we’ve put it in the body of a woman to give it this physical presence because that’s how you can feel, like there’s something else in the room with you, a very physical presence that sort of drains you of your normal faculties.

What’s the specific cognitive dissonance that you mention in that song?
Just the inability to make simple decisions because you’ve been affected by panic… when you’re in that state of mind of anxiety and panic even the simpler decisions can be very, very difficult. You don’t have a clear mind and everything can become a bit blurry.

Listening to “He Without Sin”… It seems that you have a bone to pick with the entity that’s Church.
I grew up going to Catholic schools and I was raised as a Christian. I have a very high respect for the Christian faith and for a lot of men and women of the Christian faith, but it’s just these particular people, these rapists, and pedophiles within the Church that… You know, people go to the Church so they can feel some sort of hope and people go initially because, I guess they feel lost. People turn to the Church often as the last resort or because it’s a family tradition and something they hold so close to their heart, and for these men to take faith, and that hope and turn it into something so disgusting and that sometimes ends up costing these children’s lives, turning families inside out… It’s the most repugnant, disgusting thing. I couldn’t help to write about it. I was worried that it wasn’t my place to say something about it because I haven’t been through this personally. I didn’t know if it was ok so I took my time, rewrote it a few times just so that no one would be offended by it. There’s no cursing in it, it’s just the straightforward perspective.

It’s called empathy. You don’t need to go through these things yourself to be able to suffer from them and sort of understand the pain involved in it.
As a matter of fact, you’re absolutely right. It’s a song about empathy. But that doesn’t come first at least when I was writing it. I guess that first and foremost is a hatred for these men that have taken the innocence away from this people.

Hellions-HIRES6_Credit Sandra Markovic

“I think this record has more hope within the lyrical content and within the music as well than any of its predecessors. It’s so much bigger and it feels to me more sympathetic with the listener.”

Where did you find those testimonials on “Heels Of The Hands”?
They are all in a particular website – you have to forgive me but I can’t recall the name of the website at the moment. It’s public information and it was a very painstaking process having to go through and having to listen to all these people speak about these things.

I can’t imagine how hard must be to hear these testimonials for I don’t know how many hours.
Man, it was something like five or six hours of pouring through these things. By the time I’ve got done with, and we were choosing these specific parts that really represented what these people are going through… We just felt we had lost our souls. It was very draining. But I’m glad we did it because I think it makes the song all the more powerful having it in there.

“Bad Way” strikes me as the most personal track on the album. Would it be fair to say so?
You hit the nail right on the head. It’s about a breakup. I dated a girl for about two years and I just fell out of love with her… A lot of people, when they fell out of love or get bored with the relationship, it is easier to blame on the other person or something else. But the hardest thing to do, and the most noble in my opinion, is look them in the eyes and say, “I don’t care about you anymore.” I don’t know, I guess I cared enough for this person to tell her I didn’t love her. She broke into a million pieces which led me to a lot of drinking and self-pity.

Talking about that personal side, there are throughout the album a considerable amount of references to drinking and addiction. Do you care to elaborate on that?
Especially in Australia, drinking is a very common thing to do to deal with your problems. And I’m not saying is a successful method to deal with things, but for me is my favorite way even though I know it’s a bad habit. I sort of romanticize drinking a little bit too much – obviously the music reflects that. It’s not something that I want… I think there are a lot of good things about alcohol. It helps me with my creativity – at least I think it does – and it helps on a social level since I’m a very introverted and a very nervous person. But it has helped me as much it has hurt me. It might be a controversial thing to say, but I believe it has made my life all the more interesting.

I guess, like almost anything else, it’s about the limits and boundaries.
Yeah, that’s exactly right. For me I know that I can’t… I don’t drink from Monday to Thursday. I refuse to do it. My father was an alcoholic. It’s in my genes that trait of an addictive personality. I know that I have to be very careful with that. You have to set rules and boundaries for these things.

Man, can you please talk about the concept behind the video for “Quality of Life”? Who’s responsible for creating that one? It’s such a simple, but yet effective music video.
We knew that we wanted to have a physical representation of somebody remembering their youth, assessing their place in life and thinking about where they should be as a person, where they were when they were the most happy… Yeah, I sort of had brought that to the table and Anthony [Caruso], our drummer, suggested this girl that he knew to play the part and the part of the little girl on the video is Anthony’s little sister, her name is Isabel. She’s just adorable, she’s gorgeous. It all started with that and then we took the idea to the label and the videographer, Neal [Walters], which is a great friend of ours, he helped expand on that idea and it all come together… quite well, I think.

Words: Tiago Moreira // Photos: Sandra Markovic – Opera Oblivia is out now on UNFD Records.
You can also read the interview here:

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