Heligoland is a band originally from Melbourne, Australia, now based in Paris, France. Formed more than 20 years ago as a trio and featuring several different members through the years, Heligoland is currently a duo of founders Steve Wheeler and Karen Vogt. Earlier this year, the band released its first full-length album in ten years, This Quiet Fire, after several EPs over the past decade. This Quiet Fire was produced, mixed, and mastered by Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins fame.

Big Sonic Heaven contributor Rick Bourgoise recently caught up with Karen and Steve from their home in Paris.

The transcript of this conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Big Sonic Heaven (BSH): Your new album came out in February. How’s it doing?

Karen Vogt: It’s doing really well. We have released it in three different formats – cassette, CD, and vinyl – and we’ve just about sold out of the vinyl. We’re really happy with the response that we’ve had from everyone so far. There’s also been some reviews and radio play, so we’re feeling really good about all that.

BSH: It was your first album in ten years. Why was there so much time between the two albums?

Steve Wheeler: The main reason is that we made a series of EPs in between the two albums. It was never really our intention to make a series of them, but we had so much fun making the first one that we made a second EP a year or two later. We ended up making three five-track EPs, one after the other, during that period. For each of these releases we travelled to a different part of France and spent a week recording a bunch of songs. It was never really the plan to wait so long between albums, we just got a little bit sidetracked doing other things.

BSH: On this album you worked with Robin Guthrie, how did that come about? You’ve got a little bit of a history with Robin.

Steve: Not long after we arrived in Europe, we were getting ready to make a new record – this was our previous album “All Your Ships are White” – and we approached Robin to produce it. He very kindly agreed and that’s how we started working together. He then mixed the three EP’s we made after that. We all became good friends and played some shows together. I also played bass in his touring band for a while. When it came time to make “This Quiet Fire,” we approached him again. He’s amazing to work with and he feels like the perfect producer for the kind of music we make.

BSH: Let’s talk a little bit about the music you make because it’s definitely in the vein of Robin Guthrie/Cocteau Twins. Were they a major inspiration for you and how did you come about going down the path of this style of music?

Steve: Heligoland started in Melbourne in early 1999. Looking back, it’s hard to remember everything that we were listening to then. There were three of us to begin with – myself, Karen, and our original guitarist, Cameron. Both myself and Cameron were into a lot of the bands on Factory Records and 4AD: Durutti Column, New Order, Cocteau Twins – all that sort of stuff. I think Karen was coming from somewhere quite different. (to Karen) What were you listening to back then?

Karen: All sorts of stuff. As far as female vocalists: PJ Harvey, k.d. lang, and Natalie Merchant. I had very little exposure to all the 4AD bands, that was something I learned about a little bit later on.

Steve: In the beginning, there were also some Australian bands that had an influence on our sound. One of them was a group called The Paradise Motel. I’m not sure they ever became well-known outside Australia, maybe only in the U.K. Underground Lovers were another Melbourne band that had a big influence on us. In hindsight, there were a lot of different sounds and ideas that we were interested in. Cocteau Twins were definitely among the bands we took some inspiration from. We’ve always admired those records, and when we had the chance to work with Robin – especially given all the records he’s produced over the years – it was something we really wanted to do.

BSH: What was it like working with Robin? How engaged was he in the making of the music through the production, the mixing? How much of the final product of the album can you attribute to his handiwork?

Karen: Robin is wonderful to work with, especially for a vocalist. He’s very hands-on and creative in the studio, but also very kind and gentle. He makes it really easy to relax and focus on the songs. For this new album, he was involved earlier in the process than on the other records. He came along to have a listen at one of our writing sessions and had a better sense of how the music was developing. He also contributed more in terms of instrumentation on this album. One thing we have in common is that we all want to make beautiful music – every song should sound as beautiful as it possibly can.

Steve: There was no effort spared to make sure all those records and the new album sound as good as they possibly could. The amount of time and energy Robin spent mixing them, right down to the tiniest details, was amazing. Nothing was left to chance. It was always a wonderful experience being there in the studio watching him work on the songs.

BSH: Your band has evolved, and I want to touch a little bit on that in a minute, but let’s go back to your origins. Again you’re from Australia, and you eventually migrated to Paris. Take me through a little bit of the history, how you began, and then how you ended up relocating from Australia to Europe.

Steve: Heligoland started the way a lot of bands began back in the 1990s. I met our original guitarist through an ad in a music paper – this would have in the middle of 1998 – and we started making music together. That didn’t really go anywhere to begin with, but he always had an idea for a band with a female singer. We met Karen through a mutual friend. She had been writing songs on her own and doing a few acoustic shows. We started playing together and added a drummer a little later on. We then spent the next 10 years playing a lot of shows around Melbourne. There were a few slightly different lineups – we changed drummers a couple of times, and towards the end of our time in Australia we changed guitarists. During that period we made a couple of albums and played in Sydney and Adelaide a few times. And then we came to Europe. It’s been 20 years now since we started and we’ve always stayed fairly true to a particular sound that is very much centered around Karen’s vocals. Everyone who has been part of the band has helped shape that sound and brought something of themselves to the music and records. It’s been a long and eventful journey, with many highs and lows along the way. All in all, it’s amazing to still be here all these years later, still making music.

Karen: When we first started playing together, it was a big learning curve for me. I was very timid to begin with. Over the years, I gradually became more confident with my singing and songwriting by putting more and more time and energy into developing those skills. I’ve now got my own home recording setup that I use all the time. Robin was really supportive and encouraged me to take that step. The journey for me has been all about becoming more self-confident and more involved throughout the process. As a result, I now feel much more comfortable writing songs by myself. When we started, the band had a very gentle, minimal sound. There was lots of space in our early songs. It’s not that we’ve filled up all those spaces, but it feels like the songs have become a little more complex and refined. I’m really happy about that. I’ve never felt like making a radical change. I prefer our music to grow and develop in a more organic way.

BSH: Palomino is one of the songs that you wrote, and it’s a song that we have in rotation at Big Sonic Heaven. Take me through that one a little bit. You talk about your first experience songwriting, what was it like to produce that particular track?

Karen: When we were writing the songs for the new album, I started experimenting with a loop pedal to come up with new vocal ideas. “Palomino” is built around one of those loops. The difference between writing a song with the band, as compared to doing it by yourself, is that you can completely immerse yourself in exploring different directions or a particular trajectory. In this case, I wanted to explore that loop and see where it might take me. It’s a process that I find hard to describe; it all feels very intuitive to me.

BSH: We live in an unusual time right now with COVID. I’ve been talking to a lot of bands, and their particular experiences. Some have found a lot of creativity through it, while others have had a little bit of a challenge because they’re used to continually touring and being on the road. I always like to ask how has COVID made an impact on your band and your music. Has it been inspirational? Has it provided some type of a different trajectory than maybe where you expected you’d be going?

Karen: Introverts like myself have really been able to focus on our creative side during this time. For this reason, I don’t feel like I’ve suffered at all. If anything, having big blocks of time for being creative and working on music has probably accelerated a lot of things I’ve been working on. I’ve always much preferred working on songs in the studio as opposed to playing live and I feel like I’ve had a chance to dive deeper into that side of things. For me, I think it’s been beneficial in this sense, but I do understand it’s been really, really difficult for a lot of bands that make a living from playing live.

Steve: In a practical sense, this album was delayed for probably the best part of a year after the crisis began in Europe. The record was mastered and ready to go, but once lockdown began it became hard to think about putting out a new album. There was also a lot of uncertainty and disruption with the manufacturing process. When things calmed down a little bit towards the middle of last year, we started trying to move forward with the release. I remember talking to other musicians at the time and it seemed like we were all trying to figure out whether to wait or try to push on. Our record was written long before the crisis, but some of the songs talk about resilience and reassurance. In a strange sort of way, those songs made sense in new ways as events unfolded here. At the same time, it’s been extremely difficult for artists who make the majority of their income by touring. Not to mention all the people who work in venues, along with sound engineers, lighting technicians, and the whole industry surrounding live shows. The crisis pulled the carpet out from underneath them. A lot of people have really struggled.

BSH: Are you starting maybe to think about going on the road and touring again?

Steve: The situation in Europe is still very uncertain. I can’t see any possibilities for touring in the near future. We might do a show in Paris at some stage, but that seems a long way off. All the bars and cafes are still closed here. Some of the larger venues might begin to open up, but for the smaller venues, I think it’s going to be really difficult for a while to come. There’s been a few venues in Paris that have had to shut down during the crisis. They just couldn’t survive.

Karen: I’d prefer to wait until the situation is much clearer before jumping in. We’re all looking for some sense of security before playing live, so I’m content to wait until the time is right.

BSH: What are you working on now? Are you thinking of another EP or other album? What can we expect from Heligoland?

Steve: At the moment, we’re promoting the new album as best as we can. We’ve released a couple of videos so far and we hope to do some more. There’s still some physical copies of the album left and we’re trying to find ways to get them out to people in different places. The record is available in Europe, North America and Australia, but there’s also been a few inquiries from South America and we’re hoping to make some copies available there too. Before we move on to anything else we’re trying to make sure we get the most out of This Quiet Fire. It’s a record we’re really proud of.

Karen: I’ve got a few songs already written for the next Heligoland release. With our music, it’s always been a very organic process. Nothing is planned too far in advance. At the moment I’m also working on a few collaborations, my own solo material, and some more experimental projects. When I’m working on a new idea, I can tell whether it’s a Heligoland song. It always seems quite clear to me. Looking ahead, I’m planning to continue writing more new Heligoland material, but I’m not sure yet whether it might be for an EP or an album.

Steve: We’ll see how the all songs evolve and try to figure what fits together. When we started writing This Quiet Fire, we had a clear goal to make an album. Maybe we’ll get to a point with the new material where it will start to feel like we’re making an album. There’s been a lot of EPs, so the next release probably should be another album

Karen: Our friend Jolanda Moletta from the group “She Owl” made a guest appearance on This Quiet Fire playing piano on the track “Trinity.” We don’t usually have guests on our records, but it turned so well that I’m much more open to doing that again in the future.

BSH: I want to pick up on something you just said. I found it interesting that when you’re among the solo projects and collaborations that you’re doing, when you start writing and you can tell right away what’s a Heligoland song. How do you know? How would you characterize knowing, that’s Heligoland versus something else?

Karen: Usually, it’s the way I’m singing. I feel like there’s a very particular way that I sing Heligoland songs. It seems really clear to me, like I’m tuning in to a particular frequency. If I get that feeling while I’m writing, I’ll record the idea and put it aside for later. I’ve got a folder full of all these ideas that feel like Heligoland music to me.

BSH: You talked about Jolanda Moletta joining you and playing piano for this particular album. You used to have a lot of other musicians that played in the band. Are you maybe looking to grow Heligoland beyond the two of you again or are you comfortable with just the two of you and then bringing in collaborators as you desire?

Steve: That’s a good question. If we return to playing live, it would be great to fill out the band to a four piece again, or something like that. At the moment, I feel like I’ve spent the last year and half inside our apartment, it’s been really difficult to get out and meet up with other musicians – or anyone, really. All the lockdowns and restrictions have hampered our plans in that respect. When it comes to the next recordings, if it’s just the two of us again, that’s fine. But if we find someone on the same wavelength who wants to do something and the energy feels right, then we’d be open to working with other people in the studio too. I really liked Jolanda’s cameo on the new album. She was lovely to work with and brought a different vibe to that track. If there are some more opportunities to work with other guest musicians, particularly when they play instruments that we don’t, we’re definitely open to that.

BSH: I don’t think we talked about how you ended up moving to Europe. We talked about moving from Australia to Europe and landing in Paris, but never really talked about what brought you there.

Steve: Throughout that first period of the band­ – the 10 years or so that we spent playing in Australia – we were always looking around for a label to release our music overseas. Whether it was in the US or Europe, our hope was that a label release might make it possible for us to go on tour. As it turned out, a French label picked up our second album “A Street Between Us,” and it was released in France and distributed around Europe. Six months after the album came out, they asked us to come over and tour. Initially, the plan was to do some touring and recording, but one thing quickly led to another. We had always wanted to play outside Australia. If we had found a label in the US, we would have tried to come over and play some shows there. It just happened that France was where we found an opportunity.

Karen: Once we were over here in Europe, it really felt like this was the place for our music. While we were playing in Australia it always felt hard to define what we were doing and find the right label or box it belonged in, so to speak. At times we felt a bit like outsiders and that our music didn’t really seem to fit anywhere. In Europe, we’ve never really had that feeling. The response to our music feels different here and it seemed to make more sense.

BSH: We definitely love the style in Big Sonic Heaven. We really, really love the band and can’t wait to hear what more you will produce in the future.

Karen: Thank you so, so much, it’s been lovely to chat with you!

 

This Quiet Fire is available on CD, vinyl, cassette, and digital and can be purchased on Bandcamp 

https://heligoland.bandcamp.com/

Rick Bourgoise
Big Sonic Heaven Radio Contributing Writer

Big Sonic Heaven is a 24/7 Internet radio station dedicated to the ethereal sounds of shoegaze, dream pop, post-punk, trip-hop, etc. Listen to the artists featured on the blog and discover more by downloading the app for iPhone and Android or listen at bigsonicheaven.com.