The eclectic London band’s debut album draws on a broad church of influences, including the acclaimed electronic music producer and composer Matthew Herbert, writes emma Champ
“Slow-burning? That’s actually in keeping with our overarching theme of slow-moving,” says Alex Reeve, one of the multi-instrumentalists behind the British band Hejira, who has quietly been building quite a fan base with their album Prayer Before Birth, released towards the end of 2013. “We’re about sustainability,” he continues. “We don’t want to be a flash in the pan and a quick success. It felt like an achievement just getting released. Hopefully the next record this year, it’s about building slowly on the foundation we’ve created. It’s all very exciting still, but you have to make sure you don’t get frustrated and that you embrace where we are.”
That makes Reeve and his bandmates sound as though they’re new to the music business, but nothing could be further from the truth. The four London musicians – Reeve, Alexis Nunez, Sam Beste and Rahel Debebe-Dessalegne, who between them come from English, Ethiopian, Hungarian, Chilean and German heritages – have been individually making waves in the industry for some time, performing with the likes of Amy Winehouse, Tom Jones and Nitin Sawhney, and they’ve been playing music for even longer, being educated in classical and jazz – something that explains the unusually complex arrangements and chord structures, and their willingness to go beyond the confines of standard songwriting.
“I’ve known Sam and Alexis from more than a decade, growing up playing together in different guises,” says Reeve. “I think the fact that it was a slow process is reflected in the sound – we’re not the kind of band that gets in a room with our instruments and plays a three-minute song. Because it started off quite ambiguously, it was kind of: where was this going, was it going to be lyrical, cinematic, instrumental?”
Those are questions that remain unanswered in the album, an impossible-to-categorise mix of ethereal, spooky layering and driving guitar, all brought together by the production magic of the visionary electronic producer and composer Matthew Herbert. Few of the songs have what you would call a memorable hook or chorus, though the listener is engrossed in the moment by the hypnotic choruses and leitmotifs.
“Sam and I were working together trying to find a way to compose that we hadn’t before,” says Reeve. “We’d all been in lots of songwriting sessions with other musicians, and it can be a very generic process, so we were each trying to tap into what the other people were thinking – trying to have almost a consciousness within the whole group.”
How to describe, then, this rather lovely album, written together over a couple of years and recorded in a house rather than a standard studio. Echoey, complex, dark, occasionally sinister and menacing, certainly. There are shades of Bat for Lashes here, in the mesmeric hooks and in Debebe-Dessalegne’s pure, piping voice, almost always singing in unison with Beste. There’s some of Radiohead’s grandiosity of harmonic ambition, particularly in one of the more grabby songs, Powercut. There’s a touch of PJ Harvey’s dark, twangy satire in Pinter. You can even discern some Dead Can Dance in the rhythmic, medieval-sounding modally harmonised Litmus Test, the album’s opener. Then add a touch of the twisted electronic music of The xx or Four Tet, the slow crackle of Dummy-era Portishead and the gloomy guitars of The Cure, and you might get there, just about.
“There are so many influences,” says Reeve. “I think what was quite important was harmonic influences, because we all grew up listening to jazz, so trying to bring in the harmony or ambiguity was always something we were keen to harbour and grow and nurture, instead of the same harmonic chord progressions. We wanted to escape the song structure and form, so you’re not quite sure on the key, or the progression. That definitely comes from symphonic and jazz music, where it is very harmony-based.”
One obvious influence, though, is Joni Mitchell’s seminal album Hejira, after which the band is partly named. While the melodic and narrative elements of Mitchell’s album are eschewed here, there is nevertheless something of the haunting elasticity of her phrasing that finds its way into Prayer Before Birth. “I don’t think we’d have come across the word ‘hejira’ if it wasn’t for the Joni record,” admits Reeve. “We’re all big Joni fans, and Rahel really liked the name. There’s a certain warmth to it. I think it misleads people – because it’s an Arabic word, people think we play world music – but I like the symbolism of it because of the journey or the movement. As individuals, we all felt collectively lost, and were able to move in the right direction together, and that’s the heart of the record – finding one’s way. I hope that comes through.”
One way in which Prayer Before Birth is a million miles from Hejira, though, is in the complexity of the instrumental arrangements. Four people together in a band is one thing, but when you hand over the reigns to Matthew Herbert on production, it’s not going to be a stripped-down result.
That’s not to say it’s over-produced – indeed, they went to lengths to ensure that the record sounded warm and somewhat imperfect, with crackles and timing imperfections.
“We like to call it ‘the dust’,” says Reeve. “It makes it feel kind of organic – these days things can become so digital. There was a lot of analogue involved and we liked that warmth. I don’t want to say old – I don’t think we’re retro – but I like the idea of moving forward but also remembering history. We’re very much about process and trying to make the process evident in the final song itself.”
The final record, lovely though it is, simply cannot be played by four people, however many instruments they each play, and when touring the album, they brought in an 18-piece ensemble to round it out.
“You have an idea of a song you can create with four people in a room, but it’s not multi-dimensional when you come to record it,” says Reeve, “but sometimes production can be very restrictive, because the last thing we want to do is play to anything prerecorded, because then you’re a slave to a machine. So we tried playing with electronics in a more improvisational way, and brought in further members to bump up the line-up, and a sound-designer that gave it those dusty foundations. And then sampling. That took the sound to another level.”
Though this is clearly a band that likes to take its time creating new sounds, performance is today an essential part of building a band’s profile – and Hejira has taken to it in its own unique way, by launching the Traum Tour – an extension of a regular night in London’s hipster vortex, Dalston.
“There’s a lot of music going on in London. You have to cultivate a space, a scene, so people know where you are,” says Reeve. To this end, the Traum Tour (traum is German for “dream”) brings together bands and musicians that the band loves, eventually pulling together the “Traumtape”, a mix of music by Hejira and their friends. Starting a label is not, apparently, out of the question.
The next album won’t take so long, says Reeve, “but it may well be different, whether we want to change, move, be in the moment, so we’re putting sessions in and writing and just kind of talking. We realised what the first record was about through making it. And it’s always a lot of fun when you’re recording and writing at the same time – experimenting. It feels like you’re in a lab. We sometimes spent a day adjusting a microphone in front of a drum kit – we didn’t really know what we were doing the first time round.”
They certainly do now.
Gemma Champ is a freelance writer based in London.