The Dark is Rising: Hartheim interviewed
As compelling Manchester collective Hartheim prepare to release their debut EP, they tell The Skinny why challenging the mainstream is high on their agenda
What's in a name? For Hartheim, everything. The Manchester five piece – uncommonly eloquent, astutely politicised, uncompromisingly combative – dare to reverse the tired notion that band name = mere label. Hartheim could never be The Somethings. For Hartheim, that name is their modus operandi, their spirit, their ambition. Hartheim. The Austrian euthanasia centre that oversaw the killing of at least 18,000 mentally ill and handicapped prisoners during WWII. The name is something they're working towards; something they intend to earn. Without it, they're nothing.
We gather in Salford's Eagle Inn, with the band haviing recorded and mastered their debut EP, bound for a January release. Singer Mike Emerson leaves the rest of the band to decide who'll join us for the interview. "What do you want? Music or books?" asks keyboard player Nick Townley. No hesitation: books. "Right – then you've got me." (Bassist George Heaton – "more of a music guy" – can go back to his pint.) At first glance, Hartheim are so, so wrong – certainly for our corporate, mass consumption times. But it's this characteristic that makes them so, so right. The music guy, the books guy: Hartheim do not appear at all like a gang. Guitarist Gaz Devreede looks like he's just come off tour with The Cramps. Drummer Conor Lawrence looks like he's with the band rather than in it. But spend time with them – see how they interact, how they violently disagree one moment and finish each other's sentences the next – and they confirm the truism that it's always a group of unique individuals, with wildly varying influences, that is best positioned to form a distinct whole.
Later that evening they will support Bird at their 'final' show ("an honour and a privilege," Emerson will confirm when onstage), but it's difficult to imagine Hartheim building allegiance with too many alleged peers. We skirt around the subject of "the Manchester glitterati" ("Seriously, we'll fucking come back to that," growls Emerson) and we explore where Hartheim might fit: a difficult proposition. Their handful of releases to date fuse guitar and keyboards around Emerson's baritone burr. The songs are stately; elegant, even: Yellow, an angular document of the Nazi's 'plan yellow'; the blackened, mournful sweep of Welcome to Hartheim. It’s not easy finding reference points. In the way they eschew cheap sentiment in favour of vivid historical depiction, there's lineage back to The Holy Bible, perhaps. Sonically? That's tougher. The percussive rumble of their live show has a hint of The Birthday Party, while Emerson's vocals will surely draw comparisons with Ian Curtis in time.
"In this parade of nonsense, where Capital Radio play the same ten songs each day and it just numbs your soul, I hope Hartheim will make you want to look beneath the surface for something more" – Mike Emerson
But right now, Hartheim sound like no-one. "We've all been in different bands, individually," says Emerson. "I was in a band a couple of years ago with Sways records, and that didn’t go very well at all. But I'd invited George to be in a new band and I met Gaz but he was upfront about not wanting to be in a band full stop. Then I told him that it had to be called Hartheim, explained to him why that had to be the name and he's like: 'I'm in.' Then I got George in, our bassist, and this bastard here." He turns to Townley, who continues. "I put an advert on the internet saying I wanted to be part of something – something that exists outside my room. Something real. And we started to come together at that point."
"It's more of an idea than a band," says Emerson, warming to his theme. "Hartheim is a concept. It doesn't have to even be a band." By making a statement so bold, a name so clearly designed to challenge and discomfort, it surely makes demands on what the band will ultimately communicate. "I think it's actually the opposite," says Emerson. "The name, the band, leads to what it means, you know? Not the other way around. It's always been this concept of light and dark. For me, the very essence of Hartheim, the name, the idea, going from this beautiful renaissance building to this decaying, horrific, evil death camp, that's the very essence of light and dark. I want to be a guitar band but I want us to be able to play with light and dark. I want an almost Perfume Genius vibe – an airy, celestial feel. If that had been in design, then it might have been brutalist architecture. So, rather than Hartheim leading where we go, I think we feed into it, come to discover what it wants from us. There are so many times when we're playing and we come up with something really beautiful, but then we stop and we have to acknowledge that it's not right. It's not serving the purpose of what this is."
"We went to Wales recently, to write the songs that will eventually form the album," says Townley, taking up the story. "We were all sat around having dinner and we were listening to Bach. Next thing, we go in and do some really heavy stuff. We stop, we’re tired, we're having a cig break but then I start playing the piano and Gaz starts his thing and suddenly we've got this classical tune. It's probably the best thing we've done, and that relates very much to how we came together. I believe in logic and the laws of the universe. But, as philosophically weak as this sounds, maybe fate and destiny are playing a part here. Maybe we have to do this and that's why we've come together." Emerson agrees: "Absolutely. If you’d have asked us two years ago what we wanted to do, I don’t think any of us would have said that we would have wanted to be in a band. But we just knew. When we wrote Yellow, we had the ending of the song, but then we flipped it. When we finally had it down, that was when we all knew that this was what it was meant to be." Townley confirms the band's democracy: "A song is never done until everyone has had their input."
"That thing you were saying about us looking like five distinct individuals, I think that's amazing," says Emerson. "No-one else has picked up on that. George is into hip-hop, Gaz is into quite dark rock, Nick's into Kate Bush, I'm into really obtuse singer-songwriters. We did this BBC radio interview recently and they asked us what we were into and this one here (he points at Townley and shakes his head) says, 'Oh Mike's into anything new' and I'm like 'Fuckoff!' Seriously, you know that scene in Monsters Inc. where they find the sock on the monster's back and they immediately shut everything down and shave him? It was just like that. They had us out in five minutes. Interview over. Thirty minutes interview done in thirty seconds. Brilliant."
We could talk all night and, once done with the interview proper, we almost do. Much of what we touch on offers ever more intriguing routes into Hartheim's heightened aesthetic, their illuminating worldview. Mention of Band Aid raises Emerson's ire ("I fucking hate Bono. His tactics – how he deploys his music as some weapon to fix the ills of the world. Bullshit.") and a question about what being a 'political' band means in the current climate fires up both him and Townley. "I'm more likely to write my lyrics in a way that presents a subject and asks our audience what their view is, rather than cheap rabble-rousing," he says. "We're speaking for a time," adds Townley, "where nothing really means anything anymore, and you have to search for meaning, so in some way, maybe we are a political band. In this godless, secular society, this parade of nonsense, where Capital Radio play the same ten songs each day and it just numbs your soul, I hope Hartheim will make you want to look beneath the surface for something more."
Later that night, the band are buzzing from their performance, another audience duly captured. As we shuffle from the venue, local electronic duo Shield Patterns befriended and plans made to reconvene for their show the next week, their singer is in buoyant but reflective mood: "You really get it, don't you?" It's not that difficult to get. As others will find over the coming months. "No, but you get it. I was watching you while we were playing, making sure you weren't drifting off." He flashes a wry smile. It's hard to imagine that Mike Emerson, locked into the naked, twitching commitment of his performance, could even remember his name at that moment, let alone keep an eye on individual audience members. "Oh, I can do that," he says. "Never take my eye off anything. Never. Always see what's going on around me. Always."