I stop and think of the musicians I truly love - Nick Drake, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Lou Reed, John Martyn - and they are all dead; products of generations before mine. Despite being at my side many a hazy, melancholy day, they have always been conductors of nostalgia more than empathizers of my personal present. I've been waiting for a modern band to fall in love with. A band with cause and effect. A band whose music and lyrics possess meaning and can tear you up and toy with your mind so you're left feeling battered, exposed and inspired - the sort of myriad of emotions that only comes about when in the presence of something astounding.
Welcome to Hartheim.
"Your god has so much to answer for," is the lyric that frames Manchester-based Hartheim's debut track, "Yellow." It's a mellowed and meditative piece of art, enveloped in the cavernous foreboding of lead vocalist Mike Emerson's arid baritone. Though he says, "I don't have any musical talent whatsoever. I can barely play the triangle," the imperfections that filter through only add flickers of authenticity, serving as an antidote to the pitch-corrected chart music we're so habituated with.
The dynamic of the band is effortless. As I sat with them at The Eagle Inn in Salford - one of those pubs with the perfect amount of grime to it and a flawless playlist programed into the speakers - it didn't take much time to realize that no matter how different their individual personas, they are all part of a beautiful jigsaw.
The personnel and their respective roles are as follows:
Mike Emerson (Lead Vocalist): Dark-heim
George Heaton (Bassist): Quiet-heim
Gaz Devreede (Guitarist): Hair-heim
Conor Lawrence (Drummer): Panda-heim
Nicolas Townley (Synth Player): Mad-heim
Hartheim is intrinsically a collaborative effort. "It's quite a strange way for a band to write music, to have a lyricist who doesn't really play an instrument, and gives it to someone to interpret," says Emerson. He may write the lyrics, but together the band writes the music. "Out of the five of us, there's no one person who contributes more than the rest," adds Lawrence. Or, in the words of Townley (the mad synthesizer scientist), "There is no single song that isn't infected by every one of us in the most sexual way. Every single one of us has wanked all over those songs." Metaphorically, I'm sure. But the point is solid.
Though the band has received comparisons to The Pixies, U2, and Death Cab for Cutie, I'm unable to form such an association. To me, they cannot sound like any one band when each member has such distinct muses. Heaton, for instance, listens to a lot of hip-hop (Townley: "How do you get that pure, raw sex from that bass?" Heaton: "I just take a lot of drugs," - with a laugh). But then there's Devreede, who draws inspiration from the classics. "I take a lot of reference from the phrasing of classical music, and how they introduce melody and order," he said. "We've got 100 years of rock and roll, how are we to make it new? Listen to the sh*t beforehand."
Releasing "Yellow" as a debut track was irrevocably risky. Not only is it over six minutes long, but the accompanying video, which Emerson produced using footage from his favourite films, has the ability to make you feel like you're on a Dante-esque journey through an internal hell. "It shocks people, and they generally don't like it," says Townley. "But then they'll think about it days and days later. And I'll ask, 'What stuck with you about the last Lady Gaga video?'"
Hartheim is infiltrating cyberspace with curiosity. People are wondering why they don't have an online presence. And what's with their name? In terms of the former, "I think Morrissey and Bowie are gods, but if I could see them Instagramming photos of their roast dinner, I would feel like they're more human," says Emerson. As for the latter, Hartheim Castle was built during the Renaissance era by Jakob von Aspen, who wanted his wife to have the most beautiful building in Austria. About 340 years later, it was turned into an "idiot's asylum." Before the Holocaust, but when Hitler started getting a backing, it then became a euthanasia center, where 18,000 physically/mentally-disabled people were killed under the principal of eugenics. For Emerson, naming the band Hartheim was all about the juxtaposition of light and dark. "It was built to be the most beautiful thing, and turned into the most harrowing, haunting thing," he says. For Townley, the name reflects how "the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray."
Thus far, Hartheim's two singles have been digitally recorded, but in the works are two fully analogue tracks to be recorded and produced at Birchwood Studios in West Yorkshire. Heaton is fascinated by analogue for the artistry involved. "I'm interested in film photography, and the effort that goes into that versus digital, as with hand drawn illustrations," he says. "You appreciate it so much more. It's a more finished product." Lawrence concurs, adding, "This is how albums are done properly. It's going to be a lot more polished. It's going to be a fine art." Hartheim never set out to create a three-minute pop song, or be the next boy band. And everything - from their lyrics to their instrumentation to recording down to an old eight-track tape deck - reflects that.
The day I met the band, Emerson had experienced one of those introspective, life versus death moments. He had come across a dead pigeon, whose head was fully caved in. "You know that Morrissey lyric, 'Sometimes I think about life and I think about death, and neither one appeals to me'? It was like the pigeon said it to me," he told us.
Hartheim is the kind of band that will make you have one of those moments. And maybe it's frightening. And maybe it's sad. But it's absolutely real.