“We all vanish anyway,” sings Will Canning on the chorus of ‘Heavenly Bodies’, the opening track of Death Bells’ second album. Like many lyrics on ‘New Signs Of Life’, which dropped last Friday, that refrain feels apt in a year where personal dislocation has become the new normal.
But despite Canning’s dark baritone and the band’s sometimes overcast post-punk sound – which touches naturally on coldwave, goth and shoegaze influences along the way – there’s an undeniable optimism at play, too. Three tracks into the new album, Canning embraces the prospect of change on the title track: “We’re finally coming apart,” he announces, before repeating the forward-looking mantra “New signs of life approaching” as saxophone brightens the synth-poppy backdrop.
Resonance aside, these songs weren’t intended to reflect a pandemic or lockdown. Rather, Canning and bandmate Remy Veselis wrote them after relocating to Los Angeles from their native Sydney and streamlining the former six-piece band into a core duo.
“I finalised all the lyrics last year,” confirms Canning, on the phone from LA’s Los Feliz neighbourhood. “But as we crept towards putting out the first single [the title track], it became increasingly apparent just how weirdly applicable it was to the current situation we’re in. [But] it’s just the logical conclusion: if the last record was about growing up and experiencing that, this record is about realising you’re a grownup.”
Unlike 2017’s emotionally turbulent debut album, ‘Standing At The Edge Of The World’, the new record builds toward an open acceptance of what’s to come. Canning has previously described Death Bells’ bleaker material as “love songs gone wrong”, saying of 2018 single ‘Echoes’: “The darker elements of the music and lyrics are present, but that’s just one facet of our lives. We’re generally happy people.”
The new album’s chiming, (mostly) blissful centrepiece, ‘A Different Kind Of Happy’, can single-handedly convince you of that assertion. Playing like a love song gone right for a change, it opens with graceful meditations on a long-distance romance before hitting upon the album’s key lyric for the chorus: “Despite the uncertainty of life, I wouldn’t give up.”
“If your music is gloomy and dark, there needs to be a payoff. It’s about balance and contrast,” says Canning. “Especially the opening few tracks have an arc. There’s some anxiety and gloom from the last record, and then it opens up into this optimistic, light-hearted ending. That’s how life is: there’s always a silver living, no matter how dire things are.” That’s a heartening message, especially at a time when Death Bells – grounded, like everyone else, by the pandemic – should be out on the road behind this new album.
Canning and Veselis moved to LA “almost accidentally” after spending most of 2018 touring the US. “We did that tour, and it was so long that the band kind of disintegrated,” says Canning. “It’s just that people had real responsibilities back in Australia. Remy and I were careful to make sure we didn’t have anything holding us back in terms of relationships or work, so we landed on our feet a bit in LA.”
“The darker elements of the music and lyrics are present, but we’re generally happy people”
Both he and Veselis already worked from home before COVID-19: Canning works as a graphic designer, mostly for other musicians, while Veselis is a freelance copywriter. Canning also runs the influential record label Burning Rose with his friend Morgan Wright, who’s based in Melbourne.
Founded in Sydney in early 2016, Burning Rose came to prominence right alongside Death Bells, but the band’s new album is coming out on Los Angeles/New York label Dais, home to kindred spirits like Drab Majesty and Adult. That decision allows Canning and Wright to “free up resources for the next crop of artists on Burning Rose” while aligning Death Bells with a US label that’s every bit as committed (and consistent) as they are.
Death Bells may just be a duo, but their ranks are bolstered live with a revolving cast of musicians that includes drummer Colin Knight, who recorded ‘New Signs Of Life’. They also tapped saxophonist Spencer Wiles to soften and burnish their sound. Recorded in just one take, Wiles’ sax parts are crucial to the upbeat mood of ‘A Different Kind Of Happy’, the almost New Romantic ‘Alison’ and the title track, on which it dovetails with synth to sound almost artificial.
Formed as a trio in 2014, Death Bells had their impetus in Maurice Santiago, who’s now making music as Hearteyes. Canning was just finishing high school when the slightly older Santiago asked him to play guitar and sing in a band that would sound partly like The Cure and partly like The xx.
“Well, that sounds confusing,” Canning thought at the time, but soon he was “huddled around a laptop” with Santiago to make their 2016 self-titled debut EP. Santiago named the band after South Korean horror movie Death Bell, even if that foreboding name never quite matched the songs: “There’s a lot of contrast in our music,” observes Canning, “and even the name sits in stark contrast with the sound.”
Releasing the EP jointly on Burning Rose and Louisville, Kentucky label Funeral Party, Death Bells threw themselves into American touring in a way that few young Australian bands do. Canning dropped out of uni during his first year to pursue music, even as Death Bells realised the limitations of playing in a band full-time in Australia, especially in Sydney.
That first US tour was not ideal, to say the least. “We toured very prematurely: we booked 20 shows and about seven got scrapped,” Canning recalls. “We drove around in a rental van with instruments we bought at Guitar Center on Sunset in Hollywood. It was a mess, honestly. We were shit [but] having a lot of fun.”
“If your music is gloomy and dark, there needs to be a payoff. It’s about balance and contrast”
Now 24, Canning turned 20 on that tour, and the experience taught him the importance of writing songs in a room together (unlike on that first EP). Looking for role models in Australian bands like Eddy Current Suppression Ring and HTRK, who found success overseas while remaining very much themselves, he applied those lessons to both Death Bells and Burning Rose. “That’s been such a rewarding part of my life,” says Canning of the label. “Nurturing talent and making sure the music I like is being heard and taken seriously.”
Being taken seriously – and taking their own music seriously – is a running theme for Death Bells. That extends to Canning’s singing, which has matured along with the band’s music from a raw and insular outlet to something more polished and expansive.
“That’s something I’ve had to grow into,” he admits. “At the start I was much less comfortable with it, and always needed to be playing another instrument [too]. We started releasing music in such an urgent way and weren’t too concerned with the quality of it on that first EP. There’s a rawness there that’s quaint or naïve, but I can really map out the last five years of my life with every song.”
As much as ‘New Signs Of Life’ traces an encouraging narrative about settling into adulthood, the arc from that first EP through 2017’s debut album and the new record is equally inspiring. Not just to emerging Australian bands that want to devote themselves to music full-time – whether at home or abroad – but to anyone listening at home.
“I don’t think we’re hiding anything,” says Canning. “That’s an important part of this band too: we’ve evolved, and it’s all on display.”
Death Bells’ ‘New Signs Of Life’ is out now on Dais