ABOVE: HÆLOS. PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVE MA.
Even by non-London standards, it is a gorgeous, balmy day when we sit down for coffee with HÆLOS in Shoreditch in late in February. The London-based electronic band, pronounced “halos,” comprises Lotti Benardout, Arthur Delaney, and Dom Goldsmith, and as we take our seats, they assure us the coffee is “lethal” and “cray”—their speech punctuated by emphatic adjectives no matter the subject. Delaney and Benardout both hail from London, while Goldsmith’s parents moved out of the city shortly after he was born. (His parents now raise alpacas, Goldsmith volunteers, referring to himself as a “country bumpkin,” and affirming that, yes, the alpacas do yield some wool.)
Before their debut album Full Circle came out on Friday via Matador, and before HÆLOS at all, the three weren’t exactly friends, though they were each seasoned musicians and acquainted with each other’s work. They came to know and appreciate personality quirks over the course of writing, recording, and producing the album, starting with only a professional relationship. “It can be very intense,” Benardout says of the process. “Blood was spilt,” Goldsmith chimes in, before Delaney adds: “It’s like being in a kettle together.”
Now, the three musicians seem to be on precisely the same wavelength; throughout our conversation, they echo thoughts, fill in pauses, and help each other find the right words to express ideas. In the end, however, their sometimes-fraught relationship is what made Full Circle what it is: “You need tension and conflict,” Delaney says. “As artists, you’re trying to make an expression of being human. All of those things are part of being human—conflict, relationships, tension, release, euphoria, pain, suffering, happiness, it’s all in there.”
Each of these emotional aspects is accounted for on Full Circle beneath a trip-hop veneer, the result of a 1972 Fender Rhodes piano and a few vintage synthesizers Goldsmith has collected during his life thus far. The three musicians’ voices weave in and out of the low-fi tracks that might best be described as Portishead by way of London Grammar. The lyrics are sparse, obscure (on “Dust,” the first song they recorded together, the trio sings “Still, the space and the time / dust in the flow like shadows entwined”), and intentionally open to interpretation. As Benardout says of both HÆLOS’s musical compositions and accompanying videos, “There are metaphorical, metaphysical elements to it that we want people to interpret and take how they want.”
HÆLOS is now fresh off an appearance at SXSW and preparing for a full North American tour in support of Full Circle, which will culminate at Coachella in April. We spoke with the band about its process, future plans, and, as Delaney puts it, how the three came to “figure out that we were friends.”
KATHERINE CUSUMANO: How did you get started making music?
ARTHUR DELANEY: I think we all weirdly came from very similar starting points, which is just writing songs on guitars. That’s kind of remained at the core of our ethic—if it works on one instrument, or a vocal and an instrument, then that’s got to be what it is and that’s a good song.
DOM GOLDSMITH: I got my first eight-track when I was 16 or something. I had been playing guitar since I was 11, and got into recording music and music production.
LOTTI BENARDOUT: We all had years of different projects. We came together almost by fate. I met Dom through mutual friends who just decided to connect us. Dom was looking for a female vocalist to work on this project he was doing at the time. We met and hit it off instantly and decided to continue working together, and did that on and off for a year or so. Then it started forming into an actual project.
GOLDSMITH: We’re firm believers in the idea that the universe will unfold exactly as it should, and we’re not really in control of it anyway. The opportunity to work with these guys finally arose, and there were these two projects running side-by-side, and they were more and more sounding like the same thing. So I was talking with Lotti one day and we were like, “Maybe it should be a collaboration.”
CUSUMANO: I’m interested in this idea of everything unfolding as it should, because that’s a theme that’s really comes across in your music. I’m wondering how that informs the way you compose?
BENARDOUT: Looking back on how we put this record together, it’s generally going through the same cycle every single song, bar maybe one or two. Generally, it’ll be a groove and some chords and everybody will be really excited about that initial idea, and then there’s a whole process of us all trying to find that common ground and find that moment where the universe does pull it all together and make it so we can all connect with the song. I think we go through a lot of struggles between us to find that equal point.
DELANEY: I think it comes down to a fundamental two things: We’re all, by nature, control freaks and perfectionists, and it comes down to us as between what are we in control of, and what are we not in control of? What do we have some power over and what are we completely powerless over? We figured out that we were really in control of our work.
GOLDSMITH: We try to keep it to as little parts as possible, so the idea is always as concentrated as possible. We’re only hearing as we’re making the music, because we’re producing and mixing and writing and rewriting all at the same time. You just follow a thread; it’s always there, pulling it one way. Sometimes you’ve got to say goodbye to parts and lyrics and melodies in the same song because the thread takes you in a slightly different direction. But it feels like it’s already there, and we’re just following a pathway.
CUSUMANO: So where did the name come from?
GOLDSMITH: We were wanting to find something that was universal, something that could be interpreted and mean different things to different people. The circle as an image is a symbol that’s in science; it’s in pretty much every religion; it appears in symbology. It’s kind of at the edge of something and also doesn’t have a beginning or an end. The halo could be interpreted to some people as an eclipse. For me, it’s the ether that surrounds the planet.
DELANEY: If you step out—if you look out at the Earth from space, it has a thin line of atmosphere outside of it. When you’re writing, you’re almost creating mindful distance from your feelings. You’re containing them and representing them. If you step outside of things, then often you’ll see that they have an outline or an aura—or a halo.
CUSUMANO: Do you find that the visual world is something that inspires the way you make music?
DELANEY: We wanted to make a project that was heavy on symbology because humans use symbols and seek serendipity in their lives—sublime, cross over, and access things that they can’t see.
GOLDSMITH: We really wanted to evoke imagery.
BENARDOUT: Set the tone of the project.
GOLDSMITH: That kind of cinematic feel.
DELANEY: It should be, like great bands, an immersive experience. You enter into a world, and that defines the way you listen to the music.
BENARDOUT: Going forward, as well, it’s something we really wanted to incorporate into our live show. We haven’t gotten there yet but that’s probably next.
CUSUMANO: Is there any sort of translation you have to do to bring the record to stage?
GOLDSMITH: A lot of rehearsals. We work with three great musicians live, so there’s six of us on stage. Some of the rarer synthesizers that we used to make the record wouldn’t take kindly to being cased and put on planes. We use a sampler to do that. It needed that many people because otherwise we’d be in danger of being that same electronic band you’ve seen a thousand times hit space bar. There are bands that do that really well, like Caribou, and it’s good for some people. We really wanted it to feel as live as humanly possible.
DELANEY: We were joking the other day that there’s a real thing in modern music, where there’s almost a robot member of every band. I just think there’s something really endearing and enjoyable about wanting to see a band that’s all about playing music.
GOLDSMITH: But that was actually the weird thing—we got signed having never played live, ever. We’re a studio band. Everything was made in the studio and written in the studio. We had to look at the completed songs and go, “How do we play this live?” It took a good three months to get a hand on it.
CUSUMANO: I want to talk about the Alan Watts sample that starts the record. Why did you choose to start your first record with somebody else’s words?
GOLDSMITH: We’d just taken the chord progression of “Pray,” and tried to make it an introduction to the record, just a string arrangement. Arthur was like, “This Alan Watts lecture from Spectrum of Love. It’s perfect.” We’re not actually trying to say anything brand new. So many people have got the same message as us, and it’s just a message of positivity and respect and love.
BENARDOUT: It wasn’t also that we sought out something like this to start the record. It just fell into place and felt so perfectly fitting.
DELANEY: Using vocal samples, we’ve done that all the way through. We haven’t been shy of using a good vocal sample.
GOLDSMITH: It can add atmosphere to the recording. The world is bigger than any single piece of music.
DELANEY: Really, his words have more resonance now even than they did when he was talking about them. We’re in a really strange period of time. It doesn’t feel like the world is particularly stable. It feels quite like a destructive age. It doesn’t feel massively positive. There are some really positive things happening, and there’s a sense of reaction to what’s going on at the moment, but, it feels very individually driven. I think his words seem to have more resonance now than they did before. Just positivity and love, that’s what we really wanted to have at the forefront. Even what’s happened between the three of us over the course of this album: We started off in a place of tension and difficulty, and through real work, we’ve gotten to a place of real love and care for each other. That feels like a positive expression of something.
GOLDSMITH: We’ve got no reason ourselves other than trying to project positivity. Let the politicians be cynical.
CUSUMANO: Do you think it’s a positive record?
DELANEY: I think it dwells in a lot of negative experience and traumatic experience, but it tries to make light of it. When you contain it in that way, you process it. You relive it, and you finish a song, you put a lid on it, and you hand it over to the people and go, “We felt this. It’s alright.” Sometimes, the worst thing about feelings is not really knowing what they are, or not being able to process them properly or understand them. Great songs capture and contain those feelings and make it safe for people to experience them. That feels like a positive thing.