Hallelujah the Hills have been winning buzz for their new album “Have You Ever Done Something Evil?” PopMatters called it their "finest statement yet." Spin described the band as "criminally underappreciated."
The band released their first album, “Collective Psychosis Begone,” seven years ago, and have been a charming, good-natured indie rock staple in the Boston-area music scene ever since. Where previous recordings made liberal use of cello, banjo, and trumpet, the newest is sparser, more urgent, with punk-rock percussion. This is due in part to a smaller lineup (no more banjo or cello) and a new drummer that they’ll be performing with at Great Scott in Allston on May 30. (Photo above by Samuel D. Quinn.)
Frontman Ryan Walsh infuses euphoric melodies with lyrical wit and imagination. He is the brains behind the band’s mischievous Twitter account, fond of wry observations and the occasional sarcastic jab at corporations. He injects a similar sensibility into the band’s homemade music videos; one of the songs from “Have You Ever Done Something Evil?” features a video claiming to depict a tour of Boston’s rock 'n’ roll landmarks, only to devolve into absurdity with bizarre subtitles about made-up bands, such as: “On this spot, the Dewey Death Metal System buried their bassist alive after blowing an industry showcase.”
Walsh sat down recently at Café Algiers in Cambridge for a long and wide-ranging discussion of his songwriting process, his experiences on tour, the band’s latest record, and growing up in nearby Dedham. The following transcription has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Amelia Mason: I loved the music video for “I Stand Corrected,” because it felt like you’re really owning your Boston identity but not actually taking it seriously at all. How did you come up with that concept? Ryan Walsh: I was a videographer at a wedding once, and they sat me with the live band for dinner. Like, in the basement. This is in Salem. And I was just getting into music at the time, and they went around the table, and they were like, “Oh, you were in, XY band? I was in ZY!” And they started to rattle off all these Boston bands I had never heard of. But you could see they were important to them, when they were doing their thing. These were the bands, and they all kind of reconnected and reminisced. ... Everyone wants to go down in history, but, I don’t know, maybe [you should] make up your own history. Maybe it’s more transient than we think.
Be warned, dear viewers, that this video includes some cussing.
What’s the worst gig you’ve ever had? Well, the worst thing that ever happened was, my old band—The Stairs—we showed up at the show and the headliner was named Ryan as well. So we got there and the phone rang behind the bar, and the bartender was like, “Hey Ryan, the owner wants to talk to you.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s me!” And I walk over, and he’s like, “Hey, man, I’m really sorry about these openers, the booker was really pushy, got them on the bill. They are not good.” And then I was just like, “Oh! This is Ryan from the opening band.” And then, I was so impressed, because just on a dime he was like, “So glad to have you on the bill, thank you for coming.” Just started lying, instantly.
Was that crushing to your self-esteem, or did you not care? I remember instantly being hurt, but knowing, also instantly, it was a great story.
One time, I was super, super sick on tour. I actually had to go to a doctor, who, by the way said, “It’s viral and bacterial, I’ve never seen anything like it.” I was lying in the van, shivering. I had plague. We had a blanket that I was using. We called it “plague blanket,” because people who used it for warmth after me also got sick.
So, we get to this gig in Ypsilanti, Michigan. And I was like, okay, if there’s no one here, just don’t make us play. And no one was there, it was a snowstorm, school was out—it’s a college town—and the guy was like, “I like you, you’re playing.” The sound guy. And I was like, okay...
Did you tell him you were sick? Yeah, he knew. I had to sit down, like an old bluesman. I had to sit down. And then we finished four or five songs, and he was like [slow clap] “Keep goin’!” He thought he was being encouraging, or something. But I was really, really hurting.
So what was your vision with this album, versus your previous albums? The last album, I think, was really different for us. It was really quiet, and thoughtful. I put a lot into the lyrics. ... And this, I wanted to have more fun with the band.
What are you trying to capture in your music? I guess peak moments in life, in anyone’s life. Either the truly thrilling stuff—this album—or the truly depressing, dark stuff—the last one. You know, the interesting stuff. The stuff we write emails to our friends about.
And there are also a couple songs with questions in them that sound rhetorical to me. But I’m wondering if they’re real questions or rhetorical questions. I guess they work as both. I mean, you could listen to the song and not answer it, no one’s going to yell at you. I started putting questions in lyrics on the last album—I think there are two instances of that—and I really liked that because it’s a good way to not sound like the wizened old songwriter, you know what I mean? Like, “Let me tell you some wisdom.” But it’s more just, “Here’s a prompt,” you know what I mean? And then you think about it. The two questions on this—the album title [“Have You Ever Done Something Evil?”], and that one song [“Do You Have Romantic Courage?”]—I was playing a game where it was like, OK, if you only had two questions to ask someone, to know whether you should let them into your life or not, what two would you ask them?
I don’t even know what romantic courage is. Can you explain it to me? It’s kind of the gusto to jump into anything with love. It’s easy to jump into something in a hateful way, or in a spiteful way. I think it’s hard to throw yourself into something in a loving way.
When did you start playing music? End of high school, someone gave me a guitar. Actually, at first I borrowed one. This is one of those origin stories, where you learn about what triggered someone, or what got their goat. Someone said—he was away at college—he said, “You can borrow my electric guitar, just go over to my parents’.” And I went over on a Friday night, and they were having their dinner party and they were kind of drunk, and I was like, “I’m grabbing the guitar.” And they said “What for?” And I said, “I’m starting a band.” And everyone laughed. It was just because there was nothing that suggested I was musical up until that point. But I was just like, “I’ll show you.”
What kind of kid were you in high school? I was a good, clean-cut kid. And I played football, and I hated football. But I thought I was supposed to do sports. And the day I quit football and joined the drama club was the greatest day.
Was your family creative? My immediate family, I mean, no one does it for a living or anything. But they’re very funny. My family is [full of] super good storytellers, that kind of thing. And then you always hear about the uncle with the banjo in the attic. But I’ve never seen one.
What do you like about the music scene here in Boston? At times I like it, at times I don’t, and at times, I don’t know what’s going on, especially as I get older. ... When I first started, one of the first times I ever played—I just thought Great Scott was cool, and I went in there. And I was like, “Can I do a solo acoustic show?” And they were like “Well, we really only do Red Hot Chili Peppers cover bands.” Or something. It was an awful frat bar. And I saw that bar kind of turn into a cool place, and host all my friends, and all the bands I thought were great at the time.
I think it’s harder without The Phoenix, to be honest. There is a big hole there. That helped me know a lot, and helped get word out about bands a lot.
Do you write much about relationships? I was surprised to see the [Boston] Herald call it an album about rekindling a relationship, and I was like, “I did what?” I’ll get surprised like that all the time, where I’ll write with some part of the brain that’s mostly unconscious. So I can figure out what I’m talking about later, which is fine with me.
What’s it like being onstage, playing a rock show? One thing that’s cool is that if it’s going well, it’s 100 percent in the moment. Which as you know, is hard to do, at any time. You’re thinking about the past, or the future. If you’re not in the moment, also, you will suck.
Related: Watch WBUR’s Off The Record’s video of Hallelujah the Hills performing “Three Minute Mark” on a Boston rooftop last summer.
This article was originally published on May 27, 2014.