If you haven’t been spying on me lately, you may not be aware how much I’ve been listening to the new Haun’s Mill album.
Every bit as good as their previous album, Away continues their combination of darkness and folk. Think of them as an upbeat Whiskeytown, an apocalyptic Mumford & Sons, a Mormon Johnny and June, an Austin Decemberists, a joke-free Ryan Shupe—or, better yet, just get to know them and think of them as themselves.
We’ve been working on this interview since early September, so some of the phrasing is a bit dated, but I highly encourage you to dig in all the same. To get you started, here’s the new video for their song “Oak Tree” (all about the end of the world, natch):
Theric: Your new album, Away, comes out September 21st. I’ve been listening for about a month now to the early copy you sent me, and I’m very fond of it. I want to start by asking, though, how were your goals for Away different from your goals for your first album?
Nord: Our overarching goal has been the same, namely to make a great album. Some variables changed with this one because we’re in a new environment with new band members, different studio, and we spent more time refining the songs before the recording process. “Away” keeps the direction and attitude of our debut album while hopefully improving on the song quality and performance.
Eliza: I feel ‘Away’ tells more of a collective story – rather than the first album which is more of a collection of songs. As with the first record Nord writes the songs he sings & I write the songs I sing – but with this album we seemed to be in sync with each other more in our storytelling perhaps because most of these songs were written in Austin just after relocating here.
Theric: This leads to a few questions I was intending to ask, so let me just combine them and get them all out now—they’re all related anyway. I’ve had a hard time piecing together the chronology of Haun’s Mill’s history. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it goes like this: You have separate bands. You get married. You start Haun’s Mill Massacre. You change the name to Haun’s Mill. You record an album. You move from Utah to Austin. You add band members. You record “Away.” How close am I? And how much has the order of events affected your sound slash manner of working together?
Nord: The chronology is right on. Moving to Austin was a spark for my creativity and songwriting. Unfamiliar and novel experiences (i.e. working with new band members, living in a different state, eating amazing barbeque) can really act as a creative lubricant. In terms of working together, we collaborate more now as compared to the first album when she wrote her songs and I wrote mine in a sort of isolation. I think there is a level of acceptance and openness between us that has grown so that we can bounce song ideas off each other without feeling silly or competitive.
Eliza: Good job on your research. We went through a lot of jolting life experiences in the years since Haun’s Mill began in addition to what you mentioned and I do feel our music ideas have accompanied us along the way – I feel like ‘Away’ wouldn’t be what it is without them. Moving to Austin was different for me than for Nord. I grew up in Austin – so the idea of coming back was very strange for me & in preparing to move I went through a period of writer’s block – but once here, it became a totally new place & I was inspired. As far as working together – we never really had issues before but just each worked in our own worlds. Since moving here (and not having family around for one thing) and starting new, this sort of semi-isolation has brought us closer and therefore collaborating – something I know I didn’t really do much of before.
Theric: This question of collaboration is an important one, I think. On the spectrum between writing haikus alone in the wilderness to making a movie with a cast of thousands, art can involve different levels of collaboration. Leaving aside each other for a moment, how does collaboration work with the current iteration of the band?
Nord: Usually, Eliza and I work separately to come up with a main theme and chord progression with a few lyrics. Then we introduce it to the band to help develop the idea further and work out specific arrangements. That process of refining goes on until we all feel that it is right.
Theric: Now let’s move onto working together, as the two of you. What came first: the collaboration or the relationship?
Eliza: Definitely the relationship… although on our first “date” we kinda had a jam session – it didn’t go so well though.
Nord: When we started dating, I was playing with Council of 50 and No Band while she had her own band going. We didn’t join forces musically for a couple months before I started playing guitar with Eliza Wren and the Jewel Thieves. I had to convince her that I was any good first.
Theric: How does being married affect how you work together? Or, if this is better phrased, how has it changed you or your work?
Eliza: It’s much more convenient – we can plan & works things out any time of day or night – it only seems to help. Also, it makes us more unified in our goals.
Nord: There is a greater sense of direction, creatively, because of our marriage. Eliza is one of the most creative people I’ve met and trying to keep up with her output helps spur me to write more consistently and intently than I ever did before.
Theric: Although the stereotype of Mormons as stodgy business-minded folk isn’t going away anytime soon, it seems to me that creation — particularly as a couple — should be a particularly Mormon pursuit in the sense that, doctrinally, aren’t we supposed to become capital “c” Creators someday? In that sense, how is your faith reflected in your music?
Eliza: In general, I don’t write as myself anyway, usually as a figure in a story - take some of the subjects of my songs: influenza, murder, literature, infidelity & war - these are not personal faith or non-faith based songs. I find musical inspiration all over the place – I start with that first. There’s quite a question there – but that’s a start.
Nord: Personally, my faith attracts me to the activity of music more than directly influencing the musical content itself. I think you’re right that the creative arts are among the “goods of first intent”, as Nibley put it. In other words, it is something that is good in and of itself. If we’re trying to prepare for eternity, then those essentially creative pursuits are really important for our development.
Theric: One thing I was impressed by was your Kickstarter campaign. I didn’t hear about it until it was over—until, in fact, I saw the YouTube videos for the cover songs. (For those playing along at home, for a certain level of contribution, Haun’s Mill would cover a song of your choice and dedicate the video to you.) What I loved particularly about the cover-song idea was a) the level of fan interaction it provided and b) listening to you cover, say, “Go West” or “Lovesong” lets folk new to your music really understand what sets you apart. Take a song I already love and lay on the Haun’s Mill filter and now I know why I should pick it up. Although you’ve finished the paid-for covers, any chance we’ll see more? I mean—yours is the only version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” I’ve listened to all the way through in ages.
Eliza: Depending on when you wrote this question, we just finished a rap song cover of “My President is Black” by Young Jeezy – just in time for the election – it was one of the most challenging & fun for sure – we had to find a replacement for the Lamborghini (as you can see in the video) – we really wanted to resist the urge to go ‘Weird Al’ and change the lyrics – keep it pure that way I guess. We just have one more left to do as part of the kickstarter request songs.
Theric: Now I’m going to put on my critic hat and talk about lyrics. Which is a bit unfair because lyrics aren’t meant to stand alone without music (and some just can’t—I’m looking at you “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”), but, musically, much of this album is covered in a veneer of cheerfulness. And I use the word veneer intentionally because your lyrical interests remain as ambiguous as ever. Perhaps the least cheerful music belongs to “All for You” which song, I would argue, has the least depressive lyrics. So starting with a general question, why this play with contrasts?
Nord: “All For You” is one of the most personal songs I’ve written. It’s about the death of my mother and trying to remain hopeful while surrounded by grief. Few events have changed me as profoundly as her and my father’s passing a few years ago. Certainty went out the window and I was left with only a hope that there is an extended realm where their identities are preserved and where we can meet again. The song is about that journey and about the hope of reunion.
Theric: I don’t know if you named the album after “Away” because it’s the catchiest tune, but it is. Like “Haven’t Felt this Way in Days” from your previous album, it’s the song that immediately lodged in my head and kept reminding me to put on the album again and again.
The song is about leaving it all behind, running away, escaping. And there’s plenty to escape from: “Someone has to pay the debt, get broken up instead. / Mama cried, water has run dry, no one has to know the way you’re broken up inside.”
What it is about broken people that lends them to poppy numbers? Cause this ain’t a rare phenomenon.
Eliza: When it came to writing the lyrics for this song, they took on a life of their own, but the initial song was written in a parking lot as I was trying to get my 2 yr old to eat his breakfast – a sort of “open your mouth, here comes the airplane” tune, and perhaps my frustration with his always picky eating habits subconsciously led me to the ‘running away’ theme.
Theric: Correct me if I’m wrong, but “Destruction” is a Tower-of-Babel story/warning. First they get destroyed, then we swing to the present where “A million times brighter a billion times great / All seeing all knowing, the gods we’ll create / By the strength of our hands and confidently we’ve no use for you we’ll finally be free”; after each verse we get this line twice: ”Going down, down, gotta go down, six feet under into the ground” with your voices run through a machine. How literally should I take this song? How directly do you feel that our devotion of technology is an idolatry that will lead us unto destruction?
Nord: The Tower of Babel reference is right and it builds on a story from the Midrash that when building the tower the workers wouldn’t stop when someone fell to their death but when a brick would fall they would all stop and mourn. That is combined with a movie I watched called “Transcendental Man” that documents Ray Kurzweil’s predictions for the future. The song is meant as a sort of counterbalance to Kurzweil’s lofty expectations of a utopian future with the human/AI merged beings realizing all the attributes of the ancient gods.
Theric: Onward to the beginning! The album’s first track is “Fall” which I’ll quote in full:
Sabian fell halfway to Hell
where he will dwell
and I will return
all the way home
maybe he’ll learn alone
Starting with the Fall is a nicely symbolic touch, and Sabian falling halfway to hell could easily refer to mortality. But if I choose to interpret the song that way, I’m left wondering who the narrator of the song is. And who Sabian is, for that matter.
Sabian is a brand of cymbal of course, but Sabians were also a separate (now lost) Abrahamic religion.A fourth Abrahamic religion. So that gives me a working theory on Sabian, but who is the speaker? Who has returned all the way home alone?
Eliza: Ha! I almost didn’t want to answer this question & I won’t entirely to keep it a little mysterious, but I will say you were spot on with one thing: the brand of cymbal – which happened to be the brand our drummer was using when I was looking around the room for lyric inspiration. The story here follows a sort of post life justice & it ties in with “Rise” – The speaker is a sort of “Job” type – who is at the peak of their suffering & seems to see into Heaven as to a justice sure to come to his wrong doers (Sabain – that rotten Cymbal! – jk). In ‘Rise’ he continues beaten down, and questions his abandonment from above. Not to veer from your question too much, but after ‘Rise’ we have the climax & resolve with ‘The Storm’ which, though violent seems to cleanse everything.
Theric: The more I look into your lyrics, the more allusive they become. Phrases here, juxtapositions here—it’s clear to me that you’re not satisfied with rhymes, you’re also going to pass meaning through your throats as you stand on stage with banjo and guitar. You start with the Fall and threaten the end of the world over and over again by plague! glacier! zombie! flood! sunburn! But I never finish listening to Away and feel like I have no reason to keep going. In fact, for all the depressive, apocalyptic content, I feel the album is ultimately optimistic. Is that accurate to your intentions? And why is it important to convey a cohesive album-sized message in the age of iTunes and YouTube?
Eliza: What’s more optimistic than an apocalypse!…
I feel there are many different angles to take with the overall story of our album & different ones can be heard the more intently & often you listen – this is definitely one of them – if it’s going to happen (which will probably not be as soon as you think), it’s going to happen – might as well be happy in the meantime. Whether that’s my personal opinion or not, I won’t say.
Nord: That is definitely accurate to our intentions. I love albums that are cohesive because the songs can build on each other and create a more compelling atmosphere.
Theric: Let’s close with a live performance of an Away track. Take it away.