We speak with Hellions about finding the balance between opera and oblivia

Ahead of the release of their third album Opera Oblivia and Australian tour, Hellions guitarist-vocalist Matthew Gravolin spoke with SAMUEL BAUERMEISTER about defying genre, the complexities of the work/life dichotomy and being compared to Queen by The King.

Since their debut release Die Young in 2013, Hellions have become one of the most attention-commanding Australian bands, for all the right reasons. Their trademark take on songwriting, instrumentation and lyrical themes has established them as one of the most unique voices in heavy music today.

Their eclectic taste is even more defined in the band’s magnum opus release Opera Oblivia. The record manages to deconstruct the barriers of genre by defying conventional songwriting and elevating itself not as a collection of songs, but a delicately crafted piece of art. The record acts as a celebration of life including all of its complexities and beauty that mold us to the people that we become through its grandstand vocals and operatic instrumentation.

Guitarist and Vocalist Matthew Gravolin explains, “We would love for Opera Oblivia to be an escape for its listeners, but more than that, we want it to commiserate with people through our common unpleasantries and overwhelming hardships, and also celebrate alongside our inevitable victory. We want people to allow it to befriend them and remain with them long after its sounds fade out.”. It’s safe to say this has been achieved.

FL: The songs on Opera Oblivia seem so complex and delicately crafted, what was the writing process like for such an ambitious record and how did it differ from Die Young and Indian Summer?
Matthew Gravolin: I guess that the primary thing with this album is that more hours went into it and even more effort than previously. I’m not trying to say that we hadn’t put in as much effort on our last releases, but we put in hundreds of hours into this, man. Some of the songs had as many as seven incarnations, we were copying and changing and just being really honest with ourselves. We also worked from different perspectives as well, this was the first time we tried out co-writing and letting other people have a look into the songs, with where as before I sort of frowned upon that, I didn’t originally like the idea of that. But this time we let it happen and it really helped to get the juices flowing. This was the third time that you’ve worked with producer Shane Edwards.

Had anything changed in the process of making record number three compared to previously and why are you all so close with him?
Our Drummer Anthony and myself in particular have worked with him exclusively for like ten years now. In our previous band The Bride… I’m not sure if you’re familiar with them-

Fucking oath, man!

[laughs]. We did our one record and EPs with him since we were fifteen years old, so he’s seen every step in our creative growth. He’s witnessed it all with his own eyes and he has a better understanding of what we were aiming for in Opera Oblivia and every other record before that, more than anyone else possibly could, you know? Just because he’s just seen us grow as creatively as musicians and artists, it’s just priceless. You can’t pay for that and it make our records what they are.

One of the things that differed this time was the vocals, which is obviously the biggest standout difference. There’s a lot more clean singing and grandstand choruses this time around which was great to experiment with.

Speaking of those grandstand choruses, I’m getting a lot of these Black Parade vibes from this record, you know? These operatic rock kind of sounds from the early-to-mid-2000s. I can’t think of the last time I heard anyone playing around with that stuff.
It was definitely not as specifically as that but it was definitely an objective to make this an opera of sorts. We focused on the grandeur, the size and the scope. We really wanted to widen it up and separate ourselves from what could be considered a scene that is growing to be incestuous and everyone starting to sound similar.

The record seems to transcend genre. Its got a bit of everything in it and doesn’t focus to be just one thing. This record also feels much more personal than previously.
It’s definitely varied on this one. I guess all the songs are deeply personal. I’m the primary lyricist and so then I’ll take it to the boys and we’ll work on it together from that point. The only one that doesn’t come from an immediate personal place is ‘He Without Sin’. Obviously none of us have experienced anything like what we discussed in that song. It’s a song about empathy; it was a real difficult one to write. We had to really make sure that we said everything correctly and spoke for these people in the right way. It’s all about growing up and about the general trials and tribulations that come with it. I don’t think we speak about anything too unique, it’s just our way of saying it is that’s unique, if that doesn’t sound too big headed.

From a lyrical point of view, the record kind of focuses on those complexities of life, the beauty that can sometimes show its head around those struggles and the habits that keep us in one place. What kind of habits in life do you feel that we’re all permanently stuck in that we should get out off?
I guess self-doubt is a huge that we all deal with, you know? Particularly in the songs 24 and 25, it sort of preaches to the listener in shoehorning that away and believing in yourself because that’s something I’d want to hear in my own times of doubt. Self-doubt is definitely that cardinal thing. There’s a lot of alcohol references as well which I’m sure people will notice. It’s not exactly a problem for me or of anyone else but it’s certainly a hazard that we all deal with and something to be careful with.

The last few weeks have been pretty nuts for you all. You’ve been getting a whole heap of love from triple j and even had Richard Kingsmill compare you to Queen which is pretty fucking awesome-
Yeah Dude! I couldn’t believe it.

You’ve been getting a lot of daytime radio play as well, which I feel is really rare of a “Heavy” band and now officially have Opera Oblivia as the triple j Feature Album of the Week. Has this added in any pressure to you guys at all?
On the contrary, it’s never felt more worthwhile. We now have people listening to us that would never have come across us before, not being in the scene. I guess there’s no way for them to have been exposed to this sort of music by means other than radio. So to have all these new people appreciating what we’re doing is so validating and it’s such a blessing. It’s one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to us as a band. This airplay is a miracle for us… it’s fucking awesome, man.

You’re about to go on your first tour with Opera Oblivia tracks on the setlist.
We actually haven’t played in Australia for while, probably since the start of this year and then we played in Europe after that. I’d like to think that we’ve developed as a live band since then. So hopefully you’ll see a tight set [laughs]. It’s definitely going to be an energetic one, which is something that (no matter what we do) will never change. We love to play with passion and I think that’s just so important. It’ll be a very emotional thing.

For this tour, you all decided not to choose any main supports to travel around with you, and just let the landscape of Australian bands to the talking. What made you want to do it that way?
It’s a good way for us to get to know bands. We’ve sort of run out of options at the juncture. We’ve toured with a lot of the same bands repeatedly and we felt that this was the way to keep each show fresh for us. It just felt like the right thing to do intuitively, you know? Just give each show its own feel. There’s only five or six shows for this tour so why not make them feel unique in their own way?

So since Indian Summer’s release, you guys have been touring extensively across Australia and all through Europe. How has this all helped the band grow?
Europe takes a long time to sort of crack in there. We’ve planted our seeds in there now. For the last few there we did a month long tour with Northlane all throughout Europe. Then this year we were fortunate enough to jump onto the Impericon Festival, Slam Dunk, then Never Say Die, we did some more Northlane supports and some Of Mice and Men supports [laughs]. We did everything that we possibly could’ve done this year over there. As I said, we’ve started planting our seeds over there and it’s starting to show. Just to see when people congratulate us on the new songs, which is always awesome, but they’re from these faraway places. That’s the advantage of doing that and the word will spread if your music is any good.

Did you guys record Opera Oblivia before or after your big Europe leg earlier this year?
It was before we went to Europe. So we went to Thailand to record the album in March and spent a month recording it and then from Thailand we flew straight to Germany and started playing the Impericon shows.

Jesus, you would’ve been happy to have been home after all of that.
[laughs] Yeah, absolutely man. Don’t get me wrong; we’re absolutely blessed to have done what we did over there. It was just such a streak of luck to have been on all these different festivals.

So at the moment this call would be at a super strange time for you. We’re talking before the new record is out and before your touring schedule goes into overdrive, I guess it’d feel like the calm before the storm hits. How are you spending your off-days before life starts getting a little chaotic again?

So we’re all working our respective jobs and still trying to recover financially from Europe. I’ve been doing a lot of press and planning for the future with the label and been staying busy. I’ve been starting to do a little bit of writing, but I don’t want to get a little too ahead of myself [laughs].

It can be so hard to balance out that work life with band life, how do you all manage with it?
It’s tricky man, it’s the only possible way. Most of the boys have found jobs where they’re given this flexibility because there’s this bond of loyalty with their employers and they’ve been so fortunate in finding these people who let them come and go, as long as they give them their time once we’re all home. For Josh and I we just have to find new jobs wherever we can and keep our ears to the ground. Yeah, I’m at the ripe old age of 25 and still having to hand out fucking resumes [laughs].

I have nothing but admiration for that man, it’s so hard to balance that shit out man.
Yeah, the in-between job-hunting isn’t the coolest thing in the world to do, but it is so worth it right now, man.

Opera Oblivia is out now via UNFD.

Hellions Opera Oblivia tour

Friday 29th July – Evelyn Hotel, Melbourne (18+)
Saturday 30th July – Arrow On Swanson, Melbourne (AA)
Friday 5th August – Enigma Bar, Adelaide (LIC/AA)
Friday 12th August – Bald Faced Stag, Sydney (LIC/AA)
Saturday 13th August – The Brightside, Brisbane (18+)