Belle Haven take us deep inside the artwork & the music of their superb second LP, 'You, Me And Everything In Between.'.
Over the course of a 70-minute phone call in mid-May, I ventured deep down the rabbit hole with Belle Haven singer David Vernon, guitarist Daniel 'Mara' Marinakis and bassist Tom Mitchell about their stunning new LP, 'You, Me And Everything In Between.'.
Throughout this candid, in-depth feature, the trio takes me through the artwork of their new album, how said artwork relates to the music, history, stories, and the very people that inspired these 11 songs, as well as the darker origins of their band name. For as Marinakis would put it to me in this interview, “It's all part of the story, as much as anything else. It’s all connected.”
When I first saw the front cover for ‘You, Me And Everything In Between.’, my first initial thought was of Charlie Day’s conspiracy board from season four, episode ten of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia - "Sweet Dee Has a Heart Attack". You know the one. Secondly, and far more importantly, I noticed how the record’s artwork was simply too meticulous to be random or merely utilitarian. And to think otherwise is a grand disservice to this fantastic record's meaning, I feel.
So I grabbed a hi-res copy of the artwork from Greyscale Records' Joshua Merriel, spent a lot of time listening to this new album, reading over, zooming in and out, and pawning over the artwork and its various elements and minute details; from the Polaroids, the city maps, the interconnected red threads, the torn-up paper notes, the "fake" newspaper articles, and anything else I could unearth with my bare eyes.
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But before all that, I want to bring up something else in the world of Belle Haven that's equally as important as this new album. That is, of course, the "tell-all" video interview in which frontman David Vernon quite openly discussed his battles with mental illness; a vast, public display of vulnerability but also a showing of incredible courage and one I commend the singer for.
“I haven’t actually watched it yet," David informs me early on in our interview. "I’ve tried to watch it but it’s so tricky for me. I don’t even know what’s fully in there, other than what Mara has run me through. My part was just me sitting in a chair for an hour and a half talking to Joshua [Greyscale Records/Short.Fast.Loud], hugging it out afterwards, and then the other guys piecing it all together. It has been a really frightening thing for me but the response has been so beautiful and touching.”
“It’s definitely soul-destroying and heartbreaking,” inputs Marinakis, (who I'll from now refer to as simply Mara) when I ask what Vernon's band mates and dear friends feel about such a video. "It was pretty emotionally exhausting to first go through and then edit it together. As hard as it was for David to do that, and as emotionally draining as it was for me to watch it and put it all together, it was too important to not do it. The whole point of it was that so everyone can more or less understand what this band is about and that we all maybe share more with our fans than they may think.”
"There is a lot of baggage and emotion here," the guitarist adds. "And if people didn’t notice it in our older songs or by the time they hear this new album, this is to help cement that.”
That open-diary video is also important as much of what David talks about and alludes to in those eight minutes and 50 seconds is spread out in plain sight on the very cover of 'You, Me And Everything In Between.' and the recurring lyrical themes present throughout these 11 songs.
The artwork itself depicts a large investigative thread board – the band’s very own mind map – with a desk below littered with torn notes and an old camera, almost as if someone’s been piecing together the significant points of someone’s life. Or in this case, the lifespan and history of a band.
“Every single song has a representative Polaroid and every song has a representative news article" states Mara, the key person behind the artwork's creation. "I really wanted to show the music visually, so that while there are a lot of topics on the album, they’re all interconnected. Everything on this record and on our mind map has a meaning. It’s all part of the story, as much as anything else. It’s all connected. As much as I would want an album cover to look aesthetically pleasing, we didn't have to nor want to do that here. When I was creating this artwork, I printed out the assets for each song and added some assets from the band’s past and our future. And I started connecting it all, and after about 45 minutes, it was basically at where you now see it today. Doing the red string threads was my own way of piecing all of that together."
"The mind map shows a life in pieces and how those pieces then make a life," as the six-stringer poetically puts it.
On the cover's right-hand side is a map of Melbourne and it’s surrounding suburbs and areas, with a torn piece of paper bearing the band’s own name, and having red threads running from it to their individual places of residence around Melbourne. (You know, just so you can try and track the members down). Then on the left side of the mind map is a layout of the city of Atlanta, Georgia. Written above the city centre is the phrase ‘GITDARK’, standing for Glow In The Dark Studios; the studio where this second album was recorded with Matt Goldman and who also recorded their solid debut full-length, ‘Everything Ablaze’.
Bassist Tom Mitchell mentions the significance of the U.S. city's inclusion. “We really feel like Atlanta, as a city, is a big part of our band. We’ve recorded there twice now and we’ve played one of our biggest shows to date there. It’s a big part of the growth of our band.”
Yet that growth comes in many different forms; some good and some bad. Of the Polaroid images featured, you’ll find images of the actual people that these songs were written about, the band members themselves, and the motifs and images that are important to these songs and what they encompass lyrically and thematically. As you can see below on the cover, the polaroids of these individuals are either obscured by having been drawn over, are partially covered up by other photos or written articles, or by a combination of the two.
"Yes, there are images of people who have been close to the band and close to me. But we didn’t really want to just plaster their faces over the album and we figured we’d make it more inconspicuous,” states David, adding that whatever pieces their faces are being covered with reflects the positive or negative literal connotations associated with those individuals.
For instance, songs such as ‘Burn The Witch’, ‘The Carving Knife’, and one of my personal favourite songs from the record, ‘Egophobia’, all deal with the same person; a woman who was a blight on Vernon's personal life. The polaroids that represent this individual are that of the witch being burned alive ('Burn The Witch'), the black balloon that we'll get to later ('Egophobia'), the raised "bloody" arm ('The Carving Knife'), as well as the faux-newspaper articles of ‘Witch Spotted!”, "Supermassive Vortex Spotted!" and “Ego Outbreak”.
“Absolutely, they're about the same person," asserts David. "She was an ex-partner of mine who was just so manipulative, and she was in a very dark place in her own life and I let that affect me a lot. She negatively affected my life so much, especially my relationship the band, as I almost lost my best friends because of her. She was just a very dark cloud in my life. This was all my attempt at catharsis."
Similarly, on the romantic front, the Belle Haven frontman takes aim at 'the one that got away' with the band's latest single, 'You.', of which their 'Onus' EP was also about and with this new track acting as a part two to 'Sister-In-Law'. (Oh, and there's a solid breakdown of 'You.' and its lyrics over at Depth Magazine that's also worth a read). Likewise to this topic, on the far right of the mind map, there's hatchet shown buried into a tree stump, which aligns with the "cut you down" lyrics of 'You.'.
This is also the same individual whose name is bleeped out in David's above video interview. And in respect to the singer's wishes, I’m not going to disclose either of those two women's names here in this article. After all, one of their names and some of the details and implications of those past relationships can be found on the cover... if one looks hard enough.
Yet out of the batch of songs dealing with the frontman's past, it's perhaps ‘Burn The Witch’ that is the true microcosm for the larger record; the expunging of toxic people and negative influences from your life and saying no more to the bullshit that such people bring. A sentiment David reinforces to me.
"That song ['Burn The Witch'] really picks up from where ‘The Carving Knife’ ended. That song was all about how she did this to me, and no one knew about it. ‘Burn The Witch’ is me telling everyone and no longer protecting her when I know she’s the evil one here. It’s the far more aggressive side of things.”
And he's not wrong in saying that it's on the aggressive side for Belle Haven's sound, as it's perhaps only rivalled in intensity by the short and vehement 'Egophobia' or the breakdown on the powerful closing track, ‘Me.’ - all songs that share very similar thematic traits as well.
“A lot of the lyrical themes do pop up, disappear and then show up again in different topics and songs. It’s spread out lyrically", chimes in Tom. It's here that Mara also neatly sums up the overall attitude behind 'You, Me And Everything In Between.', and also what they in retrospect feel was wrong with their debut, saying "While there are a lot of different stories on this record, there’s a cohesive theme of “Fuck you” to it."
"Our biggest thing for this record was for each of the songs to be fast, aggressive, catchy and consistent, all within reason, of course. Because we felt that with 'Everything Ablaze', it was just three heavy songs, three soft songs, three songs in the middle and then two other random tracks. This was our aim at something better constructed."
As someone who has been regularly listening to 'You, Me And Everything In Between.', since first receiving it - and sincerely loving it - Belle Haven has absolutely nailed a better-constructed record. This is a big step up!
On a far gloomier subject, however, in the bottom right corner of the artwork for 'You, Me And Everything In Between.', there is a prescription box for the drug Seroquel. If you're unaware, this drug “helps to correct chemical imbalances in the brain", and is mainly used to help treat schizophrenia, Bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression. Now, if you've watched Vernon's video interview (which you really should), and understand that most of - if not all - of this cover's artwork has purposeful meaning, you can guess where this is going...
“That’s an actual box of my medication," the singer confirms. "That was prescribed to me to help with my anxiety, panic attacks, and my sleeping patterns. It’s relevant to this record as when we were writing it, I wasn’t taking Seroquel and I had a really rough time before leaving to America. I was seeing a professional and in telling them about the band going overseas, they prescribed me Seroquel as while I would be overseas in another country, and even with my best friends around, I can’t really call home and I may still have panic attacks. So he wanted to make sure that I had a safety net.”
“And when your mates having a panic attack, while you’re there for them and trying to help them, you often can’t stop the attacks”, Tom adds quietly.
“And there were a few times in America I had to take that drug to calm myself down," David redirects. "With so many of these lyrics being written under the influence of Seroquel, it felt very relevant; very important.”
Further driving this point home, David mentions that the very box used on the cover is the same one that accompanied him overseas to record ‘You, Me And Everything In Between.’; being right there in the studio with him. Like so much else on this album, both in the actual music and the physical art, this only bolsters the album's emotional impact and cutting honesty and personality. In knowing David personally, I take no pleasure in hearing him talk so openly about his mental health. I also must admit that it's quite disconcerting to hear on the album's swansong ‘Me.’ (represented by the noose polaroid), David ominously singing ‘Give me a gun…’ before repeatedly and viciously screaming, “Kill me!” over the top of what is one of the record’s heaviest moments; both musically and emotionally.
Another moment that while not as sonically heavy as say, ‘Me.’, is the piano-vocal duet of ‘By Hook or by Crook’; a song dealing with the death of Vernon's grandfather in 2015 to cancer and the singer's anger at God, and - if such an entity does exist - why a loving being would permit such a personal loss to occur. Representing this track is the black and white Polaroid of an IV drip and the penned piece, "Obituary". Musically, this track is nothing but just a piano and David singing over the top of it, with an incredibly unhinged emotional mid-section seeing him rabidly screaming about this deep loss, as the piano keeps time underneath. It's an incredibly... intense listen, but a nonetheless poignant track for what is already a glorious record.
“That song is a very special one for my brother Chris [Vernon, guitarist] and I”, solemnly states David, before trailing off. Mara continues the thought process of this deeply meaningful song, saying “As much as it was just David and the piano, it’s also one of the most collaborative songs on the whole record. It started off with Chris and I being in the studio at 4am, working on a piano track, as Goldman had wanted one more from us, and we tried writing something but sucked at it. So we gave it to Tom and he did it less than an hour. On that same night, we gave it to David while he was very inebriated and went to write the lyrics. Then I heard this screaming from David from across the studio. I then busted in and told him, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it”."
With Tom adding, "I think because of how unplanned and how off-the-cuff it was just really showed how pure and special this song was and is”.
Moving away from the topic of death, one aspect that stumped me on the front cover was the purple Hollywood star on the far left, with the name 'DESU' pictured. Thankfully, the band was able to rectify my ignorance, so to speak.
“That Polaroid directly relates to 'Hollywood', which is also related to ‘The Carving Knife’ and ‘Burn The Witch’. The only lyric in that song, ‘Hollywood’, is as you know, “Let’s hope Hollywood cares”, which is a very sarcastic take on someone living their whole life for attention,” explains David, further reinforcing the impact that this she-who-shall-not-be-named person had on his psyche.
Another of the many things I love about this cover are the small torn up pieces of paper scattered across this intricate mind map. The one that stands out the most to me is the “In love with the idea” note found at the bottom of the mind map, which is dated 9/12/15 and is signed off by Tom, with the bassist labelling his own band as being “Substance without a vision” in said note.
“When we were finishing the cover, Mara said it’d be great to get a few messages on the board from the members. So I went into my phone and I found this note on it from when we were in the studio in 2015. It was a few paragraphs long but that bit of paper shows an excerpt from that larger piece,” explains Tom.
As for the other hand written messages on the cover, Mara's note is the crooked piece in the top right, with the “That or death"” note next to it being written by the singer. “That was taken from a bigger piece that I wrote and tore up, as it was very, very depressive," recalls David. "As for the newspaper articles, I wrote each of those myself. It was an interesting experience, as it was writing what I'd already written about for the band's music but with a whole new vibe. I just sat down at a desk and wrote all of this… artistic drivel, and then Mara turned them all into these newspaper pieces.”
“And I really liked that" concludes Tom, circling this particular conversation back around. "As it was these almost un-tampered moments in time we could stick on the cover. My note is actually a dark message for us, as it’s about how we were so love in with ‘Everything Ablaze’, but how in retrospect we didn’t quite understand the weight of what we were doing. With ‘Everything Ablaze’, we were so in love with going to a studio in America, recording original music, and in doing it all for us. That’s beautiful in a way but also really naïve and I think we thought that the fact that we were doing it meant that it would be perfect, but that’s just not reality. I wrote that in the hope that we would get it right this time. "
Well, mission fucking accomplished! As while such a piece is a very self-critical take, Belle Haven shouldn't worry at all with 'You, Me And Everything In Between.', as it's the Belle Haven many know and love, just now many times better. For this second record is a tighter, stronger written, genuinely more mature, and far better thought out record compared to their 2015 full-length.
A few weeks prior to this mid-week evening phone interview, David mentioned to me in passing that the reason that ‘“Selfmade”’ was kept in quotation marks is that 'Selfmade' is actually the face tattoo donned by their deceitful ex-manager, who is no doubt very high up on the band’s shitlist. In the press release sent out far and wide for this record, the band mentioned how they've been "screwed around by so many 'professionals' and 'friends' over the past few years." Well, '"Selfmade"' is one of those examples, as is a later cut on the record titled ‘HighfLIAR’. Same concept, just a different person.
“It’s not about the same person, but we wanted to make it explicitly clear that this other person is indeed a liar. I will also say that that with that ‘HighfLIAR’ incident, we won. It ended in our favour”, states David.
This was my first “eureka” moment if you will, and the second came not long afterwards. See, there are two burning images found on this album's front cover. One of them was the burning witch mentioned previously, but the other looked to me at first as being a burning amplifier. The band corrects me that no, it's actually a closet that's been set on fire.
Back in July 2016, Belle Haven penned a lengthy post about how their American tour with Norma Jean and Sleepwave went, what their plans for new music were, as well as discussing the bullshit they'd experienced at the hands of "professionals" and "friends", and how they'd come dangerously close to their collective breaking point over the past couple months. After quickly deliberating on the matter and simply saying "fuck it" to how honest they'd be with me, the trio graciously elaborates on one of that aforementioned post's key points - the issue of an undelivered music video. David gives me the rundown.
"We attempted to shoot a video for our song 'Closet' before we left for the States to tour with Norma Jean. The intention was outlined and agreed by us all and the person we were working with that it would be done and ready to go before we left. Unfortunately, we were messed around to no end and the clip never came out. After a very long process, we felt that the video was no longer relevant. By the time it was done, we were halfway through the U.S. tour and it didn't resemble what we wanted at all; there were scenes missing and there were things that hadn't even been shot yet. So we had a VERY big falling out with that individual and we requested our money back, to which they did not agree with. We turned it then into a legal matter and about two or three days before the hearing, they settled, and gave us some money back."
So instead of the intended but now unusable film clip, the 'Closet' music video was released; made up of live footage captured on their 2015 American tour. So, a more or less happy ending right? Well, yes and no. Mara explains.
"Afterwards, this person kept on using the 'Closet' footage in a showreel of theirs. So I grabbed a screen cap of that and used that on the cover to represent that song about them - 'HighfLIAR'. If you wanna use footage from our unreleased clip that we paid you for to show off your own work, then we'll put it on our own record."
Honestly, I love that approach. It seems only fair after being fucked around so much by those they once trusted with their art.
We now arrive at some of the smaller observations surrounding this record's artwork. For instance, covered up and found down the bottom of the mind map is the band’s own self-titled news article, with the events detailed within cleverly alluding to the lyrics of ‘You.’. In that song’s chorus, Vernon sings “So give me seven reasons why”, which I first took as meaning the seven years that the band had been together. However, I’m anything but right in that analysis, according to the singer.
“The seven years lyric isn’t related to the band at all, that’s more related to the seven years since a particular person got up and left my life [keep in mind that prior video interview]. Technically, though, we’ve now been a band for seven years, so it kinda fits, but at the time of writing the song, it was only five years we'd been together. Plus, ‘Seven Years’ is also a [great] song by Saosin that Chris asked me to come sing with his band…which ended up being Belle Haven! So seven years is just this weird coincidence following us.”
On the left side of the mind map, there's a rather creepy polaroid of an open door. There's no real hidden agenda to it; it's simply an eerie photo from their bassist's house that pertains to the tenth song ‘Ghost’, the numbered and spiritual follow up to 'By Hook or by Crook'.
Yet as for the song's actual lyrical intention, David details that the track is about how he felt like he was being used by people, saying, “’Ghost' is an interesting song lyrically. I write about that I do indeed exist, that I am a real person, and that this person was ignoring that; acting like I’m just a chapter in their life and that I didn't have my own life. With the door being slightly open, it's about them peering in and getting what they feel they need out of it, out of me."
Elsewhere, in the middle of the cover, there’s a seemingly random picture of a black balloon. David tells me what this represents is one's own sense of ego and how that then works back into many of these songs.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations about that particular black balloon. It’s almost a weird mystery on the cover. For me, the black lead balloon is a metaphor that I’ve used in the past for Belle Haven lyrics, [‘The Bunker’ from their ‘Onus’ EP] and myself when I’m thinking in general. I resonate with it a lot. It’s for ‘Egophobia’, as your ego is a lot like a balloon that can inflate and deflate.”
Towards the top left of the piece is a Polaroid of a person taking a picture of the person taking the actual Polaroid. However, this wasn't just some random image nabbed off Google but is actually a photo of Andy Warhol; who was notorious for appropriating and ripping off other people’s art, as Mara reasons.
“That’s representative of the fifth song ‘Little Polaroid Boy’", the guitarist points out. "And I thought it would be a cool little ‘fuck you’ to some people we’ve known to use a photo on the cover that someone such as Warhol may also have done.”
Yet one particular image that I couldn't quite put my finger on was this polaroid of a statue of a woman holding a bouquet of flowers. My curiosity in this photo elicits a handful of “Ah’s” from the three band members on the other end of the line. As it turns out, that image is a relic from Belle Haven’s past.
“That’s actually the front cover of Belle Haven’s very first release - a six-track EP called 'Chapter Zero' - that has since been extinguished from the Internet”, says Mara.
“I think that removing your first release or your shit quality recordings is a rite of passage for any band,” cheekily adds Tom.
Belle Haven have stated their name roughly means “beautiful, safe place" and like so much else of their band’s history and it’s five members personal lives, this album's cover also reflects that moniker. Whether it’s in the writing of the actual name, an early draft of ‘Everything Ablaze’, the inclusion of the hand-eye logos that appear on their merch, or even a polaroid of an old 19th-century house from Greenwich, Connecticut...
“That’s actually the heritage house from the actual town of Belle Haven in the States" states Mara. "I think it's the townhouse from that place. A crime was committed in their which resulted in its wide notoriety. The loose story about the Belle Haven town was that a young African man was falsely accused of killing a young teenage girl named Martha Moxley. He was wrongfully put in prison for it, and years later it came out that he didn’t do it. The person who did it was actually related to the mayor of the town at the time - it was the mayor's son or something like that. And so they covered it all up and put an innocent man in prison instead."
David follows this up, fleshing out some more history about their band name. “I and our old bassist, Dan, were reading these old serial killer books years ago and we found that story of Belle Haven and Martha. We read it thinking how utterly messed up it was and how that kind of thing could even happen in real life and not just in movies. When talking with the other guys about it, we decided to call the band ‘Belle Haven’ – named after the town where that horrible crime took place. But it’s very fortunate that Belle Haven also loosely translates to ‘beautiful, safe place’. Which I guess is the real irony in it. But Belle Haven, as a band, now means just that translation to us".
Of course, it's easy to see why the band don't often mention this aspect of their moniker, as the approach to their brilliantly energetic live shows and their music overall is just so far removed from the tone of that horrible (and sadly true) story of a 15-year-old girl's tragic murder in 1975. While never fully comparable to the act of murder, the parallel I do see and draw here is how despite the hardships and hurdles they've faced in recent years, Belle Haven grew stronger from those dark times; grew out of their name's evil origins, and are continually moving towards even better and more beautiful places.
Finally, as a teenager, one of my favourite authors was Margaret Atwood, who when asked in an interview if her recent book at the time, Moral Disorder, was at all autobiographical, Atwood replied: "There has to be some blood in the cookie to make the Gingerbread Person come alive".
And boy... there's a whole lot of blood in 'You, Me And Everything In Between.'.
'You, Me And Everything In Between.' drops on June 16th via Greyscale Records, and it's fucking great!