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Dreams Realised: Hell is For Heroes on 15 Years of 'The Neon Handshake'

Tuesday, 13 February 2018 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

There are some albums that you simply can't imagine being released at any other time, or under any other circumstances. In 2003, the rock world was in a strange place: emo wasn't a commercial prospect yet, nu metal was on the way out, and the Strokes hadn't been around long enough to spawn their clones. So, when energetic London quintet Hell is for Heroes emerged, they didn't just plug a gap – they captured imaginations.

Recorded at Los Angeles' Sound City Studios, the band's debut 'The Neon Handshake' was released in February of that year. The BBC called it “one of the best British rock albums to ever hit the shelves” and it charted in the UK top 20.

The honeymoon didn't last long, though, and the band were later spat out following changes at their label, EMI, which began to fall apart dramatically. They released two more records on independent labels before going on hiatus in 2008.

That was supposed to be that. But when the band reformed for a handful of shows with brothers-in-amps Hundred Reasons in 2012, they discovered the album, with its rousing hooks and compelling guitar lines, still resonated with a lot of fans.

This month, they return to the road once more to celebrate its 15th anniversary. For bassist James Findlay, who now works as a tour manager, playing the songs take him back to the “fondest memories of his life”.

“When it comes to my memories of that time, I'd say that it was the moment when our dreams were realised,” he says. “There was a sense of everything becoming real. We flew to LA and were there for months, living in an apartment together and rehearsing and recording the songs each day.

“I remember we did demos with English producers, which sounded good, but didn't feel right when they were delivered. So, we decided to go over and, as we were recording them, it was better than we ever envisaged. It was amazing.”

'The Neon Handshake' wasn't just an anomaly in the musical landscape. At the time, bands like Vex Red and A, who will both support them on the upcoming tour, were also at the forefront of a rock revival that was sweeping the country. A little known act called Biffy Clyro were also on the come up, a thought that makes Findlay laugh.

“Everyone was pals back then,” he says. “I remember Ben [Johnston] from Biffy phoned me up when the album first charted and was like 'I can't believe I'm talking to superstar artists' or whatever. That's pretty funny to think of now, but they obviously grafted and stuck at it. That's why it was a great scene. There was no NME bullshit hype. We did hundreds of gigs a year and went to everyone's backyard.

“There was a sense of 'Wow, you're doing well' at the time, but it's because we were on EMI and that bit luckier. It did feel as if something was happening. I suppose if you crunch the numbers, it was a time when people were still buying singles and albums, and we played to so many folk that we assumed and hoped they'd buy it. So the sales made sense, but it was also mindblowing.”

There wasn't much opportunity for the band - completed by vocalist Justin Schlosberg, guitarists William McGonagle and 
Tom O'Donoghue, plus drummer Joe Birch - to live the high life. Only a year after the record was released, they parted company with EMI subsidiary Chrysalis Records and were briefly left adrift. The band's subsequent records, 'Transmit Disrupt' and its self-titled follow-up, again showcased their intense, distinctive style, but neither made a commercial dent.

“I remember we got in trouble for saying something about the second album being available for free or something,” Findlay says. “Everything was shifting back then, with digital downloads and Napster and so on, and we just wanted to roll with it. EMI didn't, which seemed mad to us as young men. They soon decided they didn't really want to keep us. We'd been signed at a time when EMI wanted to be a kind of rock label again, and then it had suited what we wanted to do.

“But then they kind of u-turned and signed Kylie Minogue and Robbie Williams for stupid amounts of money. There was a big clean out – we survived the first cull, but after that they wanted us to do what we were told. It was troubling times, and when things are collapsing around you, you start turning on each other. It's one of life's journeys, though and, 10 years later, we still have the same line-up.”

Although the post-hardcore style explored on 'The Neon Handshake' might be outdated by today's standards, there's still vitality and freshness in the album that shines through. No track embodies the sense of euphoria that characterised the band's live shows at the time more than I Can Climb Mountains, which remains their standout hit.

“That track still really gets me going,” Findlay says. “I guess I associate it with playing live first and foremost. I must have played it about 10 or even 20 times the number of times I've heard the album version. I associate it with the response we received.

“As Five Kids Go, the opener, is also an exciting one. In fact, the whole album has that feel to it, and it's weird but there's still no track on it that I don't like. It's an album that always worked as a whole. When we first finished it was amicable and everything had kind of run its course. But we were surprised when the tickets flew out after we were asked to do this tour.”

What does Findlay expect from the anniversary shows themselves? “It's nice that the album is still somewhat relevant,” he says. “It's a bit strange there's younger people discovering it online and stuff because we think of our fans as just being a couple of years younger than us. As I still work in the music business, I do find myself regaling people with stories about it.

“I guess the Hundred Reasons shows felt like we were going back to a happier time. It was the first time we all unanimously enjoyed playing the gigs. It wasn't just hard work – it felt like a reward. It struck us that people might want to see us again. It takes us back: when we released the album, we were playing to thousands of people and had the world at our feet. Even just remembering those moments in your head is kind of euphoric.”

Hell Is For Heroes Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri February 16 2018 - BRISTOL O2 Academy Bristol
Sat February 17 2018 - MANCHESTER O2 Ritz
Mon February 19 2018 - BIRMINGHAM O2 Institute
Tue February 20 2018 - GLASGOW O2 ABC Glasgow
Thu February 22 2018 - NOTTINGHAM Rock City
Fri February 23 2018 - PORTSMOUTH Pyramids Centre
Sat February 24 2018 - LONDON O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire
Sun February 25 2018 - LONDON O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire

Click here to compare & buy Hell Is For Heroes Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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