Progressive/alternative rock trio Half Shell launched their debut album ‘Truly Tragic‘ in October last year. The group was a part of our recently released Progotronics compilation, and following that they answered our questionnaire.
Define the mission of Half Shell.
Our goal is to make unique and meaningful music that’s interesting and accessible, but still complex and challenging.
Tell me about the creative process that informed your debut album Truly Tragic and the themes it captures.
We have an entirely collaborative songwriting process. The three of us started Half Shell in 2016, after having to part from our college band Mollusk (get it?). We were a five piece band down two members, so we decided to start a new project that integrates technology rather than trying to find new people to play with as it just wouldn’t feel right. Our creative process came from a need of having to learn how to work in a way that was new to us, using unfamiliar technology, together as a team. Typically, Caitlin [Kullberg – bass, guitar] and Jesse [Guterman – drums, keyboards] do most of the music writing and Nicole [Hogan – vocals] writes lyrics and vocal melodies. However, all of us contribute to the music as a whole, and we all make suggestions for how different parts should sound or feel. It helps that we are all best friends with excellent creative chemistry. We wrote Truly Tragic during some big turning points in our lives after graduating college. As such, it grapples with a variety of themes that all come back to trying to understand and explain an ongoing existential crisis equally fueled by personal struggle and societal disappointment.
What is the message you are trying to give with Truly Tragic?
Truly Tragic is pretty dark at times, but it is actually also very playful right down to its title (which is a slightly sarcastic hook taken from the second song on the album, “Maybe Ghosts”). It aims to deal with crisis in a way we’ve best defined as “catchy and grim.” Truly Tragic tries to show that there is a lot of darkness and things that don’t make sense. But a person has to suffer through, should question everything, and above all else must hold compassion for those who are also suffering. There has to be hope for the world even if it seems heartless and cruel.
How did you document the music while it was being formulated?
Since we usually have a few weeks in between practices, it’s really important that we have recordings of what we worked on in each practice. We keep a chord book and a lyric book, and make little recordings on our phones. Most of our keyboards are done through Ableton Live. So, the keyboard tracks are recorded right on to Ableton, which we then use as backing tracks during our shows. Sometimes we’ll also add bass, vocal, and drum recordings to those files to give us a full demo of our songs in progress.
Is the dynamic flow of the pieces carefully architected?
We are chronic overthinkers, and everything is intentional. Each song itself does have a careful structure, and the flow of songs overall is also intentional in a way that aims to mimic the highs and lows of struggle in life. About half of the songs on the album deal with more personal, emotional crises, and the other half are more outward, observational, societal critique. The track listing for Truly Tragic alternates between these internal vs. external songs. Musically, the songs move on a curve from our lighter ones, to darkest ones, and back to the lighter ones at the ending.
Describe the approach to recording the album.
A few weeks prior to recording, Jesse worked on refining and finalizing the keyboards at home on Ableton. Then, we sent those files to our recording engineer and producer, Chad Maggs. He’s super awesome and we love working with him. From there, it was pretty straightforward. We spent one weekend recording drums in Burlington, Massachusetts. Then, one weekend recording bass, and a little guitar in Lowell. Then, one more weekend recording vocals. We experimented a little with pedals and effects along the way, but mostly, we just laid down the tracks, and once everything was together we made tweaks and added some interesting things in processing. We couldn’t wait to record these songs and we had an absolutely fantastic time!
How long Truly Tragic was in the making?
Truly Tragic took two years to come alive. We work over a long period of time with everything, since we aren’t able to practice as often as we’d like.
Which bands or artists influenced our work on the release?
This question is always a very difficult one for us, as we draw inspiration from a variety of artists and this influence isn’t always audibly apparent. Each of us has different influences. Caitlin’s ideas for bass draw from Yes and Pink Floyd, but also from bands outside of the progressive rock genre, such as Boston, Steely Dan, and the Motown hits. Jesse is influenced by older bands like Genesis and King Crimson to modern bands like Porcupine Tree, Haken, and Pain of Salvation. Nicole comes from a slightly different musical background, having grown up listening genres like post-hardcore, mathcore, and hard rock. These genres definitely inform her thinking, and vocally she’s inspired by female vocal acts like The Dresden Dolls, Stolen Babies, and Emilie Autumn.
What is your view on technology in music?
Honestly, we love it for our band. Sometimes we refer to the technology we use as our fourth band member. It helps us find new sounds, pushes us to be better musicians, and hopefully makes our music sound unique and fresh. Of course, sometimes technology can take over a song and you lose some human qualities in the music. But if you don’t let that happen, then we think it’s a really helpful tool. It’s actually essential to us not only in how our music sounds, but in how we practice. Since we live in apartments, we often have to do songwriting through headphones into Ableton, with Jesse on an electronic kit.
Do you see your music as serving a purpose beyond music?
Well, it definitely does for us. Music is an emotional and creative outlet for everyone. Even though we are not there yet, we hope someday our music does for other people what it does for us.
What are your plans for the future?
We’re always trying to write new music and play shows, and we are not stopping any time soon. Right now, we are planning a pretty intense concept album. About three songs are finished and many more are in the working stages. It’s a fun and challenging process for us. Secretly, Jesse had wanted to do a concept album eventually but didn’t feel ready. Nicole brought it up and wanted to tackle the challenge of making one, so here we are. The songs are about facing a difficult truth of impending doom, and whether or not you will embrace or cover up that truth. We are excited about how it’s sounding and feel it definitely is taking our sound to the next level.