Interview: Bullet Height

Today, electronic-rock duo Bullet Height release their debut album, ‘No Atonement’. It sees Sammi Doll and Jon Courtney team up to produce a pulsating blend of industrialised electronica, hard rock, sweet melodies, with a hint of dark avant-garde.

Although they call Berlin home, the path both Sammi Doll and Jon Courtney have taken is intriguing. Reading-born Jon Courtney moved to the cultural German city following the demise of his old band, a prog rock electro group called Pure Reason Revolution. Once settled in Berlin, Courtney put together the foundations of what would become Bullet Height. As for main vocalist Sammi Doll, she left Los Angeles for Berlin to join experimental synthpop act, IAMX. Introduced to each other a mutual friend, Doll and Courtney would collaborate on what would become ‘No Atonement’.

With such an expansive, layered sound, Already Heard were intrigued to find out how the album came together. We recently spoke to Jon Courtney to discuss the production process, transitioning Bullet Height to a live environment and the influence of Berlin.

AH: You’ve both spoken about being quite hands-on as a duo in terms of composition, but what about the production process? Are you handling much of that yourself?
Jon: Yeah, the production process on this record was a collaboration with a guy called Tom Bellamy who plays in a band Losers, who I know from my hometown, Reading. He moved to Berlin about six months after I did, and set up a studio there as well, so I’d work away on a track for a week then come together with Tom and he’d be a bit of a sounding board. I’d have too many ideas, and he’d help me choose the best one. Otherwise, I’d mess around for days and days.

I program drums and put a bassline down and add some guitar, then Tom would help hone that down and bring some new things to the table. He tried some new programming and the tracks would just build and build. We did have someone come in and mix it at the end, but all the engineering, that’s all done by ourselves. I’ve been interested in production since I was 16 years old, so that’s about 20 years of playing around. I started with a four-track tape machine and that went into a digital recorder, then I did a degree in production, I’ve worked with producers, with a guy who mixed Marilyn Manson and produced Rush. I worked with a guy called Andy Paley who worked with Brian Wilson and Madonna, and he was a big influence on the vocal harmony things and I learnt lots of tips from him about recording vocals and layering harmonies. Every time I’ve been in the studio with a professional producer, I always take it as a chance to learn and see what gear they’re using. We don’t have to go into a studio for £1000 a day, if you get the right gear you can rent a space and do it yourself like we have, and collaborate with other people.

AH: Does Sammi keep you in check a bit when it comes to you tinkering with ideas?
Jon: Yeah, Sammi is a great sounding board for things. I’d be messing around in the studio for a couple of days and trying some chorus ideas, and I’d ask her which one she liked the best when she came in to do some vocals. That would change things again, it was a constant trial and error. Perhaps I’d sing a lead vocal on a chorus then she’d redo it, and it would sound much better with her vocal so we’d go with that. It was a nice balance from working alone so much, to get together with Sammi and have a second pair of ears and a second opinion.

AH: What about your live shows – have you played any of your stuff with a full band before?
In the studio as I said, it was very much a question of building the tracks up. It’s a very epic sound, and Sammi and I have done a few shows where it’s been just the two of us and we’ve used a drum machine, but there’s only so much we could cover between the two of us. We’ve now got a drummer who joins us for the live show, which is very exciting. Perhaps more personnel; we might get another guitarist in or another keys player, but we’ve got to also keep the practicalities in mind because it is great just the two of us, it’s easy, we can rehearse in our studio. Now we’ve got a drummer, and if we get a guitarist it’s a case of organising another person to be at the right place at the right time. If it works out practically and it sounds better then yes it will be something we’ll do.

AH: You’ve both mentioned how being in Berlin has put you in some really collaborative and creative environments – have you found living there has inspired you creatively?
Jon: Yes, I think Berlin’s had an influence. The album started in London, a few tracks had begun here in London then we moved to Berlin and kept on chipping away at it.

AH: Did the album take a new turn in Berlin?
Jon: I’m not sure – it didn’t go all Berlin techno or anything like that! Most of the people in my studio building are techno people, so they presume I am too, and ask what kind of techno I make. Then they sound a bit disappointed when I say I’m more of a rock and electronic guy! I love the city, it’s a great place to be, you can be in the city and out of the city within twenty minutes, you can go from the city centre to the lakes. There’s a lot of space and a lot of time, when I had my studio space in London and I was paying so much money for it I felt I had to be there nine until nine all the time, whereas in Berlin I don’t feel like I’ve got quite the same pressure because I’m not paying that much money for things. It feels a lot more chilled out and that helps the creativity.

‘No Atonement’ by Bullet Height is out now on Superball Music.

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