Minutes after signing their first record contract with Polydor in the U.K., the sisters of HAIM walked across the street to a London venue called Dingwalls for their first headlining show last summer. A horde of fans in line outside the 500-capacity venue immediately recognized the girls.
“We were like, ‘Why do you care? Why do you know my name?’” says youngest sister, 21-year-old Alana HAIM. “We’re just three Jewish girls from the valley playing music.”
Despite only releasing a three-song EP, Forever, at the time, it’s no surprise fans recognized HAIM—a trio of sisters and drummer friend Dash Hutton from L.A. Alana, Este and Danielle HAIM lend their vocal harmonies to an aesthetic blend of indie rock and chilled out ‘90s R&B girl groups. This isn’t just delicate slow jam music, though. They’ll keep you out of your seats with their robust hip-hop influence courtesy of thick, head-nodding beats and driving percussion.
While the vocals are front and center, they also know how to play and spent years mastering their instruments. Este plays bass, Danielle takes lead guitar and Alana has rhythm guitar, keyboards and percussion. The winding staccato guitar lines that layer the R&B-style melodies at times bring to mind The xx. But unlike The xx’s hushed chamber music of intimacy and interior space, HAIM is built for the arena. This is music to which you can actually groove.
Throughout 2012, HAIM garnered radio play in the U.K., built Internet buzz in the U.S. and scored slots touring with Mumford & Sons and Florence + the Machine. And the group expects 2013 to be even better. HAIM plans to release a full-length album early this spring on Columbia and just recently won the BBC’s Sound of 2013 poll.
That emotional day in London last summer was 20 years in the making. Alana, Danielle and Este, sisters and best friends, grew up making music as a family. With their parents, they played classic rock songs in a cover band dubbed RockinHaim for years. Eventually, the girls dropped the “Rockin” and started their own band. Their parents still join them on tour. Momma HAIM is known for chatting up fans at the merchandise table and on special occasions both parents join HAIM on stage for a version of “Mustang Sally”. The HAIM parents even listened in on the phone interview with the girls. Alana and Este shared a speaker phone at the HAIM home, and Danielle, who recently moved out, connected via 3-way calling.
“We’ve been playing music our whole lives,” says Danielle, the middle sister at 23 years old. “We always assumed we’d start a band but we never really took it seriously. Then we all just started writing together. We compiled a couple songs and decided we should just probably get them out. So it kind of just happened organically.”
The band formed in 2007, but HAIM didn’t release a debut EP until 2012. During those five years, each sister pursued her own thing while also working on the HAIM project.
At 25 years old, Este is the oldest sister. She’s known for being the wildest of the girls, especially on stage. “If I could write a diary entry about Este having the best time, it would be performing,” she says. “I get to say whatever I want, do whatever I want and play music.” Este attended UCLA from 2007 through 2010 for ethnomusicology. “I basically got to stay on drums all day long,” she says. “I graduated by the skin of my teeth. But I did finish.”
“She likes being humble,” Alana says of her older sister. “She’s definitely the smartest of all three, for sure.” Danielle agrees saying, “You were always a smart child.”
Este is quick to return the compliments. “No. I’m in a band with two smart cookies. Two tough cookies and two smart ones, too.”
Middle child Danielle is often referred to as “the quiet one.” Since her phone dropped the call part way through the interview, she missed an opportunity to prove or disprove that label. (Apparently she dropped her phone in the toilet … or that was just Este embellishing a text message from Danielle). Danielle opted to pursue music after high school. “I didn’t want to go anywhere for college. I kind of just wanted to stay in L.A. and try to pursue music,” she said. Thanks to a friend who opened for Jenny Lewis, Danielle secured spots touring in bands for Jenny Lewis and Julian Casablancas.
HAIM started when Alana was still in high school. Alana might be the youngest of the girls, but she’s not afraid to speak up or take charge. “It’s really depressing but, I’ve never moved out the house,” she says. “That’s really what kind of kept us in this weird limbo period for so many years. I begged my parents to please let me be a rock star and not graduate.”
The band also stayed in limbo due to struggles with recording the first EP. In five years, they have released five tracks. The three-song EP came out in February, and in the fall they released two additional tracks, “Don’t Save Me” and “Send Me Down.” Part of their frugality in releasing material stems from their early failures to translate the sound they wanted in a recording studio.
“It wasn’t like we had the same songs and we just recorded them five times over five years,” Este says. “We’re musicians. We knew what we wanted, but we didn’t know how to get what we wanted.”
Then they met producer Ludwig Göransson, who works with Childish Gambino and on TV shows Community, Happy Endings and New Girl. “He looks like our brother,” Alana says. “We met him and we were like, ‘Whoa. Who is your dad? Cause he might my dad.’” Though not related biologically, the HAIM sisters and Ludwig meshed musically. Este says before Ludwig, they worried HAIM would never put out an album. For instance, Danielle always envisioned “Forever” as a party jam, but it came out sad and slow every time they recorded it. “We gave it to Ludwig, and he put all these hip hop beats over it and other stuff. It was exactly what we had been looking for,” Alana says.
HAIM has been described as a mixture of classic rock, R&B and folk music. Este says they all love R&B and the classic rock stems from their RockinHaim repertoire, but she calls the folk comparison a stretch. “I honestly think people think because we’re girls with long hair who play guitars and sing harmonies that it’s folk.”
Sometimes their harmonies are reminiscent of Wilson Phillips, especially on the a cappella opening of “Better Off.” “I’m down to be a Wilson Phillips vibe,” Este says. “We haven’t gotten a reference yet that I don’t like.” Those references include everything from Fleetwood Mac to En Vogue to Cyndi Lauper.
R&B seems to be the greatest influence. Growing up, they particularly loved TLC, Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child and Sisters With Voices. “That music was just what young people were listening to at the time,” Este says. “You would go to a party or bar mitzvah and listen to that kind of music. When you’re 13 in L.A. it’s the best year in your life cause you get to go to a bar mitzvah or two every weekend and you go party really hard, as hard as you can party as a 13 year old. We were just really inspired by that whole music vibe.”
?HAIM translates that party vibe to the stage. They have the soul of R&B and the ethos of a jamband—it’s all about the live show. They play songs live before recording them to get a feel for how they want it to sound. They keep in mind the audience and what it would sound like hearing lyrics sang back to them in concert. They give 100 percent at every show, welcoming fans into their exclusive Gaggle of Gals (the name they gave their group of “lady friends and some dudes” in L.A.). They consider HAIM a live band, first and foremost.
“I don’t know if I really made it clear, but I really don’t like recording,” Este says. “I have the best time when I’m playing live. I get my jollies when I’m playing live. When I play bass and I’m playing with my sisters, it’s the most natural feeling and the most fun.”
Even on stage, Este, Danielle and Alana are just three girls from the valley playing music together. They traded in L.A. traffic for European tours and bar mitzvahs for headlining gigs. (Alana recently celebrated her 21st birthday performing at Music Hall of Williamsburg). They still live at home with Mama and Papa HAIM, except Danielle. She lives down the street, within walking distance.
All three sisters love working with each other and expect to play music together until they’re old ladies.
“I was in RockinHaim when I was four. If we were going to have an Oasis falling out, it would have happened a long time ago. We’re always there for each other,” Alana says. “I trust them musically and emotionally.”