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Haim: Best Friends Forever

photographer Alex Wesh

The valley girls of Haim set out to become rock gods

From the magazine: Issue 86, June/July 2013

The sisters of Haim, whose last name and band name are one, nudge close on a foldout futon in a Studio City apartment, huddled over a laptop. It’s a rare rainy Los Angeles day, and red and orange beach towels lay a path over hardwood as makeshift rugs. The boxy one-bedroom with a 1/2 mailing address is a short walk from their childhood home. Nowadays, as kitchen table career plotting and recording their debut album keep them up late, all three sisters usually sleep here somewhere: on that futon, the couch, the bed.

An old chest for a coffee table collects the family ephemera: a hefty photo album with a soft floral cover, novelty pencils in the shape of drumsticks, an issue of Teen Vogue with Haim (pronounced like “rhyme”) featured inside and two bottles of aspirin. In the corner of the room, there’s a wicker chair that once belonged to their grandmother, and on the wall are tacked-up photos from a party they attended at West Hollywood’s Soho House. Ask for directions to the bathroom, and they point down the hall and respond in unison: “You see the wood plank on the floor?” Their dad jammed it down there, wedged against an exterior door, to protect them from intruders.

The sisters clearly admire their father, Moti, and often break into impressions of his bad advice and vanity. “Even if it’s just a hobby, like drumming, he thinks he’s the best at it,” says Este, 27, the oldest and tallest with bold, maraschino lips. She adopts a deep Israeli accent and punctuates an impression of their father with a cocksure shrug: “You’re a painter? I paint. I’m like Picasso. I’m better than Picasso.” Once a professional soccer player in Israel, Moti was recruited by an American league and emigrated to Ohio in 1980; he grew restless and made his way to California, where he took up real estate and met their mother, Donna, a folk singer who had reinvented herself as a local disco queen. On their first date, his glassware drumming to the Dazz Band’s “Let It Whip” won her over; instead of a first dance at their wedding, they performed a first duet. A few years and daughters later, their home was full of instruments, and when the cover band they had formed with another couple broke up, they gave the girls free rein over the gear. Four-year-old Alana, the youngest with wide cheeks and a sharp chin, took up calamitous percussion, while their mother taught three-chord guitar versions of Joni Mitchell songs to Este and Danielle, the shy middle child, now 24, with Haim’s darkest hair and most severe stare. When Danielle proved a more adept student of guitar, their dad moved Este to bass, figuring its fewer number of strings would make for easier lessons. Moti drummed, and Donna strummed and sang lead until the sisters were old enough to remember the lyrics.

Rockinhaim, as they dubbed the family band, played its first show at Canter’s Deli, a Fairfax institution that claims to have sold 10 million matzo balls. “It was on at eight, in bed by 10,” Alana recalls. “The stand for my timbales didn’t go low enough, so I had to drum with my hands over my head.” For the next 15 years, Rockinhaim performed ’70s and ’80s rock covers every two or three months, mostly at street fairs and fundraisers. They rehearsed constantly. “Our friends would be like, It’s my birthday, and Este, you’re my best friend. You’re coming to my sleepover, right? And I’d be like”—here, Este adopts the phlegmatic lisp of a preteen retainer-wearer—“I’m playing the Saint Francis de Sales fair and it’s really important. I’m sorry, I know it’s your tenth birthday and that’s a big year…”

“If I could play guitar and drums at the same time, I fucking would.” —Danielle Haim.

In 2004, Rockinhaim played a show in nearby Sherman Oaks. After, a woman app-roached Este and Danielle and invited them to come play in the Valli Girls, a band of teenagers she had assembled. (Alana, then 12, says she was too young.) “She said there was a deal on the table from Columbia,” Danielle says. “We were like, We want to play music, we want to be signed. We had never played without our parents before.” Columbia’s Valli Girls press release describes Este—then 17 with an ungainly, top-heavy mullet—as “in-your-face” and “boy crazy”; Danielle was assigned blue and white hair extensions, which she chopped off the same night they were installed. Though writing and recording had oddly been completed before the sisters joined, they co-starred in a number of music videos, including the pop-punk theme to the Trollz doll TV show (sample lyric: Conquer evil, then go shopping) and “Born to Lead,” a Destiny’s Child knockoff sponsored by CosmoGIRL. Soon after their appearance at the 2005 Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards, drowning in the inanity of prefab pop, Este and Danielle pulled out of their contracts.

When the sun comes out, the three sisters drive 10 miles south to Café Stella, a chic French spot with an adobe patio tucked into Sunset Junction. In the LA sun, all three are fair. The stereo in Este’s Honda Accord is busted—“It feels like a part of me is broken. I have dreams about it,” she says—so in its place, they gradually work their way into song. First, Danielle and Alana quietly hum the nonsense notes of children playing alone in the garden. Soon, prompted by god knows what, they all suddenly shout a line by 2 Chainz: She got a big booty, so I call her Big Booty. Este takes off on a medley of Disney songs, with Alana singing doting backup and Danielle drumming hard on her black-jeaned thighs. Este has a particular flair for songs with French accents, sharply enunciating the subtle intonation of lines like, Be our guest, oui, our guest. All three sisters attended LA County’s High School for the Arts, but Este is the lone theater kid, the winner at 16 of best female monologue in the city. Back then, she dreamed of acting on Saturday Night Live. “Now,” she says, “I just want to play on Saturday Night Live.” 

First they’ll need an album, and Haim’s is past due. After Este and Danielle graduated high school, the sisters all decided to stick around LA to write songs together. They took their last name as their band name and did what came naturally after a decade onstage with their parents: they played shows, opening for whomever would let them. For concerts, they’d enlist a drummer to execute the fills they wrote, a job now performed by Dash Hutton. Last year, they signed to Columbia, bringing the band full circle to Este and Danielle’s former home, just now on their own terms. The summer’s festival season—key for a new band like Haim, whose practiced live show easily rivals any of their peers—will soon descend in all its wet-soiled, sun-lotioned glory, and the sisters have a rigorous schedule looming. They’ve just canceled a run of pre-festival dates with Vampire Weekend to eke out more time to complete their debut album, and seem committed to cramming sessions for eight unfinished songs into the remaining 10 days.

Inside a Burbank studio, they’re rerecording vocals to their first-ever single, “Forever,” originally released 15 months prior. Perennially of-the-moment producer Ariel Rechtshaid, who has bridged indie and major label sounds through recent work with Vampire Weekend and Usher, mans a big iMac. He has a scraggly nest of orange hair and large, protruding ears that, like the tubular snout of an anteater, suggest an inborn gift for his craft. Alone in the adjacent booth, over a pre-recorded foundation of her own muted guitar, Danielle fumbles a tricky vocal run, overstressing her Ts: So come on, baby/ Trigger the sound, let’s figure it out/ Let’s get back to where we started out. “It just sounds like you’re thinking about it,” Rechtshaid consoles her in a forgiving, encouraging hush. “Don’t worry about it. You’re doing good. Just try again.”

“The more powerful girls are, the more interesting they are.” —Alana Haim

With wind in Danielle’s sails, Haim finally found itself in motion. A tight-knit sibling band has obvious advantages—Haim have been performing in lockstep ever since their mother taught them to dance the Latin hustle when they did the dishes after dinner—but often requires a little outside push to hit the waters beyond their familiar bay. In 2011, they hired a manager, Jon Lieberberg, who hooked them up with Ludwig Göransson, a Swedish producer with a hip-hop bent and a studio where they could record for free. They started on “Forever,” since its walking-pace meter seemed especially amenable to Göransson’s choppy kicks and snares. Danielle showed him a dance move she hoped the song would evoke, rocking her shoulders, swimming her hands past her face and clapping; he got it. They recorded table drumming and door slams on iPhone microphones and finally finished—after five years as Haim and 10 more with the prefix Rockin—their first single, which they self-released online. A month later, their dad drove them to Austin for SXSW (“He didn’t trust our German manager on the road,” Este says), where they caught the ear of celebrated British radio DJ Mary Anne Hobbs, who put Haim into rotation on her home station, XFM, and gave the sisters their first interview. “We were like, crying on the radio,” Alana laughs. “She was kind of freaked out. I think she told us to calm down.” In the studio while Danielle records vocals, Este flicks through her phone, which has 467 unread messages, mostly from England. Last year, in the middle of a performance that was broadcast online, she gave her number to a guy in the front row. Every day now she’s inundated, and she replies to most. She pulls up a new video message from someone named Matthew. In the clip, he’s past drunk, lurching forward and propping his elbow against a bathroom mirror as he babbles admiration. Alana scrolls through her phone, too, researching the health risks of eye-whitening menthol drops, which she has taken to using. Whenever Danielle says, “Fuck!” or “I’m about to burp,” ever-grinning Alana jolts forward to make sure Rechtshaid has been recording, as if for some blooper reel.

Energy flagging and patience with herself running thin, Danielle exits the booth and comes into the control room for a bottle of water. Conversation somehow turns to a bad run-in Este once had with an opossum at a sleepover, and Alana shudders and asks Rechtshaid, “Can you please just search for English bulldog puppies so it will wipe away all that is in my mind?” He obliges, and for five minutes leads a photo tour of adoptable pets, plumbing Craigslist for baby bulldogs and beagles nearby. When he switches to YouTube, Danielle heads back into the booth, where Rechtshaid projects the videos so she can sing and watch—puppies touching paws with monkeys, puppies spooning human babies. It’s the best she’s sounded all night.

Danielle describes Haim’s writing process, to which all three contribute equally, like putting together Mr. Potato Head, part by part. And like the sisters’ preference for looks that blend thrifted clothes with high fashion—say, a ragged Dallas Cowboys T-shirt under a studded suede vest dyed the color of night sky—the end product is a stylistic patchwork of ’70s rock, ’80s pop and ’90s R&B. A new track, “Edge,” features an opening bit suited for the soundtrack to Top Gun, with Danielle singing over a soft synth pad, clusters of toms and tittering hats and bells. Este takes the bass for a walk and comes home to a canned breakdown that sounds like drums spilling from a tunnel, and the song opens to reveal a funky oasis. Haim has got hooks upon hooks, but their lyrics on breakups and get-togethers are rarely witty. Thankfully, they’ve got strange enough voices to carry them. Danielle employs a decidedly retro honk and punch, presumably guided by the Rockinhaim cover songs chosen by their parents. Sometimes at shows now, mom and dad will come out for an encore to play “Mustang Sally.” It’s like the physical manifestation of Haim’s secret weapon: they’re wholesome.

With their close sisterhood and parents’ hokey family band, Haim evokes heartwarming groups like The Osmonds, Jackson 5 and Hanson, a nostalgic association that surely helped them jump straight to a major label. Whenever possible, they bring their parents on the road—“Sometimes I think the bands we tour with like our parents more than they like us,” Este says—but they seem intent on mussing up those other groups’ puritanical connotations, slyly taking the piss out of their band’s inherent form. Este’s Twitter name is the crude Disney Channel pun @jizziemcguire. She was once quoted in NME imagining that if she ever met some lusted-after actor, “He wouldn’t have a dick left. I would chisel that with my labia.” In this way, Haim are perhaps the prototypical millennial band, their image simultaneously conservative but liberal, safe but dangerous. “In my eyes, only the strong survive,” Alana says. “The more powerful girls are, the more interesting they are.” Haim is open to everyone precisely because they’re not afraid to alienate. They love their parents, but what would their mother think!

When they’re satisfied with the new vocals on “Forever,” they decamp from the studio and head to the Dresden, an old-fashioned Holly-wood bar where Marty and Elayne, the old married-couple house band, have been performing soft jazz for decades. Este leaves the car in the lot of a post office to save on parking. She has been watching over her sisters for her whole life, and so makes for an unsurprising designated driver. Inside, the Dresden is a warm, chocolate red. Nested in a booth, Danielle tells a story about emailing the enigmatic British producer Jai Paul last year to express her admiration—the only time she says she’s done this—and invite him to a show. He responded three weeks later and had only nice things to say about her band. He won’t be the only one: a million people who’ve never heard of Jai Paul are going to love Haim. They have a long career ahead of them. Onstage at the Dresden, Marty and Elayne sing as if through a time warp. Danielle’s eyes droop, and she leans to fall asleep on Este’s shoulder.

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Haim: Best Friends Forever