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How Haim's Three Geeky Sisters Became the Year's Coolest New Band

"When we started playing, we were Valley kids - we'd never gone over the hill," Alana says

Haim
Peggy Sirota
November 12, 2013 12:05 PM ET

Mike Shinoda is psyched to see Haim tonight. The Linkin Park MC is in a balcony booth at Hollywood's Fonda Theatre, where Haim – three sisters from the Valley who've been playing music together since they were little kids – are about to perform to a sold-out crowd. "Bands like Mumford & Sons or fun., they're cool," he says, "but where's the ferocity, you know? These guys are an exception."

Inside Haim's Long-Awaited Debut Days Are Gone

Down in the Haim sisters' dressing room, the atmosphere is about as ferocious as a book reading. Danielle (24, guitar, lead vocals) is wearing a worn long-sleeve T-shirt, black jeans and pointy brown boots, dropping chunks of ginger and lemon into a cup of hot water. A few feet away, Este (27, bass, harmonies, occasional lead vocal) is sucking hot vapor from a bonglike throat-remedy device. "Getting this through customs is fun," she says. Este is diabetic, so she can't drink and doesn't smoke weed – there's too much sugar in booze, and she's worried she'll eat too much sugar if she gets the munchies. She has an insulin pump clipped to herself at all times – lifting the hem of her dress, she reveals a device near her right hip that resembles a pager. "See?"

Alana (21, keyboards, harmonies, occasional lead vocal) is admiring a massive portrait of the band that a fan painted from a publicity photo. Roughly 40 percent of the canvas is taken up by the sisters' cascading tresses; Este's right hand is freakishly large. Alana looks a little closer at her likeness and points at its chin. "I guess I had a pimple the day of this shoot. Nice of them to keep that in."

Haim have been a staple of the local indie­-music circuit for years, sharing bills with California rockers like Jenny Lewis and Dawes; opening for Florence and the Machine and Mumford; collaborating with Major Lazer, Kid Cudi and Childish Gambino. Earlier this year, when Haim were working on their debut album, Days Are Gone, they brought in their pal Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers to play organ on a track; they also booked a songwriting session with Sia, one of the world's most in-demand hitmakers, with credits on smash singles by Rihanna and Flo-Rida. Haim deemed the resulting jam too pop, at which point Shakira's people put a six-month hold on the track.

But for all the ways that Haim seem like consummate insiders, they say that this is hardly the case. "When we started playing, we were Valley kids – we'd never gone over the hill," Alana says. "We didn't know people in any scene." Tonight, aside from Ke$ha, the only VIPs backstage are their parents, Mordechai and Donna, and their grandma, who's in town from Israel. "We used to be their roadies," says Donna, beaming. An elementary-school-art teacher-turned-real-estate­agent, she grew up covering Joni Mitchell on acoustic guitar in coffeehouses around her native Philadelphia; Mordechai, also in real estate, was a drummer in a children's choir back in Israel. The pair taught Haim to play instruments when they were infants, forming a family band called Rockinhaim that covered the Eagles and Santana at street fairs and charity events.

In 2007, the sisters began writing their songs without their parents; Donna and Mordechai got shifted to crew duty. For a time, Haim considered renaming themselves First of Three, in a nod to their lowly position on any bill they were lucky enough to book. But they stuck with it, and last month Days Are Gone sold 90,000 copies in its first week. Over in the U.K., it beat out Justin Timberlake's newest release, debuting at Number One. Days Are Gone is an exhilarating album. Shinoda's nu-metal-god stamp of approval notwithstanding, Haim are far from blistering, but they can shred. They hopscotch between sounds: chugging guitar riffs and fat, harmonized hooks worthy of Rick Springfield; disco strings straight out of "Walking on Broken Glass"; sweet melodies that pay tribute to Christine McVie; interweaving vocals that pay tribute to Destiny's Child; stuttering, off-kilter percussion. At a party earlier this year, Timbaland told Haim that he loved their track "My Song 5." "Which is basically us ripping him off!" says Danielle. When they posted their first-week numbers, Jay Z sent a note of congratulations.

Headlining the Fonda tonight, however, feels like a major accomplishment. When they take the stage, it's with unafraid-to-be-dorky effusiveness, and they play the hometown angle to the hilt. They joke about the merits of the Cahuenga Pass versus the 101 and shout-out their favorite Echo Park taco truck. Before the encore, they linger out of sight longer than usual, "just letting it sink in," Danielle says. "Like, 'Let's just savor this a bit.'"

After the concert, they head up to party on the roof. Well-wishers circulate, all of them fellow musicians: Ke$ha, throwing her arms around Alana's shoulders; Ariel Rechtshaid, who produced much of Days Are Gone; Ludwig Göransson, who composed the theme songs for New Girl and Community and also worked on the Haim album; Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij, whom Este keeps calling Frosty Rosti. Across the roof, Shinoda eagerly grills Danielle. "Can I talk to you about songwriting sometime? What's your process?"

There's chatter about a possible hang somewhere else, but the sisters have been away touring for months, and they're looking forward to crashing in their beds tonight. Alana and Este depart for the family home in Valley Village, where they still live. Danielle rents a bungalow minutes away, in Studio City. They clearly still love their hometown. "The Valley," says Alana, "is the bomb-dot-com."

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