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
Haim
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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."

The next day, the sisters converge around a corner table at Little Dom's, an old-Hollywood-style Italian restaurant in Los Feliz, for brunch. The tour has been going well. They went thrift shopping in Lawrence, Kansas; hung out at a 2,300-acre pecan farm near El Paso, Texas; took a Segway tour of D.C. On the road, they peruse Chowhound for foodie recommendations and kill time watching Selena and A Goofy Movie over and over. "I've cried watching A Goofy Movie on planes," Danielle says. "Make sure you see the original and not the sequel, though," Alana warns. "It's awful. Pauly Shore is in it."

They've just finished giving their order when a burly fortysomething in a check shirt approaches the table. He introduces himself as Chris. "I'm taking my daughter to your show tomorrow night for her birthday," Chris says. He hands Danielle a copy of the Days Are Gone CD liner notes and a Sharpie.

"Do you carry around our CD all the time?" Alana asks. She and her sisters, grinning, give their autographs. "Well, uh, I'm a fan, too," Chris replies a little bashfully.

"This is the first time anyone's ever done this to us," Este says. "We'll look out for you guys in Pomona!"

The guy leaves. "Did you just say Pomoda?" Alana asks Este.

The first instrument any of the Haim sisters learned was the drums. Their dad had a kit set up in the living room, and he'd put his daughters on his lap and teach them to bash. He soon assigned each child a different instrument, enlisted Donna, and Rockinhaim were born. They were a cover band, partial to classic rock and funk. Danielle was good at guitar early on; Este wasn't, so Mordechai, thinking that four strings might be easier, "bought me this shitty Fender Jazz Precision bass for $50," Este recalls. "I was like, 'This is the coolest thing ever.'" All three sisters took piano lessons, learning to read music.

In 2005, Danielle and Este briefly joined a prefab pop-rock act called the Valli Girls, landing a song on the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants soundtrack. They're only faintly embarrassed by this – it wasn't their dream sound, but they've always adored pop. In 2007, inspired by acts like the Strokes, and Phoenix, the sisters played their first show as Haim at a weird museum in the Valley. "Looking back to our early songs, everything was percussive," Danielle says. "That's how we wrote. We like rhythm. It's all these parts interlocking." Danielle began using her voice, deep and rich, as another percussive element, punctuating melodies with staccato phrasing and Michael Jackson-style exhalations.

Hollywood was just over the hill, but a music-business breakthrough seemed a universe away. Este worked as a hostess at a Cheesecake Factory ("I made bank on Valentine's Day") and got her real-estate license. It was Danielle who finally made inroads into the L.A. scene, playing at a jam session in Laurel Canyon that Jenny Lewis attended. This led eventually to a guitarist spot in Lewis' touring band. Around this time, Danielle began dating a local musician named Blake Mills, who played with Dawes, toured with Lewis, and today collaborates closely with Fiona Apple. Julian Casablancas came to a Lewis show and wound up hiring her for his touring band. Haim, meanwhile, persisted in the crevices. Finally, Casablancas gave the sisters some advice: Stop gigging so much, write some stronger songs and make a great recording, since these days people encounter new music online.

Haim took a year off to write, crowding into the Venice apartment Danielle was renting and fooling around with a used Yamaha drum machine and GarageBand. "That was the turning point," says Danielle. "We could fuck around with samples; I could plug in my guitar." Hip-hop and R&B influences crept in, augmenting tricks swiped from Eighties rock. Many of the songs from Days Are Gone sprang from this period, and the sisters began playing live again. Their music made its way to Florence Welch, who invited them to open in London; after this came arena dates around the world with the Mumfords.

Haim made the album in gaps between shows, working at Rechtshaid's studio and, after they landed a major-label deal, at big-bucks rooms like Sunset Sound. Their arena gigs help explain the heft of their recorded sound, and the experience taught them to perform bigger, too: mugging for the cheap seats, breaking into synchronized routines. "In small venues, you don't have to do much for it to seem like a big gesture," Alana says. "On a stage as big as a house, you have to do more."

"We haven't bought our CD yet," Danielle says. "Wanna come to Amoeba with us?"

Este's 2000s-era Honda Accord is parked around the corner from the restaurant. We pile in, and she rolls down the windows. Alana, sitting shotgun, finds a station playing "Don't You Want Me" by the Human League and cranks it up. The sisters don't merely sing along, but act out the lyrics with elaborate head shakes and hand signals. When Nelly's "Ride Wit Me" comes on, they do the same, but with more finger pistols. When the opening notes of "Hotel California" ring out, they scream "Nooo!" and change the station. "That was a Rockinhaim staple," Danielle explains. "We love the Eagles, except for that song."

At Amoeba, they hunt down the "H" section, find the plastic divider marked "Haim" and pose for a grinning picture in front of it. Alana tweets out the image to her 50,000 followers, adding the hashtags #WTF and #biglifemomment.

Only one thing could make the moment any sweeter. "Oh, shit!" Alana cries out. She's just noticed the price sticker on the CD. "It's a dollar off!"

This story is from the November 21st, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1196: November 21, 2013