Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Halo Circus

Halo Circus' Brian Stead, Veronica Bellino, Allison Iraheta and Matthew Hager at Chado Tea Room in Pasadena


At Chado Tea Room 79 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena (626) 431-2832

One of the most interesting aspects of interviewing music groups is finding out how the experiences of each member’s past informs the band’s sound and development as a cohesive unit. Every band has a unique origin story, and the Los Angeles foursome of Halo Circus is no exception.

“Allison has her background, and I have mine. Veronica has played with everyone from Jeff Beck to DMC of Run-DMC. Brian is a really good guitarist; it’s very difficult to find musicians of his caliber. What makes this band unique is that there’s a certain level of professionalism. Other rock bands have a much looser vibe; our vibe is that this band is extremely important to each of us,” begins bassist and producer Matthew Hager. “Starting this project, we knew the impossible odds of doing music professionally. There’s no big misunderstandings. If people like what we do, we’re here to do it.”

“We love what we do, and we do what we love. It just works,” adds guitarist Brian Stead.

The other half of Halo Circus – vocalist Allison Iraheta and drummer Veronica Bellino – are also on hand at one of Allison and Matthew’s favorite spots, Chado Tea Room in Pasadena, to talk about their  debut album, which is set to be unveiled next year, and their Dec. 14 show at the Troubadour that they’ve dubbed “Say It Loud! A Night of Cultural Disruption.”

“This is the first time we’re putting an entire event together; it’s been the hardest, scariest experience. It’s been a gift, but no joke, it’s hard because we don’t want it to be another ‘industry night.’ That’s why we’re having KC Porter and Project N-Fidelikah on the bill,” shares Allison. “We want it to be weird and have a multicultural angle, too. You won’t find that in Hollywood: a night with different sounds, colors and cultural backgrounds united by one thing, music.”

The night of multicultural music includes Halo Circus, Grammy-winning producer/songwriter Porter and his Cruzanderos, Heliotrope (featuring members of Ozomatli and WAR), David Garza and Project N-Fidelikah with Angelo Moore of Fishbone, George Lynch, Chris Moore and Pancho Tomaselli. The night before our interview, Matthew and Allison visited a Project N-Fidelikah videoshoot in North Hollywood.

“Angelo was on fire, taking over the whole club,” says Allison. “It’s fun to see someone like him, who has been doing this for a long time and has been in front of millions of people, go to a place like Skinny’s and have the enthusiasm of someone who was playing for the first time.” 

“You’re not going to get a bigger Fishbone fan than me. I’ve worked with a lot of singers in my career, and there’s an energetic similarity with all of the ones that have made a profound impact, like Angelo,” Matthew remarks. “[With Project N-Fidelikah,] they’ve created this anti-supergroup that’s punk, funk and consciousness-centric. They’re a bunch of people who have worked for a very long time, taking a look at the current landscape of the music industry similar to what we did and saying, ‘Let’s see if we can start something a little different, shake it up a bit. That’s what’s so appealing about them.” 

Before we delve into Halo Circus’ history, our waiter arrives to help us navigate the enormous menu of teas to be had at Chado.

“They have pretty nice-sized teapots, so we can get a few and try different flavors,” informs Allison. “I like this place because you won’t find this in South Central!” 

“You just had some dusty Lipton tea bags growing up in South Central,” jokes Matthew.

“This is so different for me, and I’m obsessed with this place because I like tea,” she adds.

Matthew is also a fan of tea and opts for Chado’s best-selling Mauritius Black Tea from Africa and their signature Chicken Salad. Brian tries the Gyokuro Supreme Japanese green tea and a Souchong Chicken Sandwich. Allison loves brown rice tea, so she gets the Organic Japanese Genmaicha with Matcha powder and her favorite Smoked Salmon Salad, which Veronica also orders. For tea, Veronica and I both want to taste the Coconut Chai.

A whole wall of the room is covered with tins of different tea varietals and adorable teapots for sale. The atmosphere is quite cozy, especially decorated for the holidays.

After ordering, Matthew sums up the concept for Say It Loud.

“What we wanted to do with Say It Loud was to create a night that was forward-thinking, gave artists an opportunity to do what they would do if no one was watching,” he says, “to just blow it out like we’re all 15 years old, playing at a house party with all of our friends – where art was the intention, not commerce.”

The Troubadour was the site of Halo Circus’ first show three years ago, so Say It Loud! is a homecoming of sorts for the band. To commemorate the experience, they’re releasing special “Countdown to Troubadour” videos on their YouTube channel. The first video is Allison singing “Mi Ranchito” on Olvera Street with Brian masked as Donald Trump.

Ranchera songs were a staple in Allison’s home growing up in South Central Los Angeles, yet they are just a tiny sliver in the plethora of music that surrounded her.

“I had Rancheras around me because of my parents and grandma. Growing up with an older sister and brother, as they went through their high school and college years I was going through that with them musically. I would be the little girl in the backseat with all my sister’s friends listening to Biggie. My brother picked up guitar in high school, and when I saw him do that I wanted to, too. He would teach me how to play, listening to Sublime and Metallica. It’s rare to be in a family like that growing up in a place like South Central because my neighbors were listening to banda, that’s it,” she says. “It was very rare for me to have those kind of musical differences. They all became a part of me. I never became one thing growing up, I was many things.” 

Although Allison fondly remembers attending her first concert, a Super Estrella radio festival at the Hollywood Bowl with Julieta Venegas and other Spanish pop/rock groups, she didn’t go to many shows at all. Ever since she was a little girl, Allison literally sang for her supper, performing at a furniture store each week before joining a wedding band at age 10.

“Because I sang, my mom loved taking me to modeling, acting, theater, dance, piano and flamenco lessons. Those were my outlets,” she confesses. “I wasn’t allowed to go outside and play with friends or go to a friend’s house. I couldn’t even sleep over at my cousin’s house. My adventures were when the wedding band did weird gigs.”

When she was 15, Allison moved to Mexico for three months to compete in Telemundo’s “Quinceanera: Mama Quiero Ser Artista” singing competition series, which she went on to win. The following year, she burst onto the world’s radar as a contestant on the eighth season of “American Idol,” eventually coming in fourth place. This led to the release of her debut album, Just Like You, in 2009.

Meanwhile, her future husband and collaborator, Matthew, grew up in Texas – in a house where “Miles Davis was just as important as Fishbone, Billy Joel and Billie Holiday.” He played the piano and violin, which later enabled him to pick up guitar and bass without lessons, and after graduating from Berklee College of Music had to make the choice of where to move next.

“It was a choice between New York and L.A., and at the time there was a very different sound and scene to each one. New York was a lot more aggressive, L.A. was more laid back. I like really aggressive music but I like really nice weather, so I decided to come out here and do really aggressive music,” he declares with a smile. 

His classical education and interest in diverse musical styles proved to be key in his successful career as a songwriter and music producer for the likes of Duran Duran, Scott Weiland, Simply Red, Mandy Moore and Mindi Abair.

When Brian decided to move from his native Michigan to pursue music, he also chose between two cities: Chicago and Los Angeles.

“I’m from Michigan, a little town called Haslett, and had never even been west of Chicago,” he admits. “Driving out here was the greatest experience of my life.”

As a child, Brian remembers his dad playing a lot of Tom Petty and Neil Young, while his mom was really into the Police. In middle school, he started teaching himself guitar to Metallica and Nirvana songs.

“It engulfed me and was all I did,” he says. “When Sugar Ray had that huge song ‘Fly,’ I had their album, Floored. There are actually some really heavy songs on it, and I remember having my headphones on, listening to the guitar and saying, ‘Yeah, I could do that.’ I went to school the next day and told my friends that we should start a band. Everyone laughed because none of us played instruments, but my next door neighbor, Jim, bought a drum set and I bought an electric guitar, and we just went for it.”

Veronica – whose earliest musical memory is singing along to every track on the Meet the Beatles! album with her parents when she was 4 or 5 – also remembers going through a distinct period when she realized she wanted to become a professional musician.

“I learned guitar and drums around age 11. I used to go to Ozzfest, to see Nine Inch Nails and to a lot of local hardcore shows in Long Island where I grew up. At around 13, I would watch those local bands and wish I could play in one,” she recalls. “I was always a little shy because it was a very new thing to have a female playing drums. I always wondered if people would judge me or really analyze me more. My first real band played a show when I was 16, and I actually had my drum set turned to the side so I was looking at the wall and not the crowd. I was so nervous.”

“To go from that to Jeff Beck, I mean, nobody deserves to have her own band more than Veronica,” Matthew gushes.

“Yeah, that was pretty fun, too,” she replies about playing with Jeff Beck.

Five years ago Veronica moved to Los Angeles and eventually joined Halo Circus.

Our pots of tea arrive, adorned with precious stoppers that are porcelain kittens. I nibble on a fresh-from-the oven blueberry scone and sip the aromatic Coconut Chai, as Matthew and Allison describe their initial meeting and formation of the band in 2013. 

“I had just come off of a period when I was pretty disillusioned with music. I had done everything I wanted to do in jazz, rock, pop, and the music business was falling apart so I was debating doing something else with my life. Then Allison walked into my studio. She started singing, and within two notes I knew,” he begins. “As a musician, the amount of time and energy it takes to start something new is crazy. So when I first heard her sing, it was a combination of oh my god and uh oh.” 

“I was going through the same thing, except I hadn’t done everything I wanted to do. I didn’t know it was possible to do what I wanted to do because 1) I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do and 2) everything I had gone through before was so technical, and I’m not a very technical person, so it just didn’t work. I was pretty pessimistic about music; there were times when I didn’t want to sing anymore,” reveals Allison. “David Immerman, the guitarist on my Just Like You Tour had written a song with Matthew, and I came in to do a vocal demo. There was freedom, love for music and a foundation I felt. I had never been giving a starting point before. To start from scratch was a challenge to do what felt right to me. It was great.”

“I didn’t watch ‘Idol’ but had heard her name, knew of her album and that she was the ’red-haired rocker chick.’ When I first heard her sing, I was confused because I didn’t hear that. I heard ranchera, soul, Etta James like a motherfucker. It was so loud and pronounced, like smoke or spirits coming from the ground,” Matthew exclaims. “After we talked for five minutes, it was apparent that she was intelligent, thoughtful and knew a lot about music. It was really about either evolving into her second record or starting a band, letting her artistry dictate where she wanted to go and just follow it. Her musical interests were so broad that it needed to be a band, a bunch of musicians with different input and perspectives – a big pot of gumbo.”

Taking Allison’s cultural identity – as well as Matthew, Veronica and Brian’s diverse musical backgrounds – into account, Halo Circus evolved into the bilingual alternative rock band it is today. They are set to release their debut album that was mixed by Craig Bauer (Kanye West, Ed Sheeran, Smashing Pumpkins) in 2016, and Matthew wonders why anyone who has heard of the concept behind it would not want to give it a listen.

“The album lyrically is a concept album from Allison’s perspective,” he says. “The more you get to know her past  – that she grew up in South Central with parents from El Salvador (one legal and one not), made a living as a singer in second/third grade, lived in Mexico for three months and won a television show, did really good on another talent contest show and went on to have a solo album that sold 35,000 units in the first week – how could you not want to hear her perspective, the dichotomy of her existence? 

The band just released a music video for one track from the album, a cover of Duran Duran’s “Do You Believe in Shame?” A stuffed bunny and its menacing alter ego appear frequently in the clip. A bunny is also the Halo Circus logo, so I ask them, What’s so special about bunnies?”

“The explanation will make me sound like I do a lot of drugs, but I don’t – anymore,” Allison jokes. “Early on when we started writing, I started seeing bunnies everywhere. Real ones, fake ones – I noticed them everywhere: when I was driving in the ‘hood to my parents’ house, on pictures in bathrooms. So I looked up what a bunny represents online, and it had a lot in common with our writing, what I was feeling and how I was viewing the world. Bunnies are these cute little creatures, yet they are prey to be eaten. They have these tails which are targets for hawks to see, and that’s who we are. The prettier, the more out there we are, the more we are a target.” 

“You can’t help but smile when you see a bunny’s tail. The fact is, that tail was designed in order for giant hawks to see them; the cutest part of the animal is the part that ultimately poses the most danger. The duality of that seemed like a no-brainer,” adds Matthew.

“It all ties in with the name Halo Circus,” agrees Brian, “the yin and yang, the beauty and the chaos.”

Allison concludes, “That’s exactly it.”

Halo Circus perform Dec. 14 at the Troubadour. For more information, visit

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