Steve Wickham helped the Lost Brothers find their mojo on their best album yet, writes Ed Power
THE Lost Brothers have finally found what they were looking for. Ten years into their collaboration, Navan and Omagh songwriters Mark McCausland and Oisín Leech have released their biggest critical hit yet in Halfway Towards A Healing – a bittersweet nugget of Hiberno-American roots-rock that has sent folk aficionados either side of the Atlantic into a swoon.
“It’s a funny thing,” says Leech. “The reviews are good. You’ve always got to be ready for the bad ones. But magazines such as Mojo and Uncut have been in touch to say they love this one. It’s a nice thing to get with your fifth record. When you make an album you have no idea how it’s going to be received. With every record you gain a new audience and sometimes lose some of your old audience too — and that’s fine.”
Leech and McCausland were veterans of major label casualties The Basement and The 747s when they started working together in 2008. The partnership was, and remains, open ended. With no set destination, it’s been a journey of footloose discovery.
“With each record we try for ourselves and our audience to give them something new,” says Leech. “We pick a new city and new producer. After 10 years you learn about the creative process. We’re still youngsters as songwriters. You learn not to push it. If you’re continually writing, sometimes you’ll get lucky. That’s how we worked. We didn’t [go into the studio] until we felt we had strong songs.”
Strangely, it was those numbers written in a relative hurry that generally made the final track listing. “Van Morrison is a master of songwriting and we’re obviously not comparing ourselves to him. But he has said that many of his best-loved songs are the ones that came the quickest.”
If audiences and mainstream media are only coming on board in earnest with Halfway Towards A Healing, the band have never lacked for cheerleaders within the business. Glen Hansard took them on tour around America as support; independent rock figureheads such as Brendan Benson and Bill Ryder-Jones of The Coral have worked on their LPs as producers.
Waterboy Steve Wickham and Americana icon Howe Gelb of Giant Sand were the guiding lights on this occasion. “We worked in Sligo for a year with Steve Wickham,” says Leech. “He’s amazing – he became a song-filter for us. We had 30 or 40 songs. If at any moment, Steve thought the material wasn’t up to par, he challenged us to do better.”
With the songs written, they reached out to Gelb, wondering if he might produce the LP in New York. He had a better idea: come to a new studio he was involved with in his home town of Tucson, Arizona.
“The studio was in a very, very rough area of Tucson, way way on the edge of town,” Leech recalls. “Upon arriving in Tucson, we walked there in the evening and it was all closed up.
“Next door was a toyshop selling all the old Star Wars toys. It was surreal – like a dream. We went back the next day to start recording and the shop was closed. They told us it was the weirdest toy shop in the universe. Tucson was a magical place. And here were two lads from Navan and Omagh walking around in their big winter coats in the 30 degree heat.”
What’s most remarkable perhaps is that the Lost Brothers are still standing. They’ve been chewed up and spat out by the major label system and then suffered through years of obscurity. Somehow they never lost their faith.
“Mark and I had been on Island and Sony. We’d been through all of that and got very cynical. When we started Lost Brothers we said from day one it was going to be an extremely simple thing and that if it ended tomorrow it ended tomorrow. Ten years later, we’re still doing it.”
Halfway Towards A Healing is out now. The Lost Brothers play Dolans Limerick Friday, St Luke’s Cork, Saturday.