In March 2018, five stony-faced young men took to the stage at the 100-capacity Mike the Pies venue in Listowel. Nobody coming out to see the Murder Capital that night could have guessed they were witnessing the first chapter of one of the most breakneck stories in contemporary Irish rock. Eighteen months later the Cork/Dublin outfit are the band everyone’s talking about. It’s been quite a journey.
“That was our first gig. It feels like a long time ago,” says singer James McGovern. “It’s been very surreal. That was March. By July all the majors in London were getting on to us.”
The Murder Capital are one of those “Here are the young men the weight on their shoulders” groups you could be forgiven for thinking they’d stopped making. With their studied pouts and baroque riffs, they hark back to the monochrome pomp of Joy Division and The Cure. An Irish comparison would be pre-stardom U2, though McGovern lacks the messianic tendencies that even early on glimmered in Bono’s eyes.
The received wisdom was that their brand of monastic alternative rock, where angst brims up between the cracks and guitars chime like funeral bells, was terribly passé. Hip-hop and pop are were it’s at, we were told. And then along came bands like Fontaines DC and the Murder Capital to blow that theory out of the water.
“Rock is where it should be,” insists guitarist Damien Tuit.
It’s in the underground, at the perimeters. Occasionally it sticks its head above.
In addition to their status as hottest new band in Ireland, The Murder Capital are, in a way, the hottest new band from Cork. McGovern is from Sunday’s Well in the city. He studied at Presentation Brothers and UCC, where he dropped out of arts after a year to pursues songwriting. To an extent, he’s carrying on a family tradition. His father, based in Dublin, is a sound engineer.
Tuit, for his part, is from Rosscarbery in West Cork. He’s the son of a fisherman working out of Union Hall.“I went out a few times,” he laughs. “It definitely isn’t for me.”
A generation ago, Cork bands were definitely and defiantly their own thing. Nowhere else could have produced Microdisney, Sultans of Ping or the Frank and Walters. Yet the world has moved on. In some ways, it has become smaller and more generic. The Murder Capital certainly can’t be accused of flaunting their roots. Cork is where they’re from, not who they are.
“I really enjoyed UCC,” says McGovern. “But I didn’t approach it from the right angle. I ended up needing to get out of there. Music had been the great love of my life.”
As a teenager he went to gigs by the Altered Hours and Fish Go Deep club nights. But the Murder Capital formed in Dublin. McGovern and Tuit met at the BIMM “school of rock” at Francis Street (graduates of BIMM in the UK include George Ezra and Tom Odell).
Dublin, it is moreover fair to say, influenced them as much, if not more, than Cork. Their songs capture the pre-gentrification brutalism that lingers, in particular, around the docklands. That part of the city was home for several years. The grey-on-grey severity has seeped in.
“We’re grounded in a shared love of bands. But our influences are mostly non-musical,” says Tuit. “That DNA is already embedded in you. There’s not much you can do about that.”
The Mike the Pies gig was the first stage in a breathless rise.Their debut release, a live recording of the track ‘More Is Less’, was quickly creating waves in the UK. Summer 2018 found them on the receiving end of a charm offensive from the British music industry.
Like generations of Irish bands before them the Murder Capital were soon on a plane to London. There they would be figuratively wined and dined by labels, agents and promoters. There was just one problem.
Several weeks earlier, the rhythm section had decided they no longer wished to be involved and had left. Ireland’s hottest new band were, as things stood, not quite a band. Wisely the remaining members kept this to themselves.
“We had like 25 meetings with people, telling them there was a band,” laughs McGovern.
There wasn’t. And we didn’t have a huge amount of songs either. They’d be like ‘oh, so you’ve got lots of songs like this’. And we’d be like ‘oh yeah… sure.
They chose not to sign with a major in the end. McGovern and the rest already had their hands full recruiting a new bassist and drummer (which they did with minimum fuss). And they wanted to put a lid on the hype. In many ways the Murder Capital were still working out their identity. Better to tease out that puzzle before signing a record deal than afterwards.
Going it alone has proved a canny decision. They’re about to put out a stunning first album, When I Have Fears, through their own label. It was recorded in London with esteemed producer Flood. He has worked with everyone from Nine Inch Nails to U2, Erasure and The Killers.
“He has a brilliant understanding of psychological needs,” says McGovern. “The way he approaches you as an individual is different from the way he approaches the group. He’s so focused and in love with the project. And he pushes you to the limits. He quipped these songs were born in Dublin and clothed in London. That’s how it feels to us.”
They’ve also done something few Irish bands manage in making an instant impression internationally. The Murder Capital have toured the UK to great acclaim. And just a few weeks ago they played to a heaving tent at the Rock Werchter festival at Leuven in Germany. Unfortunately, on the way home, the tour bus broke down.
“Actually the two of us were on a press tour in Amsterdam when that happened,” laughs McGovern. “I think we were probably having our first espresso when we heard the bus had broken down .The joke is that when they were stuck in the van we were stuck giving 35 interviews in three days.”