As the highly-rated Girl Band release a new album,chats to the group about their reputation for reviving the fortunes of Ireland's guitar groups
Four years may not seem like a particularly long stretch in the grand scheme of things, but for a band in 2019, you can get left behind very quickly. Blink and you’re old news, a dated sound. But it helps when you sound like nothing else.
Enter Girl Band, whose music often sounds like it’s actively trying to disquieten the listener. It’s been four years since debut album Holding Hands With Jamie jolted Ireland’s guitarists into life, though cancelled tours led many to think the music industry had left Girl Band behind.
Pausing a Frank Sidebottom documentary to chat, frontman Dara Kiely, who has battled mental health issues in recent years, says he and his three bandmates were also unsure if they’d return.
“We definitely took a long break, but we started to chip away at stuff very slowly, so as it began to take a bit of form, it was like 'OK we'll make the album - grand'. There was always a want to finish the record properly. We definitely had doubts and stuff like that but it wasn't that serious,” he says, adding that they talk through everything.
The album they were chipping away at is The Talkies. Bassist Daniel Fox has honed his production skills and took the reins. It was recorded in October/November 2018 in Ballintubbert House, Co Laois - “a few pay grades above what we’re used to”, admits Fox.
It opens with pulsing notes amid Kiely’s heavy, claustrophobic breathing. Did he enjoy being back in the creative process?
Yeah it was great. I love writing music with them, I love playing, performing with them. They're my best friends in so many ways. We've always been strict in what we do but we've always been really playful as well. That balance has resulted in that album. We love making up tunes more than anything, I think.
Kiely says he was writing up until the last minute, scribbling notes on the bus like he was rushing to finish his homework before school. All things considered, though, it seems like it was a relatively easy and relaxed recording session. Not quite:
“Well the lads built a studio out of nowhere, built a studio in their house. There was a lot of different kind of problems that you wouldn't get on a regular record. I don't think it was easy.” But as he puts it: “It was our own stubbornness that got it done.”
Kiely says: “We do write the music for ourselves first and if the people like it, they like it, and if they don't, they don't. We try not to dwell on it too much.”
There are some interesting tricks and ideas that recur throughout the album that add a sense of structure amid the chaos. Lyrically, he doesn’t use pronouns across its 45 minutes - he says he hadn’t heard of an album doing that before, at least not intentionally.
“I was into - I still am - mindfulness meditation. There's a quote from the Buddha that says 'Nothing is to be clung to as 'I' Or 'mine’. So I went with that. If I take away that - I, you, he, she, they, whatever - I'll get something completely different that I wouldn't necessarily get if I did it the more traditional way.
"And it just made me think about things differently. It was really tough, I don't think I'll be doing it again (laughs), but I was really happy I got it done. It makes the album a little bit more special for me anyway.”
After a couple of early singles and EPs, the acclaimed UK label Rough Trade snapped up Girl Band and released Holding Hands With Jamie. There was never any pressure from them to record the followup. “The record label barely even knew we were making it, I don't think, until very later on. There was no pressure from them, they were totally understanding of our circumstances so they were very patient, which we really appreciated.”
Though it’s only been four years since the debut album, you could make the case for Girl Band being the most influential act in Ireland this decade. It seemed like overnight there were copycat acts and those indebted to Kiely, Fox, drummer Adam Faulkner, and, in particular, Alan Duggan on guitar.
Fontaines DC, who were nominated at last week’s Mercury Prize for their astounding debut album Dogrel, proclaimed their love in the New York Times last month. Discussing ‘Um Bongo’, singer Ghrian Chatten says: “For Girl Band to scream the words ‘chicken fillet roll’ over and over again — it’s so poignant. Not all romance has to belong to the past. And if we can accept that as a society, I think we might be happier. Or at least more romantic.”
How does Kiely feel about such compliments? “It's really nice. We'd be friendly enough with them now. I went for a drink with Grian a while ago, we'd never really hung out before, and we just started chatting about whatever, we'd have a lot in common.
I'm a fan of theirs, I think that album is really cool, it flows great, it deserves what it's got and it's very refreshing for something like that to get a Mercury (nomination), it's mad, it's brilliant. I guess someone you respect, who writes lyrics like that, says something like that about you, it's always going to be a big compliment.”
And does he agree about Girl Band’s instant influence? “When we wrote the first one and anything before it, we were never like, 'right this is going to influence generations ahead of us. It was never like that, it was just to get it done, really. So to hear that is really nice.”
Kiely’s mental health battles are acknowledged by the band, who played a charity gig at Vicar Street in April 2017 for Pieta House. He’s since completed a DCU course on peer support work in mental health and has worked at a day hospital for people with mental health trauma, where he used his experience with Girl Band to help others.
The group don’t want to dwell on Kiely’s struggles, who says matter-of-factly that “it hasn't gone away. I'm being treated and it's normal to me now. It wasn't on the first record.” He explains that all the new experiences came at once the first time round. “It's not something I could talk about before, and now it's part of my daily life.”
As Kiely readies to tour again, beginning next week in Chicago, he’s steeled himself for the experience this time round. “I'm just looking forward to things coming together now. I guess we are hungry to do things again, it's really exciting. I'm really looking forward to the tour, releasing this thing, letting it do its thing. I think we're really happy now, as a foursome, which is great.”
Much has been made about the ‘guitar revival’ in Ireland over the past couple of years. Fontaines DC were nominated for the Mercury Prize, the Murder Capital have been drawing acclaim for their debut album When I Have Fears, while Girl Band guitarist Al Duggan has started an even noisier project in The Claque. What does Kiely make of it all?
“I think it's a scene because it's small. It's a really tiny area. I dunno about guitar revival, stuff like that. did the guitar ever go away? But there's some cool bands, Silverbacks are cool, I love Paddy Hanna's stuff, and then there's stuff like Junior Brother which is just another type of guitar playing... It's nice that a few local heads are getting attention.”