They knew it was over before it had even begun. Or that’s how it seems now, the way Eoin 'Stan' O’Sullivan recounts the tale of recording Louder & Clearer, his band Stanley Super 800’s second album.
The Choice Prize-nominated album was released in 2007, but it was a “heartbreaking, backbreaking” two years in the making, O’Sullivan says.
The album’s seemingly effortless fusion of electronica, rock and trad ranges from the brash party tune 'Gatecrashing' through to the introspective melancholy of 'Dark Angel 'and the unapologetically tender lovesong 'Only You'.
Stanley Super 800, named after O’Sullivan’s nickname and a type of domestic heater, had released their self-titled debut album in 2004. The four piece, consisting of O’Sullivan on guitar, vocals and synths, Mike 'Tosh' O’Sullivan on banjo, guitar and keys, Flor Rahilly on bass and Dave Hackett on drums, followed up with “ a serious amount of touring,” O’Sullivan says.
“I’d say we did 100 Stanley Super 800 gigs in 2004. We got a certain amount of support for the album, but it just never clicked. There was no press, no radio. We took out a loan in my name to pay for a van and the first record; you’d be hoping that you might get a bit of a boost and some radio play.
“I remember thinking around that time, this is going nowhere. But I still had a load of material to finish so I thought it was important to do another record and that was Louder & Clearer. It was more an artistic endeavour than something that we thought was going to transport us into the bigtime.”
While the band had recorded their first album in their own makeshift studio in Blackpool that they dubbed 'Shabby Road', for Louder & Clearer, the first recordings were laid down in Blue Monkey studios in West Cork.
“We put down the basis of most of the album and then we kept gigging, but everyone was trying to do their own jobs and doing the album in their spare time,” O’Sullivan says. “It started to drag on. By summer of 2006, it still wasn’t finished.”
When they weren’t gigging as Stanley Super 800, O’Sullivan, Tosh and Rahilly were gigging as trad group the Céilí Allstars; in fact, Stanley Super 800 emerged as a side-project from their trad bread and butter to begin with.
O’Sullivan had moved from his native Newmarket to Cork city in the early nineties, where he enjoyed some success as guitarist with The Shanks before forming the Céilí Allstars.
And the Céilí Allstars were arguably doing better than SS800 in terms of regular, paying gigs, with residencies in venues including The Lobby Bar.
Listen closely to Louder & Clearer and you’ll hear snatches of the trad that underpinned SS800’s uniquely melodic musical sensibility; South Wind is based on a tune that O’Sullivan learned from Sliabh Luachra fiddler Maurice O’Keeffe. Instrumental track A23 is 'The Collier’s Reel', slowed to an unrecognisable tempo.
SS800, then, were a mild-mannered trad band by day, and an electronic indie-rock band known for their onstage antics at night.
Despite a noted absence of mainstream recognition in the form of column inches or radio play, the band had a devout cult following that ate up their inspired and idiosyncratic live show.
“That’s where we were at our best,” O’Sullivan says. “Tosh played banjo, electric guitar and keyboard, but he also had a bullhorn that made siren sounds and he had a clock radio plugged into the PA.
“Sometimes when we’d break down a tune and all play a solo, Tosh would just play whatever was on the radio; Lyric FM or something. It was magic. I played the guitar but I had an old DX21, this very hated eighties Yamaha synthesiser, behind me. I could play the guitar and play the synth with my arse at the same time. The live thing was brilliant fun.” Recording, though, was painstaking. Louder & Clearer mightn’t have seen the light of day if O’Sullivan hadn’t been introduced to dance music producer Mark O’Sullivan, originally from Cork but living and making music in Sweden, where he's also a respected football coach.
Mark O’Sullivan’s influence in producing and mixing the album was decisive; he arrived in November 2006 and the album made rapid progress. “He was very inspirational because he had come from the dance music thing and he had this really different way of mixing things,” O’Sullivan says. “The sound was really important to him but he wasn’t bothered by any conventions.”
Louder & Clearer was released on Sofa Records in 2007 and was nominated for a Choice award. “We weren’t lucky enough to win, but for about ten seconds on the night of the awards, there was this sense of, if we win this now, that would be an absolutely deadly finish to things,” O’Sullivan says.
By then 34, O’Sullivan was at a crossroads in his personal life: his partner was expecting their first child. “Nature gives you a big kick in the ass when you have children,” O’Sullivan says. “You kind of re-evaluate where you’re going with things.”
O’Sullivan moved back to Newmarket. He had been playing with a cabaret band for extra money, taking on other jobs in music; he even composed the music for the Cork City Bus Tour. The Céilí Allstars were still going strong and eventually, SS800 were quietly reabsorbed.
“It wasn’t like we stopped playing; we just stopped doing Stanley Super 800 after summer 2008,” O’Sullivan says.
O’Sullivan may not have been aware how close they came to scooping the Choice prize. Michael Carr, 96fm DJ and music publicist, was on the judging panel that year.
“They actually got down to the last three,” Carr says. “It was Stanley Super 800, Adrian Crowley and Super Extra Bonus Party. I was rooting for them, of course, because I knew the guys and I loved the album, but when it was narrowed down to the last two, I went for Super Extra Bonus Party.”
Louder & Clearer was and still is, Carr says, an album worthy of attention. “I just thought it was a brilliant mix of stuff,” he says. “They’re very inventive musicians. Gatecrasher is just a dancefloor stomper of a track, there’s good rock-out tunes and electronic stuff that I was really into. I could hear people like the Beta Band in it: that same kind of playfulness.
“There’s also Stan’s voice. He always sang in his own accent and he always just sounded totally like himself. This kind of laconic drawl, like he didn’t give a damn.”
Are Stanley Super 800 overlooked in the pantheon of great Cork bands? “There’s a bit of an enigma about them alright,” Carr says. “But I think anyone who was into music in Cork at the time were aware of them, and would have been into them.”
Where are they now?
Guitarist and vocalist Stan O’Sullivan moved back to Newmarket, Co Cork where he opened a Sliabh Luachra music school in 2013. He organises Scully’s Fest traditional Irish music festival each year, and plays fiddle with the Céilí Allstars.
The Stanley Super 800 keyboardist, guitarist and banjo player lives in North Cork and plays banjo with the Céilí Allstars, alongside making other regular appearances throughout the trad scene, often alongside his sister, fiddler Lisa O’Sullivan.
The bass player, guitarist and vocalist continues to play guitar with the Céilí Allstars. He is also singer-songwriter John Spillane’s guitarist.
Drummer Dave Hackett is currently completing his MSc in Music Technoglogy in Cork Institute of Technology with a view to furthering a career in studio engineering and mixing.