On Thursday, September 25 2003, Dave Ahern, Wayne Dunlea and Nigel Farrelly huddled on a kerbside in Blackpool on Cork’s northside, watching flames rise into the sky. From where they stood, it may have seemed their future was going up in smoke.
Shortly after 2pm a fire had ripped through the old Sunbeam factory on the Mallow Road.
Among the industrial units at the complex and the adjoining Refond textiles plant was the practice space for the trio’s band, Waiting Room. Or at least it used to be there. Two centuries old, Sunbeam was being consumed by an inferno.
Decades of memories would turn to ash over the next several hours. Along with Waiting Room’s rehearsal area and all their equipment.
“Somebody had come into our room and said, ‘look there’s a fire next door. The fire brigade are here. Can you get out?’” recalls guitarist Ahern.
Waiting Room would suffer another blow in 2004 supporting The Frames at Vicar Street in Dublin, when their van was robbed.
Among the instruments stolen was a rare Travis Bean guitar. One of only 700 made it had an estimated value of around $6,000. It would a take a full decade to locate.
Eventually, it was tracked down to a collector in Australia who had bought it in Dublin for a price “too good to be true”.
And yet despite the setbacks, they persevered. And on Friday February 13 2004 they released Catering For Headphones, one of the great Cork albums of the decade – and an LP that deserves to be rediscovered and celebrated anew.
“There’s a bit of melancholy to it,” says drummer Dunlea.
Catering is a lo-fi tour de force steeped in the band’s passion for Mogwai, Slint and Fugazi (from whose anthem, Waiting Room, the Corkonians took their name).
“It’s not 'bright' in its sound,” nods Dunlea.
“We recorded the drums with bad mics. They don’t sound ‘good’. They work for the tunes. There is a lot of stuff about it that was accidental but fortunately so.”
Waiting Room began when Farrelly and Ahern, who had met on the music management programme at Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa in Ballyphehane, were booked for an open-air festival in Cobh.
On the day, their drummer failed to show. Dunlea, who had played previously with Ahern, stood in at the last moment.
“It was in the Square in Cobh. I had played in a band called Weasel. Wayne was in a group called Serotonin,” says Ahern.
“We used the same practice room and got to know each other. When he agreed to fill in he didn’t even know any of the songs. That’s how good a drummer he was.”
“There was another band playing…a really bad grunge band and no one watched them,” recalls Dunlea.
“For their last song, the drummer threw his drumstick into the crowd that wasn’t there. This kid picked up the drumstick, walked to the stage and handed it back up to him. That is my memory.”
Back then, Waiting Room’s sound was more “straightforward” than it would become by Catering for Headphones says Ahern.
“We were pretty much doing Nigel’s singer-songwriter stuff. Wayne and I were more into post-punk artists, such as Mogwai. We would exchange influences over the course of the band. We would bring Mogwai to the table. Nigel would bring stuff like Sparklehorse or Ben Harper.”
Waiting Room were taken under the wings of Rory Cobbe, a former producer with No Disco in Cork with deep music industry connections.
This would help with national exposure, as would the support of Today FM’s Alison Curtis and 2FM’s Dan Hegarty.
There was soon a groundswell of acclaim. When Foggy Notions magazine launched in Dublin, Waiting Room were one of the artists featured on a cover-mount CD.
A 2004 Hot Press poll of the Greatest Irish Albums saw Catering for Headphones placing at 70. And they were booked for that year’s Oxegen festival, performing in the new bands tent.
“Rory really believed in the band. He wasn’t officially managing us,” says Ahern.
“He helped a lot. Foggy Notions, Alison Curtis pushing it at Today FM – none of that would have been possible without Rory. Who are we? To even get a record in someone’s hands back then. If it’s coming from Rory and he says it’s good, To this day, if he recommends something, I’ll go home and listen to it.”
Alison Curtis remembers the Cork band well.
“Waiting Room caught my attention first obviously due to the Fugazi reference so I had to investigate them more,” she says.
“I discovered that they were an incredibly talented and exciting band from Cork. Also they were remarkably likeable guys. I was presenting an alternative music show, the Last Splash, on Today FM and one of my main agendas was to supporting Irish acts.
“Waiting Room became a staple in my Sunday night playlist; their songs appealed to me on every level. Also the band were so kind. They became the gateway for my show into the thriving Cork music scene.
Guitarist Dave Ahern meanwhile was also putting on gigs at venues such as the Lobby at Union Quay (which would shutter in 2005) and the LV Bar.
In doing so, he established a relationship with Aspersion Music Collective in Limerick, which promoted gigs by outfits such as Fugazi and Yeah Yeah Yeahs and was co-founded by Albert Twomey (who had helped set up Plugd Records in Cork in 2002).
That Limerick connection led Waiting Room to sign with Shannonside label Out On A Limb. Having begun as an extension of AMB, its roster included Giveamanakick, Windings and Jogging.
“I remember seeing them play some support slots in Limerick, probably around 2003,” says Ciarán Ryan who was involved with Out On A Limb at that time. “I dug them straight away.”
“The plan at that stage was they were going to put it out on a label that the great Rory Cobbe of No Disco fame was starting,” he continues.
“I’m almost sure it was called Lamp. The Waiting Room song 'Return My Rabbits' featured on a compilation that came with the first edition of the excellent Foggy Notions magazine. I'm sure it was credited to Lamp Recordings.”
“There were a lot of bands about in Cork,” recalls Ahern.
“But there was only so much you could do there. You couldn’t play the Lobby every week. Cork needed a slightly bigger venue.
"You had bands like Rest, Ten Past Seven, Stanley Super 800. They were all around. There wasn’t a whole lot for them to do in the city. Scenes generally rotate around a venue, such as CBGBs in New York. At that time, in Cork, there wasn’t one.”
Waiting Room believed in post-punk’s do-it-yourself philosophy. They had gone so far as to reach out to Fugazi’s label, Dischord, and the Washington DC band El Guapo. It was through these links that in 2005 they booked a three-week tour of the United States.
This they were able to do after advice from Justin Moyer, bassist with El Guapo and Supersystem.
“He booked all his band’s gigs. He gave me a huge spreadsheet with all their contacts,” says Ahern. “We could have toured for a year.
"We drove a Citroen Galaxy, into which we just about fit our backline. You were driving five or six hours that morning and then you’d reach the venue and have another five or six hours after show.
"In three weeks we did over 2,000 miles. The highlight was playing [iconic indie venue] the Knitting Factory in New York.”
The same philosophy informed the making of Catering for Headphones.
The drums were recorded in the Blackpool studio of Stanley O’Sullivan of Super Stanley 800 (the facility dubbed “Shabby Road” by O’Sullivan).
Much of the rest of the record was overseen by producer Ross O’Donovan using a mobile facility out of his home in Crosshaven.
“The album was pretty much fully formed when we got it,” says Out On A Limb’s Ciarán Ryan.
“It was recorded in a relatively short period of time by Ross O'Donovan, maybe over three or four weeks. That was nine or ten months before it came out.
“I didn’t have a copy of years and years,” says Ahern, who agrees Catering for Headphones has weathered the past decade and a half extraordinarily well.
“A friend sent me one recently. It’s pretty listenable. It’s quite raw. There isn’t any dodgy Eighties production.”
Catering for Headphones was positively reviewed. And yet not everyone seemed to fully understand what they band were about and where they were coming from.
“We went to the UK and were talking to a lot of managers and A&R guys,” says Ahern.
“The Thrills had taken off. Everyone was looking at Ireland thinking, ‘we need the next Thrills’.”
Disagreements began to bubble up over which direction to follow. Perhaps the final blow was a difference of opinion over whether the band should go to France to record their next album with Frames producer Dave Odlum. They went, but not everyone was there willingly.
“Some members wanted to do it, some didn’t want to commit that much financially,” says Ahern.
Battle Lines Are Gently Drawn was released in April 2008. But the fractures that had opened in France grew wider and soon brought about the demise of the band.
“I don’t think we knew what we wanted,” says Ahern.
David Ahern is a graphic designer working in Cork. He and Dunlea have continued to play in bands after Waiting Room.
Wayne Dunlea plays in the band Horse and works with a vegan food and drink business, My Goodness, based at the English Market in Cork City. Specialities include a fermented rainwater drink.
Nigel Farrelly has spent time in Berlin, Dublin and Cork. He plays in the band Like Chandeliers.