When Cathal Cully and Neil Brogan first met, they knew they wanted to create music together, they just weren't sure exactly what it would sound like. After an EP in 2010, debut record Dead to Me in 2011, and upcoming second record, The New Life, they are steadily mapping out their musical preoccupations and conceits, which are still pleasingly diverse, floating from psychedelia to pop, and scuzzy rock to ambient and surf.
Formed amid the grey backdrop of a Belfast sky, they have now expanded to a quartet, which signifies a shift to an ever more expansive sound, something The New Life benefits from. Whereas Dead to Me was a concise document of an exploration of garage-rock-pop, The New Life is a way to refuse past history, with the title track as an hypnotic reference point, providing an anchor for a record that is replete with hazy melodies, such as on "A Second Skin", more complex soundscapes, and the dreamlike stance of "Occultation" that seems to stare you down into reflective submission. Siobhán Kane talks to Cathal Cully.
Your first record Dead to Me has so many influences, it seemed reflective of your attitude to music - that there must always be a contradiction at work whether pop vs. droning noise, or a kind of surf rock casualness amid serious concepts - is that the way it has been since you and Neil met each other and Girls Names began?
The thing with this band is, as you can probably just tell from the name, that not a lot of thought went into anything at the start. We both wanted to make music and just gave it a go together. There was no plan at all, or a sitting down and discussion of what sort of music we were going to make, I was just bringing songs to practice and we were jamming them out. So in that way it's been a very natural and instinctive process, albeit at times with great naivety. It's been a massive learning curve to get to where we are with the album we've just made.
To me environment is important, and cannot be escaped, though music can transcend such things, but I did wonder about your relationship to Belfast - it has always had this unusual, radiant, odd relationship to music, often channelling frustration into something more positive, it makes sense that punk grabbed on to Belfast, because maybe music settles on an energy. What changes have you seen in the city in terms of music? Have you seen any movements emerge?
Maybe you just can't escape the greyness of Belfast! It might be more than a coincidence that we get compared to Northern English and Scottish '80's bands- it's the exact climate, and i'm not just talking about the weather. Cuts, poverty, mass unemployment, any amount of empty shop units, riots and those idiot Tory's ruining everything again for everyone who wasn't born with a silver spoon. I'm not originally from Belfast but have lived here for a number of years - I do see a lot of creativity happening all the time, and maybe now it's just getting out to a wider audience. I think boredom might play a part, but it does seem like a city that's conducive to the creation of art - relatively cheap rent and a cheap cost of living, plus a sense of community, that is if you want to take part in it. The internet definitely helps though. There's no such thing as geography on the internet.
I think it is interesting that your labels are in London and America - that in some ways you had always looked outside of where you were - I am not sure if this is purely in terms of influence and inspiration, or if it was about the future?
Well simply there is no infrastructure for a band like ours to exist in the confines of Belfast. We were lucky to be picked up by Captured Tracks very early on, and also just when that particular label was still on the up to where they are today. But we did initially contact them. That then opened doors for us to get noticed by others, and in turn start the snowball effect - Tough Love, Slumberland, Pitchfork, Primavera. The one thing I can say is that we were very clued up and sharpened as to what was going on in the outside world at the time, and looking beyond Belfast. We never wanted to be a big Belfast band, and really we still aren't. I'd much rather go and play all around the world and get our music to every corner of the earth but for no one at home to know who I am or what I do!
I wondered if you think you might move away, to England or America with the band - it wouldn't necessarily be easier to be in a band in those places, but there might be more opportunities, and have a certain exciting difference that perhaps you are searching for?
I've never been to America so I can't really speak for it, and as for England - no. London's great but the thought of being a band going to live in London is so dated, boring and clichéd. Don't get me wrong, it's great going to play there but apart from the financial hardships associated with that city, I think you can easily get led astray and get swallowed up the latest musical fads and trends that the bigger labels will latch on to. I think our reluctance to move will work in our favour, and has done, and also hopefully result in us having our own sound and possibly set us apart from others. If we'd have been engulfed with all the trappings of London it's more than possible we wouldn't be doing what we do now, or have developed in the same way. However, I think Europe is where this band could be most at home though. Every time I visit Europe I don't want to come home. It's a far better touring experience over there, and just overall, a better quality of life seems available on the continent, I don't know, maybe the grass is always greener. Sometime's I think a band like ours could possibly eke out some sort of small existence over there.
You played at Primavera, it seemed quite surreal in one sense, because it is such a huge festival, though really well run - and brings together so many musicians at such a high level - do you think in part that experience provided a kind of sea-change for you? That you saw that other world and felt that is where a kind of natural home is for you?
It's strange coming from a DIY background and getting the opportunity to play a big stage like that, having done everything thus far on our own terms. We had nothing to lose, as opportunities don't always come up like that, so we had to make the most of it, but I do feel like we wanted to prove to ourselves first and foremost that we could do it. And I think it was a successful venture. In fact I know it was from a few shocked industry sources who were once interested in, but sceptical of us. It was really great, I'll not lie.The anonymity of it all was the best bit though I think, as obviously we're not famous or anything, so we had a couple of days as punters taking it all in and just enjoying the atmosphere, and then getting to play on the last day in front of so many people was great.
In the last few years you have supported/toured with bands such as Lovvers, Cloud Nothings, Beach Fossils, Times New Viking - which all makes sense to me, since there is a certain atmosphere of musicality that you all share - what have some of your favourite experiences been?
I'm not sure if I can tell you that right now, as I've not yet really thought about everything. I try not to at the time, and I know it's a problem that I have that I can't always savour the moment, but if I have to say one thing it's just getting the opportunity to travel and tour and see places that you would never normally get the chance to go to, or even think about going to. We don't make any sort of living out of this at the moment, so it's great that our art gives us the opportunity for free holidays and getting away from the rain.
The New Life seems almost exactly that - I have been thinking about the busy couple of years you have had, and that you have referred to Dead to Me, as almost literally dead to you by the time you recorded it - why is that? What had shifted to move you in to this new kind of musical space?
I think there's an almost juvenile naivety to that record which really comes from not truly knowing what we were doing - which isn't necessarily a bad thing at all. But I do think it's not a very good record. It might sound good but the songs aren't up to scratch. It's very throwaway. But at the time I wanted to see if an old fashioned pop record could be made, but with a sense of sadness and melancholy - and short, catchy songs. The problem was that in the ten months from its recording to its release, I had listened to the mixes so many times and had got sick to tears of it - and sick to tears picking out its flaws. We did well getting away with calling the album Dead to Me and not one single person picked up that we were done with it - or at least I personally was. It was written on the front cover after all. There is a sort of perverse stubbornness to this band though, it's hard to tell us what to do, even though someone might mean well. I think I can be quite singular at times, and maybe not want to do what is obvious or what is suggested. Anyway I think you should always want to better yourself or else what's the point? As much as wanting to write better songs, the sound and production values had to be much better. Production was the biggest difference I wanted to achieve with this record.
Is that perhaps how you perceive music - that it is more ephemeral, of a moment - that once you have finished it, or achieved a song, or full record - that you somehow move on, towards something different?
Yes I suppose so. The New Life is a body of work that no doubt documents the progression of this band the last few years. It's not overnight. I can't say for sure that the next record will sound so different, but I don't think we should be pigeonholed just yet. That's if there is one, I should add.
Would it be that way in terms of listening to music, and receiving music, also - or are there some musicians and albums that you come back to, again and again - and if so, who and why?
I used to adore music, or at least I thought I did. It's not that I don't anymore but I have a love/hate relationships at times. I realise now that I have a real desire to create music as art, and that's my first and foremost aim. As and how I want to. So I think I suffer from frustration a lot. Listening to music now is obviously a rewarding experience, but I don't listen to it in the same way as I used to when I was younger. Now it's a much more analytical approach. Everything is considered, everything is taken in - I'm obsessed by sounds, effects, production, words, and it can be a very inspiring and emotive experience that makes you want to further yourself as a creator and artist and musician. It's funny that of all the bands that we got compared to early on, Joy Division were never that big on my list of bands that I would listen to, nor would have I said I was much of a fan. I just thought it was because of the similar baritone type vocal style. But then you get sucked into what I have just been saying and you realise that those records they made are so special, and almost from another world. But I think that's as much to do with Martin Hannett's productions as it is with the band themselves. So much is appropriated from different sources but turned into something new. I'd like to think that's what we do. Always you find yourself going back to The Fall though, doesn't everyone? However, all this said, obviously a good tune's a good tune, you can't argue with that.
The New Life sounds more minimal, stripped right back, you find yourselves at the foot of the mountain again, in order to challenge yourself to create something new and imaginative - is that how it feels? How do you feel about the new record now that it is completed? Do you think you will always try to refuse all history in order to create? I like this idea because it means you will never get bored, or repeat yourself.
I'm really happy with how the new record sounds. It was a really challenging and personal process, which in a way is like I've said, a kind of document. I actually got obsessed by it, to the point of sickness. All my thoughts were consumed by the lyrics, the sounds, the structures. I met Mike from Slumberland during the summer and I was talking about how recording was going, and without thinking, I used the word "festering". I said that this record had been festering in my head for so long it just needed to get out. It's sounds really bad that, doesn't it? Almost cancer-like. But it's a positive outcome now. It's a very dark record at times, and nowhere near as immediate as Dead To Me was. But even in the darker aspects there is hopefully an uplifting quality to it as well. Even though it's quite vague at times and deals with abstraction quite a lot, it definitely did serve as a form of catharsis. Not to get too deep, but I think it's fair to say I went to the very dark recesses of my mind with this one - not purposefully, I might add - which I really don't think I could physically or mentally do again, so I think this will reflect in the music that's made next. Also, on thinking of the bigger long-term picture, if this record was to be successful and we end up touring it quite a bit, the songs had to be created to be their best. We didn't really tour Dead to Me as the songs just seemed so boring to play live. I'm not the best singer in the world, and even the lyrics were really boring and said nothing - I couldn't get up and commit to them, I just felt like a bit of an idiot to be honest - hence the disguising with tonnes of reverb.
You produced again - do you find that stressful at all, or is it the most natural thing in the world for you to do? How does it work with all of you? Is it mainly that you and Neil work together and then things get folded in later on? It seems that you two have something of a shorthand, perhaps from being good friends over a period of time, that there is a rhythm you seem to be in.
I'm not sure if it's totally natural. I did work on it a lot. I think it's like anything, the more you do, the more you learn from your mistakes, but also the more you realise what you don't know, and that makes you even hungrier to find out more and pursue what knowledge there is to obtain. Question everything. I had a lot of ideas to try, I think that one thing with this record was that I wasn't afraid to try everything and fail. I was lucky to be working in such an amazing studio - Start Together in Belfast, and with such an amazing engineer and mixer in Ben McAuley. We had so much equipment at our disposal, so we were lucky in that way. Definitely the greatest instrument for me on this record was the studio and the mixing desk! It has definitely been one of the best experiences to date. We were setting up synths, and making weird sounds and drones for hours on end. I did lose myself a few times. We'd be droning these synths over and over again with different effects on them, and slightly different patches - it was a lot of fun, if at times draining and challenging.
Has your relationship to performing live changed over the last couple of years? You are quite incendiary live, but has it always been that way?
I've always found the live part to it tough, in that I'm not some sort of super confident showman. I know my voice isn't the best, I know we're technically not the greatest band in the world. I really don't like playing Belfast, as you end up playing in front of friends and people you know and can feel like a bit of a wally. There's definitely a nervous energy when we're on stage which might result in it seeming incendiary. I think the performance aspect of it is part of the cathartic process as well. I think it's very important to feed off negativity and turn it into something positive. I don't really like happy clappy bands or showmen. It may have its place in music at times, but we're not really here to entertain, and I know that can sound really bad and miserable, but I mean the best from that statement. Music as a performance art should make people emote with something, and maybe experience a feeling that you may not necessarily get from just listening to a record, and if we have achieved that then I think I'd be happy. Plus you have to make yourself happy as well, and feel comfortable and true to what you're doing. But we're not that serious all the time, and not even miserable as people. I have never once said I'm not happy, we've just never corrected journalists who want to assume what they feel is necessary to write, and there has been some bizarre things written. Besides I try to crack a smile at least once a week!
There seems to be a psychedelic influence on this new work, perhaps even more than previously on Dead to Me, yet I felt there were flecks of influence there - is that field of music something that really inspires you? I often feel that there is a generosity to that form, and perhaps it lends itself well to aspects of your music - the fact that it is a kind of stretching of ideas, musical form, the mind - could this be one of the most important tenets of your music?
The psychedelic aspect of this body of work is something that will be explored much further. I feel music is best when used as a vehicle for total escapism. Personal reasons aside, I wanted this record to be one that you can sit down in a room on your own and listen to as a whole - not a collection of tracks cobbled together. It had to flow as one. Also, I started playing guitar in my friend Joe's space rock band Documenta about 2 years ago and that's been a major influence on me. He turned me on to so much amazing stuff - Spacemen 3, Spectrum, lot's of droney, ambient stuff. Music you need to sink you're teeth into, to be patient with, and then reap rewards. I've really benefited from this the last few years.
What are you listening to at the moment?
We just finished the album at the start of October, and during that period of recording I didn't really like to listen to any contemporary music and focus on our recording. So I have been making the most of the last few months and taking in other peoples records again. Liars WIXIW, is magnificent, definitely the best record this year. I'm really looking forward to the new Iceage record which is out the same day as ours, and I have been listening to Deerhunter as always the last number of years. Thread Pulls' new stuff is incredible, I can't wait to hear what they do next. I really liked the TOY album, and Documenta's record is superb - nepotism aside. Bowie's Low though is probably the one record that will define the year for me. I just kept coming back to it again and again.
Because you seem so prolific - are you already considering your next record?
Oh yeah totally, I've half of the demos made for what may be next. I just came back from a break in France there and brought my laptop to work on stuff which was really relaxing. I really got bored of playing guitar for a month or two, and was a bit melted from recording the album, so I've actually been working on writing stuff from scratch with synths, and also with the bass, and programming different drum patterns. I'm not sure if this will be new Girls Names music or manifest itself in something else. I sent Tough Love an instrumental demo I just finished and was told it was reminiscent of Throbbing Gristle. I'm not so sure though. I have a recording half complete that I think will be a stand alone single next year at some stage. It's not exactly like anything I imagine i'll be writing here on in, but it's a good tune I think for a bookend to this 'New Life era'. It's a confusing time now that I'm thinking about things so much, I'm not sure exactly where we're going to go from here stylistically. There's so much to explore for the time being. I suppose that's really exciting. That's why the last song on the record is called "The New Life".
Girls Names play Skinny Wolves' Black Christmas gig Upstairs at Whelan's on Saturday with Twinkranes & I Am The Cosmos. The New Life will be released by Slumberland Records early in 2013.