Ahead of their appearances at Indiependence & Castlepalooza last weekend, Dave Donnelly talked festivals, recording, and that difficult second album with John Duignan of We Cut Corners
How pleased are you with how the album has gone down? We are absolutely delighted. We were quite apprehensive about how it would be received because we intentionally made it like the first album in many ways. We knew that was setting ourselves up to be criticised. We made it exactly the same length, and the same shape in terms of the arc of the album, so that was a bit of a gamble. With second albums, the reason they call them a bit of a risk is because there’s a weight of expectation if you’ve had a semi-successful first album. People seemed to appreciate what we were trying to do with the record.
It’s unusual you said that because the first thing that jumped out to me was that compared to the first album, there’s a lot more bite in it, it’s louder and a bit snappier. I think with the first one we’d never released anything apart from a very shoddy EP that we sort of threw together ourselves, so with the first record we were very tentative about popping our heads into the Dublin music scene, and everything was a little bit restrained and a little bit reluctant – like we had confidence in what we were doing but we wanted to keep it modest in a way, if something can be sonically modest. With the second album we were a lot more confident in our playing and our singing, and with the lyrics we were writing, so that may account for some of the sense of immediacy or presence that might be there.
Did you have a better idea of what you wanted it to come out like? Yeah, for the first album we went in with a fellow called Jimmy Eadie and he very much held our hands through the whole process and put the album together, and with that experience we were able to approach the second album with a lot more confidence. We had all the tracks demoed ourselves in our home recording studio before taking them up to Donegal where we worked with Tommy McLaughlin, and later we took those recordings across to London to a guy called Ben Hillier. At every juncture we knew what we wanted from the record, and even things like the string arrangements, they were in our minds when we were writing the record, so it was definitely a more pointed approach to making a record this time around.
Just on the strings, you said it was in mind when you were writing the record, did you write that on keyboards or did you get a lot of help realising it? No, we got a hell of a lot of help. When myself and Connaill were in university we studied under a guy called John Buckley, who is quite a famous contemporary classical composer. We always had it in mind that if we got to make a record, we would love to work with him on it. We hit him up over the winter that we were recording and asked him if he would be interested in arranging some string parts for the songs, and he was really into it. Pop music, or whatever you’d call what we do, wouldn’t really be his bag at all. He is more modernist, and I suppose it would be more challenging, but it’s really interesting what he did with our pretty simple pop songs, moving them in a pretty interesting direction, and that’s one of the best things about collaborating with people, particularly when you’ve known them for years and never actually worked with them in that way.
I know they’re not on that much of the album, but the strings really help with the sequencing of the album – you ease it in with Wallflowers and you close it out again with Hunger. Totally! Something it’s not even what the strings are doing but rather the atmosphere that they bring. We recorded them in a church in Rathgar, and every time I listen back to the record they transport me to that place. That was one of the most fun parts of the process, actually tracking those strings and working with an amazing quartet who were just… you know classical musicians just show up and they don’t take 50 takes like I do to nail a guitar part, they just do it first time around and it’s incredible the precision they work with.
That was done after you recorded the album. You said you recorded the album up in Attica with Tommy McLaughlin – was there anything that drew you up there? We were actually doing some dates with Villagers around the time we were trying to choose the studio and we’d never met Tommy, or Conor for that matter, and he was about to go on tour with Villagers for their second album and he just had a window of a month and we jumped into that window, and the planets just aligned. We did it up there, and it’s just an incredible space. I think it’s starting to be used more. It was very much in its infancy when we were up there – I think Villagers’ second album was the first album to be made there – but since then he’s been working up there with Soak quite a bit. I think she’s making her debut record up there, and also a band called the Academics from Mullingar, who have recently signed a new deal apparently. It’s really taking off.
I interviewed him about 18 months ago when the Villagers album came out and he was telling me about the studio, and he sent over pictures for the piece, and it looks like it has absolutely everything you’d need. It is absolutely phenomenal. Tommy is an unbelievable collector of equipment. He is just really, really tidy. If you ever wanted to run a studio, I could never do it because you need to have such attention to detail to keep everything neat and run a tight ship, and he just does that incredibly well. It’s a beautiful space. If you ever get a chance, check it out.
I hope I will. Did you use your own equipment then or did you make use of everything he had? We used Tommy’s equipment a lot. He doesn’t play drums but he’s got a couple of Gretsch kits up there, so we basically spent a day trying to find out what kit would sound best and then we’d spend another day trying to find a guitar sound that would go through the album, and he’s just the perfect person to do that.
Because a lot of bands would be very precious about using their own guitars, their own drums, you’re not really like that then? Not really, no. It’s very much a learning curve for us. We played acoustically for years and we were never too nerdy about gear – I don’t mean that in a disparaging way, I just mean we hadn’t any gear. When we made the first record we had one drum kit and one guitar and an amp, so we made the record with whatever Jimmy’s set-up used, and then with Tommy it was more a case of ‘let’s try every amp we can’ to try and get the most interesting sound.
On the subject of the sound, it’s a quite a contrast because, overall, the lyrics are very dark – one lyric that jumps out to me is the ‘sitting around in your depressing gown’ line from Wallflower – where it’s dark but playful too, but it fits in with the general contrast of the sound. I guess that’s kind of what you have to go for. We find that when your songs are very short – not many of ours would pass the three-and-a-half-minute mark – you have to try and get as much into them as possible. Often we take the approach of having the quite textural and multi-layered approach where you might hear them the first time around, but there might be something to revisit in the lyrics when you go back.
You’re booked to play a few festival dates coming up – do you feel the new album is more suited to that kind of gig, being a bit more immediate? Possibly, yeah! It is a really good feeling to have two albums to pick songs from because with the first album we did some festival shows off it, but really in terms of having a full set, we were a little bit skimpy in terms of having a few quiet songs that really don’t work in the festival scenario, so this time around we’re delighted to have lots of upbeat songs, and definitely I think the album lends itself a little bit more to the festival crowd.
Are there any plans to do any more after the summer, because as far as I know you both work full-time? We’re actually sort of on our summer holidays at the minute, so we spent pretty much all of them so far writing and trying to formalise ideas for the next record. We’re going to do the festivals we have, hopefully do a short Irish tour in the autumn as well, and then get into a recording studio early next year if we can find the time and maybe start putting an album together.
In terms of this album, is it just Ireland or are there plans to put it elsewhere? Yeah, well we released it in the UK through a crowd in Brighton called the Republic of Music who are really great. We played one London show, which was last Friday at the Barfly in Camden, but it kind of suits us to keep things in Ireland at the minute. It takes a lot of forward-planning to get things done in the UK. It’s nice to get over there for the odd festival, but really it feels like you have to dedicate your entire life to it if you’re going to make inroads over there.
In terms of yourself – obviously you’re constrained by your circumstances – but are you kind of focused already on the next album? I wouldn’t say that. We’ve got a couple of singles to go on this record yet. We have a single coming out called ‘Mammals’ on the second of August, and then there will be a further release in the Autumn, and then at the back end of the year we have a couple of additional releases to keep us going. And the festivals really keep people’s interest in the album going, and any additional touring you gives it some extra life, but it’s a funny one because we’re pretty much two years on the album and then when it comes out it feels like, for you, it’s the end of a very long process but for people who are hearing the record it’s only the begging. You have to keep that in mind, and make sure you’re giving it as long a life as you can.