Dublin’s Girl Band (not B*Witched, the other one) have achieved the unthinkable, liberating themselves from the all too comfortable constraints of our thriving domestic music scene and garnered the attention of listeners further afield than Wexford Street. That would be news enough in itself but it’s all the more striking when one takes into account the particulars of their sound, which is a uniquely grinding and overdriven brand of larynx-stripping, experimental post-punk that doesn’t exactly scream cross-over appeal. Detailing vocalist Dara Kiely’s struggle with depression and eventual breakdown and recovery, their debut LP, Holding Hands with Jamie, is as bracing and attention-grabbing an on-record experience as you can expect to encounter this year. We caught up with Dara and guitarist, Alan Duggan, in the hopes they would tell us what they want, what they really, really want.
How did Girl Band as we know it now come to be? You guys have been playing together for a while right?
Dara: Yeah, three of us used to be in a band called Harrows when we were in school. It was your typical Strokes-inspired indie. I used to play drums and then when that disbanded and I fell into being the singer. It’s funny, the way I got in was because I did some screaming on a joke track called Pancake Tuesday. My friends liked the way I screamed, and we knew we wanted a singer that could do that. I was quite shy about it so our first gig was really daunting. It was in the RAGE *[on Fade Street]* and there were people that close up, you know? I’d never sung in front of anyone. It was terrible.
There was obviously a pretty drastic change in sound from sounding like The Strokes, like you said, to now. Was there a vision of sorts or did you know what you wanted to do when you started up?
D: Not specifically. With us, every part of the band is equal, everything is 25% each, there’s nobody in charge, the best idea in the room always gets the go ahead. But we had no specific vision, Alan and Dan ended up getting a bunch of pedals around that time and we just started mucking around with them. We didn’t have any sort of intention of getting bigger or anything like that, just wanted to develop. When we ended up getting with Rough Trade we were just doing the same thing that we were doing with Any Other City but on a bigger scale. We really like the people we work with and they look after us, but the most important thing about the Rough Trade contract is full creative control. In terms of sound, we take advantage of that. Doing what we wanted to do, and doing it freely was the ultimate ambition from the start and that’s the same now.
Something that struck me is that you guys had a real reputation as a live band in advance of the album. Did getting the live experience across on record create any pressure for yourselves in the recording process?
D: We certainly wanted to document everything. Everything we’ve recorded from the first single to now has been with the same group of people. In terms of the actual sound, it was really cool because I think what’s on the record is kind of how we heard the songs in our heads. There’s no overdubs on the record, aside from the vocals. It was really important for us to put across the feeling of us all in a room but it wasn’t really pressure or anything like that. The only people we’re really eager to please are ourselves. If we like it then we’re satisfied.
So in your own mind, Girl Band on record or live are essentially the same entity? You didn’t draw any distinctions or try and achieve markedly different things within the two spheres?
D: For the moment, yes. We really didn’t like the idea of bands having six guitar parts and not being able to replicate it live. We wanted it to be like whatever we do in the studio we can do live and vice versa. For me that’s the way a first album should be. I think of Please Please Me, it’s got that live element to the record, that’s what the energy is of the band at the time. We’re not ruling anything out yet though. We had to record a B-side recently so we just went to our practice space and didn’t want to set up everything so we just hit off stuff and the looped different parts. The idea of recording that B-side was to contradict everything we’d done on the album and record something that we can’t play live.
There’s a degree of unconventional songwriting with you guys. Was it kind of intimidating going to record knowing people might not be engaging with the songs in terms of hooks and such and trying to deliver an engaging sound on record?
D: I guess we constantly nitpick in terms on the songwriting, it’s very rare that it’s the same thing at the start as when we finish it. Even The Cha Cha Cha which is 25 seconds long was originally 35 seconds longs, and we cut it down. We really focus on things like low-end and dynamics and we’re really into structure and not settling on the norm in terms of verse-chorus-verse, not that we’re putting down people who do that. But it’s really fun not to do the normal thing. I feel the same way in writing lyrics. I got so sick of ‘catch you when you fall’ lyrics and I found myself writing stuff like that until I thought, ‘I’d *never* say something like that, it’s not how I speak’. Bands put lots of money into things like amazing tour buses and studios and the best producers and stuff and then end up being lazy or neglectful about lyrics where to me that’s the main thing you need to be thinking about. That’s what actually lasts.
Talking about the lyrics, It strikes me that there is no small amount of humour in there. Do you think you can get away with that, having more tongue-in-cheek elements while being taken seriously because of the nature of the music? Because it’s so abrasive do you get a satisfaction out of subverting that sound through what you’re saying?
D: Yeah, totally. I think if we had the same songs and I was shouting ‘Fuck you, Dad!’ or whatever, it wouldn’t have the same effect. The extremity only works because of it being toyed with. I think there’s humour in all elements of the thing, even though the subject matter can seem very serious, because of the whole mental disorder stuff that makes up a lot of the material.
When I was getting over my issues and getting better I ended up listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen, and that was really liberating in a way because he can be so funny. If you look at it a certain way a lot of his stuff can be depressing but the way you get out of depression is forcing positives and laughing about things. You can hear what we do in a few different ways, you could look at it like nonsense, and it’s not, but if you see it that way then that’s fine. Or you can see it as really jokey and enjoy it that way or if you know the full background then it can be really serious.
Like for example, going to the doctor in the song The Last Riddler, that was an actual experience. I went to the doctor when I had a breakdown, I thought I was God, or some kind of elated being. So I went into the office, he sat down and asked ‘Dara, would you like to take a seat’ and I responded ‘I think I’ll stand’ and then I was like, ‘quick question, quick question, what’s your favourite band?’ so he says to me ‘ABBA’ and I’m immediately like, ‘Perfect!’ and write down The Winner Takes It All on a piece of paper, hand it to him and say ‘think about it’. See, things like that, that’s the most direct lyric in the song and it sounds so obscure.
It’s funny though, when I was going through all those mental health issues I wasn’t thinking to myself, ‘Brilliant, now I’ll have loads to write about.’ It was quite the opposite, I could only write about what was going on and what was going on was a manic episode and then depression and the rehabilitation around that. I do try to keep the language fun though.
It’s fair to say you’ve been remarkably successful or at least getting a huge amount of international attention compared to the rest of Irish bands of this generation. Do you think that’s symptomatic of a kind of islander mentality that people don’t even try and reach out beyond their comfort zone?
Alan: There’s definitely aspects to that. When we first started up playing in bands nobody wanted to tour and when we started doing Girl Band we really really wanted to get out and tour. One of the goals from the very start was that we didn’t want to just exist in Ireland or in a bubble in Dublin. But one thing we have learned from touring is how expensive it is. Like, if you’re a band from the UK the realities of touring around Europe are a lot easier and it’s purely because of a tunnel. The ferry from Ireland to France is about €600 and then there’s all the other expenses.
So you wouldn’t buy into the notion of there being something in the Irish psyche that there’s a lack of desire to go further afield and a willingness to just play to same people. There’s all this great music coming out but such a small amount of people hearing it. Do you think that’s primarily a reflection of financial restraints?
A: It’s there, sure. But Ireland is tiny. There’s more people in Birmingham than here. It’s a healthy scene and we do kind of punch above our weight if you look at the amount of bands that have done well in the last five years. Maybe not so much in the independent sector, but even in that you have Villagers and Cian Nugent. There’s quite a lot that comes out. There is so much good stuff that it’d be great to see more.
I was talking to buddies of mine about it recently and we were wondering if it was the ‘U2 effect’ that we’re still feeling. Was it a matter of a lot of our biggest exports kind of lost their clout and we’re still feeling that.
D: Well when alternative music was booming, you had Director and Humanzi signing to all these majors. Once that fell away they were sadly the first to go. It does kind of feel like, I don’t want to say people were ’blacklisted’, but there was probably reluctance there. Now though there is way more attention again for smaller bands, that might be the Hozier effect *[laughs]*. Compared to when we started, the music scene is much healthier. There’s so many bands I like now as bands not just as ‘Irish bands’. I think that’s important, bands should be judged on their own merit as opposed to where they’re from.
A: Having said that though, a lot of interviews we do they’re always asking about the Irish scene, who are the new bands and what’s the scene like. Other cities are lucky to have cooler venues and stuff or the government are more willing to let out spaces. Like, we’ve played so many interesting venues around the Netherlands.
Are you kind of surprised the amount of attention you guys of picked up considering the abrasive nature or the material?
A: Definitely, but I think most bands who end up signing to someone like Rough Trade will be a bit ‘what the fuck?’. It’s bizarre. We do always write the music for ourselves and we can be surprised by how aggressive and abrasive it is since we’re pretty chilled out guys. Even coming up to the album campaign, they said to us, ‘If you want to pick Paul as your first single that’s fine, but just to tell you it probably won’t get a lot of radio play’ and you can’t help but wonder what song on the album would get any radio play…
It’s almost like you guys have created a fanbase out of nowhere. For example, the last gig you played in Twisted Pepper last year was the same day as the Popical Island all-dayer – a huge amount of the Dublin music scene were all in one venue and you guys still managed to fill the Twisted Pepper. Where do you think all these people who seemingly wouldn’t have been going to a lot of domestic gigs have kind of attached themselves to you? I know it’s kind of a hard question, but why do you think that is?
A: I don’t know, there’s so many different things at play. If people are going to come to the shows because they like the music that’s great, but we try to be tactful about it, we don’t play Dublin that much, throughout the year we’ll have played here twice. We tend to approach it like that and try and make the home-town show special, more of an event rather than another gig. We’ve always done our own shows as well. Our first gig was our own gig in the RAGE, our second show was our own gig in the Bernard Shaw, we always try to that as much as we could. A lot of bands are constantly in bills supporting other bands and you can’t help but think ‘that band is bigger than that, they should hold off and do their own show’.
D: It’s just a matter of trying to make gigs special. Like we have our Button Factory gig lined up and a party arranged for after that for our friends. With everything about the band we try and think about if we were fans of the band what would we want.
I suppose when you see people play so regularly you kind of get to a point where you can see the strings in a way and it loses its impact.
A: From my own experience of going to gigs, I love not seeing a band in a while and then seeing them and going, ‘Woah, that’s gotten way better!’ or, ‘Oh no, it’s all gone wrong!’ *[laughs]*. It was tricky at the start though when we were getting offered down a lot of gigs and turning down a lot of gigs in favour of doing our own shows down the line, but I guess it worked out.
Holding Hands With Jamie is out now on Rough Trade Records. Girl Band play the Button Factory on Saturday 7th November with support from Paddy Hanna. Tickets cost €16.
Words: Danny Wilson