Dublin six-piece instrumental act Overhead, The Albatross specialise in a sound as wide in scope as their avian namesake’s wingspan. Having honed their approach over the course of six years together and routinely dumbfounded audiences at home and abroad with the famously impassioned live performances, the band have finally sated their perfectionist tendencies and are readying their striking debut full length, Learning to Growl, for release into the wild. We cornered bassist, Joseph Panama, to get to the bottom of what exactly took so long and the perils of absolute democracy when it comes to the creative process.
What actually took you guys so long to get a record out?
I’ve been thinking about this and I think it’s because we recorded the album three or four times. We wrote it between here and the Czech Republic. We went over there thinking we were going to record this album but as soon as we got there we knew it wasn’t the right environment. We could write there and did record a version of the album but essentially that was all pre-production. So we came back, took all the songs we had back to the live room, re-wrote them again. That’s an oxymoron but you know what I mean.
Then we went and tracked it and that wasn’t quite what we needed it to be. So from there we brought in additional musicians. We got people from the National Symphony Orchestra and National Concert Orchestra. Watching those people play was amazing. It’s hard to even believe the step up even between professional musicians and the National Concert Orchestra. These people are like musical Jedis! We even went to our old school to record the choir. It was funny, I was walking in thinking this is cool, going back to the old alma mater, then we get there and the kids just thought we were the biggest dorks ever, just thinking to themselves, “Can we get this over with please?” [Laughs]
Has your writing process changed much over the years? Have people become more comfortable with digging their heels in?
I think our process is extremely democratic but we also have to be careful of writing by committee. If somebody is really passionate about something it serves everybody to go with them and explore that. If you don’t and you’re trying to please everybody you’re going to write the most bland music you possibly could. It might not make sense to you when an idea is presented to band at first but once it’s given time, once you see what it can be, that’s when it makes sense. I remember parts that I thought to myself there’s no way that is going on the album and I’ve been proven wrong countless times. I think it’s a lot of give and take and a huge amount of trust in the six of us.
Can it be hard to find a recognisable “voice” for the band when you don’t have the fallback of people having a vocal to recognise? Is there an understanding amongst you guys about how to go about making something sound like an Overhead, The Albatross song?
It’s mad that I don’t really know what an Overhead, The Albatross song sounds like and I don’t think we ever will. The only parameter we set ourselves when we started was that we didn’t know what the band was going to be and we shouldn’t try to push it in any particular direction. I don’t know if there is a discernible voice in that way but also don’t think there is a real lack of a voice. Every piece of music is what you make of it and when the six of us write music together it’s always going to have a certain something about it that will make it sound like us.
I once heard somebody talking about Shape Note singing, it’s an American folk singing style where you sing at each other in squares, it was actually quite a big culture in Ireland, and I remember a friend of mine saying about it, that it should be a soup not a salad, that it’s all blended together and not just individual things sticking out. I love keeping that in mind when we’re writing.
Something that struck me reading other pieces about you guys, was the sheer volume of people talking about seeing you live and the profound effect it had on them. What’s that like for you?
It’s surreal because with live performances, ours in particular, a lot of the time you’re making sure everything is working. That kind of draws you out of the music, obviously. So, if somebody is taking that much out of the performance it reminds you what you’re doing is this emotionally charged thing.
It can be strange because directly after a gig is the worst time to talk to anyone because it’s just such a comedown. When people come up like that after you can’t help but say thank you and wish you were in a position to have a more meaningful exchange and hope that whatever emotion this is making you feel that you’re bringing it with you and it’s making you feel good. Or, at least, if you had a cry at a gig it was a good cry. To have that impact on anybody is amazing but kind of scary. You just kind of hope people are OK. It’s not like there is intentional emotional manipulation involved.
That’s kind of one of the criticisms people might have of bands that are of a similar style as you guys, that it can have this element of performed emotion – broad strokes of doom or hope that can be kind of manipulative.
Totally. Doom or hope, black or white, that sounds like me all over. Death to the moderates! [Laughs] But yeah, a lot of music like ours can be quite linear. It starts at a point and gets to a loud point and then gets to a really loud point, or starts at a sad point and gets to a really fucking sad point. I get those criticisms and I’ve had that thought myself but it’s real for all of us. There’s times where we’ve played gigs and in the middle of it my anxiety will kick in and I think, “everyone can see through you”. But then you realise that’s imagined and it’s an anxiety thing and that what you’re doing is as honest as it can be.
L-R Stevie Darragh, Luke Daly, Vinny Casey, Joe Panama, David Prendergast, Ben Garrett
We’ve gotten this far without using the term post-rock. It’s funny because it’s a generic signifier that is consistently railed against by the band that would be considered to be part of it. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. I think it’s a self awareness thing. Take IDM [intelligent dance music] for example, I feel a lot of the people involved in IDM aren’t self-aware enough to see that it’s a really dodgy name. [Laughs] But with post-rock, it’s just so obviously not a thing. I think the usual definition is playing something outside of rock music using rock instruments but that’s bollocks. It’s all arbitrary. Whenever anyone asks us what genre we are, it’s difficult. I’d rather just say instrumental. That genre [post rock], in name and in style is not something we are trying to distance ourselves from, I just don’t think we’re organically associated with it.
I saw an interview you did a while ago about the limited shelf life albums have now. Due to streaming and other concerns the album as a document has become more ephemeral than ever. Now, that you can hold your record in your hands, how does that make you feel?
I had those views before we were making an album, I still do. Everything is this of the month, this of the week, this of the this. I’m sure that was always the way but it’s just more amplified now. Even the idea of listening to an album all the way through is rare. I saw an article the other day that cinemas are even making text friendly cinema screenings. Are record labels going to start making records with gaps so you can check Whatsapp?
I guess it speaks to where the culture is at and I’m sure there are lots of good things and bad things about it, but one of the major pitfalls of releasing an album in 2016 is that a lot fewer people are going to listen to it the whole way through.
It obviously sucks to think about it like that but nobody has to listen to it. It’s not like anybody owes us a listen. We’re doing this because we love it, because it’s what we know how to do and want to do for as long as we possibly can. The more people that listen to it, the greater chance we’ll be able to do it for longer. It’s up to people and we’re not going to bitch and moan about it, that’s just the culture that we live in and I’m not going to be “old man yells at cloud” about it.
Pride is a weird one, I haven’t been struck by this sense of pride that we’ve finished something, there’s still work to do and I’m just hung up on working on the next one.
So you don’t think it’ll be another six year wait for something new?
Well, I didn’t say it’d be any quicker! [Laughs]
Overhead, The Albatross’ debut record Learning to Growl is released on Friday 13th May.
Words: Danny Wilson
Photo: Seán Conroy