The brainchild of renowned musicians Colm Quearney and Graham Hopkins, Square Pegs' debut record is filled with electrifying R&B covers. Just don't call them a supergroup.
Asia, Velvet Revolver, SuperHeavy – the supergroup concept should probably strike strike fear deep into your heart. Colm Quearney, of R&B maestros Square Pegs, agrees. “It makes me want to fucking puke,” he scoffs. Still, even a passing familiarity with the Irish music scene would suggest that Square Pegs, a collective of some of the country’s finest musicians, might indeed fall into that oft-maligned category. “I know people mean it as a compliment, and that’s good,” concedes Quearney.
We caught up with Colm and fellow Peg Graham Hopkins ahead of the launch of their self-titled album in Dublin’s Sin-E. Graham describes their plan as no plan. “Colm and I have known each other for years,” he says. “We discovered we had a shared passion for rhythm and blues, and we wanted to get together to play it.”
“We were recording something for someone else,” Colm adds, “and after we had finished, we did an Elmore James number just for the hell of it. It sounded good – effortless. This stuff was fun and the idea for a band developed from there, but we needed other people.”
Of course, when you’re talking about people like Graham (Therapy?, The Frames, etc.) and Colm (Mundy, Jerry Fish, his own Q project), you’re talking about a pretty spectacular address book. Keith Duffy (The Corrs), Justin Carroll (Van Morrison), Michael Buckley (Van again), Lorcan O’Dwyer (Glen Hansard), and Conor Brady (The Blades, The Drays, Bronagh Gallagher – everybody really) have all been involved, in what Colm describes as a big family. So is this almost like a busman’s holiday – and is it, dare I say, more enjoyable because of that?
“We’re nearly got sick of saying it,” notes Colm, “but after every gig Graham and I will go, ‘This is too good!’, We’re just completely elated, there’s no picking it apart post mortem.”
“We all have the gigs that we do, our professional gigs if you like,” Graham adds, “and in between those, we squeeze in as many Pegs shows as we can. With respect to the other lads, once the two of us are involved, that’s a Square Pegs gig.”
The album, five years in the making, is a marvellously warm rhythm and blues lesson in groove over flash. One stand-out amongst the covers is Freddie King’s ‘Big Legged Woman’, where everything is slowed down ever so slightly, resulting in a bubbling, New Orleans-type feel.
“It’s very brave in a way to slow it down,” suggests Colm, “because usually blues bands want to speed up, almost to a pub rock tempo. If you listen back to the Chess records originals, they’re a lot slower than you might expect. That also comes from recording in a room together – I’m singing live, without headphones.”
A similar approach to the recent Rolling Stones’ blues album perhaps?
“Yes, they have the chops to do it,” nods Colm. “They have that telepathy from playing with each other for years. It takes balls to pull back, allowing the groove to take over. I think that comes from maturity, though. It took me years to get there, to have the confidence to sit back and not play. Doing that, you fully realise the arc of the song.”
“It’s the less is more kind of thing”, Graham adds. “Really, it’s about the band going after the groove and supporting each other. We wouldn’t have been able to get this together 20 years ago, because we would all would have been looking forward to the solos. There would have been no feel.”
Both Quearney and Hopkins are extremely proud of their musical family backgrounds, and acknowledge this as the source of their R&B fixation.
“We realise that our shared background was quite unusual,” says Colm. “We were aware of the same things. My father’s a bass player, so I’d be hearing stuff like Mingus and Thelonious Monk around the house. A lot of the blues stuff was just there.”
The one original song on Square Pegs, ‘Rise And Shine’, sits comfortably alongside the classics, which was Colm’s intention.
“I wrote it to fit in with the aesthetic,” he says. “I didn’t say anything – we played it a few times, and then I revealed it as one of mine when the others were already hooked. If there’s a second Square Pegs album, they might be all ours. Or maybe we’ll just get the Swedish crowd in to write the hits!”
Square Pegs is out now.