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1 Thrill Communication
It sounds like the stuff of hype and overnight success – from struggling garage band to next big thing and accolades from noel gallagher, morrissey and bono – but even at an average age of 23 The Thrills have paid their dues. Olaf Tyaransen hears how the summer’s hottest band went from worshipping whipping boy to having beck’s da play on their debut album.
Olaf Tyaransen, 22 Aug 2003
It’s the first Saturday of August, central London is thronged and uncomfortably sweltering, and in a small greasy spoon café off Covent Garden, Conor Deasy and Daniel Ryan of The Thrills are considering the pros and cons of being the most hyped (some would argue over-hyped) Irish band of the new millennium. After a couple of moment’s deliberation they unanimously conclude that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Hype has its good points, after all. For example, as long term readers, they’re appropriately, em, thrilled to be getting the cover of this publication.
“It’s pretty cool to be getting the cover of hotpress,” admits a visibly chuffed Conor, his voice still a little ragged from the previous night’s gig at the Eden Project in Cornwall (where they played support to Badly Drawn Boy in front of 4,000 people). “People always seem to think that we’ve done a lot of magazine covers, but the truth is that we haven’t done any at all – apart from In Dublin and this other little magazine nobody has ever heard of.”
While The Thrills may not have featured on all that many covers, the Dublin five-piece certainly can’t moan about being ignored by the media. If anything, there’s been a feeding frenzy, topped with superlative sauce. On the table in front of them is a stack of their recent press cuttings, from both music and mainstream publications, copied and bound courtesy of their record company. It’s about the size of a small novel, largely positive, and took this reporter the whole flight over to absorb.
“I think that hype is something that can be quite dangerous for bands,” says Conor, warily eyeing the cuttings. “I remember the first time I heard about The Strokes I thought this is gonna be a pile of shit, because I’ve been let down by other bands in the past, after a lot of initial talk. But when I heard the record I thought it was great. When there’s a big initial buzz – and there’s certain kinds of magazines that do that – it can make people sceptical and cynical about it before they’ve even heard a note. And I can completely empathise with that.”
Daniel interjects: “What you have to remember is that many great Irish bands – like Whipping Boy or whoever – put out records and couldn’t get any attention at all. So it’s not an ideal situation if you get loads of press out of nowhere – but it’s less ideal if you put out an album like Heartworm [Whipping Boy’s criminally ignored 1995 meisterwork] and nobody gets to hear about it.”
Given that, as we speak, The Thrill’s widely acclaimed and Mercury-nominated debut album So Much For The City is sitting at the top of the Irish charts for the fifth consecutive week, they have little to complain about on that front. So far it’s been all Thrills… with absolutely no spills or bellyaches.
But before we proceed, let’s briefly digest that rain-forest depleting sheaf of press cuttings for the benefit of any readers who may have only recently awoken from a deep coma.
The Thrills are five friends and neighbours from Blackrock, Co. Dublin, have an average age of 23 and an average hair-length of about ten inches. They are frontman Conor Deasy, guitarist Daniel Ryan, keyboardist Kevin Horan, bassist Padraic McMahon and drummer Ben Carrigan. Playing together for more than eight years under various inauspicious monikers (Cheating Housewives, Legal Eagles, etc.), they eventually came into their own following a couple of summers spent working, skiving and listening to Burt Bacharach and Beach Boys albums in sunny San Diego.
Returning to Ireland with a new sense of musical direction, the band threw themselves into rehearsing and recording “escapist music” in Dublin – notable example: ‘Santa Cruz (You’re Not That Far’) – and supporting themselves with various dead-end Mc-jobs. Signed for a song by independent label Supremo in 1999, they kept their parents off their backs by not telling them about their being subsequently dropped some months later. Eventually, on the back of a recommendation from none other than Morrissey himself (they played their London debut in front of 6,500 Moz fans at the Royal Albert Hall last year, at his invitation), respected UK indie Rough Trade paid for some new demos, which were strong enough to attract the attention of the majors.
After a now-infamous gig in the Temple Bar Music Centre (see panel) they finally signed on the dotted line with EMI-Virgin last summer. Within a few weeks of getting their deal, the band triumphantly returned to Los Angeles to record their debut album with big name producer Tony Hoffer (Beck, Air, Supergrass).
Since then, it’s been all go, go, go, and their wildest dreams have been fast coming true. Their first three decidedly West-coast tinged singles – ‘Santa Cruz (You’re Not That Far)’, ‘Big Sur’ and ‘One Horse Town’ – all garnered impressive notices and sold increasingly well and, as already mentioned, their recently released debut album is currently sitting pretty at the top of the charts. In the last few months they’ve appeared on Jools Holland and Top of the Pops, gigged more or less non-stop all over Europe – including sets at Glastonbury and Wittnness (where last year, as an unsigned act, they played their set to just 20 people) – and have toured Japan twice (where the album is doing incredibly well on import). Two weeks ago, to the surprise of nobody but themselves, they were nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize. Bookies have placed them second favourite to win – after Coldplay’s A Rush Of Blood To The Head.
They’ve also accrued some heavyweight fans along the way. Morrissey loves them, Noel Gallagher has been bigging them up in interviews, and some guy called Bono has offered to carry their luggage! For the band themselves, though, the biggest thrill came in hearing that former Whipping Boy frontman Ferg McKee – now working as a hotel chef, apparently – greatly admires their album. Although they’re predictably being touted as the next U2, they claim that Whipping Boy were always their biggest influence.
“Being called the next U2 is like the standard format for any Irish band who’s doing anything outside of Ireland,” laughs Daniel. “So it doesn’t really mean anything. For me, I always wanted us to make a great album. I wanted us to make an album as good as the Whipping Boy album. I don’t dislike U2, I like U2. I’m not their biggest fan in the world, but there’s not a minute we don’t look at them and say ‘Whoa!’ You’ve gotta respect what they’ve done. I remember when Zooropa was in Dublin, I was outside and I couldn’t get a ticket. But, for us, going into the Tivoli and seeing Whipping Boy right there in front of us left more of an impression.”
Not that U2 didn’t have some influence…
“I remember being a kid growing up and seeing U2 on the cover of Time magazine billed as ‘The Biggest Band in the World’,” adds Conor. “I was so young – I think I was about seven – that I’d never heard of them before, and I was just going ‘how the fuck are an Irish band the biggest band in the world?’ It is an incredible thing. But I also think that if things had gone differently for them, Whipping Boy could’ve been as big as Radiohead in America.”
While Whipping Boy may have been a big influence in terms of their vision, it’s definitely not reflected in the Thrill’s sunshine sound. There’s not an ounce of McKee’s rage in any of its highly melodic and blissed-out 11 tracks. Critics have compared them to everyone from Bob Dylan and Neil Young to Brian Wilson and early REM. Harsher critics charge that, because they haven’t served their time on the local circuit and their music is so obviously American influenced, they’re not really an Irish band.
The band utterly refute this. “What is an Irish band? I don’t think U2 are an Irish band as such anymore,” argues Daniel. “They belong to the world. I think that very few bands fit in exactly where they come from – unless they’re some Brazilian world music pipe band that play music from Brazil. Maybe The Clash and The Kinks were definitive London bands, but I don’t really class Coldplay as a British band – they could just as easily be an American band.”
Conor: “I don’t see why where you’re from should have any bearing on the music you play. Look at The Beatles and the Stones and where their influences were coming from. When you’re growing up, something from somewhere else always seems more glamorous, and then when you’ve gone out on the road a couple of times, maybe some appreciation of your roots starts to creep in. But we listen to Frank Sinatra, we listen to N.E.R.D., Daft Punk, Joni Mitchell. I love Neil Young and the Beach Boys and all that kinda stuff, but we listen to loads of other things.”
Is your nationality important to you?
“Yeah – it definitely is,” Daniel affirms. “I mean, for us, I don’t think we could’ve grown up in a better place to wanna be in a band. Because from a young age we were able to play gigs. When we were 16 we were playing places like Slattery’s or wherever, and our friends were able to come in and have a few beers and watch us. And I think, as well, with the way the Britpop thing kicked off, you know, in Ireland and the UK – it was great for us to see so many bands from so close to home in the charts and magazines. And then with Whipping Boy and U2 close to home as well. So just to see these kind of bands doing it was encouraging for us.”
Still, they understand why there might be some bitterness and resentment amongst lesser-hyped members of the local rock fraternity. . .
“I think some people might have got the impression that we haven’t paid our dues,” says Conor. “But when we were in school, 16 to 18, we played gigs all the time. And when we left school there were a couple of years where we weren’t too sure what we were doing, but the last three or four years, we’ve been working our asses off as a band. But we came to a situation where we realised that… (pauses)
“Em, we’ve never been embarrassed saying that we wanted a record deal and that we wanted to get a break outside the country as well. We saw all these bands like The Frames – great, live, passionate Irish bands – who could never really get any attention abroad. And we didn’t wanna get sucked into that kind of thing where you’re playing Whelans or one of these venues every weekend.
“We realised that we really had to do it because of our songwriting. And I honestly think that if you’re playing two gigs a week, your songwriting doesn’t always necessarily develop, because you’re always writing songs for live performance – a gig through a shitty PA in a few days’ time – and it’s not always the best way. Now to be honest with you, once we did sign and go out on the road, our live stuff had a lot of catching up to do, I will admit that. But just because we weren’t gigging didn’t mean we didn’t exist. And we changed our name for no other reason that all we were doing was practising, but we were still the same band.”
Albeit one with a very low profile. Deliberately
so . . .
“We just didn’t go around shouting our heads off and telling people we were in a band,” Daniel shrugs. “It was our own thing. We’d meet guys who were in a different band every three months. But even when our own thing was on the back-burner and we were only practising every few months, we were still in a band. There was never a point where we weren’t.”
More than anything else, they put their success down to good old fashioned graft. And maybe a bit of lucky timing as well.
“I actually think it’s all about timing,” Conor muses. “Once a band plays together long enough, there’s kind of an intangible musical bond that comes about. I know it sounds corny and it’s nothing you can put your finger on – but if you put the right amount of time and work into it, it eventually happens. And that’s what we did. We worked our asses off. But we’ve been lucky pricks as well – we were in the right place at the right time. But if you work hard enough, there’s a better chance of you being in the right place at the right time. Eventually we got our break. But, you know, we’d been dropped by an independent, we’d sent all our songs out and nobody would touch them. And they’re the same songs now that are now being played on the radio.”
Why were you dropped by Supremo?
“What happened was there were two guys running it and one guy left, and the other basically said, ‘if you wanna go, you can go’. But we weren’t ready at the time either and, to be honest, it wasn’t much of a deal to be dropped from anyway. But the whole thing about signing deals is that you need to sign with people who’ll give it priority and are passionate about what you do.
“Even after we got dropped, at that stage everybody was just full-time in the band, holding down whatever crappy job they could. And that was the real tough time, but it was good in hindsight that we went through that because it gives you a bit of character and a bit of a kick in the ass – and it also means you appreciate better it when things start working out.”
Things really only started working out for The Thrills when they met their manager – former Puppy Love Bomb and Eva Dallas member Alan Cullivan. They first met him after the last U2 gig in Slane and gave him a demo (Cullivan was then scouting for Lakota Records). It took him a while to bite but a hastily arranged gig in the Music Centre convinced him to get involved. It was Cullivan who (through his friend Martin from Sack) organised that Morrissey would sit in on rehearsals – an act which directly led to Rough Trade becoming involved (“That was a weird moment – all of us in this tiny rehearsal room and Morrissey tapping his feet five feet in front of us”). And it was Cullivan who helped them negotiate their deal, when there were three separate offers from major record companies on the table.
“We had three separate offers from Wild Star, Rough Trade and Virgin after the Music Centre gig,” Conor recalls. “But we didn’t rush into anything. Because we had been signed a few years before, we had a little experience. And we got involved in that first deal because they were the first record company to express any interest in us at all, so we rushed into it and didn’t think about it. By the time other offers came in, we had the confidence not to rush into something. We didn’t go for the biggest money offer either. We went for the most control and the right people.”
When I mention that there’s a rumour doing the rounds that Paul McGuinness is interested in managing the band, they get a little sheepish.
“It’s actually more us interested in him, than him in us,” Conor explains. “The fact is that in America unless you’ve got a big fuck-off management thing – someone to co-manage you even – then nothing happens quickly. We’ve approached a lot of people and some journalist spun it into some big fucking thing, but it isn’t like that.”
Was Alan’s ‘Dublin Is Dead’ manifesto (with Puppy Love Bomb) anything to do with the band’s decision to record in America?
“No! We didn’t find out about that till much later!” Daniel laughs. “He doesn’t have that much influence. When ‘One Horse Town’ went Top Twenty he told us ‘I’m officially handing over the mantle to you’. He used to say ‘we’ve sold more copies than you’ – y’know, in Puppy Love Bomb. But now we’re well ahead!”
What was Tony Hoffer like to work with?
“He was great! It was important for us to work with someone like Tony because we were fans of Air and Beck, and we wanted someone who knew where we were coming from at both ends of the spectrum. So he had that solid experience with them, and he also knows where all our references were coming from. But he’s also very much in touch with what’s going on today. And it was important for us to put out an album that sounded like it was recorded in the year 2002.”
Did he organise your forthcoming support to Beck in the Point?
“No he didn’t actually. We used to always say to Tony that we’d love to play with Beck, but as it turned out it happened without him – though I’m sure he passed the album on. It’ll be really nice to meet him in Dublin – especially because his dad actually played on our album.”
Beck’s dad played on your album?
“Yeah, his dad arranged the strings on ‘Old Friends’ and ‘One Horse Town’. His dad’s actually a bit of a legend in his own right. He played strings on that classic Marvin Gaye record and he’s been in studio with Michael Jackson and people like that, so he’s really been around. We pestered him with questions for about three hours. We thought he might get a bit pissed off but he was actually full of stories. He knew everybody. He worked with Carole King and people like that. He actually looks like Beck as well.”
There’s a real laid back and dreamy vibe off So Much For The City. Were you smoking much Californian weed during the recording?
“There was probably a bit of something going on at certain points during the summer we were away, but we’re not really that kind of band,” Conor grins. “I’ll be honest with you, when we were in LA, we went out and had a really good time, but when we’re actually in the studio we’re working quite hard. Once a party comes into the studio, things start falling apart. So every day in the studio we were banging out a live take. And every day we’d try and keep that kind of ethic to it. If we were having a day off we were having a day off, but otherwise, we were very much together.
“We’re not really a druggy band, we never have been. And not in a real self-righteous way because, let’s face it, everybody does drugs these days. But it’s never really been part of our identity.”
Of course, not everybody does drugs these days. As it turns out, Daniel doesn’t even drink alcohol. Not only that, but – barring an experimental sip or two over the years – he actually never has.
“There was an article in some Sunday newspaper saying we’re all teetotallers, but it’s bullshit – it’s just me who doesn’t drink. Dunno why really, but I’ve just never really had any interest.”
Laughingly, Conor adds: “Usually people are surprised to hear that he doesn’t drink because they think he’s been pissed from the moment they met him.”
Incidentally, who are the two girls on the cover of the album?
“They were just two girls that Kev picked up somewhere the night before and invited along,” Daniel smiles. “We were taking the shot in this place called Rhye, south-west of London, and I think we all agreed that the kind of record sleeve we had in mind should have some women in it. So we brought them into the shot. One of them was called Virginia, as far as I can recall, but the other one, who was French, was too stuck-up to talk to us. I think she thought she was too cool for us.”
Conor: “I bet you were hoping they’d be doing the interview today. Sorry, but, aside from being on the cover, they’ve got nothing to do with us!”
Talking to Conor and Daniel about music, it’s obvious that they’re serious fans as much as they’re serious practitioners. Because of their relative youth, though, there are still gaps in their musical knowledge – a few things they’ve missed. For example, journalists keep on mentioning bands like Prefab Sprout and Stars of Heaven in their reviews, but the lads aren’t familiar with them at all. Rollerskate Skinny is another band they definitely want to check out. And, for obvious reasons, Perry Blake’s California (Conor: “I didn’t know he was Irish! That record was all over the windows of this record store I visited in Paris and I listened to it on the headphones because of the title. It sounded great, but I’d no idea he was from Sligo. I’ll have to buy it
They’re trying to play it cool but it’s obvious from the cheesy grins on their faces that they’re truly excited about everything that’s been happening to them – a number one album, celebrity fans, tours of Japan, the cover of Hot Press (“This is unquestionably the best year of our lives so far”!). They’ve only been home one weekend in every six for the last year. Home is their tourbus – and that’s the way they like it.
The big question is, though, how long will the thrill last? They might be doing the business at the moment, but there’s still a huge market the album has yet to be released.
“It’s actually selling really well on import,” says Conor. “We could’ve rushed the album out over there but the record company said if we left it until January then they’d be able to promote it properly and we could tour it properly. Like, when we were going up and down the UK – four times before the album came out – we only ever had one or two singles out, which is a really tough gig to do because people aren’t familiar with the material. But at least when we go to America now, some people will have the album on import. It’s better playing to 100 people who know ten of your songs than 100 people who know one of your songs.”
Are you worried that because it’s so obviously American influenced, the yanks might take offence and it’ll be judged more harshly over there?
“That’s what we might have thought, but the New York Times actually just gave it a great review,” says Conor. “But I wouldn’t have been hugely bothered even if they hadn’t liked it. I always think that the minute a band start trying to second guess critics, and planning their moves to fit in with a press agenda, then they’re fucked. The reason it’s taken us so long to get our PR break is because we’re so fucking stubborn. We’ve never really been that trendy or in sync with whatever scene was going on. When we put out our first EP, it was all demos, recorded two years ago with harmonies and banjos, and it was in the middle of a fucking rock revolution. So we didn’t do anything to try and fit in over here – and yet it seems to have worked anyway, so we’re not gonna try and fit into something out there.”
Even if their record does bomb in America, they’ve already sold more than enough on this side of the pond to guarantee that they can record another one – which is the most important thing, as far as they’re concerned.
“We’ve got three new songs and we’re hoping to start recording a new record in September,” Conor says. “The next album isn’t gonna be the same thing again. All of our favourite bands never made the same record twice, never repeated themselves. Once a band turns into a parody of themselves, then they’re fucked. We don’t know where it’s gonna go but we do know where it’s not gonna go – which is where we’ve already been.”
The Thrills play with Beck and My Morning Jacket
at The Point on August 25
Click here to read Part 2: The Secret History of The Thrills