With their long awaited debut album having dropped last Friday, highly touted Dublin rockers Gypsies on the Autobahn discuss sibling rivalry, in-band bust-ups, writing great songs & overcoming family trauma.
For many Irish artists, the customary Google Search by a potential fan looking for more information can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. With all the O'Reillys, O'Rourkes, O'Sheas and O'Connors vying for attention and soaking up reams of online page, it'sdifficult to stand out. Enter Gypsies on the Autobahn! Now that is the kind of name which ensures that any enquiry in cyberspace will take you straight to the target.
The Cabra-born indie rock four-piece consists of brothers James and Dan Smith, and school mates Gary Quinn and Niall Mooney. Formed from the rubble of a school 4th Year talent show, the band came into existence in 2009 and now, all of eight years later, they are ready to release their debut album Born Brief at the end of the month.
Having heard the record in question and been highly impressed, I was in decidedly high-spirits when I arrived at the Radisson Royal to meet the lads for a chat. And it turned out that, in spite of having to spend a full day dealing with a gaggle of journos and our prying questions, the boys were all in a chipper mood too.
For a start, I wanted to get to the bottom of the GOTA name. If your first guess was that it came to the lads while stranded like bickering Nomads on some German motorway, well at least we have that in common.
It turns out that the real story was a lot more, er, intriguing. "It all started in the communal shower of our all-boys schools" recalls Mooney, in what is decidedly impressive opening to any anecdote. "We were talking about our potential band names and a friend of ours, who has a few screws loose, started reeling off all of these random names. And that was the name that stuck. We actually had a debate over whether we should go with a more normal story or whether we should go with the truth. In the end we decided that some people might find it strange, but it would still stick in their minds – so we went with the truth."
Niall's right, of course. Already that communal shower image is- for better or worse (ok, worse!)- stuck in my mind. Then again, band names are a bit like tattoos. They can be good, they can bland or they can be downright shit- but if they have an interesting backstory, you tend to get away with them.
Fresh from the communal showers, the lads transformed themselves into a proper outfit at James and Dan's mother's house. Sort of.
"She made a rehearsal room out the back for us", says James. "Basically, the noise was getting too much for her so she said: 'Here's your own room. Leave me alone'.
"We didn’t realise at the time how much of an asset it is not have to pay for a rehearsal room," he adds. "The downside was that we had our little brother coming in all the time wanting to make his own music. But that room was definitely a huge benefit for us."
This all happened nearly a decade ago. So what have the boys been up to during the intervening period?
Niall fills me in. "We kind of felt like we had to write that one great song to meet our own requirements for all the other songs to be tested against," he says. "Then, once we wrote 'Hidden', our manager came on board and things began to fall into place. Back then, we thought we had maybe 11 or 12 songs, and that we might make an album – but it wasn’t meant to be at that point. We tried to make it work on the Dublin scene, but never really got in with the cool crowd."
Battling against adversity, the Gypsies pushed determinedly ahead with their music, going into the studio rather than hitting the live circuit. In effect, they were taking the road less travelled.
"We eventually made a conscious decision to get away from it all," says Niall. "We got away from the playing gigs, and from all our old preconceptions of ourselves.
"We decided that we'd get into the rehearsal room for a year and a half and work from there. And we spent that time just working and trying to hone our music, so we could get 11 or so songs that were all up to standard . You can imagine how crazy we were driving each other. Then eventually things started to happen to us. Now here we are, talking to you."
"Things started to happen" is Niall's self-effacing way of saying that the lads bagged themselves a deal with Universal Music last year. Clearly, all that stir-crazy toiling in the studio with the producer Rob Kirwan (U2, Hozier, Bell X1) has paid off.
"Rob's just this amazing character," says Niall, echoing a sentiment shared by most artists that the Dublin producer has worked with. "He's got a wealth of experience and he knew right away what worked and what didn’t. He's decided that he wanted the album to have a live feel- he thought that sound best- so he got us to do as much of it live as possible. But he's a genuinely funny guy. He'd always try to lighten the mood, even if he was tearing a song to shreds.
"I remember this one time we did a take that we thought went well, and we all turned to each other to say so. Then Rob called us in and said 'All right lads, take a seat- I'm just going to fix this up a bit'. So we all sat down and we're chatting away. Then, he turns to us and tells us the tracks deleted. We were incredulous. We said to him, 'What do you mean it's deleted?!'
"And he just told us he'd gotten rid of it and that we'd have to go in and do it again. That was Rob's way of telling us that something wasn't good enough. He was never imposing on us, but he'd always push us to do our best – and he wouldn’t let us away with it if something was wrong."
Knowing from firsthand experience how tetchy siblings can get in high pressure situations, I have to ask the "Liam/Noel Gallagher" question of brothers James and Dan. Have there been any serious fights in the band?
"We fought all the time," Dan tells me. "But not just James and I. All of us fought constantly. There were some very vivid ones that I can remember, but most of them were over the smallest things. We'd fight over the sixth bar in a particular verse and whether it should be played up high or down low. That kind of thing." The important stuff, then.
"I don't think we ever wrote a song that we didn’t argue over," Gary chimes in, with a grin. "But there was never anything so intense that we couldn’t go back and say sorry to each other. By the time we got into the studio, there weren't really any more arguments about the songs, because we'd argued so much before. And we had Rob there as the fifth person in the room, so he'd mediate any disputes we had."
Putting fights, delays and distractions firmly behind them, the finished product is an album that ranks right up there alongside the best indie rock of the moment. On the first listen, it has the cheerful energy of a band like The Maccabees (James cites them as an influence)- but beyond this there is a lyrical depth that catches you off guard and demands that these songs be listened to again and again. 'Hidden' - the first single - is a catchy, upbeat number with lyrics that are imbued with socially conscious overtones. I ask what the song is about, but the band casually deflect the query.
"We'd prefer not to say anything about that particular song," James tells me. " The secret's in the name. We want to leave it up to the audience to figure out how they feel about the lyrics and come up with their own interpretation. We've tried to explain the meanings of songs before, and there's a danger of over–complicating things when you try to give an explanation. Everyone has their own interpretation."
We agree that a song takes on life of its own once it's released out into the world. My own view, which I share with the lads, is that 'Hidden' is about finding hope in spite of overwhelming human ignorance and indifference ("Stand against the tide, hold the world upon your knees/Look past your place at the damage that can be seen").
We kick this around a bit and come to the conclusion that hope crops up in most of these songs. In the album's penultimate track 'Strength of Two', an energetic guitar hook follows the lyrics "go on living", giving this song a particularly rousing sense of optimism.
"That song has a message for my siblings," says James, who writes all of the lyrics."It was for Dan- and for our two young brothers. Our father committed suicide when we were quite young, so we learnt to draw strength from each other. I was the oldest and felt like I should be some sort of father-figure to my siblings, even though I was only about 7 or 8 at the time. It was my message to them that no matter what happens, at least you will have me to talk to and we can go through everything together."
"I've always found that song can be powerful," says Dan in response." It speaks a lot about the need to have people who will give you strength during hard times".
We move on to talk about the other group of people who've been through thick and thin with GOTA- the band's fans.
"Our fans have always been hugely supportive of us, right from the beginning," says James. "I think that, as a by-product of getting away from the scene for as long as we did, everyone who has come on board with us- the label, the managers, the fans themselves – they didn't follow the hype or come after us because they thought we were cool or anything. They've followed us because they like the songs. Plain and simple. It's a pretty good feeling to be able to say that."
The time for hibernation is surely over: Gypsies on the Autobahn are ready to return to the live circuit. So what's in store after the album hits the shops?
"That’s going to be a bit of a reactive process, depending on how the album's received." Niall tells me, holding his cards close to his chest. " We've spent so long NOT doing gigs that we can't wait to get back to performing. But we're waiting for the right time before we make any big announcements in that regard. We have a gig in Whelan's next month, which is a starting point- so we're looking forward to that."
Guarded they may be, but there's a sense optimism with Gypsies on the Autobahn about the future. We may have been waiting a long time for Born Brief, but what's encouraging is that the band have a clear sense of where they want to go with their next record- and an unshakeable determination to rise to the top.
Life is strange. They've wound their way through eight years of murky slip roads and dirt tracks of the mind – and emerged the other side with a record deal and a first-class album. The road's finally clear for Gypsies on the Autobahn. Enjoy the drive.
Born Brief is released on February 24. Gypsies on the Autobahn play Whelan's, Dublin on March 11.
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