THE 12 INTERVIEWS OF XMAS: The Strypes - On touring, battling the music industry, and damn good music

We caught up with The Strypes back in June, just after they emerged with their incredible third album.

Sharp-dressed young men The Strypes talk about the trials and tribulations of being in a rock band, joining the Hot Press’ 40th Anniversary celebrations, and stitching together their most accomplished album to date, the incredible Spitting Image. Peter McGoran joins the dots…

The four Cavan lads who make up The Strypes are remarkably articulate and forthright, with an attitude to the world way beyond their young years. They’re also exceptionally funny individuals.

When I meet them in Universal Music offices, early in the morning, it’s obvious that I represent just the first of many promotional chores the band will have to complete over the course of the day. I half expect to be greeted as an unwelcoming, begrudgingly vistor. Instead, I’m practically welcomed into the clan. Every question I ask is jumped upon with an enthusiasm that makes my job incredibly easy.

“It’s really exciting getting back into the swing of things,” says bassist Pete O’Hanlon. “There’d been a few fallow months since we recorded it back in November. So in the meantime we did a tour in March, just to kind of warm ourselves up. We did about 20 gigs or so up and down the length of the country in small pubs. That got us in fighting form for the album release.”

It was in small pubs and clubs that The Strypes sharpened their live performance, until it became the exhilarating beast that it is today. They got their first opportunity to showcase their new tunes to a wider audience when they headlined Hot Press’ 40th Anniversary celebrations back in March.

“That was a mental day,” says drummer Evan Walsh. “It was an incredible honour to be included in that exhibition to begin with. It really put it into perspective to see all the covers lined up like they were and to see the company we were keeping on the wall. Then even when we were at that, we got to meet some great people. People who we’d always idolised, like Arthur Matthews! That was a big moment for us. And the Boomtown Rats were there too – Geldof and the lads. We got chatting to them and ended up playing on stage with them for Rock Against Homelessness that same night.”

“The Homelessness gig was going on as we were playing at the Hot Press Exhibition launch,” says Pete. “So we were literally pulling the leads out and running over to the Olympia. Amazing craic. Then we did the Trinity Ball at half 3 that night.”

While their ability as a live act has always been central to the band’s appeal, album number three was geared as much towards patenting a collection of intelligent rock songs.

“We recorded the album in Rockfield Studio in Wales,” Evan tells me. “That was a big buzz for us because a lot of our favourite records were made there: albums by Dr. Feelgood, Oasis’ Morning Glory, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Christ, there’s too many great records to name.”

Not only were The Strypes working in an iconic studio, they were also under the guidance of one of rock’s most revered producers, Ethan Jones.

“We were doing a couple of demos in Real World Studios in Bath,” guitarist Josh McClorey explains. “And Ethan just happened to be in another studio. He asked could he hear what we were working on and he was really impressed. That led to him asking if we wanted to do some work with him.

“So then, of course, he came to Cavan with us. We did a bit of pre-production in the Town Hall and found him incredible to work with.”

“Bags of enthusiasm,” Evan adds. “As soon as he walked into the Town Hall he thought ‘Fuck it. Maybe we’ll record it here!’ That didn’t actually happen, but he’d just throw these ideas at you. Get you motivated.”

“It’s such a difference from the first two albums,” Josh continues. “For those albums, we were on the road and everything was done on-the-fly. We didn’t ever get a chance to just sit down and work out what we wanted to do or how we should approach recording. We were just thrown into things.

“For this album, Ethan was all about making us as comfortable as possible for the recording process. He kept making sure we had everything we needed. We’re all really picky eaters (communal laughter), so he made sure we were all fed well.”

Pete chimes in: “The thing is, in the music industry, people tell you all the time what you can’t do. ‘You can’t do that. You can’t do this.’ But any idea we had, Ethan said: ‘Yep! We’ll go with that. We’ll try that out.’ The atmosphere was fantastic in the studio.”

The pay-off is in the songs themselves. Spitting Image is loaded with quick-fire, sharply-written narratives about small-town living, situational humour and, as the lads themselves describe it, “kitchen-sink drama”. The lyrics are sharply written. “You become disenchanted and get your own place/ Maudlin and tired, the tears fall with grace /Damn she’s the smell of Jewel-pack Lenor/ And a cigarette ash from the night before,” they sing on ‘Behind Closed Doors’. Not only are these songs smart and perceptive, they’re also damned entertaining.

“We were always going for something that would be entertaining,” Pete says. “None of us are fans of wilful obscurity. We wanted to put the imagery right out there in the song. Chris Difford was the master of that kind of thing. Elvis Costello and Paul Cleary from The Blades too. You could see what colour the paint was in the room when they sung their lyrics. You knew exactly what was going on. The idea of storytelling is something that I’ve found very lacking in music recently. The idea of telling a narrative from beginning to end.”

What’s the process behind the songwriting then?

“We’d normally have Josh and Ev writing,” says Pete. “Sometimes I’d come in with a very nebulous idea and Ev would hammer it into shape. Then we’d take it to the lads and they’d hammer it into shape even more.”

“It’s always a collaborative process,” lead singer Ross Farrelly concurs. He’s the quiet and thoughtful one.

I ask whether they’ve found it hard to shake the media – and maybe even the public – perception of them as a cut-and-paste Mod Revival band.

“Oh yeah,” laughs Evan. “Just recently we were written about in a piece for Time Out and they called us ‘roughed-up Beatles indie’, which is a really annoying perception.”

“Roughed up like!” Pete says incredulously, gesturing my eyes towards his pristine tweed blazer. “What the fuck are they thinking? We’re dressing in suits!

“Bands get pigeon-holed all the time. We’re not alone in that. The annoying thing is that this album is very different from the last two, but still people might look at us and say, ‘Ah The Strypes? I’ve got their beat, I’m not going to listen to anything else that they write’.” “I feel like in the beginning we were a lot more conscious of it,” adds Josh. “You know, with the age thing. When we were 16 or 17, it was really fucking annoying.”

Pete nods in agreement. “We came to the conclusion recently that maybe we were signed a bit too young and that, ideally, this new album would be our first. We’ve had to mature in our music under the microscope of the whole world watching – and with people thinking they already have our number. If it was a film, we’d be getting signed now.”

Are relationships in the band still as good as ever?

“Obviously, being in each other’s company all the time, relationships do get strained,” says Josh. “It’s a fucking difficult job, spending so much time in each other’s company. But I think being in Cavan did the world of good for us.

“The whole industry side to it really gets heavy. It really fucks your whole enjoyment out of it. So to go home and play in small venues takes you back to why you love music. Not to be all nostalgic, but it’s good to go back and play the likes of Sweeney’s, because that’s where we would’ve got started before the pressures from labels and management came into things.

“This industry doesn’t care enough for bands anymore,” Pete says, shaking his head. “You know, we all still live at home. We don’t make enough money to live anywhere else, first of all. We’ve heard of bands signed to major labels who still have their day jobs. There could be internationally signed artists who still do it as a part-time thing. That’s disgusting. It’s emblematic of a bigger problem in the industry. They’re totally preying on bands.”

“The label has to feed itself…” says Evan, wearily.

“It feels like anything goes now,” Pete continues. “Unless it’s good, in which case you’re never gonna hear of it again. We’re all 20/21 years old now. We should be BOMBARDED with bands right now. But the bands we listen to – the good bands – we’ve heard them through friends, not through promotion. The industry has no time for them.”

A lot of musicians might skirt around this issue for fear of the industry turning against them…

Evan shrugs. “We’re on the fringes of the industry anyway. We’re not a priority act. That was the thing we were told when we signed to a major label. We were told ‘You can sign to an independent label and be treated well but find there’s no money for you. Or you can go with a major label and you have the power of that label behind you.’ But then when you sign you find out that there’s 200 acts in their roster and you’re bottom of the list…”

“And if you’re not selling, they’re not helping you,” chimes Ross.

“But listen,” Pete argues. “We’re not the only band that has this problem. No band has a good relationship with their label.”

“We were all like 14/16 years old when we signed,” Josh adds. “So we were all a bit scared. We thought we needed the financial cushion. But on the other side of that, when we signed, we had no idea what Spotify even was and we didn’t realise how much that would change the industry. We thought we could sell records. But you can’t do that anymore. The silver lining of all this is that whatever way the industry changes, the live show has always been our selling point.”

Informed, wired and slightly breathless, we’re led back round to the present. The lads are set to follow the release of Spitting Image with an ambitious tour.

“We’re looking to head out to America, Australia, Europe, South America,” says Pete. “We haven’t really toured properly since the summer of last year and so, the touring schedule we’re looking at now will keep us busy right up until March/April of next year.

“The band’s forte is the live show. So now we’ve got an album that we feel is really accomplished, we’re armed with a good set of songs, and we’re confident in our ability to go out and perform.”

The Strypes’Spitting Image is out now


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