Up the Walls
The Walls are about to embark on their most extensive Irish tour yet, including their biggest Dublin gig to date at the ambassador and may be about to finally break the bank
John Walshe, 04 Nov 2002
Everybody knows that you can’t build a house without solid foundations. The same is true of a band, and in the case of The Walls, the foundations are as solid as you could hope. As The Stunning, Steve and Joe Wall, along with a motley group of like-minded Galwegians, became one of the hottest live properties on this island during the 1990s, clocking up gold records like Meath notched up All Irelands. Then, just when it seemed that they could do no wrong, they decided that enough was enough and The Stunning were brewing up no more storms on stages around the country.
A few years passed before The Walls re-appeared on the Irish musical map during 1999, a slew of well-received singles like ‘The Night We Called It A Day’, released on their own Earshot Records, displaying the same songwriting skills that had made household names of The Stunning. Their debut album, Hi-Lo followed in 2000, to almost universal acclaim, yet it was a slow burner sales-wise. In fact, it wasn’t until the internet-only ‘Bone Deep’ struck a chord with Irish radio stations that Hi-Lo started to realise its potential – the album recently went gold.
One catchy advertising jingle later, they found themselves with a hit single on their hands. You see, they wrote the extremely contagious theme music for the AIB ads that have been all over TV screens for the last year, prompting calls for what was a 60-second instrumental to be turned into a single proper.
“You couldn’t ask for a better leg-up than that,” a very beardy Steve Wall says of the advertising campaign. “But at the time, we had no idea that it was ever going to be a single.”
In fact, the ad was originally supposed to feature an instrumental version of an old Stunning song, ‘Heads Are Gonna Roll’, but fate played a hand, turning adversity into fortune into the bargain.
“I had found the DAT with the instrumental version on it but the courier lost it on his way to the ad agency,” Steve smiles. Suddenly themeless, the ad agency asked if The Walls had any other instrumental gems in their musical closet, and the song that would eventually become ‘To The Bright And Shining Sun’ was one of three works in progress that the band suggested. The rest is history.
“We got an incredible reaction to it,” Steve enthuses. “A couple of radio stations rang up and said they were getting so many requests for the AIB music and did we have a longer version of it?”
Suddenly, The Walls found themselves under pressure to turn those 60 instrumental seconds into a full song, and not just that, a single.
“It was actually very difficult,” Steve notes. “We ended up working on it for nearly four months. We scrapped one whole version of it that was almost finished just ‘cos it wasn’t exciting enough. But we nailed it the second time around.”
The Walls pay tribute to both Nick Seymour, the former Crowded House man who is now a highly sought after producer about town, and Ollie Cole, the Turn frontman, for aiding and abetting them in deciding on how the final version should sound. “We should probably have credited them both as executive producers,” Steve grins.
While the band admit to having been quite nervous about sending the result out to radio stations, they need not have worried. ‘To The Bright And Shining Sun’ was their most successful single to date, getting to number 11 in the Irish charts and becoming the most played Irish single of last summer on Irish radio.
These achievements have paved the way for The Walls’ most ambitious Irish tour yet, taking them right across the country, including a date at Dublin’s Ambassador on November 9.
“This is the most extensive tour we have done around Ireland,” Steve explains. “Regarding to Ambassador show, we’re a little bit nervous about it, naturally, because it will be our biggest gig in Dublin.”
Joe interjects: “It is nice to play somewhere like The Ambassador where you can put on a bit of a show, more of a spectacle for people. That said, we’ve got three weeks before the tour and we have to find a place to rehearse, and get stuck into it. We’ve got some new songs that we want to incorporate into the set.”
One slight handicap for them is the fact that guitarist, Carl Harms, has been out of action all summer, having broken his thumb in four places while playing football. While Carl is a doubt for the Ambassador gig. Turn’s Gavin Fox has already proved a more than able substitute on the guitar during some summer dates, with Carl still able to contribute some one-armed keyboards to the live show.
There is a perception that Steve and Joe are the face of The Walls, who just happen to be supported by two sundry musicians, but talking to them, you realise very quickly that this is just not the case. Carl Harms and Rory Doyle are as important to The Walls as the Walls, if you know what I mean.
“We’ve tried to get them to change their names to Wall,” Joe grins, “but they aren’t having any of it.”
“I’d hate to have that kind of scenario where it was just me and Joe and a couple of hired hands,” Steve stresses.
All four band members are actively involved in the recording of new songs and how the records actually sound. In fact, Carl’s programming wizardry was very much to the fore throughout Hi-Lo and he wrote and sang one of the b-sides to ‘Bright And Shining Sun’. The programming and loops seem to have taken a back-seat, however, as the band really enjoyed the back-to-basics nature of recording the last single.
“Everything was played live from beginning to end,” recalls Steve. “It sounds ridiculous saying that now because that was the way all music was done up until quite recently, but that was the first time in years that we haven’t been running a sampler or sequencer along with it:”
Describing over-reliance on computers and technology as “a very asexual way of recording”, Joe is very definite about how their future recording plans are going to go: “The next album is basically going to be the four of us in a room, playing live. It is something you can look forward to more, because with bass, drums, guitar and vocals, you can listen back to it and you know whether it has something or not.
He’s warming to the theme now: “The other advantage is that by the time you finish your album, you don’t have to rehearse as much because you’ve been playing the songs. That was a real problem with Hi-Lo. We had taken lots of different versions of songs, taken them apart, added in sounds, and when it came to playing the album live, we had to do a hell of a lot of work to figure out old riffs from one song that had been sampled, sped up, turned backwards and used in a different song.”
It may be some time, however, before their Irish fans get their hands on a new Walls album. At the moment, The Walls’ main concern is getting their material released outside Ireland and getting out on the road in Europe and America.
“It is awkward when you release an album in Ireland and you are doing your utmost to get it released abroad, and two years later the Irish fans are looking for album number two,” Steve explains. “It’s easy if you’re U2 and you get a simultaneous release all over the world, but with a lot of Irish bands, you are trying to find different companies in different territories to put your records out abroad.”
The Walls have just taken on a London manager with the express aim of releasing a version of Hi-Lo in Europe and the US, “so we’ll see who nibbles the bait”.
“We’re dying to get out and gig abroad,” Steve says. “We did very little of it in The Stunning, apart from a few gigs in America and the UK. We don’t want to do the same thing The Stunning did. We want to get out and gig but preferably with the back-up of a label who will set things up abroad, so that if we are playing a gig in France, people can go out and buy the CD the next day.”
The band feel that mainland Europe is a fantastic target for a lot of Irish bands, a huge potential market that isn’t as pernickety as the UK, nor as expensive to get to as America.
The perfect blueprint now seems to be to build up a fanbase in Ireland through touring, release an album independently so that you are making a reasonable amount of money from each copy sold, and then license that album to labels abroad. The Frames’ For The Birds would seem to be a perfect example.
“There is no guarantee that is going to work, as opposed to the major record company route,” Joe muses, “but at least you stand a better chance of dealing with some real people in smaller labels. That is half the problem with the major labels, a lot of the A&R people who get employed by them are just full of shit and are desperate to hang on to their company car: they’re not in it for the love of it.”
Steve takes over, “If you are going to go the independent route in Ireland, you have to really work it. When you approach labels abroad with your record, the first question they are going to ask is ‘how well did it do in Ireland?’ That is why it would have been too soon for us to go abroad last year. With Hi-Lo, sales were slow, and it was only when certain things like the support slot with U2 and the fact that ‘Bone Deep’ took off, that sales started to pick up towards the end of the year. It is only now that the record has gone gold that we are in a position to start going abroad and playing showcases for labels in Europe and the States.”
The aforementioned ‘Bone Deep’, a stunningly infectious slice of bouncy, funky pop music, was only available as a download from the band’s website and yet it became one of the most played Irish songs on radio last year.
“By the time it came to releasing ‘Bone Deep’ we didn’t have money for another single, and we also thought it would be a great idea to release a single that was exclusively available on the internet: you could even download the artwork and print it off,” Joe explains. “JJ72 did it later on and claimed that theirs was the first internet-only release but we got their first, for the record.”
If anything, The Walls feel that they released Hi-Lo too quickly in Ireland, and that they might have benefited from more touring to build up their profile.
However, both brothers are quick to comment on how many positive changes have taken place in the Irish music scene since their return from London, just three years ago.
“I remember being quite shocked when we moved back to Dublin, just how much the boy band/girl band thing had taken hold here – it was disgusting,” Joe recalls. “But things have improved an awful lot and there are a lot of people who have made a name for themselves in that space of time, people like Damien Rice, Gemma Hayes.”
The last time I interviewed The Walls for hotpress, they bemoaned the fact that Irish bands were never really appreciated in their homeland unless they had first been rated abroad. This, thankfully, has also changed.
“People like Damien Rice have really flowered, and have a really faithful audience,” Joe notes. “I remember going past Music City in Rathmines one Thursday and I didn’t know what was going on: there were hordes of kids outside. It was because Damien Rice had just done a promo gig in the shop. It is good to see things like that happen. At the moment, we are no longer looking to see what is on the cover of the NME or what is in the English charts before we think it is any good.”
The Walls play The Ambassador on November 9. See gig listings for the full tour schedule