- 15 Dec 15
Kodaline became one of the biggest Irish bands of recent years thanks to their debut album, In A Perfect World, a major hit both here and in the UK. As they set their sights on conquering America with its Coming Up For Air successor, the boys talk about hanging with Courteney Cox and Sacha Baron Cohen in LA, their friendship with Ed Sheeran, and their ever-growing army of fans.
Accidents, Elvis Costello once assured us, will happen. It’s something the four members of Kodaline have been counting on for most of their adult lives, an ethos of sorts that has paid off thus far. Kodaline do happy accidents very well indeed. They've made having no real game plan seem like a master plan for success in the modern music industry.
So sure, we can try to cobble the disparate inspirations for second album Coming Up For Air together in the hope of getting an accurate profile of where they find themselves in 2015 and exactly how they got there. They’ve been dragged out of their comfort zone by Jacknife Lee. Become all giddy at the prospect of a room filled with synths. Soaked up Adebisi Shank whilst cruising through California. Returned to their comfort zone with old collaborators. Been informed by a Mystic Ed Sheeran that their best work is just around the corner, helpfully just after finishing their record. Unfinished the record. Finally finished the record.
When I find them on a bright, brisk January afternoon in an impressive country pile in the back arse of Kildare, however, guitarist Mark Prendergast warns against reading too much into the Kodaline story. “Everything that happened,” he will confide in front of a roaring fire, “was completely by accident.”
Not a scripted story, then, but an eventful one. Hot Press descends on the very grand Pickering Forest House, where the band are enjoying a final week of rehearsals before they head out on UK and US tours, to hear all about it and catch the young musicians for posterity in their current habitat.
The latter involves photographer Kathrin Baumbach conquering her fear of yappy dogs – a pack of them run around the grounds of the Georgian building, eager to get involved in the action – whilst simultaneously snapping the Kodaline boys as they mount a fence, overcome the discomfort of having their ears nibbled by curious horses and strive to look all enigmatic and indie. Within minutes, we have a scene similar to the cover of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Bassist and last-member-through-the-door Jason Boland is the most nonchalant throughout, his good-natured smile never slipping.
He spent a good deal of his childhood here, so is no stranger to country living or working with animals. Pickering Forest House proprietor Marina Guinness may be family, but it’s not exactly preferential treatment – she’s generously opened the home to a raft of musicians over the years, including Kid Karate, Kíla, Fionn Regan and Damien Rice.
In the Kildare countryside, no one can hear you scream. Or coo lovelorn melodies.
A thousand photos in the twilight of the day culminate in the quartet standing on a picnic bench and staring broodingly in different directions. It is, they laugh, how they conduct all band meetings and write new songs these days. Given the plummeting temperature, it’s less than ideal for an interview, so we venture indoors. Pickering Forest House is a far warmer, more welcoming place than you would initially think, especially considering the fact that you’re greeted in the hallway by an armoured “leopard-man”, below which is a strange horned skull that surely doubles as a mask at nefarious Illuminati ceremonies.
We settle in a firelit antechamber between the hall and the band’s rehearsal space. The mood in the camp is positive. They feel they have a record of which they can be proud. This period away from it all is more of a breather before diving back into the madness than serious business. “It’s really just us getting to mess around a bit,” says Jay Boland. “The fun part of being in a band.”
It’s roughly 18 months since debut album, In A Perfect World, topped the charts at home and hit No.3 in the UK. A short time in music – they could feasibly have held off on a follow-up for another year and no one would have batted an eyelid – but a long time for musicians on the rise. They haven’t merely gone from Swords to the sticks. Ireland and the UK, aside, they’ve toured Europe, earning ardent fans in Switzerland and the Netherlands (the sophisticated continental countries, we can all agree), and taken on the US. All the caption on one of their last Instagram pictures of 2014 – “Haircuts by swimming pools. That is all #lalaland” – was missing was a pinch-yourself emoticon.
Not that they’ve gone Hollywood. They make a mean cup of tea and remain endlessly self-effacing.
So talk of their progress working out new songs for the live show and stickman Vinny May opining that they are “better musicians than two years ago” is tempered with “Not that we’re good! But an improvement on shit is something!”
Seeing as Steve Garrigan – who has sadly removed his fetching and setting-appropriate ushanka-hat – is the frontman, you’d hope he could go a little further.
“It’s all the touring we’ve done as well,” he offers. “With the last album, we were very much a studio band. We were writing all the time. At one stage we didn’t really think we were going to play the songs live. Then we ended up getting a deal. We didn’t even have a bass player, but we had all of these songs. We had to become a band. We’re more adept then we ever were... I’d go as far as to call us a band."
We’re getting places.
“WE ARE A BAND!” announces Prendergast. “That’s the pull quote!
”Whatever they are, they’ve been busy. A Christmas break was welcomed after a hectic tour-studio-tour-studio schedule.
“There was no gap,” Mark continues. “We were supposed to do a tour of America, but had to pull out because Jay had an accident [injuring his arm in the process].”
Boland pulled a Bono?
“Bono did a Jay, ours was first! His was obviously more well known. After that, we went straight into the studio.”
Coming Up For Air was wrapped up during a six week gap in the autumn, something they confess they couldn’t even imagine at summer’s beginning.
Work on the album began in earnest, and unbeknownst to its creators, when they joined veteran Irish producer Jacknife Lee for a session in California.
“If a band has an opportunity to work with a producer like that, they’re going to do it,” says Garrigan. “We never considered it to be an album session. We didn’t even know what we were going to record. We had some songs that we wrote on the road and another song called ‘The One’, which we had completely written.”
Joining ‘The One’ (penned for the wedding of long-time engineer Phil Magee) was new single ‘Honest’, a typical Kodaline number that wears its big-hearted melody on its sleeve and has arena-sized crowds in mind. More crucially, they developed a sense of adventure. With Lee’s studio equipped with “the maddest, rarest stuff that you can’t really find”, the band went full ‘kids in a candy store’ and started picking up and plugging in any unfamiliar bit of kit for the hell of it.
These “little drum loops” and “weird little synthesiser yokes”, as Garrigan calls them, are all over the finished article, drawing an act that played it cautiously on their debut into more interesting sonic terrain. Those new textures also acted as trigger points for writing.
“When you play a new instrument or get a new sound, it’s a whole different way of writing,” Garrigan notes. “I write pretty much everything on the piano but I don’t use the black notes. But if and when I go to the black notes, I almost always write a song. Because I don’t really know what I’m doing. It’s that ‘where do I go?’ thing. It was exciting. It opened up our minds.”
Kodaline are canny enough to deliver the kind of ballads for which they have become known, but they’ve found a balance between that and their voyage of discovery. Serving the song is paramount, wherever that takes them. What’s new? Plenty. They’re not reinventing the wheel, but they’re inquisitive and keen to stretch their own pop-rock boundaries. If that opens the ears of their fan base to other sounds in the process, all the better. Significant chunks of ‘Play The Game’, for example, could be mistaken (really) for now defunct post-rock heroes Adebisi Shank.
As Mark Prendergast remembers conjuring up that riff with a 12-string guitar and foreign pedal, Jay throws a grin Vinny’s way: “We had listened to Adebisi Shank that morning...”
“Yeah, we had!” picks up Vinny. “On the drive up. Jacknife’s studio is in Topanga Canyon and we were staying in Venice. It was a 40 minute drive up to his studio so every day we’d take it in turns to listen to music. And I think that day, we listened to a load of Adebisi Shank because we’d heard they were playing [their farewell Whelan’s shows]. That might have led into it.”
Another accident; something “subconscious”, making sense after the fact. They might remain polite outside of the studio, but on tracks like ‘Being Human’, Mr. Garrigan ushers in a little swagger. It’s not a leathered-up Arctic Monkeys riding choppers around the Mojave Desert, but there is of rock ‘n’ roll flair that one would assume comes straight from West Coast living. In fact, the new confidence fully developed when they headed back across the Atlantic.
“Going over to Jacknife took us out of our comfort zone,” says May. “It made us think differently about recording and not be afraid of new things and trying different sounds. So when we were in a studio with familiar faces, Phil [Magee] and [In A Perfect World producer] Steve Harris, we were the ones pushing ourselves. We thought, ‘let’s try and take the lessons that we learnt over with Jacknife and try to apply it to what we do in the studio.’
“Putting ourselves back in a comfortable place,” nods Jay, “But thinking from an uncomfortable place.”
Though they were flying through tracks at this point, working at a song-a-day pace, they remained fairly oblivious to the big picture.
“It kinda crept up on us before we even had a chance to stop and think about it. We were almost still in the process of what producer we might like to work with and we had the tracks done! Figuring out what mixer to work with when some of the tracks were mixed! Everything was done so quickly. We didn’t have time to think about it.”
Prendergast says he’d love to do another album straight away, while Garrigan has an admission of his own.
“I’ll be honest. When we finished the first album, the first thing I thought was ‘fuck... the second album’. The whole time on tour I was thinking about that. When I got back into a studio, I realised I fucking love doing it. That’s what we do. We write.”
“We’re not sure how it’s going to do obviously,” says Mark. “It could be the ‘difficult album’. But to make it, to hang out and write again, was easy. There was amazing chemistry the whole time."
After all the touring, they remain close-knit.
“This is actually the first time we’ve had a conversation in, I think, two months,” deadpans Steve, as Mark claims that they arrived in separate cars and agreed: “C’mon, for the hour they’re here, let’s get through it!”
Vinny May battles through a few “he still thinks we like him!” jibes to make a sincere point.
“Seriously, we don’t really fight, we’re better friends, we get on much better and...”
“Don’t interrupt each other as much either!” comes the Jay Boland gag.
“As important as the band on the road is the crew,” Mark continues. “They’re your family around you and they’re amazing. We haven’t toured in a few months, so it’s going to be a party again. We haven’t seen Love/Hate yet, so we’re going to watch it straight away. The whole country’s watched it. We met Laurence Kinlan, who plays Elmo. He comes to all of our shows. I always feel bad because I haven’t watched it, so we’re going to do that.”
“I’m the only one who’s watched it in the band,” says Vinny. “When Laurence was there, I was like ‘holy shit, it’s Elmo!’ We were at Ed Sheeran’s Dublin gig and he was with us. After the show, there was a lot of people shouting at him ‘Elmo! Elmo’s a rat!’. He was just like, ‘it’s not real, my name is Laurence and I’m a nice guy!’”
“It must be really hard,” Steve muses, “to have a character associated with you.”
With Ed Sheeran now challenging Dave Grohl for the title of friendliest musician out there, it goes without saying that Kodaline have hung out with the adopted Irishman.
“Just so normal,” is Steve’s assessment. “For how big he is and how successful he is – he’s sold out three Wembley Stadiums, which is just ridiculous.”
“After the show, he invited us all back to his hotel,” says Mark. “He was really, really sick, just sitting there in his dressing-gown. I don’t think he drinks but he was just like, ‘lads, help yourselves to all the drink’. He sat there for an hour and half talking."
Steve: “He was talking about Rick Rubin and he told us that Rick has this process where, if you have two different ideas for a song – like two different choruses – you do both. Apparently Rick Rubin always knows [which is best] and goes ‘that one!’’
”Some of that Zen Rubin intuition rubbed off on Ed.“We did a song with Johnny McDaid from Snow Patrol as a last minute thing,” the singer continues, referring to his current personal favourite ‘Love Will Set You Free’. “The album was done but we just went over for a bit of fun. He worked with Ed Sheeran on his latest album and Ed was saying we were going to write our best songs over there. It worked out that way. So much so that we unfinished the album, just so we could put the song that we wrote on it. Then we finished it again!”
Not only did they get Coming Up For Air’s closer, but they also got to spend some quality time in Malibu with Johnny and the soon-to-be Mrs. McDaid. Slightly better known as Courteney Cox.
“The first five minutes were surreal,” admits Mark. “Coming from where I used to live in River Valley, and Steve living down the road, to just being in this monster of a gaff with the Pacific Ocean here and Courteney Cox cooking you dinner over there?! But after the first day... She was so down to earth and so was Johnny. They’re such a cool couple that they take you out of that ‘meeting a celebrity’ thing. They’re just friends now.”
Given the band’s love for Bruce Springsteen, we’d hazard a guess that they were more impressed by her appearance in the ‘Dancing In The Dark’ video than Friends.“That’s what I said to her!” laughs Stephen. “I brought that up! She told me the whole story about it and it was amazing.”
It was a banner week in the life of Vinny May, who was fresh from proposing to his girlfriend Carina in New York. She said yes, by the way.
Arriving in LA with Jay to join the other half of the band, Courteney was ready to toast him.“She greeted him with a bottle of champagne!” explains Mark. “She’s awesome.”
“She was immediately my friend after that,” Vinny says. “The first thing Courteney Cox does is hand you a bottle of champagne? She got off to a great start in my books!“
If anyone wants to get on Vinny’s good side?” advises his singer. “Bottle of champagne.”
“We played a little acoustic gig and she said ‘I’m bringing some friends’,” Mark continues. “So Sacha Baron Cohen turned up with Isla Fisher! He came up to us at the gig and it was... Borat, like! He was really funny, really cool.”“He heckled us as well,” says Vinny. Which was alright by us!”
“We’ve had those moments every time we play in LA,” says Steve. “Nicole Scherzinger? That was random. From the stage, there was a balcony at the very back and she was bang centre in the middle. There was a light on her, singing along with every word.”
Mark: “Like an angel!”
The allure of America is strong, no doubt. Don’t cry about a lack of home dates though, Dublin – the truth is they never left you.
Prendergast recalls their recent New Year’s Eve performance on College Green as a career highlight. “Playing Dublin is always my favourite, but playing Dame Street? I used to walk up there when I worked in The Button Factory. I got the bus from there, my friends went to college around there. Bought a chicken roll from there!”
“Playing Dublin is always really special,” Vinny agrees, confirming that their Irish plans will be announced soon. “It was consciously done, it wasn’t like we’ve forgotten Dublin! How?! We’re from there, half of us still live there. ‘Oh, you’ve forgotten Dublin!’ No, don’t be so stupid.”
In general, Kodaline feel a strong sense of Irish pride. In particular, they feel “happy and privileged” to be part of a music scene that is beginning to flourish abroad. They talk at length about which of their colleagues they’re loving, with James Vincent McMorrow, Two Door Cinema Club, Villagers, Jape and Little Green Cars all name-checked and ALL TVVINS and the “beautiful, weird harmonies” of Wyvern Lingo being their tips for 2015.
“When you’re asked about Irish bands, you can just keep going.”
News has just reached us that their pal Gavin James has signed to Capitol. “It’s unbelievable any time he opens his mouth,” Prendergast opines. “I always forget, because he’s such a cool guy and so down-to-earth. So when he starts singing it’s like ‘fuck me man!’”They are hoping he can replicate the success of Hozier, tall order that it is.
“We were looking at the tours Hozier’s doing already and thinking ‘what the fuck!’ It’s ‘sold out, sold out, sold out’. Number one in Spotify in the world. Unbelievable.”
“The first time we met him,” says Vinny, “was when we played The Olympia. He came to the after party with Little Green Cars. He came up to us and we were just like ‘holy shit, you’re such a nice guy’. And then four months later he’s the biggest thing.”
Kodaline are sticking with Sony and the traditional way of doing things for album number two, but they were decidedly unperturbed about U2 going a different route for Songs Of Innocence.
“We were in the studio when it happened. I read about it so I was like ‘everyone check your iPhone!’ We can see both sides of the argument. There’s no real need for the complete outrage – ‘how dare they invade my personal property’. It’s a fucking hour of music! Jesus, I’m sorry! There could be worse things. It could be an hour of somebody giving out to you. Or an hour of somebody shouting fuck. It’s an hour of music!”
Jay: “It’s those 72mbs they’re taking up [that is annoying people].”
Mark: “And everybody loves to take a dig at Bono.”
Steve: “Imagine it was someone like Justin Bieber...”
Vinny: “Then I could see the outrage!”
“We’re all fans so we were just happy to get a free album,” Garrigan concedes. “If it was Britney Spears or someone like that, I don’t know.”
“The argument,” says Prendergast, “is that they could have put it up as a free download. But there’s something kind of edgy and ballsy about it – ‘bam, here’s our album.’ Sure if you look on your iTunes, Bono’s there already! The outline of the singer is Bono!"
For Boland, U2 are in the same position as Kodaline and almost every other act around at the moment – they make their money from touring, so the record is simply promo. It might sound worrying for the album as an art form, but Kodaline can see advantages for acts trying to establish themselves.
“You’re not done after not having a hit any more. We didn’t have a hit off the first album but we still had the chance to go and do our second album just purely from the live following. If it wasn’t for the tickets we sold, the record company wouldn’t be as forgiving to us as they really have been.”
“Even in America,” says Steve. “The gigs that we’re doing are much bigger than what we should be doing. People are still going to gigs. They always will.”
“It’s something that will never go away,” Mark concurs. “I can’t really speak for labels, but live music is never going to go.”
We’ll end on a pearl of Stephen Fry-appropriated wisdom from Jay Boland, which has his guitarist considering a future career writing soundtracks for porn.
“Ultimately, the two primal needs are sex and music. So you’re even fine without talking to people!”
Way to make an interview seem redundant. Not that he meant it.