- 17 Jul 19
Having survived a tough battle with the black dog, Fangclub are back with a vengeance. Ahead of the release of their sophomore album, Vulture Culture, the North Dublin alt-rock outfit explain how close to the edge they came – and how they fought back from the brink.
There’s a moment when even the most vibrant artists will fall silent. From Sid Vicious to Philip Lynott to Kurt Cobain, addiction, depression and self-destructive cycles have held sway among the dominant forces in rock – and as the tragic deaths of Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington and Dolores O’Riordan confirm, that sadly hasn’t changed in recent times. For Fangclub, a hairy gang of self-proclaimed misfits hailing from Rush in North Dublin, their own brush with fate arrived in 2017, when their frontman, Steven King, overdosed outside a hotel in London.
“In some respects, it was the greatest time of our lives,” Steve reflects. “We were on tour for almost two years on and off, and we had just got a record deal. But at the same time, life doesn’t just stop. I might have been on a high with the band, but I was on a serious low with my family life. So I tried to numb it all out completely. I made a couple of mad choices – and one big mistake in London.”
The past few years have been a rollercoaster ride for Fangclub. But there’s still not much to suggest that the easy-going lads sitting in front of me, in the Central Hotel’s Library Bar, are members of one of the country’s most exciting alt-rock bands – well, apart from bassist Kevin Keane’s crop of glowing red dyed hair that is! Chatting over a whiskey, a gin and tonic and a Coke for Steve, the trio’s tight bond is immediately evident.
“These guys kept it all together when I was falling apart,” Steve says matter-of-factly. “By Christmas I was thinking that this band shouldn’t be a thing anymore. I felt I was a burden on the guys, and that I was leading them down this weird fucking road. I was afraid that I couldn’t deliver.
“But then we would meet up, and the guys would slap it out of me, telling me to chill out. Dara took over tour management and the business side of things, and Kev took over a lot of the back-and-forths. I was left just to write songs.”
It was Steve’s first real chance to take a breath, since the impressive success of Fangclub’s self-titled debut album. Nominated for the Choice Music Prize, the blistering LP charted at No. 5 on the Irish charts – a better than expected return for a project that was funded by part-time jobs and a loan from Steve’s girlfriend.
“Everything that happened with the first album was a surprise,” drummer Dara Coleman remarks. “We had no expectations for it at all – and then we got our record deal through the album. No one was prepared for that.”
THE GOOD & THE BAD
Two years later, the band are gearing up for the release of their outstanding sophomore effort, Vulture Culture, via-Universal Music. Usually the ‘second album jitters’ question would arise, but with so much having happened in between the two albums, they’re impossible to compare.
“We were sitting on the first album for two or three years by the time it came out,” Kev says. “The turnaround was much quicker this time. It was recorded in August, so everything feels very fresh. It’s a reflection of where we are now.”
“The first one was so DIY. But Vulture Culture actually feels more raw,” Steve adds. “There are big pop melodies and hooks, but in general it’s more honest – and that’s exactly what the band is trying to be right now.”
The album takes a pretty brutal view of modern society – and the predatory behaviour of certain people, or ‘vultures’, within it.
“The vultures of society are waiting for you to drop, so they can take the pieces,” Steve explains. “We came across a lot of that in the music industry. You also see it in the mass media, and celebrity culture – this disgusting use of fame and power. It’s grown from there, and I’ve seen people applying it to different things. My dad actually thought I was talking about the banks and the vulture funds – especially after that graffiti of a vulture appeared outside Ulster Bank in Dublin.”
Violence – whether of a societal or personal nature – also informs a great deal of the record.
“It’s an inner violence that mirrors the madness outside,” Steve says. “Everyone’s living their own war inside, and some of the things that you say to yourself you wouldn’t say to your worst enemy. That’s where I was. I was attacking myself constantly – but not realising that a lot of my friends and family were doing the same thing to themselves.”
In recent years, a number of musicians have become increasingly vocal about the mental health struggles that often afflict artists or people who are creative. This is long overdue, you might conclude, given that a recent study by music distribution platform Record Union found that 73% of independent musicians have reported suffering from mental health issues. Following the lead of Girl Band’s Dara Kiely, Steve has decided to use the platform he has as a rock ‘n’ roll star-in-the-making, to spark a refreshingly open conversation about the topic.
“You see so many people with mental health issues now,” Steve notes. “It seems to be exploding – maybe because it was bottled up for so long, or because there was a stigma about being damaged goods. That’s all bullshit. I don’t know if there’s a cure, but the best thing I did was just chat to these guys about it.”
Of course, rock’s reputation for hard drugs, booze and hedonistic living doesn’t help matters. Did the lads buy into that lifestyle when they were starting out?
“You don’t even buy into it,” Steve says. “Everything starts with good intentions. On the first day of a tour you have a beer, and on the second day you have two. By the end of the tour you’re just drinking all day. The worst part for me was coming off tour. We’d go our separate ways, and I’d go home and continue to drink, morning to night. It was such a stupid mistake. But I didn’t want to feel anything.”
While some artists’ creativity is inextricably entangled with drug use, Steve found himself falling into a slump.
“I didn’t want to write, I didn’t want to play guitar, I didn’t want to tour and I didn’t want to be in a band,” he reflects. “I just wanted to stay in my apartment and be drunk or sedated in some way. That’s not living. It was only when I stopped, and started letting myself feel the good and the bad, that the writing just exploded onto the page.”
BEING AN OUTCAST
Steve survived the London scare, but for a while afterwards it was a struggle. It took some time for the band to find their feet again. A tour with indie-rock heroes The Cribs, however, proved to be a turning point.
“It was my first time being on tour completely sober,” Steve recalls. “I was so afraid.”
“The Cribs tour was great because it was the first time you really proved to yourself that you could do it sober – and that everything was going to be okay,” Kev notes. “And then we did a tour with Milk Teeth, and their guitarist Billy Hutton was completely sober as well. There’s a lot of bands like that who we’d bump into.”
Still raw from the turmoil of the previous few years, Fangclub hit the studio. Holed up in the wilds of Wales, they set to work on Vulture Culture. Did digging into those painful experiences lyrically take its toll?
“I didn’t think it would, but when we were recording the album it definitely did,” Steve nods. “We worked on it for a month in Wales, and I left the lyrics to the very last minute. So when it came to the time to do the vocals, I was putting pen to paper and smashing it out. I tried not to think too much about it. It was tough to record, especially the first song, ‘Last Time’. We had to leave that until the very end.”
“No one wanted to touch that,” Dara says. “We knew it was going to be an emotional rollercoaster.”
“It’s a goodbye song,” Steve explains. “I wrote it in a note to my girlfriend originally. I was thinking that she’d be better off without me – that she could find someone more normal. I was also feeling that the guys could find someone a lot better to do this with.
“It goes from being very sombre into quite an uplifting song, but it was still really hard to record. We had everyone in the one room screaming the last chorus, and it became really emotional. My girlfriend was pretty upset when she listened to it.”
In a sense, ‘Last Time’ is also a farewell to the first chapter of Fangclub’s story. Vulture Culture sees the band stretching much more confidently into their own sound. While the Nirvana influence is still safely intact, the album also draws from the likes of Elliot Smith, Radiohead and Queens Of The Stone Age. And although pop and hip-hop may be dominating the charts right now, the trio reckon that grunge and alt-rock will always have a special audience – particularly among the glorious young misfits of the world.
“The young teenagers at our shows will be screaming back certain songs to us, and you just get the feeling that they’re singing about something else in their lives,” Steve muses. “It’s a very weird, confusing time to be a kid right now. There needs to be more stuff out there to help translate what they’re going through – and speaking the same language as them. If they can find it in music and art it can be an amazing escape.”
“When we get to meet kids at our shows,” Dara observes, “I always think that they look like the people I would’ve been friends with at that age. It’s brilliant if they can get any kind of comfort or sense of belonging from the music – because that’s what I got from my favourite bands when I was that age. There’s just something so special about being an outcast – and then finding other people just like you.”
THE CRAZIEST WEEK
That’s exactly what happened when Steve accidentally booted a football into Kev’s face all those years ago in Rush.
“We became friends through blood and punk,” Kev laughs. Relentlessly bullied for being the only kid in his estate with blue, spiked-up hair, Steve was obviously delighted to find another like-minded soul.
“We’d skip school and get a flight over to the UK to go see bands,” Steve laughs. “We had to get there early, otherwise I’d be too young to get into the venue. Then we’d fly back for school the next day. Everyone was asking, ‘Where were you yesterday?’ And I’d be like, ‘Manchester!’”
Dara joined later, after approaching an early incarnation of Fangclub at a house party.
“I remember seeing them playing, and thinking, ‘That’s the kind of music I want to make’,” Dara reflects. “There were no other bands doing it.”
It’s a wild leap from the house party circuit to the stage at Slane Castle, but Fangclub made it earlier this summer, with a stellar set supporting Metallica. At their final rehearsal before the gig, they received some more major news: they’d secured a European tour with Smashing Pumpkins, kicking off four days later.
“Welcome to the craziest week of our life,” Kev laughs. “I’m still coming down from it.”
“Smashing Pumpkins were the coolest people ever,” Steve enthuses. “On the first night we were too afraid to go near them, but by the second show they were calling into us going, ‘Great show! You guys are a bunch of rockers!’
“They’re true professionals, too. We came off that tour aspiring to be like them off the stage. You could hear them writing in their dressing rooms. It was amazing.”
After the release of Vulture Culture, Fangclub are set for a headline tour in Europe and the UK – capping off the year with a major homecoming show at The Button Factory in Dublin. So where do they go from here?
“Straight to hell!” Steve laughs. “No, to be honest, I don’t know. And I don’t want to know. The album is very reflective of a moment in our life, and who knows what life has to offer? But I’m open to it.”
Vulture Culture is out now. Fangclub play the Button Factory, Dublin on December 13.