- 24 Apr 19
Following the international success of their debut album, Walking On Cars have changed their sound, overcoming a series of set-backs, and dealing with personal loss – all of which have influence their superb second album, Colours. Peter McGoran meets a band raring to get stuck in again!
Walking On Cars still like their home comforts. The four members of the band are seated in a swanky Dublin hotel, surrounded by amenities galore. They’re happy to be back in the swing of things ahead of the release of their second album, and they’re in good spirits. But this excursion to the capital is a day trip for them. They’ll be back in Dingle by the time the evening’s out. That’s where they’re happiest.
Because even though they’ve racked up countless millions of plays on Spotify and views on YouTube, toured across the world, and developed fanbases everywhere from Germany to New Zeland, Walking On Cars never thought of re-locating. The musical roads in Ireland might lead to Dublin for some, and London is always calling for musicians who want to make the big time, but Walking On Cars are, quite simply, Kerry at heart.
The last time we spoke to the band was back at 2017, when they were still adjusting to the success of their debut album Everything This Way. Much has changed in the intervening two years, including the loss of their lead guitarist Dan Devane (more which anon) and a shift in their musical sound.
But in many ways, it feels like barely anything has changed at all. They’re still the impressively courteous, quiet individuals that they’ve always been. And, despite the fact that Colours is a slick, synthy album, packed head to toe with stadium-sized, radio-made bangers, the lyrics on the album suggest a record which is of – and for – their hometown.
“It’s grounding to be in Dingle,” Sorcha Durham reflects. “We have everything we need and it’s just an amazing spot.”
This is a sentiment that all four of the members will reinforce by the time we’ve finished talking.
A NEW GIRLFRIEND
Colours is the follow up to a debut album which has shifted well over a quarter of a million copies and catapulted Walking On Cars to stratospheric heights. When did work first start on it?
“Our last single, ‘Coldest Water’, was recorded right after Everything This Way was released,” says lead singer Pa Sheehy, “so that’s been sitting there for three years. These new ones took a while I guess. We spent a while going at album two and we kind of got caught up in the...”
“The pressure,” Sorcha helps out.
“Yeah, the pressure,” Pa nods. “Even when we were in the middle of the first album, people were saying, ‘Second album – that’s the tough one’. I wasn’t worrying about that at the time – then when I actually sat down to do it, I thought, ‘Fuck’. But like I say, we all went at it. And we weren’t happy with the first batch of tunes that we came up with. We had a listening party about two months in and we decided to just scrap it all.”
“They weren’t genuine or honest,” Sorcha concurs.
“It was like we were focusing too much on the sounds of things rather than the intent behind the songs.” Pa shakes his head. “There was no heart in it.”
How many songs were scrapped?
“Pffft, 30?” laughs Paul.
“It was a lot,” says Sorcha.
“But from ‘Monster’ onwards, that was the turning point.”
Released in February, ‘Monster’ has the big rock hooks that Walking On Cars are famed for, but there’s also some Kraftwerk-esque synths slithering through it. It’s darker in tone than a lot of what they’ve done before. It also gave fans a taster of what to expect from the new record.
Perhaps surprisingly, given their successes over the past three years and the fact that they surely had an army of producers ready to work with them, Walking On Cars opted to record back in Dingle. What is it about the South-West peninsula that keeps them tethered there?
“There was never any question of going anywhere else,” Sorcha says lightly. “It’s where we’re based and it’s just easy. We have our space there and there’s no distractions and we can do whatever we want.”
Paul nods in agreement.
“D’you know, we were very afraid of the producers for the first album. We were worried that maybe they were trying to change everything. We were held back a bit by our own doubts. So we thought, ‘We’ll do it again by ourselves and be more open’. And we were, and it was such a good vibe. The second time was just so natural. It was like getting back together with a new girlfriend.”
FREEDOM’S JUST ANOTHER WORD
Considering how popular Everything This Way was, did their major label, Virgin EMI, put pressure on them to follow it up as quickly as possible?
“Not really,” says Sorcha. “We were given the space to take as long as we wanted.”
“They were surprisingly sound about it,” adds Paul. “You hear all these stories about the label ringing you up and being like, ‘We need a single now!’”
“We need thirty covers!” Evan laughs.
“Right! But they were totally like, ‘Just take your time and get it right and when you’re happy, we’ll release it’.”
Virgin EMI’s CEO had previously – rather courteously! – said that he was backing off and letting the band make music. Is there such a thing as being given too much freedom when you’re trying to make a hit follow-up record?
“Probably at the beginning, when we wrote that first batch of songs,” says Paul.
Evan smiles: “Looking at ourselves asking, ‘What the fuck is this!’”
“In fairness, our A&R guy Nick, was amazing,” says Sorcha. “We really trusted his opinion and he gave us the space we needed. And also, when we played him some of the songs that we weren’t sure about, he gave it to us straight up: ‘They’re not good enough.’”
“There were one or two tracks that we worked on for an extra week trying to create that little bit of magic, but by the end it’s still the same and you just think...”
“‘Stop polishing this turd’?” offers Paul.
“Yeah, “ Pa agrees. “And now we’ve got nine tracks on the record that we can stand behind and say, ‘This is exactly what we wanted’.”
NO DRINK IN SIX YEARS
Walking On Cars’ biggest single, ‘Speeding Cars’, charted in eight countries across the world in 2015, paving the way for their international success. Was it hanging over their head that they needed to make ‘another big hit’?
“It was,” admits Pa, “and initially that’s what held us back. We were so focussed on trying to make another hit. We so wanted to be in the zone that – when we went to do it, we couldn’t, because it wasn’t natural. It’s when you throw away all the expectations, that’s when the magic happens. It took us a while to get to that point.”
In a press release that the band shared at the time of their single ‘Coldest Water’, Pa mentioned that the song was about his problems with alcohol. Does he drink anymore?
“No, I haven’t had a drink in six years.”
Was there a particular trigger for him to decide he had to stop?
“What was the moment?” he considers. “I suppose I knew I had to give it up. I did give it up for spells, and then I’d always fall back into it. But the moment I gave up alcohol for good was when my girlfriend said, ‘I’m pregnant’.”
Had it been having a negative effect on the band?
“I don’t think so,” says Sorcha, before turning to Paul and Evan.
“Ah. there was a spell,” says Paul, “but it was never really that bad. When he drank – it was always a weekend, or a week, and then after that he’d be off it again for a few months or whatever. So like, it was letting off steam more than anything.”
In the past, artists might’ve said that they needed drugs or alcohol just to get by. Is that an antiqued way of looking at addiction?
“I can definitely see why it helps,” Pa admits. “Because when you’re half out of your mind, your brain comes up with all kinds of shit. I think your subconscious will spill onto the page more. So it’s a bit trickier when you’re sober.”
Is there a sense of having to relearn the discipline of writing?
“Yeah, I suppose. Life is a lot, what’s the word? Safer. You think of a weekend when you’ve been on it and you think, ‘What the fuck did I do that weekend?’ It’s easier to write because you’re shaken by it and you’re more emotionally heightened by it. So you have to provoke yourself into getting the lyrics when you’re sober.”
The album’s final song, ‘Pieces Of You’, is the most stripped back on the album and deals with the aftermath, and the grief, of losing a loved one.
“We went to London and wrote that with a guy called Jamie Norton,” says Pa, quietly, “and I felt like this was one of the tunes that was in us for a while.”
“Back in 2018, we went through a sad year in Dingle...”
The singer begins to visibly tear up as he speaks, before shaking his head: “Sorry, no.”
“I’ll talk about it,” says Sorcha, whose eyes are also filled with tears. “We went into the session and we were all working through some things. There was a girl from Dingle who had passed away kind of around the time, and my dad had passed away also, so it was a running thing in the room. We were all dealing with grief. And this song came out of that.”
“We were touching on it for a couple of hours,” Pa recovers.
“We went away from it, to really get under what we wanted to write,” Sorcha explains. “Then we came back and spilt it all on the page.”
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL SYNTH
Another pivotal moment for the band was when they teamed up for a writing session with Jon Green who’s worked with the likes of James Bay. With him, they worked on their latest single ‘Somebody Else’ and the song which will, in all likelihood, be the soundtrack to your summer, ‘Too Emotional’.
“That was a vibe from the get-go,” Paul beams. “There was a crazy energy in the room for that.”
A brash anthem, verging on a club song, it’s unlike anything you’ll have heard from them before.
“When we first wrote it, it felt like it was a song we could’ve pitched to someone else, rather than done ourselves,” says Pa. “But I suppose the more we listened to it, the more we realised how catchy it was. We were open to doing something different, so we just took a chance on it. And now, I suppose it’s the big one.”
A big factor in the final shape of the album was the fact that – having begun the album in their own studio in Dingle – they finished up production at Angelic, a residential studio near Oxford where The 1975 took their first steps, and which has also played host to Kodaline, Hudson Taylor and All Tvvins. There, they were sequestered on-site for the time it took to finish the record, working with former-Jamiroquai keyboardist and songwriter, Toby Smith, who had an impressive arsenal of tech and instruments at his disposal.
“We had a collection of synths from way, way back,” says Pa. “The theme of the week was ‘A synth a day’. He’d bring out different ones and we’d have fun with it, trying them out.”
“It was the fecking Polymoog that he had,” Sorcha says, smiling at the memory. “It was vintage thing from the ‘70s and oh my God, it was the most beautiful synth I’d ever played. That was like the dream studio scene. We were out in the country and we were staying on this estate farm. The studio part was renovated stables area, and it was just amazing going in there every day.”
FIVE BECOMES FOUR
In the middle of recording, out of the blue, Walking On Cars were dealt a body blow. Lead guitarist Dan Devane decided to leave the band.
“He decided that he’d had enough,” says Pa, “and we had to accept it and respect it. It was a shock to all of us obviously. That’s kind of it. Like I said, we had to respect it and move on.”
“Yeah, we did a lot of good,” adds Paul. “We did some awesome stuff, and I’m sure he’s proud of it, but I don’t know like, it was a weird time.”
When did it happen?
“February last year.”
So it was in the middle of making the album?
“Yeah,” says Paul. “It’s a difficult thing to happen.”
“It was a very stressful time!” adds Sorcha.
How did it affect the music?
“I suppose it affected it because we didn’t have a guitarist for a lot of these songs,” she explains. “So the approach is different – and you can hear that in the songs. They sound different. That’s just a natural by-product of that.”
There’s also the added pressure which every successful musician faces – that of being on the road while trying to maintain relationships, friendships, family life. Considering the sheer amount of touring and gigging that Walking On Cars have done these past three years, is that difficult?
“It can be yeah,” admits Pa. “For me, there needs to be a day or two when you finish a tour so that you can settle back into normality. Because you’re still on a different buzz.”
“Apparently when Bono gets home he has to stay in a hotel for a few days,” Paul laughs. “His wife doesn’t let him come directly home from a tour.”
“That’s what we should do. Go to the local hotel in the Skelligs for a few days!”
It’s hard to imagine the people of Dingle letting the band get egotistical.
“No one there would ever let us get ahead of ourselves,” laughs Paul.
“It’s hilarious,” says Sorcha. “Going into Garvey’s SuperValu to do our shopping. You’ll meet someone your mam knows and they’re like, ‘Awh Jeez and I hear you’re very busy at the moment!’ That’s about it.”
“Or you’ll get people giving you a look and saying, ‘So, you’re off again is it?’ As if we’re going off for a holiday when we go on tour!”
“Or you’re constantly reminded about your calendar,” Pa chuckles.
Sorcha: “Yeah! Someone’ll say, ‘Oh so you’re going to Germany on such and such date’. And I’m like ‘Fuck it, yeah I am actually: cheers for reminding me!’”
WHERE’S ALL THE WOMEN?
An issue which continues to rear its head and produce fresh new stories week after week is that of sexism in the music industry. What’s the band’s take on that?
“We did a festival somewhere,” says Paul, “and Sorcha, what was it? You were one of only three women in the whole festival?”
“Reading and Leeds,” she nods.
“That’s a big fucking bill! And out of like however many artists there were about three women.”
“One thing that gets me is that when people think I’m part of management or, you know, somebody else who’s not in the band,” Sorcha adds, shaking her head. “I’m just like, ‘Here, for fuck sake’. It makes me uncomfortable, because I’m like: what do I say in this scenario? But yeah, a lot of times I’m the only girl in a given situation. Say, we go into a venue on tour. All the crew are men. Generally the only females who might be there are part of the promotional team, or catering.
“Then on-stage, there have been times where I’ve been uncomfortable in the past. But it’s not as if you ever see someone being overtly sexist, it’s just apparent in the numbers.”
At the very least, the fact that prominent artists are speaking out more and more about this issue suggests that we’re taking a step in the right direction…
Colours gets a live airing at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast (May 21); 3Arena, Dublin (23); and Irish Independent Park, Cork (June 21)