- 14 Oct 19
As they gear up for their first album in four years, Dara Kiely and Alan Duggan of beloved Dublin noise-rock outfit Girl Band discuss their inspirations, the importance of humour, Fontaines DC, PowPig, the ‘hotelisation’ of Dublin, and the making of their exhilarating sophomore effort, The Talkies.
Since tearing up the Irish music scene with the release of their raucous debut, Holding Hands With Jamie, back in 2015, Girl Band have boldly challenged us to re-think everything we know about the laws of sound and the limitations of rock.
But sitting over pints in a dark Dublin bar, vocalist Dara Kiely and guitarist Alan Duggan appear remarkably tranquil for members of a band known for their fearlessly feral approach to noise-rock.
“We’re all pretty relaxed people,” Dara smiles. “But when we go to practise, we go from being calmly like, ‘Oh hey, how are things’, to ‘Arrrgghhh’. Then it’s straight back to normal again. It’s really cathartic and healthy. For me, it’s like primal screaming. You can get a lot out of that, and feel a lot better after.”
After picking up praise from the likes of Thom Yorke, touring the world and almost single-handedly revolutionising Dublin’s guitar scene, Girl Band quietly stepped out of the spotlight two years ago, after a slate of cancelled tour dates. While Dara and the band have been refreshingly open in the past about the mental health issues that triggered the hiatus, they’re now ready to shift the focus back to the music, with the release of their long-awaited sophomore album, The Talkies, on September 27.
“This felt like the first real opportunity for us to write an album,” Alan reasons. “With the first record, we just had a bunch of songs, and we were like, ‘Cool, that will make sense on a record, let’s put that out’. We all love the artform of a record, so this time we were actively trying to write one, over the space of four years.”
Although not yet released at the time of our interview, The Talkies has already been picking up five-star reviews across the board – something the lads are taking almost casually.
“Honestly, it’s when they say something mean about you that it sticks the most,” Alan says with a shrug.
“They said I had boring shoes once,” Dara adds, looking into his Guinness as he tries not to laugh. “I mean, they were just Converse…”
From even a cursory listen to the dark and dissonant twists and turns of The Talkies, it’s clear that critical acclaim and accolades were never the goal here. Escaping away to Ballintubbert House in Laois last autumn, Dara, Alan, bassist/producer Daniel Fox and drummer Adam Faulkner began a deeply experimental recording process deserving of a place in the annals of rock lore. Exploring sonic possibilities throughout the stately manor, much of the recording ultimately took place in the basement – which took on the name ‘The Well Of Souls’.
“You had to go down these winding stairs to a really long, scary concrete corridor,” Alan explains. “It meant the reverb down there was super intense, so we recorded the drums, the guitars and the vocals down there.”
“I remember Dara was down in the basement doing his vocals, while I was having a drink upstairs,” he continues. “All I could hear was this really loud ‘Raaaughhh, raaaughhh’, over and over. It was gas.”
One of the standout tracks, ‘Aibohphobia’, finds Girl Band channelling David Lynch.
“In the dream sequence in Twin Peaks, they got the actor to record the lines normally and then reversed them,” Alan says. “The actor learned how to say the line backwards, then they recorded and reversed that – so it’s coming the correct way, but still sounds reversed.
“I knew the Beastie Boys had done a similar thing on ‘Paul Revere’, and I thought it would be cool to do a whole song like that. So we recorded a demo, reversed it, and learned how to play it backwards. Then we went into the studio to record the backwards version – and reversed that.”
AIMING NOT TO SOUND LIKE RADIOHEAD
If that’s not hard enough to get your head around, Dara had the ingenious idea to write the lyrics in palindromes. Even the title, ‘Aibohphobia’, is a tongue-in-cheek term to express ‘an irrational fear of palindromes’ – while simultaneously being a palindrome itself. The result is some of the most brilliantly bizarre opening lyrics in modern music: “Acrobat stab orca / Do geese see God? / Party booby trap.”
Elsewhere on the album, Dara’s lyrics zigzag between realism and absurdity, containing references to everyone from Roald Dahl illustrator Quentin Blake to Bert and Ernie – packing a surprisingly poignant punch all the while.
“I’m a really big Leonard Cohen fan, so that would be a huge influence,” Dara muses. “I also love comedians like Eddie Izzard and Stewart Lee, and people like John Cooper Clarke. Suburban Lawns are very cool - the front-woman makes all these weird, almost Yoko Ono-like shouts.”
While Dara’s everyday language is one of the most compelling parts of Girl Band’s sound, mentions of chicken fillet rolls from Centra and garlic curry cheese chips on Holding Hands With Jamie must have bewildered their overseas fans.
“It’s just honest, and it’s kind of funny,” notes Alan. “It’s great trying to explain to international journalists what the ‘Salmon Of Knowledge’ is. We’re like, ‘Well, let me tell you about Fionn MacCool…’”
‘Shoulderblades’, the first single released from The Talkies back in June, also references Edward Mordake – a mysterious 19th century figure born with a second face on the back of his head. Like the tragic pig-costumed character in Bob Gallagher’s music video for their 2015 single ‘Paul’, the references to Mordake reflect a sense of duality and personal inner-conflict.
“You know the way you have negative thoughts in your head?” explains Dara. “He would have this face in the back that would actually say all these horrible things to him. So ‘It’s like a hat for Ed Mordake’ is trying to cover up that voice superficially. But you can’t really do that.”
Despite the intensity of their sound, which at times can feel like sheer violence, such lyrics simultaneously expose a raw vulnerability.
“A lot of it is a reaction to personal things,” Alan says, “as opposed to society or other large forces. Some bands and artists can do that really well, but what we do is more about personal politics.”
Girl Band’s sound is equally notable for its twisted, earthy humour, as they revel in the absurdity of the everyday.
“There’s humour in most of it, really,” Dara points out. “That’s what I love about Leonard Cohen. He’s really funny, depending on what mood you’re in when you’re listening to him.”
“Humour’s always been a big thing with us,” Alan adds. “We take the whole thing very seriously, but it’s hilarious as well. Another interviewer told us that a lot of people think we’re super intimidating, but after meeting us, he told us it’s obvious we aren’t. That felt like a backhanded compliment!
“Sometimes people overly symbolise things, or don’t see the silly side. They don’t see the ridiculousness of everything. And when everything’s going terribly wrong, you have to be able to go, ‘It’s funny, isn’t it?’
This sense of humour also extends to an ability to laugh at themselves – as evidenced when I mention the self-made music video for ‘Leave Again’ by Harrows, an earlier incarnation of Girl Band. To the lads’ great amusement, the 2008 video is still available on YouTube, featuring 16-year-old Dara on drums and an indie-rock sound drawing heavily from The Strokes.
“After Harrows we started another band called Surface,” Alan recalls.
“Oh, Jesus,” Dara interjects, looking down at the table.
“We played one gig down in Workman’s,” Alan continues. “That was really bad, but I had started buying pedals and exploring sound. That was the shift, when we decided to start making more intense music. Then we became a bit of an emo band for a while.”
“But not on purpose!” Dara adds. “I’m still embarrassed about that.”
On a trip to Leeds in 2011, Dara stepped out from behind the drum kit and found his voice.
“I’d been doing singing lessons, but I was ridiculously shy,” he reveals. “I would barely be able to even talk to anyone. We had a guitar, and we wrote a song called ‘Happy Christmas’, which went like: ‘Happy Christmas, hug each other/ Happy Christmas, one another’.
“It was great!” he continues, laughing. “Then we wrote a ‘Pancake Tuesday’ one, and that’s when I started the shouts.”
“Then we made a conscious decision to be more noisy and abrasive,” Alan adds. “We were 18, and starting to get introduced to no-wave bands: Theoretical Girls, James Chance And The Contortions, DNA, and all these kinds of groups.
“When we formed Girl Band, the main goal was to not sound like Radiohead – because there were tonnes of bands in Dublin who were just really bad versions of them. We also didn’t want to sound like Harrows, which was just basically landfill indie.”
I CAN GO INTO THAT ROOM...
Having spent their formative years playing across Dublin, Girl Band’s history is deeply interwoven with that of the city. As such, they’ve witnessed first-hand the devastating impact of Dublin’s cultural spaces closing to make room for hotels.
“Our first record was recorded in Bow Lane, up by Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre,” Dara recalls. “It was a beautiful studio, and now there’s a hotel there. Then they moved to a place on Abbey Street, and that turned into a hotel. There are so many hotels just popping up everywhere. It’s grim. It’s a shame about the Bernard Shaw in particular, because that was such a lovely place.”
“We had our second gig there,” adds Alan sadly. “We were all crammed up on stage, over where the DJ set-up is.”
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. In fact, Girl Band played a major role in lighting up a vibrant path for loud, innovative and proudly Irish guitar bands – including the likes of Just Mustard, The Murder Capital, Thumper and Mercury nominees Fontaines D.C.
“When a band like that says they’re directly influenced by you, that’s one of the biggest compliments you could get,” Alan says of Fontaines D.C. “Especially when it’s a band who make music that you like, and who are doing so well internationally. It’s really flattering. They’ve got tonnes and tonnes of creativity, and they could be a really important Irish band.”
Another young Irish act that Girl Band are watching closely are Limerick four-piece PowPig – the support act for their Dublin gigs in November.
“I went to see them when they were playing with Junior Brother at The Grand Social, and I just loved it,” Alan enthuses. “They’ve such a sense of fun, while also having really great tunes. The way they sing in unison has this real immediacy to it. And songs like ‘Rosalee’ show this real depth to their songwriting. I’m super excited to see where they go. Seeing them live I was like, ‘This is the best fucking group in Ireland’.”
Before they hit Dublin, Girl Band have a string of dates across America, Europe and the UK lined up, across the next two months. Dara and the band are conscious of pacing themselves, as they readjust to life on the road.
“It can be hard to keep up,” admits Dara. “I don’t hate touring, but it’s a lot to take on – because you can’t get out of it. You enter into this world of waking up at five in the morning, going to McDonald’s and not knowing what language you’re supposed to be speaking. So it’s a bit disorientating.
“But I’m looking forward to this tour. It’s really cool that we’re doing these select few gigs, because it makes it a bit more enjoyable.”
“It’s a very lucky position to be in, to be able to say, ‘Okay, what cities would we like to play?’” agrees Alan. “That’s not something we take for granted at all. But we have to take it easy, because there’s only so many shows that we can do.”
And after that?
“I got really excited about exploring sonics on tracks like ‘Akineton’, ‘Prefab Castle’ and ‘Aibohphobia’ on this record,” Alan considers. “It was like opening a door that you didn’t know existed, and being like, ‘Oh, I can go into that room’. So after these shows, we’re going to come back and start from scratch again. But we’re so slow at writing, so it will probably be 15 years before we get another song out…”
• The Talkies is out now. Girl Band cap off their upcoming tour at Vicar Street, Dublin on November 22 & 23.