- 22 May 19
... And it's awesome.
That's the verdict of Steve Garrigan, lead singer with the hugely successful Dublin outfit, Kodaline. On the eve of the band's two shows in St. Anne's Park, on the northside of the city, he talks about the band's own shaky start, the bright young stars of Irish music, the group's recent, inspiring, tour of Asia and the political crises that we all have to face up to. And he offers invaluable advice to aspiring musicians...
It’s a bright day in Dublin, blue-skyed but cold. The sun is teasing us with a hint that summer may indeed be on the way, but it doesn’t offer enough assurance for us to declare it with conviction. But impressions matter. With the sun pouring in the upstairs window of a house somewhere in the North Dublin countryside, Steve Garrigan looks around his room with a half-grin.
He'd usually be in the studio at this time of day, he states, in his calm, slightly reserved tone. Being the lead singer of Ireland's burgeoning pop rock juggernaut Kodaline, that's where much of the work takes place. But the band's tour of Asia and Australia - finished last week - did a number on him, and so he is resting up, recovering from a chest infection.
I’m firing questions. Sitting on the side of the bed, Garrigan is attentive. He takes his time answering. Kodaline have a brace of gigs later this month in St. Anne's Park, a sprawling suburban green space in Raheny that spills all the way down to the seafront past Clontarf. It is a very big deal: this is a brand new venue for major gigs and so it is important to make sure that everything goes well. Which is why Steve Garrigan is talking to Hot Press…
THEY'RE SINGING EVERY SINGLE WORD
Four teenage boys originally joined forces in Swords, a town less than five kilometres north of Dublin Airport, during the mid-noughties, and began trading under the moniker 21 Demands. They played in band and talent competitions, including the 2006 edition of RTÉ's You're A Star, in which they were runners-up; busked on Grafton Street; and did their time on the local bar scene.
The current line-up of Steve Garrigan, Vinny May Jr., Mark Prendergast and last-man-in Jason Boland, was finalised in 2011, and they changed their name to Kodaline, before releasing their first, eponymous, EP in 2012. It was an auspicious opening salvo. The opening track, 'All I Want', subsequently featured in the soundtrack of the hugely successful US TV show Grey's Anatomy and the film The Fault In Our Stars.
That introduction was followed, in March 2013, by The High Hopes EP, the title track of which became an international hit - as well as the band's first No.1 in Ireland. In June of the same year, Kodaline released their debut album, In A Perfect World: it also reached No. 1 in the Irish charts; No.3 in the UK; and it charted impressively in the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland. Kodaline had arrived.
In 2015, the band released Coming Up for Air. Another Irish No. 1, the album broke new ground for them in New Zealand and Australia and made an impression in the US. They were building steadily...
When Hot Press last touched base with Kodaline, the four-piece had just released their much-anticipated third album, Politics Of Living. The record saw them shift towards a more electronic sound. Though the aesthetic was fresh, the reception from the public was no less enthusiastic: they again went to No. 1 in Ireland. At the time, Garrigan and drummer Vincent May were really looking forward to gigs in Thailand, South Korea and Malaysia. So how did the band's eastern jaunt pan out?
"It was quite crazy," Garrigan reflects. "There were fans waiting in the airports. All the shows were sold out. There's something amazing for us when we hear people singing back every song, even when they don't speak the language..."
Alongside the intensity, there were fun moments.
"There's a guy in Indonesia, who won Indonesian Idol and he's a huge fan," Steve adds, "so we brought him on stage to sing with us. Afterwards, we went out to a bar and we were jamming with him and with the band in the bar. It was cool!"
Interestingly, over the past year, 'All I Want' has been performed by contestants in both the standard and junior installments of Indonesian Idol.
"In Jakarta, which is the capital of Indonesia, I had a total pinch-me moment," Garrigan admits. "It was during 'High Hopes'. That's our oldest song, and I remember playing it as a nineteen or twenty-year-old. I was playing it in pubs around Dublin, around Swords and stuff - and I remember it so well: nobody was listening.
"So, to be on stage on the other side of the world, in front of thousands of people, and they're singing every single word, was extraordinary. I think that moment in Jakarta, for whatever reason, just caught me off-guard, and I got a bit emotional.
"We're so lucky to do what we do," he adds. "You know, write songs and play shows. If I could go back and tell my teenage self that this is what I'd be doing now, he wouldn't believe it."
The point being that Kodaline were not, in any meaningful sense, an overnight success.
"I remember when we were, like, sixteen, we played the Young Scientist Exhibition," Garrigan recalls with a rueful shrug. "Ray D'Arcy was actually presenting it. We got up, and for whatever reason, I have no idea how it happened, two of the guys in the band thought we were doing one song, and myself and Mark, our guitar player, thought we were doing a different song. It was a total car crash, and we walked off stage and there was just silence. We didn't know what to say. And then Ray D'Arcy came up to us and goes, 'What the hell was going on there? That sounded like white noise!' and just walked off."
But Garrigan was a songwriter on a mission. Even in the face of steadfast rejection, the band persisted. It is a lesson for any young musicians who are struggling.
"Just keep writing," Steve Garrigan says. "That's what I did. Don't be discouraged when you're told that it's not good enough or if someone says that you can't do it. You can. You just have to keep doing it."
There's no guarantee of success, of course...
"But if you keep writing music - and writing music that you love - then you're in with a chance," Steve riffs. "Hang out with like-minded people, other musicians, other bands. Go to gigs and play gigs. Go to open mics. But, if you put me on the spot, I really feel that the most important thing is the quality of the songs. As long as the song is there, the production can be added after. You can find a producer, you know? Just believe in yourself, as clichéd as that is."
Even on the road, Garrigan doesn't let up: he is writing all the time.
"We pretty much write every day," he says. "We're already working on a new EP. I think we're gonna release a new single pretty soon, which is exciting. One of the songs, I wrote in a hotel room after one of the shows. I had a bad show - or just a bad day, like everybody has sometimes - and I wrote this song in response to that. I'm really excited about that song, actually. For me, it's the best song I've written in a while."
So, there it is: the band are prepping to release a new EP later this year, possibly two, "with the idea of building up towards an album." But what is it that makes a Kodaline song - one that's good enough to get those hundreds of thousands of voices singing along, across the globe?
"First, it's gotta be emotional," Garrigan declares. "You've gotta believe it. I tend to write about my own experiences. That makes it easier. It's real, you know? We just go with our gut instincts."
And how do group dynamics factor into the process?
"The four of us have to like it. If one of us doesn't like it, then that's a problem," he says with a grimace. "We'll probably be arguing for a while and then we'll throw it out - or, if we can convince whoever disagrees to like it, then we'll go with it. Ultimately, the stuff you put out there, it's just out. It's done. People can rip it apart if they want, you know? That's just the way it is."
THE BENEFITS AND PERILS OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Kodaline have always been seen as a northside band. How important is not that the upcoming Dublin gigs are in St. Anne's Park?
"The fact that it's on the northside of the city is cool because we grew up in Swords," says Garrigan. "We're super-excited about it. We always try and make a big point of our Dublin shows, 'cos they're our hometown shows. We want them to be really special."
Steve hints that they'll be even more spectacular than Kodaline's sold-out stint at Malahide Castle last summer. "This time we've really got something to prove," he offers. "We're building up now, to try and put on a show like we've never done before. We're changing it around, putting a lot into it production-wise and into the visuals. Also choosing the set: we're gonna play a new song that'll probably be on the EP later on in the year. So it's really hands-on and exciting. Irish crowds are - and I'm not just saying this 'cos we're Irish [laughs] - they're just awesome. As we say, they're up for the craic, and singing along, doing the whole ólé, ólé ólé thing, and so on."
The band have had a direct hand in choosing the support acts for the St. Anne's gigs.
"We thought of reaching out to James Morrison," Steve says, "because when we were really young - as a teenager or even younger, maybe - listening to his first album when it came out. As a band, we were all big fans, you know? It's really awesome that he agreed to do it."
There's a strong Irish contingent involved too, including Derry-born "grumpy electro pop" artist Roe; Dubliner Somebody's Child, who has been making great strides over the past 12 months; and UK-based alt-pop artist Flynn (aka Darren Flynn), originally from Mullingar.
Overall, Garrigan is hugely impressed with the new wave of Irish talent.
"Now, more than ever, there's so many great bands and singers. Dermot Kennedy, for example, is incredible. He's awesome. Saint Sister are really, really cool. There's so many underground bands as well. I mean," he pauses here, searching for the words "where are they all coming from?" He laughs.
"There's definitely something going on in Ireland at the moment, and it's awesome."
Has he any explanation to offer an inquisitive American like me? Is it something in the water?
"I don't really know," he replies. "To an extent, it's always been the way in Ireland. It's such a small country, but there's so many artists come out of it. But it has really taken off over the past couple of years."
In fact, the band are hoping to get involved in spotlighting the next Irish rising star, by hosting a competition to find another support act for their 1 June show.
"People just have to send in an original song, and on top of supporting us, they also get €5,000 towards a studio session with our friend Phil Magee," Steve explains. "He's a well-known producer in Ireland. We came up with that idea when we were on tour. We're thinking that we might - in fact we will! - find somebody awesome. There's probably some kid in his bedroom in the countryside writing these amazing songs, and he doesn't know what to do with it. Sometimes, it is really tough to get into the music industry, so we felt like it might give whoever wins a chance to get started."
The musical landscape is very different for young musicians today, even compared to when Kodaline broke through, with - for better or worse - social media playing a more central part. Steve sees the good and the bad in it.
"On the positive side, it is amazing for up-and-coming artists because they have a platform there. That's their audience," he says. "Somebody can just start putting up covers or just do little performances of songs they write with Instagram, and they can have an audience, which is really exciting. It's like YouTube, but times a million, 'cos it's so much more accessible to everybody. It's awesome. But then there is a lot of random bullshit on it and just useless shite. But that's the Internet."
Steve himself has been cutting back on his phone use, with the help of the Screen Time function and Matt Haig's 2018 book Notes On A Nervous Planet - a favourite tour read of Garrigan's which discusses "how technology and all that is actually making people worse." Why so?
"The iPhone shows you how many hours you've spent online," he explains, "and there was one day when it was five hours or six hours or something, and I literally hadn't done anything. I was like, where the hell did those five hours go? You know, I could have been in the studio or something - so I'm trying to cut back."
Does he think anything can be done to lessen the negative effects of social media, some of which escalate into life-or-death situations?
"Only last week, where I grew up, there was a twelve-year-old boy who was being bullied online and he took his own life," Garrigan says sombrely. "It's horrible. I can only imagine: school is tough anyway for kids. Kids can be cruel to each other, especially teenagers. I can't even comprehend what it would be like right now with the Internet. If you're being bullied at school, you go home and then you're being bullied at home, only that it's online. I don't really know what can be done.
"I think the problem is much bigger than we all realise."
THE MOST EXCITING AND MEMORABLE THING
Social media isn't the only hot-button topic on the minds of Irish artists these days. The homelessness crisis has taken centre stage as recently as 23 April, when Focus Ireland's annual Rock Against Homelessness concert was held at the Olympia. Kodaline themselves have been drawing attention to the issue, since as far back as 2014, singing with the aptly named High Hopes choir, made up of homeless people in Dublin. Two years later, they performed in support of the occupation of an abandoned Tara Street building being used to accommodate those who had nowhere else to go. In 2019, with the crisis still going strong - according to Focus Ireland, there were over 10,000 people without homes around the country as of March - what does Garrigan think the next steps should be?
"I was talking to my dad about this the other day," he says. "He goes into town twice a week and gives food and drinks and stuff to homeless people. And even he was wondering, 'What's the point in doing this?' It's a bit like putting a band-aid on a broken leg."
"Something has to happen, something has to change," he says emphatically. "It's such a massive problem. Giving out sweets and sandwiches isn't gonna fix anything. I think it's in the government's hands, really. Unless everybody groups together and really buckles down and tries to fix it, it'll probably continue as is, which is pretty sad to say.
"I finished the conversation with my dad saying, 'Listen, you're not trying to solve the whole homelessness crisis. You're just trying to make a couple of people's lives a little easier by giving out sandwiches and coffee, which is still an amazing thing to do.'"
He's passionate here. It is clear that this is something that he feels deeply about.
"People need to group together. There's strength in numbers, you know? You need everybody to help tackle it in some way. They seem to have a much better system in Switzerland. By comparison, Dublin is really, really bad. There are better ways to do it."
All of that said, Garrigan generally speaks of Dublin, in all its manifest complexities, in a tone of reverence and respect. The band may hit the road for destinations near and far, but I get the sense that he'll always come back here. To the place they call home. Before wrapping up, I ask Garrigan to name a defining moment in KodalineÕs career. Initially, he cites the band's first American gold disc, earned for 600,000 sales of 'All I Want' he mentions the band's appearances on the main stage at Glastonbury; and their sold-out Marlay Park show in 2016, the band's biggest headline gig at the time. ÒIt took us months to come down from that,Ó he remembers. Then he hits on the one.
"Actually, you know, now that I think of it, releasing our first EP, by an absolute mile," he smiles. "I remember we recorded it down in Leitrim, and I took the picture of the cover of it on my iPhone. It was just so exciting, actually putting something out there. Like, 'Oh, shit. I think we're a band'. I'd say that was probably by far the most exciting and most memorable thing. We didn't know what was gonna happen. Hadn't a clue. Then all of a sudden, things started rolling for us, and it all just kind of snowballed."
That snowball's still racing downhill, picking up momentum. They have a summer of festivals ahead of them. Then there's the EP. And a new album that could see them scale previously unimagined heights. Fasten your seat belts. You never know where this trip might take us...
Kodaline play St. Anne's Park, Dublin on 31 May and 1 June 2019.