- 06 Aug 20
Ahead of the release of their highly anticipated sixth album, True Love Waits, we sat down with The Coronas to discuss their toughest year ever, following the departure of guitarist Dave McPhilips, and the arrival of a name-stealing virus – which had members wondering if this might indeed be the end of the line. Now, they have bounced back, with a fresh new outlook; a boundary-pushing record – and their own desire to conquer the world apparently undiminished.
No band is immune from ill-fortune. Not even if you’ve made five beloved albums, played acclaimed international tours, your very own festival is slated to happen and there’s a famously loyal fan base to support you. It can be a roll of the dice. The wheel of fortune turning and stopping just where you least wanted it to. It can be completely and utterly arbitrary. And that’s how it turned out.
Welcome to the weird world of The Coronas 2020.
It was meant to be a big year for the Dublin band, one that had been long in the planning. They had a new album on the way. Tours of Australia and the US lined up. A flurry of live outdoor headlining slots in the diary – including their own ‘Nowhere We’d Rather Be’ festival in Kilruddery House, Co. Wicklow.
And yet: after well over a decade of relatively smooth sailing, The Coronas suddenly found themselves at the centre of what had all the appearances of a perfect storm – hit with not one, but a multitude of huge, career-altering, waves.
The unexpected departure of band member Dave McPhilips, officially announced late last year, came as a fierce shock to the system. But a world-shaking virus that effectively stole their name – and forced the cancellation of a myriad of gigs – hit even closer to home. Suddenly people everywhere were talking about the Coronavirus, and the band's name suddenly looked like the kind of liability that might be impossible to face down.
Indeed, there was a moment when the trio reckoned that if there were prizes for the most unfortunately named band of 2020, they’d be standing head and shoulders above every other act on that socially-distanced podium.
As the coronavirus became world news, The Coronas’ moniker suddenly became fodder for bad jokes in WhatsApp groups. “Hey @corona beer!” the band tweeted back in March. “So what’s your plan? Asking for a friend…”
It was a good question. With a survey earlier this year revealing that 38% of American beer drinkers wouldn’t buy a Corona, the band were faced with an existential question: is there any hope that we might be able to navigate our way through this particular shit-storm?
There was, as it happens, a silver lining – which was that it might have been worse. This, after all, isn’t the first time that a malignant force has heaped grisly connotations onto a previously innocent group name – once upon a time, there was a Boston rock band called ISIS. It was a point for those who try to always see the glass being half-full to fall back on.
And so, 2020 has taken on an even more urgent mien for Danny O’Reilly, Graham Knox and Conor Egan. You could pitch it as the Dublin band’s make-or-break year – eerily, for the superstitious among us, coinciding with their 13th anniversary. But with their hotly anticipated new album True Love Waits just around the corner, it’s clear that they’re more than willing to face up to any challenge.
DRAGGING US ALL DOWN
“Danny was getting a few Google alerts about coronavirus on his email back in January.” All of a sudden, the drummer with The Coronas, Conor Egan, is looking care-worn. “That’s when we first really heard about it. We were thinking: ‘Geez, that’s not great, is it?’”
That, it turned out, was a massive understatement.
“When it started around January, it was funny – we had a few Twitter comedians taking the piss,” admits bassist Graham Knox. “And then it started to become more serious, with people dying. It was just extremely unfortunate.
“But we were here first!” he exclaims.
In a ‘Letter from Home’, written specially for the Hot Press Lockdown Stay Safe Issue, published in April, lead singer and main songwriter Danny O’Reilly confessed that he thought it might be the killer blow. There were long dark nights of the soul, during which the future of the band – never mind that of the world at large! – seemed to be up for grabs.
“This pandemic has affected everyone in different ways,” Danny wrote in the piece. “I feel a huge amount of guilt, admitting that I’ve spent far too many hours worrying about how it is going to affect my band. Selfishly worrying about whether an unfortunate band name will negatively affect sales or opportunities for us going forward, as well as all the other worries that I think all musicians and artists have in this uncertain time.
“I suppose it’s human nature to be concerned with things that affect your livelihood. But as the days pass and the virus continues to wreak havoc on the world, it becomes clearer to me that all I really want is for my family to be ok and to give my dad a hug. Stay safe, stay apart, this madness will be over soon.”
“It was a weird level of strangeness,” Danny O’Reilly reflects now, looking back on the early days of lockdown. “But I don’t think the cross-over in the names is having any real negative effect on us.”
In fact, there’s a school of thought that an initial negative might just be turned into a positive.
“Apparently our Spotify numbers are up,” Danny adds, with a shrug. “I mean, I would like to think that’s because we have got some good music out, but who knows? I have definitely done more interviews around the world because of this. If it puts us in a few people’s way, even if it’s just because of having a weird name, then so be it!”
Of course, Danny, Conor and Graham weren’t always The Coronas. Back in their days at Terenure College, they originally performed as Kiros. Oddly, a Canadian band formed under that same name in 2002 and lasted till 2013 – garnering a Song of the Year Award at the Canadian Covenant Awards in 2008. Kiros is a Greek word, meaning lord, king or ‘a moment of divine time’.
“We were very young then,” Graham grins. “We changed to The Coronas because we were obsessed with the Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous, and William Miller writes on a Smith Corona Deluxe typewriter in that. This was even before the beer was over here – but within a year, Corona had launched in Ireland, so people thought we were named after that. And now, obviously, there’s this!”
Another change from their days as Kiros is that minor consideration: actual musical ability.
“We started the band before we could really play our instruments,” Danny laughs. “Nowadays people are going to college and totally mastering their instruments. But we were just mates who’ve known each other since we were kids – we used to talk about our band before we even had one. It took us six months to actually sit down and have a rehearsal. We were sort of just winging it. But there is an innocence and a sort of naivety in that, which probably ended up standing to us, in a weird way.”
Guitarist Dave McPhillips came slightly later to the fold, but was integral to the band’s success to date. The disruption of the coronavirus was followed by the bombshell announcement that he had decided to leave the band after twelve years.
“In fact, Dave told us all individually last summer,” Conor reveals. “So we all had our own different reactions. Danny originally thought that could be the end of it.”
“Yeah, I was definitely thinking seriously about it,” confirms Danny. “When Dave first said it to me, I thought that maybe this was the beginning of the end, and that maybe we should talk about that. But then I spoke to Conor and Knoxy, and they saw the potential of this – as a new chapter. By Dave’s own admission, he just wasn’t enjoying the buzz of being in the band anymore. And in a way, that was dragging us all down a bit as well.
“It’s like in a relationship,” he continues. “If there’s one person unhappy, it makes everyone unhappy. So Conor and Knoxy saw that we could do it in a different way, and it could be a lot of fun. We still love touring, so why would we stop that? And who knows what might happen down the road. He might feel after an album or two that he’d like to come back. The door will always be open for him to play with us. Definitely.”
As Danny questioned the future of the band, did the option of a solo career occur to him?
“I do one solo gig a year, almost to remind myself that I don’t want to go solo!” he laughs. “It’s more pressure, and I don’t enjoy the gig as much. I’m at my best as a frontman with a solid band behind me, as opposed to taking on that solo singer-songwriter vibe, and trying to make it quiet. If I was to do the solo thing, it just wouldn’t feel right. Down the road, who knows? I would never completely rule out doing a solo album. But during lockdown I’ve been writing, and I already have the next album in mind for The Coronas. It doesn’t feel like a solo record.”
WHEN WE WERE YOUNGER
The Coronas’ shift from a four-piece to a trio, after more than a decade, has undoubtedly had a profound effect on their sound and approach. In many ways, True Love Waits serves as a reintroduction to the band, with ‘Lost In The Thick of It’ – a sweet duet with Gabrielle Aplin – as a potent calling card.
“Dave leaving the band last summer sort of led us on a new path,” Danny explains. “I think sometimes a change is as good as a rest. It gave us a new vigour. We decided we wanted to continue on without him, and straight away we knew that the album was going to sound different.”
“When you’re writing and recording, you get a hunger,” adds Graham Knox. “You want to experiment in the studio – and then you want to get out and tour with the songs. It gives you a new lease of life – and myself, Danny and Egan were feeling that. We were hungry to get into the studio, and get stuck into it.”
In the absence of a guitarist, the band adapted – diving head-first into collaborations and co-writes with members of True Tides, All Tvvins, Picture This and Thanks Brother, and expanding The Coronas into what Graham describes as “a group experiment.”
“It felt like a different vibe straight away – but still The Coronas,” Danny reasons. “One of the great things about being in the position that we’re at with The Coronas is that our fans know us and have been with us for years now. So we can take a chance on a song, or try different things, and feel like our fans are going to come with us.”
The project also saw them working with a selection of big-name producers, including Hozier hit-maker Rob Kirwan in LA, George Murphy in London, and Cormac Butler in Harold’s Cross.
“Normally we go into the studio with one guy, and just flesh out the album and that would be it,” Graham explains. “Between Rob, George and Cormac, they obviously have their different styles – so the change of sound happened organically. Becoming a three-piece, we needed to change it up, so it was a good time to try that.”
“We were recording in LA early last year, and at that stage Dave was fully committed,” Danny adds. “But then when he told us that he wanted to take a break after that recording session, it veered off in another direction. In the end, we only used two songs from that recording for the album. After that, it felt right to go back to George in London, where we had done the last two albums. George knew The Coronas’ strengths, and from the batch of songs we had sent to him, he got what the album should be, straight away. We ended up having three different producers on the album, but George Murphy was really the main one. He brought it all together.”
After 13 years, and a few major life events, True Love Waits is reflective of The Coronas’ new outlook – one that now includes wives and a baby.
“The last album was released the week I was getting married – which was a bit stressful at the time!” Conor Egan laughs. “We’re all getting older, so perspective-wise, there have been changes. Knoxy has a child, so he would spend a lot more time with his family. But we still want to travel the world and make it big – nothing has changed there.”
“We’re at that point where you take stock of life, and find that some things are more important than others,” nods Graham. “Going forward, we’re going to pick and choose the shows we do. We’re not just going to fuck off to America for two months and play in every single town and city. We used to go to the UK when we were younger, and we would literally stop in every single town. But now we’re just focusing on the likes of Glasgow, London and Manchester. You’re saving money and actually getting more money. It’s good to spend some time at home as well.”
This new outlook has been strengthened by the time The Coronas spent at home during lockdown – despite not getting to meet up from March through to July.
“We last saw each other in Dubai,” Conor recalls, with a smile. “We were over there for a Paddy’s Day gig just before the lockdown started, and we all flew home separately. No one knew what was going to happen. Then Danny was in Dingle and Knoxy and I were in Dublin. It was surreal. It was the longest we had gone without seeing each other since we were kids.”
TRUMP AT THE HELM
In the first few weeks of lockdown, in his contribution to Hot Press’s ‘Letters From Home’ series, Danny shared a moving reflection about his grandmother’s funeral at the height of social-distancing restrictions.
“I have no doubt that I would have given my uncles, aunties, siblings, cousins, but especially my father, numerous hugs through the day,” he wrote. “Instead, it was a short service, immediate family only, sitting apart but remembering together, and promising each other that there will be a proper send-off organised when all this madness has passed.”
“We still haven’t got to meet up as a whole family, and do something properly,” he tells me, three months on. “Hopefully we’ll be able to, when things get back to normal. I have got to hug my dad, though! My mum and dad came to visit me in Dingle and we went out for dinner the first night that the restaurants opened back up, which was lovely.
“I was actually really grateful to Hot Press for that,” he continues. “It was a strange time, and that whole situation was on my mind without me really even realising it. Then someone from Hot Press got in touch about writing a letter, and as I wrote about this personal thing that was going on in my life, I felt so much better. That’s one of the best things about writing songs, and writing in general: getting it out there as some sort of catharsis.”
Although Danny, like the rest of the world, is eager to return to normality, he acknowledges that the country’s roadmap to reopening is ‘a difficult one’.
“As soon as the pubs are open, there are always going to be groups of people coming together,” he says. “That’s just human nature. People have just been cooped up for so long. So, I wouldn’t be madly critical of the crowds that are in town at the weekend. Personally, I wouldn’t have a huge desire to just go to the pub – but that’s because I drank enough in lockdown, to be honest!
“It’s tough for people who are single, and people in apartments,” he continues. “It’s really hard for people’s mental health as well. There’s bound to be some built-up aggression, and that’s going to affect people in different ways. People’s lives have been thrown upside down. You could have been working on something your whole life, and suddenly it’s thrown up in the air. Everyone has different ways of dealing with it, and for the most part people have been really good with adhering to the government’s restrictions. But if the pubs are open, it has to be expected that people are going to do that.”
The lockdown has also been a time of serious reflection for many – with a global conversation about racism kicking off in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Many bands and artists began to feel, for the first time, that silence on political and social issues was no longer an option.
“I realised that just because you’re not a racist doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and educate yourself, and actively try to get the right message out there,” Danny posits. “We realised that we had been a bit asleep about that matter, and neglecting it. The Black Lives Matter movement is very important, and straight away we were 100% behind the whole thing.
“But it’s funny – last week we were asked about politics, and I said, ‘You know we haven’t talked about politics for 12 years’. It was never really our thing, and we’d never usually get involved in things like that. But now bands are expected to do it – and that’s a good thing. It’s time that bands and artists go, ‘Ah, here!’ It’s not good enough to just be liberal and do your own thing anymore, because there are so many bad things happening out there. We have this platform, so why not use it?”
Indeed, if Donald Trump’s presidency – and Kanye West’s claim that he will be a candidate for the White House in November – have taught us anything, it’s that you no longer have to be a politician in order to talk about politics.
“America just seems shocking at the moment, with everything going on,” Danny sighs. “We were planning to go back there touring this year, and God knows that isn’t going to happen! Who knows what is going to happen? Never mind trying to predict the virus six months ago – there’s no way you could’ve predicted six years ago that Trump would be where he is now. It upsets me when I think about it.
“I actually love America – it’s one of my favourite places to tour, and I have loads of friends over there. But right now, I can’t see us going back there anytime soon, and that makes me really sad. Hopefully they’ll find a way out of it, because it’s definitely not getting any better over there with coronavirus, and Trump at the helm.”
PEOPLE SINGING ALONG
To cope with this bleak state of the world, The Coronas have been working their way through the list of the lockdown clichés: yoga, Netflix, jogging, podcasts, and of course, sourdough baking.
Like other creatives, however, they also felt a pressure to use the time constructively.
“Initially, people kept saying to me, ‘Ah, you’ll be grand, you can just go and write the next album’,” Danny reflects. “I definitely felt a pressure to write, but I wasn’t in that mindset, because we had just been gearing up to go on tour. So I struggled at the start. I was wondering what I could write about – with the world ending. Could I really just write about my own stuff, when there’s actually proper issues going on? Should I try to give some insight into that? But how could I? I felt like I couldn’t write.
“So for the first month, I just did those covers on The Coronas’ Instagram page every night. That ended up going on for a full month. It was fun at first, but after a while, it started making me anxious. I was awake at night thinking, ‘What am I going to do tomorrow?’ It became counter-productive.”
However, as lockdown restrictions began to ease, so did Danny’s writer’s block.
“People were starting to get out of the other side of lockdown, and you could at least see a finish line in sight,” he says. “I felt like things weren’t going to be so bad. And all of a sudden then, I felt like writing songs.
“A lot of people felt that pressure to be creative,” he continues. “There was definitely a bit of a productivity competition between people online. I was worried about a few friends of mine, because they felt like they had to be doing something. I kept trying to tell people that if you’re doing nothing except watching Netflix, that’s alright. You don’t need to be harsh on yourself. It took me a little while to realise that for myself as well.”
After removing that pressure, Danny immersed himself in writing. He has already crafted the bones of the next album.
“It’s a thoroughly depressing quarantine vibe,” he jokes. “No, it’s early days, but I can already start to see the next album in my head. I’m putting together a few really rough demos on GarageBand, and sending them to Knoxy and Egan. It’s starting to come together. We’ll worry about this one first, but with gigs not being on, there’ll be plenty of time to go back to Kerry to do a bit more writing. So who knows? Maybe by the end of next year there could be a new album.”
In the meantime, there is the vexed question of live gigs – and when The Coronas might actually get to play one properly again. Like countless other acts, the band have seen major shows and international tour dates cancelled, including the inaugural ‘Nowhere We’d Rather Be’ festival, which was set to take place in Kilruddery House & Gardens in Bray over the August Bank Holiday weekend. True Love Waits, meanwhile, was shunted back from May 29 to July 31.
With that new release date now imminent, the big push is on – with hopes to score another No.1 album in Ireland. If that can be achieved, it really will herald the beginning of a new chapter for The Coronas in the proper manner. Either way, the strange times we find ourselves in notwithstanding, Danny, Graham and Conor are looking resolutely ahead – with no signs of slowing down any time soon.
“I really do miss live gigs and going to festivals,” Danny says. “So I hope it comes back fully, and not totally different. Even if it takes a bit longer – when we do come back – I hope that it’s full-on, arms in the air, and people singing along, without being worried. I can’t wait to get back to that eventually.”
• True Love Waits is out now.