- 08 Mar 23
With second album Sitting Pretty, The Academic continue their steady and deserved ascent. “It feels like a natural progression without losing sight of what makes us… us,” they tell Pat Carty.
Sometime around the end of 2017 I was in a public house with a senior member of the Hot Press staff. He decided, after a few drinks, that he couldn’t be arsed writing a review of the debut album by “some band from Mullingar” and so fobbed it off on me instead, as I was a fellow “bogger”. “I don’t want to do it either,” I mumbled into my glass, keen as ever to avoid doing any actual work, but rank had been pulled so I was lumbered with it. Luckily for me, the band in question were The Academic and the album was Tales From The Backseat.
Finally, almost exactly five years on from that release, they’ve followed it up with Sitting Pretty, a tougher, older brother of the first record but one that’s retained its predecessor’s pop smarts and sports more memorable choruses than Greek theatre. We managed to convince all four of them – singer, guitarist, and ‘dancer’ Craig Fitzgerald, lead guitar player Matthew Murtagh, his brother Stephen who plays the bass, and drummer Dean Gavin - to sit still for longer than five minutes and tell us a few stories. Finishing each other’s sentences and talking across one another just like a rock n’ roll band should, they prove great company.
Friends in St. Joseph’s Secondary School in Rochfortbridge – which isn’t quite Mullingar, you ill-informed arse - they got together as the leaving cert approached. “We had original material,” says Stephen. “Craig had acoustic demos and we felt they were good songs.” Fitzgerald is slightly dismissive of his own talent. “I just had a summer where things kind of clicked, you know? I got more enjoyment out of my own ideas than learning covers.”
“There was a demo of a song called ‘Letters’ was just really exciting,” Matthew remembers which prompts Craig to sum up one of the things that’s so special about this band. “It was all your first few cans of Strongbow and falling out with girls and stuff like that. We never wanted to force ourselves to write about stuff. I naturally find comfort in writing about what’s going on in my life.” “I think a huge reason why people gravitate towards our band is because they can see it’s honest,” Stephen reckons, hitting the nail squarely on the head. “We’ve never put a dishonest note on record or tried to be something we’re not.”
They played anywhere that would have them and their first release, 2015’s Loose Friends EP, made people sit up and take notice. Its lead track ‘Different’ had a chorus as big as Westmeath, although Craig calls it “a child’s melody” with admirable modesty. RTÉ got behind it, because it was great, and on the strength of its success they booked a headliner at Vicar Street, which took some big, brass balls.
“I was terrified,” Matthew admits. “I thought we’d get moved down to Whelan’s!” “Carl [Brogan, the band’s manager, a man who knows his onions so well he possibly has a PhD in olericulture] pushed us to always aim for the big rooms,” says Dean, “but Vicar Street just felt huge.” It sold out.
Talent and ambition are one thing – well, two things – but over the next couple of years The Academic proved time and again that they were willing to graft. There was a “pretty grim toilet tour” of the UK, another great single with 2016’s ‘Mixtape 2003’, “some bad stages at festivals” and “something like fifteen shows” at Eurosonic, which was their “pathway to Europe” and earned them some choice continental festival slots the following year. “If you want this to be your thing,” says Dean, matter-of-factly, “you have to put the work in, although when you’re doing gig, it doesn’t feel like work. Every band has to travel and slog it out. We never complained.”
When that debut album arrived in January 2018, it was brimming over with, as one critic (me) gushed, “hooks that lodge in the brain like a hungry tick that won’t take no for an answer.”
“We were highly productive,” says Stephen, with a satisfied and justifiable nod. “It was the excitement of our early twenties and late teenage years. It seemed like there were so many songs.”
Craig explains it further.
“It starts with myself. I’ll sit at home and mess around until something happens. Eventually, something starts smiling at you and you know it’s one to remember. Whenever we had the instruments loud in a room, we’d try it, but it was never just jamming, we’d go back, and work, and make sure it was right.”
Want to keep your band together? Split those song writing credits equally.
“One of the serious conversations we had with Carl,” Craig continues, “was to decide how you run the band. We’re all friends, we’re all family. It seemed fucked up that someone might take more. Everyone’s sleeping in the same shit.”
There happened to be a copy of Hot Press on the piano behind me with U2 on the cover, which I pointed at.
“They were the inspiration,” says Matthew, making his voice heard above the others. “Let’s do it U2 style, so if we ever make any money, it will never be a ‘thing’.”
Another factor in The ‘2’s trajectory was strong management. The Academic, as already mentioned, have that too.
“Someone passed a video of us to Carl early on and he got in touch. He was from Mullingar, which helped,” Craig says before Matthew adds in the clincher. “Before we met him, we were doing the usual pub gigs. Carl said, ‘I’ll get you a support in Vicar Street in two weeks’, and he did.”
One of the many things that contributed to the album’s success was the clever, time-delayed video for ‘Bear Claws’, although the fact that the song is catchier than a baseball mitt didn’t hurt either. The clip went viral.
“It really helped in America,” Craig explains. “We were very much this unknown Irish band and we’d be at the merch table after the show and people would tell us they saw the video and decided to buy a ticket. They didn’t even know the headline band, they just came to see us. It definitely helped.”
The album hit number one here, but it did also improved their standing outside of Ireland. Rooms started to get bigger and The Academic worked them for all they were worth. They proved their right-on credentials by nearly killing themselves flying back from America to fulfil a commitment to play in Bandon.
“We ditched two support gigs to fly home. It was literally airport, landed, drove to Cork, played the gig, drove back to the airport,” Craig recalls, still half amazed. “We got to headline that Bandon festival based on the work we’d put in in Ireland, we wanted to play for the people who wanted to see us,” Stephen adds. “There was a gap in the schedule and we said, ‘why not?’” Dean laughs before Matthew lobs in. “I remember thinking at the time, ‘this is fucking mental!’”
They took another calculated gamble in booking their first Iveagh Gardens gig that summer. It paid off, handsomely.
“That was like an arrival moment for everyone who had worked with the band,” according to Craig and Stephen gets positively misty-eyed. “It was so beautiful because it was in the summer, the album had come out in January and we were waiting to play in Ireland. The album had six months to grow legs and for people to love all the songs so it was perfect timing.” “Going from playing upstairs in Whelan’s to there is just fucking crazy,” Craig adds, shaking his head.
This wasn’t the only big gig of that summer. There was also the not inconsiderable matter of opening for The Rolling Stones in Croke Park, a slot that engendered some internet sniping.
“Carl said he was putting us forward for it and we were like, ‘Yeah. Grand.’” Dean snorts. “Then we were in Paris doing a small gig and he takes us into another room to tell us we’re going to be supporting The Rolling Stones.”
“They pick their own supports, I think it was Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood. I think they’d seen that our album had gone to number one and that it was well reviewed, maybe they heard a little bit of it, and they said ‘them’, so what was the grumbling about?” Stephen asks before Dean advises the begrudgers to “take it up with the lads. If you want to tell Keith Richards he’s wrong, be my guest!”
“My mam deleted Twitter,” Craig reveals to a round of guffaws. “She kept going, ‘people are being awful fucking mean to you!’ We came home to do a press thing in Croke Park where we had to walk down the tunnel with guitars in our hands and all these people from Exposé were like, ‘Who?’ The first question was, ‘Mr Aiken, will there be another support band?’”
“The only tweet I remember from the time,” says Matthew, “was ‘I can see this band in a pub in Mullingar’ and I was like, yeah, maybe six years ago…”
2019 was, according to the band themselves, “the summer of ‘Superlike’,” referring to yet another great single. The touring continued with a second Iveagh Gardens gig and packed stops in the Marquee in Cork and Galway’s Big Top. The Academic organisation had achieved all this as an Independent band, something that was very important to them. There had, of course, been some sniffing around from major labels but offers were turned down. At the end of 2019, however, they sat down with Capitol to iron out their next move. Unlike other bands before them, they were holding a pretty strong hand, with a sizable international fanbase and a successful album already in the bag.
“They were very respectful of what we had done. I think that was the most impressive thing about the conversation but it was nice to be in that position of control. If we didn’t like it, we could just walk away,” Craig says, explaining their enviable standing, which leads to the question, what did the band want from the deal?
“To tour as much as possible and also to put more people behind the band, in terms of everything, really. We were operating at full capacity so it made sense to have people who could help us,” is Matthew’s opinion to which Stephen adds that it was “the unknown element, where a major label could push us to.” “And,” says Dean, “they gave us complete creative control.”
Then the world collapsed on its ear and went into lockdown. The band were playing Dubai as phone calls told them this was fairly serious. The tour was pulled and, like us all, they retreated home to enjoy what everyone felt would be a few weeks off before business as usual resumed. They at least had an EP ready to go, Acting Your Age, but the timing was less than fortunate.
“At the start of it, we took a break, we’d been touring for two years, so it was welcome,” is Craig’s recollection, “but it got really boring after a while. We were listening to a lot of stuff and trying different things but the problem was there wasn’t much to sing about, apart from that.”
That being said, they did release Acting Your Age and a second EP – recorded “for our own mental health” - during the pandemic, Community Spirit which opened with the unironically titled ‘Not Your Summer’, another instantly whistleable nugget. Like all other bands they found gigging in empty rooms for internet broadcasts “strange”, to put it mildly.
“You did your best to pretend a crowd’s there but it’s just pure silence. It was grim,” Craig says, ruefully. While the band are vocal in their appreciation for government support and the PUP payments, Matthew quite rightly felt it all got a bit much. “My main issue was their organisation of ‘for show’ events near the end of lockdown. I rang several of my local politicians to talk about the fact there were full-on sporting events going on in Croke Park at the same time we were playing Reading and Leeds but couldn’t do a gig in a pub here. Some of them understood and some of them just didn’t care.”
Thankfully, we’re past all that now.
“At the end of 2021, the clouds started to lift,” says Stephen, “and people started having conversations about albums and producers.” Recording began in February of 2022 with former Kaiser Chief Nick Hodgson behind the desk, who had worked with band during lockdown and written songs with Fitzgerald previously. The end result, Sitting Pretty, is, to employ some lazy journalistic shorthand, a more mature affair. The band are in agreement about this.
“We wanted it to sound more ‘band in the room’” says Matthew while Stephen points out that “we listened to a lot of mixes like R.E.M. and Arcade Fire. A lot of indie music is very kick drum with the vocal shouting at you down the middle whereas we wanted it a bit more spacey.”
When pushed for influences they mention Elvis Costello, Squeeze, Vampire Weekend, and The Kinks’ Village Green and Talking Heads’ Remain In Light are given favourable nods. They were going for feel over perfection this time out or more “loosey goosy” as Stephen memorably puts it. The first two singles, ‘Don’t Take It Personally’ and ‘Pushing Up Daisies’, heralded a band moving on while still retaining what was great about them in the first place.
“The first album,” says Matthew, “feels like such a summery record, a young debut album. I don’t think this album feels that way. It feels like a natural progression without losing sight of what makes us… us.”
They’ve matured lyrically too, from fake ids and drinking lemonade to asking ‘what’s wrong with me?’ and ‘how do I end up in these situations with no control?’ They sound like they’ve been knocked around a bit.
“Being knocked around a bit is a good way to put it,” Matthew answers before Craig talks about the new Craig. “Lyrics about lemonade feel like a different Craig, but this is where it is. These lyrics happened very naturally, they’re related to real life situations as they were happening. I think we’re getting better at being genuine.”
We had been talking for a good hour and a half at that stage and I felt that was a good line to end with. As one, the band breathed an audible sigh of relief but just as they started to stretch, I pulled a Columbo and threw one more question at them. There are certain Irish bands right now, and we all know who I’m talking about, who are seen as ‘cool’ and can, apparently, do no wrong. Would it be fair to say that The Academic - a better band altogether in my humble opinion, something they proved on Electric Picnic’s main stage last September and prove again with this great record - are not perceived in quite the same way by the tasterati?
Dean: “I don’t think we care, really.”
Stephen: “We’ve got loads of fans, our records sell, we get loads of streams, what more could we want?”
Matthew: “In terms of musicality and post-punk, I don’t think we’d be a very good that. It’s not our bag, so why bother? I like those bands but we’re happy in our own lane.”
Craig: “Career envy? We have our world, we live in it, and we’re happy.”
Stephen: “I don’t think we’re interested in what’s ‘cool’. This band has always been about longevity and staying true to ourselves.”
Matthew: “We’re in a rock n’ roll band. We know we’re cool.”
Sitting Pretty is out now. The Academic play 3Olympia on March 10 but you probably have more chance of finding a winning lottery ticket. Instead, why not apply for entry to their Hot Press/Windmill Live show on March 30. That's the one you want.