- 24 Mar 01
Even without a record deal, industrious Northern Irish reprobates watercress have a back catalogue to be proud of. jackie hayden meets band linchpin dan donnelly.
When Bono "popped" up to Belfast last month to attend the Heineken Hot Press Awards he hardly expected to have fellow nominees Watercress confess that, just a week after their historic Popmart gig in Belfast, the local heroes mounted a piss-take version of the U2 spectacular, complete with a portable telly on stage, a McDonald's carton, Brian Acton disguised as Bono and other appropriate Spinal Tapisms.
But, according to Dan Donnelly, the man who contributes the distinctive rhythmic mandolin to the Watercress sound, Bono took it all quite calmly. They actually enjoyed a lengthy natter with him and were a little gobsmacked to find that the millionaire megastar doesn't take himself anywhere near as seriously as some would have you believe.
But Donnelly was less enamoured with both Bono and Shane MacGowan using the occasion to score political points. As he put it during our chat, "We're musicians, not politicians. While what's happening now might be the best thing that's happened to Northern Ireland in years, you can't help feeling that there'll never be peace. So we can do without people coming from Dublin and London to say their bit. It's too easy, and so parochial. We don't want the whole world to think we're obsessed with this political thing. If I'd wanted to go into politics I'd have joined a party or something, not a rock band."
Yes, and he probably wouldn't have penned a song called 'I Wish (Someone Would Shoot Me)' as featured on Watercress' debut album Bummer (just out, incidentally).
So what made young Donnelly want to join a band in the first place, anyway?
"Look," he says, " I'm only 23. I love touring. I love playing live. Every night is different. I've been all over Sweden, Holland, France and other places with this band. I've slept with girls, got drunk, done drugs and thoroughly enjoyed it all. I'm really proud of this band. We've just released our self-funded album and it's a testament to our determination. Before that we'd put out three EPs, two singles, plus b-sides, and not one track a filler - and all self-financed. "
But why is Bummer self-funded anyway, I inquire?
"It's not that we're anti-industry or anything," he explains, "but we're not prepared to sit around until some record company comes over and signs us. That's why I admired what Nick Kelly said at your awards, that bands who want to make music and make records should just get out there and fuckin' do it."
So all those industry moguls queuing up at Heathrow can just get back in their limos and head back to their offices?
"If someone came up with a decent deal, of course we'd look at it, and maybe they will. But looking after it all yourself gives you more control. Like, we went through a bad patch last year. We were burnt out after too much touring, so we ourselves decided to put back the album for a year. If we'd been signed to EMI they'd have told us to get straight into the fuckin' studio.
"I've seen too many great bands like That Petrol Emotion and Something Happens get lost in all that. We don't want that to happen to us. We don't desperately want to be on Top Of The Pops or any of that. We just want to be a good wee band from Belfast able to make a living out of writing and playing songs - and if something comes along we'll look at the best option. It's not that complicated."
The quartet have always been noted for what seems to be a deliberate, possibly even exaggerated, use of their natural Northern Irish accents on their records.
"Not so," Donnelly argues defiantly. "That's the way it should be anyway. It's not a conscious thing. We didn't spot it until other people started to point it out. I can't understand why some Irish singers sing in strange accents. Even Bono has been known to sound like an American. I don't understand it. Can you imagine how we'd feel if an American, say Kris Kristofferson, started to sing with an Irish accent? We'd laugh our heads off."
How does the band deal with media criticism, of which there has been some amid the avalanche of rave reviews? "We can handle honest criticism," Donnelly replies. "I actually like reading bad reviews that are honest and when they're justified. Nick Kelly did a very bad review of us once for Hot Press and our manager Gerry Sheppard printed the whole review on a t-shirt. So at your awards we got Nick to sign it!"
During their short lifetime, Watercress have also been compared to The Pale, but Donnelly admits to being barely familiar with only one or two of that band's songs, like 'Butterfly', and reckons that Watercress don't sound as dark as them: "I think we're more comparable to the Violent Femmes and there's definitely an influence from They Might Be Giants on our lyrics."
Although some of the material on Bummer will be familiar to many ('Candlemaker' and 'Space Girl', for example), all the tracks have been freshly recorded. "We wanted to put out an album that was the very best shot we could do," affirms Donnelly. "And I think every track stands up in its own right. There's not one filler on it".
Gone from the album and current live set are such old favourites as 'Photograph', and 'Boneyman' because, "they're history. We've matured from that time."
An element of Watercress that has certainly been toned down is the "we're really mad wee Northern fuckers" stage antics that polarised many listeners when the band emerged around 1995. While some interpreted this as the contrived art-school whimsy approach of a band trying too hard, Donnelly argues that it was really the opposite.
"We don't want to be perceived as a band that takes itself so seriously, but maybe we were overdoing it a wee bit."
Not that such behaviour has been sidelined forever, though. At a recent gig in Cork, Donnelly and fellow vocalist Acton did a sort of Plant and Page stage thing with one standing on the other's shoulders. Unfortunately they, er, fell over. n
* Watercress' first album Bummer is now on release, distributed by Outlet in Ireland and Total in the UK. 'Stars Shine On' is the current single, to be followed shortly by 'Holiday'. They play the Mean Fiddler in Dublin on 3rd May.