- 16 Jul 21
As The Academic return with a brand new EP, Community Spirit, frontman Craig Fitzgerald discusses producing the project from his bedroom, the gradual return of gigs, and the state of the Irish music scene.
After being forced to swap tour buses for their childhood bedrooms in Co. Westmeath, it didn’t take The Academic long to learn the most essential skill of the Covid-19 era: adaptability.
With sold-out headliners at The Iveagh Gardens, a support slot for The Rolling Stones at Croke Park, and a Choice Prize nomination for their debut album, 2018’s Tales From The Backseat, under their belt, the four-piece turned inwards – to present a new EP, Community Spirit, that finds the band both returning to their roots and pushing their creative boundaries.
The five-track project, out today on Capitol Records, follows their 2020 EP Acting My Age, produced by Kaiser Chiefs’ Nick Hodgson. This time around, having swatted up on his skills over lockdown, The Academic’s frontman Craig Fitzgerald is taking over the producer’s chair.
“It’s a little bit more nerve-wrecking this time around, because we’re used to having a lot of outside help – going into a studio and working with a producer and an engineer,” Craig admits. “All we had to do in that kind of world is focus on our performance, and trust in the pros to make it sound good!
“But over lockdown I’d been spending a lot of time learning how to record and produce,” he continues. “We wanted to make something, because we couldn’t tour. We just locked ourselves away, and I took on the production reins – which is a bit of a stress! But we always like to be pushed out of our comfort zones, and with this release we definitely are. There’s a little bit more at stake, in terms of how we feel about it going out to people. But it’s good nerves, always!”
Is production something we can expect Craig to explore further in the future?
“I think so,” he muses. “Ideally we want to be making an album next. We’ve done two EPs in a row, and I feel like we can’t hide from Album Two much longer! But I absolutely do not want to self-produce that in the slightest! I want to collaborate so much now, because of this pandemic. I want to get into rooms with people that I’ve worked with before, and new people. A really important aspect of music is to be open, and open to collaboration. It’s something that the four of us greatly miss.”
While The Academic’s irresistible blend of alternative rock and indie-pop hasn’t gone anywhere, Community Spirit signals a ‘back-to-basics’ approach from the band, in some respects.
"Stephen, our bass player, said this EP is a very true description of us – because there was nobody helping, and it was just the four of us back in a room, trying to trust in our musicality and the stuff we’ve learned over the years,” Craig says. “We didn’t try to force any of the tracks. We were just doing our best naturally, until it got to a point where we felt good about it. The sound of this EP is basically four guys who have been lucky enough to work with incredible artists, and incredible producers – and this is everything we know that we could do from our bedrooms.”
Craig notes that the project probably wouldn't have seen the light of day had it not been for the lockdown.
“The EP isn’t about lockdown, but it is a product of it,” he nods. “Because we would’ve been touring. The music industry nowadays is so fast-paced – there’s a big push towards quantity, rather than quality. There’s a weird place where you have to meet it, without sacrificing. So we were happy to take on the job of making an EP ourselves. We needed to do something, for ourselves and our own mental health. The four of us were suffering, not being together, and not being able to get out there and play.
“At the start, I think every artist around the world felt that,” he adds. “Everything changed, and live gigs online became a thing. For the first little while it was exciting. And then the honeymoon period of ‘Wow, it’s amazing you can play a gig online’ wore off a little bit. Everything got dark for a while. We were just at home writing songs, and emailing things. Everything felt really impersonal. There was basically no human connection at all. That went on for quite a long time.”
Working on Community Spirit reignited the band’s spark during the depths of lockdown, without demanding the same focus and attention as an album. In fact, approaching the highly anticipated Album No.2 is something The Academic are taking “very seriously,” Craig tells me.
“We didn’t want to rush, or do anything stupid, or make a weak album,” he resumes. “Doing an EP was our way of working again, and to not be suffering at home during lockdown.”
Now that Community Spirit is ready to be unleashed on the world, The Academic’s central focus is the gradual return to live music, with appearances at Reading and Leeds next month.
“We just want to go and smell the beer, see the portaloos, and see bands,” Craig laughs. “If we were told we were doing a three-month tour, playing every night with no days off, I think we would give it a go! We’d probably die, but we’d be happy with that sort of lifestyle – hotels, motels, sharing beds, talking absolute shite.”
However, he admits that even he’s not immune to feelings of re-entry anxiety.
“I’ve been through bouts of it,” he says. “We were doing some live-streamed things, and it had been so long since we played together that I felt like I lost it a little bit – in terms of my comfort. Even just having the guitar on your shoulder, and having to move around with it. It was a weird feeling. I was like, ‘It’s gone...’
“But there’s also the competition in me, where I want to put on a good show, and be better than the act that was on before,” he continues. “That will probably kick in. We’ll all find our feet, but I think it will be slow – there will be a lot of post-pandemic anxiety for people, on both the audience side and the musicians’ side. We'll all be thinking, ‘This is weird – a few months ago we could’ve all killed each other!’”
As the songs on Community Spirit attest, The Academic are more poised for a major international breakthrough than ever – particularly now that gigs are returning.
“We’ve always been a band who want to keep it guitary and alternative – but some of our favourite music is pop music, especially from the ‘70s and the ‘80s, when it was fearlessly catchy,” he grins. “That’s our whole attitude. We want our music to be heard. We want to be known as a big band, who play big shows, and have those kinds of songs. I don’t think we’re a band that reinvent the wheel, and we’re very clear of that in our heads. We’re just trying to do our own flavour of what we love.”
With his newfound spare time over lockdown, Craig also had the chance to dip into the best of the Irish music scene – with Kojaque, Fontaines D.C., Orla Gartland and The Mary Wallopers among his current favourites.
“I’ve been trying to explore and dive into the Irish stuff that I missed out on for a couple of years – because we had been touring elsewhere, and weren’t really involved in the community that’s up-and-coming in Ireland,” he explains. “People have an amazing attitude. Although we’re Irish, and it feels homegrown, the attitude, the impact, and the way people are putting themselves out there is much larger. Even when you look at acts like Denise Chaila – that kind of personality is not afraid. It’s exciting. And bands like Inhaler are really putting their stamp on things as well. It’s nice to see.”
The Academic have also been majorly inspired by the success of Picture This.
“We’ve played numerous shows with those guys – and drank numerous pints with those guys,” Craig laughs. “They're super helpful, especially Ryan. They’ll always advise – they don’t hide any of their secrets, and they’re very upfront. Those guys are a really good example of a band doing extremely well, but also being really nice about it.”
Despite their own success – and their current position on the roster of one of the most prestigious labels in the world – The Academic have never been ones to take an overly strategic, social-climbing approach to their career. As Craig notes, they simply “fell into a band at the end of school.”
“We didn’t even know what the music industry was – we didn’t know about managers, or promoters,” he remembers. “We’d just play a gig in a pub, and then we’d get told that there’s a gig we could play at down the road. We were playing in trucks in Edenderry – just mad shit!
“So we’ve never seen it as a ‘climbing a ladder’ thing, where we need to get onto the next step. We always do what we like to do, whether we’re right or wrong. If it goes well, then we’re happy with it. We just want to release music – and obviously, no one’s going to turn down a hit song. But I don’t think we have a massive pressure on ourselves, where we’re like, ‘We’re signed to a label, and we’ve got to take over the world.’ If we happen to write songs that take us to bigger places, then that’s great. But we’re happy enjoying the show.”
For now, the release of Community Spirit signals the end of the darkest lockdown days for The Academic and their fans – and from here on out, Craig and the lads have decided that “it’s going to be all go.”
“We’re constantly writing away,” he says. “And we want to have Album 2 done as soon as possible – so in the New Year we can go out with a fresh new thing.”
Community Spirit is out now.