Words and photos by James Hendicott
When we meet, Dubliners The Cast Of Cheers have just put the final touches to what is to be their second full-length album. AU are lucky enough to have been invited along: so lucky, in fact, that part of our interview will involve hearing the early mixes of several tracks from the new album at the same time as bassist John Higgins (yes, like the snooker player) and drummer Kev Curran get their first listens. The atmosphere in the secretive Wicklow studio known only as The Meadows is one of achievement and anticipation.
Before diving into the new material, though, we took the chance to quiz the band on a year that’s seen them rise through the ranks of the Dublin music scene from unknowns who’d never played a live show to RTE award winners, international festival performers and Choice Music Prize nominees. There’s plenty to mull over, then, from a year that’s surely surpasses every possible expectation…
AU: Let’s start at the beginning. You put Chariot out without playing any gigs, which is the total opposite to what most bands do. How did you even get into a position to be putting out an album having not played any live shows?
Conor Adams (vocals, guitar): Well, I think it was because we all had so many bands before over the years, we’d gigged so many times with different bands that there was no reason to think that this time would be better. We thought it would be good to have music that people sort of knew before they saw us. So we just worked from that point, really. We didn’t even think about it all that much before we recorded it.
Neil Adams (guitar, keys, vocals): We just wanted it to be out there, and people to come to the gigs having heard it.
AU: Putting Chariot out free has been quite a talked-about part of the band since the release…
Conor: A friend of ours had told us about Bandcamp and when we finished the album, we never really considered charging for it. We got to that part on Bandcamp when it says you can charge what you want, and we just thought, ‘No one’s going to buy this’. We wanted to be able to just text people and say, ‘Get the album’ and it was a handy way. Then people blogged about it, and it just took off.
John: For the first two weeks we were just sat staring at Bandcamp watching the download numbers go up and thinking, ‘This is crazy, who the hell’s downloading this, it’s mental’. It wasn’t expected at all.
Neil: It went from Adebisi Shank putting up a link saying ‘download this album, it’s great’, then onto Nialler9 and then other blogs started picking it up as well. It was a kind of happy accident that it was free, really.
AU: You were nominated for Choice Music Prize as a contender for Irish album of the year – the first download-only release ever to be nominated – yet you talk like you don’t think the album was worth paying for. Why’s that?
Neil: It’s not that we think it’s crap or anything like that! At the time nobody knew us, and it seemed a sensible way to establish ourselves. You don’t lose anything by downloading it – people can just delete it again if they don’t like it – so it made sense.
AU: Your first show was a pretty big venue, Andrews Lane in Dublin with Super Extra Bonus Party. Was it a baptism of fire?
Conor: Yeah, we opened, then Enemies played, then The Rubberbandits and Super Extra Bonus Party. We kicked into ‘Auricom’ and there was a cheer from the crowd. That was a bit… wow.
Neil: At that stage we’d never heard what that track sounded like live. It was that perfect moment of, ‘Oh, they know it’. But it was dangerous to play live for the first time somewhere like that. And we knew it was dangerous, too!
Conor: In all my other bands over the years, I’ve never bothered remembering lyrics. I did when I was recording them, but I’d just sing any old crap live. This one was the first time I felt like people might know the words, so I had to sing the proper words.
Kev: And you still don’t!
Conor: I do! But my memory’s terrible, so getting up on stage and playing in front of loads of people is hard. I did forget the second verse to Ghostbusters at our Halloween show.
AU: When did you start to feel the album was making an impact outside Dublin?
Neil: It started feeling different to our old bands from the first gig. Being asked to play a gig without having to put effort in, to call people or organise it all yourself or pay for the venue was big.
Kev: The first gig we ever played in Galway was about a month after the album release, maybe April, and we were asked to play.
Neil: Usually as a new band, you have to play for about a year to empty rooms before you get anywhere. In this band we’ve never had to do that. We’ve all done it in countless other bands, but not this time.
Conor: We paid our dues in a billion empty room gigs before The Cast Of Cheers! But when Two Door Cinema Club asked us to play [on their three-date Irish tour in December], that was humbling. Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London was sold out for Two Door, and the fans were all there from the second the doors opened.
AU: Did you ever consider putting Chariot out as a CD? You could probably have made a fair bit of money out of it, perhaps enough to fund the new album?
John: We did consider it, but we’re terrible with merchandise and stuff like that. If we put it out, though, who’s going to buy it? Everyone who’s interested has it. We’d rather just leave it at that.
Conor: We have such a lot of new material, too, that we felt that if we were going to go to the effort of having it printed up and produced, we should just do the new album.
Neil: We may as well put our energy into something new. Having the physical release this time round will be more exciting for it.
AU: It was a bit strange walking into HMV in Grafton Street, looking at their display of Choice Music Prize nominees, and there’s a gap where you should be…
Neil: Oh yeah! There was some talk of the album going up on the HMV website, but there were legal issues around it, bizarrely.
Conor: If you Google ‘Chariot’, you’ll get Bandcamp, but you’ll also see people illegally downloading it through torrents.
Kev: People are illegally downloading a free album. It’s bizarre. Maybe they find it when they’re searching for the Cheers soundtrack or something, though. It’s all free publicity!
Conor: Bandcamp brought in this thing where you have a limited number of free downloads. It wasn’t even brought in until this time last year, we just got an email one day saying you’re allocated two hundred free downloads a month, and after that it automatically charges. We just stuck the Soundcloud download link on the Bandcamp page. A good portion of their bandwidth was probably being taken up by people doing free downloads and they’re trying to run a business so it makes sense, and it didn’t really hurt us. But yeah, it’s still free on Soundcloud.
Kev: When people do buy the album, we use the money to buy free download credits on Bandcamp. So it’s just more free albums.
AU: It might be a silly question given the year you’ve had, but have their been any lows along the way? I remember seeing you play one of those Arthur’s Day gigs in a pub and there were about 10 people there…
Neil: Yeah that wasn’t the best, but it was still fun, because of the venue. It was weird and fun.
Kev: One time we played in a living room on a Tuesday, and there were about seven people there. But they all came down the front and went mental. It wasn’t actually a low, it was just intimate!
AU: What about the blogger/IMRO dispute? You pulled out of the IMRO gig in protest…
John: It was kind of taking a stand, but it was more a show of appreciation for what the bloggers had done for us. If it weren’t for the bloggers we wouldn’t even have been offered that gig in the first place. A lot of them are hobbyists who don’t make any money, so they obviously shouldn’t have to pay. But there was no bad blood, I think they understood under the circumstances.
AU: This might be a harder one to pick, but what about the highs?
Conor: The Shepherd’s Bush show, and the rest of the Two Door Cinema Club and Not Squares tour. New Year’s Eve in Galway was mad, too. We got to bring in the New Year.
Neil: Our first festival, Castlepalooza, was amazing. Looking back across the dancing bodies to the castle, and there were people on the steps dancing in wellies. The stage was pretty big so we could leap around like idiots, and then we leapt off the stage and went straight down the front for Adebisi.
AU: Off stage, winning the RTE Award for Outstanding Contribution to Irish music in 2010 must have been big, too. You didn’t even exist as at the start of 2010, at least as a live act…
Conor: It’s definitely humbling when anyone says that, never mind RTE. It was an outstanding year for Irish music, so we’re not sure we deserved it. As that night went on we got more and more drunk, and we kept having to give speeches. By the final RTE one we just didn’t know what to say. We’re definitely not speechmakers, anyway!
Neil: We weren’t really prepared. We’d hoped that we might get one, but we definitely didn’t expect to get any more than one! [They picked up three – Ed]
John: We were shocked, genuinely.
AU: You’ve played Berlin, New York and London over the last year. What’s the strangest thing that’s happened on the road?
John: Meeting Fatboy Slim in the jacks.
Conor: What about that night when you disappeared in Berlin?
John: This is horrible. Boys Noize played, and we have this friend who’s a fanatical Boys Noize fan. Afterwards we were hanging around with their crew backstage, and found out that there were two secret shows on. Basically me, Kev and a couple of others were walking in and these bouncers just said no and straight away pushed us to the side. We tried to talk our way in, and eventually I started saying that my manager was inside; that he told me to go there, and that my phone’s dead and I needed to get in to talk to him. I was trying to be serious, but this guy was huge. I tried to be friendly and serious, and he just turned round and said if you touch me again I’ll smash you. He was a huge guy, so I just walked away.
Kev: There was a festival where we got extremely drunk, too, and we were meant to be playing somewhere else the next day. Well, we did play somewhere else the next day, but we don’t remember it. We were two hours late for the sound check and a two-hour drive away when we finally started moving. We spent the drive doing a capella versions of our songs, each humming our bit. We nearly crashed the car. They sounded cool at the time. Luckily the gig was in a shed in the middle of Meath and there was almost no one there. At that stage we’d played so much that it was ingrained in us, almost like robots, so we managed it.
AU: Let’s move on to the upcoming album. Tell us a little bit about the recording sessions.
Neil: It’s very deeply layered. It’s a sound Conor came up with when we were recording Chariot, having half a dozen layers of vocals on top of each other. Both Conor and I are on a lot of them, and we’re really difficult to tell apart. It probably helps being brothers that we can sort the layers out well live. They’re all in the mix at the moment, and it gives it a really substantial feel. A few will probably get taken out before going on the album, but it adds a real weight to the sound. The rest is all recorded individually and then thrown together in the mix, so even we’re not sure what it’s going to sound like just yet, the ideas are more based on rehearsal.
AU: How long has the second album been in the pipeline?
Kev: We’ve been recording on and off since September, but we all have full-time jobs so it’s been a bit of a slow process doing it in the evenings. We made a conscious effort to take our time this time out, as Chariot was recorded very quickly. The sound’s a lot tighter, and a lot more dynamic and fully-formed. The studio here [The Meadows] is amazing, but we’re not really meant to say anything about it except the name.
AU: Do you have a name for the album yet?
John: We have a few ideas, but nothing definite. It was going to be called Rocket, Rocket, but the song that name comes from isn’t in the final mix, so it won’t be that. A lot of the songs are still working titles, too.
AU: The next album’s clearly going to be a very different story to Chariot in terms of promotion. When you get to that point, how will you promote the album this time round?
Kev: Probably carrier pigeon.
Conor: Well we know Mick Roe [Richter Collective co-owner, Adebisi Shank drummer and The Cast Of Cheers’ manager] has been thinking a lot about it, but we’ve really just been concentrating on the recording up to now. We’ll probably start thinking about it from now on, with the final tracks finished now and heading off for mixing.
Neil: Whatever we say, when it comes to this being written up, it’ll end up being something different. Whenever we make plans like that they seem to change a week later.
AU: Can you describe a few of the tracks from the new album for us?
Conor: They’re not a dramatic aside from Chariot, but we feel they’re a bit more developed, and they draw on our experience since then. We’re still messing with them a bit, they’re in the mixing process. We just decapitated an entire big loud ending from a song that has the working title ‘Disco’. That’s about drunken party talk, things you say which could be bullshit or real. There’s one called ‘They Call It A Race’, which is a kind of anti-rat race, equality song. We just added a really late one, too, called ‘Human Elevator’. There are 14 or 15 tracks in total, but the album will be cut down to 11 or 12.
Kev: There are more pace changes, like in the one we’re calling ‘Fuzzy’, which is slower but when I’m drumming I feel like my arms are going to fall off. Hopefully that makes it a more complete album than Chariot.
John: It’s a better reflection of where we are as a band now. We’ve come a long way from the band that had never played a show when we recorded Chariot, and this album is a better representation of what we are now. It takes a few influences from what’s happened this year. Conor’s lyrics on some of the tracks are amazing. It blows me away every time I come into the studio and hear what’s been added.
AU: Let’s be insanely ambitious and say you sell half a million copies of this album. What would you do with the stage show?
Neil: I’d focus on getting a really good light show down. Having the production down really well makes all the difference. The light show was one thing about Two Door that really impressed me.
Kev: I’d have a trampoline drum kit.
John: I want to enter the gig on a zip line. Or play the gig on Segways, with Kev’s drum on rails.
Neil: one half of the stage would be all sparkly and glitzy, like a Muse gig, and the other half like a pub gig. It’s all about the music!
As published in AU Magazine, May 2011