It’s a grey, drizzly afternoon in Dublin and in the search for Girl Band’s rehearsal space, I find myself down a pot-holed back alley lined with just about everything but a rehearsal space: a muscle gym with its door open as huge men squat huge weights in tight vests, a discarded JCB that seems to have been abandoned mid-way through a dig amidst a mountain of upturned rubble and rubbish, a railway track hovering in the distance. As I walk into a garage and approach a man in overalls he says to us, “blue door” and points to a single blue door – home to Girl Band. It’s a suitably low-key setting for a group that are as relaxed and jovial as Girl Band are, despite the fact that the music they create had led me to expect otherwise.
The sounds emitted on their EP, ‘The Early Years’, and their just-released LP, ‘Holding Hands with Jamie’, project a wild, gargling, blow-torch intensity that is the frantic antithesis of the laid back nature of the four young lads that soon sit in front of me cracking jokes and passing a spliff around. At their finest, Girl Band evoke all the extremities of the human physicality: their songs are disorientating, violent, paranoid, frightening and euphoric – often all within the space of a couple of minutes. They are like being stripped naked and thrown into a delousing tank one minute, only to find yourself transported and brimming with dance floor elation the next. This experience can be something of a marmite one. Either their sonic paint thinner approach will send you into a rabid frenzy or it will leave you hurtling for the nearest exit or throwing whatever object lay closest to you towards your stereo in an attempt to stop the unrelenting punishment.
I’ve heard people refer to Girl Band shows as both the best they’ve ever seen and quite literally the worst. “And they tell you this!” exclaims Dara Kiely, the band’s singer, clearly aware of the polarising reaction the band can instil. “I do the merch and sometimes you just get filthy looks, although I’m really happy it does that, it’s not like we intentionally do that because we think it will piss them off, it’s always just about exploring the sounds.”
Adam Faulkner, the band’s drummer agrees with Kiely. “It’s a more genuine reaction,” he says. “When we did a KEXP session [for Icelandic television in Reykjavik] we did this one song that we felt was a bit more like one of our poppy songs and it was the first time we saw a real split in reaction in the YouTube comments. The first one was just like, ‘what the fuck is this?’ and we were just like, oh you’re going to fucking hate the rest of it.”
Daniel Fox, bassist, jokes: “I thought that song was like our ‘Teenage Kicks’ or something.”
Despite the fact that ‘Holding Hands with Jamie’ is a deeply unpredictable listen, often matching the trajection and mania of a car veering off the road and simply carrying on down the side of a vast, crumbling mountain, the record itself and the creative process that bore it, is a much more controlled, thought-out and conceived one, as Fox elaborates: “That sort of insane attention to detail is actually really enjoyable,” he says. “Even sometimes when we were doing mixes on the record – and we spent a month doing that – I think I took maybe a day and a half off from that, so I was losing my mind a little bit. I didn’t see the sun very much. We just totally went down the rabbit hole for it. But that’s just how we are; we get totally lost in it and that’s how we are when we’re practising the arrangements, just working through it and working through it until you get it right. Time will fly sometimes and it’s like, ah we’ve been doing this for four days…”
“Or ‘Fucking Butter’ for three years,” interjects Kiely, referring to a track from the album. He feels that a similar attention to lyrics is required, too. “From my point of view I really don’t like lazy lyrics,” he says. “Why put so much effort into the production and everything else and then just have ‘catch me when I fall’ lyrics? That got me, so I spent a lot of time on them and every aspect of the record is thought out. It has a meaning or a function, it’s important not to be lazy in any aspect of the band.”
The end result of this whole process has culminated in an immensely powerful debut album, one that feels as embedded within the roots of techno as it does esoteric noise music, even directly nodding to the more structural, softer music of Nick Drake (in its own twisted manner, of course). For Fox it’s a powerful circle he’s reached. “It’s satisfying for your inner music geek,” he says. For me, I’ve listened to so many records over my life where I have just thought ‘God, I wish I could fucking do that’. When you’re a teenager you wish you were in every band and I think with Girl Band now, and Josh Homme said this when he was asked a similar question, is that ‘I feel like I’m in my own favourite band.’”
Girl Band are too becoming other people’s favourite band. You only have to listen to a snippet of a Tom Ravenscroft’s BBC Radio 6Music show over the last six months and chances are it features him raving about the group to almost obsessive levels.
“A lot of people mosh at some of our gigs now,” says Kiely, “and we don’t mosh at gigs – I kind of hate it. I always thought we were more of a dance-y band. I would want to dance to us but if that’s what people want to do that’s what they want to do. It’s not for me. People tend to be pretty friendly though, we haven’t had any piss thrown at us like some hardcore punk bands… yet.” He laughs.
Despite the heavy workloads in the studio, one noticeably spontaneous moment resulting from a bit of slacking off did end up on the record. “There was the day we went to the pub…” says Fox, ominously.
“Yeah, we were really terribly jetlagged,” says Faulkner. “It really smacked us the second week. We’d done five days straight and then it hit us.”
The day, known by the band as “the day of the nip”, was four jet-lagged people sitting drinking in a pub all day and returning to the studio at the end of it and deciding that getting Kiely to do his vocal takes entirely in the nude would be best for everybody. “I did it with the lights out and nobody could see me,” he says.
“There was a white silhouette bouncing around the room,” adds Faulkner, with Fox saying: “It was like a crescent moon with a sliver of arse.”
The uninhibited, and undressed, state worked for Kiely and the take found its way onto album opener ‘Umbongo’. As for what happened to the tambourine take that came from Fox hanging it on his penis is another matter.
Despite these brief moments of horseplay, a great deal of what went into making this album came from a far more serious situation. Kiely had, in his own words, a breakdown. Later on we have a talk separately to the rest of the band and he opens up honestly and elaborately about the episode, happy to talk and promote the benefits of open discussions surrounding mental health. “I went from pure highs to crippling lows,” he tells me. “‘Lawman’ [track on the ‘Early Years’ EP] is a precursor to that. When I listen back to the lyrics I can pick up on that. Even our first single was about an anxiety attack. It was coming, it was coming for a couple of years – I needed to break down. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me, it really is. I feel way, way more myself and have a lot more peace of mind.”
What led to the breakdown was initially rooted in the opposite: ascension. Kiely felt joyous and was reaching new high after new high. “Everything was having this great motion to it,” he says, “I felt like I could control the room in a really strange way. I felt like I was the life of the party for a bit. I felt that people were buzzing off my enthusiasm but I was probably massively delusional. Things started to flow really well and then they started to flow really, really well in my head and then I got massive delusions of being God and stuff like that… It was all really positive stuff though, I was being overly friendly but it was too much. I was massively re-compensating for not dealing with my problems in that right way… that and I stayed up for a week,” he says with a chuckle.
A whole week?
“I didn’t go to sleep for about 8 or 9 days. I just kept going, looking for any party or anything. I wasn’t on any drugs, I’ve never taken coke or pills or anything, it was just this weird eruption of elation and I felt glorious. ”
It almost sounds like one enormous psychedelic trip, despite no drugs of any kind being consumed.
“The body just went there,” he says. “It was just amazing. It was the most unbelievable… I felt like the universe was hugging me or something. I felt like everything was going to be okay. I was just freaking people out as I was thinking they were going to love all these ideas that I had but then the crash down was horrible, going from you are your own God to literally making Christmas cards for the mentally ill in the hospital. Going from a Kanye lyric to a Smiths lyric, it was like, ah god, what the fuck’s happened?”
Kiely lived in a tent in his garden for a while, experiencing a mass fluctuation of emotions whilst there. “I had a tent in the garden and I could do my own thing. I had a one-string guitar – and I was in the tent from when I was high to being really depressed – and I can’t play guitar and I was going to learn ‘Cheapnis’ by Frank Zappa on the one string guitar and buy loop pedals and things like that. I don’t think that’s even possible for an amazing musician, let alone someone who’s just living off charm all the time. All my ideas just started bursting, all my amazing ideas were bursting because I couldn’t commit to any of them because I was distracted and in love with everything. The tent was an interesting time because my family knew where I was, my friends knew where I was, I was having some time by myself. My sister would come out and have tea in the tent and I got to know my family properly then. My mum took time off work for a couple of months and I gradually got out of the tent and I got stuck on the couch and that’s when I started writing lyrics for things like ‘Pears for Lunch’. I went from being a shy guy to being the most outgoing, uplifting, let’s go do everything now, run, run, run guy and then to being incredibly shy and depressed and people thought I was a really horrible person because I couldn’t really communicate with people because everything carried these connotations. But I gradually started to come out of that. It took a lot of work. I was in hospital for six months, at a day hospital, and I had to drop out of college. I went from having two jobs, a college course, a band and a girlfriend to literally just having a couch”
Whilst being stuck on a couch with depression and visiting the hospital on a daily basis, his Mum’s insistence that he continue to write proved ultimately therapeutic. “My mum told me to write every day,” says Kiely. “I knew that I had to keep writing in some regard and I didn’t want to, I really didn’t want to, I didn’t want my opinion to be on anything. I was completely burnt out.
“My mum’s a really big Leonard Cohen fan, and so am I, and so I was just listening to that and ‘Loaded’ by the Velvet Underground and very little else because I hated music for a while – I thought I wasn’t good enough for it. She just said write something every day and she just said even if it’s writing ‘I can’t write anything’, write that and see what happens. It was therapy, my doctors told me to do that and my councillors told me to do that. So I just did that and went for jogs and tried to lose weight and get back. It was a very weird year of just being empty inside and feeling dead. I couldn’t cry and I couldn’t laugh, I was paranoid about everything. But it’s behind me. I was told ‘you don’t get over things, you get through things’ and I really think that was one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learnt. I kind of had my midlife crisis as early as possible and it was the best thing that ever happened to me”
The band stayed positive around Kiely and carried on working. “We had to pull a tour but we kept writing as a band,” explains guitarist Alan Duggan. We’d get Dara in when we could. It was just a bit of a slow build up but we still managed to get excited about it – we didn’t think Dara had gone forever.”
“You could totally tell it was a thing he was going through,” confirms Fox who, in fact, stopped Kiely from giving all his personal items away whilst he was in the middle of his elated period.
“Yeah, I’d be trying to give my iPod and money to people and my number out to people in the dole office and giving books to people,” says Kiely. “Sandwiches – anything I could possibly give to people I would.”
The lyrics to the album are both the documentation of Kiely’s experiences (“covered in Sudocream talking to myself”) and his observations whilst going through that experience (“Give it to me straight like a pear cider. Well, you’re not God mate and your mother’s scared”). It’s something he hopes he won’t have to go through again. “From my part of the album, I couldn’t do a second ‘Holding Hands with Jamie’ unless I had another breakdown,” he says, “which I’m making sure I don’t.”
Stripped away from the occasionally indecipherable environment of the album, the lyrics are delightfully obtuse, often reading like the acerbic, absurd blackness of someone like Richard Brautigan, recalling his work in ‘Trout Fishing in America’. There’s a surface level disposable quality to them, something Kiely has played with, and which he says: “The lyrics can kind of mean everything and nothing for me. I love how people can hear them as throwaway or some people can be really into them.”
In between these two areas is where Kiely has had a lot of fun.
“I think [the album] is obsessed with the grey area. At least for me – I can’t speak for the other lads – the album wasn’t designed around me, my ideas were the last thing to be thrown in. It’s 25% each way. From my point of view, I’m fascinated with the grey area. There’s not one fuck you song or one I love you song, it’s just constantly doubting and constantly searching. Everything is a contradiction and an oxymoron when you put it all together and I obsessed with the language about it so much. It’s applicable to a lot of things in my life, in terms of setting a mood and tone. One day we can play ‘Paul’ and I’ll get really, really angry or I can play it and there’s a bit in the song that makes me feel a bit silly – although I never feel ashamed.”
Kiely describes the experience as “weird but always positive” when I ask him what it’s like reliving these experiences as he performs the band’s songs live each night.
“I still have to work through all the issues,” he says, “they’re never going to be gone, there are still personal issues and things that wrangle your character and shape you. Because the words are so vague I can read into them in different ways and apply them, in my own head, to stuff that’s happening now in my life, so it’s therapeutic that way. But then there is a song called ‘Witch Doctor’ which is just about literally going fully into a psychotic episode and speeding through it and all these metaphors are making less and less sense. When we play that live it has to be last because I can’t do anything afterwards; I can’t really do that half-heartedly. When we do that song I do naturally freak out a bit, sometimes after gigs I can’t talk to people for a while… It’s like primal scream therapy or something.
“It’s really healthy, I think, it’s really nice. You knacker yourself out through aggression and I’m not hurting anyone by doing it and I’m not hurting myself any more. That song fucks with my head a little bit.”
The slightly psychotic edge to the group’s music, and the manic, wired ferocious intensity that does somehow seem so perfectly aligned with Kiely’s experiences, are not based on them. The band forged this sound of their own making, and the merging of the lyrical content and the sonic experimentations so fittingly is really only mere coincidence, or perhaps fate depending on your outlook.
We leave the group’s rehearsal space – with some difficultly as Kiely is currently on crutches and having to perform in a wheelchair after a fall – and retire to the pub. The initially proposed bar – a slightly hip craft beer type place – is too busy so we pick the nearest pub at random and step into a wonderfully untouched place. Brown wooden panels line the walls, still stained a slightly grubby, jaundice-yellow from years of cigarette smoke. There are only men in the pub, all above 50, all sitting alone, all drinking Guinness, nobody talks and all eyes are fixated on ether the television or a newspaper. There’s a faint, fusty, albeit indescribable, smell that hangs in the air like an opaque smog. It’s the type of pub that feels more like a living relic these days, which is a crying shame as it pulses with a no-frills charm and likeability. We settle into the snug and join the Guinness drinkers for several hours until, one by one, the band leave; although instead of returning to a studio to strip off naked and make one of the greatest albums of the year (certainly one of the most progressive guitar albums), they return home bleary-eyed and fatigued to get ready to take their colossal noise to yet another country.