How 'Twin Peaks' & Beastie Boys Influenced Girl Band's Raucous 'The Talkies' Album

Girl Band
Rich Gilligan

Girl Band

When Girl Band's The Talkies arrived in late September, fans were greeted with a sophomore album as raucous, pile-driving, Dadaist and primal as we've come to expect from the Dublin outfit – if anything, it's their most unrestrained work yet.

But it was by no means a certainty a couple of years ago.

The quartet that began in the summer of 2011 with an Irish record shop gig and built buzz through an early EP, ferociously tuneful singles like "Lawman" and an epic, foreboding cover of Blawan's "Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage?" gained a reputation as that rarest of rock animals: a band that sounded unlike any other. Girl Band's knife's-edge 2015 debut LP, Holding Hands With Jamie, blew most other rock records of that year out of the water. The Dubliners' talent for tension and release, groove and chaos -- not to mention frontman Dara Kiely's squirrelly melodies, darkly funny lyrics and harrowing yowls -- was stunning.

Equally exhilarating were Girl Band's live shows – but there's the rub. Kiely's mental health issues – struggles the singer was remarkably candid about in interviews leading up to the release of Jamie – were done no favor by long stretches of visceral performances night after night, and in both 2015 and 2017, tours had to be cut short. Two years ago, it was clear that a real break was needed. At that point there had been new songs in the works -- The Talkies' clattering first single "Shoulderblades" and "Amygdala" and "Going Norway" had been road tested twice. By early 2018, those songs and others -- "Salmon Of Knowledge," "Couch Combover" – began to cohere, and by the fall, Kiely, guitarist Alan Duggan, drummer Adam Faulkner and bassist and producer Daniel Fox decamped for ten days to record outside of Dublin.

The result is a more expansive version of Girl Band: under-two-minute ragers ("Amygdala") and epic, multi-movement sprawls ("Prefab Castle" and standout "Laggard") that offer head-snapping mood and tempo changes. This time around, the band imposed some experimental parameters: all songs are in the key of A; Kiely used no pronouns in his lyrics; and one track, "Aibohphobia," is played forward and backward, with Kiely singing all-palindrome phrases. The foursome's sonic structure remains: Faulkner's tom and cymbal-heavy rhythms and Fox's insistent bass drive are present while Duggan's guitar shears, stabs and grinds like something from a metal shop. There in the middle of a hothouse squall is Kiely, one of the most compelling vocalists in rock, woozily singing in couplets, projectile screaming or serving a slurry recitation of absurdist references. 

He's a shape-shifter of melodies and fond of wordplay, rhyme, repetition and morphing one idea into another ("That's just mental / That tastes menthol"). There are dark wails ("Why is death so alive?"), light, awkward moments (getting a "semi" in a sauna) and self-deprecation coexisting with a seemingly endless grab-bag of cultural references and turns of phrase: "Get in bed with Ernie and Bert"; "It's too late for Ricki Lake"; "An elegant room elephant"; "Kissed like snooker balls"; "Mr. Fish in a tie-dye shirt." They're all over place, often written in stream-of-consciousness form, sometimes chosen for their sound and syllables -- but, Kiely has said, never lazily and always with meaning. They're not always easily decipherable, though listening to The Talkies with a lyric sheet in hand is an experience not to be missed.

As are their live shows – five of which they played in early October in the Midwest and eastern U.S. These days, Kiely's health is paramount, and the band is wary of over-committing and having to cancel more shows, so dates are limited. Luckily for New Yorkers, the recent mini-tour concluded at Brooklyn's Elsewhere with a blistering set. A day prior Billboard sat with three-quarters of Girl Band (Kiely was absent) to talk The Talkies and their much-anticipated return at the New York office of their label, Rough Trade, ahead of their European tour, which kicks off Nov. 2 in Manchester.

So guys – welcome back and how have these U.S. shows gone? The first one, in Chicago, was literally the first gig since you had to leave the road in 2017?

Alan Duggan: Yeah. The last one was 2017 in D.C. and this is the first tour since then.

Daniel Fox: Yeah, we didn't do any warm-ups or anything.

Adam Faulkner: Technically our first performance was live on BBC6 Radio. Which was a bit like, we were looking around like [looking scared] "We didn't really think this through, did we?"

But the approach for this record was quite different to Holding Hands with Jamie?

Duggan: Yeah, we started it different. The first one, and everything else up to that point was, we would just all write it in a room, and get it to a point and starting gigging it, feeling it out live. Whereas this was different because there might have been just two people or three people before, like in the mix, people in the room, just trying different ideas and recording them. And so we had sketches of stuff for a bit and we kind of started out in late 2015. But it was only when we came back and started writing in 2018 that any of that stuff started making sense.

Between the 2015 tour and the 2017 tour that had to be cut short, you played here in 2016 as well. By choice you didn't want to do anything long and extended.

Duggan: Yeah, we just wanted to pull it back because we were just still kind of figuring it. And that's an ongoing thing, just to see how many he can do in a row or for how long he can go away before it starts to become too draining or taxing. And also, like, financially as well.

In terms of being away, were you concerned about, not putting out music for four years, whether the audience would still be there?

Duggan: So, we put out the record in 2015, and we'd done a handful of shows, and then we had to pull the whole album tour. So all the momentum that we'd built up into that just stopped at that point. And then in 2016, it was picking up the pieces and seeing what worked. And then we stopped again in 2017. So, when we went back to start writing again in 2018, it was like, any momentum was completely gone. So it was kind of [throws up hands]. It was actually really great dealing with Rough Trade like that because they weren't like "Look we need to get you back immediately, because we need to put stuff out." Like, Geoff [Travis, Rough Trade founder] would just email us maybe every four months or something, just to be like, "Hello, are you still a band?" And we were like, "Yes!" And he'd be like, "Great!" And that was it. You know, no pressure. So it meant that we were just doing it on our own timeline, just to do it for ourselves. And there was no like, "Shit we need to get it done by this date so..." you know. "We need to squeeze that in."

Fox: And that takes the distractions out of it, because we're pretty slow at writing as well. Because we're collaborative, it just takes time. So without that kind of external pressure….

I read where you said it was actually kind of liberating to work like that.

Fox: 100 percent, yeah. Definitely. Because then it allows you to take the time to keep the quality control. You're not worrying about external factors or whatever. You can just try and focus on being as good as you can be. We had been working on this fragmented computer, demo-ing kind of thing. And people were in and they were out, so it wasn't like all of us in the room at the same time. Which was good, it was a real fertile time creatively. But we couldn't get anything done, like finished, finished, because we needed to all be there to do it. So finally when we all got back in sort of February, we had all this material, and it was like, "Let's put it into shape." And then we wrote some new-new music on top of that. Like "Caveat" and "Salmon of Knowledge" as well.

So by the time you guys went to record in Ballintubbert House, the songs were ready to go?

Fox: Yeah, they were pretty much done.

Faulkner: The only one that didn't have a lot of fullness to it was "Aibohphobia." Because we had this idea for it. We had the riff. And we had to reverse it, learn it backwards and then reverse that again. And we got about half way through it and thought, "That sounds really cool." We left it and then it evolved, in the mix process.

Okay so, "Aibohphobia" is itself a palindrome. And the idea here was you first recorded the music forwards…

Fox: And then reversed that. And then we learned to play it backwards. And then play that over the other one, and so you get backwards and forwards at the same time, except that all the notes are in the same order, if you know what I mean? But you get this really weird effect. [laughs] It's really confusing…

And did Dara write those palindrome lyrics there at the house?

Duggan: A handful of them, yeah. I think he was thinking, "If I write in palindromes, it will make it easier to say them backwards…but it…."

He recorded vocals backwards as well?

Fox: He tried! Because like, you know the scene in Twin Peaks with the mirror and the guy who was speaking…

The red room?

Fox: Yeah, the red room. And so that was the idea, like, "we'll do that with music, and then with the lyrics," but then we were like three hours in, and it's like [imitating singing backwards] "meeoof"…no wait, no it's more like, 'meeofunt'" and so finally we were like, "Oh f--k it, we'll just put some reverse reverb on it."

And what was the connection of Beastie Boys' "Paul Revere"?

Duggan: So they did the same thing with the 808 drum loop in it. They did the backwards-forwards kind of thing. That's how I came across it is I saw a documentary on 808s and they were just talking about how they went through that. And had a similar difficulty explaining the process. It was like, "No, you go backwards, and then you go forwards, and then reverse that, and…" but I just remember watching that and thinking, "Oh this is really cool." So it was like that and also the Twin Peaks thing.

You recorded in different rooms of Ballintubbert House. Adam, I know you did the drums both in the stairwell and in the cellar?

Faulkner: Yeah every single song has the drums recorded twice. And then when we got into the mix we were able to go, "Oh so do you want one? Do you want two? Do you just want this one and then you change to that one?" And one sound was – we used a totally different drum kit, slightly different mic setup, and in terms of the mic choice.

So how did you end up working there? Were you living there as well?

Duggan: Yeah, we all had bedrooms. It was amazing.

And there's a bridal suite as well?

Fox: I was in the bridal suite. It was pretty good! [laughs]

I don't know what I expected but when I saw the house on its website, it's a pretty posh looking place.

All: Yeah! yeah! [laughs]

Faulkner: Yeah it worked out pretty well. Daniel has nice friends.

Fox: Yeah, I had done some work for the guy who owns it before, and he runs this music festival in Ireland that I had worked on a before.

Had they ever had anything like that go on in the house before?

Fox: I think there might have been something years ago, but I don't think so.

Faulkner: It mainly functions as like a wedding venue.

Is it out, pretty isolated?

Fox: It's pretty rural, but you know, Ireland is so small it's like an hour and a half away from Dublin. But that's pretty – you're out in the sticks by then.

Any other ways in which you used the house?

Duggan: I remember there I was listening to a track by Luc Ferrari called "Ronda." And I really loved that piece because it sounds like you're in this park somewhere, where people are speaking Spanish. And there's a real sense, it's real picturesque or something? And so that's how we got to thinking maybe we could try to do something like that, like we try to get some sort of abstract representation of just using stuff that was around, like recording the fridge, and the coffee machine. There was a fountain, so we recorded the fountain, driving in the gravel a little bit. And it was pretty dumb, but it was really, really fun.

Didn't you guys used to use found objects, like broken hubcaps and things to make noise on the records?

Faulkner: Still kinda do. Yeah I have three cymbal stacks – I think. And of all of those there's only one of those cymbals that's actually fully intact. And even that one's got like tape on it, it's like bent out of shape and stuff. So, they just sound different. You can choke things out. The one with the hubcap, the hubcap sits in between two cymbals really loosely and sloshes around.

So much gets written about you guys as a band that channels angst, or people use words like "harrowing" or "unsettling" and while it's obvious why they say that, I also think there's something – kind of vulnerable and cathartic.

Fox: Yeah it's funny with that angst or the "harrowing" nature of it all, because there's a lot more in it. And like I said, it's not particularly doom-and-gloomy. There's a lot of humor in the whole thing as well?

Duggan: I do think it's cathartic for people as well. I mean Dara had, people came up to him after the show the other day and were getting quite tearful, talking to him about the lyrics, and talking about how they were kind of escapist for them.

Your music and Dara's words seem more personal than political, but did the rather fraught times we've been in since your last LP find its way into this record in any way?

Faulkner: Well, you see, it's weird, because we're not from the U.S. You know what I mean? With Trump, and stuff like that it's just like – it's just this crazy TV show that's happening. But at home while there's been a lot of issues in Ireland, like a real housing crisis, and a homelessness epidemic. But there's also been some quite positive changes. There was an abortion referendum, which was amazing, there was…

Same-sex marriage.

Faulkner: Yeah that was like 2015, so like within those four years Ireland has actually changed drastically.

Fox: And for the better, in terms of social aspects. With the abortion thing, Ireland has for years been such a deeply Catholic country. And like, to remove those things – to take the Vatican out of the Irish constitution, piece by piece, is like a really important thing. So, we're probably one of the few countries that's had a relatively good couple of years! [laughs] But in terms of your question and in terms of music and being political, like I think a lot of the music writing and the way we play it, where it comes from is pretty personal. But of course, you also live in the world, and you experience good things and bad things, and that which is political, and that affects your mind and your feelings. So that will come out in the music, but it's not like, "this song's about 'f--k the church!'" [laughs] We're not really that on the nose about it!

In the wake of everything that happened in 2017, how have you changed your approach to touring?

Fox: Well we're only doing five shows here…[laughs]

Well there's that. Are you coming back here, like next year?

Fox: Hopefully, like we're just gonna get through this and get through the European shows, and then take it from there and see.

Duggan: Let everybody do Christmas. And see. We just don't want to like, book shows and have to cancel them again. Because I think something we've found out as well, even on this tour, which is kind of amazing, is that people have actually put time aside to come to these shows. So it's like….

Why wouldn't they though?

Duggan: Well no, but they're like driving nine hours! Which is insane. That's like through Ireland, you know?

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