Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Like a trick card: The Thrills

[previously published in total:spec magazine August 2007]

"Yeah, cigarettes are the one thing this place doesn't have," says the Millennium Dome security guard who's just checked our bag for bombs. "The nearest shop that sells them's about 15 minutes away."

It's a week before the smoking ban is due to come into force, and only slightly longer before a clutch of terrorist attacks will hit Britain. Yesterday Tony Blair resigned as Prime Minister. And today? Something a big cheerier: The Thrills are playing their first London gig in bloody ages.

The world seems to have been dramatically bent out of shape since the Dome – now the O2 Arena – first opened its doors to a sceptical British public back in 2000. And while we're at it, a lot's changed since The Thrills first burst on the music scene in a few years later.

"Blair's greatest folly, was that the official title?" says Thrills singer and chief songwriter Conor Deasy. "It's kinda fitting we finally get to play it the day he gets thrown out the door, kicking and screaming."

"I would say Blair's 'other' folly," points out guitarist Padraic McMahon. "I might not call it his biggest..."

A blunder initially perhaps, but judging from the eager crowds pouring through the doors – most are here to see Snow Patrol in the main arena – it looks like The Venue Formerly Known As The Dome is pretty comfortable in its new incarnation. When we meet The Thrills, they've just played the arena's stupidly-named indigO2 bar, a little gig hole nestled in one of the arena's wings, as part of an AOL competition-winners night, headlined by Crowded House, another band with comeback on their mind. The Thrills' five-song set is sandwiched between Tiny Dancers and the Magic Numbers; we spot the latter's lead singer Romeo Stodart watching from the VIP area, nodding his head to the music and apparently concentrating intently – taking a few mental notes, perhaps?

Tonight the Irish quintet play two songs from their glorious debut So Much For the City and one from their not-very-well-received 2004 follow-up Let's Bottle Bohemia. But they kick off the show with the opening track from brand new album Teenager, the mandolin-led 'Midnight Choir'. It's a catchy, polished tune: "it sounds like The Thrills" is perhaps the best way to describe it. Live, it seems, they've come a long way since the days of 2003. When their reputation started to grow, the band missed much of the UK build-up because they were away in America, explains Deasy back on the tourbus. When they returned, they had a lot to prove.

"Everyone was standing there stroking their chins, sizing you up and we were still getting our shit together live," he says. "It's very hard for an Irish band to turn up in London. There's a little bit of snobbery against them because Irish bands aren't cool or fashionable. We got put in our place pretty quickly. You arrive in London and all the bands are strutting around like peacocks; they've got that whole game down to a tee. But usually the better they look, the less tunes they have."

Adds McMahon, simply: "We were so fucking clueless. Shit."

"Every night we went on to a song called 'Hollywood Kids'. This song is like the most sombre, country… dirty song. You don't open up a gig with it unless you're really trying to make some kind of point. And we would go on stage to this every night," finishes Deasy disbelievingly.

The band did, of course, receive their fair share of mockery, particularly for writing songs with titles like 'Your Love is Like Las Vegas', 'Big Sur' and 'Santa Cruz (You're Not That Far)'. For a band hailing from Dublin, some pointed out, Santa Cruz was actually quite far. "I think Irish people have a good sense of humour," says Deasy, before adding wryly, "That's something I think we've often been a victim of with the media back home."

Despite the nit-picking, So Much for the City was a huge success, in a dry year for music. Remember the 2003 scene? Nup, us neither – it was that wilderness period post-Strokes/Stripes but pre-Franz Ferdinand. Deasy recalls the band appearing on an NME cover-mounted CD which trumpeted those at the forefront of the so-called "New Rock Revolution", from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to The Datsuns. Incredibly, The Thrills were somehow shoehorned in.

"I was already really proud of that," says McMahon. "It was like, yeah fuck you, it's harmonies and banjos. I'm not sure we ever really fitted in to the indie scene. That's nothing to be ashamed of, I love it."

Deasy mentions that when it came to second albums, a lot of their contemporaries didn't step up their games. He doesn't say it, but you've gotta include The Thrills in that group. Let's Bottle Bohemia isn't a bad record, but ain't a great one either. The Americana-soaked So Much for the City was inspired by a special four months of living together in sun-soaked San Diego. The follow-up, well, wasn't; the reviews did not gush. Deasy defends the album – it got a great live response from the fans, he says, and the bands they were touring with loved it (three colossal names, REM, The Pixies and Oasis, are mentioned) – but acknowledges it was "kind of confused", albeit "in a charming, interesting way". The record plopped into the charts at number eight – not bad, but a tad disappointing if your record company has been telling you it's a guaranteed chart-topper.

"I remember the day when we found that out, we had an in-store gig to do," Deasy reminisces. "Usually, if it's the day your album's coming out and the shop's full of people, you'd be excited. And we're all beards and long faces. Our A&R guy goes, 'Yeah, I don't think they slept.' But when we wrote our first album, we never felt it was our defining statement. The odd thing is, me and Kevin [Horan, keyboardist], were both big fans of the Beach Boys and we knew the whole story about bands being typecast. Yet we still walked straight into it. It was difficult to break out of that."

McMahon is defiant. "What the fuck you gotta do on your second record? Are you going to write about the summer you had five years ago again? Write So Much for the City mark two? Of course not. You're going to write about whatever it is you're going through at the time. It would've been so fucking fake and ridiculous for us to write anything other than Let's Bottle Bohemia. That's what music is all about – it's about conveying what you're feeling at the time, not pretending."

Whatever, something fresh was called for. So for new album Teenager, the band decided to ditch LA, where they'd made the previous two. "It was definitely a symbolic thing," says Deasy. "California had become intertwined with the mythology, idea and aesthetic of the band. We really wanted to leave that behind." But where could they go? They quarrelled "like children" about the location of the record. While they were laying down the demos in Wexford, south-east Ireland, the boys would sit around the fire downing wine and shouting the names of cities at each other. "It was getting absolutely pathetic," laughs Deasy. "It was so random, someone would just pluck some city from nowhere and we'd start giving it serious consideration."

Thanks to a suggestion from REM (ooh, get you!), whom they'd toured with, they hit upon the Warehouse studio in Vancouver, Canada. Bizarrely, it's owned by Bryan Adams ("a lovely guy"). Sadly, the increasingly-grizzled Canadian was away on tour for most of the band's time there, and they didn't know the city or anyone in it. Additionally, says Deasy, it wasn't a big party city. But this was a good thing – no distractions, see? "It was an inspired choice, because it's a fantastic city," he enthuses. "Downtown Vancouver's tiny, but it's surrounded by these beaches and once you cross the bridges, there's this beautiful rich green countryside. This was the first time I could use the word 'wholesome' with recording sessions on our albums."

That's not to say the Warehouse was some kind of pastoral utopia. Far from it. "The studio was slap-bang in middle of the worst neighbourhood in all of British Columbia," says Deasy.
"No, no, it was the biggest drug concentration in Canada and America, per, like, eight blocks. It was cracktown central," says McMahon.

Deasy interrupts: "But the point that has to be made is that primarily it's very progressive drug treatment they have…"

"Free heroin, crack," says McMahon.

"No, no, they use highly progressive methods…"

"They give out free heroin in that city, I'm telling you! They do!"

"No, no, it's a myth, Macs. But I know what you're saying," says the voice of reason to his bandmate, turning back to us. "We would often walk into rehearsals and there'd be people leaning against doorways with syringes hanging off their arms. And right behind the studio, in the car park, there was a blue bin which said 'deposit your rigs [syringes] here'. You certainly don't get thrown in jail or arrested for it - we used to see cops approach addicts and they'd just tell them to shoot up somewhere private, not on the street at two o'clock in the afternoon. I don't know how effective it was, but it was certainly a very compassionate approach to the problem."
The pair sound like they weren't too phased by this. And – before you diehard Thrills fans start to get scared – Teenager is hardly the sound of grit and squalor. How did those surroundings affect the record itself?

"I don't know," says Deasy. "All I know is that it was new and interesting."

"Also the studio was absolutely stunning," adds McMahon.

"Well put it this way: it had six windows," says the singer. "Any studio that's not damp, dark or underground is a novelty for us."

"You could put down a vocal or guitar take with the wind and sun in your face," explains McMahon. "You could look out and see the mountains of Vancouver. It was a stunning, beautiful place to work. It was haunted as well."

We're not going to let that one slide. Haunted?

"It's the only stone building in Vancouver," says Deasy. "About 100 years ago, there was a great fire in the city, when it was a fraction of the size it is now, just a small harbour town. This fire wiped the whole place out apparently, because they were all wooden buildings. The studio was the one stone building, so it was used as a makeshift morgue."

"Me and Todd, our engineer, held séances down in the basement," says McMahon, unable to conceal his glee. "We put Ouija boards in there and everything. Shit was flying."
We start laughing, but he's dead serious.

"No, no, no, I'm not joking! Stuff was flying across the room, doors were slamming…"

Deasy interjects. "You say shit was flying – a pot rolled down the steps, Macs, it wasn't exactly flying."

There's no stopping McMahon, highly excited now. "There was this door that was jammed and you'd pop it open and there'd be, like, nobody there. You'd see it creaking open, like someone was pushing it…"

But the band had more to worry about than ghosts trying to lock them in the dingy basements of junkie neighbourhoods. The record has seen what Deasy calls "a whole year of last-minute tweaks". It was supposed to be finished by the end of last summer and appear in the shops just after Christmas. The band were about to sign off on the record, but they realised something wasn't right: there weren't enough songs. Not that they'd inadvertently made a mini-album – there just weren't the songs. Deasy recalls the blood draining from Horan's face as they decided to go back to the drawing board – "he's a man who lives for the road and he'd also been away from his mistress for far too long". But starting again was a brave thing to do and not just because they'd face the wrath of their ivory-tinkling bandmate.

"I have to say, that was a wracking period," says Deasy. "There's that whole 'a week is a long time in rock and roll' thing and you can feel yourself thinking 'fuck, we're spending too long on it'. You have to remember that when our second album came out, MySpace wasn't even up and running. A lot had been going on while we'd been away."

"There was a kind of urgency after being away for so long," agrees McMahon. "We got paranoid about returning and our backs were really against the wall. Until Conor came up with five or six new songs, we were really worried."

"I'm glad we held our nerve, because we got it right," says Deasy. "Ultimately, people remember a good record. They don't remember how long it took."

He mentions Ash's announcement that they won't be making any more albums; he can see the sense in it and because of Teenager's trials and tribulations, we wonder if he wishes he'd got there first. With people downloading album tracks here and there, long players, Deasy reckons, are an odd way for bands to make sense of themselves. The process is cumbersome (particularly if you're The Thrills) and you'll end up having to ditch songs along the way (they wrote around 30; there album has 11). But, as for most people in their late 20s, 'the album' is still a sacred concept.

In a scene currently obsessed by bright young things and next big things, it seems fitting that The Thrills have returned with a record that muses on the subjects of growing up. Deasy namechecks Joyce's Dubliners and Truffaut's The Four Hundred Blows as works that got him thinking about youth and innocence.

As the place where he grew up, Dublin's in there too. "The album's definitely closer to home, but not in that heavy-handed way that the first one was to California – we didn't want to do that again. Dublin's going through this strange transition at the moment. There's a huge amount of money pouring in and it's finally becoming a truly modern, impressive city. For the first time, there are people turning up on our doorstep looking for work, and it's great, because for generations, we've been turning up on other countries' doorsteps."

"I guess that got me thinking a lot about the Dublin of the 1980s. Even though I was there, I wasn't necessarily consciously aware of it. But talking to people 10 years older than us, the differences are quite interesting. This was a time when Irish people really had to emigrate out of necessity."

The extra time spent on the record widened its scope, so that, as McMahon points out, "It's not an album about being a teenager, it's about how you feel now, looking back on it, which is a crucial distinction."

"It's almost like a trick card really," adds Deasy. "Because it is a record about youth, but it's also about leaving it behind." It's also a much more personal record. Why was that? "I just wanted to do something that was very direct, that wasn't hiding behind unnecessary metaphor, and that would make sense to people immediately. For the first time in my life I began to enjoy early Beatles and Ramones." It's true, there are some remarkably unguarded lines in there, filled with simple emotion by that beautifully vulnerable yelp of his: "I envy your youth" runs one refrain. "I'm so sorry," goes another.

And there's another, very expectant, lyric that it's hard to avoid: "This year could be our year." That's the question - could it? The Thrills are certainly facing up to their battles: raging against that California typecasting, fighting their way out of "the Irish local hero cul-de-sac", getting over the disappointing second album, worrying about being away too long…

And then there's all those new, younger bands, MySpacing their way to the top. "We're the old ragdoll. The ragdoll left on the shelf," says Deasy. Looking at the rebirth of the Dome, they should take heart.

Teenager is out now
Check out www.thethrills.com for the live dates

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