Ahead of their upcoming Granary Theatre show, Stephen asks Cathal about life in Dead School
Photos: Bríd O’Donovan
If I met you as a stranger how would you describe the Dead School sound?
I would like to think that it sounds very human. We don’t try to align ourselves with any specific genre. You can only write what comes to you. I’ve heard it being described under many different labels and some are more fitting than others.
Was there a vision for a certain style / sound when starting the band?
Yes, from the start we had a strong idea of what we wanted to be. We wanted to be passionate, loud, unapologetic, articulate and brutally honest. We wanted to be to people, regardless of how small that number was, what our role models and influences were and still are for us. We wanted to be that love, that escape, that means of helping one make sense of their lives without ever being didactic. But before we could be any of these things for other people, we had to be them for ourselves. How we strive to achieve this changes and reveals itself differently with every song and I think it would be negative to say we have one particular sound. We’re firmly against repeating ourselves.
Who writes the how songs and how?
I suppose the genesis of the songs begin with James and I. We usually come up with the basic song structures, in other words, chords, lyrics etc. Sometimes we write together and sometimes separately. Then comes the next difficult phase, the song is brought into the band room and the search for its final form begins. Thankfully Dom and Derek are fantastic musicians and our humble sketches blossom into something far greater than their initial creation.
Do all four of you listen to the same genre / bands?
Well, we all appreciate great music so something like ‘genre’ is never really an issue. There are some bands that we all have in common like The Smiths, Joy Division, Leonard Cohen, REM, Depeche Mode and many more but we listen to everything from dance music to Motown.
Do you find that listening to different influences brings an interesting dynamic into what you do?
I think you need a broad musical palette if you hope to create anything of merit. All the artists we love constantly reinvent their sound and push for the unexpected. If I sat at home and listened to indie music all day every day I’d have such a narrow and sheltered slant on what the expression of creating music is. Take Massive Attack, it is clear that they have what appears to be an infinite set of reference points to draw upon and to subtly incorporate elements of into their songs while they search for something truly unique. That’s why with every work they have produced they constantly outclass their peers and the young pretenders. They sit eternally outside the trappings of ‘genre’.
The single ‘Standing on the Edge’ is dominated by the line “For the mirror, there is no mirror for the mind, there is no mind.” What influences you to write?
Inspiration can come anytime. There is no set formula or go to place. It can be from another band, a line in a song, a book, a play, a picture, a film or a simple conversation. I do think though that, when writing, you have to be thrown into an emotional extreme. But if you are looking for some solid examples, I guess some of the people who have really influenced our work have been Leonard Cohen, Richey Edwards, Joy Division, David Lynch, T.S Eliot, Graham Greene, Massive Attack, Kate Bush, Nick Cave, Pat McCabe, Albert Camus, Carl Plover, Depeche Mode, Louis Le Brocquy and the racing frustration of insomnia.
Although Dead School fall under post-punk or even industrial at times, the pop sensibilities are firmly in place. Was this studied or are you all self-taught?
The only thing I believe you can rely on is your own instinct. If it feels right, if you believe you are going in the right direction, then follow it. There isn’t a studied practice that can help you wrestle with a lyric, you have to trust yourself and the input of those you work with.
How do you find the Irish scene as a whole?
We tend to distance ourselves from any notion of a scene. This ridiculous idea of several artistic utopias throughout the country is something I pay little attention to. Of course there are bands out there that I like but they stand independently and are finding their own way. Only the weak move in herds.
What are the highs and lows of touring in Ireland?
I guess the highs and lows of touring Ireland are the same as the highs and lows of touring in general. It’s the routine, the long drive, the load-in and the sound check. But you have to remember that routine creeps into life regardless of what path you choose. I feel very fortunate that we get to perform. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t believe in what we do. When you’re performing and you see the significance it holds for you being reflected back by a group of people, it’s the highest privilege and is really, really special.
How does touring the UK compare to touring Ireland?
I remember after our gig with Peter Hook, James and I were discussing the performance and we both were amazed by how the honour and occasion of sharing a stage with one of our heroes didn’t compromise us. Once we were performing, all external circumstances ceased to exist. I think once you’re on stage, where you are and who you are playing before or after becomes irrelevant. The only real difference that touring the U.K offers is that you are experiencing many places for the first time as you are on foreign shores.
Have Dead School encountered many Spinal Tap moments?
Every waking moment in this band is a Spinal Tap moment! Be it continually ending up in the utility room while looking for the stage door every time we play Dolan’s Warehouse or showing up at a music festival without a snare drum.
How did it feel to open for Peter Hook (performing the Joy Division album Closer in full) on his recent Dublin date?
As I said earlier, it was the highest of honours. There are times when I think about it and struggle to comprehend the privilege of the occasion. I spent most of my adolescence and thus far of my adult life listening to New Order and Joy Division. Their work means so much to us and is a constant source of inspiration and joy. To open the show for Peter Hook and to watch him perform one of the seminal works in music really was special. As such a starry eyed fan, it’s hard to avoid meandering platitudes when discussing it.
How did you end up working with FIFA Records?
About a year ago Ashley Keating walked into Cyprus Avenue and saw a group of enthusiastic but shambolic young men deafening a half empty room. He saw their potential. We are beginning to repay his belief.
How do you find the financial aspect of being in an Irish band in 2012?
It is nonexistent. If you are lucky you will make enough money from each gig to feed you, put diesel in the van and get you to the next gig. It’s a labour of love and you do it because you love it. Thankfully there are fundraising websites out there to help artists but things like government grants, given the current financial climate, have completely dried up. I remember reading a story about one of the great bands of our time, Wild Beasts, about when they were doing press for ‘Two Dancers’ in Paris. They were saying how they were walking down the Champs Elysees and they couldn’t afford a coffee. This was a band who’s newest album at the time had been getting straight five star reviews from all the respected publications, who were on their second album with Domino and they couldn’t afford a coffee. The age of decadence and dealing strictly in a currency of champagne and hotel suites is long gone for the workers in song. If you are picking up a guitar based on notions of grandeur and comfort, I suggest you put it back down.
Dead School play The Granary Theatre, Cork, Sat June 30, 8pm, €10;
also Academy 2, Dublin, July 14th