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Walls Of Sound
Having survived a couple of years of bad luck, The Walls are back and are feeling – and sounding! – better than ever.
John Walshe, 17 Jun 2005
Rejuvenated, re-invigorated and with their second album storming up the Irish charts, Steve and Joe Wall are in fine fettle. It wasn’t always thus, however: the band have gone through some tough times over the last couple of years. Indeed, at one point they weren’t even sure that they would have a second album.
“There was a period of time where we were thinking, ‘is the deck just stacked against us’?” Joe Wall admits. “Nervousness crept in. We were wondering if we’d be able to come up with the goods for a good second album. Because myself and Steve were managing the band, it was getting really hard to find any time where we could solidly work on the music.”
This moment of self-doubt was precipitated by an unfortunate incident, whereby a sizeable chunk of their money disappeared.
“That was a real low point for the band, when we discovered that,” Joe admits. “We had struggled with High Low. We had no marketing budget so it was just down to pure slog that the album managed to go gold: just from gigging around the country. Then to find out that somebody had absconded with our money was a kick in the balls.”
“I remember thinking about some of the shit gigs we’d done just to keep the album selling,” his brother Steve takes over. “And we had reissued the album with new artwork, which had cost more money. After all of that, to have a good chunk of the money disappear, we were gobsmacked.”
It didn’t take The Walls long to recover, however. Indeed, Steve channelled all the anger and hurt the band felt into last autumn’s Drowning Pool, a raw, raucous statement of intent, the heaviest track the boys had released since their days in The Stunning.
“‘Drowning Pool’ is a very angry song about getting ripped off by this cunt,” the singer explains. “We didn’t understand how anybody could do that to us, because we were really struggling with this, gigging all over the country to try to pay back people we had borrowed from to make the album. We couldn’t believe it.”
Fast forward a year and things are looking decidedly better. The band have released what is arguably their finest work to date in the shape of New Dawn Breaking. Even the album title suggests a new beginning, a turnaround in fortunes. It must be both a relief and delight to have the album finally out?
“It is, in a nutshell,” Joe laughs.
“For starters, it took longer than we expected, which could be The Walls’ mantra,” Steve chuckles. “That’ll probably be written on our headstones. But I definitely think the drawback of the DIY approach is that everything takes longer.”
One reason why it took more of their time than they planned is the fact that at the moment, the two brothers are not only the main songwriters in the band, they’re also acting as joint managers. They are, however, actively looking for somebody else to fill that particular void. It must be interesting, though, to approach an album release where you are the record company, the management and the band?
“It’s not ideal,” Steve laughs. “You get to know too much about the business. There are a lot of things we’d be better off not knowing.”
“It would be great if you could get it to a certain level where you have a team of people that you can delegate to, but when you’re the one sweeping the floor at the end of the day, it is a bit too much to cover,” Joe admits.
They also had to organise all the finance for the album themselves. Unlike its predecessor, however, New Dawn Breaking was not funded by bank loans.
Much of the finance for the album came from the re-release of their previous band, The Stunning’s Paradise In The Picturehouse. They knew there was a market for the album – they regularly received emails to The Walls website from Stunning fans eager to get their debut release on CD (“Everyone had the same story. They’d had it on cassette and it got chewed by the car stereo.”)
“After the money went missing, we had to figure out what to do and going out and gigging was not the cure because people just get too much of you,” Steve admits. “We couldn’t keep gigging with only one album out either. It was Donal Scannell’s idea to reform the band to promote the album because we didn’t have marketing budget for it. He came up with the idea of reforming the band for a month and touring, so we did it.”
The re-released album shifted the necessary units to allow Steve and Joe to plough ahead with The Walls.
“Myself and Joe’s share of that tour and the album sales went directly into funding New Dawn Breaking,” Steve admits. “But it meant that we didn’t have to borrow, and that was brilliant.”
“It was also a bit of an affirmation too that the direction we were going with The Walls was the right direction,” Joe says. “It was a reminder that just going out and playing drums, bass and guitar is great.”
“Everything we do has been on a shoestring, semi-barter system,” Steve grins. “People have gotten paid with bits of gear. We’ve pulled all kinds of strokes to get things done. But we just found out this morning that we have a mid-week chart position of number eight, which completely blew us away.”
It's all a far cry from early 2004, when the departure of keyboard player/sampler whizz Carl Harms from the band left them feeling somewhat directionless.
“There was a period over the last couple of years where there was a little bit of stagnation in the band,” Joe admits. “A lot of that had to do with the chemistry between the members.”
Steve and Joe’s songwriting was returning to its rocky roots, and Carl was “getting less interested” in being part of the band. The situation was finally resolved in spring 2004, mere weeks before the band were due to embark on an Eastern European tour in the company of The Jimmy Cake.
“In typical Carl fashion, it didn’t really come to a head,” Steve smiles. “He just said he didn’t have the time to go to Eastern Europe with us, and that was it. The whole thing was very amicable. We’re still working together on projects outside The Walls.”
“He just didn’t seem to be happy in the band and had been like that for a long time,” Joe recalls. "When he eventually said he wanted to leave, it was a relief for him and for us. It removed that question about what kind of band we wanted to be. Myself, Steve and Rory were quite happy to leave all the samplers behind and see what it was like to make music again without all that, to take it back to the roots, where we had started from. But Carl is only living down the road from us now: we still see each other all the time.”
Two weeks after the departure of Carl, The Walls had a new bass player in the shape of Miltown Malbay’s John O’Connell, who was quickly plunged in at the deep end.
“We went to Eastern Europe without a lot of rehearsing, but in a lot of ways it was perfect,” Joe recalls. “It was what we needed, because it was just a really intense period of music, music, music. That tour of Eastern Europe felt like a new leaf. We felt like we had turned a corner, even in terms of song-writing.”
The brothers admit that they were slightly nervous before touring with the multi-limbed musical entity that is The Jimmy Cake, as Steve explains: “We were a bit worried about how we were going to get on with them because they always seemed like an extended family, a club who knew each other really well.”
They needn’t have worried, however. All potential barriers were broken down over a can of beer or 12: “The first day we arrived, the bus stopped at this garage that was selling booze and we cleaned it out,” Steve laughs. “We got back on the bus and everyone bonded over the course of the next 24 hours. There were songs being sung, and when we stopped, there was lots of pissing in the snow and throwing snowballs.”
Joe recalls the tour fondly: “I remember feeling at the time that there was a spirit in the air that I hadn’t felt from a collection of people since I was in Macnas in Galway around 1988. Like-minded and like-spirited people coming together for the purpose of creativity. Up to that point, I had started to feel that the whole thing that we were doing, because it was so DIY and because we were managing the band and doing everything, was far too careerist, too serious, and not enough of that total immersion into the reason why you get into this thing in the first place, which is to make music or to make art. That was one of the most inspiring things about that tour: it got the juices flowing. When we came home, the enthusiasm to go and record was palpable.”
And record they did, setting off to Black Box Studios in France with former Frames-man Dave Odlum at the control desk.
“Dave was really good in pushing us a little bit further,” Steve notes. “He had the objectivity to see maybe that something was good but needed to be approached in a different way.”
The title track almost didn’t make it onto the album, as Joe explains: “At the time it was written, it sounded too country. Dave was really into the song and he was quite keen for us to sit around and play it live. Then John came up with this really great bass-line and Dave got Rory to play the drums with his fingers, so all of a sudden that country feel was gone. That completely changed the flavour of the song.”
The album’s centrepiece is undoubtedly ‘Romantic Ireland’s Dead And Gone’, Steve’s angry update of Yeats’ ‘September 1913’. He describes the song as a reaction to Ireland’s litany of planning scandals.
“You read about it every day in the papers. There was more and more stuff coming out about these huge amounts of money that were changing hands during a period in the ‘80s when everybody was on the Dole and it was really miserable,” he says. “We were being told ‘Just bear with it lads. Tighten your belt buckle. We’ll get through this’ and in the meantime you had all these fat bastards creaming it off the top.
“Yeats spoke about when we achieved independence from the British, how the Irish turned on themselves, the ones with the power and the money turned on those who didn’t have it. He asked, ‘ Was it for this our wild geese fled?’ Is this what independence meant, where you had the rack-renters, the landlords, the gombeen men, turning on the poorer sections of the population and milking them for every penny they could get. That’s what I was getting at with that song. Maybe it’s less forthright and on-a-plate than Damien Dempsey’s way of saying it, but it’s the same thing.”
Joe joins in: “There is a money obsession here now. I remember listening to the news a couple of weeks ago and the main story was that one union had discovered that another sector were getting more money than them. Imagine if you’re a single mother and you’re trying to get by on fuck all and you’re hearing this bickering about who’s getting paid the most and who can’t afford their second car. The gap between rich and poor has broadened, hugely so, despite the fact that we’re all supposed to be cubs of the Celtic Tiger.
“It’s an honest album,” Steve resumes. “At the moment there is so much bandwagon jumping going on and it seems to emanate from the UK. We would never try to do something that is the current flavour. We were always of that frame of mind. When we were writing songs like ‘Half Past Two’, ‘Got To Get Away’ or ‘Brewing Up A Storm’ we never tried to be part of any scene. Even though The Stunning were never big outside of Ireland, to this day, I can still stand by the music we wrote then. I still rate it. I don’t feel that we ever sold out.”
The Walls will doubtless be selling out over the next few months, gigs that is. They’ve a busy summer schedule planned and the future will take them to CMJ in New York, South By South West in Austin, Texas, and there’s the possibility of a Czech Republic and UK tour in the offing.
“The next 12 months, we’re planning to just get out and do as much as we can, because it’s not going to land on our laps,” Joe says. “Hopefully we can do well enough here to fund our little forays abroad.”
The fact that both Walls are now fathers (Steve’s daughter was born just three weeks before this interview took place) means that going on the road for any length of time involves more planning than ever before, though.
“It takes a bit more organising,” Joe admits. “Or else we’ll have to do a UB40 on it and just bring everybody with us on the road. But seriously, having kids can be a reason to be more focused and stop faffing around.”
Steve joins in: “People do say having a kid focuses you more. I think the reason behind that is you just get up earlier in the morning.”
New Dawn Breaking is out now. Check Waht's On for live dates around Ireland.