The Next Big Irish Thing
Hailing from Dublin, HAL seem to have been born in another era. Their music has a classic quality to it, an innocence that takes you back to the days when you — actually probably your parents — would spend summer afternoons at the beach and evenings at a friend’s place cooking out and listening to records. HAL sings happy songs about love and rock and roll. Mercury Rev relaxing at the beach with Brian Wilson. Brothers Dave (guitars, vocals) and Paul (bass, vocals) Allen, Steve O’Brien (keys, vocals) and Steve Hogan (drums) fuse falsetto harmonies with lovely organs, bright guitars, and enough pop percussion to pack a punch.
HAL’s music already shines brightly across the pond even though their first album has yet to be released. Over the last few months the band shared stages with the likes of Granddaddy, Starsailor, Doves, The Magic Numbers, and fellow Dubliners The Thrills. Having offered up a couple singles to European audiences, the band’s label, Rough Trade, will release HAL’s self-titled debut LP May 10th here in the States and April 24th in Europe.
Critics have lauded these guys since the band’s inception. One BBC review, for example, projects HAL will be playing Wembley Arena within a year’s time. Mostly this sort of hype means death to would-be talents. But with a masterful upcoming record, some preliminary roadworthy testing, and the European festival circuit ahead of them, HAL appears poised to take on the challenge of critical acclaim.
Recently we sat down with the band before their third U.S. date at North Six, where they opened for Blood on the Wall, Dios Malo, and the Fiery Furnaces. They played the Mercury the previous night and spent SXSW in Austin playing the Rough Trade showcase and buying guitars on South Lamar. The conversation was easy — these lads are kind, humorous, gracious, and blown away that they get to spend their time playing and talking about rock and roll music.
FREEwilliamsburg: How long have you all been playing together?
Dave: Steve and I actually started playing about six years ago. Most of the songs didn’t end up on the album.
Steve: Yeah, Paul never played an instrument before or anything, until about three years ago.
Paul: I’d be dicking around my dad’s house, and the lads would be in there making music. And I’d say, “Geez, that sounds fucking great, lads, why don’t you go and get a band together?” And the lads kind of showed me how to play a bit of bass and do a bit of singing, so we kind of started developing like that. We got ourselves a drummer and a few gigs, and here we are.
FREEwilliamsburg: Dave and Paul, your parents are folk singers?
Dave: They were in the early to mid seventies. Both of them were working as well. It was more of a hobby. They’d finish working Friday and head off in the car or on a train down to the country and play the folk circuit. Dad on a twelve-string and mum on a Spanish guitar doing a bit of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and all that.
FREEwilliamsburg: Do you think your parents’ musical leanings influenced what HAL does?
Dave: It was always there, like all of our parents were listening to that kind of music when we were growing up as kids. And then when you’re maybe 14 or 15 you start looking around at other bands trying to get away from your parents’ tastes. Then when I met Steve, he played me the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album, and that kind of sent me off on a mad one, you know, and I started discovering music from that era again. And it’s basically all about discovering music and finding out how those people made records. You know how you listen to that kind of record and every time you hear something different? That’s the kind of record we wanted to make.
My favorite thing, I got a present of the Pet Sounds sessions. It’s a box set, outtakes and all that, “God Only Knows,” stripped down just like the strings and a little bit of percussion and the vocals and nothing else.
Steve: It’s amazing, brilliance. It’s beautiful.
FREEwilliamsburg: So this all happened in Dublin? That’s where you were?
Steve: Yeah, we’re all still there. It’s pretty chilled out.
Dave: One of the reasons we decided to record the album in Dublin was for home comforts. We could’ve recorded in London with Edwin Collins, but we didn’t want to live in a hotel room and all that.
FREEwilliamsburg: Where in Dublin did you record?
Dave: In a guy called Ian Stanley’s studio. We basically had the free run of the studio for a couple months. It’s very small.
Steve: Yeah, Thin Lizzy has recorded there! [laughter, awe]
Dave: But now he’s moved all his equipment to the country, so the place is just a shell. It was a really tiny studio.
FREEwilliamsburg: You have good story about getting signed. Some record execs came to your house?
Steve: Yeah, they came over from London and met us over at Dave’s dad’s house. We moved in a PA and brought down the organ and the Leslie and everything and set it up in the sitting room. We played a few tunes for them and made a few cups of tea.
Dave: The nice biscuits and everything. And by the end of it, they were making us tea. [laughs] We’d played a sparse amount of gigs that year around Dublin, and then we stopped because we wanted to find a bit of focus.
Steve: It didn’t seem like it was going anywhere.
Dave: So we kind of just retired back to the house and started writing some new songs. And they rang us up to ask when we were playing our next show, and we said we weren’t really a working band at the moment. And we said if you’d like to come over, we’ll play you a gig. It was nice to do because it was a different atmosphere for them and for us — you didn’t have the whole play a gig with loads of people there and then all these people telling you stuff. It was a lot more personal. They encouraged us to get up and running again as a band. That’s when we rented out a venue in Dublin called the Sugar Club and we played four or five gigs there and got signed off the back of that a couple months later.
FREEwilliamsburg: Was Rough Trade there at your dad’s house?
Dave: Rough Trade came later. We weren’t sure if we wanted to sign any deals or anything, so we went off on tour with Starsailor and Granddaddy asked us to go out with them around the UK. And it was after that around Xmas or something that we said we’d sign with Rough Trade.
FREEwilliamsburg: How has touring been?
Dave: It opens the eye, opens the mind.
Steve: And nice plush big gigs, as well, with catering and all that.
Paul: We love the catering!
Dave: It’s nice-we’d done the smaller gigs in little bars, then the gigs up until more recently we did a co-headline tour with a band called the Magic Numbers…
Steve: Ah they’re brilliant. We love that band.
Dave: Then we did some dates with Doves and then some with the Thrills and some smaller acoustic sorts of things. So we were pretty busy up until now. It’s weird because we were doing little small venues with the Numbers, and then you go to these bigger gigs with the Doves, and then a little bit down for the Thrills-up and down…
FREEwilliamsburg: And now you’re at North Six.
Dave: You learn and grow up as a band. You get the chance to play for different audiences. We like to think of ourselves as a bit of a crossover band, like easily accessible. Like anybody, any kid can go and buy a record and any elderly man could too and get the same kick out of it. We never put ourselves on any sort of shelf, like play only this kind of music or something. We just embrace music, all different types, and never stick ourselves in a certain genre. I’d like to think people who listen to HAL would think about us the way we think about music and appreciate music.
FREEwilliamsburg: One question we always like to ask: what was your first concert?
Steve: Pretty bad, pretty bad. First band I saw-I was eleven-and it was UB40. My friends were into them and I just went along with them. I wasn’t into it.
FREEwilliamsburg: Yeah, but did you have a good time?
Steve: Oh yeah, I got drunk.
Dave: First band I went to see: I bought my dad a birthday present, saved up my pocket money for about six weeks to buy these tickets, and it was for Dire Straits. I was about 12 or 13, and it was in a huge stadium. To see all the lights, and you’d never heard music that loud before. You were just like, “What is this??”
Paul: Could’ve been Iron Maiden. It was fucking great, yeah. I was twelve, and I was mad into heavy metal. Well, I don’t like it anymore, but at the time, it was fantastic, just going to the gigs. Not musically great though.
FREEwilliamsburg: You’ll be touring Europe all summer When are you coming back to the States?
Steve: We’ve no idea… well probably maybe, probably, definitely maybe, [laughter] we’ll be coming back over during the summer or Autumn.
Dave: Yeah, this summer we’ll be doing the festivals in Europe.
FREEwilliamsburg: And finally, where is HAL headed?
Dave: Short term, we’ll be doing a lot of touring and trying to get the music out to as many people as possible since the album’s coming out soon…
Steve: We might not get another chance, you know.
Dave: We’re looking forward to doing what bands do and getting out there and playing music. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, and that’s the way we look at it, you know? Gotta grab it by the balls.
—— Monte Holman