It’s a freezing afternoon in January in a very chilly Georgian house in rural Kildare. There’s a fire blazing away, but we’ll keep our coats on, thanks very much. One of Ireland’s most successful bands take a break from rehearsing for their forthcoming UK and US tour and gather close to the fire.
“As soon as we finished In a Perfect World,” says Steve Garrigan, the short but improbably good looking lead singer of Kodaline, his breath visible as he speaks, “I started worrying about the second one. I was constantly thinking about it, before and after gigs. New songs were the thing – I suppose I was concerned about what people call the ‘second album syndrome’. When we got around to doing it, however, I’d forgotten that writing songs is what we do. So we got into a studio and what we did exactly that. I discovered that it wasn’t very difficult, after all.”
“We shut out how successful the first album had been,” adds Mark Prendergast, Kodaline’s lanky, pipe-cleaner-thin lead guitarist. “We were there to just make a record. Our record label didn’t put us under pressure, or anything like that. They just left us to it, they let us pick the songs, and they let us record it how we wanted to.”
Rewind to the scorching June of 2014. In Topanga Canyon, a picturesque cliff area overlooking the splendor of Malibu, there is a recording studio owned and operated by Dubliner Garrett Lee, aka Jacknife Lee, producer to the likes of Taylor Swift, U2, REM, One Direction, Snow Patrol, Weezer, Crystal Castles and too many others to list (and, lest we forget, co-writer of songs with the likes of Ed Sheeran, Snow Patrol and Swift). In the main room of his studio-cum-home there is a two-word neon sign: Abandon Taste. It is in this room last year that Kodaline got their collective ass kicked. Arriving at the point where they had a handful of new songs, hot off the lengthy trail of commercial success with their debut album, In a Perfect World – and aware of the fact that they were tiring of playing the same songs at every gig, tired of being Kodaline, in all likelihood – the band fessed up to Jacknife.
The consensus was that while they didn’t necessarily want to lose the elements that made them so popular in the first place (even if Q magazine bestowed on the debut album a one-star rating, and DIY magazine opined, ‘let’s be frank here – what this band needs is a punch in the face…’) they also wanted to remove their sound from the comfort zone it so woozily languished in. Cue a sequence of lessons from Lee, a producer that demands musicians trust their instincts, loosen up, have fun and – most important of all – take risks. Within a very short space of time, Lee provided Kodaline with what they came to him for: an unorthodox approach to capturing a sonic atmosphere. Nine months later, that second album, Coming up for Air (a telling title, of course) may not be Kodaline’s Kid A, but there’s no doubt that Jacknife Lee has put some hair on the chest of a band that was all too used to being on the receiving end of the type of hate-criticism that perhaps says more about the critic than the music.
Back to rural Kildare and the freezing Georgian house. The likes of Glen Hansard, Damien Rice and Kila have stayed here (it has its own studios, and is a casual home-from-home for many Irish musicians that wish to tease out material away from the temptations of city life), and the Kodaline lads are on the final day of rehearsals prior to heading out for a UK tour. All four members of the band (Garrigan, Prendergast, Vinny May, Jay Boland) sit in on the interview, something that rarely, if ever, benefits coherent threads of conversation, and which also lends an air of a one-for-all-and-all-for-one camaraderie that can either be natural or stilted. In this instance it is both, but then not everyone is as good at chatting as Steve Garrigan, who, despite a certain vagueness (part boyish, part infuriating), is focused enough to set the scene. Second albums are almost always borne out of frustration at wanting to say something new, so was there a level of boredom setting in with playing the same songs at every gig?
“We play the same show so many times,” he says, “and it did get to a point where we knew exactly what would happen, even to the point of Jay tuning his bass. Every little detail was so honed, but with a new batch of songs we’re now going to have to start thinking again.”
“It’s not boring, as such,” offers Mark Prendergast, Kodaline’s other main talker, “because playing live is so exciting. New songs reinvigorate the set, and by playing new songs alongside songs you’re very familiar with makes the older material fresher. You’re also more nervous on stage for a while, because you’re seeing what the reaction is like.”
Are shows ever scripted? With some bands, we’ve heard the same anecdote told between the same songs several nights in a row. “A lot of it is muscle memory,” says Steve. “It’s more that subconsciously we know what we’re doing because we’ve done it so many times. But I don’t like the word ‘scripted’. I’m not much of a talker on stage, to be honest, but ironically sometimes I have to talk to about 14,000 people. Of course, you might sometimes say the same thing, but whenever and wherever possible I try not to do that. That said, with gig after gig, you know you have similar things that you can say to fall back on. But, no, we don’t script.”
“You become better at it, don’t you?,” ponders drummer Vinny May. “It becomes smoother.” Which is somewhat ironic, as while no one could ever mistake Kodaline for Nirvana, the sound on Coming up for Air is nonetheless grittier and tougher. Sonic storms blow, guitar shredding takes place, and so on. All members readily admit that when they first started, there was little creative direction; songs that would go on to become daytime radio favourites were being formed, but they didn’t really know which way to go, did they? “We still don’t,” claims Mark. “On the first album there were songs we’d written over the course of about five years, and we were figuring out what we wanted to sound like – there was always this thing within the band that we hadn’t got a distinct sound. We still feel like that, and in that sense it remains exciting for us.”
Chill winds blow through the room, someone puts another log on the fire. It’s along way from Topanga Canyon, but it seems that the lessons learned there are – like duct tape over cables in the nearby rehearsal room – sticking hard and fast. “Sonically for this album we just knew we wanted to be bigger, to incorporate more,” concludes Joe Boland. “We have a wider range now, dynamically, and we know better when to pull back and when to thrust forward. More importantly, though, we know you have to believe in yourself from the very beginning, because not many do.”
(This first appeared in The Irish Times, January 31, 2015.)