By Ben Vendetta and Bob Vlah
Whipping Boy, who consisted of Paul Page on guitar, Fearghal McKee on vocals, Myles McDonnell on bass, and Colm Hassett on drums, may be no more, but the staggering music they left behind is timeless. Their second and third LPs, 1995's Heartworm and the recently released Whipping Boy, are melancholic pop masterpieces, full of heartfelt melodies, crashing guitars, and sheer atmospheric brilliance. Paul was kind enough to give us the full story.
Ben: Could you tell us a little about your background?
Paul: Myles, the bass player and I both grew up in Dublin whereas Fearghal and Colm were from a place just outside Dublin called Kildare. They have pretty much lived in Dublin since their late teens. We formed in late 1988 and our coming together was a complete accident. At the time we were heavily influenced by U.S. noise bands, such as Sonic Youth and Big Black, and bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine in the UK. But the defining moment in actually wanting to play music was (at least for Myles and I) a concert by Echo and the Bunnymen in Dublin, 1986. I was completely awestruck by the sheer power of their music in a live context and that really opened our eyes.
Ben: Cheree Records, a British label, released your first singles. Were any Irish labels interested at the time, or did you have to turn to the UK out of frustration? It seems like it's really difficult for Irish bands to build up recognition in Ireland when they first start out. People seem to have to make it in London before anyone really notices them in Ireland, examples including U2, The Cranberries, and The Frank and Walters.
Paul: Well Dublin at the time was really in the grip of the emerging U2 and that whole stadium rock thing. All the bands either wanted to be U2/Simple Minds or R.E.M. We were pretty sure that we did not want to go that route and possessing a certain incompetent charm, just wanted to make a huge racket! We built up quite a loyal following in Dublin because the live shows were just so unpredictable and edgy. Cheree was a perfect label for us in that they were really well respected in the UK and Nick, who ran the label, had a really laid back, fair minded ethos. There was zero interest from Irish labels mainly because there was literally no indie scene and all the majors were too interested in finding another Simple Minds.
Ben: Your debut album Submarine isn't unlike some of the material by popular UK shoegazers of the time such as Ride, My Bloody Valentine, and the early Boo Radleys. Why do you think Whipping Boy were more obscure in comparison? Do you think it's mostly due to the fact that your label went out of business? What went wrong with Liquid Records?
Paul: You would be surprised by the awareness of the band in the UK then. We were never flavor of the month like bands such as Ride but in the course of designing a web site for the band I was amazed at the positive reviews that record got in the UK. That label was a complete disaster and it was the single biggest mistake we ever made in signing to them. They were dabbling in a genre of music that they knew nothing about and were probably responsible for dragging down one or two other bands signed to them at the time.
Ben: Despite all the hassles with the label, how do you feel about Submarine now? Did you make the record you were hoping to make at the time? Do you own the rights to Submarine now?
Paul: We certainly made the record we wanted at the time. I vividly remember leaving the studio on the final night thinking we had made a record unlike any other Irish record around. We recorded it in 11 days. The session was marred by a fight, a break up, and the kind of shit that was to become a feature of later sessions, but we were pretty happy. Now, I can take or leave Submarine. It's pretty generic but it is an accurate reflection of where we were at then. One of my favorite quotes from a review of that record said "buy Submarine and get Sonic Youth's Sister and EVOL free. That never fails to make me smile. We do own the rights to it now and we get so many enquiries that we may be making it available to download through a company in the UK.
Ben: How did you end up getting signed to Sony UK? What were you doing prior to that? Was there ever a hiatus with the band or were you actively seeking gigs and a new record deal?
Paul: After Submarine we retired to a tiny dingy rehearsal room where we drew a real strength and defiance out of the whole label collapse. It helped that we could still draw an audience around Ireland and the live thing kept us going. We wrote a lot of Heartworm in that room and just started demoing material. We did not actively seek a major deal but one of the engineers of those demo sessions played a tape containing "We Don't Need Nobody Else" to a Sony rep and from then on they pursued us relentlessly. They paid for some further demos and then EMI got interested and things got a little hectic! But we went with Sony mainly for their enthusiasm and they offered a two album firm deal.
Ben: Heartworm is a definite progression from Submarine, both musically and lyrically. It was also a record that went very much against what was going on in the UK at the time with the whole Britpop scene. What was your vision going into the studio? Were you reacting against the musical climate of the time or was it just a case of you being true to yourselves?
Paul: We had a very clear idea of the record we wanted before we entered the studio. After Submarine we really stopped listening to much of the contemporary indie music at the time. We wanted to make a record that did not owe a debt to any one band or particular scene. It also became important to write about things meant something real to us. While it was not a reaction to Britpop, I think it is fair to say we found that whole thing really tiresome and somewhat amusing.
Ben: The most amazing thing to me about your records, especially Heartworm, is the way that the instrumentation and lyrics work so well together; the mood of the music really captures the message of the words. Which came first, the music or lyrics, or was it a concurrent process?
Paul: Usually we would come up with the music and present it to Fearghal who would then work on the lyrics. On songs like "When We Were Young" and "Morning Rise" there was collaboration between the four of us on the lyrics.
Bob: Exactly how did you come up with your highly original guitar work, such as the haunting playing in "The Honeymoon Is Over," the blasting "We Don't Need Nobody Else," and the incredible performance on "Tripped," which is every bit as good as anything Johnny Greenwood has done?
Paul: I have never been a fan of music top heavy on screeching guitar solos and that real fast 200 notes a second guitar work. It just never held any fascination for me. I've always preferred more textural playing, which creates a mood. I'm a huge fan of Echo and the Bunnymen's Will Sergeant, particularly the early material, and I was influenced by the Kitchens of Distinction's guitar sound.
Ben: You generated some controversy in the UK due to the lyric about domestic violence in "We Don't Need Nobody Else." Were you surprised by the reactions to the song? What inspired the song in the first place?
Paul: The reaction to that song was just crazy. We even had some real gutter, tabloid stories in the press in Ireland. In a way, lyrically the new album is a reaction to that whole thing. Fearghal, particularly recoiled from the constant questioning and the new album has a different lyrical slant because of that. The song is not about domestic violence per se; there are a number of themes running throughout that song but people always focus on that one line.
Ben: The lyrics on Heartworm have really strong narrative themes, examples I'm especially thinking of include "We Don't Need Nobody Else," "Twinkle," and the U.S. bonus track "A Natural." As a band, are you fans of literature and film? Heartworm has a very Bukowski-like vibe going on, the way that a lot of the characters seem to be down on their luck but are still striving to survive.
Paul: Yeah we were all heavily influenced by literature and film. Fearghal is a fan of Bukowski, Will Self, Patrick McCabe (amongst others) and films like Blue Velvet were hugely influential when we formed. We also have a love of movie soundtracks and I think there is an element of that in the music.
Ben: Heartworm is also a very emotionally honest record, ranging from romantic desire on "Morning Rise" to painful loss on "The Honeymoon Is Over" and on other songs, various other facets of relationships. Is it difficult to be so open on record? I'm guessing it must be, because most bands shy away from those themes or write about them in really obvious clichéd ways.
Paul: I suppose we approached Heartworm in a very naive and innocent way. We reasoned that if we wrote in an open and honest fashion people would respect it and take it at face value. We figured that if the writing was as exposed as possible, there would be less need for explaining the songs but in fact, the opposite was true. Like I said before, the endless reference to one particular song, (one particular line in fact) became really tiresome. That said, I am proud of that quality of honesty and I am always attracted to music that has that side to it.
Ben: One of the things that impresses me most about Heartworm is the fact that you were able to crack the UK singles charts with songs such "We Don't Need Nobody Else" and "Twinkle," which were hardly typical mainstream singles. It seems like you had the potential to crack the UK market more, considering that non-compromising groups like Radiohead, The Verve, and Spiritualized were able to generate strong record sales. Do you feel like Sony UK mismanaged you to some extent? For one thing, you never toured the U.S.
Paul: We only really made a small dent
on the UK charts. You know Sony put a lot of effort into breaking the band in the UK
and I have very little negative to say about them. Not touring the US was a huge
mistake and personally one of my greatest regrets. We visited New York for a week
just before the album was released to do some promo stuff and found the people at
Sony to be really positive. We were scheduled to do a support slot with Stabbing
Westward and three days before that was due to
start our manager pulled us off the tour. That really pissed Sony US off and basically
they did not want to know after that.
Ben: Why did you leave Sony UK? Were you dropped? What motivated you to carry on and make another record despite not being signed to a label?
Paul: Basically, as happens regularly in the music business, the whole team of people involved in signing the band moved on. Their replacements, inherited a band they did not sign and a significant debt. However, we had a two album firm deal and could have insisted on having a new album released but to us that was pretty pointless. So we negotiated a settlement and left. We had demoed a lot of the songs that form the new record and really believed in them and when our manager subsequently jumped ship, we were determined that we would make the record.
Bob: How many copies of Heartworm were sold worldwide? Assuming this is a decent amount, shouldn't you expect some significant percentage of these fans to want to buy the new one? With that in mind, will the CD be available in the UK "mainstream"? Do you expect to be reviewed in major publications such as NME, Mojo, and Q? It would be a shame for you to have to depend on word-of-mouth sales when I'm sure you would get a good UK response if people only know it's out there.
Paul: The album sold 80,000 worldwide, which means something to us, but to a major is nothing to get excited about. The record will be released in the UK, albeit with minimal promotion but we do expect it will be reviewed in all the major magazines. To be honest, I am not at all concerned about sales on this one. The record is out there and I have a strong belief that fans of the band will hear about it and it is available to anyone who wants it.
Ben: What was your vision, if any, going into the recording of Whipping Boy?
Paul: The making of the album was difficult. We knew going into the studio that it was our last one. To be honest, we saw very little of Fearghal during the recording of it. It was the old revolving doors syndrome. We would arrive and he would leave and vice versa. We had no other agenda going into the studio other than to make a record and pray we made it to the end without things blowing up, which we just about managed. The album is called Whipping Boy mainly due to the fact we couldn't agree on the title. Yeah, things got that bad.
Bob: What is the story behind "Pat The Almighty"? Is it directed at one specific person, or rather, a cross section of these types of people?
Paul: The song is about the typical musician you find in Dublin. They achieve some limited success in their own local area and suddenly they act as if they are stars and they start appearing at all the right hang outs and partiesreally laughable stuff. We have known a few like this in our time and this song is just our tongue-in-cheek look at this kind of thing.
Bob: Is the colossal closing track "No Place To Go" meant to be an autobiographical statement on the breakup of the band? If so, how could you all not change your mind after such a superb performance? Was it the last song the band recorded?
Paul: Yeah, there is definitely that side to it. A lot of our songs have that dual thing going on. While "We Don't Need Nobody Else" attracted a lot of attention because of the domestic violence theme, the song was written at a time when we were really low and found that a lot of our "friends" in the business had deserted us. The chorus in that song was a real defiant statement of intent and it was us just saying we will not give in. Unfortunately, "No Place To Go" was written when we realized that it was all over and that's why it is the last track. There was no real sense of looking at things after the album was made and saying this is too good to give up on. We were all really sick of the whole process of disintegration that had went on. The last song we recorded, ironically enough, was "Suspicious Minds," for an alternative Elvis Presley album, released for charity here in Ireland. It's a fairly radical reworking but the lyrics are very appropriate given the band's situation. There is a further irony in that long ago we got bored of answering the question "how did you form?" and so we started inventing stuff. The best and most widely believed scenario was that we met at an Elvis convention, so there is a strange symmetry in that the first and last thing we ever did is related to Elvis. And with "Ghost Of Elvis" on the album, the whole thing gets even more bizarre.
Bob: Is anyone managing/promoting the band for this release, or is it 100% indie?
Paul: We do have a couple of guys working on getting it to press and radio in Ireland but I don't think that it could be termed anything but 100% indie. For me it makes the release that much more special and while I don't know whether it is better than Heartworm, I know I am prouder of the new record.
Bob: You recently stated that the album is receiving some airplay. Which song(s) are being played? Has this airplay been across the entire UK or limited to Ireland thus far?
Paul: We released a promo of "So Much For Love" and "Pat The Almighty" to radio and "So Much" is picking up a lot of airplay. It's confined to Ireland at the moment, as we are not releasing it in the UK just yet.
Bob: If the CD does meet with some sales/critical success, is there a chance that the band could reform? If not, do you plan to take your intense dive-bomb guitar work and form another band? Does Fearghal plan to continue in music?
Paul: To be honest, there is a slim to none chance of this happening. A lot of stuff went on in the last couple of years of the bands existence that has left a really sour taste and I for one, have no intention of going back to that. The record has started to pick up a lot of interest in Ireland and we have been offered good money to do gigs, but money is not a good enough reason alone to do something when you know the heart of your band has been ripped away. At the moment, the bass player and I are getting something together and have quite a lot of songs written. It will not be Whipping Boy part II, however, but it will hopefully retain the spirit inherent in the way we play guitars.
Bob: What will be included on the Whipping Boy website you're working on? Will there be updates on the members' future musical endeavors, even if non-Whipping Boy?
Paul: I will have a lot of reviews, photos, info on early releases that most people would not have seen. It is very time consuming, however, and I am working hard on trying to have it finished within the next month.
Ben: Who are some current groups that you are impressed with at the moment? How do you rate the current music scene in comparison to how it was at different facets of Whipping Boy's career?
Paul: At the moment I am listening to the Eels new record, which I think is superb. Wilco's album Summerteeth is one of the finest records I have heard in years and I am a fan of Mercury Rev, Elliott Smith, and Sparklehorse. I think the music scene is pretty healthy at the moment but it does lack a little excitement. There has not been a band since Nirvana who would make you feel that you were witnessing something that could really shake things up. I think there is and has been for some time a huge lack of decent UK acts and that is something that has changed since we formed.
The new Whipping Boy CD can be ordered directly from Paul:
Paul Page, 81 The Strand, Donabate, Co. Dublin, Ireland (firstname.lastname@example.org)