david nelligan brid

Cork-based band The David Nelligan Thing release their new album, Dark Matters, today. It’s a melange of sounds and genres that always leaves you guessing what’s coming next. Nelligan’s been uploading videos for various tracks from the album over the last few weeks, and the latest is ‘Every Day We Wake Up’, with its piano-driven intro quickly falling into droney despair before picking up again. ‘Every day we wake up with a past,” he sings despairingly. You can watch all of the videos via the YouTube playlist here. After the jump is an interview with Nelligan, who tells me why maybe it wasn’t so bad losing hundreds of songs because his hard drive crashed; about how the album was recorded against “a backdrop of unprecedented unrest and uncertainty”; and how he’s in no danger of finding his niche anytime soon. The David Nelligan Thing play Coughlan’s in Cork City on May 17.

How long have you been making music? What other bands have you been in? Did they just break up naturally that you’ve ended up where you are now, making music under your own name?

I started teaching myself to play the guitar when I was 16. I was writing songs and joining bands immediately. Just a few months after first picking up a guitar, I was ‘lead guitarist’ in a band. Thinking back, it must have been really funny for people at gigs to see all these earnest teenagers, who couldn’t quite play their instruments yet, taking it all so seriously. But it was also a lot of fun and I learned quickly. Down through the years I’ve played guitar in bands fronted by other people, like The Girls of Summer and Painting By Numbers. Then there were other bands where I was the frontman, like Random Friend Selecter, and Mystery Guest Stars where I shared the limelight with James Eliot Taylor. We never got anywhere. I didn’t really like the idea of getting publicity or seeking attention. I just felt like this was all part of my musical education. I was waiting for us to get really really good, but none of these bands lasted long enough to get it together. Real life always got in the way; work commitments, family commitments, the chaotic lives of struggling musicians, the logistics of getting five people in a room at the same time. Mystery Guest Stars ended when James had to move to England. It was frustrating always feeling like our potential was wasted. Faced with the option of starting again from scratch with no reputation, I decided to use my own name and start building something more long-term, something I could keep going no matter what.

How did you feel when you lost all the songs when your hard drive crashed? Did it take long to get over? Has your creative process changed since?

It was a shock to lose all that hard work and all those ideas. But it forced me to take a break from home recording, which was probably a good thing. I was a bit obsessive about it, I think I needed some perspective. I needed to learn to be sociable again after spending years holed up in a tiny room. By the time I got some new equipment to record with, I had thought a bit about my arrangements and production and how to achieve better results. My creative process is a bit more open now, I don’t put myself under such tremendous pressure. I take breaks. I’ve realised that I need space to breathe. And so do my songs.

You say in the interview on your Tumblr page that you consciously used your own name for the release. Has that added extra pressure on you? Do you feel extra precious about the songs? The David Nelligan Thing is a band (a trio, right?) but is everything on the album just you?

In a way, using my own name has taken the pressure off. It’s such an un-showbiz sounding name. It’s just honest. Look, here’s my real name, here’s what I really think about everything. I’ll have this name for the rest of my life. I’m proud of what I’m doing, I intend to continue to add to a body of work that will become undeniable. That’s who I am. I’m not hiding behind some pretentious pseudonym or trying to pass myself off as something I’m not. On the album, I play everything except the drums on ‘Soso Farso’ (that’s James Eliot Taylor). I don’t think I’m precious about it, I just know what I’m doing. Joe’s in college. Andy’s working full-time, I just went ahead and recorded these. Andy and Joe are very encouraging, they think it’s cool that I put an album together while they were too busy. These were all brand new songs, the album was almost finished before I realised it was an album. We were actually a five-piece band, Shane Murphy on drums, Mark Fitzgerald on guitar, Joe Cusack on bass and Andy Wilson on ukulele/guitar and harmonies. We recently parted ways with Shane, he’s just too busy at the moment. Mark stepped down last year and James Eliot Taylor (back from England) stood in to take his place. We’ve got someone else drumming with us for our next gig. But I kind of like the idea of having a constantly evolving line-up. There are so many talented musicians around Cork that I’d love to play with. And since we’ve been learning the new songs for the live set, the arrangements are evolving a little bit as well. I’m loving this process, it’s exciting to hear the songs coming alive with other musicians, building on the work I’ve already done. Our next gig is Friday May 17th in Coughlan’s, Douglas St, Cork. I’m really looking forward to it.

You say in your press release that the album was recorded against “a backdrop of unprecedented unrest and uncertainty”. What were these (if you don’t want to tell, that’s fine), and how did they affect the music? As they’re so personal, is that why you play live quite rarely?

At the start of last year I was working for the HSE, doing relief work in psychiatric and mental handicap units. I was just cleaning and serving meals but it can be kind of a tough environment to work in sometimes. This was my part-time day job for years. And for years, it suited me alright. It was flexible, I could get time off whenever I needed it. For a long time, it was compatible with my musical projects. It didn’t bother me so much when it was part-time. But in the last couple of years, my work situation started to become unbearable. The HSE’s hiring freeze was a ridiculous policy. If someone retired or died (as they frequently did), their position went unfilled. Existing staff were simply expected to work harder. As I was one of the few people left doing relief work, I was expected to work all the time, and taxed so much it wasn’t worth my while. I started to feel like a slave, I was often working non-negotiable 60-hour weeks, several consecutive days of twelve-hour shifts in understaffed psychiatric units. I was run ragged for a couple of years under constant threat of dismissal. Then eventually I was just fired for no good reason. I was left exhausted and depressed, and unemployed for the first time in my adult life. I was fighting with my girlfriend as well, and living in a shitty house with winos getting drunk outside our kitchen window all the time. Things were not good. The band suffered as my work situation became more and more stressful and my personal outlook more bleak, that definitely stopped me from booking gigs. It was a couple of years of intense misery, being overworked and underpaid and constantly exposed to mental illness and sadness and death. ‘Dark Matters’ came from all that, I was trying to recover, to write myself into a more positive frame of mind. It worked. There’s a lot of positivity on that record, I have no idea where it all came from.

Tell me about the recording of the album itself. How was it recorded and where?

I recorded the album using Logic in the spare bedroom at my house. It’s a small room, mostly taken up with my instruments and equipment. I’ve always recorded in what others might call claustrophobic spaces, I actually quite like small spaces. It’s like the song ‘Comfort Zone’, that’s definitely how I feel about writing and recording. When I’m in that room, working on music, I’m not bothered by all the petty annoyances of life, I’m in a more expansive and imaginative headspace. I usually record a song while I’m writing it, the arrangement informing the songwriting. The songs on ‘Dark Matters’ were written concurrently, each influencing my decisions as to where to take the next one. After I wrote the song ‘Dark Matter’ last September, I had around ten of the songs and I knew that I’d call the album ‘Dark Matters’. I was already working on the videos as I wrote the last few songs for the album. The toughest part was post-production. Being flat broke, I couldn’t possibly afford to get fourteen songs professionally mastered. So I did a lot of research and downloaded a few programs. I gave myself a few months of experimentation, trial and error, remixing, bouncing final mixes from one program to another and remixing again based on the results. I was trying to get a consistent sound throughout the album. Mastering is quite scientific and very technical, I was in way over my head. But I gave myself plenty of time and eventually got the kinds of results I was trying to achieve.

Each song seems to leap into a different genre, ranging from country to heavy rock to pop. Was it about testing yourself and keeping yourself interested? Do you think you’re still finding your niche?

I always challenge myself to write something I’ve never written before, it’s definitely fun to test yourself and it does keep things more interesting. I’m not really looking for a niche. Maybe it would be easier to find an audience if I was more predictable, if people knew exactly what they were getting all the time. That might explain the popularity of so many bland one-trick-pony type bands. They found their niche. Some people confuse commercial success with artistic fulfillment. I’ve spent long enough toiling in obscurity to know who I am and how I’m motivated as a songwriter. I don’t think I’m in danger of finding my niche anytime soon.

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You seem proudly DIY. How important is that for you?

I’m completely self-taught in every respect. I taught myself guitar in my teens, taught myself to play the piano in my twenties, never formally studied sound engineering or production. DIY was the only way to go for me. I’ve always enjoyed figuring things out for myself, jumping in at the deep end. I took the same approach to video production. And I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. I worked extremely hard to become the artist I am today. When I was considering how to release Dark Matters, I knew my publicity campaign would have to be DIY as well. I’ve got a real distaste for self-promotion. I’ve never done any PR before. It feels immodest, I’m usually very shy. But there’s no place for that when you’re trying to get your work out into the world. To launch Dark Matters, I sent emails to all the credible blogs and music websites I could find, the ones who are happy to champion something independent when it’s something they enjoy. The hardest part is getting people to listen in the first place, these blogs get sent an incredible volume of submissions. I tried to set myself apart with my video-a-week idea. It wasn’t about cajoling or pressuring anyone, it was giving them something new each week and time to digest and get a feel for it without being hassled into an ill-considered response. It was a release strategy with built-in persistency. I think my music, like anything worthwhile, needs a little bit of time to grow on people. The video campaign seems to have made a small but overwhelmingly positive dent. I really want to see this translate into album sales. I want to see that people who really care about music will still pay for it, especially at this end of the commercial spectrum. I want my life to become sustainable, this starving artist thing is getting ridiculous. If the album gains momentum I can get better gigs, reach more people and start building a career in music. Maybe I’m putting the cart before the horse here, it’s just so hard to organise gigs around the lives of my band members when these gigs are so financially unviable. We can’t get a good reputation without playing gigs but we can’t get paid properly for gigs without a good reputation. I’m hoping the album and PR campaign might help to tip the balance in our favour.

You sound very enthusiastic about the Cork scene – and almost sound intimidated by the calibre of some of the musicians here. Do you think there’s a good scene and good positivity in the city? Is there anything you’d like to change?

Cork music is thriving. For a city this size, it’s just phenomenal to have such a breadth of talent. The best thing to happen to Cork in the last couple of years is the new Triskel Christchurch and Plugd Records (and of course Gulpd café) moving into that space. It’s a hive of activity, really great to see all those cool gigs and events happening, gigs in the record store, in the café, in the church and the TDC. The place is fantastic. I’d like to see some other Cork venues learn from that. If anything, Cork could use a few more venues that take music seriously and want to foster an appropriate atmosphere for listening to and appreciating music. I’m not going to single anyone out here, but I’ve played acoustic gigs in venues where you could hear the pounding bass from the dance music they play downstairs coming up through the floor. This isn’t conducive to a good gig. For lots of Cork pubs, live music is an afterthought, just another way of cramming people in to sell them overpriced booze. I want to see more venues that really care about music. You can see a huge difference when music is given proper respect. It’s better for audiences, better for performers and I’d venture it’s better for the reputations and longer-term profitability of venues. Even if it isn’t, it might be worth taking the financial hit just to have some integrity for a change. I won’t name and shame the bad ones. We’ve got a lot of good ones too. I will say that Coughlan’s is a wonderful Cork music venue and we’re proud to be playing there on May 17th. That’s worth another mention.

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Dark Matters is out now, and can be purchased on Bandcamp or from Plugd, where you can pick up digital download cards with an exclusive free poster in lieu of inlay.