Stoat Interview: “The band gives us a good excuse to spend time together”

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New album Try not to think about it is out in May or June. Next single due in mid March.

The latest track from Dublin’s Stoat is a blast. ‘Talk Radio Makes Me Feel Alone’ is an urgent, frantic, stream of consciousness rant about feeling at odds with everyday life. It is a track of palpable anxiety, as if the listener has somehow gotten access to the most random and unhinged aspects of Stoat’s collective subconscious. I love it. It will appear on Stoat’s upcoming new album Try not to think about it, which will be out this summer and will be excellent.

We had a good chat with the band about their longevity, stylistic diversity, and the communal aspect of being in a band.

Overblown: As you’ve said before, some of your contemporaries, Jape and The Delorentos, went on to bigger things while others have given up on the music thing. What do you think keeps you going after thirty years?

Stoat: Two things, I suppose – we like making music, and we like each other.

Making up songs is my idea of fun. If I’ve an hour or two to myself you’ll find me farting around with beats on my phone, or sitting at the piano, or scribbling lyrics on a scrap of paper. My wife and kids will tell you how I bounce around the place with excitement when I’ve come up with something new that I think is cool. John’s the same when arrives at band practice with a new tune, all pleased with himself.

And then there’s the social aspect – I live in Meath, Stephen in Co. Dublin, and John in Galway, and like many guys we’re not very good at keeping in touch with people we don’t see day-to-day. The band gives us an excuse to spend time together. Also we’re each others’ audience. Bill Watterson who wrote ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ says his wife was always the person who he imagined reading his comic strip, so his whole career was based on trying to make his wife laugh. Similarly when we’re writing songs it’s the other lads in the band we’re trying to impress – I’m there at the piano switching from a minor to a major key midway through a chorus cackling to myself saying “haha wait til Stephen and John hear THIS!”

O: Your new single ‘Talk Radio Makes Me Feel Alone’ is quite idiosyncratic song. The vocals in the verses are delivered in a new stream of consciousness rant. Want inspired that delivery?

S: It’s me doing the ranting, and the delivery is mostly to do with my limitations as a singer. I’ve got more of a sound-effects voice than a proper singing voice, so, rather than bashing my head against my own weaknesses, I’ve been increasingly writing songs with simple melodies that can stand being barked rather than sung (in the verses at least). I had initially imagined this with a more monotone delivery (more rapping than ranting), but in real life I when I care about something I tend to get all excitable and animated, so when we were recording this John kept encouraging me to be more like myself and this is what we got.

John’s voice is more sonorous than mine, so it’s mostly him you hear in the melodic bit in the chorus, and the songs on the album that are primarily written by him tend to be the most melodic.

O: For me the track seems to be about feeling slightly odd or out of place in mainstream society. I’m thinking about the lines focusing on being confused in relation to how jokes where the punchline is that people have sex or are gay are funny. Is that accurate?

S: Haha oh god really? Once upon a time pretty much all my songs were about feeling like an outsider. I don’t feel that way so much anymore, probably because for the last few years I’ve been working in a tech company with lots of other nerds and weirdos.

But listening to people’s messages read out on the radio does make me feel out of place, same as comments on youtube videos – you just think “oh god, if this is what people are really like then I couldn’t possibly belong in this world”. And as for those particular lines – I hate obvious jokes. If the best wisecrack you can come up with boils down to “hurr hurr someone had sex” then, seriously, shut the fuck up. Nobody cares, heard it before, you are boring me.

O: I really enjoyed the DIY nature of the music video for the track too. Who created it? What’s the concept behind the video?

S: There’s not really any concept – nobody seems to release anything anymore without a video, so I conjured up one for us with whatever I could find around the house on a Saturday morning. Heather (my 8 year old) had drawn the radio the previous day for the single cover, and I just kinda took it from there. The black background is all the black clothes we had in the house clothes-pegged to our kitchen chairs. The zooms and fades are stock effects from Windows Movie Maker, my attempts to cover up the fact that a pink toybox was visible in some of the shots.

The stop-motion dance scene is my favourite bit – despite the crappiness of the animation my daughters loved it, and they’re mad into dancing, so that’s a win for me!

I had actually shot some footage for a video a few weeks before using barbie dolls instead of stickmen, and with the phone stuck onto a lego train so I could do tracking shots, but then I got afraid that Mattel would sue us and had to come up with another idea.

O: You’ve taken your time with this new album. How has that impacted on the writing and recording of the album?

S: Hard to say – we didn’t make a decision to take our time, it’s just that we couldn’t have done it any other way. The band fits into small cracks in the lives of 3 grown men with jobs and families. The mixing alone took 15 months of my evenings and weekends (and then we had to get professionals to finish it off). I guess those kinds of limitations do shape both the music we write and the sound of the recordings, but … well, it’s been so long (a year on the dole in 93/94) since any of us did music full-time that we don’t have anything to compare to. In our weaker moments we might daydream about how awesome it’d be to spend 6 months in a studio doing nothing else, but realistically slowly-does-it is all we know, and all we’re ever going to know.

O: Is ‘Talk Radio Makes Me Feel Alone’ indicative of the style of music on the new album?

S: Not particularly. The next single (due in mid-March) was written by John and is much more melodic, kind of classic indie-pop in the same vague ballpark as Belle & Sebastian or Lily Allen. About 10 years ago an on-the-ball reviewer called us “bizarrely diverse”, and stylistic inconsistency remains one of our characteristics. Our “sound” is more an approach to music than anything the songs have in common with each other. Also I think that the way we write slowly, and have gathered the songs for both our albums over long periods (and also that there’s 2 of us doing most of the writing pretty independently), militates against the albums forming any sort of coherent artistic statement. They’re just a bunch of songs, and all that really ties them together is us … though having said that, I think once you’re familiar with the band our stuff is easily recognisable, and you’d be pretty unlikely to mistake any of our tunes for anyone else.

Sometimes we lament our own inconsistency, and fantasise about coming up with an album that really sounds like an album, 10 songs you’d know straight away were from the same time by the same band, but then one of us will get some new musical idea and go haring off after that instead.

O: You brought in your friend Jamie (a real musician!) to help with the recording of the album. How did he affect the recording sessions?

S: Jamie is actually to help with the playing rather than the recording. I mixed most of this at home, and couldn’t resist the temptation to bang in loads of extra stuff just because it was so much fun. Tuba! Organ! Church bells! Of course then it was unplayable by the 3 of us, so we needed someone else. Jamie was actually in the original band even before I joined in 1987 – the original line up was him and John and a drummer called Brian who now lives in Germany. He’s is a proper musician – flute, sax, bass, guitar, keys, classical and rock and jazz, did a Ph.D. on some Czech composer. Him and John were in primary school together, I first met first him in an orchestra in Wexford town, him playing flute and me double bass.

It’s great having him in the band so him and me can talk about semiquavers and make the lads think we’re clever. Also they listen to him when he tells them they’re speeding up mid-song – they’re so used to me haranguing them that they tune out. So far it looks like he’s going to make us into a better band – I like to think that we’ve always been a fun band to see live, though a little erratic. Hopefully with Jamie we’ll be just fun.

O: What are the plans for some upcoming gigs?

S: We had been focusing on recording for so long that our playing skills had kind of deserted us, and it has taken quite a while for us to get up to scratch again. The plan is to start doing low key gigs in March or April, building up to a few bigger ones around the album launch in May or June, plus (hopefully) a few festival slots over the summer.

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