Interview by Barry Egan
“We were a bit like a boy band, like The Coronas are now” - Dublin born brothers Joe and Steve Wall talk the success of The Stunning and making the transition to The Walls.
Brothers Steve and Joe Wall formed The Stunning way back in 1987, offering an alternative sound to the up-and-coming U2, and that band’s imitators and, in the process, garnering themselves a fan base of adoring teenage girls who sent them tear-stained letters upon their break-up just seven years later.
“We started in 1987 and we were just playing cover versions,” says Steve. “We used to play everywhere – bars, nightclubs, wherever we could get a gig, and we started writing our own songs and gradually put them into the set.
“There was no great ambition, there was no singular vision, which some bands had at the time, certainly some of the bands that were coming out of Dublin seemed to have more of an image together, black leather jackets and stuff. This was 1987/88 and U2 were starting to take over America so rock bands were in but we were a bit all over the place.
"We were a record company’s worst nightmare. A&R men used to steer clear of us."
“None of The Stunning’s singles bore any resemblance to the single beforehand. Our first single was a country song called ‘Got to Get Away’ which was inspired by Steve Earle who had an album called ‘Guitar Town’ which we were listening to a lot. So Joe and I wrote ‘Got to Get Away’ which was an upbeat, stomping country tune.
“That was followed by ‘Half Past Two’ which was like Dean Martin meets Burt Bacharach. That was followed by ‘Romeo’s on Fire’ which had a Latino kind of feel to it, Spanish guitar solo, because we were listening to Los Lobos at the time.
“That was followed by ‘Brewing Up a Storm’ which had a kind of Blue Oyster Cult/Doorsey kind of feel to it so we hadn’t a clue. We were a record company’s worst nightmare. A&R men used to steer clear of us. They didn’t know what to file us under!”
Joe adds, “We were kind of finding our feet and recording and releasing and gigging at the same time.
"I still have rejection letters from a couple of labels. I just kept them for the fun."
Steve continues, “We released singles first, we’d be playing gigs and go in and record a single of what we thought was our best song at the time. Then a few months later follow up with another single. We never really thought about an album until we had released four singles. We didn’t have that approach where a lot of bands would take when they’re going to record an album thinking about how it’s all going to hang together. Our first album was kind of like a greatest hits.”
He adds, “It probably helped in some ways with the band’s popularity in the beginning that we didn’t sound like U2 or any bands that sounded like them.”
It also meant they faced rejection from record labels obsessed with finding another version of the Glasnevin rockers. “We still have the rejection letters,” grins Steve. “I still have rejection letters from a couple of labels. I just kept them for the fun. Labels weren’t really that interested in the band.”
Throughout their seven years together, there were multiple highlights including having John Kenny and Pat Shortt as D’Unbelievables perform on stage at a gig in The Olympia Theatre.
“We just had fantastic fun,” says Steve. “In the end there was just the five of us in the band. We were five guys who had great laughs, great fun, all these adoring teenage girls. We were kind of like a boy band at that point. The Stunning were a bit like The Coronas are now. That was our audience – school leavers, the college years. We did the college circuit, all the rag weeks.”
However, the seven year itch led to the band splitting up, causing collective heartbreak amongst their loyal, mostly young, mostly female, fans.
“We announced we were going to break up and did a farewell tour in 1994,” says Joe. “It was a very emotional tour, there were very upset teenage girls and lots of fan mail with smudging from tears. That’s when people used to write, before email.”
Steve adds, “This was pre-internet. 1994 doesn’t seem that long ago but when you think of how different it was. We had a post office box in Galway and we’d get fan mail, bags of it. There’d be lipstick kisses on the envelopes, SWALK - sealed with a loving kiss - and perfume on them.”
There were several reasons for the split, but the main push was the failure of the band to secure a deal outside of Ireland.
“We’d been going for seven years and we hadn’t made that break outside of Ireland and we knew we just couldn’t continue to be touring around Ireland all the time,” says Steve. “Any money we made was spent funding trips around America and the UK and at that stage we were more or less broke. Nothing had clicked into place. We hadn’t done a deal outside of Ireland so our records weren’t available outside of Ireland. We just kind of thought we can’t do this forever, endless tours around.
“Music was changing as well and we were changing, our tastes were changing. The Stunning’s sound was becoming a bit sort of old-fashioned at that point. There was stuff coming out that we were listening to. We were big into Beck. Beck had just released his first album and that single, ‘Loser’ and there was stuff like The Fun Loving Criminals, all these bands. Music was going through a funny stage. Dance music was big, so bands that played organically with guitars were trying to figure out how do we fit in to samples and beats and all this kind of stuff.”
“Primal Scream was a good example of a band that mixed it up,” says Joe.
Steve continues, “They were using the technology of samplers and loops and things. Beck’s song ‘Loser’ is a great example where you have hip hop beats and bottleneck guitar and we were going, ‘This is great!’
“We did all the Feiles in the Semple Stadium in Thurles and the Trip to Tipp and I remember seeing Cypress Hill one year and they were amazing. And Rage Against the Machine. Music was changing and we could see what we were doing was out of fashion.”
Joe adds, “At the time too we were at the kind of age where seven years seemed like a really long time to be in a band and it felt like a mini lifetime to us. So at the end of it we kind of thought, well we gave it a good run, didn’t we? I think we’d think about it differently now because to me now seven years isn’t that long where at the time we felt like we spent our youth doing this.”
The Walls were formed in 1998, featuring a brand new sound.
“We started experimenting with this guy Neil in Galway who used to play with a band called Toasted Heretic. And he knew how to use a sampler so we built a little studio in Galway and myself and Joe used to go up every day, just experimenting on putting loops together and writings songs,” reveals Steve.
“The Walls’ first album is kind of like bands we were listening to at the time, bands using technology and instruments like guitars and organs and stuff. ‘High Low’, the Walls’ first album is a blend of that. Probably the best example is a single called ‘Bone Deep’ that got a lot of airplay at the time. That’s very Becksy if you hear it.”
However, the final nail hadn’t been hammered into the coffin of The Stunning.
“The Stunning reformed in 2003 to do a tour and we re-released the band’s first album because I think it was initially released on vinyl and cassette. Some CDs had been released but a lot of people didn’t have them. We were always getting emails,” says Joe.
Steve explains, “It was 1990 when it came out and very few people had CD players.”
The fan response was overwhelming.
“The first tour we did in 2003 was a big success. We ended up doing about 4 nights in a row in Vicar St and basically it was the same fans grown up, bringing a few of their nephews and nieces,” reveals Joe.
Steve adds, “We had been away for almost 10 years and we did an 18 date tour around Ireland, all sold out. We weren’t expecting there would be that many people. The album - the distribution company said to press 5000. They were gone in 3 days. It went to number 2 in the charts. If the shops hadn’t sold out it would have gone to number one again.”
In the 11 years since then, they have continued to do gigs with The Stunning, and The Walls.
“We continue to tour, but it’s sort of sporadic. We don’t see it as an everyday thing,” says Joe. “We’ve released two albums by The Walls in the meantime and we’ve got our fingers in different pies.”
Joe’s particular pie is teaching in a new music college in Dublin whilst Steve has returned to the budding acting career he ditched in favour of starting a band. He has appeared in all three seasons of Moone Boy, and has had parts in the BBC’s Silent Witness and hit HBO series Vikings.
As for music, Steve says, “There’s lots of stuff we’ve recorded that hasn’t seen the light of day and some great remixes people have done for us, some really cool B sides and some instrumental stuff we did for short film. We’re going to release that this year. Then we’re off to the States with The Stunning.”
The band lives on.
Windmill Lane Sessions: Why Yeats' country is a good fit for Orchid Collective