Interview by Barry Egan
Cue banjos. Cue — perhaps, perhaps not — slightly comic homo-erotic overtones. Cue running for the hills, or at least a tour-bus. It was like a scene from Deliverance, directed by MTV. Steve Garrigan stepped off the Kodaline tour-bus into the gleaming sunlight to get a coffee when he is approached by a local bucko outside a truck-stop in the Deep South. [You’ll have to imagine the accents. Steve is from Swords in county Dublin...]
“You guys in a band?”
“Yeah, we’re in a band.”
“So, what do you sound like?”
“Kind of like Coldplay.”
“Kind of like Kings Of Leon.”
“Maybe like U2.”
Six thousand miles away back in Dublin, Steve is reflecting that he’s never met someone before who’s actually never heard of U2. U2 were to play, however unwittingly, however fleeting, a role on Kodaline’s recent sold-out tour of America and Canada. On the night of their show in Vancouver, a man arrived at the door of their dressing room with a crate of Champagne and Guinness claiming to be representing U2. Kodaline immediately thought it was a practical joke.
“That was ridiculous!” laughs Steve. Bass player Jason Boland — the only one in the group not from Swords — takes up the story: “This guy says, ‘U2 have sent you some drinks.’” To which all of Kodaline, groaned inwardly, ‘Yeah, right.’ “Then I saw the shiny U2 pass hanging out of his trousers,” laughs drummer Vinny May. “They had a show that night in Vancouver too.”
We didn’t even know that they knew who we were. U2 are legendary
Bono’s booze long since guzzled, Mark Prendergast, guitarist supremo, says now: “It was an unbelievable gesture. We’ve never met them or anything.” Steve: “We didn’t even know that they knew who we were. U2 are legendary. We grew up listening to them. We are huge U2 fans.”
Like Bono, Edge, Larry and Adam, Steve, Mark, Jason and Vinny are a gang from the Northside of Dublin — a band of brothers with a sound that is starting to captivate global audiences (Steve, in fact, shows me footage on his mobile phone of fans queuing in their droves down the street to get into their gigs in America. Next Friday, 18,000 fanatical devotees of the band will cue in their droves down Military Road in Dublin to see them play Royal Hospital Kilmainham.) They are four forthrightly funny — even scurrilous, often at their own expense — young men. They tell their tale of how it all started with mischievous smiles on their faces. Theirs is a story as much of Irish youth as anything else. “I used to walk home from school with Steve and he used to slag my mam’s car,” remembers Mark. “She had a really old Ford Ka.”
Steve: “It looked like a Cadbury’s Cream Egg! Or just an egg!”
Mark: “And every day we got to my house, he’d slag the car. I was like, ‘What the fuck is going on with this guy?’ So we went to the Gaeltacht together.”
“The first place we went to, we weren’t allowed sing in English,” interjects Steve, “So that was really difficult. So we wrote a song in Irish.”
“We really started because there was a Battle of the Bands in our school which we were organising as part of transition year,” continues Steve. “There were no gigs when we 15, 16 in Swords. So we decided to hold a Battle of the Bands. Everybody in the school heard and said — ‘Hey! We better start a band!’
“We just stayed together for the love of it. I remember when I was 15... actually one of our mates who is standing over there,” adds Steve pointing at a young chap standing by the grand piano in Windmill Lane studios in Ringsend, “acted as our manager but he was only 15 too. He would get us as much gigs as possible in girls’ schools.
Mark: “Because he liked girls!”
Steve: “So did we!”
“We played in the school hall and it was full of people,” Steve continues, “And if you won you got a chance to record.”
“So we completely fixed the whole thing," jokes Mark.
What was their first performance like?
One woman took me aside and said: ‘Don’t take this personal but you have such a depressing sound – you shouldn’t sing'
“I’d say it was awful,” answers Steve. “I remember we played a talent competition in St Margaret’s and we lost. It was pretty heartbreaking. But at the time we were like ‘Why didn’t we win?’ We did lots of talent competitions and we lost a lot of things. But we were terrible!” laughs Steve. “So!”
“When you do gigs at that level when you are just starting out,” says Mark, “it is such a big event.”
Steve: “Playing in the local community centre is the most important day of your life.” (Today, Kodaline performed a mesmerizing rendition of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean — with Stevie wonder [sic] constructing a funky fresh new melody at the piano — for the Windmill Lane Sessions on Independent.ie.)
Vinny can remember the group rehearsing at his parents’ house every weekend. “Drummers’ parents are the most lenient. It’s like you already make a lot of noise, so what’s a little bit more!”
Playing Kilmainham is just like a dream come true I suppose
Mark: “What’s a bit of melody, hah?”
Steve: “Me and mark are from River Valley, and you could actually hear [Vinny’s drums.] We are on one side of the valley and Vinny’s house is on the other side of the valley. You would just hear drums like super, super loud. That was 7 years max ago!”
Steve has grim memories of playing Gilbert & Wright bar in Swords one night. “I remember playing High Hopes, which is our biggest song here, and drunken people coming up to me and shouting at me: ‘Wooah, that’s crap.’ I remember one woman took me aside and said: ‘Don’t take this personal but you have such a depressing sound – you shouldn’t sing.’”
“It was my mam!" jokes Mark.
“It was so weird, I was trying to play some of our own songs and people would be shouting for Sweet Home Alabama. But to go from that a couple of years ago to playing to Kilmainham is absolutely incredible. It’s just like a dream come true I suppose.”
The primary reason why this has happened for Kodaline — sold-out American tours, a big record deal with Sony, a sublime new album Coming Up For Air — is because of the integrity of their music.
As Steve told Rolling Stone: “It’s important to stay true to yourself. Don’t waste your life trying to be someone else... If you have a skeleton in your closet, you may as well make it dance."
Steve learned how to make the skeleton in his closet dance listening obsessively to one song as a young teen growing up in Swords. It wasn’t by Westlife. It was by Jackson Browne. “I grew up on The Pretender. It is a song that has always been around,” Steve says quoting the lyric: ‘I’m going to be a happy idiot/Caught between the longing for love/And the struggle for the legal tender’. “Everyone is searching for love and everybody needs money,” explains Steve. “So it is such universal thing. I just love Jackson Browne. Mark probably hates Jackson Browne.”
The three other members of Kodaline are now all looking at Mark.
“I love the Eagles and I only found out recently that he wrote that massive Eagles’ tune Take It Easy,” says Mark. “So I have respect for Jackson Browne. He’s a great writer! Not that he needs respect from me — he is one of the best writers of all time!”
Steve can recall being back in his bedroom as a teenager writing his first song. “Me and Mark used to spend... you know, there was a good two years where we did just nothing. Everybody thought we were wasters.”
“We kind of are!” laughs Mark. “We’re just chancers now — different title. Kilmaimham for us really is the first time we’ve had to put on a big outdoor show in Ireland,” continues Mark, “which is what all our summers were about when we were growing up.”
The Jewish poet Paul Celan described his poems as spiritual paths “for projecting ourselves into the search for ourselves... a kind of homecoming.” Kodaline at their masterful best do that in their songs (like Human Again, High Hopes, Give Me A Minute, Love Will Set You Free, Honest.) And, yes, playing Kilmainham is a kind of homecoming, for the band and for 18,000 fans. Cue guitars — Mark Prendergast’s post-modern Edge whirr...
Kodaline will play Live at the Marquee Cork on June 25th and Royal Hospital Kilmainham on June 26th. Kodaline also play two nights at Galway International Arts Festival on July 17th & 18th.
Windmill Lane Sessions: The creative wisdom of the Young Folk