Four years on from Dolores O’Riordan’s tragic death, The Cranberries’ Noel Hogan talks about dealing with his grief, coping with his daughter having leukaemia at the height of the band’s fame and his exciting new musical partnership
There’s something about the female voice that has always inspired Noel Hogan to make great music. For nearly 30 years, his principal collaborator was one of the most singular voices in rock — the late, great Dolores O’Riordan — and over the years, The Cranberries’ songwriter and lead guitarist has worked with a range of incredible vocalists, including Kate Havnevik and Alexandra Hamnede.
So it was no surprise when, during lockdown, Hogan connected with another female talent, Mell Peck — a gifted Brazilian singer whose Cranberries covers have racked up millions of hits on YouTube. Peck, who comes from the city of Sapucaia, has been composing music from an early age. The duo, who call themselves The Puro, worked together during the long months of isolation, sending files back and forth between Brazil and Limerick.
Their first single, Prison, is the kind of gorgeously infectious pop that helped Hogan conquer charts all over the world, and there are clear echoes of O’Riordan’s distinctive yodels in the backing vocals. When Hogan heard them, he wondered for a second if people would be offended. “It didn’t bother me but I did think it might bother other people. I thought there would be fans [of The Cranberries] who might wonder, ‘What’s he at here? Is he trying to replace Dolores?’ I wondered should I say [to Peck], ‘Don’t do that [on the vocals].’ But this is a completely different project. This isn’t Mike and Ferg and me [the surviving Cranberries]. This is me. These are my songs and, to me, this is the kind of vocal that suits these songs. And there is no replacing Dolores.”
It’s been just over four years since O’Riordan’s untimely death from what an English coroner’s court later decided was drowning due to intoxication. Hogan was walking through a shopping centre in Limerick with his wife, Catherine, when he heard the news. “Dolores’ brother rang me, and told me. And my wife says I just went completely pale. She was like, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I just said, ‘Let’s go outside.’ I don’t even know how to describe it. I couldn’t take it in because I had just been talking to her [Dolores]. She texted me the day before. On the Saturday [two days prior], I had been talking to her on the phone.” Over the following few hours, he cleaned the house and acted as though “nothing was wrong”.
“Looking back now, definitely, I was in shock. I think I thought it was a mistake. I went very quiet. I didn’t speak to anyone. But then in the following day or two, I spoke to my dad and that’s when it hit me. I just completely fell apart. There was the fact that she was gone, which was so painful. We’d always gone away, as a band, and then come back [together] — we had that luxury.
“We had all these songs and all these plans. Literally one of the last conversations that I had with her was about going to China to tour that album that March. And suddenly all that was gone.”
O’Riordan’s death marked the end of a story that had begun three decades earlier. Hogan, then a teenage alt-pop enthusiast, had no interest in being in a band; his biggest ambition was to work in a record shop, and he’d applied for a job at Golden Discs in Limerick. But when his parents bought him a guitar, he began playing with his older brother Mike, who’d also gotten a bass guitar as a present; their friend Fergal Lawler, who played drums; and a neighbour, Niall Quinn, who sang. They called themselves The Cranberry Saw Us. The name, Hogan says, had no particular meaning. “We just said, ‘We’ll go with it for now.’
“We were dreadful,” he recalls. “But we did learn the basics of songs, and a band, and what people are meant to do within that unit.” In early 1990, Quinn left the band but through him the Hogan brothers and Lawler were put in touch with the then-18-year-old O’Riordan. “I remember [Quinn]saying, “She wants to be in a band, but you can’t do cover versions. She just wants to do originals.” Which was great, I thought, because we weren’t very good at cover versions.”
On a Sunday afternoon, O’Riordan walked into Xeric Studios in Limerick, where the band were rehearsing, with a Casio keyboard under her arm. “I thought I was some kind of city slicker then and she was a real country girl, kind of what we thought of as a country bumpkin. She was very quiet, really polite. But the minute she sang, you knew she was special. She had a song of her own that she played. It was like a kind of ballad thing. And then she sang Troy, the Sinéad O’Connor song. We were awkward teenage boys but straight away we were like, ‘You’ve got the job.’”
Like Sinéad, Dolores was a precocious talent who seemed to arrive almost fully formed. When Hogan gave her “very rough” versions of Linger and Dreams, she came back a few days later with vocals and melody lines that pushed the songs very close to the versions that would later become worldwide hits.
There were, Hogan points out, “no other really big international acts that had come out of Limerick” and he says that the band — by now just The Cranberries — had “no ambition to be known past Ennis”. But their one unifying musical interest was The Smiths, who had disbanded just three years before, and so they decided to send their demo tape to the Smiths’ old label, Rough Trade, in London.
“We heard back from them, saying, ‘We really like it,’ and they asked us to come to London [to have an exploratory meeting]. But I mean, that wasn’t going to happen. We had no money to do that. We didn’t even have a phone. My neighbour had a phone and every week, when we rehearsed on Sunday, we — all the four of us — would chip in and I’d go up to the neighbour’s house, whatever day of the week in the afternoon, and ring the A&R [artist and repertoire] guys at the labels from her phone.”
Eventually, however, the labels cottoned on to how special the songs were, and a bidding war to sign The Cranberries ensued. They went with Island Records, who had put up the money for their tour. When they went to record their debut, the buzz around them meant that they could get their first-choice producer, Stephen Street, who was riding high as the producer of Morrissey’s first solo album (which had also gone to number one in the UK).
The band clicked with him in the studio and, “half arrogantly”, Hogan thought the album, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, would do well. But, strangely, it charted poorly and got tepid reviews. The Cranberries went on tour with the Hothouse Flowers, playing to what felt like indifferent audiences in Germany, and waiting for the record company to cut them loose. Instead their manager in America called to inform them that they needed to come over and respond to an uptick in radio play.
They toured with The The and slowly their album sales began to climb and climb. “That was an amazing time,” Hogan recalls. “Just a little while earlier, we couldn’t get arrested and suddenly we had our own tour bus and the things bigger bands had.” Dreams was re-released and REM’s Michael Stipe visited the set of the video shoot.
Soon, the billing on a tour on which The Cranberries were supposed to support Suede was reversed — a “surreal” moment, Hogan recalls. As the album became a sensation in America, they arrived back to a Shannon airport packed with press and fans. “We were four kids that barely knew how to play. But suddenly everyone knew who we were and all of the songs were on proper, real radio stations, as opposed to at four o’clock in the morning. So we crossed over without really trying.”
Over the next few years, the band “played the game that needed to be played” and toured constantly. “It just was a big whirlwind of constantly going and, look, it did get tiring,” he says. “But it was amazing. Because I can remember being in Australia at some opening, and you’re standing there and Sylvester Stallone’s standing next to you, talking to you, and I’m thinking, ‘Two years ago, I was watching him in Rambo.’”
Hogan says the way they were received by other artists depended on how big the artists themselves were. “A perfect example is REM, who we toured with. They were the nicest guys. They hung out. But then sometimes you get bands that are just starting out and they’ve had maybe one hit kind of thing. And they’d be the ones who had the full-on rock ’n’ roll attitude.”
U2 took them to dinner — “Our jaws were on the ground. We never thought that would happen when we went to see them in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in ’87.” But back home in Limerick, the four Cranberries lived with their parents and met their friends. “You hung out with the lads, as if you were another 20-year-old. And then you’d pack up on a Monday and you’d go off and go back and do that whole thing again.”
Their second album, No Need to Argue, contained the monster hit Zombie, which was played on heavy rotation on MTV, and the album eventually outsold its predecessor. In hindsight, Hogan says they should have taken a break then. By 1996, O’Riordan was suffering from insomnia, paranoia and anorexia. Hogan could see the terrible pressure she was under. “But I was also thinking, ‘Am I being paranoid about this? Am I seeing too much? Am I seeing something that’s not there?’ But then it was her who turned around and said to me, ‘I just can’t do this anymore. I’m not enjoying it.’ And then I just said, ‘Dolores, I’ll be honest with you, I’m only doing it because I thought everybody else did.’” The doctor’s cert was issued, the decision was made, and The Cranberries pulled out of the Australian and European legs of their world tour.
That same year, Hogan married Catherine Nash, and their daughter Rachel was born three years later. When The Cranberries resumed touring in 1999, it came at a difficult time: the following year, Rachel was diagnosed with leukaemia. “I kept everything quiet. I tried to keep my life outside of the band, outside of the band, as much as I could. We were up and down to Crumlin [children’s hospital] a lot. And it was hard being away on tour and my wife ringing me, going, ‘She’s taken a turn...’ this way or that way or whatever.
“And I think of all the times, that was, probably for me, one of the hardest. It was a constant worry. It’s worked out really well, though. The nurses and doctors at Crumlin were amazing. And she’ll be 23 this year.”
Throughout the early 2000s, The Cranberries fell from their previous commercial and critical heights of success but maintained a large and loyal fanbase. “I guess what I’m most proud of is that — I’d like to think anyway — we never followed any one trend,” Hogan says. “We went in and out of style but we never followed trends... we just kept on doing what we did.”
They took a break in 2003, after which Hogan formed the electronic rock group Mono Band. The Cranberries reunited in 2009 but there were tensions backstage. In 2013, O’Riordan took a civil case against Hogan. He doesn’t want to say what the exact source of the dispute was but adds, “That was other people’s ideas outside. Like any relationship, [his and Dolores’] was primarily really, really good. She was like my sister in many ways. And we were quite close and we told each other a lot of stuff, outside of the band things.
“And we had our arguments over the years, but it was really usually somebody else — a manager at the time, or somebody in the background, having a word in someone’s ear. Lawyers get involved and a lot of words get spoken in the heat of the moment. And then finally Dolores and I did sit down about a year later and actually talked about what we thought was the problem. There wasn’t actually a problem. And it never really went anywhere then, because it was a case of there was a wedge driven between us by others.” In 2015, the action was struck out.
After she passed away in 2018, there was the question of what to do with new recordings The Cranberries had made. “There was the funeral and then the dust settles. And then everybody goes back to their lives and says, ‘All right. What now?’”
Hogan went through the songs on his hard drive. “Bit by bit, I started to realise that we actually had a lot of stuff that sounded great and then I started making the calls around. I spoke to the two boys [Lawler and Noel’s brother Mike] and they wanted to hear what it was, and it snowballed from there, and I spoke to Dolores’ brother about what their [family’s] thoughts would be. Then eventually we got in touch with Stephen [Street]. There was no other option.” The resultant album, In the End, was uplifting, deeply sad, and provided a kind of catharsis for both fans and the remaining band members themselves. It ended up being nominated for a Grammy in 2020.
Over the last few years, the legacy of The Cranberries has grown and they have influenced a new generation of artists. When Limerick won the All-Ireland hurling final in 2018, Dreams blasted over the tannoy system. The following year, Saint Sister, a duo from Northern Ireland, performed the song at the funeral of murdered journalist Lyra McKee. Two years later, Zombie became the first song by an Irish group to gain one billion hits on YouTube.
Hogan, meanwhile, has continued to make music. In the last couple of years, he has worked on the soundtrack for a HBO documentary — on Woodstock — and collaborated with Commitments alumnus Bronagh Gallagher and Bernard Butler from Suede. He’s still tweaking the songs for his forthcoming album with The Puro, and he and Peck will perform later in the summer in São Paulo.
“The idea is that this is the start of a longer-term thing. That this would be the thing I do for the next few years, anyway. I’m proud of all I achieved with The Cranberries but making new music still excites me.”
The Puro’s new single, ‘Prison’, is out now