'I wouldn't say we're cocky... just confident'
Having paid their dues on the support circuit and with their first album set to drop next week, Westmeath band The Academic are ready to show the world just what they've got
Craig Fitzgerald might just be the youngest looking 24-year-old you'll ever meet. He's as fresh-faced as someone planning to sit the Leaving Cert this summer, but he's already a veteran when it comes to fronting bands.
He's the focal and vocal point of The Academic, one of the most talked about emerging Irish outfits of the past couple of years - and he's been honing his craft with his old schoolmates for the best part of a decade.
The Westmeath quartet are on the cusp of big things - famous last words, of course - but it would be foolhardy to bet against them making a significant impact here and overseas in 2018. He'll have to get used to questions about his age - it happens all the time, apparently - and he quips that audience members sometimes shout up about the ills of underage drinking whenever he swigs from a bottle of beer mid-set.
"There's a song on the [forthcoming debut] album called 'Fake ID' and it's one of the most autobiographical things we've ever wrote," he says, with a laugh. "We'd be hanging out with friends who are 25, 26 and they'd be ID'd as a result, too.
"I probably shouldn't complain," he adds, "but there are times when it grates. And it doesn't run in the family. I mean, my mam and dad look their age." Mr and Mrs Fitzgerald will no doubt thank him for that.
It's the week before Christmas and Fitzgerald, along with bassist bandmate Stephen Murtagh, are ruminating on what's likely to be an exceptionally busy six months ahead.
First, next week, comes the release of their long-awaited debut album, Tales from the Backseat. Then, there are tours of the UK and US. And in June there is what is likely to be a triumphant homecoming with a headline date at Dublin's Iveagh Gardens. "Virtually every day for the next six months has been mapped up," 22-year-old Murtagh says. "And that's the way we like it."
Like Otherkin, that other fine young Irish band making waves abroad, The Academic were inspired by the retro-rock that emanated from New York in the early 2000s. The Strokes were an especially formative influence on the four who met at secondary school in the small Westmeath town of Rochfortbridge.
Not that The Academic hail from the place - all bar drummer Dean Gavin grew up in its rural hinterland.
"There wasn't much to do," Murtagh says, "so that's why we played music together so much."
"We would have played a bit of sport," Fitzgerald adds. "Soccer mostly, and for a few years it was sport and music before we just focused on the music completely. It was the thing that gave us most pleasure. I mean, some people would have had sport at the weekends - we went and rehearsed for seven hours."
Murtagh concurs. "It was only years later that we realised how fortunate we were," he says. "You meet bands from up here [Dublin] and it's really difficult and expensive to find a rehearsal space. We could do it in the garage [owned by Gavin's father] for as long as we wanted and for as loud as we wanted. And that's how we were able to hone our playing and write songs, and just have fun being around each other all the time."
While it might be tempting to suggest The Academic are something of an overnight success, nothing could be further from the truth. They've been attracting positive notices - and growing a fan base - for at least four years. And prior to that they were gigging as often as they could in the nearest big town, Mullingar - home of Joe Dolan, Niall Horan and Bressie.
Not for them the prospect of moving en masse to Dublin, for instance - "where would we have rehearsed?" Murtagh asks - they were happy to stay at home and burnish their reputation on the road.
Their catchy, well-crafted songs and enviable live process soon got them noticed and they made plenty of friends and admirers when the supported Delorentos on a nationwide tour.
"For the first few years we never got near a studio," Murtagh says. "Everything was about playing live, but we got shows when we were able to show people phone videos of us playing in the shed. That's how we got on the road with Delorentos before we had officially released anything, and we got a date Upstairs in Whelan's [Dublin] on the back of it, too."
As digital natives whose entire lives have been lived in the internet age, they've been especially savvy in harnessing the tools at their disposal, including YouTube, and their songs have been popular on the platform.
Then, last October, came the ingenious Facebook Live performance of their song 'Bear Claws' utilising a visual loop. It's been viewed almost two million times and, the pair insist, generated considerable interest that they hope to tap in on when they kick-start their American tour on February 13 at Washington, DC.
"There's more of a level playing field when it comes to getting your music out there," Fitzgerald says. "Technology allows that. But you have to think outside the box a little bit in order to get noticed."
Having good songs helps, although he's too modest to admit it. One of their compositions, 'Different', featured on Spotify's 'New Music Mondays' playlist and racked up 350,000 plays within weeks.
Fitzgerald studied at the respected Dublin 'rock school', the Bimm Institute, for a year. He undertook a songwriting course and he says it greatly helped him improve as a songwriter. "But one of the most invaluable things about it, is being constantly in an environment around other creative people," he says. "Musicians can be very supportive of each other and can open your mind to new ways of looking at things - and, of course, to new music."
If the duo have any sense of trepidation about what lies ahead, they aren't showing it. When I meet them in a Dublin hotel, their only concern is about Stephen's older brother, Matt, the band's lead guitarist. He had been admitted to hospital with suspected appendicitis, but its turned out to be an infection. All four played a show at Killarney's INEC a few days later in support of Kerry band-done-good, Walking on Cars.
They've certainly paid their dues when it comes to the support circuit having opened from everyone from Kodaline to Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds. Now they have to show that they are headline material, too.
"I wouldn't say we're cocky," Murtagh says, "just confident and we feel we have good songs to bring on the road. We didn't rush the album out - we wanted to make sure we picked the right songs and recorded them exactly as we wanted to."
Fitzgerald, meanwhile, refuses to take anything for granted. "You won't find us getting complacent," he says. "We've worked hard to get to this point - but we won't be taking our feet off the pedal."
Tales from the Backseat is out on Friday
OTHER RISING IRISH STARS TO WATCH IN 2018
The back-to-basics Dublin trio have enjoyed airplay from BBC Radio 1 of late and are likely to release a debut album in the summer. Listen to 'Of Heart'.
Belfast-Derry duo Morgan MacIntyre and Gemma Doherty do a fine line in experimental Celtic folk music with a pop heart. A first album is in the offing. Check out 'Madrid'.
Acclaimed for the excellence of their live shows, the Jess Kavanagh-fronted upstarts are likely to drop a debut album towards the end of 2018. Stream 'Optimus Prime'.
The Derry punk trio have been attracting much excitement over the past 12 months and are part of an Irish contingent set to play the influential SXSW festival in Texas in March. Play 'Bombscare' - loud.