Anarchic modern soul collective Republic of Loose have received a chorus of celebrity approval. But it's the ordinary fans they really care about, says Eamon Sweeney
By normal standards, watching a band soundcheck is marginally more entertaining than watching paint dry. Roadies bark "1-2, 1-2" repeatedly into a microphone. A drum technician 'tunes' a kit while completely wrecking everyone's heads. It's hardly the kind of stuff that glamorous rock 'n' roll dreams are made of.
Thankfully, this particular afternoon is a dramatically better proposition. The anarchic collective Republic of Loose (RoL) are putting the finishing touches to the second performance of a month-long residency in the Academy and they've brought Cora Venus Lunny, Damien Dempsey and Dutch soprano Judith Mok in tow. Even in an empty venue, they sound stunning.
Later that night, Dempsey joins the band for a version of his own song, Bad Time Garda and a rousing rendition of the Thin Lizzy classic Dancing in the Moonlight. Visibly over-whelmed by the response, Damo remarks: "It's a real privilege my friends, a massive privilege to be asked up to play with the best band in Ireland."
Dempsey isn't the only Irish musician to sing the praises of Republic of Loose. None other than Bono, in his own gushing and highly flamboyant way, also paid tribute to the Dubliners.
"They're trailblazers," exclaimed the iconic U2 mouthpiece. "The Celtic twilight turned into Celtic soul with Van Morrison, then Republic of Loose grabbed the Celtic tiger by the tail, swung it around their heads and threw it out the window into the cosmos. They're sophisticated soul bootboys."
Republic of Loose certainly haven't let these plaudits go to their heads. One of the most refreshing aspects about their success to date is that it hasn't been built on any shallow hype campaign but years of tireless hard work and relentless gigging up and down the country.
It's very fitting that Republic of Loose should be playing a residency in advance of their curiously titled third album, Volume IV: Johnny Pyro and the Dance of Evil. Firstly, they've a small army of friends, admirers and collaborators they can draft in each week. Secondly, they've one of the most dedicated live followings in the country. At every single show, the crowd excitedly chant, "Loose! Loose Loose!", creating an electric atmosphere that is closer to a boisterous football match than a gig.
"We're very lucky to we have such a loyal following," agrees frontman Mick Pyro. "It seems to be shifting all the time and you see a good mixture of new and old faces at the shows. We've been touring the same album for two years, but we still get good crowds. I think with this album, we've finally managed to replicate the energy of what we do live. Everything on the album was done on the first or second take. There was none of this messing around with Pro Tools all the time. I think it's feeding back into our live shows and its great to be able to have a whole month to play this stuff."
"The Academy residency wasn't our original idea, we were invited to do it," explains guitarist Benjamin Loose. "Back in the day, this kind of thing was a lot more common. I think it fits into the current trend for record sales to be dwindling while live music is booming, so it's a timely resurrection of an old idea. Initially, we were a bit daunted about the idea of filling the place four Fridays in a row, but then we enthused about the variety and opportunity of doing different stuff every week. Now it seems like it was our idea in the first place."
"Residencies have always been a hip idea," says Pyro. "We only used to play gigs in Dublin about once a year and we'd put everything into that. Our standard of musicianship has raised so much over the years that we're now at the stage where we're good enough to play with new people each week. It's also a load of fun. Last week with Sinead [O'Connor] and Jape was amazing."
O'Connor clearly enjoyed herself too, as she enthused in a glowing, post-gig email to this newspaper: "Republic of Loose are simply the best Irish band ever. Each member brings something unique. Every one of them blew me away. I hope to get to work with them a lot more. In fact, I want to join!"
O'Connor might not yet be a full-time member, but she did guest on a new album track called The Telephone. Other RoL fans include Trainspotting author and Irish resident Irvine Welsh, who considers their breakthrough hit Comeback Girl to be one of the greatest songs ever recorded. Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol has been spreading the word, as has Jake Shears of the Scissors Sisters.
While this chorus of celebrity approval must be very flattering, Republic of Loose know they'd be nothing without the support of the paying public. "I still remember the first gig we did, where the place was rammed and everyone knew all the words," Pyro recalls. "They were going ballistic and trying to invade the stage. It was even before Comeback Girl came out. After that show, we've always maintained a loyal following of completely psycho fans. It used to be mainly young dudes going 'Alright Mick! D'ya want a pint of vodka?' Those were the good old days. It's all middle-class mums now!"
In addition to widespread public support, Comeback Girl and You Know It were heavily rotated on national radio and Pyro memorably dedicated a Late Late Show appearance to "all the grandmothers of Ireland". Their second album Aaagh! was nominated for the 2006 Choice Music Prize. However, such accolades seem to mean little or nothing to the band.
"I remember before Comeback Girl came out a young fella came up to me after an in-store gig in Virgin Records and kept going on about Goofy Love from the first album," Pyro remembers. "He told me that it had helped him get through some bad times and that the song meant a lot to him. I could see in his eyes that he felt very emotional about it. That's the kind of thing that really means something to me. Recognition from the press or industry means nothing. Now, I don't mind the idea of making money, but journalists don't buy CDs anyway. The industry doesn't exist. It's all a load of hot air. You go out and play a gig and you've got energy right in front of you. That's more important than the supposed kudos of getting an award."
While Republic of Loose are touring stalwarts and have appeared at Glastonbury, Oxegen and Reading, they've also fully grasped the possibilities of the digital age with a well-presented website featuring their mixtapes and videos.
"You'd be completely stupid not to make your music available digitally in this day and age," says Loose. "However, none of us are going to start giving out about illegal downloading. What's the point if you do it yourself?"
"I don't do it!" chips in Pyro. "I refuse to do it. It's against the laws of morality. Anyone who does it should be strung up by the gooter." Pyro breaks into a wonderful, explosive laugh that somehow manages to be louder than the support band soundchecking upstairs.
"When you've got Jay-Z saying that he doesn't care about record sales, you know the game is up for albums," he reflects on a more serious note. "It's virtually over as a source of revenue for bands. You've got to get your live act together and do it that way. Bands who have a human connection with an audience have something precious that no corporation or economic model can ever get in the way of."
The question begging to be asked is what the significance is of the new album title, Volume IV: Johnny Pyro and The Dance of Evil.
"There is a a lot of mythology and morality behind Republic of Loose," Pyro begins. "Basically, the concept was Johnny Pyro, who was a character who disassociated himself from the normal lifestyle of an Irish bourgeois kid. I used to listen to Manic Street Preachers and all that sort of muck. I was depressed out of my brains. Then, I experienced a huge metaphysical overturning of my value system. I realised the only good stuff around is the stuff your Dad likes -- artists like the Rolling Stones and James Brown. You have to take it from there, but it was so outside my personality as an Irish person to engage with that idea. It was so strenuous, I had to create a new character."
Before Republic of Loose formed, Pyro did create a musical alter-ego in Johnny Pyro. "I was playing in rubbish rock bands for years," he confesses. "Johnny Pyro was my breakthrough. Also, there was no frontman -- it was all about a mythical singer. Then the band became Republic of Loose, but I soon realised that we shared the same ideas. We have our own set of values. You walk into somewhere like the Bernard Shaw and all the kids drinking in there have their own value system. It's all very codified. Republic of Loose is a conscious step outside that value system to create something of our own making. That was always an undercurrent to our music, but with this new album, it's coming out to the forefront."
The band has been perfecting their brand of singular sleazy funk for more than seven years now. "We've been doing this independently for a long time and we've been making money out of it, rather than losing money," Mick says. "We never had to deal with any record company gobdaws or anything. The universe is getting bigger and the goofy mythology we started is about to assume some sort of corporeal reality, which is both really exciting and scary.
"It's taken us this long to get good enough to record live. But if we hadn't improved in all these years, we'd be doing something wrong. Even when things were going badly, we'd always be buzzing about a new track. As long as we keep improving, there is no point stopping."
Republic of Loose justifiably believe they're only just beginning to reach their full potential. "There are very few bands out there doing authentic modern soul," Pyro remarks. "The closest thing around is Maroon 5 and they're absolutely horrific. I really respect bands like the Roots. Why can't you combine the energy of the New York Dolls with the funk and soul qualities of the Roots? In a nutshell, that's what we're trying to do. We'd like to mix the dynamism of a great soul and blues band with the rawness of Iggy Pop. We're making better music and we're happier as people. This is the first album we're really proud of of. It's the sound of us and not of any construct." n
Republic of Loose play the Academy tonight. Volume IV: Johnny Pyro and the Dance of Evil is out soon