Standing the test of time
'Once an album is out, you can't do it again," points out HAL singer Dave Allen as we get stuck into the elephant in the room, which is, to put it bluntly, why did their second album take so long to release?
"You can always improve on gigs, but you can't ever re-do a record, so you shouldn't put a timescale on it," Allen explains. It's going to be there forever, so you're better off being totally happy and proud of what you've done."
His band has certainly heeded this philosophy. HAL's eponymous debut album first saw the light of day back in the midsts of the mid-Noughties in April 2005. You could say it's been a while. In fact, it's been so long that people who got into their recent EP Down in the Valley, or went to one of last year's shows, were actually surprised to learn that the Dublin band had a bit of previous.
HAL's was not just any old debut album either, picking up the European Border Breakers Award for the highest debut album sales outside an artist's country of residence and, much more importantly, the best Irish album of 2005 in these very pages.
The aptly titled The Time, The Hour was all set to go this time last year, but after all that graft and vodka under the bridge, more mundane issues pooped their party.
"Once it had got to June, we had to wait, because, by the time you get everything in motion, it's almost Christmas," explains keyboardist and studio whizzkid Stephen O'Brien. "We were very annoyed, but there was nothing we could do. It was just a timeline thing. It was set to come out, mixed, mastered, the lot. We just had to wait for a better opportunity."
"We just had to sit back until the cogs fell into place," Allen continues. "We were always extremely focused on getting the record out. We did it at our own pace, which is both good and bad."
"The shocking thing is that we worked out that if we had done all this on old reel to reel tape, we worked out that it would've cost us €320,000, which is staggering," O'Brien gasps. "So never, ever give us tape."
Putting the gestation period of The Time, The Hour to one side, it's a genuinely great album, beautifully refining their melodic pop sensibilities and Dave and his brother Paul's grasp of sun-kissed vocal harmonies.
The opening track Magnificent is easily one of the finest things they've ever done. It sounds like they've spent a fortune on it, tape or no tape, yet they've lovingly brought it into fruition themselves without resorting to glossy studios.
"Time is irrelevant to us in many ways, but it's also a recurring theme," Allen says of its title. "We love history and would love to have a time portal to revisit the 1920s. Time questions your own mortality. I had a bicycle accident only last week, I found myself flat on my back in the middle of the road. I recently lost a very close friend of mine, which makes you realise how short life is.
"Making music is the greatest thing that found me and makes me okay with the world and realise that the world is an amazing and entralling place. There's a lot of colour in our music, which is our way of painting a canvas."
The Time, The Hour is released through the distribution labels Tri-Tone and PIAS, but paid for by the band's own money, a radically
changed scenario from their debut and a telling sign of the times.
"It's been a totally different experience doing this one," Allen agrees. "We had a deal in the old-school way, where you get your advance and your tour support and everything is set up for you. In some ways that's all great, but in other ways it can nearly hold you back a little. We've learnt a lot in between making these records and become a lot more proactive."
HAL were signed by Rough Trade, home of The Smiths and The Strokes and newer blood like Lianne La Havas. They inked a deal with former A&R man James Endeacott, who signed The Libertines and holds the dubious honour of making Pete Doherty famous.
A showcase show in the Sugar Club was teeming with industry scouts all doing their level best to appear excited and nonchalant at the same time, recalling the joke, "How many A&R men does it take to change a light bulb? I don't know. What do you think?"
"They were all on the same flight over from London," Allen recalls. "There were some characters there that night alright. We went with James because he's a very charismatic man who is really into music. We found we had a lot in common with the Rough Trade people. I love obsessing about the geekiest stuff in music. I met Geoff (Travis) a few months ago and he was playing me some German electro guy he was thinking of signing."
Since the release of their debut album, HAL appeared on Hollyoaks, Coronation Street, Match of the Day and played alongside The Killers at Glastonbury before the arena rockers went supernova.
"Hearing us on the radio playing in the café in EastEnders was a bit weird," O'Brien says. "It's not that we intend selling out and doing music for a Tampax ad, but if you're lucky, you can get on a film soundtrack or Six Feet Under, The OC or whatever.
"It gives you another spin out, as those shows have such huge exposure and even do their own compilation albums. But Scorsese hasn't been on the phone yet. We did say no to some horror b-movie, just because it looked absolutely awful."
They were also nominated for the inaugural Choice Music Prize back in 2005, when it was rumoured that someone had placed a €400 bet on them to lift the €10,000 cheque.
"God, I hope they've made their money back somehow," Allen muses. "We were in the last three so it was really tight. [For the record, Julie Feeney won.] It's a great idea, so fair play to them for going with and sticking it out.
"The cash prize is exactly what every band in the country needs nowadays. Avenues for making money in music have got progressively slimmer.
"Hopefully, we'll win it this year. I certainly don't have €400 to put on us, but maybe I'll have a punt on 40. Actually, it'll be more like four."
Whatever about their Choice hopes, surely they get to see a few bob from Play the Hits being used as the signature music for the John Murray show on RTE One, the most listened to radio show in the country?
"They use less than three seconds so we don't see any money for it," O'Brien reveals. "Maybe we might get eventually get 50 cent out of it, but definitely nothing like the €400 we need to pay your man back."
The Time, The Hour is released on April 13. Hal play the Button Factory on April 20 and tour nationwide in May
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