‘We wanted our sound to be raw and rough’ - Otherkin
With a big European tour and a debut album going live this weekend, our reporter finds Irish band Otherkin on the cusp of the big time
It was the summer of 2015 when Luke Reilly and Dave Anthony faced a significant dilemma. Having completed their degrees in medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, they could either accept junior doctor jobs in a hospital - or sign a contract with a record label. They had two weeks to decide.
The music won. They signed on the dotted light with leading Dublin label Rubyworks. The white coats were put away although, as Reilly quips, he was able to put his medical training to practice when a punter had a seizure at a Chemical Brothers concert.
Reilly is frontman of Otherkin, one of the most talked about Irish bands of the past couple of years. By any reckoning, this Dublin-Kildare-Meath quartet is going places fast. Today, they embark on a massive European tour that will take them to 23 countries, including such touring outliers as Kosovo and Romania. And this weekend, their excellent debut album, OK, is released.
The album was completed at the beginning of the year and Reilly, who is joined by drummer Rob Summons for our chat, can't wait for the songs to be heard. "It's a back-to-basics album," he says, enthusiastically.
And he's not wrong. OK is a rip-roaring collection of garage rock songs built around the fundamentals of guitars, drums, bass and vocals. The quality of the tunes and the exuberance of the playing ensures its success and it's hard not to imagine Otherkin being on the lips of a large portion of the population this time next year.
They've come a long way in a short time. The record deal came around the same time one of their songs featured in a high-profile TV ad campaign for the make-up brand Rimmel London. Georgia May Jagger starred in the 30-second commercial soundtracked by 'Ay Ay'.
"It sort of helped family see that there might be some kind of financial stability in what we were doing," Summons says. "Because I don't think there's a parent in the world who would chosse to hear their son say to them, 'I'm dropping out of college for my rock band'." He quit a course in graphic design and is the only member not to complete college. Bassist Conor Wynne has a degree in "digital marketing something", Summons quips, that can be put to good use in the band, as well as his own expertise in design.
Family members bothered by triumph of the music over medicine and other distinguished careers might have been heartened by Otherkin's presence on the Slane bill earlier this year. They played in front of an estimated 20,000 people when they opened for Guns n' Roses.
For Reilly, that show had special significance: he's a native of the Boyneside town.
"They tend to make an Irish booking every year," he says, "and I didn't want anyone to feel that we were just the token band on the bill. The show went really well and we sensed that as we were coming off stage."
They've played other big outdoor shows, too, including, bizarrely, one in a Moscow park for Russia's St Patrick's Day celebrations. Muscovites can't get enough of all things Irish, it seems.
"There were thousands of Russians there in green, white and orange," Reilly says. "They wouldn't have had a clue who we were but must have thought we were famous if we'd come all the way to Russia to play for them."
Conditions were tough. "It was snowing," Reilly adds, "and this blizzard was coming on stage. We had to cut three songs from the set because my fingers started to get number and I couldn't play guitar."
Otherkin seem to have a wanderlust that's not shared by many of their contemporaries. Summons is especially looking forward to playing two shows in Kosovo, where the entrance fee will be €2. "You'd hope for that price people will show up," he reasons. "And how many bands from abroad would play there?"
Reilly says he never wanted to be in an Irish band that was content to continue playing in their back yard. "Lots of people do that, and good luck to them," he says, not unkindly. "We just want to get out there and tour and not play back home all the time."
The album was recorded with long-time friends Dave and Jay from, respectively, Overhead the Albatross and Kodaline.
"The label offered us two choices," Summons says, "Go to a fancy studio in London and work with a famous producer for a week, or spend a month with the two guys we've worked with from the start. They're engineers, but let us do our thing - and we went with them. "We didn't want the album to have the mark of a producer on it."
It's a sentiment echoed by Reilly. "There's too much front-loading when it comes to modern-day production, this idea of getting songs Spotify-ready. We didn't want that. We wanted our songs to be raw, and rough and as live sounding as possible.
"There are a lot of Irish bands with bland-sounding songs, and that might be because they've been over-produced or have this sort of homogeneous feel about them.
"I read this great book recently, The Song Machine [written by John Seabrook], and it's looking at how people have worked out how to craft the perfect pop song - and it's creating this awful homogeneity. It's cookie cutter. Too many songs today are front-loaded. Look at 'The Chain' by Fleetwood Mac. If that was released now in the current Spotify playlist, it would disappear [due to its lengthy intro]. Nobody would have the patience to listen to it."
OK was done and dusted in a whirlwind 20 days. "We knew what we wanted to record," Reilly says. "We wanted to have that tight, punchy sound. All the fat was trimmed before we went in. The only last-minute thing was write more songs."
They tend to write democratically, with songs starting life in jamming sessions rather than one member dreaming something up from nothing.
"It's kind of like Bon Iver, but much more demented and with more substances involved."
For those not in the know, Bon Iver's frontman Justin Vernon wrote the songs of his acclaimed debut album in a remote log cabin in his native Wisconsin.
And, Summons adds, finishing his sentence, "we wrote the three singles on the album there in the space of a weekend." Each of the four members may have disparate interests in music, but all were seduced by the Strokes' 2001 debut album Is This It. "There's no strings or harps or synthesisers," Summons says. "It just sounds like a bunch of guys in the room. It's one of my favourite albums ever."
"When we were in school, the Strokes and that New York scene was the most prevailing sound," Reilly says. "It was so inspiring and although it's not that long ago, a lot has changed in music. I mean, when we were picking up instruments for the first time, bedroom-producing and laptop capabilities weren't what they are now."
"We grew up with analogue instruments and don't really know how to use all that fancy stuff," Summons adds. "Maybe we'll do that on future albums, but for this one we wanted it to be simple and honest and full of as many good songs as we could write."
They are already thinking of album number two. "We hope to be one of those bands that are like Blur," Reilly says, "one that evolves with each subsequent release. Always think ahead."
His stethoscope is likely to remain unused for some time to come.
OK is out this weekend. Otherkin's European tour begins in Newcastle-on-Tyne tonight. The band play the Button Factory, Dublin, on December 15 and Roisin Dubh, Galway, on December 16