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Thursday 27 June 2019

'We've never been in fashion and that's okay'

Guitar bands may have fallen out of favour, but that doesn't bother no-frills rockers The Stunning - who were out of step even during their 1990s heyday, the Wall brothers tell John Meagher

Back on the road: Steve (left) and Joe Wall from The Stunning pictured in Some Neck Guitar Shop in Aungier St. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Back on the road: Steve (left) and Joe Wall from The Stunning pictured in Some Neck Guitar Shop in Aungier St. Photo: Kyran O'Brien

Steve and Joe Wall have a very specific idea in mind when it comes to a location for the photoshoot for this article. They plump for Some Neck Guitars in Dublin's south inner city - and not just because they like the staff there.

Since they made those first tentative steps in 1987, The Stunning have revelled in being a no-frills rock band, one in which the guitar takes pride of place.

But guitar music seems to be on the wane if you employ the very crude yardsticks of typical songs played on daytime radio, recent album of the year winners at the Grammys and the fact that the NME - forever obsessed with guitar bands - has just ceased printing.

"Just look at the Longitude line-up," Steve says of the hip-hop heavy list of acts scheduled for Dublin's Marlay Park this July. "There's not a guitar band among them - not that I recognised any of the names when I first saw it."

When he made that admission on social media, one respondent seemed flabbergasted that he hadn't heard of Travis - except that it wasn't the Scottish band she was talking about but one of rap's titans, Travis Scott.

Steve seems nonplussed when told that Scott and Kylie Keeping Up With the Kardashians Jenner happen to be the showbiz couple du jour. And, no, he hasn't heard that their newborn will soon answer to the name Stormi.

"We've always been a bit out of step with what was going on," he says, unashamedly. "When The Stunning first started, it was all about the Madchester scene. Then it was grunge. We were doing something different."

"And we're still doing something different," Joe chimes in. "We've never really been in fashion - and we're okay with that."

If they were firmly out of step with prevailing trends in their early years, few of their fans seemed to mind. They become one of the biggest domestic success stories of their early 1990s and Steve estimates that second album, Once Around the World, released in 1992, sold 120,000 copies here alone. "Every household seems to have a copy," he says. "And people are still looking for it."

The album was out of print and as the band don't own the masters, they decided to rerecord the songs - call it Twice Around the World - and add a couple of new compositions to the mix for good measure. Last year, they convened in Grouse Lodge studios in Co Westmeath and played the songs as live.

"Playing those songs again brought back memories of our hopes and dreams in the early 1990s," Joe says, "and some of those shows that we did then. We seemed to play every town in Ireland."

"It's true," Steve says. "Back then, there was a much bigger circuit than now when it came to going on the road - you'd play all sorts of places that bands don't really go to any more, towns like Nenagh [in Tipperary]. And you'd come on stage around midnight. It was great - rock music to send them home sweating."

With album sales buoyant in those pre-internet days, it was possible for bands like The Stunning to make a healthy living in Ireland.

"It didn't happen for us in the UK," Joe says. "We had a number one album here but we couldn't interest record companies there.

"They didn't know what box to put us into," Steve says. "And they were looking for bands that sounded like the bands that were doing well. It was the same in this country in the late 1980s - you had A&R people trying to find people that sounded like U2, rather than trying to find good bands that were doing their own thing."

If The Stunning became renowned for their live shows when they first emerged from Galway [although both Wall brothers hail from Ennistymon, Co Clare], it's something their fans still appreciate. Last night, they played Dublin's Olympia, and several dates are scheduled for the next week. Songs from Twice Around the World will feature prominently, but Steve says there will be the odd reminder of the work they did together as The Walls, which they formed a few years after The Stunning called it quits.

The brothers have taken very different paths when it comes to extracurricular activities. Joe is a lecturer at the BIMM 'rock school' in Dublin. It's a role that gives him much satisfaction, he says, especially when he considers how graduates will have none of the music industry naïveté The Stunning had when they first came roaring out of the blocks.

Steve is an actor, having made the jump in impressive fashion on Vikings. He also had a memorable role in RTÉ's largely unloved 1916 drama Rebellion. But it's a part in a forthcoming Dutch film, My Foolish Heart, that could get people to sit up and take notice. It's a police procedural built around the mysterious death of jazz maestro Chet Baker in 1988.

By the time of his death, Baker was strung out on heroin and living in Amsterdam. He was a shadow of his former self and the already lean Steve had to shed the pounds to portray him. He shows me a photo of him in character and he is virtually unrecognisable.

"I had to spend a lot of time to learn to play the trumpet parts," he says. "I wanted it to be completely authentic so that any jazz trumpeters watching it would be convinced."

The pair hope to work on another Stunning album and material has been written to fit with a future Walls project. But both are honest enough to admit that as parents, creative endeavours have to be structured around family life. They're living proof of the truism expressed by ex-U2 manager Paul McGuinness when he declared that "domesticity is the enemy of rock and roll".

But neither brother seems especially bothered about all the things they could be doing. And the importance of spending time with children is thrown into sharp relief when they mention that their young niece was killed in a car crash last year. They say they feel fortunate to be able to do the things they love - and not neglect the people that mean most.

They say they long ago got over the disappointment of not 'making it' overseas.

"You can't beat yourself up over stuff that was out of your control," Joe says. "I think we did some good work and when we play now, we can see that people are really into it."

"It's a good place to be," adds Steve, "and we certainly aren't complaining. Ask any band if they'd want to be playing places like the Olympia and the Opera House and of course they would. We still get to do that."

They won't be hanging up their guitars just yet.

Twice Around the World is out now. The Stunning play Cork Opera House tonight. For more dates, see thestunning.net

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