KODALINE IS IN SYNTH; AIM HIGH ON COMING UP FOR AIR
BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Still riding a massive wave of worldwide success courtesy of its debut album, A Perfect World, Kodaline was not about to rest on its well-earned laurels. The Irish foursome of longtime friends Steve Garrigan (lead vocals), Mark Prendergast (guitar), Jason Boland (bass) and Vinny May (drums) had no intention of heading back into the studio so soon after the October 2013 release of its first record, but an unexpected invitation to spend time experimenting with different instruments in the Los Angeles studio of fellow Irishman and lauded producer Jacknife Lee (U2, Snow Patrol) proved too tempting an offer to turn down.
“We only did four songs with Jacknife,” Prendergast told me during our recent phone conversation which the guitarist initiated from his bedroom in Dublin. “We just kind of used anything we could find. We didn’t try and pigeonhole ourselves into just having a ‘sound.’ We just had the crack, as we say, and just played around, made some funny noises and then turned them into songs.”
The result of Kodaline’s playtime with various instruments in Lee’s Topanga Canyon studio and the group’s new-found interest in a very old instrument, the synthesizer, proved to be the first breaths of life of its sophomore set, Coming Up For Air, due out on April 14. In addition, the album’s first single, “Honest,” was first hatched during the band’s time with Lee, and later finalized back on home soil. Ready or not, Kodaline devotees have a dozen new songs to enjoy and an upcoming North American tour to look forward to, which begins on April 15 in Detroit. Honestly, for any diehard fan, in a perfect world, isn’t that the best news ever?
Before we launch into our discussion about your second album, Coming Up for Air, which again arrives on April 14, I wanted to ask when you first knew you wanted to spend your life making music. Did you have a big bang moment where you thought, yeah, I wanna do this?
I think there were a few moments and a few kind of accidents along the way that kind of led me to being a full time musician. When I was about 14 or 15, I think, I was only playing [acoustic] guitar for a few months and I went to see The White Stripes play and when I saw Jack White on stage I couldn’t believe the sound he was making. I was like, ‘You can do that with a guitar?’ And then his general charisma and the whole thing about it; it just striked a chord and made me go, ‘Wow, that’s what I wanna do.’ And then it kind of came full circle; I was at Glastonbury the year just gone and I got a chance to see his gig – I was on the side of the stage watching it – and it was just amazing. Concerts like that gave me the hunger that hasn’t gone away yet.
Yeah, Jack has that effect on people. I’m sure you’re aware of, and have probably seen that great documentary with him, The Edge and Jimmy Page.
Yeah, man, It Might Get Loud. Incredible. So good!
As I mentioned, Coming Up for Air comes out on April 14. It comes on the heels of the first album, so you’re not really giving yourself too much time to come up for air, sorta speak, in between the release of your debut. Why such a rush to return to the studio?
It didn’t really seem like a rush to us. Whenever we’ve got downtime to ourselves we tend to spend it on writing songs and recording songs. Even this weekend which we have off, Steve the singer and Jason the bass player are over in London in a studio, and I’m at home in Dublin and I’m in a studio. We just kind of constantly write whenever we’ve got songs. It’s just out of boredom, really. When we’ve got nothing to do we just pick up a guitar and just play. We had a lot of time off during the summer because we were playing festivals, so, you know, we were busy Thursday, Friday and Saturday, but then we’ve got the rest of the week off so we kind of started recording the album there. We went over to L.A. for two weeks and recorded with a dude called Jacknife Lee up in Topanga Canyon; it was beautiful. We were supposed to go on tour last year, actually, but our very intelligent bass player got on a motorbike and drove into a tree…and broke his arm, so we had to cancel the tour, so yeah, we got the album done in that time. Six weeks just kind of popped up out of nowhere so we just jumped on it, instead of taking a break and just sitting around at home, we said, let’s go record an album. Or really, let’s just go to the studio; we didn’t expect to even have an album done that quickly.
You mentioned Topanga Canyon and Jacknife – who we’ll get to again in a second – but I spent most of my career in Los Angeles and for a stretch of about three years Topanga Canyon was literally my commute to work. I know how beautiful and how inspiring that canyon can be.
Yeah, oh man, you just can’t grow tired of that stuff. Like it’s so far removed from what I’m used to. I live in an estate, so there’s like 70 houses on my row and they’re all really close together and it’s always raining; it’s always gray. I make it sound like it’s not a nice place; it’s a lovely place and the people are great, but when you go to somewhere like that [Topanga Canyon], driving through the mountains and the sun is beating down. I hadn’t been to L.A. until I was…23 and it was everything I expected it would be, you know, from seeing it in movies and seeing it on TV and Topanga Canyon was one of those places. To be up there just making music was great.
We’ve mentioned your producer, Jacknife Lee, and he’s known for his work with your fellow Irishmen like Snow Patrol and U2, among many, many others. U2 has never been shy about shifting gears from one album to another. Jacknife is Irish. Is there something about being Irish that leads to inherent musical restlessness?
(Laughs) I think you just nailed it! Yeah! Maybe. I think so. If we’re not onstage we’re tinkering with music or we’re playing music anyway on the bus, and I think it’s the same for those other bands you just mentioned. It’s nice to push yourself and kind of naturally evolve, but yeah, it could be the Irish thing.
Now pardon the pun here, but you guys and Jacknife were in synth (Mark laughs). Tell me about experimenting with that instrument for this record, Coming Up for Air, which you use a lot of.
Yeah, we most certainly did. His studio is just full of all these classic synths. We’re used to synths being in the computer and not actually being in front of you and the real thing, but he had like these old synths from the 60s and 70s. Our bass player was in a sling because of his broken arm so he could only use one hand so a lot of the bass is done through synths.
On the song “Unclear,” Steve sings: “When the future’s so unsure/when the future’s so unclear.” Bono once said of recording the decidedly much more electronic Achtung Baby, following the huge success of The Joshua Tree, that it was “The sound of four men chopping down the Joshua Tree.” My question is this: is Coming Up for Air the sound of four men unafraid to take chances and perhaps stumbling In a Perfect World?
Yeah, man, I think so. You have to keep yourself entertained, and just keep it relevant as well. We didn’t want to make In a Perfect World again; we didn’t want to make the same album twice. So, yeah, I suppose it is. And like the next album we do, who knows what it will sound like. It might sound like both albums combined, or, I don’t know. We did push the boat out. Some people at first were like, oh, what have you guys done with your sound, but there’s a lot of songs on there that sound like they could be on the first album. It’s the same with me, like, if one of my favorite bands release a new album, at first I’m kind of like, oh, I’m not sure of it, but then once you kind of get more familiar with it you kind of learn to love it. We’re getting tweets now from fans saying, I’ve had the album and I prefer the first one.
All the greatest bands; The Beatles of course at the top of the list, Led Zeppelin, the Stones, if you go album-to-album with those artists, they’re certainly not cookie-cutter. If you are that, I think people would tend to lose interest, so I certainly applaud you guys for making some changes. Although I agree with you, a lot of the songs could have been on the first album.
I wanted to ask you about “Honest,” the first single. Tell me a little bit more about the very organic way in which that song came about.
Well that’s a song I started writing at home by myself. I wrote all the music out on piano and I came up with that lyric, “Honest. Honest. Is it in you to be honest?” It’s about someone who used to be very, very tight-knit with the band and used to work with us and used to be part of our team but they’re not anymore because they just weren’t very honest. So from the get-go that song was very deep and very meaningful and very personal towards every member of the band, so we decided to go straight in and record that one first. The original recording that I have at home to what it actually turned out to be is like two polar opposites. Once the rest of the guys in the band get their hands on it, and once Jacknife came in, we kind of turned it into this huge sounding thing that I never had in my head. That was the very first song we recorded for the album, and that’s probably the most different song on the album. That was kind of us just throwing stuff at a wall and seeing if it stuck, and it did.
That’s what I call one of those “big noise” songs – in a very good way!
Yeah. Thank you.
I understand that you and Jason were the initial co-pilots of “Autopilot.” Tell the story of the unique instrumentation that helped that song first take shape.
We had a day off and we were in Texarkana, and we were in the middle of nowhere; I think all there was was a closed down, dilapidated bowling alley and a biker bar, and our hotel, so there was nothing to do. So we just grabbed a guitar and went up to our hotel room; we had no drums, no bass, no keyboards, we just did the whole thing with a guitar and a microphone, and we just made rhythm sounds with whatever we could find in the room. We put a load of quarters into a cup and we’d bang the cup on the table and put a microphone and got this kind of weird, kind of nice drum sound out of it. Jay’s a bit of a genius when it comes to, like, turning anything into a beat using the computer; he’s really clever like that. We did similar kind of stuff on “Unclear.” The song took about 15-20 minutes to write, and we made the best out of a day off, I suppose.
That’s a great story about the seed of a great song. And speaking of great songs, I have to preface my next question with this, because it’s so perfect: I have to tell you, Mark, my daughter Angela is getting married in two weeks. Last week she asked me to help her choose some music for the ceremony. Do you want to take one guess which one song off the record I’m adding to the list?
(Laughs) Um, off the top of my head, I would say it’s “The One,” is it? (laughs)
Man, I can’t slip anything by you. (Mark laughs). Yes, “The One!” Talk about Steve writing that song and where it was initially performed.
Yeah, is she gonna use “The One” for her wedding?
You know what, I just sent it to her yesterday; we exchanged a couple of texts and she’s going to check it out, so I’m not sure if she’s had a chance to hear it yet. But I’ll get back to you on that. So, tell me about the story.
So basically it was our best friend, Phil, and his now-wife, they had their wedding, not last summer but the summer before. We were invited, we went and we promised we would get them a present but we forgot, I suppose. We just came off a tour and we’re going straight to this wedding, so the night before Steve sat at a piano and quickly just wrote this song. And it’s just his interpretation of their relationship. Steve said the song was very easy to write. It’s called “The One” and it’s exactly as it is recorded today, like word for word. He came over to my house the morning of the wedding and showed it to me, and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’ll do. That’s great.’ So we played it at the wedding and they loved it. And then it was months later, we were on tour, in Toronto, and we played “The One” because this guy got in touch with us and said he wanted to propose to his girlfriend, so we said, yeah, we’ll get you up onstage and we’ll play that song that we wrote for our friend, still not thinking that it was a Kodaline song; we just thought it as a present. And then what happened was that two people that were at the show filmed it on their phone and then they did a cover of it and sent us their cover of “The One” and we’re like, ‘Well, that is a good song,’ and so then we recorded it. It’s a single in Europe over here at the moment and people are really, really liking it. It’s looking like it’s gonna be our most popular song which is amazing because it’s about something so close to us.
I’ve been blessed to have so many great conversations like this and I often say that some of the most personal songs are also the most universal.
***At this point in the conversation, Mark offered to – and did – record a personal message to my daughter Angela and my soon-to-be son-in-law Kyle Moreno for their wedding, and invited them to attend Kodaline’s May 5 concert in Los Angeles where he promised to play and dedicate “The One” to them. After thanking him profusely, we continued our conversation.*** Let me ask you about a couple of personal favorite tracks on your album: “Coming Alive” has a huge hook and to me, could easily fit in Coldplay’s canon of songs. Tell me about that one.
That was actually one of the last songs we did for the album. I just started that song, I didn’t think a lot of it, I just thought it had a cool riff and I thought the music was kind of exciting. Then I showed it to the band and they loved it and then Steve wrote the lyrics really quickly. With this whole album, a lot of the songs happened very naturally. It’s probably become my favorite song live.
The album ends with the epic “Love Will Set You Free,” a tune I can almost guarantee will be someday heard over the end credits of a movie, coming soon to a theatre near you. Has there been discussion about that? And if not, you know, I only need two-tenth of one percent of that deal. (laughs).
(Laughs) That’s our favorite song on the album. We wrote it with a guy named Johnny McDaid who’s in Snow Patrol. We went over to his house in Malibu, wrote for a week or so and that was one of the songs that came out of it. It was a song that Steve had for years and years but never finished. And it was the last song for the album. I think it’s just great lyrics. I’m glad you like it.
Oh, I love it. It’s a great way to end a great record, and Mark, I will end our conversation with a final question, and it’s a fun one; what one song title on Coming Up For Air best describes the overriding theme of the album: “Honest,” “Coming Alive,” “Better” or “Everything Works Out in the End?”
Well, I prefer this album to the first album so ‘Better,’ but I think ‘Everything Works Out in the End’ is the one for me. A lot happens behind closed doors with bands and personal life and it’s not always what it seems like it is. Like, we have a great time and stuff but sometimes things go wrong and stuff, but everything does usually works out in the end in one way or another, so, I think that’s it for me.
Mark, it’s been a pleasure. I thank you again for the time and thank you for your generous offer and I would be in L.A. regardless. I’m looking forward to seeing you guys, and I’ll say now that I’m looking forward to meeting you at the Wiltern [Theatre] in Los Angeles.
Yeah, man, definitely. Drop me a mail and we’ll make that happen.
Thank you. Safe travels until then. My best to the other guys and I will see you in L.A.
Great! Thank you very much. Take care, bye.
**To hear more audio of my conversation with Mark Prendergast of Kodaline, please “LIKE” Facebook.com/CurrentClassics and look for a link to Episode 22 of my weekly Current Classics podcast. Listen HERE.