Seven years since they last released an album, Desert Hearts return, vision undimmed and armed with a magnificent new record. And, as Francis Jones discovers, the passing of time has not tamed them.
I’m sitting downstairs in Voodoo bar in Belfast awaiting the arrival of Desert Hearts. I’m here to interview them about their new album, Enturbulation=No Challenge. The last – and only previous – time I interviewed this band was back in 2006, around the release of their second album, Hotsy Totsy Nagasaki. My memories of that evening are not altogether pleasant. Drummer Chris Heaney had recently departed the band and the remaining duo of Charlie Mooney and Roisin Stewart were on the defensive. It was a difficult, strained interview, less a conversation, more a war of attrition.
Mooney, in particular, was in combative mood on that occasion. So much so, that he even brought a set of knives to the interview. He showed them to me mid-way through our chat, pulling them from the backpack on the seat beside him, “look at my knives,” he said. If it was meant to intimidate me, it worked. Still, the knives made excellent props for the subsequent photo shoot, a symbol of the darkness, the dangerousness that is part of this great band’s appeal. And, that’s the thing, for all the fuck-ups, the belligerence and unerring ability to shoot themselves in both feet, Desert Hearts remain a great band. That’s why I’m here today.
Stephen ‘Leaky’ Leacock, is the first to arrive. Formerly, the drummer for General Fiasco, he’s been playing with Desert Hearts for over three years. He’s chatty, amiable and I begin to feel at ease. Then Charlie and Roisin land in. The former bundles past us, making a beeline for the bar. He returns clutching two beers. A curt “hello, it’s been a while,” and we head upstairs to find somewhere quieter to conduct the interview. As we gather around a table on the deserted first floor, Charlie tells me he’s feeling relaxed, just out of the bath. He also tells me that he listened to a bit of the new album before coming to meet me, “Just one song, ‘Powertrash’, to give me a boost. It didn’t take long”.
Mooney dominates the conversation and, although I’m told that it’s a democracy – it may well be in other regards – there’s no doubting that the others defer to him. Then again, this band has been the fundamental pillar of his life for almost two decades. Still, they’re good company – forthcoming and utterly passionate about the music they make. And, although several years have passed since I first talked to them, and the line-up has changed, some things remain unaltered. Their quest is to write the greatest songs imaginable. Same as it ever was.
They’re funny too. Even if Mooney, at one point, apologises, “for being so serious, but you’ve got to understand, the music we make is the most serious thing in my life. It’s the thing that, above all else, gives my life a sense of worth”. One hour later, as I turn the dictaphone off and slip it back in my pocket, Charlie, in his own, not entirely discourteous manner, asks, “Now, did you fucking get enough?” I assure him I have and thank him for his time. “Make me sound good,” he says, with only a hint of menace. “Well, they’re all your words,” I tell him…
It’s been a long time since Hotsy Totsy Nagasaki. Why?
CM: That’s a massive question, straightaway. I don’t know how the others feel, but, to me, it’s not about how long it takes to make, or release an album. This time last year, I thought the music industry was gone. Now, I see it differently. There’s a certain freedom for bands. It’s like the early days of punk, when you had the Sex Pistols and The Clash. They had no money and no chance. I think there’s a bit of that attitude returning.
What has changed with this record?
CM: It’s my strongest set of songs. With Leaky and Stuart [Bell, guitars, keys etc], it’s the strongest band we’ve ever had. Simple as that. We’re so proud of this record. We’d never have put it out if it hadn’t have been as strong as the second album.
Was it easy to integrate Leaky and Stuart into the group?
CM: It was the easiest thing ever. We had connections to Stephen and Leaky from No Dancing. That was it. Simple. It was beautifully incidental.
SL: Joe Dougan had a conversation with Stuart about the fact that we never played the song ‘New Kings’. Joe told him it was because the band didn’t have a second guitar player. Joe asked Stu to learn it and come along to one of the band’s shows.
CM: Stu turned up to a show that night and I didn’t even know he was going to come and play that song with us. He did it a couple of times after that.
SL: Then for me, there was a Two Step gig at the Limelight that Desert Hearts were going to play. Charlie phoned me a few days before and asked me could I do it. I had to contact a friend to get the first album – Let’s Get Worse. I practiced and did the gig, but it was about six months before I played another show. That was all probably three and a half, four years ago.
Would you say that the band is now working to a particular design?
CM: There’s a design, yes. It was never to be seven years between albums, but we do things at our own rate. We could record an album tomorrow and it would be as good as this one. Chances are, though, that it’ll take two, or four, or five years. I don’t give a fuck. We’re going to practice tonight and we’ll play new songs, one of which is the best song I’ve ever written. Tom Petty would be happy at it, y’know. I even have a title for the fourth album; do you want to hear it? Appetite For Destruction 2. Do you think I’m not serious? I’m deadly serious. Are you not? [turns to Leaky].
SL: Other people make this process more difficult than it needs to be. We just get together and play music. Musically, this is the easiest thing I’ve ever been involved with.
Desert Hearts have always got the critical plaudits, but how much do you care about being a commercial success?
CM: I don’t care about any single thing to do with the music industry. Nothing. The only thing I care about is writing songs that are great and making some fucking money. Simple as that. So, if I could, I would be in Coldplay.
You’re quite open about your desire to make money? A lot of musicians are afraid of being honest about that.
CM: What the fuck do you want? You want your music respected and the money. Any band that tells you any different is a liar. Fuck off. The Pixies didn’t reform because Frank Black and Kim Deal were friends again. They reformed because they were getting about 50k a gig.
That’s true, but it isn’t something that most bands openly declare. They’re afraid it seems vulgar, at odds with their artistic intent.
CM: It’s not vulgar.
So, why do you think that Desert Hearts haven’t yet had that sort of material success?
CM: I think that Hotsy Totsy Nagasaki was too dark, it wouldn’t have cut through. The debut was too shambolic. We never had a chance as a band, not to be like The Kooks. And who the fuck would want that? Having said that, I do think that the album we’ve made could be listened to on the radio. But, none of us can think about a career here. Desert Hearts has never been about a career. If I wanted to I could drive a tractor. It’d be easy. And I would be happy.
Why do you keep making music then, rather than jumping on that tractor and riding off into the sunset?
CM: Primarily, I do it for myself. And then for the three of them equally. No hippie answer. I write songs to impress Roisin and Leaky and Stuart. Roisin is my toughest critic. Leaky helps me write the songs and I want to impress him as we’re doing it. But, that’s the simple bit. That’s as easy as making a coffee. If it wasn’t easy, I wouldn’t fucking do it. It only got difficult when we stopped. And I was going to stop it. Stuart and Leaky really kept the band alive, because I was going to do it… to stop Desert Hearts. They came along and reinvigorated it.
To me, Enturbulation=No Challenge is your most emotionally direct album.
CM: That’s the whole point and one Roisin doesn’t like.
Are you comfortable being that forthcoming? People could construe it as being autobiographical.
CM: The songs aren’t really about me. They’re mostly about other people. ‘Aw Devastation’ isn’t about me. ‘Oak Mot’ is about another person I know.
And what about the title, that word ‘Enturbulation’?
CM: You think I’ll have chosen that word for my album title without fucking knowing what it means? To them [Scientologists], it’s like the clam on the beach, the waves beating against it. But, the clam doesn’t care, it’s no challenge. Another thing, Scientologists don’t use the word ‘problem. So, for example, they won’t say “no problem”. Instead, they say, “no challenge”. Because the idea of even saying the word ‘problem’, admits that there is one. It’s like, “do you want me to clean your ass for you? It seems really inappropriate, no challenge”. I’ve gone off on one haven’t I?
Is Scientology something that interests you?
CM: Absolutely. My favourite film right now is The Master. It’s fucking brilliant. You see that bit where Joaquin Phoenix rides off on his motorbike? That’s me. I predicted that. We [turns to Roisin] were watching that and I said, “he’s not coming back”. He just drove off. That was it. I get things in the post for some fucker that must’ve lived in my house. Scientology things. I read them. I think Scientology is genius. It’s also incredibly stupid.
But, just so we’re clear, there isn’t a Scientology angle to the album itself?
CM: There’s no Scientology aspect to the songs, but the idea of the whole album was that it was ‘no challenge’. That’s what’s at the core. For us, making the record was no challenge. Ben [McAuley, the album’s producer] is a fucking genius and, together, we did it fucking easy. It was the easiest album I’ve ever done in my life. No challenge. And, in a way, it’s a “fuck you” to Belfast. No challenge.
There’s a nostalgic element to the record, would you say you’re the sort of person who’s always looking back, rather than forward?
CM: I have no problem going back. I like it. For example, playing ‘No More Art’ in our live shows. And I am old-fashioned, be it Lee Marvin, or my uncle Joe, who talks to me about drink-driving. I love all that. I do feel I’m a wee bit a man out of time. And people have commented that we’re a band out of time, maybe we should have been about in the Seventies, then we could have been Joy Division. Instead, we’re stuck in the here and now. Where I can’t smoke in a bar, whilst I’m having a drink. I wish I could. Ernest Borgnine sitting beside me. I’d love that. I would have been one of the gang back then.
You’re not the sort of man to engage with social media then?
CM: You know I’m not. What could be worse?
Do you think that there’s too much of that, people knowing the inane minutiae of everyone else’s life?
SL: People want to buy into celebrity culture. Be it through the things they own, or letting people know what they’re doing via social media. It’s self-indulgent. Though, for music, it can be something of a necessary evil. To get the word out and promote your music and your band. But, overall, I just think it’s saturated. There’s so much shit that it’s difficult to sift your way through and find stuff that’s worthwhile.
Do you think that it’s important, as a band, to maintain some level of mystique?
CM: That’s the obvious point. But, there’s different ways of looking at this. I have a friend who didn’t want to know anything about the bands he was into, but then I told him some stories about that motherfucker who played the bass for QOTSA [Nick Oliveri]. To me, that all added to it, made their cocaine songs sound even more kicking. But there’s some stuff that’s not meant to be known. The real story about bands is that so much of what we do is really boring.
RS: There aren’t that many rock and roll antics that haven’t already been done.
CM: Oh, there are some still to do, and I’ll probably be the one to do them!
RS: I think most of the bands out there are relatively boring.
CM: Most of the bands that we meet are so fucking professional. They don’t even drink.
SL: You actually wonder why they do it. They don’t seem to be enjoying it.
CM: Thank you Leaky, that was the point I was trying to get to earlier. These bands do it for the exact opposite reason we do. We don’t do it for the money, though, fuck knows, I’d take it. But there ain’t no money incentive for us. Our main incentive is that we make good music and we’re happy doing it.
Do you care about impressing other people, are you competitive in any way?
CM: No. I’ve already written better songs than I ever thought possible. How could I be competitive? That’s like a guy scoring a goal and his pants are around his ankles. The proudest I’ve ever been was when the ‘No More Art’ 7” turned up in my house in Cushendall and my mother looked at it. I’m getting very serious now, but I’m not gonna cry! When they looked at it and said, “do whatever you want”. That was it. They thought I was a failure before that because I’d fucked-up my A-Levels. But, when they saw that 7” single… no-one in Cushendall… it impressed them enough to trust me to do whatever I wanted.
What kind of stuff were you into back then, when you were growing up?
CM: I can tell you my genesis, if you’d like? Michael Jackson, Bon Jovi. Metal shit. Slayer. Then somehow I got into Nirvana. Then it was Will Oldham and he took me up to my mid-twenties. He’s terrible now. A bullshit artist, Wickerman shit. Terrible. At the minute, I just listen to Big Black.
Is there anything more recent that excites you?
CM: The Knife, Fever Ray. Obviously. She’s a genius.
Who do you consider your contemporaries?
CM: Right now, of Desert Hearts, my contemporaries? QOTSA. Slayer. Danzig. All the big bands. Why would I consider my contemporaries the bands from this shithole town? Why the fuck would I have my hardcore desire be to play Auntie Annies? I want to be as big as QOTSA. As big as Josh Homme and to play with all those motherfuckers.
What do you think of the state of music these days?
CM: Desperate. But, you can’t say that. And this isn’t specifically about Belfast, it’s about music in general. Everybody has the capacity now to record in their house and to the same level that U2 were paying thousands upon thousands to do in the Eighties. And now every cunt can do it. And, yet, where are all the good songs? Nobody’s writing good songs, even though they have the means to do so. There’s a thing Chris Rock said, basically that it doesn’t matter how much the gun costs, but a bullet should be five thousand dollars.
“You don’t need no gun control, you know what you need? We need some bullet control. Man, we need to control the bullets, that’s right. I think all bullets should cost five thousand dollars… five thousand dollars per bullet… You know why? Cause if a bullet cost five thousand dollars there would be no more innocent bystanders. Yeah! Every time somebody get shot we’d say, ‘Damn, he must have done something … Shit, he’s got fifty thousand dollars worth of bullets in his ass.” – Chris Rock
The point being that you’d really have to want to kill a cunt. You’d really have to hate them. And, similarly, I think guitars should be five thousand pounds and most people shouldn’t be allowed near them.
How do you think the band’s perceived by other people?
CM: We get respect now. The thing is, we never sucked any dicks, never did the things that certain other bands did to get where they are. I’ve seen levels of respect coming. We get respect in this town now. Before, people asked me why we weren’t the next Snow Patrol.
Would you want to be in that position?
CM: If it made my life easier, made it easier to buy guitar strings, why wouldn’t I? But, right now, we’re entirely positive, full of glory. The songwriting is still pure, there’s no contagion from music industry shit. We’re unaffected. Which, also, might lead to our downfall.
In what sense?
CM: Well, we’re never going to be the sort of band that’s grasping after publicity, that goes sucking dicks. But, then again, that’s the purity of the thing.
SL: The four of us are a pretty tight unit. Regardless of what’s going on around the band, nothing and no-one can really touch us. Without sounding arrogant, I don’t think there are many bands that have what we have. Not just in terms of music, but attitude as well.
CM: I think of it in terms of war. It’s like Band of Brothers.
But, isn’t there a conflict, between wanting the same level of commercial success that a band like Snow Patrol have attained and yet not being prepared to do the things they’ve done to achieve their success?
CM: Oh, it’s a total conflict. I don’t know how we resolve that. I do think, though, that my songs are as valid as Snow Patrol’s. Still, I recognise the great anthem in ‘Chasing Cars’, or ‘Run’. For me, the closest thing to that I’ve done is ‘Powertrash’. But, as these two know, I’m unwilling to play any game that’s part of the music industry. But, they also know, I want to keep making records for the rest of my life. Not saying I want to be Paul McCartney. I just want to be The Replacements, really.
Do you worry that interest in Desert Hearts may have waned in the seven year gap between albums?
CM: Everybody thought that we were dead, is that it? We were never dead. We’re the most alive band in Belfast. Fifty bands have come and gone in the time we’ve been around. I believe that a band should have a history. So what if you’ve dipped, or taken this long to do it. I think that a band that has a history is stronger than one that’s been and gone, or changed its name four times in ten years. We’re Desert Hearts. And I’ve been part of Desert Hearts since I was 15. That’s nearly 20 years. I think that’s a show of strength. Francis Jones
Enturbulation=No Challenge is released 27 May on Third Bar/No Dancing Records
Album launch at Voodoo, Belfast on 31 May