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A Band Apart: An Interview With Gilla Band

Next year marks a mind-melting decade since we hosted two sold-out headliners by Gilla Band at Belfast’s Bar Sub. Coming off the back of a trouncing set in support of Slint at the Limelight – and their second EP The Early Years – the shows confirmed the arrival of a blitzing force in forward-pushing noise rock.

Three genre-defining LPs, a two-year hiatus, one name change, and heaps of well-earned international recognition later, the Dara Kiely-fronted four-piece are on the cusp of a thrilling new era. Ahead of their long-awaited return to Belfast next week, we chat to guitarist Alan Duggan about a decade of sonic leaps and learning curves in the most influential Irish guitar band of a generation.

Buy tickets to Gilla Band at the Belfast Empire on Friday, 8th March

I think I first heard you guys just before you supported Slint in Belfast back in 2014. It was obvious that you were prioritising your sonic inclinations. Usually, you can trace points of reference but it didn’t seem like you were trying to emulate anyone. Ten years on, how important is it to you to still sort of go, “Right, let’s not do that. Let’s try to make this sound more like us”?

I think that’s always been really important for us. It’s trying to write in a way that feels like it’s doing something different, but not for the sake of doing something different. We find pulling influences from other genres that wouldn’t necessarily be associated with whatever world we exist in is always really useful for that. I think that what we’ve experienced is just the more we have written, the more we’ve kind of just kind of honed that further and further and then tried to figure out how to develop. We’re at a point now where we’re writing like that, which is now the guts of what will be a fourth album.

We will sometimes ask ourselves, “OK, where are we repeating ourselves? Let’s make sure we’re not doing that.” And we’re also trying to be aware of what other artists are releasing at any given moment. At the same time, it’s definitely important to try not to overthink it and just kind of aim for instinct and fun, logical progression.

When I first heard Most Normal it was very clear that you weren’t in the mind for repeating yourselves. Rarely did I sense that I knew what was going to happen next. Take ‘The Weirds,’ for example, where it suddenly drops out into a sort of submerged ambient theme towards the end. It’s quiet but it’s such a punch in the face. 

With a track like that in mind, how vital was keeping LP production in-house (with Dan Fox, Gilla Band bassist and producer) to ensure that you continued on your own path?

I think keeping it amongst ourselves has been kind of key. At the start when we had some stuff with Jamie (Hyland) and Liam (Mulvaney) being involved, which was great. From an engineering perspective, Liam is so experienced and Jamie had just always been around. She was at all the early rehearsals and stuff like that so it made sense that she’d be involved whereas with Most Normal, we kind of felt, “OK, well, Daniel can 100% engineer it himself.”

In a way, we’ve always kind of felt like we’ve produced it ourselves anyway, so I think the idea of trying to keep it completely in-house made sense. We’ve always got a pretty clear vision of what we want so it would be weird to spend lots of money on a producer for them to give you suggestions that you don’t really want to hear. That said, I think producers are incredibly valuable. I would never be like, “No, we will never have a producer work with us” or anything like that. But where we’re at right now, it would feel like an unnecessary inconvenience. It’s better to do it ourselves because we’re not short on ideas or short on clarity of what we want or anything like that. I also think we just really enjoy that part of it. It’s not a chore. One of the funnest parts is bringing it all together and seeing how it all works.

Exactly. Especially at the level that you’re playing at now, it’s almost like you have to be certain. I’m sure you’re collectively feeling more assured than ever that this is what you’re meant to be doing and how you’re meant to be doing it. 

Yeah, I think the idea of being certain about what you’re doing is always really important. It’s kind of weird now because we’re starting to write again. We’re now in that phase of being like, “OK, well, what are we doing? What’s the kind of goal of the next thing? What are we aiming for musically?” It’s a little strange because you’re kind of delving back into the world of uncertainty. You’re once again trying to fish for ideas and figure it out. But when it comes to the point of recording, we’re pretty clear on what we’re trying to achieve.

What have been the biggest changes you have noticed about how you approach the studio versus playing live – and the overlap between the two?

Most Normal was fun because it was a big change for us. It was like, “OK, this is going to feel like a studio album. We’re really not concerned about trying to play these songs live.” Whereas The Talkies and Holding Hands With Jamie were much more trying to capture the live sound so that it wouldn’t feel super different in that context. On Holding Hands, we kind of felt like we made it more of a studio album, but it’s still very much a live record.

So Most Normal was the first one where it felt we could do all this interesting sonic shit and just be quite heavy-handed with it. I think that felt fruitful for us moving forward. It informed the writing and the production was a big part of it. So I think the fourth album is going to be more down that field. It’s not like we’re going to try and make a complete “live: record again or whatever, but we’re going to go more into like the production side of it. It’s a little early to say what that will mean but we’re pretty open with it at the moment. It’s just fishing for different ideas, and there’s lots and lots of terrible ideas. It’s just like kind of wading through it to find something that’s kind of cool and works.

I know that you spend a lot of time working on your writing and recording, diligently working on the tracks until you’re pleased with the results. Do you feel like you can be healthily obsessive, weeding out the ideas you don’t want, rather than trying to make them work? 

I feel like any obsession that we’ve had has never been a debilitating factor. It’s ultimately been positive, but it’s just trying to find and be happy with it. None of us live off the band. We all have jobs outside of it and stuff like that. But everything we try to do in our professional lives and stuff like that is to work around the band so that we can continue to do it because I think ultimately we’re all obsessed with music and writing music together is really meaningful.

So when it comes to something like a recording of an album, it’s not something that we want to just be like, “Oh yeah, that’s great, let’s move on to the next thing.” I think we want to make sure it really works for us because we’re fucking sacrificing all this other shit for it. Luckily it’s a lot of fun. You just want to put your name to it knowing it’s the best it can be.

On which note, it’s pretty obvious to me that you’re the most influential Irish band of this generation. I don’t know how much access you have to something like that, or how much it matters to you, but where does your mind go when you hear that kind of thing?

Thank you very much. Whenever stuff like that gets suggested, it’s hard to know what to say because it’s not like, “Yeah, we know!” It’s not like that at all. If any band or artist is influenced by what you do, it’s kind of one of the best compliments you can get. It’s right up there. It means an awful lot.

I think for us, it’s just the case that we’ve always just wanted to make the music as good as possible and not try to play up to like, “OK, well, this is what’s in right now. We should try to make more tracks like this” or anything like that. I think another way you can kind of see the influence is the fact that Daniel’s a producer and engineer and he records a lot of Irish groups. I suppose that will just kind of feed into it a little bit as well.

You have always had the ability, especially live, to fully take people out of themselves for an hour and a bit. It’s often felt like a summoning – almost permission to drop out of worry and submit to it all. How does it feel seeing that play out from the stage, night after night?

I think for us it’s usually less a case of thinking about writing something that would work well in a live setting. We haven’t had many of those conversations in the last few years. I think it’s more so like, “Oh, this would be really, really cool to listen to with headphones on. What would that feel like if that jolted you from one point to the other?” Like, there’s one track on Most Normal where the phase is flipped on the track, so it’s just like it kind of jumps from the back of the head to the front of the head if you listen to it on headphones. But if you listen to it on an iPhone, it doesn’t work. I love it when stuff like that happens, where it sounds like something is broken.

So I think we’re more interested in sounds that would be satisfying to listen to or just to have a kind of shift from an audio perspective. I love listening to records where something happens where I’m just like, “What the fuck?” For example, I love panning. I’m just always impressed by it. If there’s ever any panning in a track I’m just like, “Whoa.” So, like I was saying earlier about the way we steered more into production, the live thing kind of comes after the fact. I think that’s where the drive is a little more at the moment.

Of course, there are a few tracks that we’ve been playing from Most Normal live. They’re easier to adapt, whereas some of the other tracks we’ll just never be able to play live. It just wouldn’t be doable because there’s like three or four guitar lines or like there’s two bass lines or something like that. So there’s just not enough fillers to actually do it. It would just kind of sound a little funny. 

I suppose coming into the end of 2022, just before the record was coming out, we sat down and discussed which of the tracks we could play. I think this is where our drummer, Adam (Faulkner) has got a really good head on him for this kind of stuff. He goes in for live production in that way. Daniel’s really good at it, too. So there’s a little bit of figuring out but usually tracks take a little bit of new life on stage. That can be fun. 

On different topics that we’ve touched on – from sonic inclinations to writing and playing live, it’s all very pragmatic in that you’re concerned about what you don’t want rather than what you do. It seems like the quickest and most efficient way to kind get on with stuff rather than obsessing over what you do want. 

Yeah, I think that’s true. If you think back to when we first kind of started the group, when we were like 21 or 22, it was mainly a case of like, “OK, well, we don’t want to sound like our previous band,” which, for the record, was a band doing its absolute best to try to sound like The Strokes and failing miserably. We decided that we didn’t want to sound like that.

There were a lot of groups that were playing around Dublin at the time, probably throughout the country as well, that appeared to be really influenced by albums like In Rainbows and King of Limbs. I love Radiohead, but there were just a lot of times where we agreed that we didn’t want to emulate Radiohead and we didn’t want to do The Strokes thing.

It was a case of knowing what to do that was still guitar-based music. At that time we all discovering different parts of No Wave and shit like that, so it was exciting to kind of forge into that. I always find having those, “Right, we’re not going to do that type of thing” conversations can be really useful. I still love Radiohead but I think their influence is a lot more buried. I don’t know if aping a band is a great way to go about it. It’s never worked for me anyway.”

Well, like a lot of people, I’m glad you haven’t done that because the spiritual influence is way more important than sitting down and being, like, “Alright, let’s try that chord shape from ‘Just’.” I suppose something that’s a testament to that working in reality is the fact Thom Yorke has shouted about your music a few times over the years. How does that feel?

It’s an interesting one. When you hear musicians who have been very influential to you saying they like the band or particular track, it’s class but I try not to pay too much attention to it. It’s just more like, “Oh, cool. That’s really nice!”

Touching briefly on your American tour last year – that one seemed like a significant one in the band’s journey to date. What was it like to kind of get back over there and sort of, you know, reassert who you are, particularly after the name change (from Girl Band back in 2021)? 

Yeah, it felt really good. We’ve toured over in North America a few times throughout the years. The first time we went was in 2015 and then we did another little bit in 2016. And then I think we played three shows in 2017 before going on hiatus. So when we came back after The Talkies, we did four or five gigs on the East Coast and then Chicago.

Back then especially, it felt like the country was just so fucking big. We were kind of inconsequential but we were still kind of figuring out how to tour. Like, that was cool but for a lot of those gigs, we would be playing in Philadelphia to like four or five people or Cleveland, Ohio to like three people. We didn’t know what we were doing or how the country kind of worked from a touring perspective. We were just like, “Oh, shows are booked. Let’s go play the shows.” I wasn’t thinking about what it meant to be booking a 600-cap room somewhere in Ohio on a Monday night. I mean, that probably doesn’t make a lot of sense.

So this time around, I think we were a little bit more kind of clued in in terms of how to work it. What we got to notice when we went over in February of last year was that we went to mostly major cities and they all pretty much sold out. And that was, really, really encouraging. It felt different from any other tour we’d ever done over there. So we were like, “Oh, there seems to be like a little bit of momentum here. We should come back.”

We got two full tours where the only place we played twice was New York. Everywhere else was like basically new cities and most of them had sold out. So, it felt really good. And there are so many other places where we can go that we’ve never been to. We could tour the whole country again and not just do what we’ve been doing, like L.A. or Philadelphia or Washington. We can do Baltimore. We can do fucking Colorado and places like that. Whether it’s the whole Dischord scene or New York No Wave or whatever, there are a lot of U.S. groups that have been a big influence on us. I think because of that I always believed we could kind of work there a little bit, so it was pretty cool to experience show selling out in different cities and being able to step up into a bigger size room and stuff like that. It was really encouraging.

Bringing it back to Ireland, I think it’s safe to say we’re undergoing a bit of a golden age. Folk fully popping off and all the bands prone to referring to themselves as post-punk doing very well is only the tip of the iceberg. What are your feelings on it all?

It’s really cool to see a lot more international attention on Ireland. As a result, you have a lot of Irish acts from loads of different genres that are out there touring the world. That’s great to see because I don’t feel like that was happening a whole lot when we started out. Some groups were doing stuff internationally but there seems to be a lot more now, which is sick. 

Obviously, it’s really cool seeing Lankum getting all this kind of international attention. Their stuff is absolutely incredible. And I think John Francis Flynn’s latest record is really fucking cool. I wouldn’t be super knowledgeable about it, but I really like stuff that I’ve heard in the Irish drill scene and other types of hip-hop. There’s a young Irish artist named Curtisy who just announced an album – I’m really liking the stuff that he’s released so far.

And then there are bands that we’ve toured with like M(h)aol. I’m pretty curious to hear what’s in store for the next incarnation, with the recent line-up change. So, yeah, there’s always really cool shit. For whatever reason, more people internationally are catching on. Of course, the quality has always been there but things are really cool at the moment.

is the editor of The Thin Air. Talk to him about Philip Glass and/or follow him on Twitter @brianconey.