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Review: Girl Band Blend Disco and Noise-Rock Into Sonic Napalm on ‘The Early Years’

8
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: April 21, 2015
Label: Rough Trade

Ask John Lydon: Anger is an energy, but disco is a weapon. Like so many other first-wave punks and post-punks — Wire, Joy Division, the Clash and Blondie, just to name a handful — Johnny Rotten eventually discovered that setting his shredding guitars and caterwauling vocals to a dance-floor thump gave his music a power and an immediacy beyond just going faster, louder, and further out of control. The lesson has been well-heeded by generations of underground rock bands since, with discopunk even briefly bubbling up as the Sound of the Moment in the early-mid-’00s, led by bands like the Rapture, !!!, and LCD Soundsystem. But none of those acts blends the two styles quite like Girl Band, who eschew finding the midpoint between dance-floor momentum and punk rawness for something that instead pushes both sounds to the very extremes of their fringes, swirling them into a Molotov cocktail of throbbing devastation.

Girl Band’s 2012 debut mini, France 98, was potent but a tad indistinct; grungy noise-rock with a sinewy quality that could’ve emanated from any number of Drive Like Jehu or Refused acolytes. But their second EP The Early Years is a startling leap forward for the Irish quartet (who, yes, in the recent tradition of female-named rock groups, are all male). Their squall is as destructive as ever, but now it’s been streamlined to nuclear levels with the integration of groove, making the band’s abrasive fury undeniable and giving them a sound entirely their own.

Of course, it’s not really startling for people who have been paying attention to the band, since only two of the five songs on The Early Years — an unrecognizable cover of Beat Happening’s “I Love You” and 30-second closing burst “The Cha Cha Cha” — are totally new, the rest having been released as singles and/or internet streams over the past few years. But even if Early Years is just a mini-compilation, these are songs that needed to be compiled in some form: Opener “Lawman” is as struttingly malicious as any rock song in 2015, anchored by Daniel Fox’s hypnotic, circular fuzz-bass and Adam Faulkner’s relentless 4/4 drum pounding, while “De Bom Bom” hisses with white noise, Alan Duggan’s guitar resembling a righteously pissed off piece of gardening equipment. They’re caustic and incendiary as hell, but they’re also unbelievably fun, an exciting and rare quality in music this visceral.

The crown jewel, though, is the collection’s most emblematic track: An eight-minute cover of post-dubstep mastermind Blawan’s absurdist banger “Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage” that, simply put, is unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. It makes no immediate sense as a cover choice, but then again, the original didn’t make much sense either, an alien transmission of underwater synths, aimlessly wandering bass and garbled robot bleating that nonetheless ended up as one of the most arresting dance tracks of the decade. Girl Band’s rendition blasts the thing into the fifth dimension, switching out synths for air-raid guitars, doubling down on the drum thump and — through frontman Dara Kiely’s alternately velvety and fire-breathing vocals — turning the titular lament into an enthralling rallying cry. It’d sound even worse in the club than the Blawan version, but it does level a crowd of fist-pumpers at a basement show, even if — especially if — they have no clue what the fuck they’re chanting.

SPIN spoke to disarmingly polite Girl Band guitarist Alan Duggan about the band’s inflammable live show, plans for a full-length album, and the importance of long-term thinking when naming things.

So you guys have played a number of shows now. I’m curious, have you played for a hostile crowd yet?
I mean the worst one we ever had was, we played this show in Dublin and it was one of our fourth shows or something, and there was this Irish band who were all really nice guys, but they were quite like a poppy band. They’d sold out this venue that was at seven hundred capacity, and we were like the main support act. We didn’t really go around too well there; I guess a couple of people just kind of just straight up screamed “Shut the fuck up.” It was like “Okay, we’re sorry.” You don’t want to come in and just ruin people’s nights because some people paid tickets to see the headline band and you don’t want to be the band who’s there pissing everyone off.

But we’ve had two shows like that. We had one show… in the U.K., a lot of these venues they start off as restaurants and then later in the night they turn into like an actual venue and they curtain things off. This was one of those places where they didn’t curtain it off… there’s people still eating their dinner and we started playing. We’re like “Oh we’re so sorry, don’t want to ruin your meal.” Like, people had nice steaks and stuff.

You guys don’t take any pride in that? Like a “Fuck them if they can’t take a joke” sort of thing?
No, no, no. I mean love the idea of playing in front of people who came to see the show, but just forcing it upon people seems a bit much at times, particularly at a dining scenario.

You guys play with such violence, have any of you actually broken an instrument on stage?
Like the worst thing that happened was… we had this one gig for Record Store Day last year. We were playing in London and we were coming from Dublin. To get over from Dublin to London, we weren’t flying over because we had no money, so the cheapest way to do it was to get a ferry over to Wales and then get a bus from Wales all the way down to London, which is a long, long trip. It’s like four or five hours to Wales on the ferry and its about seven hours on the bus.

Then we showed up to this venue and this place normally isn’t a venue, they were just doing like a day party thing for Record Store Day. They had a really tiny bass amp that you get when you’re ten years old, like My First Bass Amp. Daniel [Fox] the bass player uses a lot of drive on the bass and it just blew it after the second song. We only came over here to do this Record Store Day gig. We played two songs and everything went wrong. We were like “Uh, sorry about that. We’ll see you later” and then just had to go all the way back home.

When watching you guys at South by Southwest, I was kind of reminded of Joy Division and some other post-punk bands where it seemed like all four of the members are kind of equally integral in crafting the band’s sound. All four of you guys kind of function as the lead instrument. Is that a conscious thing on your part?
Yeah, yeah, very much so. That’s always something we’ve been kind of keen on. It’s not just like “Oh, they’ve got an amazing drummer, and they’ve got an amazing singer, and that’s it.” It’s always been a case of trying to make each instrument stand out as much as possible. It’s conscious, but it kind of came naturally, cause no one really plays or sings in a very traditional way. The guitar sounds not like a guitar and neither does the bass and Adam on drums plays in a very particular way. It’s something certainly that we pride ourselves on.

And then the whole kind of post-punk aspect of that is like a huge thing. Particularly like the New York post punk, no wave scene was like a huge thing for us. Like when we first saw that it was like “Oh wow, never thought about doing it that way. Oh yeah, you don’t have to play any notes, that’s great.”

There’s such an emphasis on groove on the new EP. Where did that come from?
It kind of came from a couple of different things. As we got a bit older, we kinda go on different nights out. It’s kind of different for each member of the band, which kind of ties into the fact that everyone’s got like a very significant role. The way we split everything is always twenty-five each way, it’s a very collective thing. I can only speak on my behalf, but for me it was like I started listening to a lot of techno and got into a lot of DJs. It’s super-repetitive and super-groovy. I got into a lot of Afrobeat stuff as well, like Fela Kuti, that’s super repetitive and you just kind of get looped into these ten-minute long songs. I think it’s an effective way to create like a trance thing. That was something that I really wanted to get but I think it works really well with really harsh noise. It’s a weird thing.

Whose idea was it to cover the Blawan song?
That was actually friends of ours, they’re in a techno act called Peaks, and they were like “Oh, you should check out this new Blawan…” And we checked it out. Basically, why we covered it was because there was an Irish label called the Quarter Inch Collective, and they put out a compilation of a number of Irish bands who would cover a song that had just been released that year. And we were asked to do it, and we were like “Yeah, we’d totally be up for doing that.” And then our friends suggested we cover that track, and that was purely the reason why that came up.

How did the fans react to it? Are they confused by it?
I think they’ve gotten it well. For a lot of our shows, they tend to be, ultimately, showcases. There’s a lot of press — people who are in the know will come to check it out, so particularly at the start, no one knows any songs, because you haven’t put any songs up. But like, one journalist said “Oh, this is good,” so a load of people end up showing up. So it’s just constantly a lot of people who are kind of confused. Half of ‘em seem to be into it, half of ‘em seem to not be enjoying it at all. So when we played it for the first time, friends of mine who hadn’t heard the songs that were at the show, they seemed to really like it. I was like “Oh, that’s cool if he likes it, because I know that he’s into the same music that I’m into,” or “She really likes it, that’s cool because she knows that band, she gets that reference.” So ultimately, it was positive.

You guys have a full-length album in the works?
Yeah, we’re actually in the middle of recording it right now. We’ve got a few of the tracks down. It’s going well! I think it’s sounding really cool. We spent the majority of yesterday just doing percussion overdubs, we just got, like, a drain on a pipe cleaner — it’s got a weird metal quality to it — and we have about 14 broken cymbals, so we stacked them all together and we were rubbing it against that, and it just this kind of weird sound. That was really fun. We had one section of a song where it just melts down to the [horror voice] “scaaaary noise,” and we were just kind of messing around with that. We got this big old hubcap off a car that was completely broken up, and then we had a big metal spring, and we were throwing that against it, throwing spoons across the room…

Are any songs on the EP gonna make it to the album, or have you guys kind of closed the book on the “early years?”
Oh, yeah, they’re all old songs, we put those songs out a long time ago. We wanted to put out something in the U.S., because we hadn’t really released anything in the U.S. And it was kinda just like “Ahh, we’ll call it The Early Years.” But no, the album will be all new material.

Is there a release date for the album?
We haven’t got a specific date confirmed yet, but it’s going to be like, September/October. We’re just in the process of booking all the tours for that at the moment. Which is really exciting, because we get to see all these dates pop up in all these countries, a lot that we’ve been to, and a lot that we haven’t, y’know? Just a really fun year ahead.

Do you have a title in mind yet?
There’s a handful of titles floating about, but we’re still working through what’s acceptable and what’s too stupid and too much of an in-joke. We’ve been called up on this Girl Band thing a lot, so it’s like “All right, we need to rethink this whole thing, it’s not just the four of us…”

I was gonna ask about that, are you pretty sick already of having to defend the band name?
A little bit, yeah. I dunno, it’s fine. It’s just kind of a funny thing every now and then when you’re sitting down with your lawyer and he’s like “Hello, Girl Band…” It’s just silly.