Dublin's September Girls spring into action
Dublin garage rockers September Girls’ debut album Cursing the Sea is one of the finds of the season. Paula Cullen and Sarah Grimes tell Jim Carroll about the ebb and flow behind the making of their impressive debut
There are some shades on the pop spectrum which never go out of fashion. September Girls dig their sound from those vintage long shadows. A five-strong gang of musicians who’ve done time in a variety of other Dublin crews, September Girls play dark, edgy garage pop with nods to what’s gone before and, crucially, what those leathered sounds are capable of producing in the here and now.
Paula Cullen and Sarah Grimes from the band take a break from a rehearsal session to sit at a rickety high table in a pub smoking area. Pre-Christmas seasonal merriment is in full swing all around, but there’s only tea and a stunning debut album on the agenda here.
That debut album, Cursing the Sea, is an album you won’t meet every day of the week. This set of tender heartbreakers and hard-chaw grooves contains stormy drama, fuzzy walls of sound, gritty swing and gum-chewing nonchalance. It’s a humdinger from tip to toe and wing to wing.
September Girls’ family tree takes in a slew of acts which keen-eyed students of the Irish game will remember fondly. Four of the band were in Talulah Does the Hula, which itself was made of two former members of The Chalets and two from Neosupervital. Add in Grimes, a Waterford-born drummer formerly behind the kit for Galway band The Debutantes, and you’ve the current standing line-up.
“I guess I poached Sarah for this band,” says Cullen. “Myself and the others had been in Talulah Does the Hula previously and we’d decided that’s not what we wanted to do. It wasn’t working for me, which is why I’d joined The Debutantes after Talulah for a while. With September Girls, we’d a definite direction we all wanted to go in. We were looking for a drummer, so that’s where Sarah came in.”
“Myself and Paula were in The Debutantes for what seemed like 10 minutes”, notes Grimes. “Though, in fairness to those 10 minutes, we played a couple of gigs.”
The problem with Talulah for Cullen and the others was that things had gone stale. “Everyone had felt Talulah had ran its course. It was a band that was made up of two other bands and that’s always hard.
“Myself and Caoimhe [Derwin] had come from The Chalets and had songs left over from that, and were wondering what to do with them. Jessie [Ward] and Lauren [Kerchner] were in the same position, so we started a band which was more of a learning experience than anything else.
“You know it’s gone stale when you’re bored. I just wasn’t into the music any more. There was no momentum behind it – we’d never even played outside Ireland. No-one wanted to hurt anyone’s feelings, but we just didn’t want to do it anymore.”
Cullen’s previous band, The Chalets, also fell foul of stasis, she believes. “With The Chalets, the lads in the band had grown up a bit more. We wanted to be away all the time travelling around, but they wanted to settle down. The interest wasn’t there. We’d started to record the second album, but trying to get people together for practise started to be difficult.”
It’s a far different matter with September Girls, with the band very much primed for a full slate of activities for 2014 to go with the release of their debut record. The album is out on Fortuna Pop and is already receiving reams of positive attention.
“Sean from Fortuna Pop came to one of our gigs in London and he liked the gig and asked us if we’d any interest in putting out the album on his label,” says Grimes. “We just spoke to him that night for the first time and he was the first person to ask us and he seemed like a really nice guy. The label had put out a couple of albums we really liked, so it was a good choice.”
In comparison to previous experiences in the studio with other bands, Cullen found recording Cursing the Sea to be quite energising in terms of fine-tuning what the band want to be. “A lot of the reasons we sound like this is because we didn’t go off into a proper studio and have someone saying ‘you know what would would be really good, make the vocals louder there blah blah blah’, which is what happened with the previous band.
“This time, we recorded with friends who were totally on the same page as us musically, who got it totally. The guy who mixed our albums and singles got it as well immediately. We produced the record rather than some outsider. Robbie [Brady] and Sean [Goucher] who recorded it made suggestions, like ‘you should use this mic on the amp’ but they didn’t try to control things – we produced it from top to bottom.
“You can get talked into things with someone else. If you’re sitting in a studio, everything begins to sound the same, so when something is suggested and you’re tired, you go ‘grand’. Then, you get it back and it’s like ‘what is this?’”
Grimes believes the September Girls’ sound changed significantly very quickly. “At the start, I was listening to much different stuff than I was when we were recording the album. The initial idea was very Hunx and His Punx and stuff like that, and that was how I imagined the band would sound like. After a few months, though, we didn’t sound like that at all. We’re still really poppy, but it was a lot poppier at the start.”
In common with many acts out there, September Girls remains a part-time band with day jobs to pay the bills. There’s also no-one in the background looking after the ins and outs of managing the band, though Grimes notes that Cullen is likely to be “the dad”.
“I’m more of a delegator and sit there with a top hat and wig,” the drummer notes.
“We’re all dads really,” says Cullen. “I would do the merch and stuff. Myself and Sarah would divide up sending out the singles to radio and press. Someone else does Tumblr and Facebook, Jessie and Caoimhe do design and videos and Lauren does the serious admin stuff involving spreadsheets and all that kind of fun.”
The biggest barrier the band face, Cullen notes, is more to do with time than money. “Money wasn’t a problem when it came to recording the album, because we did it really economically and recorded with friends who charged €50 a session and we’d get four songs done in that.
“We’d the album half-finished in October 2012, we recorded more that November and more again last March and April. It was very spread out, very bit by bit. Taking a week or two to do it, that was a problem because we wanted to keep any holiday time or days off from our jobs we might have for touring.”
It’s obvious from both that touring is the be all and end all of things right now – as an escape from the old routine as well as a way of selling the band to the world.
“We don’t tour enough for it to get boring”, says Cullen. “For us, it’s still going on holidays with our friends.”
“When we’re here, it’s like work”, says Grimes, “because we’re quite driven to get songs done and rehearsals done and promo done, so when we go away, it’s a laugh.”
Cursing the Sea is out now. September Girls play Bourke’s in Limerick on January 24th