Pony Club takes the reins again

Wed, Jan 14, 2009, 00:00

HE HAS BEEN away but now he’s back – 36-year-old Mark Cullen, once of hotly tipped Dublin bands Bawl and Fixed Stars, has been working under the moniker of Pony Club for several years now, but the stride in his gallop was severely interrupted a couple of years ago when his wife took ill.

The man who once wrote songs for Kylie, and who is perhaps better known for deftly tiling around Dublin’s kitchen sink dramas, was sidelined to look after his spouse and their two children.

For someone whose life and times, from his teenage years at least, had been engaged in searching for some kind of glory – tainted or otherwise – in the music industry, stepping back was a wrench. But a sense of duty kicked in pretty much immediately when, one morning, he woke up to find his wife immobile.

“Her face was contorted – I thought she was messing,” says Cullen, sombrely. “She was able to talk but her lips weren’t moving. By the time we got her into the hospital her eyelids weren’t moving either, and she was finding it hard to use her hands. There was a point where she was completely paralysed, and the worry was that her airways would become blocked, which means she would have choked. She was in for six weeks, and she still goes for check-ups. She still gets relapses, but by and large she’s fine.”

In times of crisis, inevitably, people discover a side to themselves they never knew existed. For Cullen, the domestic upheaval excised what he describes as “all the nonsense”. It focused him to the point where he placed his life in context: to wit, love and family over-ruled songwriting, which he came to view at this time as being something of a trivial pursuit.

“You ask yourself why you are doing it, why are you putting yourself through it. The other thing that happened was that I kind of went into numbness, shock and panic. I mean, how was I going to bring up two kids on my own? So some things went on the back burner, because you’re concentrating on things that are most important – the welfare of the kids and the wife. There was no way I could do gigs or the like at that stage. You just couldn’t.”

FAST FORWARD A year or so, and Cullen and Pony Club are back in the fray with an acclaimed new album, Post Romantic. Like much of Cullen’s previous outings – notably his 2002 album, Home Truths – the latest record hinges on the distinction between the drabness of people’s lives and the little victories that humanity can offer up in the wake of disappointments.

“I thought I’d write a happy album, but that didn’t necessarily work out,” remarks Cullen on the generally sober undertones that mark the album out as being one of the best recent Irish releases. He says the good reviews Post Romantic has received over the past couple of months have spurred him on.

“Some people have been saying that I’m one of the best Irish songwriters of the past 10 years, and when PR people give quotes of that kind to radio and television people, they perk up. I’m sure they might not have thought about me in that way, but then they realise that, yes, I have put out a few albums. They might not have sold any, but that doesn’t mean they’re not any good. Aside from the media aspect, it makes it easier in the general context of in-laws and relations. I mean, sometimes they wonder what I do, and why I spend so many nights out. It’s a vindication, in that it tells them I’m not as much of a waster as they might think I am. So it’s more for that than anything else, to be honest.”

CULLEN PEEKS INTO 2009 as an independent type. His former indie label, Setanta, is no longer around, while any regard he once showed to the major labels has long since dissipated. At one point, he had no label on which to release Post Romantic. “At that point I didn’t care less, because I’d been with so many different labels over the years. I reckoned that someone at some point would put it out; labels are fine, and all of that, but it’s what they do with the music that’s frustrating. I’ve been let down so many times.” Back in the day, when his erstwhile bands Bawl and Fixed Stars enjoyed the largesse of major labels – “Loads of money, taxis everywhere. When the tap is on, drink from it, because it’ll soon be squeezed off to a drip,” Cullen has said of those times – he seemed immune from the cull, if not the cynicism.

“I’ve seen it from different angles – from major labels to indie – and there’s no change. Whether they have loads of money or none, they’re all the feckin’ same. The only people I trust are other musicians, because at least they’re doing it for the right reasons. Anyone who is involved in running a record label and who isn’t a musician is just . . . Let’s just say they’re in it for something, and they know musicians, in a lot of ways, are easy targets.

“Now that I’m older it makes me laugh, but then that’s through the benefit of experience. You wouldn’t have been able to tell me certain things 10 years ago. Back then I was an easy target, but the kind of stuff trotted out by record labels can give you mental problems. I know people who were really affected by being led to believe they were going to be bigger than U2, that kind of stuff. It didn’t happen, of course – very quickly! When you’re telling 18-19 year olds things like that, and that the reason it didn’t happen was because it was their fault . . .”

IT’S ALL GOOD now, though. The balance between his personal life and his creative one has been achieved through being able to alleviate the pressure of work with the pleasure of it. Present Pony Club duties aside, he is collaborating with UK songwriter Ian Broudie on something that he simply terms “songs for other people” (he isn’t telling who these other people might be).

Does he want to be doing this kind of thing for many years to come, then? “What else would I be doing? I’m not an accountant, and I don’t play golf.”

Pony Club’s next single, Diplomat, is out on Feb 6 and Pony Club will play upstairs in Whelans on Feb 6 and 13. Post Romantic is on release through Hum