In 2007 my friend Paul Clancy connected with me on Facebook. In the "how we know each other" section he wrote: "Shared a rich fantasy life for many years."
Paul and I and our friend Daragh Keogh were in a band for 10 years. It was a folie à trois . We called ourselves the National Prayer Breakfast after a political event in the US of which we had little understanding. (Most of our political knowledge came from US fanzines and anarcho-punk bands, not from anything as mundane as "the news".) After a while the name was abbreviated to the NPB, because people kept mispronouncing it when we rang looking for gigs. "The Nashville Perv Basket?" said one Limerick booker.
We didn’t really know how to be a band. We could barely play. At early practices Paul used a suitcase as his bass drum. I played in one time signature, Daragh another. We drank endless cups of instant coffee in a rehearsal studio on Parnell Street in Dublin, overused distortion pedals and screamed. We were very loud, and our ears rang all the time.
We loved the idea of being in a band. We created our own little world. We designed odd posters and put them up around town before we ever had gigs. (We incurred littering fines.) Paul and I scoured charity shops for stage clothes. (A brown velvet suit? Marching-band jackets?) We found a £100 Casio keyboard and used it on everything. (The best setting was Vibraphone, which we used on our politically confused song Gun Control .) We had stage names: Kinky, Bim Bim and Donut; then Wayne Freyne, Lance Clancy and Jobey-Joe Keogh. We wrote fantastical stories about ourselves and included them in fake newspapers we made and distributed at gigs. We put on posh, American, and British accents in interviews. I have no idea why. I found a recording of an old radio interview recently, and I sound insane.
We were inspired by everything. We read a lot and randomly rhymed things we barely understood for lyrics. ("I'll swap your aesthetics for morphogenetics!" I sang on a song called The Karl Marx Experience .) We named songs after people we liked: Manu Chao, Kim Novak and Schubert. None of these songs was about the person it was named after. We produced "hymn books" filled with lyrics and cartoons. We sent unfinished tapes and bizarre pamphlets to celebrities and scenesters. I once got a phone call from a confused BP Fallon. "Why did you send me this?" he asked. "I don't know," I said.
Ballroom of romance
We put on daytime gigs in places like the Ierne Ballroom and the Funnel. The
latter was in the docklands. Outside, in the IFSC, a new breed of aspirational, besuited young Dubliner was mastering the universe, but we didn’t notice, busy as we were distributing free sweets and encouraging people to play the board games a friend had liberated from a toyshop.
We jumped around a lot on stage, which sort of made up for the fact that we weren’t playing particularly well. We played with bands such as Das Madman (who became The Jimmy Cake), Bobby Pulls a Wilson and Palomine (containing a future member of The Chalets). They got good reviews from the zines that covered such things. We did not. “I don’t get it,” said an unimpressed reviewer. What’s there to get, I wondered, as I handed out cups of melted ice cream to teenage gig-goers.
We were, at this point, unwitting outsider artists. I had a handlebar moustache. Paul had a rat’s tail. Daragh wore his hair in little bunches.
We became obsessed with being excluded from "the scene", but in reality we had an extended family of creative friends helping us, and a cadre of musicians who played with the band for spells of time: Paul Connolly, Jeremy Smyth, Mark Palmer, Richie Murphy, Frances Mitchell, Anna Carey, Angeline Morrison, Hugh Rodgers. Around this time the then pirate radio station Phantom FM latched on to one of our songs, Feeding Frenzy , thanks, I think, to my yelling "Pirate station!" on it at regular intervals.
We made a video in which we pretended to rob the late-night garage where Paul worked. The real police were called. “Be more careful with your ‘art’,” said the sergeant angrily.
One day we got a phone call from a drumming schoolboy called James Byrne. He'd heard us on Phantom, and his band, Deputy Fuzz, were making an album with an eight-track recorder. We put it out on our label, Catchy Go Go Records. We started releasing records by other artists – 46 Long, Adrian Crowley, Herm – alongside our own.
Just like Motown
Our headquarters was a house Daragh and I shared in north Dublin. We aspired to be like Motown and got our address listed in international music-industry directories. People sent us tapes. Once we were visited by two Norwegian musicians who were perplexed to discover that Catchy Go Go Records was just some scruffy young men in a red-brick terraced house. I was sporadically on the dole.
We worked hard – harder than our friends with real jobs. We wanted to create and to be successful and to mean something. Being part of a band is all about wanting, really. So we had big theatrical fights about what we wanted and stood for. Once we argued into the night about whether we would accept money from Guinness to do an ad. (“It would be a lot of money.” “But they’re a corporation!” “But we drink Guinness.”) Incidentally, Guinness had not offered us money to do an ad. We just thought it was an important principal that needed to be argued about.
We churned out hundreds of songs, losing ourselves in eight-track overdubs in a big garage in Paul’s family home. We made punk songs and swing songs and country and hip hop. We’d raid the Clancy family fridge while pontificating about anarchism and far-left politics. We had notions.
Paul’s lovely dad advised us to start pensions and to think about the future. He was clearly worried; he’d inherited two new adult mouths to feed several days a week. We did think about the future, but in it we were politically correct DIY millionaires – like Fugazi , only rich. I never started a pension.
Still, we had more bureaucracy than the Civil Service. We took minutes at exhaustive daily band meetings. We would censure each other for breaking step sartorially. "Was that an appropriate shirt choice, Jeremy?" we'd say, in what amounted to a show trial. Daragh had a hardback ledger filled with impressive to-do lists, charts and financial calculations. His mathematical projections were based on magical thinking, but he made them sound reasonable. He convinced us to tour Britain five times with no money. He took to wearing a cowboy hat like JR Ewing in Dallas .
We slept on couches and travelled in a hatchback and a minivan that had been illegally made to look like a police car. Our friend Ian, who drove the latter, didn't have an operational driving licence. On one occasion he and Daragh were detained by customs at the ferry port in Holyhead, in north Wales, until Ian convinced them that driving legislation was more lax in the colonies. "They're basically racist," he concluded.
Being on tour with your friends is like running away with the circus. And, like running away with the circus, I thoroughly recommend it. We played to five people in Cardiff, three in Manchester and a full house in Dublin Castle, a pub in Camden. We watched the sun set over cornfields from a trailer in Oxford. In a moonlit bay in Cornwall we swam in a phosphorescent sea. We sang karaoke with a Roy Orbison lookalike in Penryn. We marvelled at Britain's many motorway service stations. In Camden, Daragh and Paul spent the tour budget on designer trousers that looked like chaps. "They go with the cowboy hat," Paul explained. Back home I ordered an impractical tailor-made white suit. Several sweaty gigs later it could walk from car to venue by itself.
We got good UK reviews and worked with a major producer called Gordon Raphael, but our English manager said we weren't rock'n'roll enough. That night one of us drunkenly threw a bottle across a crowded area backstage at a Soundtrack of our Lives gig. The next night our guitarist was ejected from The Hives' after-show party and was chased by security guards through Hyde Park. We were nothing if not committed.
Our experiments with rock’n’roll behaviour stopped there. There are no my-drug-hells in this story.
Being in a band is intense enough without chemical interference. People typically first form bands at the same time they’re detaching from their families. So a band is basically a surrogate family, and, like family, roles take hold and become difficult to break from. In the early days we all swapped instruments and sang. By our third album I was the singer and guitarist, Daragh was the bass player and Paul was the drummer. We also fell into personality traps. I was the stressed-out, wisecracking one, Daragh was the organised, serious one, and Paul was the calm, creatively unpredictable one. These identities started to chafe. We fought constantly. (Well, me and Daragh fought. Paul sighed.) And things were complicated by other problems. We had grown-up relationships, but none of us had a proper job. It was starting to worry us. We argued our way through the production of our final album. It wasn’t nice. Our friendship nearly ended.
We stayed friends. We got through it. We called the record Let's Work I t Out . When you start a band you're basically hooking your hopes and aspirations to other people. This is a lovely thing when you're in your rootless, directionless 20s. I got to spend 10 years making things with people I love. And when I listen to the music we made now – all three albums of it – it feels like it was someone else. It's not me. It's the product of a hive mind I can no longer tap into.
The end of NPB
The NPB came to an end in 2004, but it really ended in 2010, when Paul died. The three of us had started playing music together again. Paul had just completed an album of his own. My last conversation with him was about music. Two days later, at 7am, my phone rang. It was Daragh, telling me that Paul was dead. There was something wrong with his heart. That's a bigger tragedy than can be contained in a story about a minor Dublin indie band.
Upstairs in my attic I have hundreds of cassettes. On those tapes are interviews and eight-track recordings and rough mixes and rehearsals. On many of them, amid the guitar hum and snare hits, there are snippets of forgotten conversations, laughter, arguments and schemes. I started playing them recently. More than our albums, listening to those tapes is like listening to being 25, to being in a band.
After a while I had to stop. It was three young men talking about music in the 1990s. Their conversations were bigger than I could handle. Their dreams were bigger than I could handle. I’m a different person now. I’m not in a band. I don’t know if I’ll listen to them again.