THE SUN IS setting as Girls Names finish their set on Primavera Sound’s Vice Stage. Frontman Cathal Cully stalks offstage amid a hail of feedback, followed by drummer Neil Brogan, bassist Claire Miskimmin and guitarist Philip Quinn. Cathal sticks around to enjoy the free beer while the rest of the band load their gear onto a minibus waiting to take them to their hotel.
Just as they are about to set off, a tall, skinny stranger, who has just played a set on the adjacent stage, boards the bus. The band recognise him instantly and introduce themselves. “Oh, you’re Girls Names?” he says. “Everyone is talking about you guys!” The man is Bradford Cox, of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound, one of American indie rock’s most iconic figures.
Considering that three-and-a-half years ago, Neil couldn’t play the drums, Claire had never played bass and Cathal had never even been in a band, the Girls Names’ tale is a remarkable success story.
YOU CAN LOOKdown on Parc del Forum from the plane as you approach El Prat airport, picking out the enormous solar panel right beside the sea and the triangular Auditori del Forum concert hall. The concrete-covered site is no less spectacular, albeit a bit brutalist, close up. Sharon Van Etten may call it “the ugliest place I have ever seen!” from the main stage, but it’s a dramatic place to spend a weekend watching music, and every May it’s thronged with tens of thousands of music obsessives from all over Europe. They come to hear the cream of the left field – from Wilco to Godflesh, Beach House to Iceage, The Cure to John Talabot. And Shellac. Every year, Shellac.
When I meet Girls Names at their hotel before their first shows of the weekend, they are in good spirits, wide-eyed about their palatial rooms, the huge meals they’ve just had and the novelty of seeing Christopher Owens from Girls sauntering through the foyer. After two weeks touring Europe in a cramped van, this is a taste of the good life.
“We saw loads of excellent bands on the first night,” says Claire. “Thee Oh Sees were amazing,” says Cathal. “Claire brought me to see Refused and I’m a convert. We saw Lower Dens as well, I was really excited about seeing them.”
With their moody, post-punk sound and releases on small but respected US and UK labels such as Slumberland, Tough Love and Captured Tracks, Girls Names sit well on a bill with these bands and even, as Cathal tentatively ventures, The Cure. They also have plenty of drive and initiative, from sending demos to Brooklyn’s Captured Tracks and ending up with their first EP release in 2010, to securing a spot on the Primavera Sound bill.
“We actually just emailed them and asked,” says Cathal. “Neil asked a band that was playing last year how you go about playing Primavera and they gave him the email address for the main organiser.”
“Within half an hour he came back with an offer,” says Neil. And how did you react? “What do you think?” he laughs. “Fucking hell! I sent that email without even expecting that we would get a reply – it’s a dream to play something like this.”
Tour manager Jim appears in the background – it’s time to get on the bus to the festival site. We all pile in and Cathal fills me in on how Girls Names went from nothing to playing one of the world’s best festivals in next to no time. He and Neil met through mutual friends – it never takes long in Belfast – and initially talked about forming a Beat Happening covers band. Soon after, a promoter friend needed a support band for a gig he was putting on and asked them to play.
“We just thought, ‘fuck it, let’s throw some stuff together’,” recalls Neil. “We had a practice and thought it might work. I mean, I didn’t even play drums at that stage, I just had some drums.”
That gig in early 2009 was their first, and would lead to the duo cutting their teeth with a variety of like-minded touring bands – Sic Alps, Lovvers and Times New Viking among them. They were joined in 2010 by Claire on bass and more recently by Philip on guitar and synth.
Like Two Door Cinema Club, Girls Names have never aligned themselves too closely with the much-vaunted Northern Ireland scene, preferring to look to London and the US. And here they are, playing one of the world’s most prestigious festivals. Is that a coincidence?
“We’ve gone from the outside of it because of the stuff we were into at the start,” says Cathal. “I’m not down on anything at home, I just keep myself to myself. It’s great that we’re not a big band in Belfast but we come and do these things – we’ve been on tour in Europe for two weeks and we have an amazing label in America and an amazing one in London. We’re lucky in that it was a time and a place.”
After a minor Spinal Tap moment when we are mistakenly dropped off at the main stage, we carry the band’s gear through the (mercifully sparse) crowd watching local band Refree to the little Ray-Ban Unplugged tent for the first of today’s two shows. By the time the band are ready to start, it’s packed and sweltering, and by the time they have finished, middle-aged men in Joy Division and Smiths T-shirts among the large crowd that has outside listening from outside are nodding appreciatively.
An hour later, I am at the Vice Stage for the main Girls Names show. Cathal announces his arrival with a “Hola Primavera. We’re from Belfast. We’re gonna play some new songs.”
There are hundreds of people there despite the fact that Atlas Sound are playing metres away, and it’s a beautiful, surreal moment to be watching this band looking and sounding so at home on a big stage in the Barcelona sun, far from the dingy Belfast bars they are used to.
AFTER I ARRIVEhome, I catch up with Cathal – by now somewhere in France – on the way home. “It’s been a bit of a blur since I last saw you,” he says, and he talks enthusiastically about the city park show the day before that I had to miss in order to catch my flight. “It felt like a party, you know? It was really laid back. We were all hungover from Saturday but it was really good fun. I couldn’t believe the crowd that was there. We had a good celebration afterwards.”
The Primavera Sound shows marked the end of a successful tour that consisted of headline gigs in Manchester, London and Brighton and a European run supporting Cloud Nothings and Beach Fossils. It must have whetted your appetite, I say. “Yeah, Primavera was like another world,” says Cathal. “You get a taste of these things, bit by bit, and you want more.”
If a certain Mr Cox is to be believed, Girls Names are going the right way about it.
What We’ve Learned:
A not-so-serious guide for Irish festivals hoping to catch up
1. The Weather
There really is nothing like basking in sunshine during the day and staying warm all night as you stroll from stage to stage. Ireland, you’re going to have to up your game on this one.
2. The Location
Sea Sessions has the seaside location and Forbidden
Fruit has the city centre convenience, but Primavera Sound has both. Find a way to combine the two and youre laughing.
3. The Prices
€4.50 for a pint really is rather reasonable, especially considering the Spanish prefer to sup daintily from a half. Then again, do we need the young ones horsing even more into them over the course of a weekend? It’s a conundrum.
4. The Sound
Obvious? Perhaps. But only one stage at Primavera ever suffered from any sound problems this year, and take it from someone with knackered ears, that’s an absolute godsend.
Let’s face it, a night listening to bad techno from a ghetto blaster, interspersed with tuneless renditions of Wonderwall, is no one’s idea of a good time, with the possible exception of the bastards responsible. Down with roughing it.
Best of the fest: Primavera performances that blew us away
It was a touch ironic hearing Dennis Lyxzén (right) scream, “I’ve got a bone to pick with capitalism!” to a backdrop of beer branding, but the reformed punks’ anti-establishment lyrics mean as much now as they did when the band split in 1998. We may well need New Noise, but the old noise is still electrifying.
Everything about M83 is big, and the enormous Mini stage was, for them, a fitting canvas on which to paint. A few more of the “hits” might have been welcome (no Kim Jessie?) but Anthony Gonzalez has plenty of good material to choose from, not least the closing one-two of Midnight City and an ecstatic Couleurs. Heart-swelling stuff.
3. Demdike Stare
This doom-laden electronic duo are the precise opposite of M83 – nightmarishly dark music that drives thoughts inwards, not out. Thus there are no hands in the air at the ATP stage – just eyes trained on the creepy visuals and bodies contorting helplessly to the viscerally powerful sub-bass. Mighty.
4. Trash Talk
The Sacramento punks prove even more powerful with their meaty, almost metallic riffs and thunderous rhythm section. Frontman Lee Spielman commands and cajoles the crowd, spending as much time on our side of the barrier as his, and making sure every single person there feels part of it – including bassist Spencer Pollard’s parents, here to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Ahhh.
There’s no better way to finish a festival weekend than dancing with thousands of people as the sun comes up, and Paul Rose obliges with a huge set of big-room techno. Classy and crowd-pleasing all at once, the man goes from strength to strength.