The captain says
Dublin band Pugwash are finally getting the attention they deserve – a growing fanbase, awards, and a new album on the way. Just don’t call them retro. TONY CLAYTON-LEAreports
EIGHT YEARS ago, Dublin band Pugwash was one of the country’s best-kept secrets. Back then, they were the kind of band (although, in essence, they are the brainchild of Drimnagh musician/songwriter Thomas Walsh) that couldn’t chase the zeitgeist if you had paid them buckets of money.
Perhaps more importantly, Pugwash was also the kind of band – or so you had thought – that wouldn’t get nominated for prestigious awards or wouldn’t see record labels wanting to sign them. Well, eight years have passed, and you know what? You were wrong.
While Walsh still lives in a flat in Crumlin, Pugwash music resides far outside and beyond its origins. Walsh’s all-time hero, ELO’s Jeff Lynne, has been in touch to tell him that he’s a fan of both Pugwash and Walsh’s other musical project, the Ivor Novello Award-nominated Duckworth-Lewis Method (which he co-hosts with Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon). Another of Walsh’s touchstones, XTC’s Andy Partridge, has collaborated with him, co-writing a song ( Here We Go Round Again) on Pugwash’s new album The Olympus Sound, which is released shortly.
Not bad going for a band that was resoundingly sidelined by what he once termed the “No Disco elite”. All that palaver is in the past, though. Over the years, from the 1999 release of debut album Almond Tea, via albums such as Almanac, Jollity and Eleven Modern Antiquities, Walsh has slowly but surely refined his early Beatles/ELO/XTC fixations into something that sounds not so much familiar as simply Pugwash-esque. Let’s put it another way: it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever hear the words “here’s my new musical direction” being uttered by Walsh.
“I’m never going to get the whole innovation thing thrown at me because I’m not like that,” he says flatly. Walsh is looking better than he has ever done. Having lost five stone following a health scare and a period of time in hospital last year – and now off alcohol and junk food – he is conscious of a new level of energy seeping through his body. Certainly, his new album is enlivened by a spritely sense of melody and a sharpened awareness of originality.
“I think the word ‘innovation’ is somehow misused these days. I’m trying to be innovative in the sense that I’m attempting to write original songs that might be talked about in years to come. A lot of people ‘innovate’ in order to have hit songs or to make money, so there’s not a lot of longevity in the thought process. My sense of innovation is to do the best I can to have a hook in every line, and to also do the best I can to get people to remember the songs.
“The retro tag is always thrown at us – Beatles copyists is lazy, I think, in that while a blueprint is being used, at least I try to enhance it, add to it. I don’t wish to come across as silly here, but I always listen to what the fans have to say rather than the critics. And the feedback from people strengthens what I’ve always thought myself – they love the elements of the Beatles, ELO and XTC in our songs. They like the spin and the twist of what we bring to the songs. To my mind, being retro means you’re stuck in the past. I don’t think Pugwash are.”
Does he have any perspective on the past 10 years? “I’ve always wanted to step up to the mark with each record,” remarks Walsh. “ Almond Teawas very low budget, and the second, Almanac, was one that I thought was going to be my last, so I went mental on that one with the way it sounded.”
Walsh’s career was saved, to a large degree, by a 2003 compilation called Earworm, a culling of tracks from Almond Teaand Almanac put together by a Sydney-based record label called Karmic Hits. The album brought Walsh a small but crucial American fanbase, and shortly after he signed to the Dublin label 1969 Records.
Eight years ago, Walsh told this writer that if his music got out to the audience that it should be getting to, it would sell and do very well.
The reason, he posits, why he’s still around is that deep down he’s a musician, and so many people who are in many of the music scenes aren’t.
“They just get into it, trash it out for a while and then find their real niche in serving people drinks or driving a taxi.” If there’s an ouch-factor in that remark, then it probably stems from years of Walsh seeing people who couldn’t sing reaping what he regarded as unjust rewards and critical kudos. But what goes around comes around, and last year’s Ivor Novello Award nomination for the Duckworth-Lewis Method album proved the naysayers wrong.
“It was one of the greatest days of my life,” Walsh says, recalling the awards ceremony in London last year. “There I am, sitting in a room full of people like Neil Sedaka, Paul Weller, Johnny Marr, Noel Gallagher, Graham Gouldman, Annie Lennox. And you’re sitting there as one of them! Ridiculous.”
Also in the room was Simon LeBon, who was the person chosen to announce the winner of the best album. “He came over to our table and told us that he loved the album and that him and Yasmin played it whenever they were on their yacht.
“And there’s me, from Drimnagh, drinking champagne! At noon!”
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“He never cared what people thought, and he made consistently brilliant music. He hates doing interviews, and I love the fact that he just wanted to let his music do the talking. He sent me a letter, did you know that? He said some lovely things about my music, which blew me away.”
“There’s an argument that Mull of Kintyre is the greatest ever punk song. Why? Because when McCartney released that song, punk had become the establishment. So he never cared, either, what people thought of him. He just wants to make brilliant pop music – I love him, he’s a genius.”
“He could make melodies out of nothing. Every time I listen to certain of his songs I get goose pimples. You might see a clip of Imagine now and again, and each time it’s emotional. There are very few artists that can do that to you.”
“His music is like pop DNA, yet he recorded so many of them so badly. All these artists at the time – in the early-mid 60s – had the best of the period’s recording facilities, but he just went into the little Pye studios and put so many songs down. His demos are better than most people’s fully recorded output.”