INTERVIEW:He may be relatively unknown at home in Tralee, but Rea Garvey and his band Reamonn regularly fill major stadiums in Germany and Europe. Now, though, he's going it alone, he tells LAURENCE MACKIN
REA GARVEY IS an imposing character, and you wouldn’t miss him in a busy room. He has a tall, broad frame, and a jawline that looks as if it was cut from his native Kerry countryside – and he has the swagger and the handshake of a man used to being the centre of attention.
This is to be expected. His band Reamonn has five albums under its belt which have gone gold and platinum in several countries; in the past few years he has worked with Mary J Blige, Nelly Furtado and Paul van Dyk. He’s on first-name terms with some of the most famous names in music, and when Barack Obama visited Germany in 2008, the band were the opening welcoming act (they even made the US president a ring and named him an honorary band member – rumours of a world tour are wide of the mark, though).
All of this makes Rea Garvey one of the biggest rock stars Ireland has produced. Then how come nobody here knows him, and, while we’re at it, who the hell are Reamonn?
Garvey has the best of both worlds: fame and fortune in his adopted home country of Germany, and then, when he comes home to visit Tralee, he can savour his privacy. “It’s great,” he grins. “It’s not like I planned it that way.”
For Garvey, the main part of what he frequently describes as his ongoing “musical journey”, began around 1997. “I’d been on tour with a band from Ireland in Germany for about four tours there and we recognised straightaway what Germany is: huge audiences; huge fun; a great level of music; not a very productive home market. I thought, well I’ve been working in Ireland for five years and the payoff was one show in the Mean Fiddler and then maybe over to Galway or Cork, which is very limiting.
“Ireland is unforgiving when it comes to music. I recognised that what I did wouldn’t necessarily work in Ireland. It was difficult but it was important for me to recognise that. And then I thought, I have to to get out of here because I’m one of many here, whether or not I was better than others I don’t know. I learned Germany is a very forgiving market and it gave me the possibility to grow as a musician.”
That’s not to say it was a case of simply showing up and demanding a stage, and Garvey was on the verge of packing it all in. “I was at the point of giving up. I was on my way home, I’d been out there for a year and a half and it wasn’t happening,” he says. “Then it just kicked off. Pop at that time in Germany was all Britney Spears, and we released the first guitar single, not rock but definitely organic and people wanted to hear it. It went top five in the charts and suddenly you are doing it.” That song was Supergirl (you’ll know it when you hear it), and since then the band hasn’t looked back.
Germany may have given Garvey his success, but it was Ireland that cut his teeth. “Ireland is the best school of music you can go through. You become very, very conscious of your own ability; you get to a point where you stop believing in yourself. The market is not strong enough to support itself. You really have to want it and you learn about it in Ireland . . . By the time you’ve gone through that you are literally unbreakable, you are bullet-proof.
“I really respect bands like The Frames, and people like Glen Hansard, as you can see how he is developing all these aspect of his work. I did backline for The Frames about a hundred years ago and you could see the drive then.”
Given that his career has been earned, is he dismayed to see the X Factor model becoming something of a standard, at least as far as young, aspiring performers are concerned? “I don’t mean to knock it, it’s entertainment, it’s different than a rock band. The biggest problem with that formula is people have no substance underneath it and they fall like lead in the water.
“I feel really sorry for them, maybe they had the dream and enjoyed it, everyone has their own way. I think my way is definitely dirty clubs, no sleep, lots of touring, back of the bus – between drugs, drink and f**king stupidity, you learn so much,” he grins.
Garvey’s conversation is littered with aphorisms that wouldn’t sound out of place in the kind of business motivational books that airport shops thrive on. There are frequent references to his “journey”. You might not like his music, but spend a while in his presence and you cannot doubt his drive or ambition. Now the journey is going in a different direction, and Garvey is releasing a solo album; and it looks like the end of the road for Reamonn.
“I recognised straightaway that this is my most important album. You have to find yourself again because you get – so this is going to sound pathetic to a lot of other musicians – you get used to success. And you do.
"I still love and feel privileged to walk into a studio, like Sun Studio or Sunset, where Tom Waits recorded Closing Time. . . I only said it to the band about two years ago, 'I don't want to go into the studio with you again' because I'm at that point where it's just not good and if you let success dictate to you what you have to do you're f**ked'. I know people who live from it and earn millions but it's not what I want to do; I want to get on that stage and feel that surge, that nervousness I have about the show. It's great, I live for it."
That surge, though, could be a bit more muted than with Reamonn. Whereas that band regularly sell out venues in Europe the size of Dublin’s 02, on the day we meet, Garvey is due to launch his solo career with a gig in the slightly less grandiose setting of Dublin’s Workman’s Club.
“My wife asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I said I’d love to play a gig in Dublin. And I heard it’s sold out so I’m really chuffed . . . And 250 people can be fairly f**king loud if they’re having a good time. The rest will come, I’m sure of that, if you’re on the right path.”
In fairness, Garvey has the benefit of a thick contacts book and a wide fanbase to launch his solo project on; and then there is that enormous drive and ego. “I’m definitely egotistical about this music, I want to be at my best,” he says unblinkingly.
“You have to have a pure vision and it’s great when you meet other people like U2 or Pearl Jam and recognise that all four or five have the same ego and want the same thing, which is what I had in Reamonn for a long time. Not to be name dropping but I had a conversation with Bono about it one night, and he said ‘the only ego is a band ego’. I definitely want to learn from other people. The journey is only over when you decide not to take it any more.”
Still, even Garvey gets intimidated sometimes and working with Mary J Blige on the song Each Tear “blew me away. Totally, she’s got a huge aura. I walked in and it scared the shit out of me as well. About three people did a duet on the same song with her and I was really relaxed because I didn’t really want anything from her. I only did it because I’m a huge fan of Mary J. When I walked in she was very stand-offish, nice but strange.
“Then we started singing and it was like ice melting. We started singing off each other, it was amazing and at the end of it she started crying. She’s a hugely emotional person and her voice, she really wears it on her sleeve.”
Garvey’s music will never win over the hipster indie kids. Later that night, in the Workman’s Club, he draws on all the craft that has sold out stadiums in Germany for Reamonn to light up this small Dublin space. Every song has a story, usually of a personal nature, and family and God get an awful lot of mentions (not to mention his sister, who is on backing vocals duty). The lighting rig is huge on the club’s tiny stage, the sound is flawless, and the band are lean and well rehearsed. There’s barely a note or clenched, crescendo fist out of place. It’s a huge, rocktastic performance of music that is aimed at the masses, and while it might not be breaking new ground, it is well written, impeccably professional and a terrifically entertaining show.
“Some of the musicians I worked with in New York are working with big people but they were living in shitholes. They were ready to go on the breadline for it, I really respect that,” says Garvey.
But regardless what end of the scale you’re at, it all boils down to hard work. “Ronan Keating, for example, wouldn’t exactly be my taste in music, but I’ve met Ronan a few times and I’ve huge respect for him.
“I never judge people who are in music. If you are there you deserve to be there, somehow or other. There is no unjust success.”
Rea Garvey's solo album Can't Stand the Silenceis out in autumn on Universal