Gilla Band: Renamed, refreshed and ready for anything

Dublin musicians explain the change and how they’ve coped with The Irish Times awarding them Best Irish Album of All Time

A well-known American music publication once suggested that the music made by Gilla Band sounded like it was “recorded in a meat locker under a fallout shelter”. The Dublin band’s rehearsal space, situated in an inner-city industrial estate most politely described as “ritty”, isn’t too far off that mark — at least from the outside.

“One of the buildings used to be a slaughterhouse, right?” says guitarist Alan Duggan, looking to his softly-spoken bandmate Dara Kiely. He grins. “So they were almost right.”

The pair are perched on chairs in a room that acts as both their rehearsal space and — at least for the recording of their superb third album, Most Normal — their studio. Alongside an insane collection of pedalboards and a selection of guitars that would make Jimmy Page weep, a disc hangs on the wall celebrating sales of their last album, 2019′s The Talkies.

It was such a lovely gesture, and it was very cool. We bring it up a lot — I drop it into conversation way too much

“And this is our awards shelf,” says frontman and lyricist Kiely, gesturing to a cluttered cubbyhole holding an out-of-date Easter egg, several Choice Music Prize nominee awards, and a silver cup given to them by their label. “Presented to Girl Band by Rough Trade Records for Winning at Being Girl Band,” Kielys reads, grimacing. “Well, we probably don’t qualify for that any more.”

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Last November, having operated under the moniker Girl Band for most of their career, the noise-rock four-piece (including bassist and producer Daniel Fox and drummer Adam Faulkner) issued a statement announcing they would now be known as Gilla Band. “We apologise for choosing a misgendered name in the first place and to anyone who has been hurt or affected by it,” it read. “When we were starting off it was chosen without much thought, from a place of naivety and ignorance.”

The backlash from some quarters, says Duggan, was expected. “We knew there was gonna be a load of people saying “Fuckin’ woke, PC bullsh*t, blah blah blah” — that was always gonna happen,” he nods, adding that an article published on defunct website The Establishment ( “Are Mis-Gendered Band Names ‘Ironic’ Or Sexist?”) clarifies the rationale behind their decision.

Originally, the album’s concept was envisaged as the soundtrack to a dream, inspired by the imagery of The Sopranos and Twin Peaks

“I think that expresses the argument a lot more eloquently than we could; it gets into the more linguistic elements of appropriation and that kind of stuff,” he says. “When we read that, we went ‘Okay, that makes sense’ and it was harder for us to justify keeping the name. But there was no real pressure; it’s not like we were getting protests outside gigs, or anything. It was more like ‘We don’t feel comfortable with this — let’s change it.’”

Then there was #ListGate in 2020 — the infamous Irish Times list that crowned 2019′s The Talkies as The Best Irish Album of All Time, and sparked a fierce debate on Twitter (Kiely is not on social media, he says, so missed the kerfuffle.) “It was flattering, for sure,” says Duggan, but adds that they are wary of believing their own hype. “I mean, [The Irish Times] said that, but another publication probably gave it two stars,” he shrugs, smiling, “so it’s easier not to listen to anything. I think we just always try to just make sure we’re really happy with what we have.”

“It was such a lovely gesture, and it was very cool. We bring it up a lot — I drop it into conversation way too much,” jokes Kiely. “But yeah — it’s like when you’re playing a gig and everyone’s going mad, then you see one person in the second row, just texting the whole time. You can’t take it too seriously.”

For the making of Most Normal, Gilla Band became a more insular unit through necessity, rather than design. Their last gig took place in Cork just days before the pandemic was declared in March 2020, leaving them with more time and space than anticipated to craft their third record. They formed their own bubble whenever restrictions were lifted, buying recording equipment in a bid to become self-sufficient. Often, they would work alone or in pairs, building the record bit by bit; a marked difference from their previous recording technique.

“We thought ‘Well, if we have that stuff, Daniel is a professional engineer so we can just continuously make records for free,” explains Duggan. “I think that informed the approach to writing, as well. For The Talkies and Holding Hands with Jamie, it was ‘Okay, now we have all these songs finished, let’s go and record them properly.’ Whereas with this, the writing process was also the recording process.”

Kiely also changed the way that he wrote lyrics this time around. Although his hero Leonard Cohen remains an enduring influence — alongside John Cooper Clarke and the comedy of mid-1990s-era Eddie Izzard — installing recording software program Logic on his laptop opened up a new world.

“I’d get the demos of the instrumentals and I’d work on them at home — just doing an infinite amount of vocal takes,” he nods. “Before, I’d get a demo with all of us playing, and I’d see what the melody was and write to that. And then we’d get to the studio, and it’d be like ‘Right, Dara, you have three hours — finish it’,” he smiles. “But this was really cool, because the guys were able to say ‘Maybe you should do this, or drop this lyric, or put something else in’.”

On The Talkies, Kiely avoided using pronouns in his lyrics. His contributions to Most Normal take a more personal approach and the album’s final track, Post Ryan, was the “most direct” thing that he has ever written. With lyrics like “I’m in between breakdowns / Constantly in recovery” and “Took it all for granted / Gonna end up homeless / I hid behind the surreal” it is both confessional and cathartic, addressing his previous mental health problems. He says he was “terrified” playing it to his bandmates for the first time.

It’s tricky going on to your fourth, because there aren’t many bands who make more than three really good records — loads of bands seem to nosedive after that point

“I left this room and went outside and played it, and they were like ‘Yeah, it’s good!’,” he recalls, chuckling. “So that opens up a different type of thing that can be in my arsenal for the next record. If I hadn’t [written that song], I think I’d be very reluctant to do that again. But they were so cool and supportive about it.”

There is a dreamlike quality to much of Most Normal that was no accident, best heard on songs like Gushie, The Weird and Backwash. Originally, the album’s concept was envisaged as the soundtrack to a dream, inspired by the imagery of The Sopranos and Twin Peaks, while the production values of contemporary hip-hop albums like Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs also had an influence. They eventually drifted away from that idea as they worked, but admit that it did open up new creative avenues, where — similar to a dream — there were no rules or linear patterns.

Their inability to go out and road test new material live also had a trickle-down effect. “We kind of purposely decided ‘Let’s not worry about trying to recreate these live’, so there’s lots of songs that have two or three basslines or guitar lines going,” Duggan nods. “Whereas before, we were relatively against that — definitely for the first record. Although now, we’re like ‘F**k. How are we gonna do this live?!’,” he laughs. “We’re figuring them out, but some of them are proving quite difficult. It’s like ‘Okay ... I don’t have enough hands’.”

The prospect of returning to touring once again may have proven daunting at one point, particularly for Kiely. The band cancelled tours in the past, citing “health issues”. Now, however, he says that he is looking forward to getting on the road again.

“I’m in a really good place,” he says, smiling. “In the last five years, everything’s been pretty smooth, in that regard. I have a really cool girlfriend, I have really nice friends, and I’m very grateful about things. I’m just taking it day by day. I did practice mindfulness an awful lot to get through that stuff, and I got into painting and writing music on my own. And now I give shouting lessons to people,” he says, adding that he also went back to college to gain a qualification in peer support for mental health in recent years. “I just kind of looked after myself a bit better, and knew my limits a bit more. So I’m in a good place. Peace of mind is near.”

Seeing acts like Nick Cave and Bjork continuing to make vital music into their fifties and sixties is inspiring, they both agree, and they intend to do the same with Gilla Band, despite not being able to make a living solely off their music. This album, says Kiely, feels like a step in the right direction — wherever they go next.

“I don’t like listening to The Talkies that much,” he admits. “I’m very proud of it, but it’s very heavy; it’s a tough listen. It’s bleak! But this was just such a lovely experience, to develop with each other.”

“It’s tricky going on to your fourth, because there aren’t many bands who make more than three really good records — loads of bands seem to nosedive after that point,” adds Duggan, laughing. “So the next one’s kind of important. But I feel the same now as I did after all the other records: ‘Okay, cool. What are we doing next? What did we learn? How can we improve?’”

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Most Normal is released on October 7th. Gilla Band play the National Stadium on December 9th

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy is a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She writes about music and the arts for The Irish Times