Dermot Lambert: “I have seen the best bands on earth, most people will never hear them”
How Music Works: Niall Byrne talks to Dermot Lambert, formerly of Blink, about his work getting young bands off the ground with Garageland
Dermot Lambert: “If you really really want this, then do it properly.” Photograph: Niall Fennessy/livethroughalens.com
Anyone who has gone through the major label music system and found themselves out on the other side, after being within touching distance of sustainable stardom, might be understandably bitter.
Not Dermot Lambert. As lead vocalist with Blink, he spent much of the 1990s touring in the UK and the US, signed to Parlophone Records and Paradigm and releasing two well-received albums. But when it all came to a halt, as these things to, Lambert, and the rest of the band including his manager brother Aiden, who passed away in late 2015, weren’t bitter.
When Blink’s first deal with Parlophone ended in April 1996, Lambert remembers been impressed by the diplomatic wording of the news.
‘We’re not going to continue with this project,’ it read.
“It wasn’t a big surprise,” says Lambert. “It wasn’t like we sold half a million albums and everyone loves us. We couldn’t change into what they wanted to be and they were having a big breakout with Radiohead at the time.”
Perception vs. reality in the music industry
Sure, there was confusion and uncertainty but Lambert is a pragmatist. His time with Blink didn’t leave him with a great financial stability, so of course, he went and got a regular job. It’s the part of the music story that people don’t like to talk about.
“People think you’re loaded, they see all these accolades and this activity and they think you’re minted. But you’d come home from tour and take whatever bar job you can get. It doesn’t pay for itself without super duper paying for itself. We just never got that far.”
Lambert worked in pubs like Russell’s in Ranelagh when he wasn’t pursuing music. He enjoyed the work. Now and again, someone in a band would come into the bar and Lambert would feel a bit embarrassed being behind the counter serving them.
“People would come in and you’d feel a bit ashamed,” he says. “But then you go, ‘hang on a second, this is reality, this is how it works’.”
Lambert has brought that honest disposition to his work in music since. He’s the creator of the Irish Youth Music Awards (see our previous How Music Works) which encourages young people to get involved in music, he gives workshops in songwriting and is a co-producer of City of Dublin Youth Services Board, who put on once-off stage shows featuring young people. He also is one of the owners of the original wood from the Ha’Penny Bridge, which he’s providing to Fender to make guitars.
For sixteen years, he’s been in charge of Garageland, a gig showcase series under the name The Garage Gigs that was supposed to end with four gigs in August 2000. There has since been more than 1,500 shows in Dublin for showcasing bands of all stripes and artists who have gone through the Garage gigs system include Delorentos, The Script, Kodaline, Niamh Crowther, Ryan Sheridan and Ham Sandwich.
Garageland do all the things that bands starting out don’t know how to do yet: book and pay a venue, hire the backline, stage manager, sound engineer and promote the show through their network and partners (IMRO, Hot Press, 2FM and Garageland’s own 2XM show).
The bands choose a slot: opening, guest or headline slot and the onus is on the band members to get 20, 30 and 40 people to the gig through Garageland’s online platform, which functions like a crowdfunded campaign. Profits after these targets (which pay for the above) then go to the band.
It’s a transparent approach which Lambert extends to his dealings with the band, especially about what may lie ahead.
I’m very careful when I’m talking to bands not to depress them about the realities of music, as it is something worth going after.”
“I’d never say to anyone don’t try it. The experiences are great, if you just take the perceived failures out of the equation, it’s some ride.” Lambert says he’s just trying to give these emerging bands a good footing, grounded in reality, and that most of the issues that come up at Garage gigs come from inexperience and anxiety.
“The bands are really nice to deal with, they’re all mad, their expectations are crazy but if they didn’t they wouldn’t be playing music, rehearsing six times a week, not seeing their friends, saving up to buy a thousand-quid guitar. It’s not sane, I do think it’s very healthy.”
Lambert counsels bands to go their own way, as much as possible, and is skeptical of government grants for music.
“There is an element of, if you really really want this, then do it properly. Tick all your own boxes. Part of doing it properly means showing up and paying for your own rehearsals. You’re not going to walk into Musicmaker and ask for a free guitar are you? Bands have to acknowledge that there’s costs and to face those costs down.”
Dealing with the critics
Lambert knows that dealing with criticism of their art is tough for the an artist, recalling his first band Empty Shell’s first review in Hot Press in 1986.
“It tore the song apart. I could nearly, still to this day, rhyme off how that review went. I know who did it and I hated him for years.”
“Most of the time, people don’t want your advice, they just want you to tell them they’re great,” he says.
As for the future for Lambert, Blink will be playing some gigs this year, he will continue to work with the City of Dublin Youth Services Board, songwriting workshops, do some shifts in a pub to support his family and he is looking to bring Garageland beyond Dublin to Cork, Sligo, London and other cities.
“Most bands split up after their first or second gig, but if you invent the environment that they enjoy at one of those first gigs, chances are they’ll do the fourth and fifth gig and so on.”
Lambert estimates that 5,000 bands have now played the Garage gigs. Not bad for a showcases series for new bands that was only supposed to be four events in total, sixteen years ago. Of course, the reality of being in a band regardless of best intentions or opportunities, is that many of them, no matter how great, don’t last.
“I have seen the best bands on earth, most people will never hear them,” says Lambert. “That’s the bittersweet thing about what I do.”