They both groan when they recall the process now, but it says a lot about Paul Noonan and Daithí Ó Drónaíi's new joint musical endeavour that choosing a name for it was the most difficult part.
“The hope is that you’ll pick something that has enough association to have resonance – but not too much, so that you can fill in those blanks yourself,” muses Noonan over a Zoom call from his Dublin home. “And also, there are so many names that are taken, or bands that have released music on Spotify...”
“Spotify is a nightmare,” agrees his new bandmate. “You think of a good name and then you search for it, and then there’s 20 bands with that name who released one song in 2017. And then you have to think about spelling, and how it fits, and what you can do with it...”
“We liked that there was a friendliness to it,” adds Noonan. “And there’s something a little artificial and goofy about it. People think it might be us trying to speak to lockdown in some kind of deep and meaningful way, but no...”
The pair have joined forces as House Plants, a duo that combines the best of both of their disparate worlds (Noonan is best known for his role fronting indie stalwarts Bell X1, the mononymous Daithí as a producer of electronic music), yet brings something entirely new to the table.
The roots of their partnership began when Noonan guested on a track, Take the Wheel, on Daithí's album L.O.S.S. in 2018. When lockdown hit last year, they had both been busy with different things; Daithí was in Vietnam to play a St Patrick's Day event and had a number of international gigs lined up throughout the year. Noonan had recently completed a music therapy course at University of Limerick "after 25 years of dicking around in a band", and was on a 10-week placement at a Dublin school (which eventually morphed into his family-friendly lockdown project The Electric Kazoo, an homage to the Muppet Show house band The Electric Mayhem). When Noonan sent an email to Daithí, it was as much to connect as a friend than anything else.
“I still had the studio in town and I had loads of ideas that I really wanted to do something with – and having made that tune with Daithí for his last record, I thought it’d be lovely to reach out and do something else,” he explains. “And also, as much as I wanted to flex that creative muscle, it was about just reaching out and saying ‘Howiya’. I think a lot of musicians have been doing that.”
When the producer responded positively, he says, it suddenly became a much bigger prospect. “We hadn’t necessarily seen it as a separate, standalone thing; it was just us living in the moment for those first few tunes,” Noonan says. “And then we thought it deserved more than me guesting on his record, or him guesting on mine.”
Although he has collaborated with many artists over the years, Daithí was the right man to flesh out those half-finished sketches for several reasons. “Being immersed in the music of L.O.S.S., his last record, and seeing Daithí play, I just knew that he gets four-to-the-floor and can execute that classic sound that’s in step with the heartbeat and our very primal instinct to dance,” he nods. “I kind of dicked around with that myself,” he smiles, “but I don’t have the moves.”
A really simple way of putting it was that I was a kick man, and Paul was a snare guy
For Daithí’s part, he was excited to hear from a musician whom he had admired for such a long time. Currently Dublin-based, he spent much of 2020 in his native Clare, renovating an old family home that he and his partner turned into an artists’ retreat called The Beekeepers. Having something creative to work on, he says, was a blessing. With Daithí in Clare and Noonan in Dublin, and restrictions forcing them apart, they would send ideas back and forth via email, but he realised very early on that they were coming from different, yet complementary directions.
“A really simple way of putting it was that I was a kick man, and Paul was a snare guy,” he laughs. “So there’s two very different understandings of how music works; it was always like I was hearing one thing, and he was hearing another thing. I think that’s what made it more than the sum of its parts, as well. And one of the other main reasons for doing it was that we were sitting on our arses, basically, going man, I’d love to be playing live. I’d absolutely love to be out with a proper band doing this as a gig, a sweaty nightclub kind of thing – but with this real nice rock feel to it, as well,” he adds with a chuckle.
“That really excited me and was a really good rule for what we were doing, as well: could you see this going off when you’re playing it in front of an audience?”
The live sound was a crucial aspect to how the album, titled Dry Goods, would ultimately sound. The press release notes how these are songs “made for 2am festival slots” and there’s no question that songs like the euphoric Symmetry and the blissed-out Reveller will hit hard in such a setting. Others, like Window Pane and Mannequin, draw parallels with acts like LCD Soundsystem.
“I think we definitely had some set influences – LCD Soundsystem was a good one,” nods Daithí. “I was thinking about when I first started playing music and how I was blown away by how much Irish audiences, especially, react to dance music with a live band feel. That was such a big influence in my generation, so it felt like a good avenue to go down.”
We joked a lot about it during the process, but we didn't want to make a 'lockdown record'. We didn't want to have this try-hard gravitas of 'let's speak to this moment and forever enshrine it'
Despite the circumstances that engendered it, both are adamant that they don’t want Dry Goods to be a reflection of a gloomy era.
“We joked a lot about it during the process, but we didn’t want to make a ‘lockdown record’. We didn’t want to have this try-hard gravitas of ‘let’s speak to this moment and forever enshrine it’,” says Noonan, rolling his eyes and grinning. “It’s shit, and it’s been shit on so many levels. But we wanted to burst through that with something that spoke to that communal experience of being in a field or in a sweaty room; something that had a heads-up, bright-eyed defiance about it. Something that didn’t wallow. I mean, often my natural habitat is to wallow a little bit, and there’s a few moments of it in there,” he adds, laughing.
“But I think we’re on the right side of that. And also, to be straight about it, it is a lockdown record in a lot of ways: it speaks to elements of our experience at this time, and our yearning for the more visceral shared experience that we’ve lost as a result of it.”
Now that the House Plants partnership has been firmly established, they are both eager to continue it alongside their other creative endeavours. Noonan will soon resume activities with Bell X1, who plan to record a new album with string quartet Dowry Strings whenever restrictions allow them to be in a studio together. Daithí will return to his solo material, work on the follow-up to L.O.S.S. and play live whenever he can. House Plants, it seems, are not destined to be a peculiar pandemic-related footnote in their respective careers. Above all else, it has been a meaningful project to them both, something to focus on when everything else related to their industry has come undone.
“When we first started doing it, we had a conversation going ‘Well, this is just gonna be a really fun thing to do while we’re in lockdown – it’ll be really nice to do’,” says Daithí. “But as it went on, I think when you’re writing music that you’re really proud of, you start feeling a responsibility to do it right. So at the moment, and with the videos and the artwork too, I feel like we owe it to the music to get it out there as much as possible.”
Noonan says: “In terms of it being a lifeline in this time... there were months there where we were quite intensely back and forth, and my phone would ping and I’d have this sort of Pavlovian reaction: Is it Daithí? Has he got a new track for me to listen to? And I’d stick the headphones on and take the dog for a walk, and dream up my response to it. That was such a pure creative joy, albeit at a remove – but I’d catch myself reacting in this way, feeling what I did before thinking about it. And it was a lovely realisation to come to, that it was stirring me at that level.”
“Jesus,” says his bandmate, eyes widening as he grins. “If only everyone I texted had that reaction.”
Dry Goods is released on September 17th.