INTERVIEW:In the space of a year, twin sisters Louise and Ellie Macnamara - aka the Heathers - have gone from sneaking into their own gigs to touring the US, not to mention sitting their Leaving Cert exams and recording an album, writes Grainne Faller

DRIVING THROUGH THE Arizona desert on their way to their next gig, Dublin twins Louise and Ellie Macnamara could have been forgiven for pinching themselves to make sure it wasn't all some elaborate dream. Having just finished their Leaving Cert exams, they were now touring the US as Heathers, the band they had formed a mere 12 months previously. 2008 has been quite a year for Heathers and it's not over yet.

A few months later, while recounting all of their experiences in a Dublin pub, it becomes apparent that Louise and Ellie still can't quite believe their luck. They are confident and self possessed, but the occasional hint of bewilderment underlies the conversation. "If you had told me two years ago that I'd even be in a band right now, I wouldn't have believed you," Louise says with a slight shake of her head. "It's all a bit surreal."

Surreal is the word. They have accomplished a lot. You almost forget they're only 18 years old until Ellie mentions that she has her debs the following day. "I can't wait," she smiles. "I love my dress!"

Growing up in the Dublin suburb of Blackrock, a long-held interest in music had been confined, for the most part, to piano lessons and school choirs. Then Louise got herself a guitar. A year later, she wrote her first song. "I went in to Ellie, she was just sitting on her bed and I asked her to put some harmonies on it. Everything just sort of developed from there," she says.

"A lot of our friends are in local bands," Ellie continues. "I suppose you could call it a music scene around Dublin and Bray. Anyway, we started playing gigs around the place as Heathers. Our friends put our stuff up on the internet and it kind of took off."

They were only 17 at that stage. "We had to sneak into our own gigs," giggles Ellie. "We weren't legally allowed into some of the venues we were supposed to play."

Once inside, problems could still materialise. One well-known Dublin venue had particularly diligent bouncers who spotted the girls at the side of the stage during rehearsals. "We had to run and hide in the toilets until it was our turn to play," Louise recalls.

Heathers pricked ears from very early on with their punchy, guitar-led pop. It's heavy on the harmonies and oozes attitude. The songs are immediately catchy and loud, making them impossible to ignore even in the noisiest of venues. All the same, the speed at which Heathers encountered their first break is remarkable.

It was only their third gig. They were one of a number of bands playing with American punk-folk band Ghost Mice and caught the eye of Chris Johnston, a member of that band and head of DIY record label Plan-It-X Records.

Johnston liked what he heard and approached the twins with a proposal. "He basically offered to do a split kind of thing with Hideaway Records over here so that we could record an album. Then a couple of weeks later, he called and asked if we'd be interested in touring with Ghost Mice the following summer," explains Ellie.

Interested in touring? Hell, yes. Louise and Ellie could hardly believe their luck. But there was the small matter of important exams to face.

"Our parents were keen that we concentrate on our Leaving Cert," says Louise. Indeed, the girls had every intention of going to college, but now with the offer of an opportunity to record an album as well as a US tour the summer after the exams, it was going to be a difficult balancing act.

They opted to give it a go, recording their album, Here, Not There in Kilcoole, Co Wicklow two weeks before their mock exams. "Obviously it was a bit stressful," says Louise. "We spent those days sitting in school, then going out to Kilcoole in the evenings and at night to record and then going back to school in the morning. We were writing the last two songs for the album as well. It was pretty hectic."

That, added to the fact that the album launch happened just a fortnight before the actual Leaving Cert, makes it a wonder that they managed to pass any exams at all. "I think we handled things pretty well," says Ellie. "The music sort of acted as a break from schoolwork, and sometimes when you're really busy, it helps you to concentrate when you need to study."

After the exams, having proven their ability to keep both music and schoolwork going, they embarked on the US tour with their parents' blessing. "I think they were just really excited for us by the time it came around," Louise remarks.

Travelling around the western states of the US in a van named Purple Rain, after the Prince song, staying on friends' couches and playing music everywhere they went sounds like a wonderfully exciting hippy existence, but they had a punishing schedule. They played 34 gigs in just 30 days.

"One gig we played in Flagstaff, Arizona, we finished at about 2am and then we had to leave for Denver, Colorado, so we drove through the night and by the time we got to Denver we had an hour before we had to play again," Ellie recalls. "It was amazing though," says Louise. "It was really, really hot. The landscapes were incredible. We got to meet so many people and stay in so many different places you'd just never get to see otherwise."

The band name, inspired by the darkly funny 1980s movie Heathers, caused some confusion on the other side of the water. "When we were in America, loads of people thought we were both called Heather," Louise laughs. "We were like, 'But you know we're twins. What sort of parents would do that?' "

The twin thing has led many reviewers to draw comparisons with Canadian duo Tegan and Sara. "Yeah, I dunno about that," says Louise. "I honestly don't think we sound like them at all," says Ellie. "Maybe the fact that we're twins and they're twins makes it an easy comparison. It's kind of annoying sometimes, although we love them and it is nice in a way, too."

A particular highlight of their time in the US was the opportunity to support Kimya Dawson of the Moldy Peaches. Dawson, whose profile recently rocketed thanks to her involvement in the soundtrack for the film Juno, subsequently asked Heathers to play support for her in the UK as well. "She's so nice!" Ellie and Louise say, almost in unison. They have a habit of finishing each other's anecdotes. "We love her music," says Ellie. "Yeah she made us feel so welcome," adds Louise.

On their return to Ireland, they immediately embarked on a nationwide tour, playing all-age daytime shows as well as evening shows from Dublin to Leitrim to Kerry. "We just want as many people as possible to hear our music," says Louise. "Audiences everywhere have been amazing."

The relentless touring did, however, begin to take its toll. "We had been singing non-stop pretty much since the start of the summer. Our voices were really tired. Around the time we were playing the UK gig with Kimya, we were scared our voices were going to go altogether, but that didn't happen, thankfully enough. We just needed a bit of a rest," says Ellie.

Getting the Leaving Cert results in the middle of all that must have been nerve-racking but the hard work throughout the year had paid off. Louise got a place on NUI Maynooth's music-technology course while Ellie has started studying ancient history in Trinity.

They are juggling college and music at the moment and were in New York last week at the prestigious CMJ Festival in New York. That invitation came about in September when they played at the Hard Working Class Heroes festival in Dublin. The organisers of that event were quick to notice Heathers and invited them to be a part of an Irish showcase they were sending to the festival, along with bands such as The Blizzards and Giveamanakick.

"Yeah, that's a weird one," says Ellie. "The Blizzards are playing all the freshers' events in college and stuff."

They have remained entirely grounded. Despite the buzz that has been generated both here and in the US, they want to experience as much of both the music and the regular worlds as they can. "I'm really hoping we can have the college experience and keep the band going," says Louise. "We're going to gig less for a little while so that we can write songs for a new album."

"We both have Fridays off this year, so hopefully having college and music isn't going to be too difficult," Ellie remarks.

It seems that when people hear Heathers, they listen. They have had an extraordinary number of breaks and opportunities for a band that has only been gigging for a year. What is it about them that makes people listen, sit up and take notice?

"We honestly don't know," says Louise. "I genuinely think we're different from other bands that are out there, but we have been incredibly lucky. We put so much effort into our song- writing."

Ellie nods in agreement. "Everything we write is something that we would like to listen to, but other than that I really don't know what it is," she says.

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