I meet Cathal Cully in a chain coffee shop that rhymes with “zero”. It’s a completely tenuous link to why we’re both here, but I’m sticking with the idea that it’s a piece of startling synchronicity.
The head Girls Name and, most recently (and the reason why we’re meeting) the brain behind the very freshly released Structures and Light is in affable form. And he has 11 good reasons to be cheerful. Labouring semi-anonymously under the moniker of Group Zero (zero? Geddit?? Never mind) Cully’s debut solo work is a hugely enjoyable collection of carefully crafted and glistening electronic instrumental offerings. The influences aren’t far from the shimmering surface (take Cluster, Optimo Music and good old/new Kosmicher Laufer just for starters), but they’re expertly panel-beaten to fit Cully’s idiosyncratic musical vision.
While these 11 tracks may be possessed of a glimmering and austere electronic lustre, amidst the clipped beats, drones, insidious repetitions and general subtext of unease, there are little moments of organic warmth, and more than a few surprises. When the lovely jangling discord of guitars enter stage right on ‘Love and the Present’, there’s a sense of release from the prevailing tension. It doesn’t last long, but just long enough to further appreciate the subtle varieties of light and shade within the album. Elsewhere, ‘Pummelling Repetition Inside’ sounds like a mind in the process of being broken by endless perfunctory, patterned behaviour. And catchy. ‘Saturnine Adoration’, meanwhile, is minimal, low, menacing, moreish.
But enough personal rumination. With the fourth Girls Names album currently in post-production (or as Cathal jokingly puts it “mixing hell”) Structures and Light has been a labour of love from a Belfast bedroom for Cully. The Group Zero project, which he says started as “a kind of hobby”, has now taken on something of a life of its own. “It came about originally with me having some downtime, and wanting to play around with a few things for my own pleasure,” he explains. “I set up a kind of studio space in my house. What I had initially was this big old German Wersi organ, which I ran a load of pedals through and a drum machine. It sounded really great and that organ served on a good bit of the record, but one day, it just went up in smoke. Completely burned out. It made a great sound too – wish I’d been recording it.”
This “downtime” DIY tinkering would have most likely have remained on Cully’s hard drive if it weren’t for his next-door neighbour, who just happens to be Mark Reid of (music label) Touch Sensitive.
“It really was originally a personal thing for my own personal consumption. A way to unwind for me. Mark, who lives next door heard the racket I was making and was intrigued. He asked me for some stuff, and I gave him a few things I’d been working on. His response was so positive that I thought at that point it was perhaps worth pursuing. I was thinking it was probably an EP, but Mark said there was definitely an album in this, so I just gave all this stuff to him and said fire away. And here we are.”
In spite of the somewhat haphazard manner in which Structures and Light came into being, there is a thematic consistency to the album, a kind of queasy musical narrative arc to the thing. I suggest to him that there’s something of a filmic quality to Structures and Light – perhaps like a soundtrack from an existentially bleak 80s heist movie, possibly directed by Michael Mann.
To his credit, he doesn’t laugh until the coffee he’s drinking is spluttering out his nostrils. “Yeah, there’s maybe a pair of tracks sequenced in a filmic way. ‘Pyramid of Light’ and ‘Love in the Present’ – they run together on the album. They have a lot of movement. That’s the thing about the album really, there may be repetition and a linear quality, but there’s also movement. There is a bit of an arc. Those two in particular I felt could work in a visual context.”
He does agree, however, that this is a coherent album, as opposed to a random collection of tracks. “I do think it’s complete and the songs are there. I wasn’t going to make a dance, techno, or house album. In fact I wasn’t trying to make a record in the first place. There is also a couple of tracks you could argue would be on a weird leftfield dancefloor. Melody and to a certain extent song structure wasn’t necessarily a priority.”
One of the joys for the Girls Names front man, he explains, was going back to basics, and messing around on his own with production techniques, finding new ways of applying sonic shade and texture.
“Over the years, the (Girls Names’) creative process has become completely collaborative, but in a kind of disparate way. Somebody would take an idea home, work on it then bring it back to the group. Writing this was a case of going back to me alone, but not sitting down with a guitar as I would have years ago. I was kind of bored with guitars. I just needed to clear my head from all that. I also loved the process of finding ways of making new kinds of noise.”
He also insists there was no desire at any point to sing, although on some tracks, the listener is tempted to imagine what they might sound like with a distinctive Cathal Cully top melody. “Nope. No interest whatsoever,” he says straight out. “I wanted to immerse myself in something that wasn’t the day job, so to speak.”
Group Zero and indeed the title Structures and Light are direct references to the post-war art movement founded by Heinz Mack and Otto Peine. Using the word “zero” in this case represented for them, “a zone of silence and of pure possibilities for a new beginning.”
When it came to choosing a name for the project, Cully says that he felt a lot of resonances. “First of all it’s just a great name. I like the no-wave feel to it. Also, the idea of Group Zero has a sense of starting from scratch, dismissing everything that’s come before.” It also resolved the dilemma of having to formally release under his own name. “We actually discussed whether or not I should even be mentioned in it. On the 11th hour I thought, should it be a Cathal Cully record? But I’m glad we settled for Group Zero. It was always going to be a Group Zero record really.”
Now this accidental project is officially released, does he see Group Zero having life beyond Structures and Light?
“Who knows? I said to Mark, I’m happy to put it out, but I don’t want to do it live. I feel that Structures and Light has been done now. Some tracks are four years old, others two years old. There are tracks I’ve been working on since, that I might do something with, but I’m slightly wary about doing anything live. There’s enough men with laptops on a stage. Having said that there’s enough men with guitars on stage! I’m not in a hurry to add to them just for the sake of it.”
Coffees quaffed, and me having made it through the interview only saying “Ground Zero” once, the subject of the forthcoming Girls Names’ album comes up.
“The last one was huge sounding, so we’re looking to wind that down a bit. The new Girls Names record is a weird one actually. It’s doing my head a bit at the moment, but only because the mixing process takes so long! There’s definitely electronic elements and a couple of weird U-Turns. So nearly there but so far away…” he laughs.
For the immediate present though, Cathal Cully seems quite content to be Group Zero.
“It’s all a bit surreal to be honest,” he says on the way out, “but a nice little bonus at the start of the year.” Couldn’t have put it better myself…