Perhaps the most surprising bit of music news recently came with the announcement of Derry man Ciaran Gribbin as the new lead singer of iconic Aussie band INXS. Formerly performing under his own moniker ‘Joe Echo’, Gribben has also worked with Madonna and Snow Patrol in the past, but was nevertheless an unexpected replacement for previous singer JD Fortune, who won his place as a reality TV show prize. Gribben’s appointment has been far more organic, with two years of friendship with songwriter and Andrew Farriss and six months of songwriting collaboration preceding the appointment.
When State caught up with Ciaran just after the announcement, the singer was clearly overwhelmed by levels of interest, and still coming to terms with his newfound position. INXS are set to head on tour around the globe, with Ciaran set to perform in front of tens of thousands of people per night. The combination of nerves and excitement is plain to see…
We’ve read a little about the Ciaran Gribbin/ INXS backstory – playing acoustic guitar on a balcony late at night with Andrew Farriss and finding a connection – but how did things progress from meeting and playing a few songs with Andrew to actually fronting the band?
“Andrew Farriss is quite a shy character. He’s not outgoing, he doesn’t really like being in front of the media, he just likes to take a back seat and focus on the music. He’s always been that kind of character. So the two of us, over the last two years, just sort of kept in touch by email, had a few drinks, whatever. We never actually wrote anything, as it didn’t work out the way we were hoping it would do until six months ago, when I got a call from Andrew. He said he had a gap in his diary, did I fancy coming down to Australia and writing some music? It wasn’t ‘we want you to try out as the singer of the band’, or anything like that, that wasn’t even mentioned. We just decided to write and see where it took us. I thought at best, maybe one of the songs might make an INXS album. Andrew’s a world class popstar, and he’s worked with so many stars outside of INXS as well. I think the fact that we were just friends, and it was a natural relationship really, really helped. I’ve been in situations where you’ve flown into London in the morning, met the singer and had to write something that day. It’s not a very natural way to work. I think Andrew and I just felt like we were friends before we started. In the first week writing together six months ago, we wrote five songs, and recorded them as demos. The rest of the band got wind of this, as Andrew was really excited about it. I think that’s when things became a little more solid in the band’s mind, when they began to think that maybe I could be the guy who could be the next singer of this band. Thank God it’s all come together”.
INXS have a bit of an odd history with singers. The fans have had mixed reactions to pretty much everyone since Michael Hutchence. Aside from the Madonna and Snow Patrol work, you’re not a huge name internationally. How do you feel they’re going to take to you?
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit worried about what the fans think. I genuinely was a fan of this band back in the day, when Michael Hutchence was at the height of his career. There are a few moments in my early music education, from the age of ten through to fifteen, a few key moments that influenced me. There’s no doubt in my mind that I was influenced by INXS and Michael Hutchence as a singer in particular. But, you know, I’m not here to try and be a clone, to try and copy everything that Michael did. The fans should know that. What I will do, though, is walk out on the stage and with every passionate bone in my body, sing those songs the way they were meant to be sung. I’ll honour that man, and that period in INXS’ career. That’s a massive part of it, I have to honour that legacy, but we’re also looking to the future, to new music and what we can do as a unit. We’re all very excited about it. I don’t know where it’s going to go – it might go nowhere – no one knows the future. I do know one thing, though, and that’s that we’re enjoying writing new music, and that the band are excited. I’m a firm believer that if you put your heart and soul into something, you’ll get something positive coming back from that. I think the fans will be happy to see new music, and I aim to prove myself to the fans as both a songwriter and a performer. It’s not the easiest job in the world, and I know for a fact that I’ll be criticised left, right and centre by a lot of die-hard Michael Hutchence fans”.
To be fair, the biggest Michael Hutchence fans might criticise anyone who takes his place.
“Yeah. But I’m a straight talker; I’ll call a spade a spade. I definitely wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could do the job, and the band wouldn’t have me, either. That gives me a hell of a lot of confidence. These guys are talking about me in a very positive way, and they’re excited about the music I’m writing with Andrew. They’ve been saying to me in rehearsals ‘that’s fucking great’. They mean it, and these guys have nothing to prove to anybody. They’ve sold 35 million albums. They’ve done it all. After all this time, all the ups and downs, they’re still pushing forward and trying to write new music. That’s honourable in itself”.
You can get a situation that’s almost like a cover band with older acts, but that certainly doesn’t seem to be the case with INXS. Their new track is far from typical…
“I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head. The band members don’t want to be a cover band of INXS. That demo was done in Andrew’s living room, and I was very much on his case about recording it properly in a studio, then putting it out. He wanted to put it out as a demo, and if they like it or not, at least they can see that we’re pushing forward with new music. Playing music to anyone’s very personal, but thankfully the positive responses have been amazing. It’s not a typical INXS sounding song, but if I was coming out sounding exactly like Michael Hutchence, I’d be slated left right and centre for ripping him off. I’m delighted that people feel that it’s different”.
What’s the biggest crowd you’ve walked out in front of before?
“Probably about five or six thousand, when I was in my band supporting Snow Patrol. They were playing to ten thousand, and we were playing to the people walking in. I’m no stranger to walking out on a stage. I’ve done my fair share of gigs, but nothing like this. My first two gigs will be in Peru, to 12,000, and then two days later in Buenos Aires to 30,000. That’s mind-blowing. I just pray I don’t get stage fright”.
Joe Echo used quite a lot of looping and repetition in their sound. Will you be bringing that with you to INXS?
“No. I experimented quite a lot with Joe Echo, but for the last year I’ve focused on writing for other artists, movie soundtracks, that kind of thing. I’ve always had a belief that I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself. I’ve learnt a lot from all those experiences, and I’m very grateful for the people that have been around me. I had an amazing manager, a guy called Bob Young, who believed even when I didn’t believe. He was the one talking me round when I did a shit gig and no one turned up. He told me that I was going to laugh about it in a few years, that I was good enough to keep going. There were many days when I thought ‘fuck this, what am I doing?’”
Are there any specific tracks you’re particular worried about going out and singing?
“I’m not really worried about them. The good thing is that Michael Hutchence voice and my voice are both Tenor voices, so our reaches are very similar. There are songs that are difficult, though. ‘New Sensation’, you’re belting it out for three minutes, and that can take its toll on any vocal, I don’t care how good you think you are. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. I’ve been singing for a long time and – touch wood – I’ve had no major problems with my voice. For me, there are a few key INXS songs – ‘Suicide blonde’, particularly ‘Never Tear Us Apart’, I think that’s one of the best soul records ever. I just think it’s a genius record. It’ll be a dream, and I intend to enjoy it every night. I don’t know how I’m going to feel when the fans are standing looking at us playing new music, as everyone wants to hear the hits, but the band need to move on and push on. That’s what I’m a little nervous about now. It’ll keep me on my toes, that’s for sure”.
You haven’t got an Irish date yet, as far as we can see…
“No, but I’ve been overwhelmed by the support from my friends, my family, people who know me and people who don’t. The general media, industry response in Ireland has been unbelievable. People have latched on to the ‘local boy done good’ side of the story, and they’re really happy for me. I sat last night after doing a full day of interviews and read email after email of positivity coming from Ireland. I’m overwhelmed, and I’m not ashamed to say I almost broke down last night with the sheer goodwill. I can’t wait to play in Ireland, and I told the management, if you book a gig in Ireland now I don’t think it matters where it is, a seriously big crowd will turn up. It might happen before Christmas. If not, I’d be very surprised if we don’t end up in Ireland early next year. But I’ll let the management take care of that side of things”.
How long have you been sitting on this, knowing that it was definite but not able to tell anyone?
“I don’t know, maybe a couple of months? It was unbelievably difficult. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone, as I couldn’t risk it getting out. I kind of knew it was happening a couple of months ago, but at the same time if it had got out, you never know, the band could have turned around and gone ‘you know what Ciaran, thanks very much, but no thanks’. It was a really weird situation having to keep it secret. In a way it’s a massive relief that it’s all come out now and that I can enjoy it. I know it’s not going to be a bed of roses, that there’s going to be a lot of criticism of me, but now I just want to get on with things, to move forward….”