Hazy indie-pop rockers Columbia Mills are an Irish band to watch out for in 2018. Drenched in heavily reverb-soaked guitars and packed with indelible hooks, the band’s debut LP has met acclaim since its release in late 2017. We caught up with lead singer-songwriter Fiachra Treacey to discuss the band’s upward trajectory. Treacey talks of how a modest encounter with a homeless man inspired an album track and of the power of independence and song-writing as a coping mechanism.
The band will embark on a tour of the UK and Ireland in March and will release a much anticipated follow-up sometime next summer.
In what way would you say the band’s sound and direction has evolved since the Factory Settings EP?
I think we have always developed the sound as we have gone along. Something I have always been conscious of was to tie everything we do together in some way with subtle changes in the sounds of each song throughout the EPs. From the first song on the first EP (‘Never Gonna Look At You The Same’) and culminating in the last song on The Perfect Day EP (‘History’), you can hear a progression to the album sound. The idea is (if any one is ever bothered and definitely not in one sitting) to listen to the EPs back to back, then the album – and with the progression of sound – there is also a story unfolding. The intro on the album (‘A break In the Clouds’) is a release of the tension from the previous two EPs and the songs become more sure of themselves lyrically and less vague. We also used less vocal effects which means the lyrics take centre stage. It is the part of Columbia Mills that I really get off on and it really helps with the creative process. You need to keep one step ahead. We already have a lot of the second album written and the sound and vibe we are going for.
What did the creative process consist of approaching A Safe Distance To Watch? Particularly with the fusion of electronica and alt-rock – what obstacles, if any, are encountered?
The most important thing for us and Rob Kirwan (our producer) was to make sure we had songs to work with. Once we established the batch of songs which were done on an acoustic guitar, we then began to build the sound around the songs.
When you are using guitars, synths, bass, live drums, electronic drums, it is important not to confuse the song with too many counter melodies. We had a rule that no matter how good the part was, if it didn’t make the song sound better then it was dumped. It can be hard to come up with a great part for a song, only for it to be dumped but thankfully we had a producer to referee those arguments.
From a sonic and technical point of few, we needed to make sure the bass synth didn’t class with the live bass by scooping the low end out of one of them.
If there was a guitar line and a synth hook going at the same time we needed to make sure they each had their own place in the track, but again we had Rob to sort all this.
How would you say being independent benefited the album’s creation and release?
Well for starters we made the exact album that we wanted to make. The five of us, and Rob, made all the decisions and it made the recording process a beautiful, unopposed collaboration of musicians. There was no one telling us the songs were too long, or telling us that the songs were not radio friendly. We wrote and recorded the album that flowed from us. I think it resulted in a very emotional record. Some might accuse us of being earnest but those songs are true stories and exactly how we felt at the time. We were not thinking about impressing anyone but ourselves and I think that this helps to connect to listeners on a human level.
Isolation and a sense of helplessness power much of the album – is writing and performing such heavy tracks cathartic or therapeutic?
I have always used writing as therapy and it is probably the primary reason I write songs. Without it I really don’t know where I would be. You always hear people encouraging young men to talk and express themselves and not bottle things up. Writing songs for me goes further and into the things I just can’t talk to anyone about.
Then I write it, record it, release it and everybody knows about it in one foul swoop. That can be very liberating indeed.
Playing them live can bring it all up again but again the over-riding feeling is liberation and a sense that I’ve dealt with that situation. In saying that after a gig I really want to sit in a corner on my own for a while (not too sure what that is all about).
Outside out music, where does the band draw influence from? Do political turmoil or societal issues inform any of the songwriting?
It is important for us that the songs have different layers, while they are personal to me, they could also have undertones that relate to political and societal issues.
Songs like ‘This City Doesn’t Feel Like Home To Me’ is about not feeling accepted in your own environment and is primarily about my own experience but a lot of the song stemmed from a conversation I had with a homeless man while I was busking. We were on a break and he came and chatted to me for ten minutes. I didn’t think too much about it apart from the fact we were both ‘begging’ but in different ways. When I was writing the lyrics for the song a lot of that conversation came back to me.
Another song with political undertones is ‘We Decide’. It’s about non-conformity and taking control of your own destiny. The song is written about getting away from a controlling person and liberating yourself but it definitely has a broader more societal thread.
Which A Safe Distance To Watch track best epitomises Columbia Mills as a band?
For me ‘Same Shame’ has a great balance of what we do best. It has the personal story, the slow start with the Casio beat that turns into a live drum track, reverb soaked guitars, an octave lift in the vocals and a killer synth line in the outro. What more do you want.
Aside from Slowdive, do you think shoegaze deserves a revival or is it important that new bands, like yourselves, continue to help reshape the sound and push boundaries?
I think the older bands are definitely getting a revival and it is great to remind ourselves of the roots of the genre. The Cure, Ride and Slowdive are back on the scene and I think it’s great. It reminds people why they got into the genre and it helps us connect with that generation of music fans. They hear a little bit of their favourite bands in us and they get into our music. It is important for us to take the baton and run with it by developing the sound and giving it a more modern twist and not simply try to emulate the past. That would be no fun at all.
What’s next for Columbia Hills? What is the ultimate aim for the band?
We have written most of the second album and have been working on a new sound and mood for the songs. We will record in January and February but we will have a new single from it in April so we are working on a more summer feel to it as opposed to the winter vibes of A Safe Distance To Watch. Where do we go to get a summer feel in January I hear you ask? An old house in Leitrim belonging to Paul’s family. Let’s see how that goes.
But before that we will be touring the UK and Ireland in March, which we cannot wait for.