There was a time when Irish bands were not just courted by the majors, they were the targeted darlings of A&R types right across the musical landscape. Effectively, you couldn’t put four lads into a room together without somebody trying to sign them. Some lasted the distance, some didn’t. The Thrills, Sinead O’Connor, Whipping Boy, The Frames and Aslan, for example, all had varied levels of success and longevity but it is arguable that they were all discovered as Ireland’s musical output was reaching its epochal potential.
Irish music as now, it can be argued, is noted for being broader in scope than ever before. There are Irish bands and artists disrupting genres and radio waves on a level that only those halcyon days can mirror. Villagers, Simi Crowns, Rocstrong and The Wonder Villains can all stake a claim at heralding a new wave of Irish music. Add to that list, Dublin four piece Raglans. What the ‘Raglads’ can boast is an already steady fan base, universal appeal and the kind of songs and positive attitude that should keep them going toe-to–toe with a devilishly unforgiving music industry. When State chatted to frontman Stephen Kelly recently, he was more than willing to discuss the band’s emergence and integrity as well as how they managed to keep their appeal. “We developed as a band by playing gigs, it’s that simple and there’s really no other way of explaining it, that’s just what you have to do”. Not that this is the case for everyone, Kelly concedes. “There’s obviously exceptions to this, with somebody like Hozier, for example, he was an unearthed gem, he didn’t need to play gig after gig. But he is almost unique. But we have over two and a half years’ worth of gigs behind us, the usual circuit of promoters and venues and over time we’ve seen the change [crowds growing].”
Is it too early to suggest a sea-change in Irish music across the board? “Maybe, Dublin has loads of good bands emerging, it’s very encouraging. Outside Dublin there are just as many bands who have the ability to impress constantly. We were lucky enough to hear some of the new Strypes album and it’s way punkier and rockier than you’d think. They’ve been given free reign this time and even though it’s still them and their sound, it’s a lot more aggressive which really suits them.” Having formed a little later in life than The Strypes, Raglans, similarly, take their own influences and make them work for the band. “Song-writing for us is a collaborative effort, there may bits and pieces of songs and we’ll all add our part to it so it is completely collaborative in that respect. But this is purely because we all have different music tastes. I like folkier stuff whereas the lads are more into heavier stuff and the combination works for us. But that’s how we came together too, we weren’t all friends in school or into the same stuff. We [myself and bassist Rhos] met at a Knockanstockan Festival a few years ago. We were just jamming in the campsite and I suggested a that when we got back home we should form a band… to which Rhos said no!” How close were they to never forming? “It was almost a non-starter. I sent him some demos of songs I’d been working on it convinced him to give it a shot. He knew Conn and when Sean joined that was it.”
Having served their time on Dublin’s notorious unsigned circuit, Raglans soon found their music being picked up on a piecemeal basis. The release of their eponymous debut album this year finally marked a turning point for the band. “The biggest difference since the album came out”, explains Kelly,” is that people now have a fuller idea of what we’re about. People now have the chance to hear eleven of our songs instead of just seeing a video or hearing a track every three months or so. We think it gave people a better understanding of us and you can see the difference in the responses”. Was there a definitive ‘we’ve made it’ moment? “I think it’s been steadily growing but it’s definitely noticeable. Even now, we’re just back from a mini-tour in the US and this is a dream come true for us. To be given the opportunity to play at the CMJ events and then having just supported The Fray and played a few showcases in Germany we couldn’t ask for more. There was a time when we’d be looking for gigs and ways of getting out there around Dublin but now, I suppose the most obvious change, is that we’re being invited. Even hand-picked at times.
“The progression of the band can almost be summed up entirely with what happened to our first tour bus; the door literally fell off on the ferry to Hollyhead. Nowadays it’s all leather seats, tables and lots of lots of talking shite. It says it all about how things have changed for us.” This change, owing no small debt to the album release, has seen Raglans emerge from a cluster of Irish bands all competing for a narrow market share. Of the myriad Dublin bands, very few ever make it this far without guidance and sacrifice. Rather than compromise what they band had, Kelly is steadfastly proud of the path they took. “We had a lot of people offering advice and making suggestions as to what we should and shouldn’t do. Early on we were advised to seek a professional song writer to co-write our first single but we were having none of that. It might work for some bands but we didn’t want to entertain the idea. It’s probably the worst advice we were given as a band. We were confident about what we could do and felt we had to trust that”. Kelly laughingly suggests a far more self-serving motive for such advice, “that was obviously just somebody looking to get a percentage of something and it was never even considered!”
About to embark on a mini-tour of Ireland before leaving to play in Australia in the new year, Raglans are expecting things to continue to happen for them rather than to them. This positivity has galvanised their self-belief and it’s not without justification. Loyal fans and the willingness to embrace success has seen some rather unusual tributes. “There is this one lad who just plays our songs on a piano and uploads them to YouTube”, says Kelly, “he just plays the melody but he is absolutely amazing. Just these simple videos of his hands playing, it’s strange for us but it’s also a massive compliment. Add to that the messages we get from fans from South Africa, right across Europe, it’s mind-blowing. There’s now, actually, an unofficial website somebody set up in France and we’ve never even played there. You can’t make this stuff up. In Europe though, we had predominantly more girls coming to gigs but this could have more to do with The Fray, they’re music is a lot softer than our ours. In Ireland, though, we have a few cut heads at each gig form the lads at the front. That won’t change.”