What with the excellent Yeh Deadlies releasing their debut album The First Book Of Lessons on 8 April through Popical Island (you can listen a stream of it here if that takes your fancy), it got State thinking back to December 2008. That’s when we tracked down Annie Tierney and her former band-mates from Chicks to talk about becoming famous before the leaving cert, Gay Byrne being mean and record company hell…..
Annie Tierney claims she doesn’t remember it but on the day she met her husband-to-be, he was at the other end of her “self defence mechanism”. Thank god the fella kept up the effort – the two were wed recently – but Tierney’s perceived stand-offish-ness does have some reasoning behind it. Anyone above 25 in this country should remember Chicks. For a period, they were everywhere as various media outlets lapped up the story of three Loreto College school girls who picked up the guitar at 15 and had every record company in the British Isles after them a year later.
“The press had an angle and they went with it,” says former member Lucy Clarke, sipping tea in the Central Hotel. Ten years ago, Clarke, Tierney and Isabel Reyes-Feeney, became something of a national talking point. Indeed, the story of Chicks is one that has a uniquely Irish resonance about it: in a nation this small, you can be thrust forward to national fame with the kind of shuddering speed not many will be able to deal with.
Imagine what that might have been like for three school girls; and imagine the lovely surprise that with each dollop of praise for their brand of spiky punk came several times the vitriol. Typical Irish begrudgery, after all, is only a cliché because it happens to be true. As a result, strolling down the street together between the ages of 16 and 20 was almost always a trial for the three best mates. “We couldn’t walk around town without people getting in your face about it. It was usually people our age or boys who were a little bit older who didn’t like that young girls had got a record contract after they’d been playing the guitar since year dot,” says Reyes-Feeney over the phone from Madrid, her home for the last seven years.
“Even Gay Byrne was mean to us!” laughs Tierney, thinking back to their first appearance on The Late Late Show singing early anthem ‘Daria’. “After we finished, he kinda lifted his eyebrows and he made some comment like ‘I won’t say anything about that’. He didn’t come over and make amends after that, put it that way.” The next morning, Tierney, still in sixth year at the time, garnered more abuse on the bus into town: “I think I remember some girl telling me it was more embarrassing than watching Boyzone dancing.”
Clarke takes up the story, “You became so used to people being smart-arsed and saying ‘oh you’re that girl from Chicks aren’t ya’ in a really snidey way. Even in college, people would be in the middle of conversations with you and you’d feel great – ‘whoopee I’m socialising’ – and then they’d say ‘yeah I saw you on TV years ago’ with real venom about it.” Adds Tierney, “Some people got it and thought it was cool. We were doing it because we thought it was fuckin’ cool anyway. Some people just thought ‘they can’t play and they’re annoying’. That’s fair enough but people were very, very un-necessarily mean. We were 18, for god’s sake.”
It had all begun so humbly as well, Annie’s brother Mick (aka Mick Pyro, Republic of Loose frontman) convincing his 15-year-old sister that she should start an all-girl band. The three girls spent the next day deciding who would play what and the day after, arrived into school no longer as three mates but as a wholly different animal entitled simply, Chicks. “There used to be day-time gigs in Eamonn Doran’s on Saturdays,” says Clarke, “and we started going to gigs in Slatterys when we were 15 as well. We’d drop in demos to venues around the city and they just kept on booking us.”
An early demo got them a manager and by the time it came to the summer between fifth and sixth year, they were being courted by every record company going, with Reyes-Feeney remembering that “once one A&R guy comes to a gig, you find that they all do”. Soon they had several well received EPs, support slots with the Manics and Sonic Youth, a tour with Ash, BBC Radio 1 attention, as well as a slot at the Reading Festival. Coming back to sixth year, they often found numerous column inches devoted to them in the weekend papers, including one picture of the three of them hanging around outside the school in their uniforms. Says Tierney: “I remember one of the senior people at the school bringing out that picture of us and she had circled everything that was wrong with the uniforms. One didn’t have the white socks up to her knees et cetera: you had to laugh.”
Writing more and more songs towards the end of their final year in school, with Mick often helping out re-jigging some of their efforts, along with contributing some tunes as well, the clamour to get them signed was huge. Promises were made about tonnes of cash and all three were encouraged to quit school, but they waited until they’d thrown away the uniforms for good before signing with DreamWorks. The label offered creative freedom and also any producers they wanted. In the end, they settled on making their first record in Philadelphia with alt-darlings Royal Trux (Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema). In the process, they learned Texas Hold ‘Em; how 14% proof beer leads to fights and that their producers weren’t overly enamoured with their original songs.
“They wanted to make everything and then cut it up: sometimes it worked and others it completely didn’t. They didn’t know what to make of us, maybe,” says Annie. “Sometimes you’d play them something we’d written and then they’d immediately say they didn’t want it to sound that way,” adds Lucy. What was left was an album their record company said at first was perfect. Then nothing. DreamWorks soon shedded a number of jobs and dark clouds began to gather. They were told they had to re-record ‘this and that’, only to be told every effort wasn’t quite right. This continued as the album stayed un-released and slowly but surely, the girls, now returned to Dublin, became frustrated.
“I just remember a lot of hanging around. It was more unsettling for us as we didn’t know what we were supposed to do,” says Reyes-Feeney. “It was about a year of us waiting around and a year is forever at that age. You could tell DreamWorks weren’t really interested. I suppose that did lead to the end.” With the record in limbo and unable to sign a different deal due to their con-tract, the three went their own ways, going into various college courses. Says Isabel, “I hung around Dublin for a couple of months after that, but it was like a marriage that had broken down, I didn’t want to be reminded of everything every day. It was like I needed the divorce from Dublin and I headed for Madrid.”
All three have been in various bands since and made guest appearances with Republic of Loose to boot. Then, at the tail end of 2007, that original debut came back into their possession, after which they pressed up a few thousand copies, to some acclaim. In fact, years on from the bitching and the hype, it’s actually a fine record. Despite a few reunion gigs last year a full comeback is laughed out of the building by the three of them – day jobs, kids and marriages are what concern them these days.
“It was great,” says Reyes-Feeney, “we just tried not to take it too seriously, we were in a band, doing what we wanted to do and having fun. We were three mates who didn’t care that everyone who was our age in Dublin hated us!”