Interview: Oisin Leech of The Lost Brothers (Part 2)

By on Friday, 12th December 2014 at 11:00 am
 

Glasses-wearing, light-haired Oisin Leech of Liverpool-via-Ireland duo The Lost Brothers was so kind of answering my soul-searching questions about him and his writing partner Mark McCausland’s act, and I’m so pleased to bring the second half of my interview with him today. In today’s post, he tells us about what it means to be Irish and a singer/songwriter and how their new album was written and recorded. I also asked him how he feels about being a “sad song” band. Hope he got to his coffee pot in time without burning down the place!

In case you missed it (how could you?!? I kid…), read the first half of my interview with Oisin, head this way.

I also saw you at the Full Irish Breakfast programming on Friday at B.D. Riley’s Irish pub, which is organised and run by the amazing Angela Dorgan (who I see is a mutual friend of ours, as she’s listed in the thank yous for this album). Does being Irish colour your songwriting and if so, how?
That breakfast gig is up there with our favourites! Absolutely…we are quintessentially an Irish band. No matter how much time we spend rambling out east or west, we can never escape the fact that I was born in Navan and Mark was born in Omagh. I love this. Ireland… and Irish roots…it’s in our blood. My father’s ancestors played music in Kinvara in Galway and Navan for years before I was born. All huddled round a piano singing late into the night with a fire blazing. I saw the photos.

My grandmother ran a music hall in the 1950s called The Plaza. Mark’s grandfathers band The Moore Family actually played there, and my Granny booked them! We found all this out only a few years ago.

For me, being Irish is a million things, but as a songwriter maybe it’s all about the characters you meet, the rivers, the wild Atlantic Ocean, the rough rocks and heather of the Burren, the shadows beneath the trees along back roads of Tara. It’s endless… The Irish can sing the blues because they lived through the blues. But there’s another name for the blues…you can’t simplify any of those things. It’s just a feeling that finds its way into a song.

When I hear the wail of Townes Van Zandt or Robert Johnson, I hear a rainy day in Donegal in Ireland and when I hear the great Irish Box [accordion] player Tony MacMahon play a tune or great Irish singer Sonny Condell sing, I see a blue morning in upstate New York with the sun cutting through the trees. For centuries Irish and Scottish folk has been crossing the Atlantic, it’s all there in Bob Dylan or Everly Brothers song if you listen closely. I love the songwriting rock we cast our net from…. and it’s called Ireland.

Every time I’ve attended SXSW, I am struck by the brotherhood / kinship between the Irish acts, no matter where in Ireland they are from. This happens to an extent with the UK bands but because they’re all over the place and so numerous in comparison, I don’t see the same kind of support for fellow countrymen. Would you like to speak on that?
That’s great that you see a community of musicians among the Irish. I doubt any of us notice; we just all pitch in together without thinking. Everyone’s on the same road, and you have to help a brother or a sister along the way if you can.

Your fourth album ‘New Songs of Dawn and Dust’ was released this autumn, and I think it’s a beautiful record. How did you approach this LP compared to your three previous? How did producer Bill Ryder-Jones affect the songwriting and recording process?

We always thought we would do the first three albums as a trilogy all with similar atmospheres going through them.

Once the trilogy was over, we decided to make a change.

A new trilogy would begin.
We came at this album differently in terms of songwriting.
We kept dozens of cassettes with hundreds of song ideas.

It’s a more hopeful album.
Not sure why. It just is.

We wanted each song to tell a distinct story.
It’s a certain type of song that tells a story, and that’s the type of song we went after here.

We also decided that to start this new trilogy we would come full circle to our old adopted home Liverpool. The city we pick is crucial to our album. The atmosphere of a city ends up on the album. We had never recorded a Liverpool album before as The Lost Brothers.

We recruited Bill Ryder-Jones, who is one of the best young guitarists in the world right now. He plays sometimes with Arctic Monkeys. Another great band.

We were fascinated to see what Bill would do with these songs. Ironically, he stripped the songs right back to the basics with little bits of brass and added a few colours. This is our most stripped back album to date. It was brave of Bill to make that call.

Less is more and all that jazz…

Roddy Doyle [Irish novelist and writer of “The Commitments”] sent us a kind message a few days after the album came out saying that this album reminds him of a collection of short stories.

We were fascinated to see what would happen when Bill got his hands on these songs. He approaches thing with a fresh edge. Apparently it’s our most forward thinking album to date!!!!
I’ll live with that.

With this album we also made a conscious effort to write songs in Dublin.
We had never written there before.
So we spent weeks and months writing in Dublin. We demo’d the songs with Sean Coleman and Gavin Glass at Orphan Recording. I love Dublin, and it gave the writing its own magic.

One of the album’s songs that made a huge impression on me was ‘Soldier’s Song’. It seems to me like a gentle yet brilliant protest song against the unnecessary wars and violence that go on in our world today, yet it doesn’t get overtly political. Did one of you take the lead on writing this, can you give us insight on how the song came about?
That song came in a dream. It’s a love song with a simple story. It started in Ireland, and then we finished it while waiting on a flight in LA in a motel. Delighted you like that song. We are always touched when people say they respect that song. We have never written anything like that before. On that recording, Martin Smith plays a beautiful old trumpet horn that he got in a flea market in old central Europe. No-one knows what type of horn it is.

Is ‘Derridae’ based on a real person/woman? If yes, is she aware that this song was written about her?
‘Derridae’ is a song that came in Dublin. Mark and I had just finished a show at Vicar Street (club in Dublin) and the TV was on in the hotel at 4 AM. Suddenly, these chords and melodies came to us in the space of 5 minutes. The words poured onto the page. But we needed a title …we needed a word that summed up the atmosphere of the song we were trying paint. So we just sang the song over and over and the name “Derridae” came from the ether. It’s a girl’s name that we invented.

My favourite song on the album is ‘Walking Blues’, as it encapsulates all that is good about the Lost Brothers’ music: an effortlessly classic sound. (In my review, I described the song like this: “Another deceptively simplistic song is ‘Walking Blues’, with its jaunty melody and piano notes. Its sweet message that if love is forever, it doesn’t matter what distance separates two lovers, because one day soon they will be reunited (“these walking blues will carry me back to you in time”) has certainly been used many times in popular song, but somehow in McCausland and Leech’s voices and hands, the sentiment has never sounded truer or more genuine.” At the time, I was missing someone who was far away very much, so I could personally relate to the song’s message. It is also optimistic; from a quick Google search on you, a lot of outlets seem to peg you as “sad song” songwriters. Agree or disagree?
Ha ha ha. Glad you like that song and your review nails it perfectly. Spot on.

Do I think we write sad songs? Well…for me a sad song can cut through steel. A sad song can stop you in your tracks and send you flying. Sad songs need to be sung. Anyone can sing a happy song. The songs I love are Randy Newman songs, Townes Van Zandt songs. Compared to those writers our music is like the Beach Boys!

Even the Beach Boys had stunning sad songs like ‘Disney Girls’.

Weirdly ,I don’t find our music sad at all. I meet people after our gigs and they rave about how the music lifted their spirits.

Some people find Leonard Cohen really uplifting, others get sad…. Depends on who you talk to!

We write what comes out of our souls with no filter and we don’t force it. People can think what they think. If they find it sad or happy, that’s fine by us. As long as the music moves people in some way.

Someday soon we will release an album of upbeat rockers!

Related to this, there are other points in the album that feel very autumnal to me in mood (for example, the instrumental ‘Nocturnal Tune’ and up tempo yet sad story about an itinerant, ‘Poor Poor Man’). Was this intentional?
Autumn is our favourite season, so yes, well spotted! A lot of these songs were written in the month of October too.

Compared to the average “popular” act these days, your recording and performance set-up has nothing to do with complicated electronics and overdone production. Do you feel this is something important to the ethos of the Lost Brothers and you see it continuing this way? Or could there be a time in the near future where you might change things up radically?
Where we did the new album is a place called Parr Street Studios, and it has some of the best gear in the world. We worked to tape, because it’s warmer sounding and it gives you less options. Sometimes less options is the way to go because you can’t hide from the song. Two voices and two guitars…that’s the essence of what we do. To capture that we worked with amazing people because if you get it right, the results are beautiful.

Yes we have big plans down the road to do something very differently!
I’ll tell you some other night.

Christmas is coming soon. What do you hope to find under your tree?
I would love if Dylan brought out another Chronicles book. That’s my Christmas wish. In the meantime I will stick on some Harry Nilsson and watch The Godfather on repeat.

What are the Lost Brothers planning going into 2015?
Yes, we plan to come to the States. We also have a very busy festival season ahead in 2015. It starts in Glasgow in January with Howe Gelb.

Calexico are also on the same bill. Announcements soon.

Thanks for the chat. I enjoyed that. I better go get the coffee off the cooker. It’s burning….

Many thanks to Oisin for doing this interview with me (this was grand!). Cheers to Terry for sorting this out for us.

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