Ah, to be young, Irish, and in New York City for the first time ... for that is the lot in life for one of Rough Trade’s latest signings: the band HAL.
Dave Allen, HAL’s lead singer, sits in his NYC hotel room, purporting to be doing “not too bad. We’re almost finished our work over here in the States ... Wednesday night and last night. We had quite a late night last night; we had to do a radio show at about 12:00 AM, after the show, and do a few songs there.”
The aforementioned Wednesday found the jetlagged band performing amongst a slew of artists at the Mercury Lounge; the following evening, meanwhile, saw HAL playing at Northsix as openers to the Fiery Furnaces, a group liked enough by HAL to warrant the making of plans to see them again on Saturday, a.k.a. the only real day off of the band’s trip. (They leave on Sunday.) Allen’s pretty excited about finally having a free day. “I’m dyin’ to go to the Guggenheim Museum and see that buildin’. I’m a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, and I’d like to go check that out.”
Although this is HAL’s first trip to the Big Apple, it’s not their first to the States; they actually made their US debut in Austin in 2004, at South By Southwest. “We’d just signed a record deal about two months before then,” says Allen, “and we played about a half an hour set at a place called Rock Star’s.”
But there’s Texas, and then there’s New York. Currently, Allen informs me, “Our necks are stiff after looking up at all the high buildings!”
So it’s everything you hoped and dreamed it would be, then?
“Better!” he grins. “It’s just an amazing place. It’s crazy!”
The first single to be released from HAL’s self-titled debut is its second track, “Play The Hits” ... but, trust me, you don’t need me to tell you that; after one listen to the album, you’d just know, as it positively reeks with “summer single” vibes.
“Oh, definitely,” Allen concedes. “But that song started off in a different way altogether, really. It had totally different lyrics and was less ... angular. I’m a fan of those grade-B science fiction movies, and it used to be called “Stun Me with Your Ray Gun,” but when we were making the record, I’d been listening to a lot of Phil Spector, Ronettes, and Motown songs, so we just sort of changed it around. So I guess you’d say it has a sister song as well.”
The vocals on the track owe as much to Allen’s admitted love of all things Beach Boys as they do to the Four Seasons, a suggestion that makes Allen laugh. “Yeah, someone said that the outro, with the really high vocals, is kinda like Frankie Valli.”
There are, of course, worse comparisons.
“Oh, absolutely. What a singer that guy was!” Allen says, admiringly.
If his reaction sounds young and innocent, bright-eyed and bushytailed ... well, he’s not that young; he’s 26 ... but he’s been playing in bands since he was 14, having started out with the shoegazing scene.
“I worked my way into that first band very deviously,” he acknowledges, with another laugh. “I was beginning to write songs meself, and they lived down the road from me. They were really influenced by bands like Ride and Slowdive, a lot of really distorted guitars, and they used to practice in this garage every Saturday. But I knew they’d take a break at about 2 or 3 in the afternoon; they’d go for a walk and have a cigarette, and they’d walk past my house, so I’d open the window in my bedroom while they were coming up the road and play my guitar. After a couple of weeks of this, they finally knocked on my door and asked if I wanted to come down for a jam. Turned out they rehearsed more than they played gigs, and I just played rhythm guitar and did backing vocals, but they ended up playing some of my songs, and that was my first taste of what it was like to be in a band.”
That first stint with a band may have lasted only a few weeks, but it was enough to whet Allen’s appetite, though it would be a few years before he managed to put together a proper band of his own. The group that would become HAL didn’t start to form until he met up with the man who would be his songwriting collaborator, keyboardist Stephen O’Brien.
“We met through a friend of ours,” says Allen. “I’d brought up my guitar to our friend’s house; at the time, I was listening to Bob Dylan and the Band, really into The Basement Tapes, and I’d learned a couple of songs just to kinda say, “Oh, this is what I’m listening to right now.” We kinda just had a bit of a jam, and I played ‘Tiny Montgomery’, ‘Yea Heavy and a Bottle of Bread’, and ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’. But within that first meeting, Stephen and I had our first song written. We just sort of clicked.
“Stephen had been listening to the Beach Boys at the time, and, obviously, the Beach Boys were always in my parents’ record collection, but it was always in the background. But Stephen gave me Pet Sounds to listen to, and I’d never actually sat down and listened to that album. I’d never heard anything like that in my entire life.”
Allen and O’Brien stuck together and found themselves producing song after song after song ... but, as Allen freely admits, it was with no real sense of direction and with no great plan of action. The impetus for the duo to actually go out and perform their music came at the urging of Allen’s brother, Paul, now HAL’s bassist.
“My brother was always coming in and out at my dad’s house when me and Stephen were writing songs,” Allen explains, “and he kinda got us out of the bedroom. We got a temporary drummer and played a couple of shows in Dublin ... but we didn’t really feel we were doing the songs justice when we were playing them live, so we kind of retired again. Took a break. Went back to my dad’s house and started writing more songs. And Paul encouraged us to keep doing it, but he said, ‘You have to send off these songs! You’re wasting your talents just playing music for yourselves!’ So we eventually built up the courage to send them to London.”
The result was two record companies ringing up Allen and O’Brien, asking if they could come over to Dublin to see the pair play.
Laughing sheepishly, Allen admits, “We had to say, ‘Uh, well, we played a couple of shows about a year ago, and, uh, yeah, we don’t really know how to approach playing live gigs. We’re always a bit nervous a bit shy.’ But we said, ‘If you don’t mind coming over, we’ll play a gig in our house!’ So they came over a week later, and we rolled the piano in from the living room, Steve brought in his Hammond organ, I had my guitar and amp, and Paul had his bass and stuff, and we had a little tiny P.A., so we set up in a little semi-circle around these guys on the couch and played for them. It was a very strange, surreal set-up, to be honest. But we played two or three songs, and they were so enthusiastic; they fell in love with the songs and what we wanted to do. They encouraged us to get a proper band together and go out and start playing gigs.”
From there, the members of HAL pooled their money together and started putting together their own showcase gigs in Dublin, renting out a venue called the Sugar Club. “It was kinda strange for us,” says Allen, “because we were only used to showcasing our songs to maybe a couple of friends on a Friday night after they’d gotten out of college.”
With their showcase catching the ears of various labels, HAL also received a call from a booking agent, asking if the guys wanted to go on a tour of the UK with Grandaddy and Snow Patrol. “We said, ‘Yes!’” remembers Allen, gleefully. “We all took holidays from work and went on the road with them for two weeks.”
During that expedition, HAL made their decision to sign to Rough Trade. “It’s kind of weird, I think, for bands who move from the level of playing in their bedroom to meeting with a record company and having to think about their music in a new way,” observes Allen. “And with the people who were (at the Sugar Club), there were all these strangers coming up to us, telling us about their plan for the band, what we should do, and what angle we should approach things at ... and Rough Trade never really said anything like that to us. They just fell in love with the music, and we felt a kind of trust between them and us.
“We never set out with any master plan; we just knew wanted to play music, we knew what kind of record we wanted to make ... and we ended up with the record that we’d always dreamed of making.”
That record, HAL’s self-titled debut, is scheduled for release is May 2005, an event that Allen suspects will result in future US tour dates. “During the summertime, I think we’ll end up doing a couple of festivals in Europe and stuff,” he says, “but we’ll be back in the States. I’d like to think we could come back for a month or something in the summer, just to do a couple of small dates around different places, but we want to come back over here properly in the autumn and play some songs for people.”