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New romantics

Barry Lally of modernlove told David Hennessy about the band’s journey from a Drogheda shed to touring the US and the UK, how hopeless it looked in the pandemic just before they secured their record deal and their ‘haunted’ rehearsal space.

When modernlove- made up of childhood friends Barry Lally (vocals/guitar), Graham Fagan (guitar), Danny Rooney (bass) and Cian McCluskey (drums)- started, they were only 15. Too young to play the pubs in their home town of Drogheda, Co. Louth, they had to find their own scene.

It is fair to say they have definitely found it now.

The band, known for their larger than life indie-pop anthems of small town boredom, big nights out and young love, have just played their biggest UK tour to date which included a date at London’s Lafayette. Before that they were touring the US when they played the iconic SXSW festival in Texas.

The band has come a long way since playing school gigs and youth clubs and gigs that built their own scene since none existed for them.

After school, they enrolled in various music courses but always kept the band as their focus.

Going into 2020 modernlove had a run of self-released singles and were working towards a debut EP, until Covid hit, breaking up the scene they’d started to build.

The four would retire to their bedrooms to pen some songs although Barry admits there were times when it looked futile to continue.

However, it was then that an A&R man from Akira Records discovered them.

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They would release their debut EP monochrome blue featuring the 1million+ streamed Liquorice and followed it with 2022’s Oh My Mind’ EP.

The current offering, Nightlife, is their third EP.

The Irish World spoke to lead singer Barry Lally when he was back home in Drogheda winding down after that tour.

He tells us, “It’s very nice to be back.”

Of that tour, Barry says: “That was what we’ve always aimed to do as a band since we started, since we were teenagers.

“That was the goal, to get over to America and to be a touring band playing our own gigs. So that was a pinch me moment, for sure.

“The idea is to just keep sort of playing the same places, each time upgrading the venue, and we seem to be selling them out,” Barry says with some disbelief at it himself.

“Every time we upgrade the venue I’m thinking, ‘There’s no way that many people will want to come and see us’.

“And it’s happened so far.”

Has it all been a bit of a whirlwind the last few years? “I feel like it was a slow build since Us.

“This year is the first year we’ve just gotten crazy busy.

“This year is the first one we’re doing this full time and actually don’t have enough time to be working another job or studying or anything like that.

“It’s mad being so busy with it for the first time ever, so be careful what you wish for.

“The four of us in the band, our whole lives slowly began to just revolve around the band itself to the point where nearly all of our good friends now are people that we met at the first few gigs that we ever played in Drogheda when we were like 16.

“All of our first girlfriends we met at our gigs and just ever since we started.

“It’s not even like a question of why we do it or what the purpose is.

“It’s kind of just this ubiquitous thing that we just like wake up and that’s just what we do, don’t really question it.

“The band is life.”

That said, this was tested in the pandemic.

“I think we had been working towards being an actual band, whatever that is, for a really long time and had sort of started to find our sound maybe or sort of hitting a stride a little bit.

“And then COVID came around and sort of nipped that in the bud.

“Covid was a very, very hard time for everyone and musicians in a specific sense.

“There was just no motivation to keep going especially for us.

“We started out playing gigs. That was the reason that we started the band, it had to be like a live band.

“Over COVID, there was no one to play to and then with the music that we would be releasing, there was no tangible evidence anybody was listening to it, enjoying it, or digesting it and becoming maybe a fan.

“It kind of felt like just releasing music and just kind of throwing it out there into the ether and not ever getting anything back.

“But we just kept going and put out one song that ended up being heard by the right people and a record deal ensued.

“That kind of just gave us the motivation that if we kept just going with it, there would be an end to this eventually and opportunities afterwards.

“But there were definitely a few times over COVID where we were like, ‘Will we keep doing this? I don’t know’.”

It is fair to say the pandemic ended up being a blessing in disguise for the band.

Looking back now, they feel that without Covid, they may never have been discovered.

“I think COVID was maybe the best thing that ever happened to us in a way.

“I think the song that we wrote wouldn’t have happened if it were not for that isolation and loneliness.

“And even the way we were writing and recording.

“We were just writing by ourselves recording things on our laptops and sending them back and forth and someone else in the band would work on it a little bit and then send it on again.

“I mean the way everybody’s heads kind of got in Covid: You started having tunnel vision and you could only see the four walls of your room every day.

“You sort of stopped being able to imagine what life was like before and what it would be like again afterwards.

“But it ended up being maybe a good thing for us.

“I think it definitely aided some way in developing our sound.

“What we started to do then, we still do now with all of the recording ourselves and writing ourselves and just sending ideas back and forth that kind of started in Covid there was no way to meet up and just get in a room and jam it.

“So we all sort of had to get a bit efficient at recording music on our laptops.

“I think that really helped us become better songwriters, I’d say.”

While the first two EPs were written in lockdown, the band’s latest offering was written with the live shows more in mind.

“There’s just a lot of songs written from the point of like, ‘I can’t wait to play this one live’.

“Songs that were kind of written for the venues that we’ll be playing and songs written with people singing along in mind.”

On that note, what was it like to play Lafayette recently?

“I don’t even know if I really took it in at the time.

“It was the biggest gig of our own that we’d ever played and just to see that many people in one room and all there for our music and singing it back to us was very surreal.

“I don’t think I could really grasp it in the moment and now that it’s happened I kind of wake up every day and think, ‘Did we actually do that? Did we actually get there in the end?’

“It’s fantastic. It’s all we’d ever really wanted.

“I remember walking out on stage to play, and it was like something I had dreamt up.

“It didn’t really feel like it was happening to me.”

As mentioned already, this was preceded by a US tour which was again their biggest there to date.

“Over lockdown I’d spent so much time literally going insane.

“I was like through America on Google Maps.

“I’d look up places like New York and then walk around virtually and look at things.

“America was always the goal for us as a band, where we wanted to be and getting over there was crazy.

“I remember me and Cian were standing outside our accommodation and we were staying across the Hudson, looking at New York and he was just like tearing up, ‘What the hell is going on? This is insane’.

“Doing SXSW was kind of one of those things. There are very few things that end up turning out the way you imagined them in your head. And SXSW was one of those things where we’d always wanted to play it and when we did, it was exactly how we sort of imagined it or planned it to go.

“It was great.

“It was the most stressful few days. We had seven gigs in three days.

“It was St. Patrick’s Day as well. We couldn’t even squeeze a drink in there.”

In spite of there being a lack of booze, was it still your best St Patrick’s Day ever? “It must be, yeah. I don’t remember the other ones.”

The band are grateful that their music has struck a chord with audiences outside Ireland since very early on.

“After the gigs we always hop down just go chat to people, and the stories that they tell…

“There were a couple of people who had met each other through us and become best friends listening to our music and stuff, and couples who had started dating and one of our songs Follow You is one of the first songs they’d ever listened to together.

“In a way our music has become a soundtrack to their lives.

“That’s gotten us a bit emotional a few times when we were travelling across the US and the UK, that our music is playing in the background of people’s lives.

“Very grateful for that.”

If one of those couples gets married, they have to invite you, right? “That’s the plan.”

Although the band sing about everything from unrequited love to mental health, it is always catchy and upbeat even in the case of a break up song. Is it intentional to stay away from ‘the depressing break up song’?

“I think when we’re writing songs even about those hard to deal with situations- I think it’s become more apparent to me but I think it’s always been there even subconsciously that- the end goal is to reach some catharsis about it.

“If something terrible happens to me I’m like, ‘Well, I’ll get a good song out of it and then I’ll be happy that it did happen to me’.

“If we write about something that’s really painful the idea is that by the time you’re finished the song, you’ll be dancing to it, dancing and singing to whatever was actually messing you up.

“I think that’s why it ends up our songs being so upbeat most of the time.

“It’s just kind of just dance and deal with our problems that way maybe.”

The band get compared to bands like The 1975 quite a lot and they’re fine with that and any other comparisons.

“The 1975 is definitely present there.

“(Westlife is) not one anyone’s ever said, but if that’s what somebody heard in our music and they still enjoyed it, I’d be happy enough with that.”

It was not Westlife but Nirvana covers the band were first playing when Barry first joined the two lads in a Drogheda shed at the age of 15.

The band started when Cian McCluskey met guitarist Graham Fagan started to jam at secondary school before Barry would join on vocals.

The quartet was completed by bassist Daniel Rooney who had been playing in various bands around their hometown.

The first song they wrote was Us which would feature on their second EP.

Barry could never have dreamed where that chance invitation and jamming session would lead to.

“I often just feel like so lucky in that everything sort of fell into place the way it did.

“I had known Cian since I was five and we went to different schools as teenagers, and he met Graham and they started jamming in our friend’s shed.

“And Cian just mentioned to me one day randomly, ‘We need somebody to sing, do you want to hop on down and try it?’

“And then a few years later, we met Danny and he joined the band.

“Since then, you make your own luck. You work hard enough so that you end up in the situations where you can get lucky.

“It has been a slog but I think we’ve been so lucky in the way that we all just met.

“I think if you took any one of us out of the band, it wouldn’t have happened the way it did.

“I think we all had to meet each other and we’re so lucky that we did.”

Starting to gig at fifteen, the lads found themselves barred from playing in pubs or venues.

“Yeah we were playing gigs at school and at youth clubs and then I think we played at a few bars in Drogheda when we were 16 or 17.

“We couldn’t drink in them but they let us come in and play the gig and then kick us out immediately afterwards,” he laughs. “Good craic.

“When we went to college, I went to do music and philosophy in UCD, the other guys did music production in Dublin as well, so even what we did in college was really just a means to become better at the band.

“It was just to improve the band.

“When we went to college, we didn’t really have other jobs or fallback options in mind.

“Even when we went to college, it was still all about the band really.

“I talked about it earlier.

“The band just became this thing that I didn’t even think twice about it. I never really chose to follow that as a career, it just sort of happened to me.

“Since I was 14 or 15, it’s kind of been the only thing and I haven’t really questioned it.

“It feels good. It feels right every day.”

The band come back to these shores with another tour in October and Barry hints that there could be an album, perhaps even as soon as next year with one more EP to come before that.

Just before we let Barry go, there’s a question we have to get in there.

What is this about your rehearsal space being haunted? “Our rehearsal studio is actually an old disused strip club and our friend Fran is convinced that it’s haunted.

“He’d be like, ‘Right, come over here’, and point out a spot for us to stand on the floor and it’d be colder at that spot.

“He’d say that’s because that’s where the ghost is.

“I’m not sure if I’m sold on the whole thing.

“It does feel creepy down there sometimes. I don’t like being down there by myself.”

Modernlove play Whiplash hosted by Gemma Bradley at Colours, Hoxton on 9 May.

They tour the UK in October.

The EP Nightlife is out now.

For more information, click here.

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