I Only Want to Write Songs
By Aoife Barry
“We were calling it ‘the album they couldn’t kill’…” It’s a wet Wednesday evening in May and Dublin-based band Groom (guitarist/vocalist Mike Stevens, bassist Wil McDermott, drummer/percussionist Ruan van Vliet and guitarist/keyboardist Jeroen Saegeman – drummer Brian O’Higgins is absent) are huddled in a booth in a city-centre pub, telling me about the making of their latest mini-album, At The Natural History Museum (the follow up to 2007’s Love Me Aimlessly EP – their debut album proper was 2006’s All This Happened, More Or Less). There are laughs as they outline for me the various mishaps that led to a delay of a year in the album being released – illness, acts of god and good old technological breakdowns that left them wondering if the album was meant to be made at all.
‘At The Natural History Museum’ is an album of wonderfully melodic pop songs that have a sense of fragility to them, but yet are bolstered by catchy hooks and beautifully off-kilter lyrics. It was produced by their friend Barry Phipps, whom band members Wil and Mike met when they played in Barry’s hometown of Chicago back when they were in the band Settler together. Barry runs his own boutique label, Tight Ship, and invited the band to send their album to him so he could produce it, add some instrumentation if needed, and then release it. And all was going well until one fateful day when a hard drive – containing all of the recordings for the album – crashed. “I had to ring Mike,” says Wil, “and say, [adopts a very calm voice] ‘Mike, we’re having a bit of a problem transferring all the files, they don’t seem to be there anymore…’”
“I was in France,” remembers Mike. “And we were in this apartment and Mide, my wife, she made me leave the house because I was cursing in front of the kids – Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” Wil laughs. “You were so nice on the phone, I’m sure the minute you put it down you were – ‘Argh!!’” he teases. “I had to get them to recover all of the files and they recovered every file that had been on that drive that it could, which totalled about 2,000 files – none of them had names, none of them had dates, so I had to go through every one of them, listening to it going ‘this is one of ours, what is it?’.” While he completed the arduous task, Mike kept in contact. A lot of contact. “Of course it didn’t help that I was texting you every 15 minutes – ‘How’s it going now? How’s it going now? Any updates?’” laughs Mike.
Eventually, after a painstaking search all of the files were found. The band sent them off to the guys at Tight Ship, assuming all would be well. And it was – until Barry and engineer Ryan Neuschaffer (who happens to have worked with Kanye West, although you won’t find any autotune on Natural History Museum…) were evicted from their studio. The two were eventually able to get back to their studio, but along came another little problem. “The flood,” intone Wil and Ruan. “Barry sent me an email, and he’s there in this boat, going past his house!” is how an incredulous Mike found out about that particular act of God.
That being dealt with, a more serious problem arose when Ryan became ill and had to go through months of hospital treatment. Groom were more than happy to let the project stand, their concerns only with Ryan’s health at that time, and thankfully he recovered well. So, things were back on track until… “They had finished three songs and then they accidentally formatted the disc with them on it,” says Wil wryly. “So we had to send that back – and by this stage I had them backed up in about ten different places. So we sent them over another drive and that was the final thing.”
The band are happy to laugh about things now – and in a curious way perhaps it did work out for the best. “I have to say, I don’t know if the year delay had anything to do with it, but it sounds great, and we were really, really happy with the results and have absolutely no complaints about Barry’s job,” says Mike, relief and pride audible in his voice.
The Groom of 2009 is a different beast to that of its first incarnation. It initially started off as a solo project of Mike’s, called Get a Room, but soon Wil had joined along with Fiachra McCarthy (of Pantone 247) and the name was shortened. In 2006 the band’s first album proper was released, and the keyboard player Liam left. The next phase for Groom was when Jeroen and Ruan (Jeroen and
Wil also have their own project, the Walpurgis Family, Ruan was in the band The Maladies) joined the band. With the addition of Ruan, it means that Groom now have two drummers – which led to a little bit of tension at the start, they confide…
“We were really into Ruan’s drumming, and I remember one time saying to Ruan, ‘It’s a real shame that we can’t have you and Brian in the band, it’s wrecking my head!’” Mike begins. “And then the lightbulb went off,” interjects Wil. Mike laughs: “And Ruan said, why not just have two drummers? And I went uhhhh… it was like the angels came down from the clouds. [More laughs] At first it was awful ,” he jokes, “but then….the first day you came in I think Brian, did he hate you, or did he what…?” “It was really uncomfortable,” deadpans Ruan. “Brian will probably deny this later,” interjects Mike. Ruan takes up the tale: “It was just really, we were trying to be polite to each other but there was just his horrible tension in the air. We were both going, [through gritted teeth] ‘yeah this is great, isn’t it?!’”
Thankfully, the percussive tension didn’t last long and there were no drumstick-related injuries during practice (or at least they’re not letting on there were). And speaking seriously about the relationships within the band, it’s clear there’s plenty of banter and fun but a shared work ethic too. Jeroen even says “there’s one unified ambition and we all share that ambition”, while Wil calls Groom “probably the hardest working band I’ve been in…but at the same time it’s great fun. It’s intense in that we’re working hard but it’s not an intense atmosphere. It’s very relaxed and very fun.”
But it’s not always fun, as Ruan admits, tongue firmly in cheek. “It’s kind of like before we have to [practice], it’s like ‘I can’t believe we have to do it’, but then ten minutes into it it’s the most fun thing,” he muses. “You just don’t care about all the other great things you could be doing….”
The addition of two new members seems to have really energised the band. Mike describes how they helped give Groom a new focus: “Ruan and Jeroen joined the band at the same time and really transformed the band, because up to that point we were kind of a little bit stuck, maybe in a bit of a rut, and they really energised it with their…” He pauses. “Youthful vigour.” The latter gets a big laugh from his bandmates, but it’s clear they agree. “I think the stuff that we’ve recorded recently that nobody’s heard yet is easily miles and miles better than the older stuff,” says Ruan, before adding modestly: “But Groom were one of my favourite Dublin bands before I joined, so I like all the stuff. And I don’t think this new stuff being great has anything to do with me and Jeoren being there, as much as I don’t know, I guess the whole thing is working better than it had done.”
Thanks to the year long wait for ‘At The Natural History Museum’ to be released, Groom have already got a large chunk of their next album worked on – and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, they’re going for a heavier sound this time around. “It’s definitely taking advantage of the fact we have two drummers,” says Mike. “’At the Natural History Museum’ is kind of like our folk album. I had kind of made some ground rules. There was gonna be no electric guitars – I broke that rule; also there was gonna be no drums with sticks, only brushes – that rule was broken on almost the first day. But at least the rules kind of filtered through a little bit and we had a kind of an acousticy, synthy-sounding album. But this one is a rock album and it rocks.”
Interestingly, that’s not all that’s going to be different with the new album – Wil adds that the plan is to learn to play it “as one big piece so everything flows into each other”. “It’s more mature, ambitious,” says Ruan.
“I’m not sure how much I should give away about it,” says Mike. “But it’s….the songs were like, it’s like a song cycle, so it’s – I don’t want to say a concept album but…it’s kind of two parts or three parts and it’s a continuous musical piece. I suppose if ‘Natural History Museum‘ is our death album, this would be like our relationships album.”
With local bands, there’s always the temptation to try to lump them into a certain scene, or associate them with other particular bands –and this is something that Groom are conscious of, yet not too wary about. “You always want to be careful about what you say, because the natural instinct would be to say that we like the Spook of the Thirteenth Lock and Mumblin Deaf Ro and Land Lovers and the Walpurgis family and stuff like that. And we do, but I don’t think we want to be seen as part of any one thing, you know?” Ruan tells me. “I think whether the bands intend to or not, in people’s minds they lump them together. Unless they’re expressly part of the Richter Collective bands or somebody else.”
Mike agrees. “I think Ireland is so small and Dublin is so small that it’s very, very hard to kind of establish any kind of a scene. Ruan mentioned the Richter Collective, and that is a kind of a mini-scene or whatever. [And] I suppose there is a sort of indie-pop scene. I think what is more prevalent is the fact that there are bands that are very, very different. Like take the Spook of the Thirteenth Lock – they’re completely the opposite of us, but we would hang out together and we would be friends in different ways.” So what does he think of the Dublin scene at the moment? “I think it’s pretty healthy at the moment. I think maybe a few years ago, maybe about 4 or 5 years ago it was at a real peak, and then it dipped, and now it’s come back up again and I think it has plateaued. It’s almost like the economy actually!”
Although the band joke that they “have no idea about any economics at all!” they have seen changes happen in the Dublin scene since the onset of the recession. For Ruan, it’s a choice in venues: “One thing I’ve noticed is there are a lot more venues cropping up that are non-traditional, like the Hideaway House and places like that, galleries and stuff.”
For Wil, there are ways that venues could make gigs more attractive to bands. “I think there’s still too much ‘pay to play’ around, and I think that really hinders what you can do,” he sighs. “You can only play so many times in a month before you exhaust family and friends and the like. But to get gigs beyond that is very difficult, beyond support gigs.”
“What I’ve really seen in the last few years is there’s been a kind of a progression from bands organising their own gigs and doing their own thing to lots and lots of promoters, like indie promoters,” adds Mike. “There used to be like indie promoters who would put on famous bands or touring bands or whatever; but now there’s a lot of small promoters, and that was really positive.”
Before we finish up, talk turns to the band members’ hopes for Groom. What really comes across is that they know how far they want to go with Groom, and that they don’t feel the need to try and ‘sell’ the band or move beyond being an independent entity, letting the business become more important than the music. “It depends on how thirsty you are, but it can be kind of dangerous,” says a philosophical Jeroen.
“I think you can lose touch with music,” explains Mike. “I know that sounds pretentious but I think you probably do. I think if you’re always thinking about how you’re making a living… You just kind of, you forget why you’re doing it in the first place. Like in any job. It becomes a routine. So like it’s never routine for us, it’s something we do because it’s very enjoyable and it’s exciting. And there’s no pressure.”
Wil nods. “As long as there’s no money coming in it will probably stay like that…as soon as the money starts coming in it will be great fun!” he laughs and then looks at his bandmates. “Mike has promised us all untold wealth….”
Groom will be touring in August with their friends Land Lovers – for more information, visit their website. They’ll be touring around the country and visiting Galway, Mullingar, Cork, Slane and more…
Their mini-album, At the Natural History Museum, is available in record stores around Ireland and at their gigs.