While paying homage to some of their early influences like rock legends Led Zeppelin and Queen, the European foursome have carved out their own unique sound in an attempt to keep the sound of rock and roll purism alive.
Lead singer and guitarist Paddy Brazel, lead guitarist Hugh O’Reilly and bassist Cillian McSweeny picked up their new drummer Ryan Normandin and hit the studio. Today, the band is ready to unveil Bohemian, the group’s sophomore studio release.
I sat down with bassist, Cillian McSweeney and lead guitarist Hugh O’Reilly at Iggy’s Keltic Lounge on Ludlow Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side last week to discuss the band and the success they have found in NYC.
So by the sound of your accents, it is easy to tell you aren’t originally from Brooklyn. When did you come to NYC? Cillian: We moved from Ireland, from Dublin. We moved a year and five months ago over to Brooklyn or America really. The summer beforehand we came for three months and we were just kind of testing the waters a bit. We played a few shows and then our current manager said we could really make money over here playing for colleges. It took us about five minutes to decide, but we just said, ‘let’s just go since there’s no point in doing anything else.’
Was it hard making money in Ireland? Hugh: Oh man, there was nothing going on there. It’s like a glass ceiling you know? It’s not like there’s not much talent there. There are a lot of good bands but there’s such a small market unfortunately. Not everybody wants to go to a show and plus there’s not nearly the same amount of colleges. Out here, the college circuit is a huge thing. It’s kind of like you’re striking gold if you get onto the college circuit.
What types of places do you play here versus when you were in Ireland? Hugh: Right now we play a lot of shows in the city, and in Brooklyn we just played the Knitting Factory. Here we’ve definitely gotten more of a mix of a crowd. We are getting a lot of people we wouldn’t know showing up to our shows.
Why do you think that’s the case? Hugh: I think people are just more positive and proactive towards seeing live music.
Could this be that New Yorkers have an interest in music from somewhere else? Cillian: I’m not sure. I think it’s just an interest in music in general. I mean, people in Ireland where we were growing up had a huge interest in big famous bands, but further down toward the grassroots, like medium level bands, there’s just really not a big interest. They feel like they go to a big show because they feel like they have to and they know the person that’s playing, whereas over here people are just a lot more open to it and a lot more accepting for live music. Especially in Brooklyn, everyone is into the arts.
Hugh: People hear one thing, like the hype over a band, and they’re just like, ‘we’ve got to go see this.’
Do you think things have changed? Hugh: We’ve been out of the scene in Ireland for some time now and apparently there’s a little revival going on there right now and a lot of people are going to see underground shows.
Cillian: I think people here are looking for live music.
Hugh: Not that we want to knock Ireland or anything.
But based on the facts, you’re simply saying you have gotten a better response in New York than back home? Cillian: Yeah definitely. Based on facts, New York is awesome.
Hugh: The other night, we were playing the Knitting Factory and there was a pretty good crowd. I recognized maybe just 10 faces that I knew who they were.
What does that mean to you, seeing an audience full of new faces? Cillian: That’s why we do what we do, ya know.
Hugh: Exactly, that’s the best part of playing music. It gives you that rush when you see people you don’t know that are just really getting into your music. Our friends get into it because they’ve heard these songs millions of times and they almost know the lyrics at this point.
Cillian: Unknown people listening to our band gives us a sense of purpose.
So how did the Von Shakes first begin? Cillian: Myself, Hugh and our lead singer Paddy have all known each other since we were about four or five years old. Our parents all know each other and I think our parents all shared similar music tastes that they all passed down to us. So we grew up listening to all the greats like Queen, Zeppelin, The Eagles and Thin Lizzy, but for a while there were very few people in our school that were listening to that kind of music so that kind of lumped us together from the start. Then we started picking up guitars around 14 or so and jamming a bit.
Hugh: Garage band jamming.
Cillian: Yeah, cover band stuff. And then about 18 we formed Von Shakes and started taking it more seriously and started doing gigs.
So this has been you four the whole time? Since you were kids? Hugh: Well I should say, we had our old drummer, who was part of Paddy’s class, Paddy was a year above myself and Cillian, but when we moved out here our drummer left after two months. He had his girlfriend back home and decided to move back, but we hear he’s doing very well. Our drummer now is actually an American guy named Ryan Normandin.
We checked out a bunch of drummers on Craig’s List, but we ended up whittling it down to three tryouts and Ryan prevailed. The moment he walked into the first he told us he met us in the subway last year. Apparently our band was going to some gig and his band at the time was going to some gig. We were chatting and next thing you know, a year later he walked in to try out.
Cillian: We’ve been lucky that we’ve known each other so long that we’ve never had to play with any other bands, the three of us anyway, and we now share an apartment together in Brooklyn.
Where in Brooklyn do you guys live? Cillian: In Bushwick.
Did you guys come straight over to Bushwick when you moved here? Cillian: No, we lived in the hood. We were down in Flatbush by Prospect Park.
Hugh: It was a pretty sketchy neighborhood.
It was the four of you? Hugh: There were six of us in a two bedroom. But it was never really six because always one of us had a friend over for a week or something. The last summer there were a bunch of Irish friends over and we had something like 13 people over there in the apartment.
Cillian: When we first moved up, before Flatbush, we had no money and no place to stay. We were homeless when we moved out here. We were just staying at friend’s couches and stuff in Hoboken, Queens, Bushwick and the city, wherever they would have us really.
How long did that go on? Cillian: About two months, and then we moved to Flatbush finally. Because of all that we always take people in, so our place is like a halfway house.
So what brought you to your place in Bushwick? Hugh: We started seeing that all these shows going on were happening in Williamsburg and Bushwick. All the bands that we’d meet were living there. It just seemed like Williamsburg and Bushwick, that area, it seemed like it was just a melting pot of musicians and artists, and the crazy stuff coming out of there is just unbelievable, so we just wanted to move there to be around that area. Now we moved into this big loft.
So what are you guys working on now? Hugh: We just recorded an album back in September up in Eden, New York, in this beautiful studio in the upper deck of a barn that was converted into a studio. We recorded to tape, like old-school analog.
Cillian: We were talking to our manager and producers and they just asked us; ‘who are your influences?’ and we were saying The Smiths, The Clash you know, all the old-school punk and indie groups, but no one seems to be doing that kind of sound anymore and we wanted to get that. The producers basically told us that they were all recorded to tape and if we wanted that sound then we should do that, and we thought that sounded like an awesome project.
What is that album? Cillian: Bohemian. And that’s coming out by the end of October, but the actual date is yet to be announced.
How long did you guys spend recording that one? Hugh: I think we went up there to do two tracks, and we were really nervous because none of us had ever recorded live to tape or anything like that. Our producer, Jim, came in and told us we had five days. So we did it from Monday to Friday and did like 13 songs.