Photograph by Richard Gilligan

Leaving Dublin

On the road with Little Green Cars

By / March 2013

Big black X’s crossing their hands as they step on-stage at DC9 in Washington, DC, Little Green Cars seem more than a bit bemused by the packed crowd. Only a few short years after skipping school to play music in a shed in the back garden of frontman Stevie Appleby’s parents’ place, the Irish quintet, who skipped university to make it as a band, have turned hard musical graft and evocative harmonies into a deal with Glassnote Records, critical acclaim, packed shows at South by Southwest, and a ticket out of Ireland to headline their first full tour across the US.

With today’s release of Absolute Zero, produced by heavyweight Markus Dravs (Coldplay, Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons), Little Green Cars posses an arsenal of well-tempered ballads about love, unrequited affection, and all the things dominating the life of twentysomethings. On-stage, the music takes on a fierce and brawny urgency. Harder edge guitars make the moments when all five sing in tight harmony even more potent. Appleby shares the main songwriting duties and vocals with Faye O’Rourke, a black-haired whisp of a leading lady, who wields a powerful voice.

All five are quietly charismatic, still getting the hang of being in the spotlight, letting the music serve as their collective personality. During the DC show, Appleby’s guitar string broke. A crackling sound system momentarily threw O’Rourke. But the growing pains seemed slight, and the awkward moments endeared the room to the band. When they closed with “The John Wayne,” the first single from Absolute Zero, it was with the mature, sweeping flourish of a radio-ready anthem.

This is a band ready for the mainstage, they end their current tour with a show at Coachella, and yet they are still learning to navigate the road, with all of its hiccups inconveniences. Before the DC show, I sat down with O’Rourke, who had just awakened from a nap, to talk about Absolute Zero, American houses, and the need for Irish artists to “go away before they come home.”

The record is titled, “Absolute Zero.” Where does that come from?
Stevie is really into the poet Charles Bukowski, who in the book War All the Time lays out some sort of backwards rating system for people, tied into how looks can hinder one’s personality. The title is fitting, considering our “misfits” thing. Stevie was more into playing music than rugby. I fucking love rugby, but for the lads, if you’re not into rugby, it kind of goes over people’s heads.

So how did growing up as misfits shape your music?
When you write, it’s medicinal. You’re writing about your own experience. Dublin’s a great place, and I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up anywhere else, but it’s a small place, slightly isolated, and there isn’t that much to do when you’re young. There’s a huge music scene in Dublin, but not when you’re 15. When you’re 15, you don’t have the opportunity to go into a bar and play a gig, you have to find an alternative way to play. Maybe even entering competitions you don’t want to play, if that’s the only opportunity you have.

And that means that you guys formed for a battle of the bands?
I wasn’t actually in Little Green Cars for that. The battle of the bands was pre-me. But I was in the crowd and I had a t-shirt that said “Little Green Cars,” which is really embarrassing. But I suppose people who write music usually have some crazy, messed up emotional charge. Music people are a bit more dramatic, a bit more attention seeking, and they have to find ways to let that out.

Ireland’s a strong Catholic country, does that impact you guys at all?
It’s not the same as it used to be. I consider myself to be Roman Catholic, though I don’t practice it. Religion is present, in the education, in school stuff that goes on. It’s still there, it always has some presence in you.

How often would you practice, meet up?
When we were in school, we played once a week. Me and Adam and Steve would skip school a bit and go to Steve’s house and mess around. The parents didn’t know we were there. They had a shed in the back garden and we’d go over and mess around.

Everyone still close, no falling out?
When you know someone for five years, and you’re changing over that time, drastically, stuff goes up and down. But it seems like we’re in a good place right now. Fingers crossed.

How do you guys split the songwriting?
Stevie is probably more prominent than me. I started writing because he did. I wanted to hang around people who did that kind of stuff, and I thought, “fuck it, I’ll try this.” So usually, Steven or me will go away and we’ll have this bare, raw melody, chords, lyrics. It’s collaborative because it sounds completely different than when we’re finished.

For you, have there been any formative experiences that you draw off of to write songs?
When we started, my mom would knock on the door and be like, “Is that a new song!?” and I’d be like, “Leave me alone!”  It’d be unfair for me to say I’m writing for others — for me, it’s a selfish thing, although I don’t always write about personal experiences. I find it quite difficult to do that, especially when you’re with a group of people who know exactly what you’re talking about.

You’ve been working together since 15, but now you’ve hit this fast shift, getting picked up by Glassnote, making the BBC list, and it seems like it’s all coming together? Any pressure from that?
If you pay too much attention to it, it’s a bit of a hindrance. Pressure only comes from myself. If everyone likes it, you’re a bit identity-less. I’m not afraid of criticism. I just don’t want to get a high or low from reading stuff someone has written. I’d rather create my own. As Kanye West once said, “everything I’m not makes me everything I am.”

What is it about the UK acts blossoming all at the same time right now?
Bands went out of fashion a bit, so I think there’s a gap in the market for people to get together and make some music.

When your manager approached you guys about starting a band, he pitched you on passing up university to try and make it. Seems like a big risk.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do but knew I wanted to do this. None of us is blessed with the gift of foresight but this was the best option. My parents wanted stability, everyone wants that, and while it was tough for them initially, ultimately if I was happy they were happy. Growing up, we really didn’t get to travel all that much and for my parents, they’ve always wanted to travel, so this is an amazing opportunity.

What’s it been like working with Markus Dravs? 
I was obsessed with all the stuff he’d done. Wall of Arms was my favorite, and there was the Arcade Fire and Bjork stuff. When we met him, he wanted to maintain the live feeling we had, and coming from him, that was huge. We were apprehensive, when we met him, that he would just wave a wand and turn us into something, but we loved the music he’d done and wanted to work with him. We just trusted him so much because he wanted to capture what we had done. It was the first time we actually felt like we were artists.

Finally, this is your second time in the US, so what’s it like, the Irish coming to America?
This time has been way more intense, like we’ve be in three states in two days. It’s amazing because we’ll play a variety of sized venues. We’ve done a few sold out shows and we’ve done some with about 25 people. South By Southwest was a bit intense. We had a crazy homeless guy chasing after us, screaming “help me,” and we were shooting a music video at the time.

It’s funny being on the road, I absolutely love it, but you have to make time to appreciate it. You can be on a van for eight hours, see the inside of a venue, and then be in a van again. You have to make yourself get off your arse and look around. The problem with Dublin is that it’s so small that there are only so many venues you can play before you over play it. And if you don’t play enough, people don’t think you want to play. It’s tough for a lot of Irish musicians, I think they need to go away to come back home.

 

Nathan Martin, formerly a reporter in Mississippi and an editor at the Washington Post Express, works at an education technology company and wonders how many people wish they had skipped university and started a band.

 

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