FOREWORD: Impressive Dublin quintet, the Thrills, deserve better American recognition. I never even heard their ’07 album, Teenager. But in ’03, the guys took off from Ireland for sunny California seeking musical stimulation. The result, So Much For The City, brought critical plaudits. ‘04s Let’s Bottle Bohemia (featuring Van Dyke Parks idiosyncratic orchestral input) was nearly as good. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Growing up as neighborhood friends in damp, urban Dublin, Ireland, singer-songwriter Conor Deasy and guitarist Daniel Ryan earned their stripes in novice high school bands coined the Legal Eagles, which Deasy claims “lasted three hours,” and the Cheating Housewives. But after bumming around working ponderous day jobs, the duo plus fellow schoolyard chums Kevin Horan (keys), Padraic Mc Mahon (guitar), and Ben Carrigan (drums) took summer trips to sunny California in ’99 and 2000 to invigorate their weary post-adolescent souls and revitalize their musical passion as the Thrills.
Despite having to snub scurvy local label meddlers early on, the Thrills luckily caught the ears of famed ex-Smiths pop icon Morrissey, Oasis’ co-founder Noel Gallagher, U2’s Larry Mullen, and finally, Virgin Records. Rush-released in autumn 2003, the stunningly Country-licked So Much For The City proved to be a magnificent achievement, earnestly celebrating and glorifying the Golden State with a keen outsiders’ perspective. Though they carefully retreat to ‘60s influences such as the Beach Boys, Byrds, and Bacharach, there’s no denying the timeless oceanic splendor and lilting laid-back lull these breezy beachcomber portraits reflect on this humbly confident debut.
In a quivery hushed tenor, Deasy yearns for the Left Coast with plaintive restraint on the supine surf city serenade “Santa Cruz (You’re Not That Far).” Heading further South past Monterey, the banjo-fortified “Big Sur” strolls through a “steamboat show” nearby desert rock renegades the Shins and Beachwood Sparks would appreciate. Before “One Horse Town” comes stumbling in with its lusciously uplifting harmonic crescendo and vibrant Who-like guitar signature, Deasy’s at his most succulently seductive on the slow piano illumination, “Deckchairs And Cigarettes.”
The beautiful symphonic ballad “Old Friends New Lovers” – delivered in a sinewy croon similar to Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle (ironically or not, a California native) – almost slips into Lee Hazelwood’s spaghetti Western James Bond theme, “You Only Live Twice.” Beyond the snuggly sunset sedation of “Hollywood Kids” and the equally dusky bedtime lullaby “Just Travelling Through,” the Thrills trek eastward for the fleeting love tryst “Your Love Is Like Las Vegas.” And I’ll be damned if guest Sneaky Pete Kleinow’s steel guitar on “Say It Ain’t So” doesn’t conjure memories of the high plains Country-folk he created with Gram Parsons in the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Who were your formative influences?
CONOR DEASY: Daniel (Ryan) and I grew up with rock and roll, raiding our parents Simon & Garfunkle, Beatles, and Beach Boys collection. He grew up next door. We’d swap records all the time. As we got older, Country unconsciously crept in. It dawned on me that many of my favorite Rolling Stones songs were “Wild Horses” and “Honky Tonk Women.” I remember picking up Neil Young’s Harvest purely because I knew the album cover so well. I thought, ‘Surely this has got to be good.’ These artists are connected like a family tree. You got to Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Johnny Cash, and Gram Parsons.
Parsons lived out West. His music seems to inform the Thrills California muse.
CONOR: We were all pissed off growing up in one place waiting to see someplace else. We moved to San Diego and had an incredible four months living on the beach, picking up little jobs to keep a money flow. We found a naïve internet music club giving away free CD’s. We made the best of the situation, came back to Ireland, and threw ourselves back into the band.
What part of San Diego did you live at – Mission Beach?
CONOR: Yeah. We were in a house behind Tang Records, a punk vinyl store. We learned to body surf.
“Big Sur” reminded me of driving down scenic Route 1A from San Francisco.
CONOR: We used to drive down from San Francisco when we lived in the Castro section temporarily a year later. We’d get a Rent-A-Wreck car, drive down to Santa Cruz, then Santa Barbara. “Big Sur” is the kind of place you can imagine spending time in and never getting over it. The barren beaches that aren’t overly commercialized caught our attention. The song is about someone dwelling in the past, which is something we’re guilty of. You should be looking forward to life instead of reliving the past. Many people hang on to the ‘60s myth. That’s why that Monkees line is in there. It summed up the mood even though it cost us 15% for publishing. (laugh)
Was the somber “Deckchairs And Cigarettes” your first California-inspired track?
CONOR: That and “Don’t Steal Our Sun” were written in San Diego. “Deckchair” is a simple end of summer Blues song. All the optimism that goes with one of those great summers of your youth you think will never end, but then realize you have to deal with real life and all that boring shit. In our case, go back to rainy, cold Dublin. So it’s a sad song.
The lush ballad, “Old Friends New Lovers,” features gorgeous strings.
CONOR: That one string arrangement was an amazing experience. We got David Campbell, an amazing arranger who’s worked with Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson. The melodies and little bits were already done, but he accentuated it with beautiful strings that never veered into that crass, pompous Goo Goo Dolls orchestration. It was subtle, mixed in with no overkill, capturing the songs’ mood.
Amazingly, The Thrills opened for Morrissey at Royal Albert Hall. I’d thought he quit music.
CONOR: He’s recording at the moment. He was without a record deal for five years and decided to tour to get interest going. New songs like “Mexico” and one about a Mexican gang in New York settling a rivalry are amazing. He had a place in west Ireland’s Cork, came across our demo, and loved “One Horse Town.” He came to see us in our tiny practice room. It was a bizarre experience. He offered a support spot in America but we couldn’t afford it. We hadn’t had a deal by 2001. Then, he came back weeks later and said, ‘How’d you like to support me in Royal Albert Hall?’ We were a couple weeks away from making the record in America. We hadn’t played in front of more than 100 people. We expected our first London show to be in a swaggy little Camden club with cynical gin-soaked industry-types. Instead, we got to play in front of 5,000 Morrissey maniacs.
Compare American versus U.K. audiences.
CONOR: Venues were smaller when we did our first ’03 American tour. The problem with upcoming U.K. bands is many have success out here, then have to re-pay their dues in America. That’s too much of a dent to their rock star ego. But we don’t care about the venue size as long as the crowd is up for it. I’ve done big gigs where the atmosphere wasn’t there. I’ve done small American clubs that were packed, sweaty, and real good.
How’s the Dublin scene?
CONOR: For ten years, there’s been many manufactured boy bands which haven’t taken off in America. In Europe, they’re huge. So the perception of Irish music hasn’t been great lately. But homegrown artists such as Damien Rice are getting through. David Kitt and Gemma Hayes – who’s on tour with the Counting Crows – are good. Rough Trade signed Irish band Hal, whose debut comes out in ’04.
Take me through The Thrills video catalogue.
CONOR: We’re on our fourth single here, but in America, we’re on our first, “One Horse Town.” We did a lo-fi black and white video the day after the record was done so we were all worse for wear and hungover. The record company wanted us to do an expensive video, but we stuck to our guns and our friend shot a simple video with a Super 8 camera. Then, we did a bigger one with Diane Martel, who’s done NERD videos for “Rock Star” and “Provider.” We were one of the first guitar bands she’d worked with. We were pushed into a pool and ended up in a hazy surreal setting. Then, we did a video for “Santa Cruz,” which involved us in a strip tease with girls watching us play songs, get carried away, smash glasses, and mob us. Lastly, we did “Don’t Steal Our Sun” in L.A. We had these great basketball players on the court kicking our asses, but halfway through we get into our flow and pull off these crazy moves.
CONOR: It’ll be edgier. It’d be phony to write the same type of songs. Once a band parodies itself, it’s not interesting. Records should document what’s going on in your life at that time, which our debut does. The flavor of the debut will be there, but twisted more. Lyrically, it’ll lean in a different upbeat direction.