Hinterland

ALWAYS THE QUIET ONE

 

One of the more pleasing aspects to The Trashcan Sinatras’ recent live appearance in Dublin’s Workman’s Club was the size of the crowd. Although the show was a fully seated one and the space in the room curtailed as a result, it was still sold out well in advance of the band’s return to a city where, over the last twenty-five years and in an array of different venues – some of them, thankfully, long razed to the ground –they’ve struggled to attract any audiences at all.

 
I’ve been there with The Trashcans from the start and I’m certain I’ll be there with them at the end. And in reminding myself of that, I’m stoutly ignoring the last two decades of whats been almost absolute apathy and wide-scale indifference towards them and their work. But there are others like me out there too, clearly, and its either the mind-bending effect of the remarkable summer heat, twenty years of word of mouth, the power of the internet – or all three – that’s brought us together under the one roof, of a Tuesday night, in Dublin, during the heart of the holidays.

 
The Trashcans are far more master craftsmen than Golden Pages-listed snagsmiths and, back in the city for the fifth or sixth time since 1996, they’ve maybe finally found a Dublin venue that suits them and that doesn’t impede what they’re trying to do? Down on the south quays, within touching distance of The Clarence Hotel – a gaudy monument to size, scale, success and the very antithesis of The Trashcans and whatever it is they’ve achieved – The Workmans is easily one of the best venues in the country for this mild-mannered, strictly middle-aged carry-on. Small enough to be able to read the set-lists from the front rows if you can extend your neck far enough and cavernous enough around the back to lose oneself if needs be.

 
But I like The Workman’s best, I think, because it lends itself to the soft and the silent, neither of which I get half enough of. And so because of that, The Trashcans – stripped back to an acoustic three-piece to play their first two albums, the rascally first-born Cake’ and it’s imperious, more sedate follow-up, ‘I’ve Seen Everything’ – are already ahead on away goals before they’ve even left the dressing rooms. Throughout the long show – there’s even a welcome interval that’s used variously as a toilet break, beer stop and an opportunity for one loud, feuding couple to resolve a running row they’ve been having since just after the band came on-stage – their set is sprinkled with hush. And is received with a reverence last seen when my late mother famously hosted The Stations Of The Cross in our house one time back in the early 1980s.

 
I’ve never been convinced that popular alternative music, particularly in Ireland, has ever felt completely comfortable in the calm. Almost exclusively since Rory Gallagher was in his pomp– and, to be fair to him, he could do slow and serene with the best of them – far too much of it has been plagued by fever and speed. And of course its long been a useful mask :- many’s the outfit who’ve covered over their obvious creative cracks with a battery of pedals and effects, absolute on power-drive and, whenever in doubt, just went one louder. So much so that you’d think we’re nursing a decades-long, post-showbands hang-over where there’s a deficiency to the natural order if audiences don’t go home sweating.

 
Regular Sentinel subscribers will know all about the soft, kindly magic that races through Hinterland’s 1990 album, ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’, the Dublin band’s only long-form release on a major label. And although it’s far from a perfect record – it’s lyrically clumsy in part, it mistakes introspection for heavy-handed nostalgia elsewhere etc – there’s real beauty in its vulnerability. ‘Kissing’ is a dark, lonely record that isn’t afraid to let the silence sit and play a part.

 

From the first time I saw Donal Coghlan and Gerry Leonard perform the sullen single, ‘Dark Hill’ on an RTÉ youth magazine show back in the late 1980s, I was sold. Hinterland were elusive and out on a limb and, although both of them had good cutting and obvious form, I wasn’t surprised to hear that they were a studio-construct, to all intents, who rarely ventured outside the bunker or breached the fourth wall.

 

 

Ten years after them, Ten Speed Racer were in the vanguard of another wave of fine, spiky Dublin guitar bands, many of them seduced by pedal power. Like another excellent local outfit making hay at the time, Bawl [later Fixed Stars and then Pony Club], they also featured three brothers – Dermot, John and Patrick Barrett – among their number. But that novelty aside, they had plenty more to recommend them :- The Racers were a full-bodied outfit cut from the same layered, pop-smart traditions as Silver Sun and Posies who, over the course of their career, released two decent elpees and held their own as best as anyone. For the sake of reference and by way of an introduction, I respectfully suggest both ‘By My Side’ and ‘Fifteen’ from the band’s second, self-titled album and ‘Don’t Go Out’, from their ‘Girls And Magazines’ EP. Which, apart from its obvious affability, also hints at what one of the band, guitarist Joe Chester, would do with his subsequent solo career.

 
And some of 10SR’s various components are still at it. Like David Long of Into Paradise, about whom I’ve recently written here, there comes a point where its just impossible to turn back or change the horse. Joe Chester is easily The Racers’ best-known graduate ;- he quickly found a vocational calling as a sure-footed producer and arranger but, as a writer and performer in his own right has also released some of the most endearing records in the recent history of mildly alternative Irish music.

 

For the last decade or so, he’s worked alongside another of his former bandmates, Patrick Barrett, on a loosely-assembled but stylishly-fitted outfit called The Hedge Schools who, earlier this year, released their third album, ‘Magnificent Birds’, one of the most under-regarded but quietly impactful Irish issues of the last twelve months. It’s the assembly’s third long-player in ten years and, in their current guise at least, the last :- a couple of short messages posted recently on-line by the co-leads suggest that they’ve amicably drawn a line in the sand. And hinting too that this fine, vocational work will continue in some way, shape or form in the future.

 
And so, as one phase is boxed off, it’s probably only fair to approximate an Irish band that never really existed as a band at all and who, because they don’t do boisterous, struggled to ever have their voices heard over the clatter. Its a line once walked, to similar effect and with the same sort of purpose, by Hinterland.

 
But placing them, even for the sake of critical reference, is a hard ask and they’re difficult enough to catalogue ;– too rounded to be truly alternative, too dark to be wholly popular, often just too quiet to be heard. Structurally they’re cut from the same seam and have the same broad shape as This Mortal Coil in as much as Barrett’s songs are enabled by his producer – acting betimes more like an interpreter – and then hand-polished by a small cohort of like-minded guests. Its an exercise in discretion, pretty much, and often not much more than the sound of silence. And all three Hedge Schools albums are beautiful, velvet affairs because of that.

 

The band’s second long-player, ‘At The End Of A Winding Day’ [2015], for instance, features a typically minimal use of percussion and the first lonely, almost reluctant jab appears only introduced towards the end of the record’s last track. Lyrically, meanwhile, The Hedge Schools’ songs are forever on the run :- Barrett’s material is awash with ghosts, past and present, and its fair to assume that they’ll never be heard in weight-rooms, during motivational seminars or on any broadcast medium until well after the watershed.

 
The writer himself covers the background to ‘Magnificent Birds’ in detail on a recent pod-casted conversation with Cathal Funge, so its not really necessary for us to dig much further into the creative origins here. But it’s safe to say that the material continues along established lines :- the songs are at the same time proud and shy, personal and slow-moving. Barret is literally singing all his cares away, his terrific voice given air by his producer on a record that, in respect of a general theme, confronts the vagaries of family life.

 
One song is about his elderly mother, another about his daughter and much of the rest of the record snapshots the break-up of a long-term relationship. All standard lyrical tropes for sure, but they’re dealt with here in a manner I’ve not encountered on a domestic release since ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’, where a similar use is made of the space.

 

And that’s reflected best, perhaps, on ‘Magnificent Birds’ standout, ‘Still, Life’, where Barrett’s fine voice is captured beautifully over a plaintive piano line, redolent of both ‘Puncture Repair’ by Elbow and maybe not entirely co-incidentally – the saddest song in all of contemporary alternative music, The Blue Nile’s ‘Family Life’ – and emerges screaming through the whisper.

 
But the tone has, by then, long been set :- the title track and the record’s lead cut, opens and closes with what sounds like a long, low note on an old, foot-powered church harmonium, not so much a statement of intent but, rather, a call to prayer. And that mood endures, more or less, for the guts of the hour :- on ‘The Flood’, ‘Undertow’ and ‘Navigate’, ‘Magnificent Birds’ is a search for healing that wouldn’t be out of place at a Novena.

 

To that extent its perfectly in tune with the last Joe Chester album, ‘The Easter Vigil’, which we’ve previously dealt with in detail here and which may well be its great sister piece. The sphere of influence and musical reference extends as widely as you’d expect, from Shelleyan Orphan to The Gloaming and various points in between, while the lyrical ambition is rooted in the soft, personal meditation that underscores much of the work of Van Morrison, especially his mid-1980s albums, ‘No Guru, No Method, No Teacher’ and ‘Poetic Champions Compose’.

 
And so its maybe no surprise that I can’t listen to The Hedge Schools without feeling the  iconic pull of Seán Ó Riada’s ‘Ceol An Aifrinn’, to which many of us of a certain age were first exposed in primary school. A musical accompaniment in the Irish language for a Catholic mass that was initially performed fifty years ago, ‘Ceol An Aifrinn’ is easily one of the most enduring and distinctive pieces of contemporary composition in the creative history of the state.

 

And which, coming at it decades later and knowing far more about ourselves and the more complicated and darker aspects of our own history, might easily have been sub-titled ‘Did Ye Get Healed ?’.

 

SWIM

Swim were cut apart from their peers on the Dublin circuit during the late eighties and early nineties on many levels and it was easy to see, and even easier to hear, exactly why. For one, they weren’t a routine guitar band dipped in the spirit of either The Smiths and/or R.E.M. and, maybe more importantly, they made no secret of their ambitions. ‘What we’d probably like to do’, the band’s formidable singer, Joe Reilly, told an RTÉ music series called ‘Check It Out’ back in 1989, ‘is get signed and make lots of money’.

Reilly was Swim’s pivot and, around him, a band of excellent musicians added heft to his imposing tenor on songs written, initially, with Donegal-born keyboard player, John McCrea. And later, in a second, short-lived iteration, guitarist Pat Donne. The fact that they were all strong, proficient players made Swim a real curiousity: the pulling, dragging and primal squall of indie guitars just didn’t interest them. Instinctively drawn more to the chrome and leather of The Bailey than the spit and sawdust of The White Horse, their pitch aspired to the broad and grand: Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’, Roxy Music’s ‘Avalon’ and Love And Money’s second album, ‘Strange Kind Of Love’. Even if the end result often sounded closer to the full-bodied, if often lumpy, pop sound of Deacon Blue than it did to the knotted, jazz-wash of ‘Deacon Blues’, I still marked them up for ambition.

Swim’s bloodline went back to Geoffrey’s First Affair, a curious Dublin outfit with sassy intentions who flirted briefly with infamy when Larry Mullen produced their debut single, ‘And The Days Go By’ for Solid Records in 1986. Comprised initially of singer Ed Darragh, John McCrea and guitarist Hughie Purcell – and later, also featuring drummer Dave Dawson – their friendly pop/soul sound quickly disappeared up a cul-de-sac. But when McCrea and Joe Reilly formed Swim shortly thereafter, they brought with them similar aspirations. With a line-up completed by bassist Paul Holmes, guitarist Niall Conheady and Paul Daly on saxophone, Swim were also unusual in that, for an emerging, well-connected Dublin group cutting a shape around town during the late 1980s, they had an ambivalent relationship with Hot Press, then as now the country’s dominant music magazine.

One review in particular, from the late Bill Graham, was especially savage: ‘Their only value’, he concluded, ‘is that they epitomise every possible Irish mistake of 1988, a mismatch of thoughtless style and null content’. Now, the late Bill Graham is rightly lauded as one of Ireland’s finest critics and music writers and, to many of a certain age, enjoys a mythical status: he often brought a wide span of reference to his work, much of which borrowed from academic constructs and tropes. But the line of critical thinking he applied to Swim was also relevant to many of the other Irish groups hawking their wares during that period and by whom Hot Press, for whatever reasons, seemed to be consistently seduced.

Even Swim’s cheerleaders tended to water down their enthusiasm for them in public: the band just didn’t display the kind of unbridled rock and roll chops for which Hot Press was keeping Ireland safe. A point not lost either on those who saw Swim in Sir Henry’s in Cork at the end of the 1980s, most of whom were left positively underwhelmed. I’ve written previously about how that venue could often be unforgiving and cold, a bleak spot whenever the mood took her, that swallowed many an unsuspecting band whole. A core of the venue’s regulars were, for years, blindly loyal to the brass-neck cartoonery of The Golden Horde – for whom Bill Graham had a real soft spot – and the splayed shapes of Blue In Heaven, both of whom attracted unstinting devotion in Cork simply because, to my mind, they just did unfiltered, full-frontal coercion. In front of that sort of a crowd, Swim were onto an absolute battering.

This only stoked up the contrarian in me. While Swim sounded far too rigid and linear to ever be wholly essential, I still thought there was room somewhere for their hand-washed brand of adult-orientated pop music and that, in their fresh denims and roll-necks, they just had a different kind of cutting to them. And Gary Katz, Steely Dan’s long-time producer, maybe thought so too: after Swim signed a major label deal with MCA, he agreed to produce the band’s first album.

Over the years, Ireland has made several noble stabs at the more developed, smarter end of the pop market: later-period Microdisney, The Fat Lady Sings, Hinterland, The Four Of Us, The Thrills and, more recently, Little Green Cars, all loosely occupy this space, each of them sculpting their bodies with the help of interesting supplements and nutrients, often layered keys and loops. It was to The Fat Lady Sings’ credit, for instance, that they took on conventional taste laws and added, on occasion, a piano accordion to their normal floor-routine. While The Thrills bravely raised the stakes when they unfurled a banjo into their frontline around the time of their third album, ‘Teenager’, admittedly as their career was drifting in the roaring forties .

Swim are very much a part of this number even if, like Hinterland – another local act far more at home within the controlled air of the studio than on the live stage – they barely register in the histories of recent Irish popular music. Substantial information about them is difficult to find and, with the band’s only album long deleted and almost impossible to locate, it’s as if someone has deliberately purged them. But for a couple of years, as they played the arenas with Cher and Fleetwood Mac, and enjoyed major label patronage, they had much going on.

‘Sundrive Road’, the group’s first and only album, was released in the summer of 1990, recorded at Ridge Farm in Surrey and over-dubbed and mixed at length at various locations in Ireland, England and New York. Named after the road in Crumlin where Reilly grew up, it was a stylish and well-appointed affair that, in a local context, sat utterly out of time with it’s surroundings. While Swim aspired to the urbane, around them the domestic market had become increasingly pock-marked by what the late George Byrne termed ‘designer bogmen’, many of them based in or deriving from the west of Ireland.

From Tuam in County Galway, The Sawdoctors made smart, eloquent noises about rural dislocation, small- town disaffection and the spirit of the unlikely under-dog that were undone, ultimately, by the absolute paucity of the band’s material. Which, despite the lofty claims of it’s authors, was more brucellosis than Bruce. Down the road, meanwhile, The Waterboys had become the latest victims of the Galway city flytrap: having taken an eternity to complete the permeable ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, and now about to release it’s lesser follow-up, ‘Room To Roam’, their sound had become infected by the rash of unruly raggle-taggle that had long popped the air around Shop Street and Mainguard. While The Stunning, on the lumpier end of the distinctly average, were on a scarcely believable upward curve that saw them head-line the outdoor Féile festival in Semple Stadium, Thurles in 1993. With it’s lacquered finish and subtle production tricks, ‘Sundrive Road’ was belligerently out of line and, in it’s own way, an affront.

Gary Katz had produced all of Steely Dan’s records and, by the middle of 1990, had also just completed the first sessions for what would later become Paul Brady’s ‘Trick Or Treat’ album. But in keeping with much of the Swim story, ‘Sundrive Road’ isn’t acknowledged on the producer’s discography on his own website. And yet Katz’s fingerprints are all over the record: indeed one of the most truly arresting aspects of the record is the sheer calibre of the numerous session players engaged by him to augment the core sound. The credits list on ‘Sundrive Road’ makes for remarkable reading, noting contributions by many incredible players and performers, all of them pulled readily, you’d suspect, from the producer’s rolodex.

Among those who feature on the record are Fonzi Thornton, one of the most decorated and in-demand backing vocalists of the last forty years and who features on records by Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Ray Charles and a litany of others. The late Paul Griffin added Hammond organ on a couple of tracks, as he did previously on the likes of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, ‘Blonde On Blonde’ and ‘Aja’ itself. Hugh McCracken – another stellar session player whose name features on those interminable Steely Dan credits – contributes harmonica, having previously done do with everyone from Billy Joel to Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel to Dionne Warwick. While saxophonist Lou Marini had previously appeared in both Blues Brothers films, was at one point a member of Blood, Sweat and Tears and boasts a string of other session credits to his name. Whether Swim were aware at the time exactly who they were dealing with isn’t clear.

And yet for all that, I still think that Swim could have done more to help their own cause. Long-time watchers – and there were at least ten of us – were mildly surprised to see that one of their most impactful early songs, ‘There Like An Angel’, a staple of their live sets that tailed off in a burst of twinned saxophone lines, hadn’t made the final cut, held in reserve, instead, as a future B-side. Indeed there was relatively little sax on the record at all: one of the group’s long-standing calling cards had been stripped right back, the gaps filled instead with lines and lines of subtle guitars and added vocal parts.

Elsewhere, ‘So Long Manhattan’, another of Swim’s centre-pieces, was slowed and stripped, a one-time show-stealer denuded, it’s strength lost to the barber’s blade. It was the titles, though, that really told the tale of the tape. ‘Buffaloes’, ‘Road’, ‘Harbour’ and and ‘Christmas In Colorado’ – as well, of course, as ‘So Long Manhattan’ – were all migration songs of a sort, yearning variously for wide plains, warm boozers and home comforts and, in his gut, Reilly was torn between the cosiness of the familiar and the uncertain promise of the faraway field.

The opener, ‘I Believe’, with it’s full-bodied piano thump, wouldn’t have been out of place on any of the first three Deacon Blue records: indeed Ger Kiely’s guitar parts borrowed freely from the late Graeme Kelling who, with no little style, deftly joined the dots on ‘Raintown’ and ‘When The World Knows Your Name’, especially. And with shades too of Love And Money and Danny Wilson’s excellent debut album ‘Meet Danny Wilson’, ‘Sundrive Road’ generally resounded to the ache of the readily recognizable. But it was when the group went off script and opened up the arc a bit that it was at it’s most impactful: ‘Wonderful Thunder’, the record’s closer and the only one of the dozen written by bass-player Paul Holmes with Reilly, may well have been a random studio doodle and yet, with it’s soft keyboard push, wouldn’t have been out of place on Prefab Sprout’s ‘Jordan : The Comeback’. In trailing off, ‘Sundrive Road’ hints at what might have been.

But of course the whole enterprise was doomed to fail anyway. After all, Swim were simply following a three-act story-line familiar to many Irish bands that went before them and many more again who came after. Signed to a major label in a hail of activity, sustained cheaply on a wage for twelve months with the odd bone thrown from the top table, then dumped without a whisper after a single, contractually obligatory album. Once the singles, ‘I Believe’ and ‘Rachel’, failed to detonate, they were over and out, Swim’s genetic profile making the parting as practical as it was inevitable.

But they did, in a roundabout way, make at least one significant and long-standing contribution to the course of popular Irish music during the 1990s. With Swim’s corpse still warm, the band’s drummer, Dave Dawson, replaced Dermot Wylie behind the traps with A House, just as the Walkinstown band was about to enter the most articulate and successful phase of it’s career, immediately prior to the recording of ‘I Am The Greatest’. Dawson was an absolute machine who worked his way effortlessly around the kit and, alongside Martin Healy on bass, built A House a formidable, energy-efficient foundation on their last three albums. To me, he’s easily up there alongside the likes of Fran Breen and Noel Bridgeman as one of the country’s finest ever drummers. Now married and living in America, he packed the biscuit tins away years ago and no longer plays.

And what of his one-time band-mates in Swim ? Well, Joe Reilly and Paul Holmes were still dabbling with the dark arts up to relatively recently even if, beyond the odd on-line post, not a whole lot else has been made known. Ger Kiely is still a familiar presence as a session player and, formidable across a wide range of styles, is likely to turn up anywhere and with anyone: among many other things, he also composes these days for radio comedy output. John McCrea, another terrific player with a mighty range and a broad field of vision, has composed and scored more classical-rooted material for bespoke film and art projects and runs a music school in south county Dublin.

CODA :- Given the lack of basic research material on Swim as outlined above, I owe another debt to my friend, Chris O’Brien, the producer and engineer who, once again, went back into his diaries and who pulled all of the factual threads here into order for us. That man, and his diaries, should be protected by some sort of national heritage order.

HINTERLAND

Hinterland [noun] :- The back of beyond, the middle of nowhere, the backwoods, the wilds, the bush, remote areas, a backwater.

If nothing else, they certainly choose the name well. Twenty-six years after the release of their excellent album, ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’, you’ll struggle to find Hinterland mentioned in even the grass verges of contemporary Irish music history. Apart from their only long-player and the singles cut from it – the brooding ‘Dark Hill’ and ‘Desert Boots’, the breezy and most out-of-character chart hit – and one or two other minor issues, they’ve left little behind by way of prints and hard evidence. The usual on-line outlets are pretty scant on supporting detail and even the Hot Press digital archive which, to its credit, is usually a deep resource is, in this instance, practically empty.

And I suppose in many ways it’s always been thus. Hinterland never really ran with the pack and, even while signed to Island Records during the peak of the post-U2 insanity around Dublin, were generally regarded as an oddity. While lesser outfits made great welcomes for themselves, Hinterland were rarely seen and seldom heard ;- little was really known of them and they tended to give nothing away.

David Bowie’s death brought Gerry Leonard out from the shadows again and, once more, onto the national airwaves. The Dublin-born guitarist, now trading as Spooky Ghost had, for the previous fifteen years, been at Bowie’s elbow as a member of his backing band and as a sometime collaborator. Thirty years back, he was Donal Coghlan’s other half in Hinterland, a two-man operation that, according to Coghlan’s notes on a long-neglected website, formed in Denmark on January 7th, 1987.

Both Coghlan and Leonard had served their time on the Dublin circuit during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Leonard most notably with Above The Thunderclouds [who, for genealogists, also featured Joey Barry, later of Thee Amazing Colossal Men and Compulsion] and The Spies. Coghlan had featured in The Departure – alongside a former RTÉ colleague of mine, Declan Lucas – but, beyond that, had tended to keep his distance.

Hinterland fell out of nowhere, more or less. By 1988, Dublin was often characterised as ‘the city of a thousand rock bands’ and, in the aftermath of U2’s breakthrough in America, was certainly a city caught in the footlights. We’ve dealt with this in a couple of previous posts, and those are available here and here. If Dublin was defined then by any dominant sound, it was the sound of crudely lashed guitars. And if it had a defining career path, that path started on the live stages in the dive bars and venues around the borough. Dublin’s best known bands of the period – U2 themselves, Aslan, Something Happens, The Slowest Clock, The Stars Of Heaven, Blue In Heaven, A House, Guernica – were all compelling live draws who’d cut their teeth in the dens. Reputations were hard earned – and as easily lost – on the unsteady stages in The Underground, The Baggot Inn, McGonagles, The White Horse, The New Inn and elsewhere. And many’s the callow, impressionable four or five piece that was simply swallowed whole and spat back out into the spray, finished.

In the decades before smart technology so drastically re-wrote the rules of the process, most local recordings were made in the various studios that had sprung up around the city. Even the cutting of demo material was often newsworthy stuff to anoraks and alickadoos and word was quick to get around about who was doing what, with whom and where. Like another of their peers, Swim, Hinterland were far more comfortable within the confined parameters of the studio and, having returned to Dublin, both Coghlan and Leonard were working out of a small recording facility on Aungier Street. The two-man line-up gave Hinterland a real cohesion but, like Steve Belton and Pat O’Donnell before them [and maybe We Cut Corners after them ?], restricted their impact as a live act. Where, despite the many sequenced sounds, loops and tapes brought into play, the subtleties at the core of their material ran the risk of being lost in unreliable live mixes and unwelcoming venues.

Like Belton and O’Donnell – who eventually augmented their ranks and re-positioned themselves as The Fountainhead – Hinterland were managed by Kieran Owens, a canny operator with excellent ears who, like many of the acts he worked with, is often under-appreciated in the history of that period. It was Owens who over-saw the band’s deal with Island Records – signed on the strength of strong demo tapes alone – and who brokered Hinterland’s relationship with the young Newbridge-raised producer and engineer, Chris O’Brien with whom, on April 27th, 1989, Donal Coghlan and Gerry Leonard began work on what was to be the band’s first and only album.

Like many before and after them, Hinterland’s career was pockmarked by a series of unfortunate events, many of them outside of their control and, in essence, they never really left the starting gate. Which, in many respects, only adds to their lustre. ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ is a brave, difficult record ;- it resides, for the sake of reference, in a drawer alongside ‘Til Tuesday, later-period Blue Nile and early-period Big Dish and it divided opinion on delivery. It’s a tender, gentle and unflinchingly personal collection of songs that, as well as piling on layers of nuanced sounds, doesn’t fear the space either. The record is at it’s most beautiful when it pauses for breath and crawls.

Chris remembers the record and the sessions that produced it fondly and was a real help to me as I sought to put flesh on some of my more crudely formed views on one of my favourite records. I owe him a real debt for dusting down his old diaries and for helping to join the dots.

‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ was put down over a fourteen week period in Ropewalk Studios in Ringsend in Dublin, even if much of it arrived pre-packed. Deep, ornate foundations had been laid by Leonard and Coghlan in their own small studio, where the vocals, guitars and keyboards were supported by ‘an Atari sequencer running Pro24 software’. That the band opted to record the album locally was typical ;- common practice at the time was to take long-form recording projects abroad, usually to the U.K.. But Hinterland were happier around the familiar ;- Ringsend was practically in their own back-yard.

Ropewalk was Dublin’s first fully digital studio and, once the band and studio crew fetched up, the primary objectives were to create a live drum sound and to layer-up and polish the general soundscape. Chris remembers the whole process in detail ;- he particularly recalls Gerry Leonard’s guitar sound [‘one of the three most recognisable players in Dublin, along with Ray Harman and The Edge, especially in his use of finger-picking and when he played slide’] and Donal’s lyrics, most of which were rooted in the darkly personal. The sessions were intensive and the working days were long ;- the core crew worked from 11 every morning until after midnight and the only concession to type was the catering that was provided daily on site. At one stage, Island’s flamboyant owner, Chris Blackwell, dropped by – replete in sunglasses and shorts – to listen to the work in progress and to cast an ear on the material.

The band was augmented during the recording – and later when they toured – by Wayne Sheehy, one of the country’s most physical and capable drummers and who, in a past life, had played with Cactus World News, among others. And yet on several tracks, his role was pared right back, often confined to complicated rhythms and rolls :- it was as if Coghlan and Leonard were challenging him, testing the cut of his gib.

 

 

But the playing throughout is magnificent and the record boasts many special moments. ‘Dark Hill’ apart, a soft magic runs through ‘Handle Me’ which, in my view, is the record’s heart. An unsettlingly personal song, it looks into the future and pictures the physical disintegration of a loyal lover’s spirit and body. Elsewhere, ‘Stanley’s Minutes’ records the death of ‘a down-and out from the The Iveagh Hostel’ in the shadows of the Pro Cathedral in Dublin and, over a trade-mark guitar entry concludes with a real cut ;- ‘Thanks be to God it wasn’t suicide. There’s no such thing as suicide’.

And there are others too ;- ‘Senior Romantics’, with it’s breathy backing vocals by Leslie Mooney, the airy ‘Galway Bay’ and ‘Dive The Deepest’ among the diadem. And although ‘Desert Boots’, with it’s rattle and pluck, is out of character with both the rest of the record and with the band’s song-book generally, the warm, Mumford-esque gallivant name-checks St. Anne’s Park in Raheny, The Dandelion Market and The Burrow Beach in Sutton on it’s breezy journey through Dublin city. It is, in its own way, as poignant a local snapshot of youth as Whipping Boy’s ‘When We Were Young’.

I can remember the first time I clapped eyes on Hinterland. ‘Jo Maxi’ was a popular youth series that dominated the tea-time schedules on what was then Network 2 during the late 1980s and that, to it’s credit, consistently supported all manner of new music, much of it Irish. Sat there one evening on a small studio rostrum in his fresh black denims, stacked-sole shoes and fisherman’s hat, Donal Coghlan looked typically disconcerted, humble. Gerry and himself gave a basic synopsis of Hinterland’s story, mentioned their deal with a major label and then one of the presenters cued a short clip of the ‘Dark Hill’ video.

Apart from a subsequent Late Late Show appearance in support of ‘Desert Boots’, a couple of minor jousts with myself on another youth series, ‘Scratch Saturday’ and an afternoon encounter with Ray D’Arcy and Zig and Zag on ‘The Den’, not a whole lot more remains in the video archive. The album came and went and the band headed out into the open in support of it, playing one particular blinder in De Lacy House in Cork and opening for Prefab Sprout [with whom, philosophically, the band was very aligned] on the ‘Jordan : The Comeback’ tour in The Point Depot in Dublin. ‘Desert Boots’, with it’s cutesy video and wide-screen notions, generated an amount of popular traction and airplay but, even then, you suspected that Hinterland were just a band out of time, destined to forever play catch-up.

In a terraced house in Ealing, West London, in 1991, myself and my landlord, Ken Sweeney, would marvel at them. Ken, who was recording for Setanta Records as Brian, had rescued me from a deranged set-up in a squat in Peckham and now, safe and warm and far away across town, we’d swap war stories in the evenings and talk long into the nights about Miracle Legion, Into Paradise and The Go-Betweens. Hinterland too were de-constructed at length in Ealing ;- I’d been sent a copy of ‘Resurrect’, a four-track E.P containing three new songs and also ‘Love Quarantine’, the magnificent ‘Desert Boots’ B-side that the band felt didn’t quite fit onto ‘Kissing The Roof of Heaven’, and we gorged on it. Donal and Gerry were looking ahead to a second album and were flouting their prowess with a handful of optimistic and ambitious songs, ‘Born Again [Excuse The Pun]’ most memorably among them.

But the ship failed to find port and, by 1994, Hinterland more or less ceased to be ;- the band’s efforts to crack the American market were unsuccessful and, eventually, they were let go by their record company. Hinterland exited the stage just as they’d entered onto it ;- quietly and without fanfare and to the sound of a loyal few clapping. When, years later, Donal Coghlan made a cameo appearance on Brian’s second Setanta album, 1999’s ‘Bring Trouble’, it completed a circle of sorts and also reminded a handful of us of what could, should and might have been.

By that stage, Gerry Leonard had already left Ireland for New York and, as he did so, Donal Coghlan repaired closer to home, coming to grips, literally, with the M.S., diagnosed years previously, that was impacting on his mobility, if not his spirit. It was only after the band had released ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ that he revealed his long struggle with the degenerative illness and, by so doing, maybe cast another light into some of the more personal songs on that album.

I last met Donal in 2000 in his apartment in Dublin city. He was in chipper form, confined increasingly to a wheelchair and was a proud father to a young son, Zac. The previous year he’d directed his first short film, ‘The Spa’, and had written another short, ‘Handy Andy’, both of which were made through the Lights, Disability, Action initiative and had been screened at The Galway Film Festival. He was, as always, terrific company, clear in his own mind that he’d left able-bodied society and wasn’t returning, already busy as a campaigner and advocate for disability issues.

I think about Donal Coghlan quite a bit and regularly return to ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ and, when I heard Gerry Leonard on radio paying tribute to David Bowie recently, he sprung across my mind once again. Donal Coghlan’s writing may not have re-defined popular music and the way we listened to it but, in his own way, has left it’s own kind of under-stated, under-regarded magic as a legacy.

Hinterland clearly mean little in the recent history of Irish popular music and, understandable as that is, they’re in good company. Into Paradise, Jubilee Allstars, Pony Club and Ten Speed Racer are among the notable others who, outside of the blind sadism of die-hards and anoraks, rarely command the acknowledgement they’re due. But ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’, with it’s stories and it’s screams, is always worth re-visiting and, knowing more now than we ever did back then, deserves an all-over re-appraisal.