Stephen Young & The Union, 'Duty Free 200'
Info: Stephen Young & The Union are a folk rock quintet that have been shaking things up since 2009. In many ways ahead of the pack on this side of the Atlantic and taking risks that paid off with the release of the excellent 2011 debut album, Wilderness Machine. Subsequent to the album release, the band received regular airplay on RTÉ Radio, BBC Radio Ulster and Phantom FM as well as receiving a host of positive reviews across the board. During the summer the band also played many festivals such as Vantastival and Electric Picnic with more shows coming up (see below). On the 24th of October they will be releasing the first single, 'Duty Free 200', from their upcoming sophomore album, Eagle Fort Rumble. In an interview with Stephen himself he gave a few clues as to what can be expected from the new album, and he's referenced a lot of musicians that long-time readers of the blog will know I have a healthy obsession with, so personally, I can't wait to hear it. A big thanks to Stephen for such considered answers and of course to the band for making such great music, without further ado...
Remy: At the time of your debut album release, Wilderness Machine, in 2011, your folk-rock sound was quite niche in terms of the music other bands were releasing, now in 2014 the genre seems to have really caught on with the younger generation, what would you put that down to?
Stephen: In 2011 you could see tide was kinda changing, the Electro thing was running out of a bit of steam and then shortly after you have bands like Mumford & Sons come along and whether you like em or not they did bring the folk scene to the masses. There were banjos on daytime radio... It's hard to put a finger on the exact point in the shift, but bands like the Raconteurs too came out before Wilderness Machine. While we were recording it they had Consolers Of The Lonely out and it was cool to hear Jack White go from The White Stripes to this. The move was back to Roots - folk, country, blues-influenced stuff... somewhere in the Stripes you always knew where he was coming from but here it was on record straight up. I mean Jack White is probably up there with Dave Grohl and Noel Gallagher as one of the most influential musicians and songwriters of my generation so all of a sudden it's like 'well Jack is doing it so it must be ok'. I knew a lot of guys that were listening to roots music but at that time to go on stage with a banjo or a mandolin or a fiddle that was set aside for a certain market and those guys were playing in the pubs on the outskirts of town, while the guys with little synths and drum pads were in the main venues. Now there's a more evenly-spread scene... and I think it's good and whatever the next 'thing' is it might come out of folk bands hanging out with electro bands who are hanging out with rock bands or whatever and it could lead to something cool.
Remy: Aside from the obvious influences, on tracks from your first album, for example, 'To Michelle', the vocals are quite close to Elton John and both vocals and music on the excellent opener ‘Rum & Coke’ remind me a lot of John Lennon’s solo stuff, apart from Americana, what other styles of music play a part in your sound?
Stephen: I think you're the first person to spot Elton John in 'To Michelle'.. yeah that's pretty much what I was aiming for... something off Tumbleweed Connection or something. I had done the whole thing of finding Oasis as a teenager, that bringing me to The Beatles, The Beatles bringing me Bob Dylan and Dylan bringing me to the Blues. From Blues then it was Bluegrass and then Country. Old Crow Medicine Show were this huge revelation to me with their first album. I mean you can't not hear 'Wagon Wheel' wherever you go now, but back in 2004 or 2005 it was like we were sitting around listening to old albums and now here's this contemporary band who are borrowing from Dylan, making bluegrass, not afraid to light it up and it sent us out looking for more country and bluegrass, so we found Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs and then Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark and those guys. But Rock, like old fashioned Rock n Roll was just as big for me. The Stones were doing everything right on record in the 60s and 70s. The Yardbirds, Led Zepellin, The Doors. A lot of blues-influenced rock bands... Fleetwood Mac... Once I was hearing something in the intention of the band that was coming from something like roots music I was in.
Remy: With the addition of guitarist Shayne Byrne this summer, Stephen Young & The Union now have five accomplished musicians in total, tell us a little bit about how the song-writing side of things work, is it an autocracy or a democracy?!
Stephen: Well that depends who you ask... No I don't know. Maybe both. I mean I'll come in with the songs written down the last chord. I don't go to the studio with unfinished songs and make em up as we go. We produce that way... but I don't write that way. I'll get fairly meticulous with the songs before I bring them out. I'll write and rewrite and edit them til they're as perfect as I can make them. Then it's up to the band what parts go down and where. I'm not gonna fuss over parts and hand everyone a sheet. Once I know the song, everyone else falls in, jams along, gets their teeth into it whatever way makes them comfortable and then away we go.
Stephen Young & The Union, 'Coke & Rum' (from Wilderness Machine, 2011)
Remy: Your new single ‘Duty Free 200’ is a great lovelorn ballad that will feature on your second album, Eagle Fort Rumble, can we also expect some more barnstorming foot-tappers on the new album, and also any news on a release date yet?
Stephen: The new album is a big change. It's out in April next year. Yeah there's some nice ballads on there, but for the most part you'll hear us letting our hair down and bringing the tempo up a bit. I had been conscious of some reviews of Wilderness Machine that had been favourable to 'Coke & Rum' and 'Fairbanks' and not so much the others. People will say look don't listen to the reviews or critics or whatever and stick to your guns, but there was a point a little after Wilderness Machine came out and I was like yeah I know where they were coming from. I mean sometimes it's good to not turn your back on the criticism and say I've gotta stay true to my 'art' or whatever, I kinda took it on board and thought 'yeah, after the first two songs the rest of the album does lag a little..' Coming into Eagle Fort Rumble I wasn't thinking well I'm gonna write everything at break-neck speed but I did have it in my mind that each song, and especially the ballads had to hold attention. And if that meant chasing another hook or bringing the tempo up, or writing a riff then I tried to do that. Things just seemed to click though and whatever strict quality controls I was putting myself under were working. I listen to Eagle Fort Rumble and I can hear fully-realised ideas coming through the speakers. There's some big stompers on there. It's the kind of album that makes you drive faster and that's always a good barometer...
Remy: The band was formed in 2009, what do you think has been the most notable change on the Irish music scene since then (social media, showcase events etc.)?
Stephen: The social media change is noticeable for sure. We started out on Myspace, that was the main and pretty much the only place for bands to be, now you've got Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. I'm really bad at keeping track of them all. You've got to be able to multi-task online these days. The showcases are great for bands... I mean the more of these things the better right? There's an unusual amount of bands in Ireland. Everybody knows someone who's in one. I don't know what's in the water but we have a lot of musicians... those bands are gonna need somewhere to play and not everybody can get on the top festivals or whatever. We've done Jack Of Diamonds two years in a row. A showcase like that where punters can stroll in off the street and watch a band they've never seen before is great. And that's all bands want... besides making a million and playing Slane yeah... guys just want to play in good venues to full rooms. If there's some money in it, great. But you take it one step at a time. All musicians want for starters is a listening room. After that it's in the lap of the gods...
Remy: During the summer just gone you played a number of festivals such as Knockanstockan Festival in Blessington, Vantastival and Electric Picnic, could you pick a particular act that you all saw which blew your socks off?
Stephen: The Hot Sprockets always bring their 'A' game. Great bunch of guys aswell... Mick Heslin is a fantastic musician too. John Spillane went on before us at Vantastival in the acoustic tent... We were going on and I turned around and said thanks John how we gonna follow that, he's like 'you'll be grand'... Half the tent clears out with him and I'm like 'yeah right...' He's a class act, and a lovely guy.
Remy: Considering we’re a small island on the edge of Europe, we’ve had a huge output of great musicians in the past and present, who would be your all-time favourite Irish artist from any era?
Stephen: We do. It's a serious problem. It's an epidemic of musicians... Our best ever? Wow. U2 get a hard time. Their recent stuff is shit. But you look at what they put out in the 80s and 90s... There's wall-to-wall classic albums. Van Morrison has made some great stuff... Rory Gallagher too. Oh, I'm gonna say U2. I know they're not popular these days. And they should've quit ten years ago. But the Stones should've quit 20 years ago but it doesn't stop them being one the best bands of all time. Unforgettable Fire, Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby... they're just great albums. And live, they're incredible. I'm pretty sure history will be kinder to them than the present is.
Remy: Finally, I see on your website that you have an online pool game, I had a go of it and was brutal, is pool a chilled out past-time that all the band enjoy together, or do things get out of hand and end up with you battering the bejaysis out of each other with pool cues and fists?
Stephen: Haha. You have the option of beating the bejaysis out of each other sure. We had a pool table in the studio with us for the first two weeks of recording and we spent a lot of time playing pool. The album chart board even got replaced as a pool tournament board so we could keep track of who beat who... We kinda sorted out the hierarchy of pool players and got little else done. You found yourself dying for someone to finish their take just so you could take a shot on the table and that kinda thing. The table had to go. But if we're ever in a pub with a table we're straight on it. There's some grudge matches that always have to be played.
You can catch Stephen Young & The Union at the following venues and dates, the Abner Browns show sounds particularly interesting. For anyone who hasn't heard of it, the barber shop past Slattery's in Rathmines as you turn onto the Rathgar Road doubles up as a cosy music venue on a regular basis and is becoming a cult spot after hours.
Abner Brown's, Rathmines
Sunday 12 October - Rocktoberfest - Monroes, Galway
Friday 24 October - Single launch - Sweeney's, Dame Street, Dublin
Saturday 25 October - Bobby Reidy's, Nenagh, Tipperary
Saturday 1 November - Abner Browns, Rathmines, Dublin
Thursday 30 November - Monroes, Galway
Look / Like / Listen / Follow:
New single & Wilderness Machine (full album): Remy particularly recommends the tracks '100 Years', 'Fall Into Night' and 'To Michelle' http://www.sytumusic.com/music