Originally published in The Irish Times, August 13th 2010
AS REVOLUTIONS go, it was a fairly brief one – 27 minutes long, to be precise. I’m at the top of the newly opened Dublin Wheel – in the VIP capsule, no less – with three members of Fight Like Apes. Tinted windows, leather seats and, bizarrely, a flatscreen television and telephone, it’s the only way to see the Dublin skyline in its entirety. No, really. It literally is the only way.
But the electro-thrash-pop-rockers have bigger things to be excited about today. About a month ago, they finished recording their second album – ostentatiously titled The Body of Christ and the Legs of Tina Turner – and are very eager to present it to the music-buying public. Keyboardist and vocalist Jamie Fox says that although those who have already heard the album have described it as “darker”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Fight Like Apes have lost the key ingredient of their music: some good old-fashioned fun.
“It’s not something that we really think ourselves, but everybody keeps saying ‘It’s darker, it’s a progression, you’ve really changed,’ ” he says, as gangly bassist Tom Ryan gleefully points out that the floor of the capsule is see-through. “ ‘We’ve matured’ is another one, but we don’t feel like that at all. You’re obviously gonna be different people a few years on from your first record. For us, this time it was about getting back to basics. We felt like we’d maybe . . . not lost, but forgotten what it was all about, and why we were doing this in the first place.”
Vocalist Mary-Kate (“May-Kay”) Geraghty agrees. “I think we were playing the songs on the first album for about three years before we recorded them, so by the time we went into the studio, any notion of a new sound, or a new keyboard effect or whatever, was like ‘Oooh, that sounds different, let’s do that,’ ” she says. “This time, the period between recording and the writing was so much shorter that we were still incredibly content with how it sounded.”
The new album is perhaps not as instantaneous as its predecessor; songs such as Thank God You Weren’t Thirsty (Lightbulb) benefit from the same languid pace as tracks such as Tie Me Up With Jackets did on their 2008 debut Fight Like Apes and the Mystery of the Golden Medallion , while Captain A-Bomb’s almost Afrobeat rhythm also treads new territory for the foursome.
“Yeah, we didn’t kick down the door this time, definitely,” says Fox. “I think one of the big things we had with this one was ‘Let’s not bandy about the term ‘Fight Like Apes-ish.’ We just wrote songs this time, and we were like, whatever we write, as long as it’s good, we’re happy with it. We didn’t worry about anybody’s expectations of it, because we just really wanted to be proud of the record and stand up beside it.”
“I think we were very aware that we weren’t kicking the door down, too, but not until we’d recorded it. I like the fact that we have two different albums in that respect, though – where one is a real ‘Ooh!’ and one is a ‘Hmmmmmmm’. It’s a think-piece,” says Geraghty jokingly.
Their newfound songwriting expertise came partly through experience, but also through working with a producer finely tuned to their demands. Their debut was recorded in the US with renowned knob-twiddler John Goodmanson, but this time they chose to work closer to home, in the London studio of Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill – a name which had also been bandied about for their debut.
“We genuinely felt like little kids making the first record. We just dropped out of college, left our jobs and went for it – and suddenly, we were in Seattle with a producer that had made records that we’d listened to as kids. There’s a naivety to that, of course there is,” shrugs Fox. “If somebody says that to you, ‘Well, what if we try this?’, you think ‘Well, of course he knows best – he recorded Sleater-Kinney, he must have better ideas than me!’. This time, it was about not compromising.
“We’re happy with how the songs sound, the way we’re playing them live. When we were talking to Andy, or any of the producers we talked to, we told them that we wanted to record it completely live, that we didn’t want any frills, effects. We wanted to play the songs a few times, a few takes, and that’s it. We went for energetic takes over perfect ones, and that’s what we got. But at the same time, I wouldn’t discount working with John the next time, either, because I think he’s an unbelievable producer. It’s just that maybe we were a little naive the first time, and maybe we did him a disservice, in a way.”
Gill was highly complimentary of their sessions together, saying that the quartet “may be the best band I have produced in years”.
“Everything about him was perfect for it. We talked to a few people and thought ‘Yeah, this guy could work . . . ’, but Andy conducted his entire phone call from the bath, after he’d gone for a run,” Geraghty laughs.
Another major change to their system over the past six months has seen original drummer Adrian Mullan depart, his role being taken by Lee Boylan, who owns the west Dublin studio that the band recorded their first two EPs in. Although they’re reluctant to divulge details of Mullan’s exit, they’re enthused by his replacement.
“He’s almost an original member, in a way,” says Geraghty. “Getting a new guy in that we didn’t know would have been a complete mind-fuck, I reckon, it would have taken ages.”
Since they struck their first synth note, Fight Like Apes have always been a love-’em-or-hate-’em kind of band, a fact that they’re all too aware of. In that respect, pre-empting a “backlash” is futile – the band have always had their detractors. Yet at the risk of sounding “wankery”, in their own words, they haven’t made The Body of Christ and the Legs of Tina Turner to please anyone except themselves.
“I think there’s a massive possibility that people won’t like this album, but we love it,” says Fox with a smile and an unapologetic shrug. “And you may as well stand by something you like, as opposed to take credit for something you’re not totally happy with. I dunno, for us, it’s really funny – anyone who hates us, or hates us as a band because we do what we do is just . . . it’s absolutely insane that somebody could care as much.”
“We’re gonna sound like we’re trying to be hard here, but there are certain things that you can just completely take on the chin, and people rubbishing your music is actually one of them,” says Geraghty with a genuine grin. “So it was a case of ‘Okay, this time, if they don’t like it, they don’t like it.’ ”
A side effect of developing the thick skin needed to be in a polarising band such as Fight Like Apes is also the acquisition of a brass neck, something that came in handy when it came to the new album’s name. Permission to use the soul-pop legend’s moniker was granted relatively easy, but when it came to Turner’s trademark pins, it was another matter.
“We had to use someone else’s legs on the cover,” says Geraghty mock-incredulously. “She’s very precious about her own legs, apparently. We were like ‘What? We thought she’d be really into her legs being on an album cover again.’ ”
As the eighth and final rotation of the wheel comes to an end, and we’re bundled out of Very Important Person terrain and back on to the mean streets of Dublin’s Docklands, talk turns to the future. Their last album was released in the UK and Japan, and a limited EP even made it as far as the US. Are the quartet ready for the relentless months of touring ahead – particularly given the fact that their live show is renowned for being a tad . . . vigorous? Having witnessed the band play in venues from Portlaoise to Brixton Academy, their energy levels remain consistent no matter where the crowd, or what their reaction.
“We want to take it up a notch, if anything,” declares Fox, seemingly shocked that there’s another possible option. “But there was never a plan to be energetic and a bit wild on stage. We really wanted to put on a show, but that was it. There’s just something really incredibly entertaining to us, for people to pay in to see us kick around on a stage. That never gets old.”
And what about further down the line? Are there more albums to make, more territories to conquer, more Big Wheels in bigger cities to blag their way on to?
“We always said the minute it stops being fun, there’s no point being in a band,” says Fox, looking at his two bandmates with an unspoken understanding that “fun” is still a primary objective in the Fight Like Apes camp. “Or the minute one of them turns around and says ‘Let’s write a single,’ I’m fucking out of there!”