With their distinctive dark indie pop noises and euphoric notes, Girls Names are fast becoming the best thing to come out of Northern Ireland since The Undertones. With their new album ‘Arms Around A Vision’ easily being their most immediate, forceful and jarring record to date, this time around they’re drawing inspiration from the bleakest corners of No Wave NYC – think DNA, Mars and James Chance through to Glenn Branca’s guitar ensembles, the latter being particularly heard in the way the guitars interlock with a clatter and a clang. Drawing other inspirations by gazing beyond their Belfast base and out onto the continent: citing inspirations as diverse as Italian futurism, Russian constructivism and the German Zero Group, the new record is captivating to no end.We sat down with lead singer and guitarist Cathal Cull to discuss tour nerves, putting pressure on yourself in the music industry and having to choose between buying new equipment and buying food.
Hey Cathal how are you keeping?
I’m good thanks. It’s just about starting to get really busy, but it’s not totally just yet. Juggling a few things here. I need to get a diary as I’m gonna start being really scatty and people will start falling out with me again.
Lets just start this off and get this out of the way… I know bands always get asked about their name but Girls Names: how did this come about?
This is so boring but 6 and half years ago I had a really cheap in-between phone – a burner, some Motorola that cost £10 and had an LCD display. It had no apostrophe. That’s why Girls Names is spelt wrong. Me and Neil (ex drummer) were texting each other names of girls as a possible band name, there was confusion and there was a sense of urgency. We weren’t intending to be still doing this 6 and half years later. The name and the band was supposed to be temporary. We were supposed to be called Muzoweri’s Daughters FFS.
I’ve been listening to the new album on a loop for a couple of days now. All three albums have their own sound and feel to them, this new one seems to be a bit more aggressive and straight to the point… almost has a Wire / The Fall vibe to it. Are the changes in sound something you as a band work towards or does it just come about naturally with time… are you just pissed off with the world now?
It’s natural to progress but we were working towards it since we decided to make a new record. I’d say this band excels more in theorising how it might sound before imposing any practical developments of these ideas. And then we explore.
I do get pissed off with the world though. I get pissed off and frustrated with myself more. I hate where I’m at because society in this country dictates to me that I’m a total failure and therefore I get frustrated in myself that from time to time I take notice of this and have these feelings – I have nothing, I own nothing, I have no credit, I have no mortgage, I have no car, I have no insurance of any kind, I have no children, I have no wife, no husband. I exist between jobs, I make art and I therefore I am scum. To get to the root of all problems, we must sort the education system out here. I was very upset when we recorded this record.
Did you produce this one like you did with ‘Dead to Me’ & ‘The New Life’?
We recorded it in the same studio right here in Belfast, Start Together. We took a little longer than usual to experiment with all the unfamiliar instruments on offer and to play around with the arrangements and textures. This is the first one though in which we got someone else to have a go at mixing it. We let it sit for about 3 or 4 months and then tasked that to Dan Rejmer who works closely with Ben Frost’s amongst a host of others and is just an amazingly talented man. When I was sussing him out and researching if he was the man for the job I went on his website. The first thing it says is “Do the mix that gets you fired!” I knew straight away her was the man for the job. And didn’t he do a great job? It was just a little time consuming as it took a few months of emailing back and forth to his base in Stockholm.
Do you enjoy having this hands on approach to making music? Also when you’re both playing and producing does it come with any added pressure?
The only pressure in music is the music you put on yourself. It feels like you’re setting yourself up to fail when you’ve a strong goal you want to achieve at the level of your influences. I wanted to perform at a level of Bowie, Nick Cave and Mark Stewart. I’m honestly not joking about this or even being deluded. I had this idea of performance in mind. That was the goals I set myself for this record vocally. Now I may not have achieved them and I’m not putting myself anywhere near a par with these artists, I could never touch them, but it definitely helped me in creating this other side to myself that I had never explored. And how could you not be daunted by that weight of expectation. I was scared. Fear pushes you to extremes. It was an extreme time.
So the tour kicked off in your hometown Belfast on the 2nd of October and goes on around Europe, do you get nerves before tours?
No nerves before tours. I get nervous about equipment sometimes. We could do with an upgrade on most of our gear. It’s all tape and dodgy leads. I’m not joking at all that the last few months have seen dilemmas between buying a lead and buying some food. Thankfully no major horrific dramas lately though, although the last show we played my pedals all cut out through the intro of Zero Triptych and I had to just go straight into the amp and bypass half them for the rest of the show. Actually one of phil’s multi fx pedal’s packed in to. We’re sourcing replacements. We’re open to offers.
Sticking with Belfast, it’s a lovely place but over the years it’s had its ups and downs (politically speaking) would you say growing up there has moulded you into the man / artist you are today and is reflected in the music you make?
Well to be honest I’ve only lived in Belfast the last 12 years but it is most definitely home. Northern Ireland is mental. It’s beautiful and the majority of people are wonderful but it’s fucking mental. The more we tour, the more I get asked about what it was like being brought up here. I thought I had a relatively normal and happy up bringing, which I did because it was normal to me. But it was a war zone and that’s fact. I grew up with checkpoints and lookout towers and border controls and helicopters flying back and forth overhead every single hour of the day. Playing in fields and jumping over fences and running into fully armed British Army laying in the bushes on patrol. And with segregation – that’s the worst of it. To say that about 95% of people I knew growing up were white Irish Catholics until I was about 17 is no exaggeration. That’s the biggest thing to get over here and thankfully it’s no where near as bad as it was and thankfully I got away to broaden my horizons. There’s a long way to go economically and socially. See my previous note about the education system – that’s a big flaw here. It’s easy for the middle classes here to see things through their cosy little world and I might get lambasted for even suggesting that everything is not alright here but the poor are getting so much poorer here than anywhere else in the UK and that disparagy is going to be very hard to claw back the more we let it slip, irrespective of background, creed or ethnicity. And we need an equal society in Northern Ireland more than most places.
Anyway, I digress, there’s a dark undercurrent that runs through here that gives us an edge on the rest of these islands. Historically, Alcohol has certainly had a role in this idea. And we’re funny bastards with the most wonderfully eloquent and beautiful self-defaming humour you could ever come across. You know someone loves you when you’re comfortable enough to be verbally horrific to each other! So it must have played an influence on me in some way.
There’s not many bands like Girls Names kicking about in Northern Ireland. Was it hard starting off?
There’s loads of bands, I’d say per capita, Northern Ireland has generally speaking had more bands than any other place in the UK or Ireland. But yes, not exactly like us but we’ve a lot of friends with the same mindset and outlook to creating and performing art. You just don’t hear of them as A+R don’t leave London anymore and most bands can’t afford to get the ferry across the water. We were very lucky. Extremely lucky. Remember myspace, remember blogspot? we caught those waves. And we aligned ourselves with every touring band coming through town that we thought would spread the word. But we’ve been working hard since that initial luck came a knockin’.
You’ve been pretty busy releasing three albums in only a few years, now that ‘Arms Around a Vision’ is all polished off have you already started to look at the fourth instalment?
No. We’ve been too busy escaping this one. And we’ve been too busy doing our own things. I’d say there’ll be at least 5 different records out next year between us. If not more. There’s been no Girls Names music as such written in nearly a year. I sat down and wrote lyrics to a song this morning. Straight off the bat. That’s exciting. I usually let the music influence the words first. I need to approach things differently all the time. That’s only the third time in the history of this band that the words have flowed almost fully formed off the pen straight on to paper and that was for The New Life and Reticence. So the music had better be good. Linear structures is my big thing at the minute. I think you can notice this a bit on the record. But I feel convention is slipping away from my comprehension. Paradoxically I was talking to Phil the other week about making some short blast sub 3 minute or even 2 minute weirdo, sense deriding pop songs. I’m open to suggestion.
Do you have any other artists that you feel have made a big influence on your music?
All of them. Never stop listening and absorbing.
What are you listening to at the moment? Any more gems hiding in Northern Ireland we should all know about?
As I type this I’ve got Mica Levi’s Under the Skin soundtrack on. Recently I’ve been really taken with Blixa Bargeld’s Commissioned Music record and also I’ve been spellbound and totally enamoured with Richard Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie performed by The Berlin Philhormonic but not necessarily that particular recording. My next door neighbour’s band Documenta have their new record out next month on Touch Sensitive Records. I’m biased as I’ve played on it and Joe makes me dinner from time to time and lets me watch the GAA matches sometimes as he’s got RTE. I used to be a member and then got kicked out twice for being too busy with this band and running off on tour. He runs a tight ship. I need to get a diary.
Arms Around a Vision is out now, via Tough Love.