INTERVIEW: Pat Dam Smyth ‘Any situation where you’re vulnerable is an opportunity to rise to a challenge’

We’re downstairs just south of Denmark Street. It’s still 1966 down here, such is the décor and the quietude that’s reminiscent of an older, softer London. A table top separates us and, though his eyes are watchful, far back within them shines something warm and amused. Pat Dam Smyth pauses, sensing the space between us, waiting for the bluff and blandishments to come that are the bread and butter of interviews. Well, those of the musical variety at any rate.

If a tag were needed, one might call Pat’s sound rock-folk-Celtic soul with a soupçon of Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave but, rather more prosaically, it is all his own, sounding the way he looks: different. His musical journey has been long and entangled, from Belfast to Dublin and Liverpool, then on to Athens and Los Angeles before moving to Berlin and then, almost inevitably, to the big smoke terminus that is London, Pat wrestling with his muse and striking a hard compromise along the way.

The muse is a real bastard to figure out,” he says. “Obviously discipline is a great thing when it comes to song writing, but it seems that it won’t let me go, discipline or no discipline. I can do something else, yes, I can walk away if I like, but I’m so far down the line with this that this is it. This is what I do.

His pint sipped, Pat gazes from under the brim of his hat. He’s a Hackney man these days, but Pat’s clay was moulded elsewhere and over the sea. “I’m from Laurencetown which is about 20 miles south west of Belfast. It’s all farmland around there. My dad was a folk musician. He died when I was 12, and I got his acoustic guitar. Just before he died he set it up so you could plug it into the hi-fi and TV to get distortion, so after he died I played that guitar a lot. I used to sleep with it. From that point, I got my first band together when I was 13 and I gigged nonstop all the way up to the age of 17.”

Like many other Northern Irish families, Pat’s family was religiously mixed with no single one of the looming credos of his young life then able to curtail his intellectual freedom. “Growing up back then, Belfast was a ghost town at night. There was a 10 o’clock curfew when I was a kid. Nobody went in the city centre. But when we were in school we’d get the odd gig and drive up to Belfast. That was very exciting.

“But being of Greek heritage on my mother’s side, I felt when I was young that I was somewhere else, almost like an outcast in Northern Ireland, an untouchable, as everyone else was busy getting set into their tribes. So for me music was the best way to get out of all that. You could do the class clown routine, which worked for me for a bit, but it got to a point where that [act] was silencing what I was feeling.

After I left school, I moved down to Dublin, which was fun. I felt there were no opportunities then in Belfast. Then from Dublin, I moved to Liverpool in 2004, and that’s when I became serious.

Liverpool has a similar vibe to Belfast. Liverpool was and is tribal, more so than Manchester. Everybody is musical. You can hear it in the way they talk. They sing when they talk. It had a similar vibe to Ireland with the community drinking and live playing, but it also had access to the industry. Big industry figures would attend gigs in Liverpool, and hardly ever, if never, in Ireland.

So why did he leave? “We’d done our time. Me and my band mate, who I’d been in lots of different formations with such as The Fools with Steve Pilgrim, were pushing very hard at the time. The Fools were a punk band, but it came to a natural end. Then me and Nipsy [Russell] were in another band formed from ex-members of The 747s, and we went off to Berlin in 2007. We started something there, all based around four-part harmonies.

But it was in Berlin when things started to come unstuck, he says, the pressure of being who he was becoming more evident as his soul found expansion. “I managed 12 days in Berlin. It didn’t end well for me. There were a lot of uppers being used in Liverpool, but it all came to a crashing end in Berlin. Then the following year we moved to London and started a band called Smokey Angle Shades. We nailed London. I mean we went absolutely everywhere, taking our piano to every gig. We did a lot of good work, but I left the band in 2010.

The mania of Smokey Angle Shades came off the back of that Berlin experience. We’d gigged on the street a lot in Berlin and then in London, but that hand-to-mouth lifestyle became too chaotic. My health suffered. I left London and went home to Northern Ireland to give up music. I was done with it. I stayed in bed for six months. Everything was over for me. Maybe I’m bipolar. I think I’ve got it. But I was crushed at that point. I found that music that made me happy was suddenly making me sad. My emotions had been reversed.

I felt that I’d had my go at music. I didn’t speak to anyone. I didn’t watch TV, didn’t listen to music, but I had a lot of cigarettes. Smoking was my friend. Me and the cigarette, we’d stand by the window together and look out. But my dad’s guitar still sat in the corner, and I’d look at it. Then one day I just picked it up and wrote a song, and that moment for me was ‘Ah fuck… OK, you win’. So then I began to write again. Manically. Then I rang the studio and said that I would quite like to record these songs. And then give up. That was the point.

So one last try where he was in control? “Exactly. This was the full stop I wanted. But then the album came and things changed. I’d never thought of myself as a solo artist. Then the next thing was to play everything live. So I returned to London where remaining stable and healthy has become key for me. Now I’d rather be at home writing music than being out getting wasted.”

That album was The Great Divide (2012) which was followed by the Goodbye Berlin EP (2017), while this year finds him delivering Kids, an album that comes as a summation of his wisdom – musical or otherwise – and one that gained the keen interest of Jim Sclavunos of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds and at a time when Pat was busy ploughing his surfeit of creative energy into directing videos for The Blow Monkeys (The Wild River and Crying For The Moon).

Jim has come in as additional production and he’s going to mix the album. Chris McComish [Pat’s collaborator] and Dougal Lott of Konk Studios produced it early last year, but when Jim heard it he said he wanted to share some ideas, to put some magic on top. The album will be mixed with Jim and Dougal in Konk in February.”

Pat has been touring with songs from Kids throughout 2017 and through live playing has found himself rediscovering the album, each song taking on new meaning from the remove of a year. Another couple of beers reach our table. We pause to sup. “All art, at the end of the day, is very childlike,” says Pat. “And so yeah, it’s a massive rush playing live, but I find it very hard taking compliments, one to one. All situations like that humble me. But the best nights we’ve had are when the band connects with the audience. As one. It’s a communion. It’s when music gets very exciting, when I find that it’s perfect. There should be no barriers to music. The Beatles knew that. They were always laughing, at the beginning at any rate. And the audience got that instinctively.

After each gig I play I learn a lot about myself. And I’m getting more into the professionalism of making music, like how I want my guitar to sound, but during a live set it must be as free as possible. Making music does get in the way of reality, yes, but for me there’s always music and melody first, and the lyrics come later. So I suppose you could say that free association works for me. And any situation where you’re vulnerable is an opportunity to rise to a challenge.

Kids will be released later in 2018.

Jason Holmes