Has this ever happened to you?
You’ve bought a new album. You put it on and hit “play,” and as it’s playing, you find that you’re enjoying it well enough, but it’s not really grabbing you…until, suddenly, the album hits a particular song, and – bam! – you’re in love. You play the song again. Damn, that’s good. And now that your ears are open, you find yourself wondering if the remainder of the album is just as good, so you let it continue playing…and you find that, yes, it is! Then, you realize that you need to go back and start the record over from the beginning, since you weren’t really paying enough attention when it first started….and, holy crap, you must’ve been drunk or something, because it’s so obvious to you now that this entire album is brilliant!
“Alone in the Dark” is, for my money, one of the sexiest and most sensual songs ever written. It has been included on many a mix tape over the years…though, of course, the only one that matters is the one I made for my wife when we first started dating, and any claims to the contrary are damned dirty lies. (Today is our seventh wedding anniversary, as it happens. Happy anniversary, sweetheart!)
It’s a song which begs to be on the soundtrack to a romantic movie, playing as the couple you’ve been rooting for throughout the entire film finally comes together, and if you don’t believe me, just read these lyrics:
I feel the storm, but it’s so strange
To feel desire without the pain
And I feel your eyes search my soul
For sometime sacred, for something more than you need
Your words are lost, but there’s no aim
It’s pure emotion that holds this flame
And the rain will fall and touch your heart
It’s pure devotion, alone in the dark
So tell me what you feel
Tell me every little thing
Tell me all that you are now
And tell me what it’s like to see
From your own heart
Now I’ve got you…alone in the dark
Goosebumps, I tells ya. Goosebumps!
Of course, Colin and Peter Devlin, siblings from Dublin, Ireland, had to suffer through the same “hey, they sound like U2!” comments from the critics that everyone else from the Emerald Isle has had to deal with since Bono and the gang first came to prominence…and while we’re not talking Cactus World News territory here, U2 is occasionally a viable point of comparison, particularly during Colin’s whispered vocals on the album’s title cut or on his guitar work on “I Knew That” and “As Far As You Can Go.”
To try and force The Devlins into the U2-soundalike niche, however, is terribly unfair. The majority of the hooks on Drift are of the sort that ease their way into your heart and mind slowly and quietly, with songs like “Almost Made You Smile” and “I Don’t Want To Be Like This” subtly infiltrating your consciousness with their blend of sweetness and sadness. Some tracks are more rambunctious, with “Turn You ‘Round” and “I Knew That” proving more sonically outgoing, but the lyrics still deliver the same sort of emotional punch.
Like I said, the whole album is brilliant.
The Devlins have continued to release albums, putting out a trio of records – Waiting (1997), Consent (2002), and Waves (2004) – since their debut, all of which are worthy of recommendation (particular the most recent of the bunch), but I concede to being most partial to Drift. While a lot of artists don’t enjoy looking quite so far back, it turns out that Colin Devlin is quite happy to discuss this record – indeed, he wishes more people knew about it – and gladly agreed to chat about it with me.
How did the band get started? Did you and Peter come from a musical background, or did you happen upon music independently?
Well, Peter is a couple of years older than me, so he had started to play in bands himself and had a great network of musicians and friends who were in bands. So I’d go and watch him play, and I’d started to play guitar, and he really encouraged me to play and to start writing songs. We just kind of took it from there. Once I’d started writing songs, we started trying to do some shows together, and it worked out really well. I was quite a late starter. I went to Trinity College, and in my first year there, we kind of started to get a bit of a name for ourselves, and from there, we started to get offered record deals and that sort of thing. So I took a college sabbatical…which is ongoing!
Much of Drift was recorded at Daniel Lanois’ Kingsway Studio, in New Orleans. I know Malcolm Burn actually produced the album, but it must have been intimidating to have a guy of Lanois’ stature hovering about.
It was very strange for four white guys from Ireland to land in New Orleans, the home of swampy rhythms, but it was amazing, because it gave us our grounding in rhythm and making sure that things felt good belong the waist, if you know what I mean. (Laughs) But, yeah, Daniel was in the house all the time. He was living there while we were recording and while Malcom was producing, so he would come in and offer great advice, and he helped a little bit with the mixing as well. It was great to have him there. Between the two of them, they did an amazing job.
How did Malcolm get involved? Were you familiar with his work already?
Peter and I had been fans of the record that he’d done with Chris Whitley, Living with the Law. We’d met him in New York, and we’d got on great. It was a big step for us, really, because we could’ve done that record with a lot of different producers. We could’ve done it at home in Ireland or in the UK. But I was really kind of drawn toward just trying to make it as organic as possible. You hear a lot about that now, but at the time, a lot of records just had that very compressed pop sheen thing that was going on in the early ‘90s, and this really wasn’t.
Had there even been anyone besides Malcom who was in serious consideration to produce it?
Well, you know, we were looking at different producers in L.A., and I guess we were thinking along the lines of people like Mitchell Froom or T-Bone Burnett. But Malcom had mixed and played keyboards on (Bob Dylan’s) Oh Mercy, and we had already thought, “Oh, this guy has done a lot of stuff, but he’s not getting as much credit as he should,” and then we heard the Chris Whitley record, which was brilliant, he’d done an amazing job. And we realized, “We could definitely work with him.” The reason Drift is so good is because it’s a marriage between my pop sensibilities and Malcom’s earthiness.
Had you visited America prior to recording the album, or was that your first experience here?
No, myself, Peter, and a friend of ours had taken a trip across the States for about six weeks a couple of years before that. It was just kind of a road-trip across the States, and it was a real eye-opener. At the tender of age of 21 or whatever I was, it was brilliant. We stayed in motels and took an amazing trip through the desert, and through Texas. Our sister was living in St. Louis at the time, which became a base that we started from, and we went across to California, then back down through Texas, then up along the East Coast, and back to St. Louis. It really was an incredible trip, and I have to say that I really was quite affected by the wide open spaces, which I’d never really seen. Well, I’d seen them in Africa, because I’d gone to Africa for a month when I was about 17 and done some work in missions. But that amazing amount of space…it’s incredible.
I understand what you mean. I went over to the UK for two weeks in 1992, and I remember meeting people who’d say, “Oh, you’re from America? Can you see the Mississippi from where you live?” There was just no frame of reference to the size of the country.
No, not at all! It’s like someone in America asking me if I know someone in Ireland named Dan Murphy. “Uh, yeah, I’m pretty sure I do!” (Laughs)
So how many U2 comparisons have you been forced to suffer through over the years?
Oh, many, many, many. Yeah, many U2 comparisons. But, for years, anyone from Ireland has been immediately compared to U2. Even if you were singing Arabic folk music, they’d say, “Yeah, y’know, I think I hear a little bit of U2 influence in there.” So, yeah, loads and loads. And I’m sure that Malcolm, Lanois, and that whole cast helped. But you just kind of create your own plans and hone what it is that you’re trying to do, and you try to get it as close to your own sensibility as you can, and then hopefully, at some point, you start to emerge with your own kind of sound.
Are there any particular anecdotes from the recording of Drift that stand out?
Well, we had lots of people dropping by the studio. Joni Mitchell came by one day, and it was so wonderful just to listen to her talking about “Bobby Dylan.” (Laughs) That was quite incredible, because, obviously, I’m a huge fan of hers. And at the end of the recording, after being there for six weeks…because we started the album in Dublin and did a lot of takes there in an incredible little studio called STS Studios. U2 did a lot of recording there; I know they did “Desire” there. But it’s a great little studio, and a friend of ours worked there, so we started the album there and then moved to New Orleans. But at the end of recording the album in New Orleans, we had a party in the studio, and Carole King came up and sang a song, and then Aaron Neville came up and sang a song, and it…it was just so amazing to see these people singing, basically, in your living room! It was an incredible time and an amazing experience to go there. Everything was very new and very fresh, and we’re making our first record, and…it was just incredible. Every night when we were finished, we’d go to a local bar called CafÃ© Brasil, and they’d have these drum nights, where the only music would be twenty people drumming until two in the morning. Yeah, it was a great time.
I have said on many occasions that “Alone in the Dark” is one of the most sensual songs of all time…but is that just me? Was that actually what you guys were going for?
Oh, definitely. Absolutely, yes. It’s a beautiful song, and, y’know, we remixed that song because the mix that Malcolm had done…it wasn’t what I was hearing in my head. So we went to a guy named Dave Bascombe, who’d done a lot of Tears For Fears’ stuff. “Alone in the Dark,” it’s a mood piece. I’d written this complicated middle-eight section for it, with lots of big chord changes, and we were playing it one day when Daniel Lanois was around. Later, I was out in the garden, taking a break, and he’d been listening to the song all day, and he said, “You know, I love this song, but I don’t think it needs the middle eight at all. Why don’t you try chopping it out?” So I went back inside and said, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea: why don’t we chop out the middle eight?” (Laughs) But it immediately became more magical because, even though the middle eight was great, it was ruining the mood. It was disturbing the mood of the song that was already there. When you listen to it, the drums are like a meditation.
Oh, it’s brilliant. A lot of times, I’ll put it on mix discs alongside Ride’s “Vapour Trail” because they’re both such mood songs.
It’s a mood song, and the vocal is very vulnerable. It’s weird sometimes, Will, to hear yourself sounding so young…but that’s okay! You’re locked in a time and a place, and…it’s amazing to hear. You know, I should mention that David Bottrill played a big part in the sound of the record as well. Dave engineered it, and it was the first record he had done outside of Real World for years. He’d been there, and he’d done lots of Peter Gabriel’s records, so, literally, he’d been stuck in Real World for the past five years, so for him to come to New Orleans was very freeing. On a song like “Every Time You Go,” he had a lot of influence on the guitar sound. It was a very forward-sounding record when it was made, and it still sounds pretty good today, which I’m very happy with. I’d just love for more people to hear it!
Whose idea was it to bring in Lisa Germano to play on it?
Well, Lisa was Malcolm’s girlfriend at the time…
(Laughs) Well, that answers that, I guess!
…but she’s an amazing player. She’s just incredible. I’d never heard of her before, but I was just, like, “Wow!” We recorded a song at that session called “Electric Storm,” and I’ll try and hunt it down for you, but you have to hear it. It’s brilliant. It just missed making the album by split decision, but it’s all instrumental, and it’s very folky. Just brilliant, beautiful stuff. We just felt that, in the context of the record, it just didn’t fit. Thinking now, though, it probably would’ve fit just fine. But on “Until the Light Shines Through,” she breaks through the guitar, with that shimmery sound.
Are there any other songs on the record that still really stand out for you today? I know you said that the title cut still makes it into your solo set list on a regular basis.
Well, you know, “I Knew That” turns up, and “Everytime You Go” does as well. They all do once in awhile, really. I don’t think there’s any song on there that I wouldn’t play in a set. We’ve played them all. “Necessary Evil,” I haven’t played that one in ages, because of the backwards guitar I do on there, but…I think the whole album holds up pretty well.
You made a comment that, when you first came to record the album in the States, it was all pretty new to you. By the time you got around to promoting the album, how long did it take you to become jaded rock stars?
I’d say about two weeks. (Laughs) No, I think that…it’s amazing, Will, because we did so much touring and promotion on that record. You wouldn’t believe it. It really got our career started; it basically brought us from starting as a new band in Dublin to being on the worldwide stage. We were proud of the record, because we hadn’t compromised on it. We never expected to sell millions of copies; we had no idea what we’d sell. You always hope that things will do better, but I was just happy with the fact that we were able to make another record!
And that record, Waiting, came out on Universal rather than Capitol. So what happened? Did they just cut you loose?
Well, it was a change-of-regime kind of thing. It had gotten to the stage where we didn’t know who was doing or saying what, and we didn’t really feel very comfortable there anymore, so it was kind of a mutual thing, really. I think we probably forced the issue a little more at the time; they certainly didn’t want to cut us loose. But it just didn’t make much sense. We felt that we’d made a great record, but we didn’t feel like anyone was really paying attention. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t a great idea, because we didn’t feel like we got the attention from (Universal), either, but Waiting stands up very well as a record.
And thanks to the title cut being on the soundtrack to “Six Feet Under,” it got a new lease on life a few years later.
Yeah, exactly! A lot of the film and TV appearances of our music have come as a result of the Waiting record, and that’s been pretty constant over the last two years or so. It’s been great…and that’s why, with the new (solo) record I’ve done, I wanted to do it with Pierre Marchand. (Writer’s note: Marchard produced, engineered, and mixed the bulk of Waiting.) And Malcolm came to the studio a couple of times as well, offering his opinion, which was great. It was kind of like coming full circle.
And in addition to your forthcoming solo album, Democracy of One, The Devlins are still a going concern as well.
Oh, yes. We’ll probably make another record next year. This was just something I felt like I wanted to do by myself, and I’m really proud of it. It’s pretty much just myself, Pierre, and Matt Chamberlain, and it’s great. I’m so happy with it, and I can’t wait for people to hear it. I’m excited to put it out; I’m just trying to find the right label for it. I was hoping to get it out before Christmas, but we’ll see. But it’s some of the best songs I’ve ever written, I feel, and I think if you’re a fan of Drift, you’ll really like it. You can check out some of the songs over on my MySpace page, and… (Laughs) …can you tell I’m a bit excited about it?