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Neil Young that is. Up and coming Dublin rockers Hal are earning serious kudos for their winning take on classic ’70s rock sounds. And despite dark murmurings of artistic plagiarism, they sure as hell aren’t about to apologise for it, as they tell Ed Power. Photography by Emily Quinn.
Ed Power, 14 Apr 2005
Hal wear sloppy grins and chuckle a great deal. So does their music, a languid chamber pop the good vibrations of which have the incessancy of nerve gas.
Feverishly upbeat, Hal’s soft-rock fug can carry the listener away – to a sleepy nostalgia-land where Neil Young and Brian Wilson trade turns on the bandstand and everything is soaked in the gossamer pink of sun-up on Malibu beach, 1972.
This formula – or shtick, depending on the depth of your cynicism – has impelled the south Dublin four piece towards a terminal velocity. Three years ago, with a handful of gigs to their credit and the bare bones of a line-up, they sparked a label bidding war. Today Hal enjoy rotation on MTV and are becoming a staple of indie radio.
When their eponymous debut album is released, a chart placing is viewed as a more or less forgone conclusion. Hal have arrived, even if they are not quite sure how they got here or where, ultimately, their destination lies.
“There isn’t what you could call a career plan,” says singer and guitarist Dave Allen who has wide, laughing eyes and the wistful air of a schoolboy poet. “We realise that the chance to make a record is such a huge privilege that we’ve just seized it,” he explains, over tea in Dublin’s Central Hotel.
Scattershot and quickfire, the 26 year old’s conversation seems to emanate from a slightly mysterious place, as though he is observing the world through psychedelic lenses. Asked whether he is concerned at how blatantly Hal wear their Buffalo Springfield/Holland-era Beach Boys influences, he excitedly taps his shoulder, in the manner of a six year old who has just discovered the existence of butterflies or sticky toffee.
“I wear my influences on my sleeve man, on my sleeve. It thrills me to think that people find traces of those great musicians in our music. For me that’s one of the best things about being in a band – being able to reference the singers who mean a lot to you. I get really excited when I think that we might turn people on to all those fantastic records. There are so many people out there today who just aren’t aware of all the great bands that used to exist. It’s a real shame.”
He expresses the hope that kids will encounter Hal’s debut so that it may frame their recollections of childhood, much as the music of Neil Young and the Beach Boys cast a hazy balm over his own upbringing.
“Wouldn’t it be great if children could encounter really good music from an early age? You know, it would really change their outlook on stuff, “ he pronounces in a manner that suggests this is the most exciting thought he has ever had.
One of the criticisms flung at Hal is that they draw from the same wellspring as The Thrills, the other south Dublin group who think Wilson, Young and Gram Parsons constitute a holy trinity of true-believer rock.
“To be fair, I can understand where that comes from,” says Paul Allen, bassist, dulcet backing vocalist and younger brother to Dave. “We are both influenced by the same bands and we’re both from Dublin. That said, if you actually listen to our music you’ll see there is almost no resemblance. We’ve had people comparing us to the Thrills for a while but the point was that, during that time, we had no record of our own to prove how wrong they were.”
Hal was recorded in Dublin, near the brothers’ family home at Killiney. The band isn’t just a two piece in disguise – keyboardist Stephen O’Brien is the third founding member – but you sense the Allens are a guiding presence. The vision of what Hal should be is largely theirs.
“Someone raised the possibility of going to Memphis for the recordings but we felt it would be better to do it somewhere we were comfortable,” says Paul, absently prodding the detritus of a chicken sandwich. “ There are enough stresses on you without having to deal with living in a hotel for two months.”
Although occasionally erring a tad on the saccharine side, Hal is nonetheless a lavish and intriguing inaugural shot. Multi-tracked vocals come as standard; there are heady orchestral swells and, at one point, what sounds like a glockenspiel solo. For a debut recording, by a group without studio experience, it is a prodigious offering.
“We had the songs sketched out in our heads. We knew exactly how they wanted to be. We’re all big fans of Phil Spector and the Wall Of Sound thing and we very much wanted that ‘studio as an instrument’ quality,” says Dave.
“For us that richness of sound was part of our vision. Because it kind of looks back to the period when Spector was making his best stuff, it gives the music a sense of being timeless. I don’t think it sounds like anything else you will hear at the moment. “
Dave claims the record offers some “incredibly dark moments”. Even so, its shadows are deftly concealed. The lyrics have their bittersweet interludes, obviously – for what songwriter can resist wringing tragedy from happiness? – yet the overall sensibility is one of warm, fuzzy innocence. When I say Hal reminds me of a hot bath, that you seem to sink into it and let the vapours carry you away, Paul and Dave bob their heads enthusiastically. Then Dave, adjusting his songwriter hat, checks himself.
“Well, there are still some dark moments in there. Very dark.”
If the brothers exude a sense of detachment, it may be because they have just returned from Paris and a spree of promotional chores, which culminated in an impromptu gig in a Montmartre bistro. They aren’t being coy. They’re just knackered.
“It was totally unplanned,” laughs Paul, yawning in contented exhaustion. “We went for a few drinks and got talking to the owner and mentioned we were in a band. The next thing he pulls out two guitars and gets us to play the whole album. It turns out he’s known for this sort of thing. He had Pete Doherty there a few weeks earlier. Basically, we kept playing and he kept serving us Pernod. It was mad.”
As he speaks, Paul sits back and closes his eyes. When he opens them again, they seem to be aglow. Really, he can’t bring himself to believe Hal is happening. All that he has wished for has come to pass. He’s in a band whose songs are on the radio! A part of him aches for the moment to carry on forever.
“There’s been a lot of hard work but when you think of all the people who wish they could have been where we are now, with our first album just recorded, and never got there it makes you appreciate it. We’re having the time of our lives.”
Hal's self-titled album is released April 22 on Rough Trade. hotpress.com is giving away ten signed copies of the album. To enter, click here.