Hot Press - Should We Talk About The Weather? 21.1.1998
John Walshe talks to Celbridge five-piece juniper about their new single, Weatherman, and what it was about them that enticed Polygram to sign them for six albums.
A six-album deals are as scarce as international class centre-halves these days, except if you re REM or U2. So for newcomers Juniper to land such a deal with Polygram was quite a coup, not to mention a vote of confidence.
Not that Juniper are exactly bonnie babes either. Formed three years ago in Celbridge, Co. Kildare, they've been regulars on the live circuit in this country for some time. 1995's independently released Manna EP, was their first foray into the commercial world: a collection of acoustic-driven songs which promised much but didn't exactly set the world on fire. Undeterred, the band continued plying their trade, writing and gigging around the country, and were snapped up by the recording giant last September for a whopping six-album deal.
The first fruits of this collaboration, Weatherman, is an extremely catchy slice of polished rock, served up by a band obviously not short on confidence. In fact, you may recall that Weatherman garnered a Single of the Fortnight accolade from yours truly in the last issue of Hot Press.
By their own admission, Juniper really gelled as a band at Straffan, Co. Kildare, where all five band members shared a house, or rather an old army barracks (which also contained their own studio) for a period of 18 months.
We killed each other out there, in a sense, opines lead vocalist Dodima, a name which he invented from his own unique language. Throughout the course of the interview Dodima is a multicoloured bundle of energy, arms whirring as he emphasises every syllable with extravagant gestures, the consummate frontman.
That's really where we got to know each other, he continues. Every day we woke up and saw the same faces. You could crawl out of bed and there was a room with all our gear set up, where we could work on ideas and record if we wanted. That was our incubation period as Juniper. That was where we knitted together, got our differences out of the way and honed in on what we wanted from the band.
The five members of Juniper have since moved out of the barracks, and are now dotted throughout the city and the Celbridge area, where they still rehearse.
When you're living and working creatively with the same people it can develop into a headfuck, admits Paul Noonan, drummer, who talks a good game without displaying the intense energy rush of his fellow band member. That's why we left. It was a very intense period of writing and rehearsing. It was around that time when we started playing regularly in the DA Club, which is where we cut our teeth live.
Juniper's live performances soon attracted a rabid crop of A&R men to their shows, but it wasn't until last September when they finally signed on the dotted line. There was a lot of posturing going on but no-one had actually made any moves, recalls Paul. They [Polygram] came to see one gig and offered us a deal the next week. I think the reason for that is because Polygram have plenty of autonomy because of Boyzone. They have made a lot of money for the group, so they are now given that bit more freedom. A lot of the major record companies here don't have the power to sign acts autonomously they have to call people in London or New York, and that just makes the process more difficult.
Surely, though, a six-album deal is more than a little unusual for a band signing their first recording contract?
I suppose so, muses Dodima, but there are a lot of unusual things about the band in a sense. When it came to the actual deal, our management knew exactly what we wanted. What we were interested in was actually getting people within the company who we felt loved our music and believed in the band. If you don t have that, you can have a company grafting for you, but it's not really going to work.
I think we were signed for our potential, our progressive nature and our longevity, interjects Paul, modestly. It's far cooler and makes more business sense to have an act that is going to consistently produce good albums. We weren't signed for any standout this song is going to be a hit single around the world. It was more for the kind of albums that we can make.
Both band members reject the notion that Juniper are under intense pressure to come up with the goods; indeed, they feel they already have done. We have the guts of two albums worth of material, says Paul. Because we have three songwriters in the band, we always have an abundance of songs to work on and the pressure is never on one person to perform.
Both Paul and Dodima feel that their material has progressed from the acoustic, organic sound of the Manna EP and that they have grown and diversified . One of the reasons for this is that they have been given free rein in the studio.
When the time came to record, we sat down with the record company and they told us they wanted to go into the studio and experiment: to push ourselves, remembers Dodima. That was great it was like a sense of freedom. If you let people do what they really want to do, they will come up with something better than if you try to make them do something.
Listening to all three tracks on the Weatherman single confirms this. While the title track is straight-ahead rock, the B-sides, and Little Sister in particular, are not quite as straightforward and not exactly what you would expect, as the band are learning to use the studio as a creative tool. Juniper also promise that their next single, due out around April or May, will be a different kettle of fish again, and are hotly anticipating their debut album, which should hit the shelves in September.
For the moment, however, the band are hitting the highroads and by-roads, playing all over the country in record stores and in more regular venues in support of Weatherman . This is obviously an exciting, not to mention hectic, period for them.
We are doing something tangible, says Paul. We are getting out and playing, but I really love talking about what we do as well. I read about REM on their last promotional job, for New Adventures In Hi-Fi, where they took a week and did all the videos and the press in that week. I can understand that because they have kids and families. But at this age, we are mad for it, as certain Mancunians would say.
Weatherman is out now on Polygram, and Juniper are appearing at a venue near you.
Hot Press - These Chiming Men - October 26 2000
Bell X1 have just released their debut album. John Walshe talks to vocalist Paul Noonan about everything from teenage erections to Bagpuss.
I begin this interview with Paul Noonan, Bell X1 vocalist and guitarist, by telling him I don t really want to talk about Juniper, the band's former incarnation. He seems relieved.
It's a natural process that a lot of the interviews I am
doing around this time will start with that, but it is over, he sighs. She
wasn't the woman I married is the line I'm using.
All well and good, so far, but as you will see, the J word comes up time and again during our conversation. I suppose it is bound to, considering that all of Bell X1 once made up 80% of Juniper, who released two singles a couple of years ago on Polygram, Weatherman and World Is Dead . Before they had an album out, they saw their record company taken over by the Seagram Organisation, forming the Universal Music Group. The following restructuring affected both the label and the band, and saw the departure of lead singer Damien Rice. Up to that point, Paul was the band's drummer.
I've always played guitar and written songs and the writing process was always co-operative, he points out.
As a result, when the now-quartet took the decision to keep going as a band, it wasn't as strange as it may have seemed to outsiders when the sticksmith stepped out from behind the kit and up to the microphone. They decided a new moniker was the order of the day, naming themselves after the first car to break the sound barrier.
Universal then came to see them play live and decided they still wanted a piece of the action, although Bell X1 made sure the label knew their priority was to release an album.
First came the fairly low-key release of two singles, Pinball Machine and Man On Mir . Bell X1 have also built up a sizable, loyal fanbase, and the timing could not be better for the release of their brilliant debut album, Neither Am I.
We have arrived at the position we find ourselves in because we haven t shoved it down people's throats, and I think people have warmed to it for that reason, Paul affirms. Because it was so low key, there is a sense of people discovering these songs for themselves.
When I suggest to Paul that one thing people will discover in these songs is lots of sexual references, he laughs: Maybe that's compensatory.
His lyrics do ring resoundingly true, though. Take, the brilliant Slow Set , which may be released as a single next year. It examines the disappearance of the slow dance at the local teenage disco, and sees our lyricist recalling the embarrassing moment when you get an erection while tripping the light fantastic with a partner, when he observes that both you and her know that you've risen to the occasion . Again he laughs.
I think everyone goes through . he tapers off. Well it certainly happened to me and it's a phenomenon which is the most fucking terrifying thing sometimes.
The sentiments of Slow Set will be particularly relevant to anyone in their mid-to-late 20s, as will the wonderful Blue Rinse Baby where Paul calls up images from classic 70s children's TV programmes, Playschool, Button Moon and Bagpuss, which apparently frightened the young Noonan. Bagpuss did give me the fear, I swear, he laughs. It was the whole sepia tone that scared the shit out of me.
On a more serious note, Bell X1 are delighted that they finally have an album on the shelves and they are going to be treading the motorways and boreens of dear old Eireann over the coming months to show everyone just how happy they are. Then they re heading to the UK for a series of showcase gigs, which will hopefully see Neither Am I getting a release across the pond.
Neither Am I was recorded with former Crowded House man, Nick Seymour, on production duties. Paul was a serious Crowded House fan and admits that it took a while to adjust to working with one of his heroes. The album, though, sounds polished without ever being fussy, mature but not boring.
People have said that it sounds like a second record, Paul muses, and because we had been through so much with Juniper, it kind of felt like a second record to us, too. It's not particularly immediate and it is quite considered in its instrumentation. We had achieved a confidence as musicians and as a band to pare things back and not be fussy. The reference used a lot was The Velvet Underground, who sound like they can t really play their instruments but it's still beautiful.
Bell X1 play Vicar St on November 25th.
Hot Press - The story of O - February 4 2002
Damien Rice has just released his debut solo album and says he's already 'making it'. Pilau talk: Fiona Reid
“I’m really happy,” declares Damien Rice, who, sitting in the south of France, staring up at the big blue sky, is anticipating the imminent release his debut album O. After an ever-extending period of recording that had eager fans on tenterhooks, two-years later Damien’s absolutely ecstatic with the finished product. “ I’m delighted with the record,” he enthuses. “It’s exactly what I wanted to create, something I feel happy listening to over and over.”
Rice and his band are in Cannes to perform at the Midem 2002 festival, one of Europe’s largest music industry showcases.
“It’s exactly like it looks on the telly,” he says. “Beaches, hills, posh hotels. We’re not here with any specific purpose in mind, it’s just a bit of a holiday before our tour.”
The tour follows the launch of the long-awaited album in February. O ebbs and flows gracefully through some of the most heart-wrenchingly uplifting, sweepingly romantic and darkly contemplative tracks in his repertoire, old favourites like ‘Volcano’, ‘The Blower’s Daughter’ and ‘Eskimo’ and newer songs, like the aptly-named ‘Delicate’ and the perfectly-evoked Brel-worthy vignette ‘Cheer’s Darlin.’
“I had an idea at the start of what I wanted it to sound like, but my ideas changed as I went along,” Damien explains. “I initially wanted a mixture of slower songs and rockier ones, like ‘Face’ and ‘Woman Like a Man,’ but I ended up just using the softer, quieter songs, cause the heavier ones didn’t really fit in the end.”
He admits it’s “not exactly the kind of record they’ll put on in café’s in the background, because there’s so many quiet, almost silent bits and then it swells up really loud, with no steady rhythm. A lot of the songs wouldn’t be considered to have a lot of radio potential, it’s the kind of thing you’d put on at home later in the day, to just sit and listen to. I wanna make an angry album next, maybe not an official second album, but I’d like to put the harder songs out in some form.”
Perhaps in order to prove he’s capable of a swifter approach to recording, Damien says the band, including co-vocalist Lisa Hannigan, cellist Vyvienne Long, bassist Shane Fitzsimons and drummer Tomo, are considering recording an entire album in just one week, staying together in a house and writing and recording songs from scratch.
In fact, many of the songs on O were recorded in a spur of the moment fashion at various locations in Dublin, Killarney, London and Paris, via Damien’s portable studio.
“I think I work better doing things spontaneously,” he maintains. “If I’m in the right mood, I think I can capture a bit of magic. Most of the material on the album is first take stuff. I’d wait for weeks or sometimes months until I was in the right mood to do a song. People were saying, ‘God, is it taking you ages to record the album?’ but I didn’t spend much time actually recording. Sometimes three songs were recorded in just the one evening.”
The only track on the album that had outside help and a ‘proper’ studio setting was ‘Amie,’ which he recorded with composer David Arnold, of Bjork’s ‘Play Dead’ fame. Arnold agreed to work on the album after hearing Rice’s original demo. “David transformed it with this amazing string part, using wonderful counterpoint techniques.”
The ex-Juniper frontman is releasing the album himself with distribution by RMG. His experiences with his former band, other members of which later morphed into Bell X1, have made him very wary of the music industry. “There are hundreds of record companies here at Midem, but I really couldn’t be arsed going near them. I’ve been signed before - alright, to a major rather than an independent label - but I wasn’t in control of what we were doing and the direction they wanted us to take. Like ‘Weatherman’ (Juniper’s first single) - the record company said, ‘Do it this way, put it out and if it does well, you can do whatever you want with your second single. So we recorded ‘Eskimo’, and they said, ‘No, it’s not radio friendly enough.’ You’re promised something, so you compromise, but they’re never happy.”
Rice had to re-record ‘Eskimo,’ with it’s beautiful operatic crescendos, for the new album, since he no longer owns the rights to the original recording, and he’s pleased with the outcome. “There are bits I prefer about the original version, but a lot of bits I like better about the new one. I went away for a while and came back and listened to it for its own merits. And I came to the conclusion that I really liked it.”
“I’ve learned at this stage not to plan anything,” he adds. “I’d loads of plans for the album and it turned out totally different and I’m very glad it did. We have our own record out now, we’re delighted with it and we’re making a comfortable living from the gigs, doing it our own way. So there’s no need to try and ‘make it.’ I feel we’re already making it.”
Undercover, Australia - Damien Rice interview
In the late 90's Damien Rice fronted a mildly successful Irish pop band called Juniper. The trouble was Rice was never a pop star. They had a few hits but Rice wanted out and left the band. That is when the real Damien Rice story starts.
Cut to now and Damien Rice is the singer songwriter who recently won the Shortlist Award in Los Angeles. While pop hits aren't his bag, being handed awards is equally a non event for the serious songwriter. The album that did it for Rice is titled 'O'.
He talks to Undercover's Paul Cashmere
Paul Cashmere: You were in a band called Juniper and I'm going to start off by linking that back to something Australian so first off tell us whatever happened to them.
Damien Rice: They became Bell X1.
PC: And were then produced by Nick Seymour from Crowded House.
DR: That's right, yeah.
PC: Nick used to live in Melbourne, Australia and now lives in Dublin, Ireland and there is our Damian Rice link with Australia.
DR: (laughs) Yeah, it is funny when you do that you can bring any person to any other person in a number of steps.
PC: The old 'six degrees of separation' thing but this means you have a one degree link with Crowded House.
DR: Yeah (laughs). I have met Nick. I've been over to his apartment in Dublin quite a few times.
PC: So tell me how did it feel to win the Shortlist Award?
DR: According to other people I am a bit of a weirdo when it comes to award things. For me, I don't hold any weight or attachment to any awards. For me music is not competitive. There is no winner or loser or somebody who is better than someone else really. For me art is so expressive that it is wrong to say any one thing is better than any one else. I was actually a little bit uncomfortable winning it actually but a lot of people don't understand that. That is fine. It was very nice of people to think of me and it was very thrilling for people to think about the record in the way that they did and to have warmed to it but I don't hold any attachment to it. I think if you are going to be artistic about something you can't think about what it is otherwise it can become too contrived. A lot of people seem to think I don't appreciate things or that I don't get excited about things. I do. I just don't get excited by what other people get excited about. That's all.
PC: Didn't you perform at the awards show?
DR: We were in Los Angeles and the last night of our tour was the night before so we went along and played a few songs. It was a good night actually. I hadn't heard of a lot of the bands and some of them were really good.
PC: You appeared on the Letterman show in the States. That is pretty big.
DR: It's on one of those satellite channels that go everywhere. We had played a show in New York, a small show, and someone from Letterman came down to the show. They really liked it and rang our publicist the next day and asked if we would come on the show. There were two or three shows that came in at the same time after the first show in New York and it was just really funny. It was exciting at the time but, again, it is just a TV show. The most important thing for me is just playing well. It doesn't matter where it is or what it is. It doesn't matter of 100 people of it you are playing the Letterman show an audience of whatever. It doesn't matter. Again it is the kind of thing that other people get excited about. It gave me a smirk on my face for a couple of minutes. I mean that in a nice way. A lot of people put a lot of weight on it but for me it is not about size, it is about expression.
PC: You sound like you have a very down to earth approach to your music and just back on Juniper, I read you left Juniper because the record company was pushing you to a pop sound.
DR: They wanted to 'radiofy' what I was doing. I was also in a position where I was compromised. I was much younger and maybe it is because I am Irish but there was a guilt factor when the record company pays you a lot of money, you feel obliged. You go into the studio and they say "we need this to sound like that" and you go "what" and you end up bending things to please other people. I got uncomfortable with it. They promised me if the first single was a hit then we could have more freedom with it. The first single was a hit so they wanted it again for the second single and then we were told what we were doing. I thought "fuck off" and I got really pissed off and left the band. I hated the industry for a while but I don't anymore. I have no problem with the industry right now because I am free of it.
PC: Let's talk about the album and the song 'Amie'. That is one which dates back to your Juniper days.
DR: 'Amie' we never really did live. We did a recording of it in the studio just to make a go of it. I wrote 'Amie' a good couple of years ago and I wrote 'Eskimo' even before that, 'Volcano' as well. They are songs I wrote when I was in Juniper.
PC: 'Eskimo' has that amazing operatic vocal. Tell me who that is and how you came to work with her?
DR: Her name is Doreen Curran. She is a friend of our cellist. I met her one day when I was doing this TV show. That's how I met Vivian the cello player as well. I was just recording the song. The strings were all down and I had this melody in my head. I was trying to work out what it was when I worked out it wasn't a string melody; it wanted to be a vocal melody. It just came into my head. That's why I don't like accepting awards because I don't feel I have done anything. Things just pop in my head. I don't sit down and create them. They just come from nowhere. It was one of those moments of musical madness. That is what I love the most, when things surprise me even.
PC: The track 'The Blower's Daughter' goes back to September 2001. Does this album feel like years of work to you?
DR: If you look at my life, my songwriting life changed when I was in Juniper. I got to a point. There was a time when I had three days to write songs and I was frustrated in the fact that I was thinking I was a songwriter and that is my job and I should really be working at this as a songwriter writing songs. I realized it was a completely wrong approach having this idea that you are supposed to work at it. After three days I picked up the guitar and 'Eskimo' literally flew into my head in ten minutes. For me I was sitting there feeling sad about not being able to write so I started to write about my feelings about not being able to write. Once that happened I have never tried to write again. I now don't write songs. I just go to wherever I go to. It is like going to the toilet. You don't decide you are going to go to the toilet today or go to the toilet three times today. You just eat and the food you put into your system will decide when it wants to come out.
PC: Let's talk about David Arnold. How did you get involved with him?
DR: When I was in Juniper I was right on the verge of signing this record deal. My grandmother said "you know you have a relation who signed a record deal recently". I didn't even know him at the time. He was my dad's cousin. I rang him up to introduce myself for a bit of advice. We became friends and clicked with each other and when I left the band and the record label I was with he took an interest because he was curious about why I left the band. I recorded some demos and he really liked them. One was 'The Blower's Daughter'. He asked me what I wanted to do and I told him I wanted to record an album at home.
PC: Were you familiar with his work with the James Bond movies?
DR: When I met him he hadn't started working with those. The only thing he had done at the time was 'Play Dead' with Bjork that I absolutely loved. He wrote the music. I loved strings and he loved strings so that was why we got together and he did the string arrangement to 'Amie'.
Launch.Yahoo - May 2 2004
Interview with Damien Rice
LAUNCH: Can you talk about the experience with your previous band in Ireland, Juniper, and why that whole situation made you leave the music business for a while?
DAMIEN: Well, with Juniper I'd gotten to the point where I had everything that I had wanted as a teenage musician, which is to be in a rock band. My dream was to play a show in the Olympia in Dublin, which was this big theatre--when I was a kid it was like, "If I ever play there, then I've done something right!" To record in big studios that the likes of U2 or Radiohead or PJ Harvey had recorded in, and to have a deal with a major label--that's what I thought I wanted when I was younger. And we worked and worked and worked towards it, and then eventually we got that. We were recording in these studios, we had a deal with a major label, and we sold out the Olympia! [laughs] And it was around that time that we had just put out our first single, and the second single was coming out. I was quite young at the time, so we kind of compromised on the first single. It is a really strange situation when the label pays for everything that you do: They pay you money to live, they give you money for extra instruments if you need bits and pieces, they pay for the studio, they pay for the transport to the studio, they feed you while you're there, and they fly you there. And you know, it gets to a point where as a human being you start feeling sort of obliged towards these people who are providing you with everything. So while we were in the studio recording the first single, they were asking, "Can we just make it a little bit more radio-friendly?" And there was that sort of guilt feeling, where I allowed myself to soften a bit and go, "Oh, OK--if we make this a little bit more radio-friendly and it works well, though, I want to be able to do whatever I want to do on the second single." And they said, "Sure, once you get in there; all you need to do is just get in the door." It was that classic story where you do what they tell you. And I was younger at the time and I didn't know, I didn't have the experience. That's something I love to tell younger musicians, that you don't have to do any of that. There are no rules at all of how you need to get into the door and once you're in the door then you're fine. That's bullsh-t!
LAUNCH: So what happened with Juniper's second single?
DAMIEN: Yes, anyway, we had the first single out, and it was a hit. And then it came to the second single, and I gave them "Eskimo" [now a Damien Rice solo song], and they said, "Oh no, it's a bit too slow. No, we're thinking of something more up-tempo." So I said, "You want something up-tempo? I've got this great song here..." They said, "No, it's not new enough for us," or "It's too new." It was just this horrible situation; I can't even explain it. It was an emotional waste. I got really frustrated because the label brought me in on my own without the band, and I found out years later that the band didn't even know about this time that I was brought in my own, sat down, and told, "This is the single you're releasing." Had I been signed solo I would have just said, "F--k off," but I was in a band, so I didn't want to be the person who put our deal in jeopardy. So the label put the second single out, and from the moment that happened, I just lost heart. I lost belief, and I lost focus. The whole thing started sort of dwindling then and falling apart, and I got to the point where just before we went to record our album, I sat down with myself and I kind of thought, "OK, the guys in the band are my best friends; we've been all the way through school together, we went through college together, and we've been in a band for eight years now." And it was so hard, but I thought, "If I stay in this any longer, I'm just going to get miserable and I'm going to end up hating them and they're going to end up hating me." Because if we recorded the album, that meant I was sort of committing myself to another couple of years. So I left just before we recorded the album. We went our separate ways and it was hard for a while, because they were obviously very angry. But we worked through it, and it all worked out fine. [Editor's note: Damien's band mates went on to form the critically acclaimed group Bell X1.
How did ye decide to reform as Bell X1? Was it a hard decision?
"Emm....throwing myself back to then-it was inevitable within Juniper I suppose-we'd started to kind of work in different groups anyway, and myself and Brian were doing a lot of work, and Dave was doing a lot of his own work and stuff, so when Damien said finally that he was leaving , we said-ok lets continue. Cos we had a record deal and we had good songs, and we had a good album, and hopefully a future.
Did ye find the changeover from one name and sound to another difficult? The Bell X1 sound is more relaxed, apart from the few "heavy" songs.
The album is actually far more relaxed than how we are live. I mean it's essentially some of the same people making the music, so there are similarities. I don't think anything released by Juniper was representative of the band. The b-sides kinda were, but I think we learnt a lot, in terms of sticking to your guns. In some ways we've paid for it as well, because on paper, Juniper were far more successful than we've been. But you know, I think we're much happier now that we're making the music we want to make.
The Lobby, Cork Interview
Venue: The Lobby
Mark McAvoy talks to Bell X1 (named after the first aircraft to break the sound barrier) lead singer and front man Paul Noonan.
Q1. You used to be known as Juniper and now you have
become Bell X1. Why the name change?
Ans. The original lead singer (Dodi) left the band and we wanted to make very different music. We all wanted to get away from the way Juniper was presented.
Q2. Did Juniper’s lead singer (Dodi) leave of his own free
will or was he pushed?
Ans. He just left, as he didn’t want to be in a band any more, it was as simple as that. He was a very single-minded individual. I was friends with him since I was twelve and he has always had this self-destruct, as I see it, streak in him. He still makes wonderful music but he was just not geared towards compromising and getting on with other people.
Q3. What is the main difference as you see it between Bell
X1 and Juniper?
Ans. I think the singles that were released as Juniper were not particularly representative of the band. At the time we were just kind of star-struck at the notion of signing a record deal. We signed a record deal with PolyGram Ireland and they were not willing to make an album. They wanted to release a couple of singles first, [ incidentally Juniper only ever released two singles during their short career] with the result that the singles were hyped out of the water and we never had an album to back up any of the bullshit that was being spun about us. It all happened too fast. We learned a lot from that.
"Rice To The Occasion"
I first met Damien Rice many moons ago through a friend of a friend of a friend. At the time I must admit that I was kind of captivated by this artistic, interesting, deep young man. He was an Eco warrior, his beliefs were steadfast, honesty and integrity his primary goals. He only ate organic food and recycled everything he used. He wrote aching lyrics from his forever aching heart (he always had plenty of material because there was always a plentiful supply of girlfriends) and he played guitar at campfires in way-off fields.
He was the type of person I would have liked to have been. He cared for mankind, he cared for the earth and I thought that was, well… lovely. It was the nearest thing I ever got to being a groupie. Rice was in a band called Juniper, a relatively successful young Irish 5-piece who played electrifying gigs which were always packed to the rafters. They signed to PolyGram for a potential 6-album deal and managed to release two reasonably-well received singles, the most notable being ‘Weatherman’ (not the B*witched version). But that was four years ago and that was as far as they ever got.
Deep down Juniper were not happy berries and after the second single was released, Rice decided to jump ship. “I certainly don’t regret leaving the band,” Damien tells me. “I would look back on things I did and say ‘I wouldn’t do that again’ but if I hadn’t have done it, I wouldn’t have learned that I didn’t like doing it. I just wanted to be free and when I was signed to the record company I wasn’t free”.
The problem was Rice’s artistic freedom had been
compromised. His life decisions were being made by record industry people who
felt they knew better than he did. Maybe they did, if commercial success is what
you’re after, but that game is not what Damien’s about. “Back then I didn’t have
the confidence to believe that I could do it without a big record company behind
me. Then I started thinking, you know what, record companies don’t know
everything. It’s not that I know everything but they don’t either and all their
marketing power and marketing push doesn’t work. When ‘Weatherman’ didn’t go
into the top ten, they even went out and started buying copies of it”.
So off he went off on his lonesome, guitar strapped to his back, to busk the streets of Europe. On his return to Ireland he borrowed a bit of dough from those who would lend it, put down some tracks and sent off a demo to David Arnold (renowned James Bond and Bjork producer). Arnold liked what he heard and Damien liked what he got, a mobile studio.
Mobile, free and solo, Damien then went about setting up
his own record label. This meant that he owned all his work and any profits
would be his to keep. “Now if I want to record an album of mellow songs I can do
it, I don’t have to worry about singles. You don’t need radio, you don’t need
TV, you don’t need anything. All you need is life”.
For the past two years, his life has been ‘O’, an 11-track album recorded entirely in the mobile studio that “allowed for spontaneity”. “I don’t think it’s a sad album, I think it’s an album about sad things”. Call it what you may, heartbreakingly beautiful or over indulgent. What it is undeniable is that it mesmerises with innovative, raw talent, untampered and true.
Despite its brilliance critical reviews will always vary. Damien doesn’t stick to the usual industry protocol - he makes his own rules. As one journalist commented “To Rice’s credit he has created some solid, intense, spine tingling moments… but at two years per album will anyone be willing to wait that long?” The crux of the matter here is that Damien really couldn’t care less if people wait or not. Those who are meant to wait will. As a result of his non-consumerist attitudes a big promo blitz will not be undertaken to push the album. Realistically this could result in poor sales and a bleak financial forecast.
“I’m living perfectly comfortably right now and it’s growing all the time. I don’t think the audience is gonna shrink after the album comes out because we’ve got a small audience at the moment but it’s enough to make a very comfortable living out of. I know at the turn of a hat I could organise a Music Centre Gig, put it up on the website and within two weeks make 2 grand…. I’m not rich now… this album has cost me 10K and I’m paying for it…”.
Damien’s world is a brave new one. He is evidence that there are other ways to survive, that beating Groundhog Day isn’t always untouchable pie in the sky. “People don’t do what they really want to do because usually they’re afraid but I don’t think that’s a bad thing either cos I’m not happy. It’s not that I’m the lucky bastard who had the courage to leave university and go and create cos’ I’m still not that happy, but I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, in a way… ”
The Irish Times - Arts Section - April 23 2002
'From puffed Rice to wild Rice'
Damien Rice used to sing with Juniper, a loud rock band with a big light show, but just before he was due to fly to the south of France to record their début album, he quit the band. He talks to Kevin Courtney about finding his soul and his solo career.
Sometimes rock 'n' roll dreams come true, but more often than not they crash around your head like a cupboard full of weighty expectations. This is the tale of a young man who wanted to live the ultimate rock dream, but instead found himself trapped in a nightmare world of bean counters, unit shifters, chart returns and radio pluggers. He had set out to soothe the soul with honest, heartfelt rock 'n' roll, but ended up pandering to shallow showbiz tastes. He used to think he was Bono, but now he just felt like bono, endlessly clowning around in a slick rock 'n' roll circus. It was time to stop the show.
This young man went by the pseudonym of Dodi Ma, and he was the flamboyant front man of a band called Juniper. Hailing from Celbridge, Juniper were signed to PolyGram (before they were swallowed up by Universal), which proceeded to hype the fledgling act.
Three years later, Damien Rice is sitting in a coffee shop in Temple Bar, facing his nemesis, the very Irish Times rock critic who wrote a scathing review of the band. He's no longer using a ridiculous pseudonym, and he's no longer fronting a band called Juniper. He is, however, finally living a rock 'n' roll dream of sorts, and this time it's a far more relaxing, acoustic reverie.
After Juniper fell apart, Rice was expected to fade unceremoniously into obscurity. Instead, he's become one of Ireland's most popular singer-songwriters, and has sold out such venues as Vicar St and The Olympia Theatre. His debut album, simply titled O, has already gone gold. He's nominated for the Best Newcomer title in the Hot Press Awards, to be announced on Thursday; and on May 6th, he performs in Dublin Castle as part of the Heineken Green Energy Festival, alongside his mates The Frames, Mundy, and his old band mates in Juniper, who are now a very fine band called Bell X1.
Damien Rice has had a second bite of the rock 'n' roll cherry, but instead of juggling it in the air while jumping through hoops, this time he's savouring the taste and texture of sweet independence.
"I was just f--king miserable," he recalls. "I had got everything I thought I wanted. It was my dream to play the Olympia when I was younger; it was my dream to record in the likes of Windmill Lane, where U2 had recorded, and Abbey Road, where The Beatles had recorded. We were 22, 23, whatever. And so I got all those things I thought I wanted, but I was still miserable. I came off the stage at the Olympia, and everyone went backstage, but I just sat on the edge of the stage, and I nearly cried, just sitting there, my head in my hands, going, I missed the show. I missed the gig, because before I'd go on stage, there was this whole sense of, all right, go out there now and blow them away! These people have paid in to see us so... yeaahhh!"
"And it was just, I wasn't being myself at all. I had lost myself completely in the confusion of thinking that I'm supposed to be some sort of entertainer..." He feels he had no sincerity at all - "it was like Spinal Tap".
Rice partly blames himself for the over-theatrical delivery, and partly blames the record company for demanding radio-friendly songs and audience-pleasing poses. Something had to give, and it wasn't going to be the big, multinational music corporation. In early 1999, Juniper were due to fly to the south of France and record their début album with Manic Street Preachers producer Mike Hedges - all paid for by PolyGram, of course. On the eve of this dream junket, however, Rice announced that he was quitting the band.
"I went from playing the Olympia, which I thought was my dream, to busking the streets all around Europe for eight months. I had no money, I was living completely off the street, bit I was far happier. Far happier. Back then I thought I wanted to be successful, famous, whatever. Now, I absolutely do not want to famous. There's a difference between being a rock star and having music which everybody knows, I mean, everybody knows Leonard Cohen, but Leonard Cohen would walk by here and no problem, 'cos he's not a rock star."
Rice took his first faltering steps back in the Irish live circuit, playing gigs in Whelan's on Wexford Street, and attracting an increasingly devoted following to these low-key acoustic sessions. His style is not to everyone's taste: meandering often muddled lyrics; quiet, sometimes almost imperceptible guitar picking; long, storytelling gaps between songs; and a stage set which often resembles a writer's garret, with bed, chair, writing-desk, pens, books and candles as props.
Joining him onstage are Shane Fitzsimmons on bass, Tomo on drums, and chanteuse Lisa Hannigan. The impression is of a gentle troubadour. Onstage, Rice resembles some scraggly figure from long ago, who has suddenly been transported to the 21st century, and stands blinking in the harsh light of the modern world.
It's no surprise that his fans also follow The Frames, Mundy, Paddy Casey and the late Mic Christopher. He may come across as a bookish, roguish sort - his album title, O, comes from the French erotic novel (Note: it doesn't - Editor), The Story of O - but when it comes to literature, Damien admits to being a bit of an ignoramus.
"I used to fail English all the time. English was probably one of my worst subjects in school, really and truly. I hated poetry, I hated writing essays, I just didn't like English at all. I used to get Ds all the time, and it's just ironic that what I do now is write... I always remember people using the word 'angst', and I never knew what it meant. People used to say, yeah, 'this music's very angst-ridden'. And I was like, 'angst'? What is that? There's my English for you. There's your well-read poet image out the window!"
"It's just, I think I was born with some sort of... I'm constantly going to extremes... I remember through my childhood I was always spending time outdoors. I used to fish. And then I got to the stage where I was feeling bad about fishing, 'cos I became conscious of, oh, look, I'm sticking a hook into a worm here. Something changed there, and that's when girls started coming into my life. And so I had a simple, very bold, wildish, free childhood which sort of changed when I got to 13 or 14. And that's when I picked up a guitar as well. And everything just sort of changed then. I turned into a different person, a more conscious person."