vendredi, septembre 03, 2004

The Thrills: California dreaming

The Thrills, five wide-eyed Dubliners in search of America, have yet to wake up to the reality of success, finds Fiona Sturges

03 September 2004

You may be familiar with the name Corey Haim. A child actor in the Eighties, Haim's big role was in Joel Schumacher's The Lost Boys, the celebrated teen flick in which he battled with a gang of vampires alongside his fictional older brother, played by Jason Patric. Following in the tradition of many a teen heart-throb, Haim's star has since waned; these days his name is only likely to be mentioned in the context of "Where is he now?".

It's this very question that forms the basis of the new single from the Dublin quintet The Thrills. "Whatever Happened to Corey Haim?" is a cautionary tale of dashed ambition and disloyalty ("So if I betray you/ I won't be the first, you won't be the last"). Catchy as the song is, however, there's no ignoring the fact that it is a somewhat girly subject for five shaggy-haired Irishmen, particularly ones who would have had an average age of seven when The Lost Boys was released.

"We all have older sisters who were obsessed with the film," offers the band's softly-spoken singer Conor Deasy. "They had the tacky posters on their walls and they could probably recite half of the dialogue. For us, it became one of those rites-of-passage movies like The Breakfast Club." He chuckles and adds: "You could say we didn't have any choice in the matter."

A quick search on Google clears up the Haim mystery. His is a classic tale of too much too soon, as he slid from being a Hollywood star commanding six-figure fees to being a bankrupt cocaine addict in the Nineties. Humiliation of a more peculiar nature befell the actor in 2001 when it transpired that he had tried to flog his teeth on the internet ($75 per tooth, if you're asking).

Happily, it's a fate unlikely to befall the clean-living and inherently sensible members of The Thrills. Clearly immune to the traditional signifiers of rock'n'roll living, Deasy and the keyboard player Kevin Horan's preferred tipple is white wine, while the guitarist Daniel Ryan doesn't drink at all. Only the drummer Ben Corrigan and bassist Paidric McMahon are liable to overdo it on the lager, and are known for telling tall stories to gullible Americans about how they were raised next door to a family of leprechauns.

It's a sunny afternoon in Chelsea, New York, and Deasy and Ryan are sat in a bar reflecting on the good fortune that has brought them to the forefront of contemporary rock. Next to The Darkness, The Thrills are the biggest-selling band from the British Isles - last year's big-hearted debut, So Much for the City, an album that extolled the virtues of all things Californian, has sold more than half a million copies in the UK alone and is set to top a million worldwide. Last year, they were nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and won a Q Award for Best New Band.

Thus, having already conquered Britain, in the past year the band has taken to the tour bus and tackled the US market. It's a territory that has defeated considerably more established acts such as Oasis and Manic Street Preachers. In The Thrills' case, however, the gamble seems to have paid off. Early in the year, they landed slots on prime- time chat shows including David Letterman and Conan O'Brien. Now "Whatever Happened to Corey Haim?" is a fixture on many of the country's leading radio stations, while their live shows have been rapturously received by US critics.

"Starting again in America can be very humbling and demoralising," remarks Deasy. "We used to renounce so many bands for not being able to stomach it, but now I can see how hard it is. The US has at least five times the population of Britain, and it's so vast. When you're playing night after night you can end up prostituting yourself to the audience, going for the cheap tricks to get that immediate reaction from the crowd. But America's always been a place that we've loved. This country's been a huge inspiration to us, so the chance to really explore the place wasn't something that we were going to pass up."

Certainly, The Thrills' love of American - specifically West Coast - rock was passionately evident in So Much for the City. Featuring the hit singles "Big Sur" and "Santa Cruz (You're Not That Far)", the album brought with it nostalgic echoes of The Eagles, The Byrds and, most vividly, The Beach Boys.

"When that album was recorded, it was very much about a time in our lives," says Ryan. "It might sound silly now, but singing about those towns really did put a smile on our faces when we were recording in a shitty little basement on the outskirts of Dublin.

"We've been slogging around the States for months now but we're still in love with the place. I'd take a holiday in Los Angeles or San Diego or New York tomorrow, given the chance."

In the past year, the band has also found time to record a new album called Let's Bottle Bohemia. The songs were composed on rare days off and as the band travelled from town to town. When they found themselves with six weeks off in the summer, they decided to go straight into the studio.

"I think in the last month or so on tour we were all itching to do something different," Ryan says. "You get up every day, you do the same thing when you're on tour. So once you finish it, the break in routine is very energising. All we wanted to do was get started on some new songs."

"We knew that after so long on the road together, we'd be a lot tighter, too," adds Deasy. "There is this intangible thing that happens when you're playing so much. For us it's a case that, rather than being exhausted with the music, we're really gelling. All of us wanted to go into the studio and get quick takes of these new songs while they felt fresh. You hear about these big rock bands who have all the money in the world at their disposal and spend two years in the studio making a record. It's totally unnecessary. When you get to a certain point, you've got to consider that song written and finished."

It's doubtless a result of this no-nonsense approach that Let's Bottle Bohemia is a more rough-edged affair than its predecessor. Deasy describes it as "more precise, quite lean and mean. We had a much bigger budget than with the first record and could have gone for the big, string-drenched sound, but we chose to reject that. We wanted to keep it simple." The album also sees the band getting deeper into their love affair with American music with songs steeped in sounds of Burt Bacharach, Neil Young and, yes, The Beach Boys.

The Thrills is the product of a lifelong friendship between Deasy and Ryan, both of whom grew up in Blackrock outside Dublin. By the time they were 16 their band, which in those days went by the name The Cheating Housewives, had been joined by school friends Horan, Corrigan and McMahon. According to Deasy, the first few years were spent "just mucking about making a racket. You learn from all that stuff and it propels you forward. We started out writing these cool little pop songs, but then we began getting a bit clever about it and getting embarrassingly pretentious. I hope to God no one hears any of that stuff. If they did, we'd have to retire in shame."

In the summer of 1999, two years after they left school, the band and a group of their friends decamped to a tiny apartment in San Diego with a view to "hanging out, being young, and maybe writing one or two songs on the beach".

Regular visits were made to Los Angeles, where they paid homage to their favourite bands, and to Tijuana, the town on the Mexican border famous for its loud music and cheap tequila.

On a trip to Arizona, Ryan and Horan went to a Burt Bacharach gig and lied their way backstage by passing themselves off as journalists for The Irish Times. A similar trick worked at a Brian Wilson gig where they took out their Irish passports and pretended that they'd flown over specially for the show. The pair, who spent large portions of their childhoods tracking down rare bootlegs of unreleased Beach Boys songs, finally got to meet their idol. "He was really cool, though a little confused as to why we were there," recalls Ryan. "I told him my fav- ourite song was 'Don't Worry Baby', so he gave me an autograph which said 'To Daniel, don't worry baby'."

Returning to Dublin in the autumn with a new sense of purpose, the band started working in earnest to put together some demos and find a record deal.

The Thrills' rise to stardom may seem swift in the eyes of their fans, but in fact the band spent four depressing years trying to peddle their wares to resistant A&R men. "It went downhill as far as it could go before it went up," Daniel remarks gloomily. "Soon after getting the demos together we signed a deal with an Irish independent label, and for a while it looked quite promising. But then after a year they dropped us. It turned out they had a very different vision for the band than we expected. We had no money, no equipment and no studio time. Looking back, I can't believe we didn't give up there and then."

Deasy agrees. "That was a very testing year. When you put so much into your band and then you get dropped by a very small label, all your hope goes out of the window. We just couldn't see a future at that point."

Keen to avoid the urges of their families to find proper jobs, the band resolved not to tell anyone they'd been dropped until they had found a new label. Fortune finally smiled on them in 2002 when, having sat in on one of their rehearsals in Dublin, Morrissey asked The Thrills to open for him on his tour of the US and Mexico. Still without a contract, they were forced to decline his offer due to lack of funds. They did, however, open for him at his Royal Albert Hall gigs and their performances got them instant interest from the major labels.

After much procrastinating, they agreed to sign with Virgin on one condition - that they could record their first album in their beloved California. Support slots with The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan followed, plus an endorsement from their fellow Dubliner Bono who, worried that these innocent youngsters would be led astray by the bright lights of Hollywood, told Deasy and friends to "fear Los Angeles".

Now their chart-topping status has not only made them among the hottest acts of the last 18 months, but it has also made them the focus of a considerable amount of female attention. Later in the afternoon, as the five band members pose patiently for pictures along the banks of the Hudson, girls on rollerblades do dangerous double-takes, while passing pedestrians furtively take some pictures of their own. Self-effacing and egoless to the last, The Thrills seem oblivious to the stir they are causing.

Watching them larking about during the photo-shoot and skimming stones across the river, like Bono, you can't help but fear for their well-being in such a cut-throat industry. For rock musicians, they seem altogether too nice. Earlier on, talking about the release of their new album, they were as wide-eyed and excitable as a group of five-year-olds anticipating a visit from Santa Claus.

Asked if they aren't just a tiny bit daunted by what lies ahead, namely the merry-go-round of interviews and TV appearances, Deasy replies: "Not at all. I think there's more of a sense of occasion with the release of this album than there was with the first. With So Much for the City we were just stumbling around, so excited just to be there, whereas now it's about sustaining the momentum and proving we've got it in us to still be around in four or five years' time. It'll be tough, but we're up to the challenge."

"Whatever Happened to Corey Haim?" is out on Monday. The album 'Let's Bottle Bohemia' is released on 13 September on Virgin. The Thrills begin a tour of the UK in November ---> Thrills

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