Bittersweet Symphony


Paul Donoghue, of Glaswegian rockers Glasvegas, talks to George Morahan about the empathy, euphoria and heartbreak

Hype can kill any band. Those who survive the fawning yet fickle gaze of the modern music press are made more resilient for it, but that doesn’t mean they will escape unscathed.

In the case of Glasvegas – who were instantly ravaged by the NME upon the limited release of their 2007 single, ‘Daddy’s Gone’ – such expectation and responsibility caught them unaware, as bassist Paul Donoghue explains. “It’s like getting a punch in the face, and you have to wake up. Looking back on it now, we’re very lucky to have had that time, we’re stronger people for it, and we’re much more mature people now.”

In the wake of all the publicity, Glasvegas left for New York to record their self-titled debut album and, upon returning to the UK, it seemed the band would retain their balance, but the added workload came too quickly for them to handle properly. “As things went on, I think we struggled a little more. It was such a change in our lives. I don’t think we expected it to be such hard work.  We thought it was more ‘turn up, play a gig and go home’ and that was all we’d ever done.”

What started as an excuse to sit around, get drunk and occasionally play some guitar was now a career. Glasvegas had gone to number two in the UK charts, whilst garnering critical plaudits and a Mercury Prize nomination. The band was now established, in-demand, they even supported U2 at Croke Park.

Drummer Caroline McKay was first to crack, leaving the band in late 2009, but they were all buckling under the weight of promotional demands and straining familial relations. McKay may have not been able to continue; however success had the biggest impact on vocalist and guitarist James Allen. “It was hard for James, especially with the way he writes his lyrics. When he wrote ‘Daddy’s Gone’, he didn’t know how big it was gonna go and how much it would connect with people,” he says. “It was uncomfortable for him the first time he spoke to his father about it.”

The song resonated with people and the album consistently showed an ability to blend the deeply personal with an anthemic spirit; a talent that has defined Glasvegas’ fledgling career and is a vital part of the band’s identity. “I think out band runs on emotions. That’s not always the best way to be, but I think emotions are what drive us. I think if we didn’t show that anymore, we wouldn’t do it, we’d give up.”

While James’ gift to harness such private pain is one of the qualities that Donoghue deeply admires about him. “James is a very empathetic person. Sometimes all it takes is a look and James knows what’s happening inside that person’s head. He’s done it with me before and it is stuff I don’t even realise.”

Their aptly named second album, EUPHORIC /// HEARTBREAK \ incessantly explores its titles themes. Donoghue suggests that they are two sides of the one coin and either would be pointless without the other. “I think if you didn’t have heartbreak, you wouldn’t know what euphoria was. I think they’re two opposites that work very well together.”

On top of that, Allen’s capacity for empathy has been stretched further than ever as he contemplates the pain and compromise of closeted homosexuality on two songs, ‘I Feel Wrong’ and ‘Stronger Than Dirt’. The latter of which, Donoghue recalls, came as the result of a fleeting glance across a busy room.

“We were at this party one night – and I was totally oblivious to this happening – and these two people we know, these two guys, one of them is there with his girlfriend, but James saw the way they looked at one another and he could tell there was something going on. But that look said everything to James and he knew that it doesn’t matter whom the other person is. That’s love and it’s very rare that you’d see that.”

In early 2010, the band demoed ‘Stronger Than Dirt’ and the rest of the album in Santa Monica, California, with new drummer Jonna Löfgren. It was a productive retreat and one that significantly altered the band musically.

Where Glasvegas was heavily indebted to the sounds of 50s Doo-Wop and Glaswegian shoegaze pioneers The Jesus and Mary Chain, EUPHORIC /// HEARTBREAK \ grasps at Depeche Mode’s brand of stadium electro-rock. “We’d just got into the album Violator by Depeche Mode, which really inspired the music. We were a bit more open, this time, to trying a bit of keyboard. Before it was like: ‘What’s that doing in the studio? That thing with the black and white keys’.”

EUPHORIC /// HEARTBREAK \ proves Glasvegas are a band aiming for the jugular and they expect their audience to react as much. “We don’t mind people saying they hate us or love us, but we hate being in the middle or just being alright.” Such statements demonstrate how their attitudes towards music have been significantly adjusted since the early days, a fact that isn’t lost on Donoghue. “It’s actually weird hearing everybody say goodnight at midnight and going to bed rather than going out, looking for a party.”

They may have matured, or even mellowed, but it doesn’t feel like they have become blatant careerists either. Their ambitions remain reassuringly modest. “As long as we can still go on tour and still make albums and keep enjoying it, we’ll be very happy.” No pressure.

Glasvegas play The Academy on April 28th. Tickets are €23. EUPHORIC /// HEARTBREAK \ is out now.