Girl Band: Noise Machine
Shallow, panicked breathing is the first thing you’ll hear on Girl Band’s new album The Talkies. Set over a low, thrumming bass, the rush of air – in, out, in, out – sounds so close that it could be filling your own lungs. “Yeah, I’ve always liked breathing,” deadpans vocalist Dara Kiely. “I was feeling a bit panicked one day so I just started breathing into the mic. We felt like it was weirdly aggressive. It baffled us. So we kept the take.”
The Dublin four-piece’s abrasive, industrial records are bodily experiences. Brutalist soundscapes and absurd lyrics make for a first listen that’s often more sensation than comprehension. When we meet the band on a sticky day in west London, they are visibly but cheerily hungover. From a semi-horizontal position, drummer and producer Daniel Fox offers a bashful explanation. “We just sat up all night talking fucking nonsense.”
Kiely, Fox, guitarist Alan Duggan and drummer Adam Faulkner have been close friends since they were teenagers. This friendship underpins all that they do. “From the first record it was all of us in the room, all at once,” affirms Duggan. It’s helped them to take risks in the studio, but more importantly to prioritise each other over the band’s success.
Girl Band’s mind-bending, unyielding debut album Holding Hands with Jamie came out in 2015, and it captured the frenetic live energy that had won the band a loyal fanbase in Dublin and beyond. The record also reflected an intense period of illness for Kiely. Although the group spoke openly to the press about his mental health, some splashy, opportunistic headlines were quick to label their songs ‘psychotic’ or ‘insane’. Over the 12 months that followed, the band cancelled several major tours on grounds of ill health, and eventually stepped out of the indie limelight altogether. Now four years on, their return is decisive: in interviews, the music comes first.
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The Talkies was recorded in two sessions, separated by 18 months and the Atlantic Ocean. The first, in New York, yielded just one song for the record – the full vision came later, in a grand, creeper-covered stately home in County Laois. Ballintubbert House is usually reserved for weddings or corporate away-days, but Girl Band briefly took up residence for a determined bout of album-finishing. The group came rehearsed and prepared, ready to use the manor’s specific acoustics (damp basements, airy staircases) to build a record that’s both industrial and intimate, as well as a deeper exploration of the frankly strange sounds that characterised their earlier work.
Often Girl Band are aligned with a handful of industrial groups like Nine Inch Nails, Metz and Death Grips, but the comparison doesn’t quite hold. “They’re all kind of visceral, I guess?” hazards Fox, but it’s a shared love of techno that laid the groundwork for the way the band operates.
You’ll hear those influences if you listen closely to early track Lawmanor, or more obviously, to their 2015 cover of Blawan’s Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage? “Techno has fundamentally shaped how we write,” Duggan says, emphatically. “Even the way we use drums.” They talk over each other to explain that Shoulderblades, the intense new single that ended their hiatus, is inspired by a remix of Jon Hopkins’ Open Eye Signal by Leeds producer Happa. “That tsss tsss tsss bit!” says Adam. “Like, that’s cool. I wanted to write around that.”
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A 4/4 drive surges through The Talkies, lacing together some otherwise disparate, dystopian sounds. “If we were chopping and changing all the time, it would just be nonsense,” says Fox. “But if you give things a little time, you can feel them out.”
The same sentiment applies to their hiatus, too. Girl Band’s break inevitably reshaped their writing process. It helped them parse ideas while working apart, but it also gave the group space to explore life beyond the band. They mostly work in music-adjacent jobs – Faulkner does live audio, Duggan teaches music business, Fox is in a recording studio, and Kiely’s been studying. He’s just completed a qualification in peer support work and mental health, and earlier in the year curated a Music and the Mind panel discussion with his friend Donnacha O’Malley [from local band Meltybrains?] as part of a culture festival at Dublin City University.
The music industry, sadly, has a reputation for insufficient duty of care, but Girl Band sound ready to look out for themselves. “I think you have to be very decisive and disciplined if you want to be healthy,” says Faulkner. “Otherwise people ply you with booze.” They laugh. “Yeah, and no one has any cash,” adds Fox.
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In conversation, the band are sharp but not quite cynical. They tease each other with the kind of ease that comes from years of friendship, and they credit this dynamic with taking the ego out of their writing process. As Duggan puts it, they treat their instruments as tools rather than roles: “You’re just using them as noise machines, I suppose. No one’s ever precious, like, ‘Hey, hands off my riff, man!’” New tracks like Prefab Castle showcase their willingness to take these risks: at over seven-and-a-half minutes long, it begins with a purring guitar and peaceful sing-song vocals before everything is audibly ground into dust. To help keep track of themselves within songs this expansive, they use counts of 13 “because it’s a very unmusical number,” says Fox gleefully. “We were just doing it to be awkward. It’s nice because it’s just slightly too long.”
It’s not that Girl Band are superstitious, save for the lucky dice that Duggan keeps on his pedals. It’s rather an example of how their writing process is fuelled by a sometimes silly determination to throw themselves off balance – provided they have time to figure it out. Mid-record, a dreamy, spiralling song called Aibophobia is built from palindromic lyrics and reversed recordings, sparked by a curiosity to see if they could write a song that’s the same backwards as it is forward. Turns out it’s trickier than they thought. “I had to go to palindromes.com,” admits Kiely. “It’s hard to be backwards,” says Fox, ruefully.
Abrasive, immersive noise like this either pushes people away, or it pulls a person closer. Girl Band have a tight-knit community of fans – and dissenters – to prove it. They recall an early gig when someone repeatedly screamed “Shut the fuck up!” between songs. But as another listener puts it, under a video for 2015 single Paul, “I [wouldn’t] want to watch this every day. It’s something that you want to listen to when you feel exactly the same.”
Plunging into the turbulence of The Talkies might feel like a shock to the system, but there’s something restorative in the purge. In the record’s closing moments there’s a slow, crackling noise, close to the mic. It sounds a lot like a deep, soothing breath out.
Photography: Yis Kid