Hal: Bedroom superstars

Hal worked on their album amid duvets and wardrobes. Andy Gill salutes a domestic success
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There are, essentially, two ways to approach the business of being a band, whatever type of music you're trying to make. One is to make so much of a fuss and bother about yourself that people have to take notice, and to try to take care of the music later on, once the hype has secured you the platform to launch your career. This is a risky approach, because as soon as you actually have to come up with the goods, it can become transparently clear that, alas, you're not the all-conquering force you were made out to be. The Sex Pistols appeared to pull off this trick - Malcolm McLaren encouraged the myth that they were musically hopeless but, much to his surprise, one suspects, they actually had the goods to back up their buzz. But it was the thousands of smaller bands that formed in their wake who had to learn this harshest of pop's life lessons, their careers measured not in albums or even singles in some cases, but in a handful of thinly attended gigs.

The other way is to hunker down and work on your music, an approach the Americans call "woodshedding", but which, this side of the Atlantic might more accurately be called "bedrooming". Even experienced old road-dogs like Bob Dylan's backing band The Hawks chose this route when they decided to pursue a career of their own, working in rural privacy before emerging fully-formed from their chrysalis as The Band. And, with the internet proving an increasingly popular method of disseminating one's music, more and more bands are opting for this route. There's less hassle than at gigs, and no-one throws beer at you if they don't like you.

David Allen and Stephen O'Brien, both from Dublin, had spent years playing gigs in various bands since they were in their mid-teens before they decided it wasn't really worth the effort. "We didn't feel that we were going anywhere at all, so we went back to the house and started writing some new songs," says Allen. "We were kind of just goofing around, writing songs for the sake of writing songs - enjoying each other's company, really." They spent the next two years working on material, putting tracks together. Dave's brother, Paul, would hang around and offer encouragement, telling them they should do something with the songs, or maybe get out of the bedroom and start gigging again. Before long, he was part of the band, despite having no musical experience to speak of. "I'd never played anything," he admits. "I just loved music."

It's this love of music that comes through most clearly on the band's debut album, and in their conversation, which is riddled with references to influences, both popular and obscure. There are the obvious points of reference - Pet Sounds, Revolver and so on - but there are also echoes of the string glissandi found on Tim Buckley and Curtis Mayfield records, and an appreciation of Ennio Morricone's score for A Fistful of Dynamite (which inspired them to use harmonica and backwards piano on one of their own tracks). The previous night they had played in Norwich, but were most enthused about the old seven-inch singles they had found in a local record store that afternoon. Dave got the Stones' "Satisfaction", The Byrds' "So You Want to Be a Rock'n'Roll Star", and a double A-side of "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains", while Paul got John Lennon's "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" backed with "Beef Jerky" ("never heard of that before"). At a record fair in Ireland, Dave once spent £28 on a Spector test-pressing of "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "He's a Rebel". There's hardly a moment of their lives, you realise, when they're not writing music, making music, listening to music, or thinking about music - pretty much the essential prerequisite for a band that's chosen the reclusive, woodshedding/bedrooming approach. Even the band's chosen name, Hal, derives partly from a musical connection: while watching 2001, the name of the spaceship's errant computer reminded them of how much they admired the lyrical skills of Burt Bacharach's writing partner Hal David, and the drumming of Hal Blaine on all those Phil Spector and Beach Boys records. So Hal they became.

By 2003, they had acquired a sizeable set of songs, all lovingly and laboriously laid down in Dave's bedroom. "We did about 15 demos on a Roland workstation," says O'Brien. "We'd write songs on it, too, just throw down the song. We only had one mike, and one guitar, and a Yamaha DJX, which is like a kids' DJ trance-dance keyboard thing, with some basic drum sounds. We just kept adding and adding things. There are still parts of the original demo on "My Eyes are Sore", for instance: about 75 per cent of it is the original demo; we just re-did the drums, and the main vocal."

What's surprising about this is that "My Eyes are Sore" is the most elaborate piece of music I've heard in years, an extraordinary, multi-layered song that sounds as if it might have been created by Brian Wilson for Smile. The vocal harmonies alone are a wonder, and to imagine them laid down on a little home-studio beggars belief. And not just that, but busked on the spot, rather than worked out according to harmonic theory.

"Basically, we'd just do what sounded right," says O'Brien. "You wouldn't work out what was a fifth, or whatever, you'd just sing what came naturally, and when it sounded good, you'd keep that one and say, 'Yeah, that's the one, now give me another one', and endlessly come up with harmonies on top of harmonies."

And what harmonies they are! Like the Wilson brothers, Dave and Paul Allen have a natural gift for harmonising, with Dave's falsetto capping things off on the verge of kitsch, like Al Jardine's in The Beach Boys, and Frankie Valli's in The Four Seasons.

"We never write songs in a particular key to suit a voice, so you end up straining to sing it," he explains. "After a while you get used to it, then you just mess around with it to make it more comfortable for yourself, and you end up with stuff you never thought you could do. We did a radio show in France the other week, and there was a panel of French guys having this conversation about us, and playing a couple of songs from the record. We couldn't tell what they were on about. The only word we could make out in their conversation was 'castrato', or something like that, so I had to reassure them that there was no surgery involved in reaching any of those notes!"

After Paul sent off demo tapes of the band's songs, the first flickers of interest started coming from UK-based record companies, who wanted to know where they might be able to catch the band playing. This was a problem, as they'd stopped playing gigs a few years earlier, and didn't even have a drummer at the time. "We told them that if they wanted to see us play, they'd have to come over to the house, and we'd play a gig there for them," says Dave. "It would have to be on our terms." So it was that a few London A&R men went over to Dublin to hear Hal play in Dave and Paul's dad's lounge. "We set up the organ and piano in the sitting-room, and played a few songs for them, just on acoustic guitar and piano. It was a good space to hear the songs really stripped-down. It was quite intimate. We'd play them a couple of songs, then take a break and have a cup of tea, take them in the back room and show them the demos we were making.

"It's about that trust thing you can build up one-to-one, instead of having people coming up to you after a show, when there's really loud music playing, and they're telling you all these things they want to do for the band. The most important thing to us was getting the record done - we placed more emphasis on that than image and all those kind of things. We're not that kind of band at all."

As word spread about the band, they decided to put on a few showcases at a local club for the growing army of A&R people expressing interest, and eventually opted to sign with Rough Trade, who were prepared to let them develop in their own way and in their own time.

"They knew from our demos that what we wanted to do wasn't like a normal Rough Trade record," says Dave. "They're a left-of-centre record company, and our record was probably left-of-centre for them, but they wanted to take that risk. It was a great relationship. We just hit it off from the beginning."

A further boost came when the former Tears For Fears keyboardist Ian Stanley, now residing in Dublin, saw one of their showcases and invited them to record with him.

"He said, 'Hey - do you want to come and record in my studio, for free?' 'Er - yeah!' So we went in and recorded 'What a Lovely Dance' with him. Then we got signed and started doing the album, with Ian producing."

With Stanley's help, they set about honing the songs so painstakingly built up on their demos, replacing makeshift synth-generated arrangements with real orchestrations, and trying to realise the sounds they heard in their heads.

"You hear those Beach Boys productions and you think, that's absolutely massive," says Dave. "But you have those things in your head, so if you get a chance to do something, you might as well do what's in your head, and not think about what you're doing: don't analyse it, just go for it - you can always pull it back if it sounds ridiculous. We were a bit naive when we first went in the studio. We recorded four or five songs, then wiped them all and started all over again."

Like small kids offered the run of a sweet-shop, they revelled in the facilities available in a proper studio, indulging their most fanciful whims on tracks like "Don't Come Running".

"We had great fun recording that," recalls Dave. "There's like a party going on in the background - there's readings from books, and conversations going on, none of which has anything to do with the song. We'd already done the backing vocals, and then we rang the phone in the studio, and put it on the speaker-phone, so when you hold a mobile phone away from it, you get this weird delay - there's all this crazy stuff going on in the background."

The resultant album, Hal, is a wonderful piece of work, its 11 songs managing that trick, shared by all great albums, of sounding individually distinct yet of a piece, like Revolver or Forever Changes. That's not too strained a comparison, either: I've not heard another album in the past few years whose songs lodge so securely in the memory, one after another, a string of pop pearls that lightens one's load and lifts one's spirit.

Having made a great record, Hal have set about establishing themselves as a live band, touring with the likes of Starsailor, Grandaddy, The Magic Numbers, Doves and The Thrills, and looking forward to playing several of this summer's festivals, for which their sunny, optimistic pop seems tailor-made. But Hal will always be about great songs, first and foremost.

"We just love writing the songs," affirms Dave Allen. "You go through an awful lot of rubbish before you come up with a collection of songs that you feel might work well together. You never say, 'I'd like to write a song in the style of such-and-such'. They just come. It's just about the music, really, nothing else."

'Hal' is out now on Rough Trade

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