One of 2013’s most hotly tipped new acts, Irish four piece the Strypes have been praised by the likes of Paul Weller and Elton John for their fast, sharp take on late ’50s and early ’60s R&B. Following an appearance on Later…With Jools Holland and the success of single ‘Blue Collar Jane’, they speak exclusively to Louder Than War’s Fergal Kinney in Leeds.
The streets surrounding Leeds’ fashionable Call Lane brim with bars, clubs, record stores and guitar shops; it’s the sleepy Friday afternoon calm before the storm of tottering students that will swarm these same streets in a matter of hours. In the epicentre of all of this, four confident Irish teens hover around the foyer of the Malmaison Hotel – for them a goldfish bowl of press and media duties, the Leeds streets outside could be anywhere right now. The band are informed by their friendly but cautious minder, and father of drummer Evan, that tonight’s show at the Cockpit is sold out. One suspects that the Strypes are experiencing quite a few of these moments by now, though guitarist, chief songwriter and apparent band leader Josh McClorey remembers the journalist in the room and is quick to offer a diplomatic line of humility about their increasing number of sell-out shows. Infinitely polite and welcoming, there’s something about them today which suggest something of a wariness at experiencing a new city through, yet again, only the eyes of a hotel. The introductory handshake of singer Ross Farrelly is about as conversational as he gets, fighting a faraway look for the entirety of the interview and a look of complete relief when the Dictaphone is turned off.
Sitting down to begin the interview, Josh, Evan, Pete and Ross begin to warm and the instinctive closeness of these four individuals under unique pressures for sixteen and seventeen year olds is perhaps what fuels their much lauded onstage tightness. For the four piece from County Cavan in Ireland there’s a strong sense of shared reference points, both musically and personally, that is also apparent in their comparable choices of attire. “Growing up together we spent a lot of time in Evan’s house” explains bassist Pete O’Hanlon, “and we’d be listening to his dad’s Yardbirds and Dr Feelgood stuff, and it was just always around”. This is the first of many nods in the interview to Dr Feelgood; Pete cites ‘Down on the Jetty’ as a template for their debut album, and Josh salutes the grace under pressure of Wilko Johnson playing his last gigs before his terminal cancer takes full hold. The Dr Feelgood aesthetic, which Pete describes as “that punk rock approach but still with a certain reverence…you know, not just destroying everything” pulsates heavily through what the Strypes do. Many have been sceptical of the band’s obvious influences of pre-Beatles rock’n’roll, R&B, blues, feigning righteous outrage that teenagers now might find their parents record collections slightly more exciting than that of their classmates; it’s clear that this is the music they’ve all been exposed to organically from birth, Pete recalls listening to Chuck Berry in the car when younger and this is a clear focal point for the band.
Late last year, the Strypes signed to Mercury, an impressive deal that could see them bound for five albums – not the kind of contract handed out like confetti in the modern music industry. On this, Josh explains that following something of a bidding war they’d “got it down to three labels, and they were just the easiest to work with, and their international side of things is the best”, whilst Pete reflects how important it had to be going with a label that would allow them to “stand our ground, to be heard”. Whilst appreciating what kind of achievement this is, it’s refreshing to see how completely undaunted they are by this prospect – for them their age is (quite rightly) simply no factor and there’s a strong sense that the hype around them is justified and will eventually see them vindicated. There’s some ambiguity surrounding how the Strypes got where they are, Pete’s explanation of recording (“for ourselves for fun”) EP ‘Young, Gifted and Blue’ only to find “the next day it had gone straight to number 1 in the iTunes blues chart” seems a little too simplistic, but that isn’t to dismiss the EP itself – a blistering assault of rhythm and blues with just enough energy to prove the Strypes no museum piece or tribute act. Expected later this year is their debut album, at time of interview the album stands as “halfway there”, and is recorded with veteran producer Chris Thomas; “It’s great working with someone who’s produced the Sex Pistols, worked on the White Album” explains Josh, outlining that the intention for the album is to be around seventy per cent original material and to sound “as live as possible” – though Ross still legally having to attend school in Ireland serves as something of a constraint on time. At this, Ross is animated with a heavy nod of reluctant resignation.
On their route to becoming one of the most talked about new bands in Britain, the Strypes have picked up a few famous admirers along the way. Elton John turned up at a gig in Brighton (“we were having a pub lunch and at first thought he was an impersonator”), Noel Gallagher has given them his papal blessing and one Paul Weller was so taken with them that he invited the band to perform a short set with him for Record Store Day which included seminal Jam debut single ‘In the City’ and the Dr Feelgood inspired Weller solo single ‘From the Floorboards Up’. Josh explains how Weller “had a good idea of kind of what he wanted to do with us” before chuckling as though still recovering from the experience “he’s an awesome guitar player”.
Any band given a certain amount of coverage over a short space of time by the music press is subject to some level of criticism online and in print, and the Strypes have been no exception. I ask them about the inference from some journalists that because of their age and the retro inspired nature of their output, as well as the fact that their set includes a lot of covers, and they respond with disarming relaxation. “We’re comfortable talking about it because we know it’s not true, it’s quite lazy really” offers Pete, “Jack White and the Black Keys seem to get away with doing covers, the standout track on Blunderbuss was ‘I’m Shakin’ by Little Willie John, it’s a lot of that indie idea that if it isn’t 100 per cent original…”, before drummer Evan interrupts the important assertion that “a lot of it’s ageism. You know, The fact that we’re sixteen, seventeen, but you look back and a lot of the punk and new wave bands were around our age…the Jam, the Undertones, a lot of bands that came out of pub rock were all eighteen…it’s like Mick Jones said when he met Joe Strummer he was 21 and he thought that was really old”. Evan is right; Paul Weller was just seventeen in 1976, Morrissey’s Stretford door was fatefully knocked by an eighteen year old Johnny Marr, yet no review of the Strypes can pass without a lengthy homily on their age. Equally, it’s only relatively recently that bands performing sets with a backbone of covers has slipped out of vogue – you’d be rightly slapped down for being sniffy about most of the Specials debut LP being made up of covers and re-workings of old ska hits. The Strypes refer continuously to the great lineage of British rhythm and blues impersonators, a tradition that pulsates through the Beatles in Hamburg, Dr Feelgood and the set that the Jam would bring from the Woking working men’s clubs to Soho in 1976. What set all of these bands apart, however, was great songwriting – there’s an innocence and a promise to Josh McClorey’s writing for the Strypes evident in singles ‘Blue Collar Jane’ and the soon to be released ‘Hometown Girls’ that it would be criminal to see the music press sneer at. With the success of another young troubadour Jake Bugg, it’s clear that there is something of a renewed appetite for an earthier, more stripped back approach to guitar music – as Josh quips people are weary of seeing laptops onstage and “a couple of knobs twiddling a couple of knobs”.
The Strypes have an obvious commitment to their craft, and it’s that which gets them through the necessary evils of a life comprised mostly of airports, tour buses, cramped backstage dressing rooms and stiff hotel beds. Indeed, whilst the band complain about seldom getting to see any of the cities or towns they play it’s hard not to feel a pang of guilt as a journalist for keeping them from exploring – something I feel perhaps more acutely when I ask what it is in particular they dislike the most and singer Ross rises from his silence to stifle a rupturing smile and deadpan simply the word “interviews”. As the interview comes to an end, the band ruminate on the forthcoming festival season, clearly excited about playing the John Peel tent at Glastonbury…and the opportunity to see the Rolling Stones and Elvis Costello. The next few months will decide everything for the Strypes; festival sets, a high profile support slot with the Courteeners and an impending album release, but ultimately the thing that has caught the eye of the public is the same thing that energises the Strypes every night onstage; “It’s that three chord rock’n’roll” says drummer Evan, “really loud, you just can’t deny it”