When you hear a band has an ‘80s influence’ your brain can’t help join the dots between breezy synthpop, power ballads and the cliched garish outfits.
Columbia Mills have a distinctive 80s sound — but it’s a melancholy left-turn, tapping into the 80s of pre-Blue Monday New Order, The Jesus and Mary Chain, scuffed Doc Martens and frayed jumpers down to your knees.
The Bray act seemed to land on Bandcamp fully-formed at the end of 2014 with their debut EP Factory Settings. Lead track Never Gonna Look At You the Same swaggered in on a stark, echoey beat via Jesus & Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey, via Phil Spector’s reverb comfort blankets, while the rest of the EP was awash with delicate bass pulses, impressionistic synth pads and cathedral echoes around Fiachra Treacy’s vocal.
After impressively building on their debut with the EP The Perfect Day in 2015, Fiachra and Mick Heffernan took a time out to record their debut album, picking up another three full-time members (Paul Kenny, Ste Ward and Fiachra’s brother Uisneagh Treacy) and recording at Westland Studios with producer Rob Kirwan.
They’re playing the album for the first time tomorrow Upstairs in Whelan’s — specifically choosing the tight venue because “we want to be as close as possible to judge the reaction”.
The electronic thread that’s run through their EPs is more pronounced on lead single Battles — with its minimal arpeggiated synth intro and 808 handclaps giving way to an epic keyboard passage that hits like Joy Division’s Atmosphere.
“Before we had released anything we knew we would be pushing towards a more electronic sound for the album,” Fiachra tells me.
“We wanted to show with the two EPs where we were coming from. It was important for us to lay down our indie/shoegaze roots for people to fully understand the album we’ve made.
“The last song on our second EP goes from acoustic drums recorded on an iPhone to a full-on electronic outro and I think it’s a great representation of what the album sounds like. Maybe instead of starting with the organic sound and finishing on the electronic we tried to overlap the two.”
Fully independent, with two self-produced EPs behind them, it was a big leap to get the nod from Rob Kirwan, who’s worked with U2, Depeche Mode, Hozier, and notably Glasvegas, who share the Spector-esque wall of sound reverb with Columbia Mills.
Fiachra says they didn’t feel under pressure artistically, saying it “eased the pressure on us more than anything”.
He adds: “We trusted him and were able to let go of the production side of things and focus on our performance and songwriting.
“The first meeting was not what I expected. We had all this prep done on sounds and synths and drum beats but when we met in a small rehearsal space Rob asked us to take out the acoustic guitars and play the songs we had… he needed to hear we had good songs.”
The band “took notes” and developed the tracks sonically for the next meeting and were ready to record after a few back and forth sessions.
“We recorded everything live as a band in a live room which we hadn’t done before,” he says. “Rob insisted on this to capture the energy of the band. We spent three days in Westland recording live and then we did extra electronics and overdubs in Rob’s studio.”
Never Gonna Look At You the Same was written for a film that was eventually shelved, but this cinematic vibe carries through Columbia Mills’ sound, and a teaser studio video from Westland studio has them name-dropping Twin Peaks along with Nick Cave and Lou Reed, and longing close-ups of classic rock’n’roll Rickenbacker and Gretsch guitars and electronic controllers.
“The Twin Peaks and Chris Isaak spacious vibe is something we went for on some of the tracks,” Fiachra says. “Also the big guitar sound. The riffs are all simple and so effective, very much like a synth line from a dance tune. When you have that on top of a nice synth pad or a reverb-saturated rhythm guitar it can really get the senses going. Throw some Phil Spector drums and you’re away. I’m a big Glasvegas fan which will invariably bring us back to the Mary Chain.
“The lyrics are quite heartfelt and introspective so I think the sound we create around that is going to have an emotional cinematic feel.”
The ability to wrench emotion out of both synths and guitars is a throwback to the band’s formative years, as Fiachra explains: “Growing up in Bray everyone was immersed in dance music culture. I think it was our equivalent to punk. Our parents hated it and it made us love it more. It was an amazing time and it brought all the social classes together for raves in some crazy places.”
The band took their name from the legendary early 90s club Columbia Mills near Ringsend, where local heroes such as Francois, Mick Heaney, Mark Kavanagh and Johnny Moy helped lay the foundation for a techno scene that’s still growing 25 years later.
He admits the Columbia Mills nights were “a bit before our time”, but wanted to acknowledge that timeline, the nights that came years before their techno forays following Dave Clarke and Carl Cox.
“We’d heard about those nights and just thought it would be a nice nod to our musical influences,” he says. “Everyone had a set of decks and we were the same. Myself and Mick keep threatening to dust off the 1210s and do a few club nights. Watch this space, although we may need to update our record collection…”
- Original version in Irish Daily Star