Going the Distance: Columbia Mills interview

Columbia Mills have just released one of the late-stage Irish albums of the year, their debut A Safe Distance To Watch. The album builds on their previous EPs,  — melancholy shoegaze and electronica with a nod to Joy Division, the Cure and Jesus and Mary Chain. The Wicklow act have been sitting on the album for a year after recording it in 2016 with Rob Kirwan (U2, Depeche Mode, Hozier, Glasvegas).

Originally a duo of Fiachra Treacy and Mick Heffernan, the pair picked up another three full-time members recording the album at Westland Studios – Paul Kenny, Ste Ward and Fiachra’s brother Uisneagh Treacy.

We chatted to Fiachra earlier in the year just as recording had finished, and to get the band’s back-story. But we checked in again this week to discuss the launch of the new album after a summer of festival hype. The band play Dublin’s Button Factory tonight (Friday, November 17), their biggest headline gig to date.

You’ve been sitting on the album for around a year, what’s it like to finally see it in the shops and pass records on to people?
It is really great to finally get it out there. As we were sitting on the album so long, we began writing new material and the new stuff has really excited us, so the album tracks were not as exciting to us in rehearsals and at gigs. As a musician you always strive to create and are naturally drawn to the newer music as it represents your current frame of mind.

The fact that they are out there now and other people are reacting so positively to them, it has given the songs a renewed vigour and it’s made us enjoy them even more than before.

When you hear what other people are taking from the songs it makes you proud to have created them and it brings you back to the state of mind you were in when you created them. We really can’t to play them wait at the upcoming gigs.

You played the album through back at the start of the year in Whelan’s. Did you make any changes or tweaks in the meantime?
The plan had always been to take our time and do things right. We did toy with the idea of putting some of the new songs on the album and changing it around a bit but in the end we didn’t.

It was important that the album sounded like an album and while the new songs fit into the live set really well, they seemed like unwanted guests at a party when the recordings were placed with the album songs.

We took this as a positive, we knew we had the album of songs we were looking for. We also knew we were developing a new sound with the new batch of songs and that the next album would be quite different.

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Any indication of the direction of these new tracks?
We have accumulated lots of songs for the album and they are definitely taking a different direction. We are working on a more linear sound rather than the wall of sound we have on A Safe Distance To Watch. I think that will come clearer when we actually go to record them, but we are demoing at the moment and trying to get the sound for the next album. I really love this stage of the process and it is really exciting developing a new sound while remaining Columbia Mills.

There’s that saying, you only get one shot at releasing your debut album. Did you keep labouring over it this year before November, before letting it go?
We definitely had a few moments where we thought about changing it but I think that was more to do with having sat on it so long. We would have released it the day it was mastered as were confident it was the record we wanted to make, but we were right to take our time. We had a great producer who we really trusted us, and his confidence in the songs and the recordings gave us confidence.

You had a steady stream of festival dates as well, how important was that in keeping momentum going for the album release?
We are still relatively unknown to a certain extent and every festival we played we would get messages from people saying they never heard of us but really loved our live performance so the festivals are a great way of getting your music out there to cool fans. Not everyone is on Facebook, so getting your name on a festival bill and then playing in front of people really did help us build a base of fans that will hopefully stay with us. We also got to test the songs out and really learn what works for us live before we released the album.

How much pressure is there these days for an album to actually sell? I guess it has a direct bearing on recording the follow-up in purely logistic terms, as you don’t have a big label behind you.
We are 100% independent and we are realistic. We don’t have a big marketing budget so we don’t have that much pressure to sell records. Our main objective is getting people to listen to the music now and that is mostly achieved by streaming sites, blogs and by word of mouth. We are happy with how our sales have gone and hopefully the album with grow legs organically and we are back up to the printers to get a new batch of records soon.

I’ve just read a review on a Dutch site saying you’re a combination of Joy Division and the National, will you take that?
These are two of my favourite bands so I’ll take that all day. I think because I sing in a low register and our songs are quite emotional it’s easy to make that comparison which I’m more than happy about, but I do feel we have developed our own sound.

I can hear more of the Cure, especially in the bass and synth pads. I read somewhere you were literally a Cure head, backcombed hair, the lot. Any other records that had a direct impact on the sound of the album?
I am a proud Cure Head! They were the first band that I immersed myself in when I was 10. Even if I tried not to be I will always be influenced in some way by them. They are pretty ingrained in me but I don’t think there are a lot of bands of our genre that were not influenced by them.

We were influenced by hip-hop when coming up with some of the beats for the record.  I have a country songwriting style that I didn’t realise I had until Rob [Kirwan] our producer pointed it out. I do like to tell a story. This would have been from my love of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. I really like the songs Josh Ritter writes too so maybe there is something there but it would definitely be a subconscious thing and not deliberate.

You’re now moving forward as a five-piece. How has the dynamic changed, and has the actual songwriting process changed?
It is great to have everyone involved so much and we feel there is a special chemistry now in the band between the five of us. I would be the main songwriter but now in the writing process we have so many ideas to choose from. If I’m finding it hard to write I’ll ask the lads to send me on some riffs or synth lines or beats or a bassline and this this will start the writing process off. When you have so many creative people it’s impossible to get writer’s block. There is always a great idea to spark something off in me to write.

You said that before you wrote from another narrator’s perspective but the newer songs are more personal and autobiographical. Are these songs more difficult to share with others in the group?
I would definitely have been a little insecure about the personal songs and maybe hid behind another narrator but now I’m so comfortable with the lads that I don’t think about it at all. We know each other so much that I’m pretty sure they know what the songs are about straight away when they hear them. I really enjoy writing from another person’s perspective and it is something I will explore more, but regardless of the perspective I will always draw from personal experience so the songs will always have that personal aspect to them.

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Then again, a song like The City Doesn’t Feel Like Home To Me seems to work as a song about alienation and the city letting you down, thinking of “there’s a pub on every corner, but never there when you need one”; but also seems to directly address a specific relationship. Do you consciously try to be a bit ambiguous, to allow for interpretation?
The lyrics are actually, ‘There’s a cop on every corner……..’  which is a reference to the diminishing confidence we have here and abroad in the Police and how they serve the state and not the people. But now I wish it was ‘pub’, I can probably relate to your lyrics even more!

I remember growing up and singing the wrong lyrics and being so disappointed when I heard the correct lyrics. It would ruin the song for me. This sits nicely with the question about interpretation.

When I was younger, being ambiguous was a defence mechanism, not to give too much away. I am definitely less so now but I do like to leave a bit open to interpretation and allow the listener to take their own view on what the song is about.

I tend to write about the shit going on in my life but as you grow older you realise everyone has shit going and most of the time it’s very similar shit, so I try to be as honest as possible.

You’re involved in the Co-Present Christmas album in aid of Pieta House. Could you tell us how you got involved in the project, and a bit about the song you’re adding to the collection?
We get asked to do lots of different charity albums but when asked to do this we couldn’t say no. Pieta House is a remarkable charity and one that is very close to our hearts. Our friend Dwayne Woods, who is organising it, asked us if we wanted to do a Christmas song for the album.

We are doing Blue Christmas by Elvis in our own Columbia Mills way. In fact I’ve just come from the studio and it is sounding pretty darn good, if i do say so myself. We even got some bells on there. We can’t wait to hear the rest of them. The album will be soundtracking my Christmas dinner this year.

After Christmas, what can we expect from Columbia Mills in 2018?
In January we will be heading down the Country to a secluded house to do some writing and demoing sessions for the next album. We will be hoping to record it in March.

We will be doing a few more gigs around Ireland and trying to get over to Europe and America to push the first album.

  • Columbia Mills launch their debut album A Safe Distance To Watch at the Button Factory in Dublin tonight (Friday, November 17). Tickets at eventbrite.ie.