- The Thrills' debut album is breezy as an oceanside boardwalk.
As anyone who has ever read John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath knows, California is more than just the state that's always threatening to fall into the Pacific Ocean in the event of an earthquake. It's also a state of mind, representing the promise of riches, fame, and happiness -- a place whose surf fantasies have lured grizzled gold-hunters, the Beverly Hillbillies, and hundreds of hair bands to its sandy beaches.
On the surface, the Thrills seem like just another young band that headed west in search of that American dream. Unlike many fortune-seekers, however, the quintet is Irish -- and falling under California's spell wasn't exactly in the cards when they left Dublin for the left coast.
"When we first went there, we weren't even really going there as a band," vocalist Conor Deasy explains. "We were more hanging to have a good time. At that point, we didn't have too many preconceptions of the place -- we wanted to go somewhere sunny and warm -- basically as far away from Ireland as we could, and that fitted the bill. Once we got there, we kind of fell in love with the place. But it wasn't really a plan, 'cause we didn't really know that much about it."
One would be hard-pressed to believe Deasy upon hearing his band's debut, So Much for the City. Breezy as an oceanside boardwalk, the album oozes Californication -- from its song titles ("Santa Cruz [You're Not That Far]," "Hollywood Kids") to its sun-kissed piano chords and hippie vibe. The jangling haziness of the Byrds ("Big Sur"), lush Beach Boys harmonies ("One Horse Town"), and Neil Young's rootsy twang ("Old Friends, New Lovers") abound.
Nevertheless, despite City's laid-back atmosphere, the ambition of the Thrills has always aligned well with the aspiring actors and silicon-stuffed wannabes littering Hollywood's hangouts.
"When we were trying to get our [record] deal, we realized that we didn't want to be part of the local [Irish] scene," Deasy says. "We had just seen a million bands play the same little venues every week and never get anywhere, just get on that same merry-go-round. To us, it just seemed pointless. We wanted to get our band heard of over in the U.K. and Europe; we wanted to get out of that little, small-minded world. That was important to us."
Mission accomplished: So Much for the City is platinum in the U.K., and the Thrills won Q Magazine's "Best New Act of 2003" award. And despite their initially low profile in Ireland -- Deasy says the band rarely played gigs there before getting signed and "record[ed] demos late at night in cheap Dublin studios" -- the album is now quadruple platinum there.
It all started when, as 15-year-old next-door neighbors, Deasy and guitarist-vocalist-bassist Daniel Ryan decided to form a band. The duo added drummer Ben Carrigan, keyboardist Kevin Horan, and bassist-vocalist-guitarist Padraic McMahon soon after. Eventually, the band made its fateful sojourn to San Diego, working as face painters or in restaurants, and soaking up the sun.
"We were all, like, 20 at the time," Deasy says. "So, apart from the culture shock and not being able to get served in bars after drinking in Irish bars since the age of 12, once we had gotten over that, it was all pretty good. It was just a cool time; it was very carefree and responsibility-free.
"The funny thing was that a year later, when we were like, 'Let's do that again,' even in the space of a year that situation didn't really exist anymore. All of a sudden, people had commitments, or they had to do this or they promised someone to do that, and we couldn't get the same group of people to do the same thing again. In hindsight, it made [the carefree summer] even a bit more precious."
Wistfulness for times gone by permeates the album's lyrics. The character in "One Horse Town" says that he "never should have settled down," since "hanging around in a one horse town/Does nothing for your state of mind," while "Big Sur" melancholically notes, "Hey, hey, you're the Monkees/And people said you monkeyed around/But nobody's listening now."
"I don't think there's a single upbeat lyric on the record," Deasy laughs. "It's a bittersweet thing. The sound of the songs is quite [up]lifting, 'cause that's what we wanted at the time. [But] we were all feeling a little bit down. We had been dropped by our old label [Supremo], and we thought we'd be able to get a new one quick and get the band up and moving again, and it was proving to be a lot more difficult than we thought, because it's a stigma that's associated with you when you're a dropped band."
The band did recover, eventually signing with Virgin. Good fortune in other areas soon followed: Morrissey -- a U.K. expat now living in Los Angeles -- came to a Thrills practice and liked them enough to invite them to open up for him at Royal Albert Hall, which happened to be the Thrills' first London show. Deasy ran into the enigmatic singer again while working on the Thrills' forthcoming second album.
"I bumped into him in the launderette across the road from our hotel," Deasy says. "We were working on our new record, and I said, 'You should come down to the studio,' and he was like, 'Yeah, OK.' But I couldn't remember the name of the new studio, 'cause we had just moved, we had just changed studios the day before. I didn't get to see him after that. But he seemed to be in good form. He had all his suits and ties and shirts all clean."
The new album, Deasy says, is "a nice progression . . . from our first record" that "feels like a record that no one else is really making right now.
"Anyone who ever does anything creative -- whether they write songs or write stories or they're a painter, you're probably always going to feel that you're being simplified or typecast in the media. It's up to us on our second record to challenge the idea of what people think we are. I don't get too bogged down by the media's perceptions of us or what the critics think.
"Making the record, that's our end of the deal. Making the best record we can -- that's worth beating yourself up over. But the other stuff -- I just take it as it comes."