From heroes to Zeros

Brand New Zeros – Luke Dolan and Ronan MacManus.

Back To Zero, the second album by London-based Brand New Zeros – singer-songwriter Ronan MacManus and lead guitarist Luke Dolan – is steeped in classic rock ‘n’ roll, New Wave, dirty blues and classy pop ballads.

The album came out in 2021, but some of the socio-political songs on the record are even more relevant now than they were written – especially in the light of the cost of living crisis the UK is facing and the strange times we’re living in, when hate seems to the dominant force and emotion, rather than values like love and compassion.

There are moments on Back To Zero that recall the crunching power-rock of The Who – This Love – the soulful sound of Paul Carrack-era Squeeze – Human Kindness, and, at times, like on the angry and acerbic racket of Money Goes To Money – a diatribe on the wealth divide in the UK – the frantic and urgent, Hammond-organ fuelled Can’t Do It, which tackles extreme anxiety, and the grunge-tinged, Angels With Guns – a stinging comment on US kids carrying out school shootings – you’ll be reminded of vintage Elvis Costello. So, it’s no surprise to find that Ronan is actually his younger brother – Elvis’s real name is Declan MacManus.

Say It With Garage Flowers editor, Sean Hannam, with Ronan MacManus.

 

“Just so you know, I’m happy to talk about Dec,” says Ronan – he never calls him Elvis – sipping a non-alcoholic drink, outside the Mad Squirrel craft beer shop and bar, in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, on a hot July afternoon. More on that later, but, in the meantime, let’s get back to zero…

Q&A

So, how did you and Luke first meet?

Ronan MacManus: I met Luke at his barber’s shop, which was in Watford – we had a mutual friend. He was in a duo before and that kind of fell apart, so he was looking for something else before.

I was in a band, The BibleCode Sundays, and I needed a side-project. I’d done solo stuff before – I’d released an album back in 2010 and I’d finished a record with my younger brother, Rory, called Elephant In The Room.

Luke and I met at the barber’s shop and we started to write after hours and it really clicked – for the first time, I wasn’t playing guitar. Luke took care of that I was taking care of the lyrics and melodies.

There’s some great guitar on the new record…

RM: Luke’s a real blues head – his dad was the house drummer at the Scotch of St James [in London] for years. He’d worked every night for six months, but, famously, took the night off when a young guy called Jimi Hendrix got up and played. It’s one of those great rock ‘n’ roll stories.

Ronan MacManus and Luke Dolan

So, when you and Luke got together, things happened pretty quickly…

RM: Luke and I gelled – it was meant to be an acoustic duo at first, but we quickly realised it needed to be bigger than that, so I asked the bass player [Enda Mulloy] and the drummer [Carlton Hunt] from The BibleCode Sundays to come and join us. Carlton had played with Bad Manners and been in bands for years.

The four of us went to Ireland and recorded the first Brand New Zeros album, which was called Brand New Zeros. We recorded the whole of the album in three days – in-between drinking sessions. We arranged all the songs so we could play them drunk – there were no weird, fancy bits. We were emulating all the bands we listened to as kids, like grunge stuff, but we called it acoustic grunge.

Myself, Luke and Enda all had similar teenage musical upbringings – we all got into the grunge scene: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden…

Luke and I grew up in different parts of London – Harrow and Twickenham – and Enda had grown up in Mayo, in the west of Ireland. Carlton was a bit older than us, so he’d grown up on things like my brother’s music.

‘Luke’s dad was the house drummer at the Scotch of St James. He worked every night for six months, but took the night off when a young guy called Jimi Hendrix got up and played’

And now you have a second album out, Back To Zero, which, musically, is a step on from the first one…

RM: We started recording it at RYP, which is a studio in Rayners Lane [north west London], where [singer-songwriter] Alex Lipinski recorded his last album. Then [in 2017] our drummer, Carlton, died and everything was shelved. Fast forward to 2018/2019 and we started recording again.

This record has a bigger sound than the first one…

RM: The idea was that it was going to sound much more like a four-piece. One night, myself, Carlton and Luke met up in the studio – Enda couldn’t make it – and we did a song called This Love, which is on the record. The version you hear is the only time we ever played that song.

We jammed and recorded it, in the way that U2 used to do and probably still do – play some stuff together, record it and trawl back through it. There was the riff and then the drums came in. I came back in after being out of the room, and I started improvising lyrics – this thing happened.

After we’d listened to it, we thought ‘that’s done’. When Carlton died, we didn’t have any other way of recording it, so that’s how it ended up.

It’s got a dirty bluesy sound…

RM: Yeah – Luke came up with that riff. The song became the catalyst for the album.

So, after that you nailed that song, you carried on recording the rest of the tracks that ended up on the album?

RM: It was actually going to be a solo album – there was no band, but I got some friends to come to RYP to play bass, guitar and keys, with a new drummer, Joe.

We then went to another studio, with a producer called James Halliwell, who played keys with The Waterboys – I’d met him 20 years before, when he was Marti Pellow’s keyboard player. He has a studio in Richmond and we started to flesh things out – he played piano on Human Kindness. 

‘Money Goes To Money was written around the time Jacob Rees-Mogg was lying on the backbenches of Westminster – it was a reaction to that’

We then did some recording and mixing with James Knight at his studio – he pulled it all together and then, when it was finished, we heard it, we thought ‘this is the Brand New Zeros album that we started doing four years previously’. That’s when I decided I wanted it to be a Brand New Zeros album.

Hence the title, Back To Zero

RM: Yeah – we’d come full circle.

Money Goes To Money is one of my favourite songs on the album. What can you tell me about it? It’s an angry song about the wealth divide in the UK …

RM: It was written around the time Jacob Rees-Mogg was lying on the backbenches of Westminster – it was a reaction to that.

I love the guitar solo…

RM: Luke played it – I wanted it to be almost like he was having an argument with himself. It was meant to be glitchy and come in and out.

He’s quite a chilled guy, but when we were recording it, I needed him to be angry, so I was shouting in his face, saying ‘C’mon! C’mon!’ I wanted the solo to be a bit like Radiohead – atonal and choppy at times.

Luke Dolan

It’s quite an angry album at times, isn’t it? When were all the songs written?

RM: They were written pre-lockdown – the album was finished and ready to go by the end of January 2020, but it didn’t make it out until 2021.  I’d gone through some mental health issues and some of that is addressed on the record. Luke went through a breakup and there were some rocky patches.

Talking of angry songs, Can’t Do It is a real rocker, and it has some great Hammond organ on it…

RM: It was written about a time when I sat outside a gig and I just couldn’t open the door – my anxiety was so bad. It’s all about self-doubt and depression – mental health issues. It’s about hating yourself.

The album veers from heavy, angry songs to ballads. There are some complete mood changes, like on the slow song, Free As A Bird, which shares its name with a Beatles song…

RM: That’s about me after I’d given up drinking. It was written about a moment, when I was sober, I was looking out of the window at the garden and the sun was coming in –  the clouds had cleared on some of the mental health issues I’d had. I felt happy for the first time and I wanted to capture it.

Let’s go back to ‘angry MacManus’ – Angels With Guns was written about shootings carried out by kids in US schools… 

RM: Yeah – you’d always hear the parents say, ‘He was such a nice kid – we didn’t see it coming…’

You sound very like Elvis on it…

RM: The verses are very Costello.

Human Kindness is one of my favourite songs on the record. It’s a song about compassion and how we treat each other. I think you sound like Paul Carrack on it. 

RM: I’ll take that.

You talked about being sober earlier. Cigarette, which has a Deep South, swamp-blues feel, deals with addiction – drugs and drink. It references cocaine in the lyrics…

RM: Yeah. I’ve been off the booze for over four years. I was trying to give up drink and a bit of drugs as well – I was never heavily into drugs, but I was led into them. I was trying to give up. I stopped drinking, but I was still going to pubs.

‘Being Elvis Costello’s brother has opened doors that wouldn’t have necessarily been opened – some people listen to us who maybe wouldn’t have. I’ve embraced it more in recent years’

I had a friend and I could always tell when he was on coke, because his face always looked a certain way and he’d only ever smoke when he was on it. So, when I turned up, he’d be outside the pub with a cigarette and that look on his face. I needed to avoid him to try and keep myself on track. In my mind, I distilled it to just the light of his cigarette in his contorted face.

Finally, has being Elvis’s brother been a help or hindrance to your music career?

RM: A bit of both –  it’s opened doors that wouldn’t have necessarily been opened, and some people listen to us who maybe wouldn’t have. It’s interesting and I’ve embraced it more in recent years. He’s such an extraordinary artist – the musical experiences he had growing up, his record collection, his exposure to music and literature… I don’t think he’ll ever be repeated. His are big shoes to fill.

Red shoes?

RM [laughs]:He’s been a big influence – most people don’t get to call up their heroes and ask them for advice.

Back To Zero by Brand New Zeros is out now on Fretsore Records – vinyl and digital.

https://www.fretsorerecords.com/

https://brandnewzeros.bandcamp.com/album/back-to-zero

Say It With Garage Flowers founder and editor, Sean Hannam, will be interviewing Ronan MacManus and Luke Dolan from Brand New Zeros live on stage, at Beverage Boutique, in Ruislip, West London, on the night of September 25, for the launch of Back To Zero on vinyl.

The duo will perform songs from the record on the night too and there will be a vinyl playback of some of the tracks.

Details / tickets here: free entry! 

 

 

‘I always try to write with unflinching honesty – it’s quite therapeutic to be honest’

Matt McManamon
Matt McManamon

One of Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite albums of the year so far is Scally Folk – the debut solo record by Matt McManamon, the former frontman of noughties Scouse ska-punkers The Dead 60s.

Don’t expect to be skanking to it, though – his first release in 13 years, it’s a strong collection of reflective and autobiographical songs that are steeped in the tradition of Irish folk music – Liverpool-born McManamon’s family are from County Mayo – as well as the jangly Scouse indie sound of The La’s, and the Wirral psych-pop of The Coral, who were former Deltasonic label mates of The Dead 60s.

McManamon’s new single, Mulranny Smile, is a haunting, folky ballad that’s shrouded in Celtic sea mist, and if Lee Mavers had had tunes like What About You?, Out Of Time and Every Time I Close My Eyes up his sleeve, that second La’s album might’ve actually come out and been another classic.

“Traditional Irish folk, Scouse power-pop, classic ‘90s indie, West Coast American pop-punk and Americana have all influenced this record greatly,” McManamon tells us, in an exclusive interview.

“I think anyone who is aware of my musical past, and the type of music I have been previously associated with, will definitely be surprised, but I’m fairly confident it will be a welcome one.”

Q&A

Where are you and how’s it going?

Matt McManamon: I divide my time between the west coast and east coast of Ireland, but today I’m currently on the east coast in County Wexford. And it’s all going mightily.

You’re just about to release your debut solo album, Scally Folk, which is your first new music since your previous band, The Dead 60s, split up in 2008. What have you been up to since then and why has it taken 13 years to put a record out? Did you give up on music?

MM: Quite soon after The Dead 60s split, I moved back to my family’s ancestral home, in Ireland, and have been here ever since. I wouldn’t say I gave up on music, but I definitely did take a somewhat unwanted hiatus. I was always chipping away behind the scenes, and attempting various musical projects and activities, but, to be honest, they never came to fruition and barely made it out of the bedroom. That was largely down to confidence issues, which stemmed from The Dead 60s being dropped. I was definitely suffering from two issues in particular: fear of failure and fear of completion.

Through lack of confidence, I was unable to get anything over the finish line. I did, however, avail of the wonderful opportunity that was presented to me a few years back, when I was asked to join The Specials, as a live touring guitarist. That proved to be the first step in me re-finding my confidence and passion for music. It was a long slow process, but I’m pleased to tell you, I’m now firing on all cylinders again.

‘I wouldn’t say I gave up on music, but I definitely did take a somewhat unwanted hiatus’

Scally Folk took 13 years to come out, but only 14 days to record. How were the recording sessions at the Transmission Rooms studio in Drumlish, County Longford, Ireland?

MM: The sessions were wonderful – extremely productive. The studio itself is a great place to work and to get creative. Confidence was high and the results were achieved effortlessly.

Mick Cronin (Shane MacGowan, Kodeline) produced the record. How was it working with him? What did he bring to the process?

MM: Mick is a dear friend of mine – we’ve known each other for many years. I definitely had a firm idea and vision of how I wanted it to sound, and, in truth, we achieved it and more. It’s fair to say it eclipsed my expectations.

This was down to the invaluable input and musicianship – not only from Mick, but also from guitarist Vinny Redmond, bassist Enda Mulloy, keyboardist Dave Cox, multi-instrumentalist Kane O’Rourke, and whistle and box player, Andy Nolan. All of those people massively helped to shape the vision and sound of the songs.

Did Covid-19 affect your recording plans?

MM: We started the record on July 2 2020, which also happens to be my birthday. I took that as a great omen. In-between lockdown and travel restrictions, due to Covid-19, we did four sessions, lasting three days each, and then a final two days to put it to bed. That accumulated to 14 days’ total recording. It was all signed off, fully recorded, mixed and mastered by November 2020.

 

‘We started the record on July 2 2020, which is my birthday. I took that as a great omen’

One of my friends, singer-songwriter, John Murry, sings backing vocals on the album. How did you hook up with him?

MM: John just happened to be hanging around the studio, as he had recently completed a session there himself. We quite quickly hit it off, and we have become good friends. We regularly hang out and have some wicked conversations about music. He was highly enthusiastic and complimentary about my songs, as I am of his, so it just made sense to get him singing backing vocals on the album. I asked and he agreed – job done!

The record has Irish and Liverpudlian influences – trad folk and psych-power-pop. There’s a big nod to your roots, isn’t there?

MM: Yes – 100 per cent. I grew up in south Liverpool, in an Irish family that stems from County Mayo. I’ve always considered myself Liverpool-Irish, or Scouse-Irish, and I was very keen to get that point across on the record.

Liverpool power-pop and traditional Irish folk music, have, from an early age, been a great influence on me. I wanted to reflect that in the songs musically and lyrically, which I think I’ve managed to successfully do. I love the idea of flying the flag for Liverpool and Ireland. Hopefully that comes across.

The songs are autobiographical, aren’t they?

MM: Yes – everything I write about is something I’ve done, seen, or experienced. I always try to write with unflinching honesty and, in part, write about difficult subjects or situations that life has a habit of throwing at us. It’s quite therapeutic to be honest.

‘Liverpool power-pop and traditional Irish folk music, have, from an early age, been a great influence on me’

What’s your songwriting process?

MM: I write the songs at home on acoustic guitar, and once the general structure and blueprint is in place, I then bring it to my dear friend, guitarist and musical partner in crime, Vinny Redmond. We then set about finessing the songs by coming up with extra melodies, guitar parts and backing vocals. Lastly, they’re then brought to the wider group of musicians, before we set about recording them.

Were any of the songs old ones, or did you write them all for this album?

MM: There was a mixture of both. There are a couple of songs that were first written approximately 13 years ago, after the dissolution of The Dead 60s, yet there are also songs that were written literally a week before I commenced recording.

I tend not to ‘try’ and write songs – when they come to me, they come to me. The second album is already written and has been partially demoed. As bizarre as this may sound, I never once sat down to ‘write’ the second album. The songs just came out of me super-quick and with the utmost of ease.

What were your main influences for this album musical, or otherwise?

MM: Geographically speaking, Liverpool and Ireland are huge influences, as well as personal life experience. Musically speaking, traditional Irish folk, Scouse power-pop, classic ‘90s indie, West Coast American pop-punk and Americana have all influenced this record greatly.

‘The second album is already written.The songs just came out of me super-quick and with the utmost of ease’

Do you think the record will surprise people?

MM: I think anyone who is aware of my musical past, and the type of music I have been previously associated with, will definitely be surprised, but I’m fairly confident it will be a welcome one.

Tell me about the title of the album. It has a nice double meaning…

MM: The title came out of a conversation I had with Mick Cronin, when I started doing music professionally again. I would find myself constantly being asked, “What does it sound like?” I always struggled to give any kind of definitive answer.

One day, Mick said to me: “It’s dead easy – it sounds like scally folk”, and with that, not only did I have an album title, but quite possibly a new genre of music. I particularly liked the way it also gave a firm nod to my Liverpool-Irish roots.

Let’s talk about some of the songs on the record. What can you tell me about the first track, Gaslighting? It has some faint echoes of ska – a nod to your Dead 60s – past, doesn’t it?

MM: Yes it does, but that came about by accident. I’d initially intended that song to have a more straight-ish ‘indie’ feel to it, but once we started laying it down in the studio, Vinny came up with the idea of setting off a counter offbeat rhythm to my rhythm guitar, and it just worked fabulously.

I think that throughout the record there are some subconscious nods to The Dead 60s. That was never my intention, but The Dead 60s was a big part of me and who I am, so it stands to reason that hints of the past would invariably seep through.

What about the new single, Mulranny Smile? What can you tell me about that? It has a traditional Irish folk feel. What inspired it?

MM: Mulranny Smile is a dreamy, pure Celtic soul tribute to my grandfather, which also gives a firm nod to a place I came to call home – the picturesque coastal village of Mulranny. Anyone who knows me will tell you of my love for the west coast of Ireland and County Mayo, so the goal was also to immortalise the place in a song.

The song Liberty Shore is in a similar folky vein, isn’t it?

MM: Yes – it has a similar vibe. That song is actually about leaving London for a better future. It’s definitely inspired by some of the great Irish emigrant folk songs that I would’ve heard constantly as a youngster.

One of my favourite songs on the record is Out Of Time. It has a power-pop feel and a big, infectious chorus. I think there’s a La’s and Coral sound to it too. Jumpin’ The Gun comes from a similar place, doesn’t it, as does Every Time I Close My Eyes. I really like the sound of those songs – they’re great, melodic, jangly guitar pop.

MM: Out Of Time was one of the first songs to really spring into life while recording Scally Folk. It was originally intended to sound like a gypsy-esque folk song, but it took on a new lease of life – especially once we cranked up the guitars. It organically morphed into a Liverpool power-pop monster, as did Jumpin’ The Gun.

 

Every Time I Close My Eyes came out exactly how I envisaged it. Being likened to The Coral or The La’s is definitely no bad thing – it’s something I welcome. And, of course, The Coral were my old label mates.

Here Comes The Fear could be a prequel to There Goes The Fear by Doves, couldn’t it?

MM: That song was actually my attempt to sound like Simon & Garfunkel – again it just organically grew during the recording process. It actually did play on my mind that the title was similar to the Doves song, but musically it isn’t, so I quickly put that out of mind.

I’m a big fan of Doves – they’re a great band. I really wanna catch then live soon, or, better still, I’d love to support them. If any members of Doves happen to read this, I’d just like to let you know that I’m here and I’m available. Ha-ha.

Any plans to play live this year? 

MM: Yes, there’s going to be a small UK tour in November – details to come very soon, I’m just in the process of getting it all signed off.

There may well be something a little sooner this year, but it’s still too early for me to book anything with confidence, especially as Covid and Brexit seems to have worked a number on the live music scene.

What music – new and old – are you enjoying at the moment?

MM: Fontaines D.C., DMA’s, John Murry, Jagged Baptist Club, Paul Westerberg, and John McGlone and The Souls Of Emotion.

Can you recommend some other ‘scally folk’ to me? Music and/ or people?

MM: There’s nobody, to my knowledge, doing ‘scally folk’. It’s something that my crew and me have invented. I am the original and best scally folker. Ha-ha-ha.

‘One memory that springs to mind is meeting and hanging out with Paul McCartney in the studio, in New York, while we were recording our second album. That was pretty surreal’

A lot of bands from the era of The Dead 60s are reforming? Were you not tempted?

MM: At this moment in time, I’m too busy doing my solo stuff. I always say ‘never say never’ but, in all honesty, I can’t see it ever happening. The past is the past. Onwards & upwards – the future is scally folk.

Finally, any memories – good or bad – from your time in The Dead 60s that you can share?

MM: I have absolutely tons of good memories. One that springs to mind is meeting and hanging out with Paul McCartney in the studio, in New York, while we were recording our second album. That was pretty surreal. But, honestly, there are so many. I’d have to put them down in a book

‘A book?’ you say. Funny that!  I’ve been writing my memoirs and it’s very close to completion. It’s called: Giz A Gig… A Personal Journey Through The Liverpool Music Scene & Beyond. I’m hoping to get it published in the very near future. Watch this space.

Matt McManamon’s new single, Mulranny Smile, is out now on Fretsore Records. The album, Scally Folk, will be released on May 28.

https://mattmcmanamon.bandcamp.com/album/scally-folk

https://www.fretsorerecords.com/