Going back to my roots – talking an crann and more with The Undertones’ Damian O’Neill

Getting on for 45 years since The Undertones recorded debut single ‘Teenage Kicks’ at Belfast’s Wizard Studios, there’s still plenty of love out there for the band and its members, as seen in recent acclaim from critics and fans alike for the third solo LP from guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Damian O’Neill.

While it was older brother John O’Neill who penned that influential first hit – legendary DJ John Peel’s subsequent adoration truly kick-starting this Derry outfit’s international rise – Damian was a key component from the day he joined as a teenager after brother Vinny called time on the band to concentrate on his O-levels, his subsequent writing credits including first two LP openers ‘Family Entertainment’ and ‘More Songs About Chocolate and Girls’, and (with Mickey Bradley) singles ‘My Perfect Cousin’, ‘It’s Going to Happen’ and ‘The Love Parade’ before the original split in 1983.

And in a career that continued apace with London-based That Petrol Emotion and in more recent times The Everlasting Yeah, and of course that Undertones reboot with Paul McLoone out front in Feargal Sharkey’s absence since 1999, plus cameos with the likes of Ash – last guesting with them live in Belfast in December – Damian and the band continue to thrive, and he’s kept himself busy of late between live jaunts, much of his spare time spent on that new record, an crann – Irish for ‘the tree’, the title seen as ‘a symbol of growth and inspiration’ – an inventive collection of largely instrumental tracks, mixed by producer Paul Tipler (Stereolab, Placebo, Julian Cope, House Of Love).

I was lucky enough to buy a signed copy from the merch stand when The Undertones played Lytham’s Lowther Pavilion in the autumn (review here), and was soon beguiled. And as Damian put it, “If someone listened to this record without knowing anything about me, they’d probably never guess I started life in a punk band. I unashamedly wanted to present instrumental pieces that are emotional, evocative and personal and offer to the listener textures and layers of music that can be melodic, childlike and even melancholic at times.

“There’s obviously Irish folk traditional influences, as well as French, Japanese, American and British. And I’m playing virtually all the instruments myself, with added percussion on a couple of songs.”

The LP was recorded mainly on a laptop in the loft of Damian’s family home in South-East London, using an array of instruments, from electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, bass, organ, vibraphone, toy marimba and glockenspiel to melodica, mouth organ, squeezebox, kalimba, bells and percussion.

And after a busy 2022 with The Undertones – on fine form live and bringing out reformation years compilation LP, Dig What you Need, like his solo LP out on his Dimple Discs label – Damian was pleased to see the reaction to an crann, which follows earlier solo offerings A Quiet Revolution (Poptones, 2001) and Refit Revise Reprise (Dimple Discs, 2018). Does he see parallels between all three of those long players?

“There are similarities, I suppose, the first one in the fact that it’s all instrumentals, but that’s where it ends! On the Poptones one, most of it is samples. I played guitar and maybe bass on a couple of tracks, but it was all samples. But this time virtually everything is organically done by me. There’s not much machinery going on, or technology.”

It’s getting great reviews.

“Yeah, I’m really overawed with those. So happy. Especially in Ireland. I’m really happy about the Irish press, because I wasn’t sure how it would go down. There were some good spreads.”

While opening track, ‘Mas o Menos’, is markedly different from a lot of his previous material, I hear something of that underpinning keyboard from Undertones single ‘The Love Parade’, 40 years ago.

“Yeah, there’s a very ‘60 feel to it, and I thought that was a good opener. It’s catchy, and there’s that ‘60s organ – in fact, it’s the same one I played on ‘The Love Parade’, so you spotted that well!”

That’s a Korg CXD-3, incidentally, an electronic clonewheel organ simulating the revered Hammond organ and Leslie speaker, first marketed in 1979, a digital version following in 2001.  

“It’s very hard to find these days. They don’t make them anymore. I think Nick Cave was using one for years, if you’d see him live in the 2000s. But I’d say that {opening} track’s more influenced by The Limiñanas, a French band. I love them, especially their more ‘60s stuff. I wanted to do a Limiñanas-type song, and that’s what came out.”

As for that bassline, I think Booker T and the MG’s’ Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn would love that.

“I know, that bassline is the best thing about it. I came up with that first, then built around it really, the same with ‘La Tengo’. That’s one of my favourites, a great bassline, more like a Massive Attack bassline, and again I built around it. That’s how I come up with things, like a nice guitar riff, which you just enhance.”

As on the splendid ‘Sweet ‘n’ Sour’ on the last record, Dave Hattee features on drums on that opening song. And what with your friendship with sometimes-Undertones deputy Kevin Sharkey and of course Billy Doherty, you seem to have amassed a few drumming mates down the years.

“Yeah, and what’s really good about an crann, there’s another drummer, a percussionist called Liam Bradley, renowned in Derry and Ireland. He used to drum for Van Morrison for years, that’s how good he is, and Sinead O’Connor, and The Chieftains … and Ronan Keating, All the greats! Haha!

“I won’t bore you on this, but I didn’t even want to use him, or didn’t think about using him. That was down to Kevin {Sharkey}. He lives in the Lake District now but he’s a really good friend and a big supporter of my stuff. I sent him a couple of tracks {‘Malin Head Imminent’ and ‘Manannan mac Lir’} and wanted Kevin to put percussion on, but he sent it to Liam in Derry without me knowing, and Liam loved the tracks.

“Liam’s got his own studio in Donegal and came up with his amazing, like 20 tracks of percussion and drums on each song, and ‘woah!’ It just brought it up a different level. So, so good. I was overjoyed.”

It seems as if you had a trip to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop for the special effects on the opening song as well.

“Ha! It wasn’t too much, but when we were in the studio, mixing it, we added a few things.”

On the sleeve notes for ‘Mas o Menos’, you say, ‘More or less (but less is more)’ so I’ll understand if you don’t want to over-explain anything, but I’m intrigued by the subtle colour, such as your mention for ‘Malin Head Imminent’ and ‘happy childhood holiday memories at Slievebawn, Co. Donegal.’

“Yeah, most of the album is very introspective, looking back, and the music suits the mood, I think, especially on that – that’s one of the standout tracks. It builds and builds and has this lovely feel about it, this nostalgic look back to when we were kids, staying in this little green hut. Lovely memories.”

I’m reminded of Erland Cooper’s Orcadian trilogy, and his collaborations with Hannah Peel – who has her own Donegal links – and Simon Tong in The Magnetic North that turned me on to his work.

“I’ll have to check him out. I like Hannah Peel. She’s great.”

What strikes me that his records and your latest solo work have in common is that use of nostalgia and imagination through music to take you back to treasured places. Like him, you’re London-based but seemingly dreaming of your formative years and roots, in your case in Derry, Belfast, and thereabouts.

“Exactly. That’s the beauty of home recording technology. And a lot of it was done during lockdown. I had some of the tracks already, but because I had so much time on my hands, I thought I might as well get cracking, do something creative while I’m here.”

That lockdown period has a lot to answer for, creatively, and I get the impression from online pieces I’ve seen that that the likes of Sean O’Hagan (Microdisney/The High Llamas) was doing his thing in his loft elsewhere in London while you were doing your thing in yours.

“Yeah, sure. I saw Sean last night actually, at a friend’s party. He’s working on his new solo LP. The man never stops composing. He’s so prolific. I get so jealous. He can come up with things so quickly. Where it takes me years, it takes him months!”

I hate to bring this up, but on ‘Malin Head Imminent’ there’s a ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’ type Pink Floyd feel. Has this punk rock kid from the north of Ireland gone over to the dark side … of the moon?

“Ha! In the past with that year zero thing, we all hated Pink Floyd, like on that Johnny Rotten t-shirt, and that was the case for us for years. But we’d say, ‘Well, Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd were okay!’ But two years or so ago I heard something from Dark Side of the Moon and thought, ‘You know what, this isn’t bad!’ I think you do mellow with old age. Even with a wee bit of Tubular Bells you think, ‘Well, y’know, it’s not that bad!’

You heard it here first, discerning punk pop kids. And in far more hip territory, on ‘Tune for the Derry Ones’, there’s something of Paul Giovanni and Magnet’s The Wicker Man soundtrack for me.

“Ah, right, that’s great. Maybe unconsciously, because I love that soundtrack. So good. That’s more of a mandolin piece really, and I got Viv, my wife, to do the choral voices. She’s such a great singer. She got it so quickly, four takes and that was it. She has virtually perfect pitch.

“I didn’t know how good she was, I’d never really recorded her live, but I was like, ‘My God! Do it again.’ And she virtually repeated it exactly, without any sharps or flats. She’s got a great ear … much better than I ever have. When someone’s on the radio, singing, she goes, ‘Oh! Turn that off,’ because they’re flat. I won’t notice, but she does.”

The track that took me the longest to get, if you like, is ‘A Quare Visitation (Belfast ’65)’, with its kind of wonky chord structure and everything, partially reminiscent of Neil Hannon’s theme tune for Father Ted. But it builds and grabs you.

“There’s a good story to that. Me and the family were living in Belfast in 1965. I was born there. I was four years old, sharing the top attic bedroom with my brother, Vincent, who was five and a half, and we were woken up in the middle of night by this sound of marching men, people shouting, and stuff.

“We looked across and could see silhouettes of this tribe, marching across the wall, disappearing again, then reappearing, going on for three minutes or so. You could hear them – swords, shields, marching boots. We froze. We were so scared. Once it disappeared properly, we ran downstairs, told my mum and dad. They were saying, ‘Ah, you’re having a bad dream,’ and we ended up sleeping in their bed that night.

“That was that, but me and Vincent talked about it for years, the rest of the family like, ‘Ah, your head’s cut!’ But fast forward about 20 years, I was talking to my mum, saying, ‘Do you remember that time we thought we’d seen …?’ And she said, ‘Actually, I didn’t want to tell you then or even later, but I’d seen it as well. I was cleaning your room two weeks later – and this was during the day – and heard this noise and could see these shields, and I freaked out. I told your dad when he came home from work.’

“She had the same reaction – ‘Your head’s cut, you totally imagined it!’ But she said she’s seen it, and that confirmed basically what we’d seen. And we moved shortly after, coincidentally, going back to Derry, because my dad got offered a job.

“I like to think maybe something happened on the location where the house was built – it was a battleground, and there were warring trades, way back. Who knows? It could have been Vikings, because they were in Ireland and Antrim especially, and it kind of looked like Vikings, the way the helmets were shaped. Some sort of outer world ghostly thing going on there.”

It is said that children and females are more receptive to picking up those things.

“I think so. And animals. You see cats and dogs staring at the corner, and you’re thinking, ‘What the hell are they staring at!’”

Tell me more about ‘Lament for Loughinisland’, the sleeve notes for which add a Martin Luther King quote, ‘Justice too long delayed is justice denied.’

“That’s an old outtake, from back in A Quiet Revolution days. So that actually is samples. I lost the original track with that mix, the bulk of it, then enhanced it, putting in melodica, harmonica as well, to make it a wee bit more eerie, you know, textured. It’s got a sweet thing going on, but there’s something sinister.

“It was called ‘Bells and Trombones’. But I’d seen a documentary on Loughinisland, this horrible thing that happened in 1994 in this tiny village, a Loyalist attack on this pub {where the locals were} watching a {World Cup} football match, Ireland in Italy, with six people killed, this horrible case of state collusion, people never brought to justice. It made me really angry, and I just wanted to say something about it.”

Regarding ‘La Tengo’, we’ve already mentioned that soulful bass, and in this case it’s fair to say Damian’s wigging out somewhat on guitar too.

“You know what, I’ve never done a solo over 15 seconds … but now was my chance! And hey, it’s my record, I can do what I want! It lasts nearly two minutes or something, which … if you told me that back in the punk rock days …”

First, Pink Floyd, now this.

“Ha! I love that solo. It was done live up here, in the loft. No overdubs. Technically, it’s not very good, but it’s the feel of it. I was listening to a lot of Gabor Szabo, the Hungarian jazz guitarist, and wanted something that sounded a bit like that kind of reverb thing he has. I’m not comparing myself to him – he’s a magnificent guitarist – but I wanted to get that feel of what he might do.”

How about – with apologies for my pronunciation – ‘Manannan mac Lir’?

“Actually, my niece, who speaks fluent Irish, corrected me {on that} the other day!”

 Well, it’s a gorgeous track.

“Thanks! A lot of people tell me – a real compliment – it sounds like Ronnie Lane or early Faces, or something you might find on Rod Stewart’s first solo album. There’s a nice Celtic kind of feel. That’s the most Irish song, I suppose.”

The chord structure reminds me of ‘Demon Days’, arguably the last Grant McLennan-penned classic, recorded by fellow Go-Betweens legend Robert Forster for The Evangelist. And there are echoes of The Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ and even That Petrol Emotion’s ‘Cellophane’ for me.

“Oh, I see what you mean by ‘Cellophane’. I wouldn’t compare it with that though – that’s such an underrated song. it’s beautiful. But some people were saying, ‘You should make that into a proper song rather than an instrumental … I nearly held it back because of that, but then thought …”

You can do both, surely.

“You could do both! In fact, I might give it to somebody to come up with lyrics. I tried originally to make it into a song, but couldn’t come up with anything decent … so yeah, maybe somebody will come in and make it a No.1 song!”

I’m guessing ‘New Loft Trio’ was a product of lockdown days, starring yourself, Viv, and daughter Rosa. And despite the fear of what might happen next back then, there was that feeling for those of us who were lucky enough to experience it of a chance to properly bond with loved ones, reminding ourselves of what was most important in our lives.

“Well, we were just messing about when Rosa was about 11, and she came up with this wee riff, we enhanced it, and I taped it. I always thought, ‘Someday I’m gonna do something with this. And there’s a lovely innocence about that track and Rosa’s flute playing. She’s 11, it’s not perfect, but it doesn’t matter. There’s just a lovely vibe. It’s got a real child-like quality.”

And you managed to capture it.

“Yes, it’s great.”

I was however surprised, having mentioned Sean O’Hagan earlier, not to find him on the credits for that. It has the feel of something he would do.

“Well, Sean was a big supporter, and heard these tracks before they were mixed, giving me a wee bit of advice. But he didn’t play on it this time, like he did on the last record.”

Similarly, the afore-mentioned Hannah Peel loves creating music box collages, and there’s a feel of her vibe there too.

“Yeah, and I love music boxes as well.”

As for ‘We Want The Wesleys’, is this your response to Paul McLoone and Billy Doherty going off to resurrect The Carrellines – a call for you and Mickey Bradley to get back out there on the live circuit as your ‘60s-flavoured side-project?

“Ha! Ah, you know about that! That’s kind of the odd track, very short, kind of more like something inspired by that band Bert Jansch was in, Pentangle.”

I see it as something you could play over the PA as you clamber on to stage, as the lights go down.  Before an Undertones show maybe. Either way, I’d like to see The Wesleys come out of retirement.

And then the record ends with ‘Round and Round’, which seems – as the title suggests – to bring everything together. I see that with my cinematic head, the camera fading back down the stairs from your loft, out onto a suburban street in South-East London, a Routemaster bus stopping outside, taking us away.

“Right, you’ll have to do the video for ‘Round and Round’, Malcolm!”

However, that’s not strictly the end, an crann instead concluding with a snatch of Damian’s original ‘Sign and Explode’ demo of a great song that ended up on The Undertones’ Positive Touch in 1981. And that mirrors, neatly, a similar touch on the vinyl edition of previous LP, Refit Revise Reprise, which carried a demo version of ‘It’s Going to Happen’.

As it turns out, Damian has also been involved alongside That Petrol Emotion bandmate Raymond Gorman in that mightily influential outfit’s new Demon/Edsel box set, Every Beginning Has a Future, comprising 121 tracks across seven CDs, featuring all five studio LPs, their live album, non-album B-sides, bonus tracks, remixes, other live recordings and fan club only releases, along with rare images and memorabilia and a 52-page colour book with sleeve notes from music writer John Harris.

Personally, finances rule out a copy for me right now, but it certainly looks a really lovely package.

“It is, it’s a lovely thing. Me and Raymond put it together with designer Tony Lyons. It’s a labour of love, in a way. I haven’t heard all the CDs myself, because of all the extras – there’s loads of remixes and stuff. But I’m so happy there’s finally a decent anthology of That Petrol Emotion. It’s been long overdue.”

Is that everything out there by the Petrols now?

“Well, the John Peel sessions aren’t on it, unfortunately. It wasn’t easy to get them, so we didn’t bother. But that’s it as far as I know, that and a couple of live sessions we did in France which aren’t on either, which is a shame. They’re absolutely wonderful, 1993, I think, or ‘94. But you can’t have everything!”

As for The Undertones, will things carry on as in 2022 this year, out on the road a fair bit?

“Yeah, God willing.”

To put that into context, that remark followed the sad news before Christmas of Terry Hall’s passing, and similarly Iain Templeton and Martin Duffy around the same time, all three departures reason enough to remind us that nothing can ever be taken for granted.

“If we’re all still in good health, I think we start in April, we’re going to be doing a Scandinavian tour which we postponed last time because of Covid. Then we’re doing UK shows, and Germany again. I don’t think we’re going to be as busy as we were in 2022, when we were catching up with Covid cancellations from the previous two years.

“But I’d love to get something new out there – a single or something. It’s been a long time, and the Dig What You Need best of album really invigorated us. We keep selling loads of them at concerts. It’s been great, with a really good reaction.”

For more on an crann, visit https://www.damian-oneill.com/. For the latest from The Undertones, including 2023 live dates, try https://www.theundertones.com/. And for more about That Petrol Emotion’s Every Beginning Has a Future, try here.

And for this website’s May 2019 feature/interview with Damian O’Neill, and further links to othet Undertones-related copy, head here. You can also find a live Q&A with Damian from late last year via the excellent Retro Man Blog site here.


About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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