The Virginmarys have eaten through the last couple of years on a cycle of seemingly non-stop writing, recording and touring. If the release of the EP ‘Cast the First Stone’ heralded the arrival of what promised to be the freshest face rock music in this country has seen for a while and whet the appetite of the black t-shirt and denim crowd, then this year’s album ‘King of Conflict’ gave those same people 12 reasons to feel a bit more confident that this isn’t just some flash in the pan.
Perched, slightly awkwardly, on a chair bang slap in the way of the hotel entrance to The Harley in Sheffield, I sup on my beer and share a few pleasantries with drummer Danny Dolan before we are joined by his band mates, bassist Matt Rose and singer/guitarist Ally Dickaty. I feel slightly better about my seating arrangement as the three lads attempt to jam themselves into a modest two-seater.
I start by asking them what they’re playing at touring the UK again – they’ve already done us, then they peddled their wares to thousands of raving Americans virtually back to back, surely it’s time for a rest?
Danny: We always wanted to do another tour at the back end of the year in the UK, regardless of the album being out – so I don’t think it was just because the albums out or anything.
Ally: Yeah, we definitely wanted to do another tour of the UK, y’know, because we’re a British band – even though we’ve spent a lot of time in America – we just wanted to get back out in front of the home fans.
They do seem to have been trekking around the US for some time now and have managed to win Joe Public over on that side of the pond too. Their stripped-back style and honest song writing seem to resonate just as well with our American cousins as they do over here which is unsurprising when you look at how much the influence of the old school British rock bands, many of whom made their millions selling to fans in the states, bleeds through into their music. But how different is the promotional experience over there?
Danny: The biggest thing I think, for me, is that you’ve got to do a lot more radio. I think for each gig you had to do three or four promo things but I guess that’s just because of the size of the place.
Ally: I think the audiences are a lot different. Home is home but in America we went down really, really well there. It’s incredible to see everybody singing along to the songs.
From all accounts it does seem like they went down a storm stateside – when they talk about it there is an understated excitement to everything. I’m pleasantly surprised by how much three guys who, through music and photo shoots, give off a vibe of being in utter control and want to talk about it all – they’re eager to share. It is obvious that they see America as the place the project will move to but the UK, and particularly the home fans, is the reason they ever got the chance to hop across the pond in the first place.
The pace of all this promotion has been relentless but this in turn has boosted their profile – they are appearing on some impressive radars through touring with big acts and racking up positive reviews everywhere they go. So are they seeing a direct effect regarding ticket sales for this tour?
Danny: Yeah, definitely I think the attendances have gone up massively since the album’s come out. The general reception’s been really good about it – we went to America and with it being our first time over there we thought we’d be playing to nobody but to play to as many people as we did and they all know the songs was really weird – but in a good way!
Ally: We’re more of an established band now, we’re doing the same thing we’ve always done but we’re a lot busier now. It’s quite strange to find that you’re being recognised, it seems a lot different than it was a year ago to me – especially for these guys in Macclesfield, getting collared and finding yourselves in interviews…
Danny: I think for a band like us, the way we did the EPs, doing gigs and building up a fan base that way has helped. I think it’ll carry on like that, that’s just the way we are. Rock music in general, everywhere, y’know it’s not flavour of the month so it’s not like you’re gunna to get play listed on Radio 1 or on any major radio station.
It’s a fair point. Rock music has had to play second fiddle to everything else in recent times – R&B and the indie explosion is obviously where the money is at the moment and subsequently gets more of the record labels’ attention, certainly on these shores because of the way radio is. I can’t imagine Grimmy will be introducing early morning wake up calls like ‘Bang Bang Bang’ or ‘Just a Ride’ to bleary-eyed commuters anytime soon and the band are quick to highlight the lack of exposure rock music receives in this country.
Matt: Radio’s completely different [in America]. It’s still such an important thing over there, whereas here it seems almost like a last resort. I mean, you’ve got the likes of 6Music coming through and opening up people’s heads to other stuff but…
Ally: Over here you get the odd rock show but it’s on really late…
Matt: Yeah, but you’ve got rock shows in the states and they’re on at times when people are gunna be in their cars so they can listen to it but, like Al says, over here they’re at like midnight or something…
Ally: You get more online stations for rock here – and there’s definitely a market for it! There’s all these kids walking around with Led Zep t-shirts on…
Matt: In the states you can sit in your car with a normal AM/FM radio and tune through god knows how many stations and pick up so much different music!
Their experiences out west have clearly had an impact on them, they reel off various lines about what it’s like and the way they were received with a genuine, non-manufactured excitement – it sounds like inspirationville, so I was interested to know how that had affected their writing
Ally: Yeah we’ve been busy this year more than ever, and conscious that this second album should really stand up and be better even than the first, so every time we’ve got off the road we’ve been getting in the studio and putting whatever we’ve written down, getting it recorded. I’ve been writing a lot while we’ve been out on the road – it’s just finding the time really. You’re always gunna write about what you experience and what you’re feeling at the time but I wouldn’t want to be one of these people writing about New York or like travelling on the road in America…
Matt: Down the dusty road! Down the dusty highway in your cowboy boots…!
I take the opportunity to sneakily suggest a big “on the open road” kind of song would lend itself to some big guitar solos and serious fret-wanking…
Matt: Yeah, wait for a big piano hit and a twelve minute guitar solo!
There’s no doubt that The Virginmarys are in a creative purple patch, it seems like they are writing more than enough new material and enjoying the success of the songs that are already there. Not wanting to tempt fate, I don’t bring this up but I am curious as to what involvement they all have. Are they so productive because they combine their powers, or is there one person that spews ideas at the others? Is it usually based on one of those dirty riffs or maybe a lyric that kicks the door down into someone’s head?
Ally: It can be a lyric or maybe an acoustic idea really, then we’ll get into the studio and thrash it out, see what happens.
Matt: Predominantly it’ll start with Al on acoustic guitar and then he’ll bring it to us and it’ll be one thing, completely different, and me and Danny get our hands on it and it’ll change. Al’s not particularly precious [about the songs], y’know, he’s open to ideas that me and Danny bring so we all have a say.
Ally: I don’t think it’d be a Virginmarys song if it wasn’t like that.
Their gigs are always pretty high-octane affairs with litres of sweat and beer splashing about at the front and voices being wrenched from the throats of their owners as the masses recite song lyrics at savage volumes. There must be some tracks which almost guarantee the audience get the joint gift of not only a hangover but also laryngitis the following day, songs that really seem to give the crowds a kick up the arse.
Ally: I think we always try and start really strong, with the songs that are more in your face but actually I think “Dressed to Kill” goes down really well, it’s a slower one, midway through the set. We always tend to end the set with “Bang Bang Bang” because everyone can sing along with that one. It’s a lot to do with the placement [in the set] as well a lot of the time and it changes with different crowds…
So set arrangement can make a difference then, how long before a gig do they decide on that I ask – “About five minutes before!” comes the unanimous reply followed by amused chuckles. It’s not surprising really, plenty of bands use the feel of the crowd to decide on set tweaks and such and even then, even after all the last minute switching around it seems nothing is ever set in stone…
Matt: Sometimes we’ll have a set worked out and it’ll depend just on how we’re feeling as well, Al’ll decide he’s gunna go into a different tune completely and I shit myself – “Oh fuck! What’re we playin’!” So yeah, we can be pretty last minute…
Danny: I think it’s just the nature of the three people!
Possibly the cherry on the cake of 2013 for this Macclesfield three-piece is their nomination for the Classic Rock Award for Best New Album which further underlines how much support they are receiving.
Danny: It’s wicked! Especially when you look at some of the bands who’ve been nominated alongside us, David Bowie and Sabbath…
Matt: Queens of the Stone Age!
Danny: Yeah, when Matty found out we’d been nominated he was like “Oh that’s awesome!” and then he found out we were up against Queens of the Stone Age and he just said “oh, we’re fucked”.
Matt: ‘Cause that album is an awesome album.
Ally: We don’t really see ourselves as just a classic rock band but it to be supported by that magazine and be put up against those bands is incredible.
[The Virginmarys ended up winning Best Breakthrough Rock Act at the Classic Rock Awards]
If they should have to waltz past Queens of the Stone Age to collect their award, it won’t be the first time the two bands have met, Josh Homme’s gang are just one of the massive name bands that have invited The Virginmarys to support them on tour. Slash, Skunk Anansie and Terrorvision have also shared a stage with the lads. But what happens when you meet your idols? Do they tell you to stand in the corner and not disturb them or are they encouraging?
Danny: We’ve been really lucky with the majority of them, we’ve got to speak to them a lot, and to be fair when you’re starting out supporting bands and touring with bands you do take a lot on about how it all works.
Matt: I can’t think of anybody who hasn’t been really nice, offered us support and been really cool.
Danny: It’s surprising really ‘cause you hear all these stories about people going on tour with people and some of them are proper dickheads but, touch wood, none of them have ever been dickheads.
Ally: And it’s their show isn’t it and we always keep ourselves to ourselves, you’ve got to respect that it’s their show and after a certain amount of time they realise you’re alright. I think you get the horror stories when there’s conflicting egos.
They are a band on the up; the live shows are going down a storm and creating the right buzz, the album is selling and has been given high-level exposure thanks to iTunes and social networking sites and already you get the feeling that the fans are hungry for more. Without making it sound like the entire weight of the rock music world is resting on just six skinny shoulders, when the second is released it will be massively exciting times. I try not to sound too eager for the new release when I mention it but probably fail pathetically.
Ally: Well, we’re recording it now and for us, we want to get something out as soon as possible, y’know so it’s fresh and there’s some new material for the fans and we just want to release new music but, now we’ve signed to labels pretty much covered all over the world now, I guess it comes down to their plans. They have to promote and see the best way to market it and see when’s best to release. We would hope to release something next year.
Excellent! So it will probably rock pretty hard and brighten everyone’s day but will it have an equally cool cover? [King of Conflict’s cover features a topless woman’s back complete with large black V painted on it]
Matt: [That cover] came out of this man’s head (points at Danny), or this man’s Mrs’s head…
Danny: Yeah, it wasn’t my idea, it was my girlfriend’s idea (she’s the one in the picture) We had about five or six cover ideas and that was the only one that everyone liked…
Matt: That one sort of stood the test of time…
Ally: We did it all off our own backs as well, we had the album done and we had the art concept before the label came on board and they licensed it from us.
Surprisingly, the concept wasn’t a favourite with the marketing men because the ‘V’ wasn’t copyright-able although this isn’t something that seems particularly important to the band “Why would you want to? Don’t copyright it, just let everybody write V’s everywhere!”
Do they want to start a revolution…?
The Virginmarys finished their UK tour with a set at Manchester Academy that set the place off. The difference between the crowd at that show and the last one I saw them play was that now, a year on, the crowd is full of genuine fans. Every other person wears a t-shirt with a big ‘V’ on it, a girl clings on halfway up a wall with a big ‘V’ drawn on her arm and a thousand people sing and scream along to every song. It is a triumphant close to a triumphant year and this trend looks set to continue. For the sake of good music and all of you who are yet to experience this band, I hope it does.
Ally: Yeah man, we managed to sell it out a few weeks before – I think it’s twice as big as the last time so we’ve got about a thousand of our own fans there for the last night of the tour.
Matt: It’s always nice to do Manchester, like you said it’s the closest town to home so it’s always humbling that so many people really want to come out and see us.