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What’s up, Docs?

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

(c) 2002 Irish Echo Newspaper Corp. By Eileen Murphy

It’s a Thursday afternoon at the end of January and the Saw Doctors are late for an interview, lost somewhere on the roads between Galway and Athlone. But then, “lost” may not be an entirely accurate description of their current state. As lead guitarist Leo Moran explained, they’d been sidetracked by some seriously stormy weather.

“It was lashing rain when we were driving down,” said Moran, shortly after arriving at his home in Tuan, Co. Galway. “The roads were really slick, so we were taking it easy. We knew we’d make it eventually.”

The story of the road trip is an apt analogy for the Saw Doctors’ career to date. They’ve weathered a number of changes in the 14 years since they formed a band as students at UCG. Drummers have come and gone (and come back again), as have music styles and radio hits. But through it all, the band — with core members Davey Carton, Pearse Doherty, and Moran — has stayed focused, creating music that reflects their daily reality: the characters and cadences of Tuam, Co. Galway.

But first, back to the road trip. The band was on their way back after playing a gig the previous night at University College Dublin.

“The show went really, really well,” Moran said. “We played a lot of stuff from the new album, and the kids really went for it.

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“When we woke up this morning, we could see that there was a bigger storm on its way. We needed to get home and batten down the hatches.”

The new album, “Villains?” is the band’s first release since 1997’s “Songs from Sun Street.” It’s the Saw Doctors’ most rock-flavored album to date, and the one with the most crossover potential. Moran wrote the title track, which he said was inspired by a chance comment he heard outside a pub one night.

“As I was walking by, I overheard this young fella say to another one, ‘Tell me who the villains are,’ ” recalled Moran. “For some reason, he was very intense about it.

“And I thought, that’s a good question,” Moran continued. “Because, really, everyone’s some kind of villain.”

The line stuck in his head, filed away for future use. Then, a few months later, Moran attended an open arts day at his secondary school.

“There was a crowd of young lads that were performing on the day, doing covers of L.A. rap kind of things,” he said. “They were really good, so I said that they should consider doing their own kind of rap, you know, coming up with their own ideas,” he said.

The boys began discussing this idea among themselves, and Moran slipped out of the conversation, standing back and listening to them talk. He was struck by their unique use of language.

“There’s a way of speaking in Tuam which is probably down to our traveling community,” Moran said. “There are lots of settled travelers living in Tuam, so people in the area have their own lingo; the language has its own rhythm.”

He suggested to the boys that they write one of their own drawn from their own experiences.

“Write a few lines and rhyme it up and you’re going to have your own rap song,” Moran advised.

The teens huddled together and came up with eight lines of a song, which they performed for Moran, complete with American accents.

“I thought, hang on a second,” laughed Moran. “This is a slower learning process than I thought.”

Nonetheless, the encounter gave Moran the inspiration for finishing his own song.

“I figured, if they’re not going to use the rap idea, I will,” he said laughing. “But I wanted to use the language as the Saw Doctors usually do — in the language of the locality, using the idioms of Tuam.”

Moran went home and came up with the words to “Villains?” But he knew that he didn’t want it to have what he calls the typical Saw Doctors’ sound. He could hear the song in his head — complete with computer effects, heavy bass, loops, vocal filters. Now all he had to do was learn how to play it.

“Our job was to go out and master the different technologies involved,” he said. “There’s a drum machine, some sequences and just a lot of different computer elements involved in it. On some songs, we used 84, 88 tracks. But we decided keep the technology grounded in natural sources — you know, stuff we created ourselves.”

A darker departure

There’s an introspective feel to the album that marks a departure from the Saw Doctors’ usually sunny style, which is embodied in some of the band’s best-known songs, like “I Useta Lover” and “Macnas Parade.” One exception to this was the band’s anthemic “N-17,” which touched on one of the sadder aspects of life during Ireland’s emigration generation in the 1980s.

“I suppose in the previous songs and albums we painted all the bright and positive sides of where we were living, where we were coming from,” Moran said. “This time, I there’s a little more balance, a hint of the darker side.”

If the band’s song catalog is a reflection of the members’ personal lives, the new entries indicate that the guys are taking life a bit more seriously these days.

“When you’re writing songs you have to deal with whatever’s going on in your head,” Moran said. “And none of us are getting any younger, I suppose.”

“We’re not the same people we were when we started the band 12 or 14 years ago. Most of us have kids now, and more responsibilities. It means we’re not 18 or 19, going off around the world for months at a time — that’s not going to happen.”

Occasionally, family obligations dictate the direction of the stage show. For example, the studio version of the song “Chips,” the story of heartbreak amid fast food, features a brass section, with ex-Waterboy Anthony Thistlethwaite on the sax and and Danni Healy on horn. During the band’s upcoming American tour, the song will lose the brass, and will be performed in a stripped down version featuring guitar and drums. The change is not entirely by choice.

“Anthony can’t come play with us for the foreseeable future,” Moran said. “He and his wife are having a baby soon. They have four other kids, and they’re both non-nationals, so they have no family support in Ireland. He can’t possibly be away at the moment.”

The alternate arrangement will present the song in a different light.

“I think it will bring more of the sadness out in it rather than the humor, which comes across with the brass,” he explained. “Because there’s a side to that song that’s really sad — the person standing lonely every Saturday night outside the same chip shop.”

Heeding the muse

The Saw Doctors write songs separately, in pairs and as a group, which means that the credit lines often take up more room on the CD covers than the song titles do.

“Sometimes we’re just hanging out in the studio messing around, and we come up with a song,” Moran said. “Or one of the lads will say something that just deserves to be in a song.”

This type of off-the-cuff inspiration and brainstorming was behind “Chips.”

Original drummer Padraig Stevens has rejoined the band after an absence of nearly 10 years. A singer and songwriter in his own right, he walked into the studio one day, looked directly at Moran, and said, “A big bag of chips and a burger to go. Let’s do something with that.”

“It wasn’t as mad as it might sound,” Moran said. “The chip shop is sort of a common denominator in small towns in Ireland. It’s where a lot of the interaction between people takes place.”

At other times, one of the band members comes in with a lyric or a partial tune, which sparks someone else. This was the case with the contemplative “Still Afraid of the Dark,” which Moran wrote with the band’s lead singer, Davey Carton.

“I used to have this idea when I was a kid that a witch used to come into my room at night and fly around the ceiling,” he said. “We built on that, on the idea that people from a city or town were never used to the dark. It’s not something that happens very often in town. Whereas country people experience it more, and are very comfortable with it.”

Bassist Pearse Doherty has three strong songs on the album — “Happy Days,” “Always Gives Me More,” and the best of the lot, the bouncy “DNA.” Stevens has a solo writing credit on the album’s final song, “Still the Only One,” which features mutli-track harmonies by Carton.

Carton wrote the album’s second track, “This is Me,” which captures the classic Saw Doctors’ sound. The band spent a few days recently making the song into an MTV-style video.

The band’s longtime manager, Ollie Jennings, says that the video offer came out of the blue.

“There’s a fellow up in Massachusetts, Dave Horgan, who has made videos for Will Smith, LL Cool J, Marky Mark and New Kids on the Block,” he said. “One of his friends dragged him to the Saw Doctors’ show at the Cape Cod Music Tent last summer, and he was blown away by what he saw.”

Horgan contacted the band and offered to make a video for them — gratis. The band agreed, and so found themselves being themselves for the camera last week.

“The video will show them in their natural setting, in Ireland, at home in Tuam,” Jennings said. “It should help us get the band some wider play on radio and on television, because the decision makers will be able to see them perform. And it’ll be very MTV friendly.”

The album’s crossover appeal could be the key to opening up new horizons for the band, but Moran insists that there was no conscious decision to make the album “less Irish” than the previous ones.

“We don’t write to any specific agenda,” he said. “We take a collection of songs, and the ones that best fit together, recording-wise or theme-wise, are the ones that wind up on the finished product.”

As part of the plan to push the new album, the Saw Doctors will earn lots of frequent flier miles in the next few months. Between February and August, they will mount at least four U.S. tours.

“We’ll be over in February and March,” Moran said. “And we have a week organized in May, then a couple of weeks in Colorado and the West Coast in June. Then we’ll be back for our usual run up the East Coast in August.”

Moran says that the band members have their fingers crossed that this will be their most successful album to date.

“We’d love to go from selling 10,000 albums in the U.S. to selling, say, 30,000,” he said. “It would make life a lot easier for us there.”

There are storms and there are storms: the kind that you endure happily and the kind that force you to hunker down. The Saw Doctors have made their choice about the rain, weathering the elements on Ireland’s rugged west coast. Now they’re ready for a different type of deluge, the kind that includes press, interviews and places on the album charts.

“We just might have a bit of luck this time in the states,” Moran said. Which means it might be time to batten down those hatches.

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