Article by Sarah Williams.
If you’ve read Shout Louder before before, listened to our podcast or spent any time with me personally, then you will already have some idea of how excited we are about Only Strangers at the moment. I am a real sucker for all things gruff: over then years I’ve falled in love with Leatherface, Hot Water Music, Red City Radio, Bear Trade…. the list goes on. It’s been a while since I’ve heard a record that really fills my need for melodic guitars and shredded vocal chords and Only Strangers are, without a doubt, next on my list of favourite bands.
As with many bands that I love nowadays, I’ve gotten to know them through the old-school ska-punk scene. 3 out of 4 members of Only Strangers were originally in Sense of Urgency, who put out a split on TNS Records back in 2009. It’s hard to see how they went from that brassy, aggressive noise to the melodies and harmonies of Only Strangers, so I was keen to learn more about their journey. This is a band that have grown up together, through school, through starter bands and now through kids and marriages. The sound you hear on their self-titled record is the music that has grown with them; it has an organic depth that you wouldn’t hear otherwise.
Moreover, it’s a quality record. This 4-piece from Stoke-On-Trent clearly favour quality over quantity, although here’s hoping that they get out there and tour it soon. We spoke to guitarist/vocalist Dec O’Reilly to find out more about the band, their ambitions and how they’ve grown both as people and as musicians.
Hi Dec! You have just released your self titled album on Horn & Hoof records. It sounds like a lot of love, time and detail went into the record. How long did it take to create?
Hi Sarah! It took a very long time indeed. We wanted to make sure it was something we were really proud of as, despite most of us playing in bands since around 1999 and in Only Strangers since 2010, none of us have ever put out a full length album, so it was a pretty big deal for us. The whole process probably took around the best part of two years. Even though we had so much material from the years we’ve been playing, we had to really be convinced that we had 10 tracks which we’d never see as being more than half decent, so we kept adding new songs and re-recording old ones. We had quite a few more which we recorded properly but didn’t make it on to the album. It feels more like a ‘best of’ to us, rather than just recent tracks rushed into an album.
What did you find most challenging about recording the album?
I think the biggest challenge was simply finding time. Everybody works all week and does some pretty long hours, so realistically weekends were the only time we could ever get in to the studio, and those weekends were limited just to everyone being so busy. We weren’t keen on going in at different times mid-week or here and there as we wanted to make sure everyone was involved in everything that was being recorded.
Also, it was a big challenge calling recordings complete. There were quite a few occasions where we thought something could sound better and so we would just go back in and do stuff over and over again but it’s something we’re all really glad we did. The amazing response we’ve had from reviewers, peers and friends is a really good pay off for all the hard work and tweaking we put into it.
Are there any themes you find yourself returning to when writing songs?
Lyrically, we tend to have all the music done first and then just agree between the two vocalists who it would suit best. Then that person goes away and starts sorting out the lyrics, usually on their own. Personally I never set out to pick a theme (as I’m pretty sure Gater doesn’t) and the musical style can often dictate the content. There’s quite a variation of subjects on the album from health struggles and health care, hangovers and people’s grim attitudes to racism to name a few. I think because we’re all at that point where we’re definitely realising we’re not spring chickens anymore and have a lot of work and responsibility, there’s a bit of a theme of looking back at the past and to the future also, as that’s always going to be prominent in our minds. Bit of a cliche, but it’s very much what we deal with day to day. Musically, we just mess with hooks until something begins to stick and progress from there, without thinking of what style it should be or anything like that.
Would I be right in saying that Only Strangers is a Bruce Springsteen reference? Is that something that’s had a big influence on you?
Yeah it’s a lyric from the song Streets of Fire. We’re all Springsteen fans but I don’t know how much of an influence is it in our music. I could never imagine trying to come up with something that would emulate any of those records as his band has such a unique and huge sound.
Did you have any other suggestions for band names?
You have no idea! We had our first show coming up and still didn’t have a name. Everyone came round to my house (more than once I’m pretty sure), and were just throwing names about left, right and centre, from movie quotes to 90’s footballers, horror characters to lyrics. We just couldn’t get anything to stick or for the 4 of us to agree on. All the good ones we did suggest and agree on had been taken usually. I think I suggested the name Harker at one point, who are a band we really like now! I can’t remember most of the others. I think Hightower was one. It was one of our friends who suggested Only Strangers in the end.
There’s a big gap between this record and your previous release – a split with Pardon Us in 2013. What have you been doing in the meantime?
We’ve just been writing and rehearsing for most of that time with a few shows thrown in for good measure. A few highlights are doing two slots at MPF one year (including a Lawrence arms cover show), The Flair Witch project and playing with the incredible Page of Punk in Stoke. We lose track of time a bit as we do just like playing music and sometimes forget we need to be a bit more pro-active.
Is this the same band or a new iteration?
This is the same line-up since we started and very much the same band. We had one or two rehearsals with a mate on drums before Beard was free to join us when we started, which was just to get a feel of if we could actually play music together. Other than that, same folks. If the line-up even changed by one member, pretty safe to say we wouldn’t use the same name. Tommy Maund did stand in to play guitar for us once actually as we really wanted to play with Spy v Spy in Stoke (and a top job he did), but other than that, Only Strangers is very much us four as a collective.
You’ve all known each other a long time, right? How did you meet?
In our first year of high school so about 20 years ago now! Me, Beard and Gater were playing music together since we were 14, which formed part of the original Sense of Urgency line-up. All four of us in Only Strangers always hung around with the same group of people, playing football, drinking in the woods until we were old enough to go out to pubs and all that kind of stuff. It was on the back end of people being back from uni and various other things where we decided on the idea of Only Strangers. Joe and Gater had already been writing bits and pieces and it just took off very naturally.
As you mentioned, three quarters of the band were in Sense of Urgency back in the day. Only Strangers is a huge difference in sound. When did you switch over from ska-punk to melodic gruff?
Is a huge difference between the two bands. Playing ska-punk (especially in SOU) was pretty chaotic. Thrashing guitars, horn lines, speed drumming, really aggressive vocals… Even early on in SOU, a lot of us mostly listened to a lot more melodic punk and bands similar to Only Strangers. SOU were coming to an end just as Only Strangers were getting going so it was exciting to get to grips with something completely new. I don’t even think we planned to do a melodic gruff thing. None of us had really been songwriters or lyricists in a band so it was more a case of play and see how we sound. We certainly never forced the gruff vocal aspect. It just turned out that as singers, that’s what suited us most and we naturally played as a band that way too. However, even though we never have it in our minds, we’re obviously going to turn out quite a bit like the bands we really like and listen to.
You did one gig as Sense of Urgency last year at a private party – any chance of a reunion?
All of us are pals and the last time was fun, so maybe.
As you’ve played together for a long time and moved genres, do you feel that the way you’ve grown older and wiser both as people and musicians?
I can’t speak on behalf of the others but I feel as a musician, definitely. We spend a lot more time playing in this band than any previously and really focus hard on what we’re doing and relish a bit more of a challenge creatively. I think previously, I was only picking up a guitar once every couple of months, blasting out eight songs at a gig and then forgetting about playing til the next time. I can speak on behalf of the others and say we all feel like older people and to be honest, all probably a fair bit wiser, within reason. We’ve been involved in music for a pretty long time so along the way we’ve definitely matured, had our fair share of life experiences (both good and bad) and sadly realised we can’t party as hard anymore.
Apart from the album, what other plans do you have for the year?
We’re already progressing along with what we think will be our next EP and we’ll try not to take so long releasing stuff this time. We’ll be looking at getting some merch sorted and just try to do the band organising thing, we’ve never previously been great at, a bit better.
Gater has just become a father and Beard will be getting married this year, so they’ve got some pretty great plans! When they get a bit of time to breathe, I’ll be hassling them to play more shows!
Now that people have heard the album I’m sure they’d love to see you play it live, but you don’t have too many shows lined up. I’d love to see you on some festivals and all-dayers. Is that something you’re looking to do more of in the future?
Most definitely! We’ve had some really good offers since the album came out but are taking things slowly due to people’s personal lives being a priority. Hopefully when it gets to summer, you’ll be seeing our faces more. We’ve got shows in Manchester coming up in March and April, along with the Flair Witch 2 all-dayer in August and some other ones scattered around so far, but we’ll be looking at getting around the country when we can.
What are your ambitions for Only Strangers in future?
Something really simple, but to release something on vinyl. It’s something that’s just been too dear for us to do. Other than that, do another album that’s even better and get on more shows and more frequently, particularly festivals and all-dayers like you mention. Playing at FEST in Gainesville would be amazing too, as we’ve all talked about going in the past and to go over as a playing band would be great.