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Making an album is a strange and unpredictable affair at the best of times. But there are certain stages in a band's career when the stakes seem higher than ever and the recording process becomes a challenge of existential proportions. So it was when the Thrills turned their attention to making their third album, Teenager.
The group from Dublin had put out two outstanding albums in two years - So Much For The City in 2003 and Let's Bottle Bohemia (2004) - racking up sales well in excess of a million copies. They had toured pretty much non-stop for four-and-a-half years, establishing their credentials as one of the key acts of the decade, and getting a taste of what it is like to perform at some of the biggest venues in the world, in the company of U2 and Oasis, among others. They had plenty of new songs ready to record, and the group duly assembled to begin work on the new album the day after the last gig (in Dublin) of the last tour to promote Bohemia. That was when they realised that they had reached a turning point. Something more was called for.
"It's easy to go through the motions and churn out something of a certain standard." says the band's singer and songwriter Conor Deasy. "But to go beyond that, you really have to give it everything you've got."
Aware of how easy it would have been to slip into production-line mode, and simply keep on repeating the same basic formula with diminishing returns, the band were determined instead to take a new direction and raise the bar while they were about it.
"We were still the same five people in the same band, but we felt it was time to move up a gear," says guitarist/bassist Daniel Ryan, a man who measures out his words with a certain wry solemnity.
"That's how you should look at every record," says his more ebullient opposite number, guitarist/bassist Padraic McMahon. "Approach it as if it's your last chance, otherwise it will be your last chance!"
* * *
Teenager was produced by Tony Hoffer and recorded in Vancouver.
"Avoiding Los Angeles was a big part of this record," Deasy says, referring to the city where both of their previous albums were recorded, and the place where so much of the early Thrills mythology took root. Instead of the sunny, partying-all-hours ambience of California, they opted to work in a studio located in "the worst neighbourhood in all of Canada." The Warehouse studio, which was recommended to them by R.E.M., had been a makeshift morgue in a previous incarnation, and was said to be haunted. The band were sceptical when they arrived, but were spooked just the same by a door which, every so often, would shut like a magnet for no obvious reason.
In Vancouver, and beforehand in Co Wexford in the South East corner of Ireland, where all the songs were written and first demo-ed, the band focussed with renewed intensity and a fresh perspective on every angle of composing, arranging and recording their music. The first numbers to emerge - Should've Known Better and Teenager - were slow, soulful ballads tinged with an aching sense of melancholy. They spoke of adolescence, loss of innocence, the sometimes painful knowledge that comes with growth, and how the optimism of youth is replaced over time by a growing realisation of mortality. "You remember being beautiful/Regrets, regrets, regrets/Did you take those fleeting glances/For granted, for granted, for granted?" Deasy sings in Teenager.
These numbers gave them a foundation on which to build the album. But when it came to the upbeat songs a lot more work was needed before the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.
"We were definitely striving for a new standard," Deasy says. "We were willing to scrap months of work on songs, which is one of the reasons it took so long. We recorded maybe 30 songs. Over and above all that, this album had to be more than a collection of good songs. It had to be a statement."
Whereas their debut album had been something of a travelogue, describing the passage of five young lads through the landscapes of California, Teenager is more of an interior narrative exploring both the emotional world of Deasy and something of the group's background in and around Dublin.
"Our first album was very much an escapist record," Deasy says. "This one is much closer to home. It is a record about adolescence, but it's also a record about leaving it behind. And, naturally, Dublin is where we spent our adolescence. It's not explicit or anything. There are no street names in the lyrics. It's more to do with the tone and the mood of certain songs like Nothing Changes Around Here and Midnight Choir which remind me of Dublin when we were younger and of times when things were a bit different to now."
The "closer-to-home" theme is reflected in the artwork of the album which features paintings and illustrations of locations in Dublin which mean something to the band, but which haven't been touched by the rapid modernisation that has taken place there over the last ten years.
"It's not nostalgic or unduly sentimental," McMahon says. "It's looking back and realizing how you've moved on. There's a different energy on this album. Before, when we talked about 'the city' it was very symbolic. Now it's become a lot more personal."
The band also rediscovered the thrill of being the Thrills. Deasy, Ryan and McMahon, together with Kevin Horan (keyboards) and Ben Carrigan (drums) have been in this band since most of them were school friends, and on these sessions they rekindled the simple love of working and playing together as a five-man unit. "The time was spent on the music, and nothing else," Deasy says. "There wasn't a lot of tinkering with the reverb on the hi-hat. And there was no added strings, no brass, no unnecessary ornamentation."
The result is an album which belies the labour that went into it, and sounds like a genuinely energised band playing together in a room rather than an expensively produced studio package. Without taking anything away from the band's previous albums, Teenager is clearly the most exciting collection of performances the band has yet committed to disc.
"I used to find all those ideas that you had to suffer to make great music a bit hokey," Deasy says. "But I think, in hindsight, you have to have your back against the wall a bit, to really come through with something. This wasn't the easiest of times for us. We knew there was a lot at stake, we knew the record was late, we knew we were missing some songs. And those are the times you can either sink or swim. I think we rose to the challenge. It's about keeping your hunger for it. We still have a huge desire to do something good. In a funny way it almost feels like a debut album."
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