The Academic
© The Academic

The Academic: Straight Outta Mullingar

Making waves with their debut album and getting advice from Frank Black – all in a day's work for The Academic
Written by Lauren Murphy
8 min readPublished on
One of Ireland's hottest musical prospects at the moment, The Academic have already supported bands like The Pixies, The Strokes and Noel Gallagher and are blazing a trail with their infuriatingly catchy debut album 'Tales from the Backseat.'
We grabbed some time with with vocalist/guitarist Craig Fitzgerald (24), drummer Dean Gavin (23) and brothers Matthew (23, guitar) and Stephen (21, bass) Murtagh in Dublin to get the low-down on what's next for the Westmeath indie-popsters.
How did you all first get to know each other?
Craig: Me, Matthew and Dean were all in the same class from first year onwards. I had no musical experience but when I made friends with Matthew, I started learning jams off him. We'd been trying to keep a band together since about 13, 14.
Matthew: When we turned 18, we were still without a drummer. We knew Dean was really good, so we asked him to join the band and that completed the line-up. That was around the end of 6th year. We started gigging, and it kind of made sense to just make it a band and give it a name, start doing some gigs and writing some songs.
So The Academic wasn't your first band, then?
Matthew: No, there were a lot of bad names along the way. Originally, three of us were in a band called The Frescos. When we first started, we called ourselves Maginot after some obscure World War 2 reference - then we kept showing up to gigs and being called 'Magnet' by the promoters, so that didn't stick. (laughs) So we just chose The Academic, and that seemed alright.
How is the songwriting split?
Craig: The skeleton of the song – the lyrics, the hooks, the chord runs – would start with me, as a 'Craig' song; but I've seen songs change in ways that I never thought they would, after the three guys' input. So it's kind of a group effort, in that sense.
Let's get the Mullingar thing out of the way: are you sick of the references to Joe Dolan, Niall Horan and Blizzards yet?
Matthew: We do get asked about it a lot, but the funny thing is that we're not actually from Mullingar - we're from the outskirts. I think it's the lakes, or something; there's some magic left in the lakes (laughs).
Craig: It's our gigging hometown; that's where we started out honing our live craft. There's always been good music in Mullingar.
You've been described as 'the indie Strypes', there have been plentiful references to The Kooks – where do you fit in?
Craig: We grew up on indiepop – The Kooks, The Killers, Kings of Leon, The Strokes. I've always loved that stuff; indiepop with good guitar riffs and good melody hooks that crosses over to radio. That's what we're trying to do - keeping it guitar-based and hook-y, like a lot of those bands.
Speaking of radio play, your debut single 'Different' must have exceeded your expectations –  it was streamed a huge number of times on Spotify in its first week, too.
Craig: The song is old – the chorus is very old – it was in a totally different style with a totally different feel. One day, I decided 'It's a good chorus and there's a nice message behind it', but the music we had was a bit dated. So we came up with that 'ahaaaaa' melody. I presented it to the band in January, we recorded it in January and released it not long afterwards. It all happened very fast.
You signed a deal with Global Publishing in 2014 – did you expect things might have happened for you more quickly, though?
Stephen: It was really up to us how we were gonna do things – so we kind of made a conscious decision to hold off on any release so we could do it properly and get it right. I think we did it the right way.
Craig: Yeah. We could have thrown out an EP then – or even an album – and it wouldn't have sounded as good. There's a million ways to do it wrong, but we're happy that we held off and got the first release out there the way we wanted to.
There have been plenty of rumours flying around about 17 A&R people turning up at your Other Voices gig in December 2013… how did that pan out?
Stephen: It wasn't 17, though.
Craig: It was 16 (laughs). Everything's all independent at the moment. We didn't know anything about that type of stuff; we were just four lads playing gigs and we just came across the right people. Our manager, who we didn't even know, was from the same town as us. He showed up one day and said 'Lads, you're actually quite a good band'. We were like 'Oh right, cool.' (laughs) Within two weeks, we were playing Vicar Street with Delorentos, then we were sent down to Other Voices in December, and these A&R people showed up and people got wind of it. But we don't really focus on that stuff at all: it's just about the music for us, and gigging.
What's the best piece of advice that you've been given so far?
Craig: I don't know about advice, but when we met Frank Black from Pixies when we supported them [in the summer of 2014], we were just chatting away - and he just said 'I'll see you out there.' Obviously we probably won't cross paths with him again, but that message of just going out there and doing it, it was really encouraging.
Tell us about recording 'Tales from the Backseat' - you did some of it in Abbey Road?
Stephen: We recorded two songs at Abbey Road, but 90% of it was done in North Hollywood. It was great. It was our first time recording and living over there.
Craig: We were looking at people we could potentially meet and who we were fans of, and there was a guy called Tim Pagnotta who we'd done the album with – and he was based in LA. So we'd done a couple of meetings and it was an instant connection; he had the same love for pop and capturing it in a band.
Stephen: The two bands that he'd done that we admired the most were Walk the Moon and Neon Trees – both guitar bands, without a doubt, but they're pop songs as well. We felt we could fall into that bracket, too.
Craig: At the beginning of the album process we had a bunch of songs, and we had to be brutal about it; some of them didn't fit together or work on the album. So we chopped up everything, listened really brutally and decided that this wasn't going to work, or that wouldn't fit, musically. We were hyper-aware that we wanted it to be a consistent album from start-to-finish, and that was something we'd never done. We were just a band who played live. After pre-production, you're kind of seeing it fall into place. Working with Tim was really fun – he had great ideas to bring to the table in terms of the song, too; he didn't make you feel uncomfortable about anything, he just wanted you to come out of your shell a little bit and give it that extra 10%. It took two and a bit months. We'd never been in a studio for that long, ever; it was usually in and out in one day to do singles.
Finally, tell us about that amazing Facebook Live video that went viral last year?
Stephen: That got a lot crazier than we thought it would.
Craig: It was an idea that came up; 'Let's do something cool with Facebook Live'. We noticed it when bands we were playing with would stream their sets on Instagram; you'd hear them playing from the backstage area, but watching the stream, they wouldn't have started yet. So we partnered up with some very intelligent guys from New York who were able to assist us in pulling it off, and they came back and said 'Well, we can probably fix the delay to like, thirty seconds'.
Stephen: They had this device that could keep the latency consistent at thirty seconds, which was the techie stuff that we didn't understand and left to them. Then we designed the loop of the song and fit the BPM to thirty seconds – and once we did our part, it was a case of 'Will this actually work?'
Craig: We rehearsed it a tonne, and we got in in the morning and tried it a few times. It probably didn't work the first few times – there's any amount of things that can go wrong. But we got a solid six runs, and thought 'Okay, let's go for it.' The moment the red light goes live, it's 'Oh god'. Even more intense than doing live TV. Because the instruments were all on, so if you dropped it and it made a noise, that'd be in the loop for the whole song, every thirty seconds. (laughs)
'Tales from the Backseat' is out now. The Academic play Dublin's Iveagh Gardens on Friday, July 20th.
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