A complete Fiasco
Ahead of their debut album release next week, Owen Strathern from NI rock band General Fiasco tells Matthew McCreary of why he hates ‘the next Ash’ tag
When it comes to rock music Northern Ireland is something of a small pond compared to the rest of the UK.
While the big fish — Ash, Snow Patrol, The Answer — have all broken out of the Ulster scene to make it across the world, in their wake come the smaller fry, the hard-gigging units of friends and school chums who are the nucleus of the ‘next big thing’ to come out of Northern Ireland.
Magherafelt natives General Fiasco are just such a gang, made up of brothers Owen and Enda Strathern and friend Stephen “Leaky” Leacock.
The trio are set to release their debut album, Buildings, next week, and the anticipation of physically holding a printed copy is evident in the rushed tones of lead singer Owen.
“It will be a bit surreal having it in our hands and ready to go, considering we have been involved in the band for two and a half years,” says the 22-year-old.
That might seem no time for the average band to get an album out, but for General Fiasco, all of whom were still at school just a few years ago, it must feel like a lifetime to have been working on it.
“As soon as we were fit to start touring we toured, and any time we had off we spent in the studio recording,” explains Owen.
“We made the album without really realising it. After a while we had so many recordings of a quality we were happy with. It was a gradual thing — we didn't sit in the studio for two months and try and write a whole bag of new songs. It was a very gradual process where the songs that we recorded were those that were fresh at the time. It all had a really fresh feel because we recorded the songs when they were new to us.”
For Owen the songwriting process is much more enjoyable than the thrill of playing live, quite a boast considering the stages the band have graced in recent years. These include the Reading, Leeds, Oxegen and Belsonic festivals, and this week saw them jet out to the prestigious South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, one of the premier showcases for new bands.
“It's a big year for Irish bands, there are 19 going this year compared to seven or eight last year,” says Owen.
“It shows there is more talent coming out of Ireland. It's a great opportunity if people know who you are and are talking about you.
“But there are 1,800 bands playing there, so you've got to hope that the right person sees you at the right gig at the right time.”
In spite of the lure of bigger and bigger venues, however, connecting with fans at a grass roots level is also crucial, believes Owen.
“Playing big shows isn't necessarily the best, you can feel very disconnected,” he says.
“It's more to do with the feeling rather than the size of the gig and what's happening in front of you. At the end of the day you are getting out there and playing to thousands of people in one show. We've always connected with people through our live performances and gigging and touring so the more people we can play in front of, the better.”
Another big date the band are anticipating will be supporting local success story Snow Patrol at Ward Park in Bangor in June. It will not be the first time Fiasco have played in support of the guys behind such hits as Run and Chasing Cars, but they do not feel at all in the shadow of such a massively successful group.
“They were so nice and encouraging,” says Owen. “That's all you can want for. Thank god they've got us involved in another big show in Northern Ireland.”
Being a three-piece from Northern Ireland, though, the comparisons with Ulster indie legends Ash are perhaps inevitable. But the group are adamant that they assert their own identity.
“We don't want to be Ash,” says Owen.
“It's a coincidence that we are a three-piece from Northern Ireland and an even bigger coincidence that we are signed to the same record label. But I think we have our own thing going on, enough not to have to worry about being in someone's shadow.”
At just 36 minutes long, the album is tight enough to showcase the very best of the group. Owen describes the ten tracks on the album as “snappy upbeat pop tunes”.
“The songs that I like best are the ones I've most recently written,” he says.
“Sinking Ships and Buildings are something that shows different sides to the band. It's something that I go through phases of listening to. It sounds different every day.
“You could stretch it out and put another song in that didn't feel right or add extra bits and destroy the flow of songs,” he adds.
“But we didn't really think about how long the album was going to be until it was done.”
While creative differences are often the graveyard for bands, the family connection and the fact that they all hail from the same part of South Londonderry has also meant a close-knit relationship between the group.
“We all work together quite well,” he says. “We have the same sort of ideas. It's never been an issue. We know when a song's ready. As of now we're all agreeing on the stuff we’ve been putting out!”
The sense of community in Northern Ireland’s music scene has also been a source of help and encouragement, Owen says.
“Being from Northern Ireland we're out of the eyeline of the music industry in the rest of the UK, so when we did go over there we were a brand new band and had our act together,” he says.
“It was easier for us to get attention because we came from nowhere and people started latching on to it.”
The band have mastered a steep learning curve in a relatively short space of time. But, as Owen says, it was all part of a natural evolution.
“The band was developing itself,” he says.
“Every time we went to do something it led on to something better. When that starts happening you just don't stop, you get sucked in.
“If things are constantly getting better you aren't going to stop, and that's what happened with us. If it looks like it works, keep doing it.”
Wherever their success may take them in the world, for Owen and his bandmates Northern Ireland will remain, for the forseeable future at least, the place they call home.
“I see no real need at the moment to leave, living in Belfast,” says Owen.
“We're away for so long at a time. It's nice to be around friends and family — we'll just stay here until we need to change.”
For now, though, there is a busy schedule ahead, including a new set of tour dates to get ready for, which kicked off this week in Texas.
Whether the US dates will break America for them remains to be seen though, says Owen.
“Well you need to break a lot of other places first — but who knows?”
Buildings is released on Monday, and will be launched with a special concert at Belfast’s Mandela Hall on March 28. Further details on www.generalfiasco.co.uk