Belfast brother and sister indie duo MMODE on living the musical dream
Belfast brother and sister indie duo MMODE were living the high life until Thomas developed a rare autoimmunne disorder. Here, they tell Lee Henry how their musical career is still on track with a new album out, having come home to Northern Ireland
For singing siblings Thomas and Lucy Gaffney, otherwise known as MMODE, living the musical dream has been quite the experience. Over the past few years, the Belfast-born brother and sister have signed with an indie record label, supported the likes of Jake Bugg and hellraising Libertine Pete Doherty, and been whisked across Europe to perform at star-studded fashion events.
At one point, after performing at a prestigious Yves Saint Lauren catwalk show in Paris, an Australian music magazine even mistook Lucy for supermodel turned actress Cara Delevingne, who was hosting the event. “They used Lucy’s picture and described her as ‘a woman of many talents’,” says 26-year-old Thomas, laughing. “Though she does look a bit like her.”
Despite all the glitz and glamour, however — the thrill of living and learning in London, of being produced by Ian Broudie of The Lightning Seeds and hearing their own songs recorded on vinyl as members of former band Southern — their musical journey came to an abrupt halt in February 2015 when Thomas contracted a rare autoimmune disorder.
“It stopped us in our tracks, quite literally,” says Thomas. “It’s a rare form of Crohn’s disease that affects my throat and mouth and it wiped me out. I think I’ve had it since I was a teenager, but it got much worse when we were on tour. I was in London when I got very ill. It was frightening. I couldn’t have got through it all without Lucy.”
Lucy confirms that it was a tough time for all involved. “Thomas had been very unwell, on and off, for a long time but he tended to just ignore it,” adds the 24-year-old. “But eventually the touring lifestyle really took it out of him.
“He went into hospital after a show in Brighton one night and we had to stop the tour. A couple of months after that, we packed up, told our label that we needed to put everything on hold to let him properly recover and headed back home to Belfast.”
A period of hospitalisation followed, and Thomas admits that the medication given to him at the time “completely drained” him. He was unable to sing or even pick up a guitar for six months, but the subsequent time spent convalescing in his parents’ house was restorative. Nostalgia played a big part in that.
“Lucy and I were constantly surrounded by music from an early age,” Thomas recalls. “I have memories of being woken up to the sounds of Led Zeppelin blasted through the hi-fi speakers downstairs on a Saturday morning, and Radiohead, Beck and Brian Eno were constantly being played.
“As well as that, we used to travel to the west coast of Ireland — to a town in Co Mayo just outside of Killalla, where we owned a little holiday house — nearly every fortnight, and the long road trips were always full of music.”
“Growing up in Northern Ireland, there was so much to do,” Lucy continues. “I realise that more and more everyday, now that I’m home after living over the water for a few years. Having a vibrant, buzzing city at your doorstep, and also being just a stone’s throw from beaches and mountains, is not to be underrated.
“We spent our adolescence learning to sail in Strangford Lough and walking in Tollymore Forest Park outside Newcastle at weekends and in our teenage years, cities like Belfast, Derry and Bangor allowed us to dip our toes into the musical world.” Thomas formed various garage bands with friends as a young teenager and “hid away” in his bedroom, channelling rock gods like AC/DC’s Angus Young and Led Zeppelin’s guitar maestro Jimmy Page. He reveals that Lucy had a “great singing voice” as a child but rarely sang through shyness. Thomas was much more confident as a performer.
When he realised that he too could sing — after joining in with Thom Yorke’s falsetto while listening to Radiohead’s High and Dry — Thomas made the decision to strike out on his own. A stint busking on Belfast’s Fountain Street proved to be life-changing.
“It was back in 2009 and a woman who heard me sing suggested that I enter the city’s first ever busking competition and it was a nice surprise when I ended up winning it. The prize was a slot in the Belfast Nashville Songwriters’ Festival.
“I went into a studio to get some demos together and Lucy came along with me for company. As we were listening back to the mixes, she started harmonising in perfect pitch. I said, ‘Get in there and put that down!’ We went on to duet at the festival and haven’t really looked backed since.”
London naturally called. Lucy remembers sofa surfing in Hammersmith and gigging every night. “It was just so exciting.” The pair signed a management deal and then a record deal with Marathon Artists as Southern.
“But it was Burberry that gave us our first bit of exposure,” says Thomas. “We did video shoots for them and played twice during London Fashion Week. A couple of years later, they flew us to Seoul in South Korea for their Art of the Trench Week. It was like being Bill Murray in Lost In Translation. An incredible experience.”
With London proving pricey, the Gaffneys upped sticks and moved to Liverpool, a fertile playing ground for musicians of all kinds. Ian Broudie produced their debut EP and Queens of the Stone Age producer Mark Rankin their first album. Unfortunately, however, that album was never released. Thomas’ illness put paid to that.
“I remember telling Lucy that I wasn’t sure if I would be able to work as a musician again,” Thomas says, recalling his lowest ebb. “But Lucy was great. It was her idea to clear out our garage at home and convert it into a recording studio. Our family was another reason that we moved back to Belfast and they’ve all been amazingly supportive. Finally, now, I’m able to write and perform again.”
In their new incarnation as MMODE, the Gaffneys are excited to start their musical careers afresh. With the help of many musical friends from Belfast and further afield, they recorded their eponymous album at home which is now out and available on all good streaming services. Their next Northern Irish show takes place at Top of the Town in Omagh on December 20.
“When we play live,” says Lucy, “I’m mostly singing and playing harmonica and tambourine. When we’re recording in the studio, I also play a bit of guitar, piano, keyboard and I love Moog synthesisers. Thomas is a multi-instrumentalist, so he can play anything. We can’t wait to perform some of our new tracks in Omagh later this month.
“And we’re really proud of the album. On Sometimes In Life, Russell Pritchard from The Zutons played bass. He’s actually Noel Gallagher’s bass player now. Half of the album has Paul Duffy from The Coral also playing bass. Far Away From You and Sunrise In Belfast features Belfast jazz musicians Linley Hamilton on trumpet and Lewis Smith on saxophone.”
“We’d describe our sound, in its simplest form, as alt-rock, dream-pop, but a lot of the album is also inspired by shoe gaze, trip-hop, hip-hop, funk and soul,” says Thomas. “We really like how the album takes you on a bit of a genre journey.”
Having come together as artists by accident, the Gaffneys now very much enjoy writing and performing together. Lucy admits that they “have their moments as siblings”, but that any niggling disagreements never impact on their creativity.
“I think that a huge advantage of being on the road for a long time with your sibling is that you’ve always got someone there who feels like home and keeps you grounded. And we tend to be quite good at communicating with each other as colleagues when in the studio or on stage.”
“I think it’s important to be complementary,” adds Thomas, “so we try our best to encourage each other as much as we can with each other’s ideas. Having shared our whole lives together, and the memories and experiences that come with living away and touring, it allows us to work together well.”
Looking back on a turbulent but unforgettable few years, Lucy and Thomas are grateful that they have managed to survive it all and, in the process, become closer as brother and sister and more mature and capable as musicians. With Thomas’ disorder now under control, they are able to enjoy the simple things in life — like exploring Belfast with a new perspective.
“The Cathedral Quarter was and still is a huge part of our social life and there’s nothing better than nursing a pint of Guinness while listening to live music after a long day of being cooped up in the studio,” says Lucy. “Vinyl is pretty important to us and we spend a lot of time sifting through records in stores like Dragon Records. It’s great to be home.”
MMODE will play Top of the Town in Omagh on December 20. Find out more at MMODE’s Facebook page @mmode band
Belfast Telegraph Digital