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Damian O'Neill - Interview

  by Denzil Watson

published: 29 / 6 / 2018

Damian O'Neill - Interview


Denzil Watson talks to Undertones and That Petrol Emotion guitarist Damian O'Neill about his debut solo album 'Resit Revise Reprise', which is being released under the moniker of Damian O’Neill and The Monotones.

Derry-born guitarist Damian O’Neill has the accolade of being in not one but two of the best alternative bands the last four or five decades have produced. He had the good fortune of replacing his older brother, Vincent, in the Undertones in 1978, joining another older brother John on guitar. He remained with the band, who need no introduction, until they broke up in 1983. Later the next year he joined his brother John again in agit-popsters That Petrol Emotion. Five critically-acclaimed studio albums down the line the band finally split-up in 1994. Since then Damian has been busy with a number of side-projects, the reformed Undertones (sans Feargal Sharkey) and with a brief reformation of That Petrol Emotion which subsequently morphed into the equally-superb Everlasting Yeah with his former Petrols bandmates minus their Seattle-born frontman Steve Mack. Now after all these years he has got around to releasing his debut solo album 'Resit Revise Reprise' under the moniker Damian O’Neill and The Monotones. It’s a superbly diverse album that showcases O’Neill’s not inconsiderable song-writing talents. Ahead of its release, Pennyblackmusic caught up with Damian for a chat. PB: It's been over ten years since the last Undertones LP 'Dig Yourself Deep' and three years since the debut 'Everlasting Yeah' LP. Was one of the motivators behind your solo LP that you getting the itch to record and release new songs? DO: Yes. Basically, I had these songs…the so-called new songs for ages. Some of them go back four or five years and the instrumentals as well. I didn't really know how I could release them. I started the record a bit over a year ago. I did a two-track solo single in 2014 on a small label [Overground Records] and the single was called 'Trapped in a Cage' and it was basically two songs taken from a play [called 'Demented'] by me and my brother John. It was written by a Belfast playwright called Gary Mitchell. So, we wrote songs for the play. It was only short-lived and only performed in Derry, Belfast. It was about the Troubles. I was really happy with the songs I came up with, so I recorded four or five of them and the best two went on the single. And because that was kind of successful and it went down quite well with the Undertones fans it gave me the confidence to go and do all the other songs as well. PB: I'm thinking people will say, "Oh, Damian O'Neill, he's written some of the best songs over the last half-century, He's not going to be lacking confidence doing solo stuff." But I guess it's different when you step out of the shadow of a band. DO: Basically, I really do lack confidence. I'm a confident guitar player, but as a singer I've never done lead vocals before. It's a different ball game. In a band you can hide behind everybody else. To be a lead singer is a completely different animal to being a musician. PB: You've dabbled with solo releases in the past, including the single we've just mentioned, but do you consider this to be your first solo LP proper? DO: You know about 'The Quiet Revolution'? [a solo LP with a trance-feel based on samples and released on Alan McGee's Poptones label in 2001]. That was instrumental, more soundtrack-based, film music. That was great, and I really loved it, but this is my first proper solo record. PB: Your biog makes reference to your love of 70's glam rock. I'm also getting a bit of a Jesus and Mary Chain vibe on some of the songs. DO: On 'Gnaw Mark' definitely. That's an old That Petrol Emotion song recorded for the 'Chemicrazy' album back in 1990. I was never happy with the version the Petrols did and that was originally based on the Mary Chain. To be honest with you, it's a bit of a direct nick from their track called 'Sidewalking'. PB: I did pick up on that but I didn't want to say anything. DO: (Laughs) Well, if you're going to steal, you may as well steal from the best! PB: And the other thing I picked up on was a bit of a Stranglers vibe on 'Don't Let Me Down Now'. DO: There's a bit of Stranglers, yeah. Believe it or not, the track that influenced that was by Hawkwind - a band I know nothing about apart from 'Silver Machine'. John Lydon was on 6Music one day playing songs and he played a track by them and I was going, "This is really great," and I discovered it was Hawkwind. So, I downloaded it. My memory has let me down as I can't remember what it was called. [possibly 'Master of the Universe'?]. PB: Listening to the record I also get slight hints of Richard Hawley. DO: Yes, because I'm a big fan of Richard. Especially the slow ballad-y ones and the twangy guitar. He's a great guitar player. And I love using the tremolo. And I do have a Gretch guitar. He's probably got a hundred! PB: He's got more guitars than the rest of Sheffield up together. DO: And there's probably nothing post-1961! Last year we [The Undertones] played in Sheffield at the Plug and we had Richard Hawley come up and do a couple of songs with us which was nice. PB: You're currently in or have been in three long-running bands. Bar the four reinterpretations, could you see the new songs fitting in with these bands like "That would have been an Undertones song, that one would have been a Petrols' song" and so on. Or has this been an outlet for completely different stuff? DO: Yeah, I guess you can. There are a couple of track on the album that could have been Undertones tracks - 'I Just Want to Be with You' is a good example. And there is a song called 'Just Too Late' which was a Record Store Day song that the Undertones did record a year or two ago. So again, that was my song and I wanted to re-record it as it wasn't how I wanted it to sound. I wanted it to have a bit more of a shuffle to it and a rockabilly vibe to it and the Undertones version is a bit more pop-rock. This is the way I envisaged it originally. PB: I guess the other thing is that you have a bit more freedom in terms of the instruments you use of the songs too. Have you used instruments you wouldn't normal use? There's quite a lot of xylophone/glock, isn't there? DO: I love percussion like that. See, I've got a vibraphone here that I got years and years ago for £200. I've always loved vibes. I used vibes on 'The Quiet Revolution' as well. I love bells. I love hi-pitched percussion. If I had a marimba I'd use a marimba as well. Don't have one. But that's my thing. A lovely high-pitched sound like that. PB: The album's title 'Resit Revise Reprise' is a really honest title, isn't it, in terms of what the listener is going to get from the album? DO: Yes, it does. I am re-doing old songs. Revising old Undertones and Petrols' songs. PB: I guess one of the best-known tracks on the album is the Undertones' 'Love Parade'. It's got a real stripped down 60's feel to it. Were you not happy with the Undertones' original version of that either? DO: Totally. That song was originally written by me and Mickey [Bradley] for a spoof band we were in when the Undertones were on a sabbatical in 1982. We had this band called the Wesleys. It only lasted for a few shows. It was in Derry and it was Mickey on bass, Ciaran McLaughlin who went on to be the drummer in That Petrol Emotion. We were just kind of bored, so we decided to learn a load of 60's songs from the many ones on the 'Nuggets' album. We learnt about six or seven songs but also came up with this song of our own called 'The Love Parade' and played it as the Wesleys. So, there's an actual live recording of us doing the song as the Wesleys for the very first time ever. I kept that cassette and just a few years ago I discovered it again and I went, "Wow! This is the way 'The Love Parade' should have sounded." The Undertones' version has got kitchen-sink production. It's got strings. It's got girl backing vocals. It's over the top. So, I stripped it down. The way you hear it on the Monotones record is the way the Wesleys did it. PB: We talked about your love of 70's glam earlier. That really comes through in 'Sweet'n'sour'. I'm getting a real Marc Bolan vibe from that. DO: Oh yeah. Who doesn't like Marc Bolan and T Rex? The Sweet as well. That's why I called the track 'Sweet'n'sour' as a nod to the Sweet. PB: I know the original version of That Petrol Emotion's 'Gnaw Mark' very well. I like what you did with your re-interpretation, slowing it down and putting the twangy guitar all over it. DO: Again, it goes back to the original four-track version which I've still got. It's more kind of Mary Chain. Loads of guitar and slow. You play the Petrols version and it's speeded up by ten. I really do honestly hate it. And then it's got that sample that comes in and out and that just really dates it. It makes it an early 90's production. PB: I remember talking to Steve Mack ones and I remember him telling me that the producer replaced all of Ciaran's drums with samples. DO: On all but one song. Can you believe it? 'Mess of Words' was the one where he didn't. That's the one song that sounds the best. Ciaran's an amazing drummer and every fucking drum was sampled. To me he ruined that record and at the time we just trusted him. But he really fucked up. And we never recovered from that. We struggled along for a bit then we broke up. That was supposed to be our comeback album and that production really killed it. PB: That brings us on to 'Someone Like You' which is unashamedly rock 'n' roll, isn't it? It really works in its stripped-down form. Rock 'n' roll sometimes gets overlooked as a genre but you really captured it with that song. DO: Thanks a lot. Thank you. PB: And that takes me on to my favourite song on the album. And that's 'Everlasting Breath'. It was a bonus demo track on the last Petrols album, wasn't it? The new version is great and very different and is a bit out there, isn't it? DO: Okay! Well, the story about that is that it is a really old song of mine and the Petrols actually recorded it for their last album ['Fireproof']. We demo'ed it and then we did go in the studio and we tried a couple of attempts at it and it just didn't work out and didn't sound great and it was never on 'Fireproof'. Then it came out when 'Fireproof' was re-released as a bonus track. It's a demo track which is alright but it's not great. It's kind of charming. But I always knew that that was probably one of my best songs ever. I then did it as another version on another project I did with this girl-singer called Athena. The project was called X.Valdez. We recorded the song for that project and it turned out okay, but it only got a release in Japan so it was really difficult to get. And then it languished forever. And then we I was doing the solo album I decided that I'm going to re-do 'Everlasting Breath' and I'm going to use the original A-DAT demo and I didn't have to do much with that song to be honest. PB: Is there a theremin in there somewhere? DO: No. It's a musical saw. PB: Ah…I see. I played the Petrols' version then your version back to back and there's a completely different vibe to it. DO: Totally. It's much, much better. PB: I also really liked the 60'S garage rock of 'Much Too Late'. DO: Yeah. I was listening to a lot of Holly Golightly at the time. And Billy Childish, The Prisoners and all that kind of stuff. I think it was written around the time I was listening to that kind of stuff. PB: The final track - a version of the Petrols' 'Compulsion' - is probably the straightest of the re-interpretations, isn't it? DO: That is the original four-track demo of the track I did. I didn't enhance it or change it. It's exactly as it is. The singing's a wee bit out of tune but that doesn't matter. The reason I put that in was I always thought that this was also one of my best songs. I have to say the 'Chemicrazy' version is really, really good. One of the songs that did come out good. I just thought there was a bit of a lovely charm thing going on with my version. And a nice way to close the album. PB: And let's not forget the instrumentals either. Is it hard to write an instrumental than a song with lyrics? DO: Well, everything is an instrumental and then I try and fit words to it if I think it needs it. But I'm a terrible lyric-writer. I will agonise weeks/months over a frigging line and it doesn't come natural to me. So, to make it easier for me, I keep it as an instrumental. My favourite track on the whole album is 'Mundanian Dream' and that’s an instrumental. I love the vibe on that. It’s very gentle. There’s a kind of Richard Hawley thing going on there. PB: Overall I thought it was a great album - quite diverse sonically but the common theme of great guitars and melodies. DO: It is but I like that. The Petrols were always very diverse. Every album was different, and you’d hear different influences. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t work. What I really loved about doing this record was that I was totally in charge and nobody was arguing with me. I could do what I wanted. PB: As a band did the Petrols used to argue much? DO:(Pauses) Yeah. We did. Not at the start. It was John and Reamann’s thing. They formed the band. By the 'End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues' it was the worst period and John [O’Neill] was about to leave and he’d stopped writing that much and Ciaran and Reamann were coming up with things. The album was a bit too diverse and it’s a good example of a record that doesn’t know where it wants to go. PB: I have to say, it’s my least favourite Petrols album. DO: It’s got some strong songs on it, but we should have waited until we’d come up with some more hits. It’s a bit of a mess really. PB: It was quite experimental in places fusing indie with dance, wasn’t it? DO: A good example of that is 'Groove Check'. I fucking hate that song with a passion. Steve and Reamann still think it is one of the best things we ever did. In fact, there’s a great example. Reamann, Steve and Ciaran were working on that song for ages in the studio and me and John were just sat in the control room shaking our heads going “Fuck this!” I always remember that. So, there you go. There’s a great example of a split between the band. And I still to this day think it’s awful. PB: The solo album comes out on May 25th. Any plans to get a band together and take the album on tour? DO: Everybody’s asked me that. We’ll see. I’m trying to get a band together at the moment. I’m waiting for Brendan Kelly from the Petrols at the moment. He hasn’t been well for a while and he’s on the mend. He wants to play bass, so he’s nearly fully-fit now. I’ve got a drummer, so I just need to get another guitar player. So, what we’ll do is just book a few rehearsals first. It’s me really that’s the big question mark. Can I pull this off live singing? It’s a different ball game. So, we’ll see. PB: And hopefully more Everlasting Yeah action as I thought your debut LP was fantastic. DO: Well, thank you. We’re on a long sabbatical there. The main reason is Brendan. He’s recovering from an illness, so we haven’t been together for a year really in the same room to play. We still see each other as friends It’s not over yet because we had a couple of really great tracks before we took this long sabbatical, so watch this space really. PB: And could you ever foresee another Petrols' reunion? DO’N: I would jump at it. Steve would do it. Brendan would do it. It’s Reamann and Ciaran really. I don’t think they would want to revisit it. You never know. Unlikely. Our old manager said there were lots of people offering us loads of money to play 'Manic Pop Thrill' on its thirty-year anniversary with the original members. But our John [O’Neill] didn’t want to do it. It got reissued by Demon and I was happy to put it out, but I don’t think it sold much to be honest. It was beautifully done, and I was well-pleased with the packaging. PB: Damian, thank you very much for your time and all the best with the solo album.

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Damian O'Neill - Interview

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Damian O'Neill - Interview

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