(Originally published on Cluas.com)
Twenty years ago an exceptionally young band from Dublin released a debut album full of near-flawless indie-pop tunes. It had a confidence and ambition that was at odds with their youth and it is still talked about to this day as one of the great Irish debuts of all time. The album was called ‘Immigrants, Emigrants And Me’ and the band were Power of Dreams. Formed by songwriter Craig Walker (above, right) in 1989 while he was still at school, along with his brother Keith on drums and their friend Mick Lennox on bass, the success of the album brought a certain level of fame and critical plaudits on the youngsters, both here and abroad. Flash forward two decades and I am sitting at Craig Walker’s kitchen-table listening to his recollections of the highs and lows of the last twenty years. Walker, now a youthful 38, looks back with pride on that debut album and the subsequent success his band enjoyed in the early Nineties. I tell him that his band was the first Irish band I was a fan of and his album was one I incessantly listened to on my Walkman on the way to and from school, along with ‘Nevermind’ and My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Loveless’. Yep, it really was that good. It holds a special place in Craig’s heart too.
‘‘I’m so proud of it’ he says, over our first mug of tea. ‘I didn’t even have a copy of it for a long time. For fifteen years I didn’t even have an actual physical copy! And then I got a vinyl copy about four years ago – a friend of mine bought it for me for my birthday, second-hand! It’s actually great to have it again – I think it’s dated all right’’ True, that. The album wouldn’t sound out of place if it was released today. ‘‘The songs were done when I was 16 or 17 and the album came out when I was 18, so yeah I was young – fucking hell! It was unusual for sure but we had been together for a while before the album came out’’
What is striking about the album, both listening to the remastered CD version now and that battered old tape I had all those years ago, is how accomplished it sounds for a band still a few years short of their 20th birthday. Craig sounded like he had been singing and playing guitar for decades and the lyrical themes he touched on belied his tender teenage years. Even the drumming is exceptional from Craig’s younger brother, Keith. So where does a 16 or 17 year old find that creative spark to write such grown-up songs? It seems the inspiration behind it was born from heartbreak.‘‘I got dumped in 1989 for the first time ever – the year before the album came out” he recalls now, with a wry smile. ”The first love of my life…she dumped me and I just retreated to the bedroom and wrote loads of songs about it.’ It seems this girl was unwittingly responsible for an album that people are still praising twenty years on. ‘’A lot of the songs are about her on the album like ‘Stay’ and ‘Never Told You’ and ‘100 Ways To Kill A Love’. I had my heart broken for the first time. It was real big thing for me then as I had never felt emotion like that before and suddenly I had a reason to pick up the guitar’’ Does he think he could be as creative if he wasn’t going through some sort of emotional upheaval in his life? ‘’Well, before, I would sit down and try to write songs and I was thinking ‘what am I going to write this song about’ so the only time to write is when you’re inspired, otherwise you’re trying to write songs to order. I’ve tried it (writing to order) but it’s an indefinable thing trying to write a song. It’s like when your emotions are on a high level, whether it’s sadness, happiness, or whatever but generally it’s when you’re feeling a bit sad that the songs come out.’’
I was always fascinated by the title of the album too – ‘Immigrants, Emigrants And Me’. Did he think the words just sounded well together or was there a deeper significance? Craig reveals that the title was a kind of homage to another excellent indie – band from that period, The Sundays. ‘’The title was actually a nod to ‘Reading, Writing and Arithmetic’ which I thought was completely English. It couldn’t be any more English. Only an English band could get away with that! So I thought ‘What’s Irish and could fit into that?’ And that was that. I was also a big Pogues fan at the time, you can’t really hear it in the music but in spirit they were a big influence. I always loved the Philip Chevron song ‘Thousands Are Sailing’. This whole idea of having wakes for the Irish people before they went off to America because their families would never see them again – that really fascinated me.’’
After the success of ‘Immigrants’ Craig and the band moved to London and he instantly connected with the city and he would remain there until returning to Dublin a couple of years ago.‘I think I always knew I was going to move away at some point, which I did as I had a fascination with England and its music’ he admits ‘I was obsessed with English music. I remember the first time I went to Camden Town and hanging out and going to see bands there – I just thought that was the best thing as these were the places where The Pistols and The Clash played. It was amazing so it was kind of connected to that.’
It would be easy to be under the impression that Craig can craft perfect indie-pop songs with a kind of effortless ease. There is barely any filler on ‘Immigrants’ or even on its follow-up ‘2 Hell With Common Sense’. On the subsequent albums ‘Positivity’ and ‘Become Yourself’, though patchy, there are still moments of real magic. How easy or difficult does he find the song-writing process? ‘’I’ve had periods where I’ve struggled, for various reasons’’ he says, as he gets up to put on the kettle again. ‘’You get blocks – they’re always a mental block. It’s something that you have set up yourself. You’re thinking: I’ve done that…I can’t repeat that…you can kind of think yourself into a corner with songwriting and end up creating music that you don’t like. And I’ve done it; I’ve done it in the past. You try to make music to please the record company as you think there is a fan base there that might enjoy this and, to be honest, anything that’s done like that will never work. It’s taken me a while to realise that.’’
Around the time Power Of Dreams appeared on the scene in 1990, U2 were going through a transitional phase from the American bombast of Rattle and Hum to that new irony set in the heart of Europe that was ‘Achtung, Baby’. Walker talks of his fascination with English music so did U2 hold any sway with him? ‘’Up until ‘Rattle and Hum’ I totally admired them. Growing up in Dublin, I looked at them and thought: if those four blokes from Dublin can do it and get themselves up to that position, well…it was just really inspiring. They were a big inspiration in that sense. It was possible to be from this little island and end up on fucking Red Rocks. It was like ‘Wow, that’s one of ours doing that’. That was the spur. It was like: if they can do it, fuck it – we can do it too! They were definitely an influence – especially ‘The Unforgettable Fire’, that was a real magical album’’ And who were the other bands, the other albums that informed his taste in music and shaped the sound of Power Of Dreams? ‘’I was a massive Smiths fan – the biggest Smiths fan you could possibly be. Bought all the records before they came out. I would come into town on a Monday to go into HMV on Grafton Street to buy the twelve-inches on the day they were released, rush home and listen to these amazing songs and the B-sides and everything. The best lyricist I have ever heard – I don’t think there is anyone that comes close for me to Morrissey. My brother was a total music fanatic which was great for me. He was five years older and that’s where I did all my learning – through his record collection!’’ he laughs ‘ABC, Heaven 17, Human League, New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen – loved ‘Ocean Rain’, which is one my favourite albums of all time. I discovered The Smiths through him, The Jam through him. The Jam were another amazing band for me – particularly the singles. The first album I ever paid cash for was ‘Sound Affects’ (The Jam’s fifth album) – just great songs, great lyrics. We signed to Polydor because that was The Jam’s label, all those seven inches. And The Who were on it as well. I think England always throws up good music but I don’t hear it now. It seems a little bit dull at the moment’’
After the success of the debut album, the band toured the world before releasing an assured follow-up album called ‘2 Hell With Common Sense’. It’s the sound of a band who had tasted success and seen the world. It was a denser, darker collection of songs but the soaring melodies were still there. ‘It was heavily influenced by My Bloody Valentine’’ says Craig ‘’I was taking loads of ecstasy at that point and listening to ‘Loveless’. I discovered drugs when I discovered ‘Loveless’ really. Ecstasy and My Bloody Valentine are actually a great combination!’’ he laughs ‘’My taste in music was changing at that time, through Kevin Shields in a way. Like a melody doesn’t have to come with an acoustic guitar, it didn’t have to be The Smiths, melody could be part of a real intensity. We spent a lot of time on it, about six months but I don’t think it’s as good as the first album. I would probably have to go back and listen to it again with fresh ears. I was really pleased with it but the thing is it was tainted because we knew the record company were just not into it. And that was devastating to us because it were worked on it for six months.’
It’s at this point that things started to go awry for the band. The record company, sensing the critical plaudits the band were receiving were still not resulting in them become the next U2, eventually lost interest and decided not to push or promote the album ‘One day a guy from Polydor came down to see us. He sat us down and said: ‘I’ve got some really bad news – the single has only charted at 46’ but we thought that was something to celebrate! But yes, I was still only 19 and it was big knock to the confidence. Really, really was. It felt like our backs were against the wall and we were in trouble.’’ They soldiered on but Craig knew that this was the beginning of the end for the band. ‘We did two albums on indies after that (Positivity and Become Yourself) which are okay in parts. I sound depressed on them – I sound like how I felt at that time. It felt like career over at 21. It felt like we were being written off and it took me a while for me to get over that. After Power Of Dreams it was extremely difficult to get back in the saddle’ he admits ‘I was so sick of the industry – this business is so fucking ruthless. People who you’ve worked with for two or three years, or whatever, overnight will suddenly stop taking your calls. It was a harsh reality to have to face up to but I kept going’
The band went their separate ways in 1995 but Walker remained in London, to explore new avenues ‘’I stayed on in London and then eventually I got a band called Pharmacy with Ian Olney from Power Of Dreams together but we spent a year rehearsing an album that was never recorded (The record company they signed to went bust). Then I started with (British trip-hop outfit) Archive. It was different but I was really in to it at that point. Did three or four albums with them, a lot of touring, spent a lot of time in the studio. The first single I did with them is sixteen-minutes long! It was a total new adventure for me wth Archive as their way of working was the polar opposite to how an indie band would work or how I would have started out. We would spend six days a week, six months a year in the studio working on songs’’
While he enjoyed working with Archive initially and was happy to be be part of a band again, he soon tired of their working methods and the inevitable compromises involved when collaborating on music ‘’It was interesting but I wouldn’t want to do it again. I wouldn’t want to spend that much time in the studio again. There were three people creating which is always the wrong number as somebody is always going to feel left out. I had loads of ideas I wanted to get out but there but there wasn’t an avenue for them as the writing had to be shared out. I had been in bands for so long that point that I thought I have to in charge of my own destiny again or settle down and be in this band and be a part of it’’ Eventually he quit the band to concentrate on being a solo-artist. ‘It was a tough descision but I’m glad I did it. I can now work with who I like and whan I like and I have no one telling me if I can’t do it or if it would piss off the band. Our tastes were different, the direction of the band was going where I didn’t want it to head. It was heading more of a ‘Wall’ phase which was my least favourite phase of Pink Floyd. Roger Waters orbiting his own ego! But I was very proud of the music’’
After he left Archive, there was no new music from Walker until the relesase of his debut solo album ‘Siamese’ last year. It’s an album that shows that Craig’s gift for songwriting is very much intact. It is more low-key than the raucous teenage rock of his old band but Walker is now older, wiser and enjoying creating music again, quietly and on his own terms. ‘’The three key albums for me, if I had to pick three, are ‘Immigrants…’, ‘Noise’ with Archive and this one ‘Siamese’. We took our time on it, it became like a labour of love. I have never spent so long working on an album as in having time to sit back and listen to it. I would have a six-month period to work on just two songs – I wish I could that with all albums! You get to really figure out what you need to do and to see what the next part of the album should be. I’m really proud of it’’
To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their debut album, the band are reforming for some eagerly-awaited dates in Ireland and the UK. A 2 CD limited – edition of the album, containing all 14 original tracks plus the “A Little Piece of God” EP and various b-sides was released earlier this year. Listening to it again, with fresh ears, reiterates what a truly great album it is. The band will play it in its entirety at the gigs. Craig is happy to be back on stage with his brother and friends once again. What have the other members been doing in the intervening years? ‘’Everyone has continued to play music apart from Mick (Lennox) . He’s a promoter and I think he manages bands here in Dublin. He’s still involved in music but on the business side. Ian joined the Sultans and he’s in band called Red Atlas. He still gigs and is a really solid musician. Keith’s in America and is in a band called The Bollox!’ he says, laughing ‘He’s a great drummer, phenomenal drummer for his age back then – really solid and fast and I hope he’s still like that!’
For Craig, after the success they enjoyed as teenagers, the touring, the parties, living it up in London and Japan and all points between, he felt the band went out with a whimper rather than a bang. Which means the possibility of a brand new album and maybe a more-term reunion? ‘‘We’ll see how it goes. I’ve got a load of songs that I haven’t used over the years that would sit perfectly on an album. If we get on, it’s a definite possibility – I don’t see why not. I think the first two albums are great but the second two are not so great so I would like the fifth one to be a really good Power Of Dreams album. I don’t like the fact that ‘Become Yourself’ could be seen as the last album as it was not the best album we ever did. If we don’t kill each other we might do it! For the gigs we are going to the whole of ‘Immigrants…’ and we’ll see what else we will throw in. I think it’s important we play the album in full – we get the sweetest emails from people who either fell in love to it or met each other at a Power of Dreams concert’’
This writer was too young to see the band live first time around. I can’t deny there won’t a few hairs rising on the back of my neck when I hear the opening strum of the album’s first track ‘The Joke’s On Me’ live down in Whelans. It’s good to be able to talk about Power Of Dreams in the present tense again. Their story may not be over yet.
Power Of Dreams play Whelans this Friday, 12th of March which is sold out. A second show for the 14th at the same venue has also been added. They also play Cork’s Pavilion on the 13th and the Spirit Store in Dundalk on the 11th. Craig Walker’s solo album ‘Siamese’ is out now.