Not many bands have the privilege of showcasing in front of record company executives while in the comfort of their own living room. But then most bands aren’t HAL. With an incomplete line-up and only having sent out a few demos, it seemed those in the industry were curious enough to visit the boys at their hometown in Dublin - even though this meant travelling by train to their house on the beach in torrential rain to see if their talent was for real. “The whole experience was strange,” recounts Dave Allen (lead singer/ guitarist) seated sipping a coke in a noisy pub in Camden. “We didn’t really have a full band to be honest so we couldn’t play in a venue. But the record company who heard our demos didn’t really care about that, they just wanted to hear us play our songs. The most practical thing was to do it at my Dad’s house because he was at work during the day. Steph bunked off college, Paul took a sick day off work and I was in a transient period in my life so I didn’t have to dodge any job.”
Sopping wet and leaving their coats to dry on the radiators, the A & R men made themselves comfortable on Dave’s couch, warming themselves up with tea and biscuits while him and his brother Paul (bass), as well as other band mate Stephen O’Brien (keyboards) bashed out a couple of acoustic numbers. Without the frills of a microphone or a stage, the whole event was a cosy informal affair. “It was great, I don’t think they had experienced anything in like that in their lives either. We just talked about music to them all day and then they took us to our local and got us pissed. It was all quite charming really, ”says Dave.
But it took a bit more than a couple of pints and a bag of peanuts before they knew who they were going to sign to. After doing some more showcase gigs, they eventually decided to go with Rough Trade and later enlisted drummer Steve Hogarth to complete their line- up. “Rough Trade just seemed to really understand what kind of record we wanted to make and how much say the band wanted,” explains Dave. “They saw the integrity and passion in what we do. We could have signed to a major label and left it at that, but now we have the opportunity to experiment with future records if we want. They’re great and they’ve been very patient with our perfectionism.”
Dressed casually in a double-breasted blazer, with a white roll neck jumper and revealing a smile as alluring as his Irish blue eyes, Dave hardly seems the type to be pedantic. But he coyly admits he was ruthless when it came to getting it right with their debut self- titled album due for release in April. “I get really upset if it’s not working the way I want it to in the studio. When we first started out, it would be a case of going back and repeatedly re-recording our songs if I thought they weren’t good enough. Especially since it was our first album because you want to make it as honest as possible and try to get that across to the people who are buying it. We spent a lot of late nights getting it right and I hardly saw my friends for months. I just didn’t want to churn anything out. A lot hard work went into it - heart and soul more than anything else.”
So what can we expect? Well the songs, which were written between Dave and Stephen, lean on the growing pains and tales of past relationships. They pay homage to musical greats like Brian Wilson, The Beatles, The Byrds and Phil Spector, through well- crafted pop melodies.
“I always had a dream that if I had been around in the 60’s, I would have loved to worked in the Brill building - where you’d go there in the morning, your desk would be a piano and you’d just write songs,” says Dave. “The album itself centres around life experiences and those harrowing nights you lie awake thinking what’s going to happen you this time next year when you’re in your early twenties. But there is an optimism to our songs.”
Coming from parents who were in a folk band when they were the same age as him, Dave is proud to admit he thrived on what they listened to while growing up. This heritage of natural musical talent in the family also strongly manifests itself in the fact that younger brother Paul was able to master the bass without having ever played an instrument before HAL. “My Dad used to accompany my Mum who was a singer on the guitar and travel around the country on a little moped playing clubs and bars. And he’s been really supportive towards us, even though we are annoying when we’re in the other room writing songs and he’s trying to watch TV. He keeps coming in and suggesting chord changes as well as offering more lead guitar to our songs.”
Naturally, there will be those who will be quick to size them up to The Thrills, but Dave isn’t having any of it. “Obviously it would be great to reach their level of success but I think the only comparison is where we come from and the music we love. I think they take their song writing and performances in one direction and we are far removed from them musically. Once people listen to our record, they’ll see how totally different we are to The Thrills and may be apologetic about the comparisons.”
At this point we interrupt the interview so Dave can go and join the rest of the gang for a sound check at the Barfly. It seems odd to watch a band hours before a gig in an empty venue, but HAL just have that instant likeable appeal as soon as they hit those notes live. They share smirks with each other hinting at secret jokes and iron out any possible glitches, but these are minor distractions to Dave’s compelling heartfelt voice.
Pleased with their warm up session, Dave rejoins me to continue where we left off. We cram ourselves on to a bench in a side room off stage, surrounded by graffiti and memories left by others who have played at the venue. The conversation finishes on his greatest fear. “My worst nightmare is to die in a plane crash like Buddy Holly. I was afraid of flying for a year and had to resign myself to the fact that I am going to be flying all over the place,” he says. “When we were on tour with the Delays, Steph had forgotten his passport and we had to fly to East Midlands airport. But they wouldn’t let us on the plane. Since we were all hung over and feeling fragile, I started to think this was a sign that we weren’t supposed to get on the plane that day. But the lads assured me I was being silly. I spent the whole journey thinking “Oh my God, we’re gonna die!”. My ultimate fear would be reaching number one in the charts after being in a plane crash.”
When it comes to HAL, Dave’s fear of flying is a minor technicality, in comparison to the great aspirations he has for the band. And it’s quite clear that he remains fearless when it comes to facing the future.”
“ I have a great passion for life and would love to do as much as I can. This includes educating myself about many things and making HAL as successful as possible.”