Band To Watch: Silverbacks

Phil Smithies

Band To Watch: Silverbacks

Phil Smithies

If you sat down with any Dublin rock musician in the last year, it wouldn’t take long to pull some thoughts out of them about how their city’s music scene had suddenly become a point of fascination for the international press. There’s been a burgeoning moment, interesting young guitar bands coming out of the UK and, increasingly, Ireland. But once Fontaines D.C. underwent a somewhat meteoric rise in 2019, there was a bit of a magnifying lens put over Dublin — and, attendantly, an effort to define a scene, most often arriving at some notion of “scrappy new Irish post-punk bands.” Most acts in town have something to say about that, and it’s usually skeptical.

While this isn’t exactly the first thing that comes up when I meet up with a few members of Silverbacks at a pub in Dublin’s Portobello neighborhood, it’s hard to avoid. As you might expect from the band that named its forthcoming debut album Fad, there’s a bit of bemusement at the attention newly placed upon the Irish scene, and the reductions made about it. (I’m not excluding myself here; I’ve certainly been guilty of those reductions, too.)

But really, it doesn’t seem to make a difference for Silverbacks — they are the kind of malleable guitar-driven band that could’ve found fans in a multitude of scenes, in an array of eras. On this night, long before the pandemic made such a meeting impossible, the vocalist/guitarist duo of brothers Daniel and Kilian O’Kelly and drummer Gary Wickham have gathered — a couple pints of Guinness and bacon-flavored chips scattered across the table between them — to talk about the winding road that brought Silverbacks to fruition, the years spent searching around amongst an always-active scene, and then the band coming into its own when, as it happens, people around the world are thinking more about Irish rock music than they have in quite some time.

Silverbacks have, in some form or another, been a band for a while already. In some ways the project goes back almost two decades, to when Kilian and Daniel wrote songs together as kids. Though born to Irish parents, the brothers partially grew up in Brussels, attempting to write music that sounded like the Strokes. In college, the O’Kelly brothers met future members Emma Hanlon (bass/vocals) and Peadar Kearney (guitar), who would eventually lead them to Wickham. It wasn’t until that lineup was solidified that Silverbacks became more of a serious endeavor for all involved.

But first there were years where the project still mostly revolved around whatever the O’Kellys wrote together, and there were even some tentative live performances back in the first half of the ’10s, when they’d first moved to Dublin. Along the way, they got a bit of early blog and label attention, but they didn’t have any more material to share, nor were they so much of a functional live band. “We missed the first screening process,” Daniel quips drily. But it turns out things were still gestating — you can find some of their old recordings online, and it does sound like the work of a completely different band.

In the last two years, Silverbacks were more or less born in earnest, becoming what they are today — a band with late ’70s art-rock and punk and ’90s indie in its DNA, all of it tangled and then burst back open by their three-guitar arrangements. They began releasing new singles: “Just For A Better View,” “Dunkirk,” “Just In The Band.” Arriving across 2017 and 2018, each was infectious and sardonic and vivid in its own way — particularly “Dunkirk,” which took its name from the simple fact that Daniel had just gotten home from seeing the movie when Kilian played him the demo. The title subsequently inspired an imagined scene of a man in the near future having a midlife crisis in a beach resort built on a former warzone.

Along the way they linked up with Daniel Fox, bassist for fellow Dubliners Girl Band, who began producing their work. (Daniel cited Fox’s work with Autre Monde, a synth-indie project helmed by Dublin songwriter Paddy Hanna, as one impetus to reach out. Daniel felt that Fox got their reference points, that late ’70s New York sound, in particular Television’s guitar layers.) It was with Fox that they recorded their debut album, the just-announced Fad, which will arrive in July.

“Part of people calling us post-punk is our fault,” Daniel explains, recalling how they jokingly tried to coin a new genre catchphrase with each new single: slacker-pop, art-punk, stuff like that. The thing is, none of that is honestly that far off from the sound Silverbacks eventually adopted for Fad; art-punk might be a punchline, but like most jokes there’s some truth in it.

There’s a rawness and occasional ferocity throughout Fad, balanced with talk-sing observations and then deeply catchy choruses. Kilian, who was recently studying for a PhD in music composition, colors at the edges of the songs, guitar lines like liquid metal swirling around either the rough-hewn distortion or pop-minded songwriting. And it’s hard to think of many current guitar bands who make such vital use of three guitars. Everything in Silverbacks is economical — their guitar arrangements are far from proggy but are still carefully interlaced, all those notes firing off each other just adding a new texture of melodic information to each track.

As for the name, Fad seems fitting if you’re looking at Silverbacks through the lens of ’90s slacker-rock. So much of the album feels like detritus, lines Daniel thinks up and sometime later forms a song around. It results in a whole lot of memorable lyrics paired perfectly with the moments when they arrive: “That wasn’t Jesus/ That was just some fucker in a dressing gown!” climactically shouted in album standout “Drink It Down”; the aforementioned “Dunkirk” breakdown unfolding over a strategically coiling-then-unraveling rhythm; “There’s only one thing that’ll patch me up/ But the DJ won’t play ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’/ I swung my fists and the system came crashing down,” before Daniel closes the album proclaiming, “Last orders at the bar!”

“I like Fad because it’s quite fitting for this scene that’s happening in Dublin,” Wickham says, not entirely seriously but also certainly not entirely in jest. Having grown up in Kildare, he remembers coming to Dublin to see bands, and the cycles, the other times some new Irish scene was meant to be the next great hope. And not to play into broad-stroke stereotypes of the Irish character, but there is, overall, an air of wry self-deprecation throughout our discussion. Yet in the case of Silverbacks, that’s not just about the moment in Irish music, but how long it took them to join in, and as a result their ability to stand back outside of it all.

The long on-off genesis of Silverbacks means they’re all, by some counts, a bit older than usual to be releasing a debut album — or, at least, a debut album that sounds like this and theoretically emerges from such a moment in Irish music. At 27, Kilian is one of the younger members; Wickham is in his early 30s, and hadn’t been particularly interested in joining a band until Silverbacks persuaded him a couple years ago. Most of them have day jobs at insurance or IT companies. “Everything works around the band,” Wickham explains. “We’re flying out to do gigs in London and flying back at seven in the morning to get back to work so we don’t waste any money and we still have enough time to go on tour.”

They all had other lives that could’ve easily unfolded, in academia or steady white-collar careers. Yet while a bit of age and nascent wisdom seems to contribute to Silverbacks’ sly, occasionally world-weary tone, there’s no clear story on why now, after all this time. “I think the best way to sum it up… we wanted to do it, but for whatever reason we never got around to it or committed to it,” Kilian offers. The best explanation: It took this assortment of people coming together to make the songs lift off the way they do on Fad.

Maybe they’re making up for lost time now. A good chunk of our conversation revolves around everything else Silverbacks are working on at the moment. Kilian estimates they have enough material for two more albums in addition to Fad, with hopes that their second would swiftly follow it. “Muted Gold” — the last addition to the album, and the new single Silverbacks released today — is indicative of sonic changes they want to explore. The O’Kellys want to open the songwriting process up more; Daniel wants Hanlon to sing more songs. (She already takes lead on two Fad tracks.) They’re all interested in complicating their established template — more dissonance, more percussion, indulging their “Talking Heads side.”

There was never a master plan to Silverbacks before now, just a slow process of life falling into the right pattern. But now, maybe, that’s changing. “I don’t think of Silverbacks as, we have one album and you get this idea of us as a band,” Kilian says, before laying out his vision for the coming years. “I think we aspire the kinds of bands where they have some albums and you can see a clear journey. Not to drop some heavy-hitters, but Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo, for me. I think that will be more established. I think with album two, three, four, we’ll start building up more of a palette.”

“Fuck, Kilian,” Daniel says. “We should all be running on two pints.” They all laugh, but it isn’t hard to hear the near future Kilian imagined. Fad as a hooky and angular blueprint, but only a starting point. After all the years building up to it, Silverbacks are kicking down the door with a debut full of direct, immediate songs that refuse to be forgotten. And from there, from all those tightly arranged songs, you can already hear how much room they have to spread out — from old sounds, from Dublin and genre signifiers, just unspooling out into a strain of art-punk-glam-slacker-pop that only belongs to Silverbacks.

Fad is out 7/17 via Central Tones. Pre-order it here.

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