Band To Watch: Sprints

Niamh Barry

Band To Watch: Sprints

Niamh Barry

“Shadow Of A Doubt,” the new song by Sprints out today, was a bold choice for a single: the rawest, most desperate track on the Dublin post-punk band’s debut album Letter To Self. A song about begging for reprieve from all-encompassing mental anguish, it builds slowly from a guitar-picked intro to the powerful end, by which point vocalist Karla Chubb lets out an agonized howl. “We recorded the vocal in like, three takes only. You can hear me hyperventilating and catching my breath in between crying, which we decided to leave in,” Chubb says, on a call alongside bassist Sam McCann and drummer Jack Callan (guitarist Colm O’Reilly couldn’t make it). “That’s gonna be a scary one to release.”

This is the third single from Letter To Self, and while it definitely throws you in at the deep end, most of this record is operating at the deep end. Chubb says her intention with the album was to exorcise all of the shame, pain, and guilt that she had spent a lifetime accumulating — a lofty goal, but it makes the entire album explosive. The influences were early PJ Harvey, Pixies, and Fugazi, and it was produced by Gilla Band bassist Daniel Fox, who excels at making dark, uncomfortable noise. Once or twice, the band says, the performances in the studio got so emotionally intense that they made Fox cry.

While “post-punk” and “Dublin” are synonymous with each other right now, Sprints are interesting in their own right; they’re not as concerned with the “post” part of the genre tag as the other big bands from the city are, more immediate and searing than the likes of Fontaines DC or Gilla Band. Chubb’s lyrics don’t get into Irish politics, but the bleakness that these bands do all share is an extension of the prevailing mood in the city right now.

“That rise of punk and post-punk in Dublin is very much inspired by how angry people are and how shit it’s getting,” Chubb says. “Every time it gets bad you’re like, ‘It couldn’t possibly get worse,’ and it still does. People are really fed up with the housing crisis, the homelessness crisis, students being squeezed out. There’s a lack of support for the arts. But then on the flip side, Dublin is this amazing city full of love and life and culture and the arts. That juxtaposition is a very real thing to deal with.”

Of the booming scene, Chubb says, “I think we’re all inspired by it, and there’s a real nice unspoken camaraderie.” McCann adds, “Even being at festivals in, like, Texas, and then there’s a bunch of other Irish bands there — it’s like, ‘Okay, great, there’s Irish people here!'”

Chubb was born in Dublin; as a baby, her family moved to Dusseldorf in Germany, where she lived until she was six, before returning to Dublin’s Southside. The experience was a little “confusing,” she says. “I think a little bit of self-consciousness about my lack of Irish identity always made me [interested in] identity and culture and social issues.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, childhood friends Callan and O’Reilly started jamming together in Callan’s “falling-apart” backyard shed age 11, while their schoolmate McCann played in a rival band. “I don’t know if you can really call it music that we played, but we used to just spend hours out here,” says Callan, who’s sitting in the same shed for the video call.

Chubb got to know her future bandmates in her early 20s when she was dating a friend of theirs (“I kept the band in the divorce,” she jokes). She’d been playing guitar on her own since she was a teenager, but there were no musical programs at her school and she had been too shy to ask anyone to play with her. Eventually, she sent a Facebook message to Callan; “I remember you being so nervous,” Callan laughs.

Chubb, Callan and O’Reilly started out playing folky indie together. Their intention to do something a little more incendiary came partly from the addition of McCann, whose complex basslines gave their songwriting a new depth — “Sam plays the bass like a guitar and I play the guitar like a bass,” Chubb says — and partly from a Savages set that Chubb and Callan saw together. “We both came away from it just being like, ‘That was fucking unbelievable, and that’s the kinda stuff we wanna do,'” Callan recounts.

They were spurred on, too, by the work of their future producer in Gilla Band. “We shied away from saying it in interviews ’cause we ended up working so closely with Daniel Fox, but it’s impossible to ignore the Gilla Band influence,” Chubb says. “They were one of the first bands [in Ireland] to make alternative kinda noise-inspired music [that] seemed to be working and successful for them. You’re kinda like, ‘Fuck it, I can do that then. I can write super honestly and weirdly about these bizarre topics.’ I think culturally that had a big impact on a lot of artists in Ireland.” “[Even] just seeing an Irish band go to Pitchfork [Fest] Chicago was like, ‘Oh, okay, it’s possible,'” McCann adds.

They enlisted Fox to produce their debut EP, 2021’s Manifesto, and its follow-up, 2022’s A Modern Job. “A lot of our development was [in] working with Dan Fox. I think every time we worked with him we saw ourselves getting better,” Chubb says. The band started writing Letter To Self over the pandemic, accumulating enough songs to fill “two or three albums.” In 2022, they headed to a residential studio on a converted farm in the French Loire Valley. They were there for 12 days; there were dogs running around, plenty of wine flowing, and a hotly contested FIFA tournament.

Fox’s production input was essential. One of the first choices they made together was to track live without a click. “Dan always said songs have a natural push and pull when you see them live, so it feels like there’s a little bit more life in the song, and you can feel that movement in [the album],” Chubb says. “It’s like, the emotion is better than the perfection of it.” The intention for the album’s sonics was, firstly, to make something more “aggressive and intense” than anything they’d done previously; and secondly, to create a constant sense of anxiety and doom. One of the biggest references for the sound was the horror movie Hereditary.

“There’s only so much you can do with vocals. [But] when we put the hi-hat on the snare, or Sam puts his bass through like four terrifying pedals and you get that literal screech in your ear that you couldn’t replicate with anything else, not even a synth — I think it’s those elements that actually make the music anxious,” Chubb says. “For one tiny guitar lick, we used four different Vox amps at the same time running through like five different distortion pedals. So there was that level of granularity in it.”

This suffocating sound was the band’s attempt at matching the purgative songs Chubb was bringing to them. Her lyrics came from a time in her life where self-destructive habits were coming to a head. “I realized I saw patterns in my behavior; I would get angry at friends or have relationships break down because I was so angry in myself. I was like, ‘I need to process whatever is inside of me and get it out,’ because it almost felt like there was a poison in [me] and [I] couldn’t breathe until it was all released,” Chubb says.

The album’s opening track, “Ticking”, is supposed to be a representation of pure anxiety and panic, both lyrically and musically — from the heartbeat-esque kick drum intro to Chubb’s scattered lyrics to the simultaneous descending and ascending riffs in the outro part. It takes the majority of the song’s runtime to kick into the album’s first big rock-out moment; this slow-bubbling dynamic is the most essential part of Sprints’ toolbox. “It’s almost like, again, horror movie-esque, where there’s quiet parts where you wanna lean closer and then it punches you in the face because of that jump in volume,” says Chubb. Elsewhere on the album, Chubb’s dry, seething voice grapples with the music industry’s fickle sexism on “Adore Adore Adore” and “Up & Comer,” the enduring echoes of trauma on “Can’t Get Enough Of It” and finding the will to resist oppressive societal pressures on the title track “Letter To Self.”

Before she used the catharsis of songwriting to expel those feelings, it often came out in more destructive ways, says Chubb. “Definitely substance abuse. I think it’s very Irish to turn to alcohol to solve our problems. I became so good at masking, I often still don’t know when I’m doing it myself. And I think that led to an incredible amount of self-consciousness, self-hate and also internalised homophobia. I think I really started to just believe I wasn’t worth being happy, like I didn’t deserve it. It’s through building really solid relationships with the guys in the band and having music and exploring those things really honestly that I’ve started to come out of the other side of that.

“In songwriting, I’ve always felt like those little stories or songs are like weights on my back, and with each one that I write the weight is lifted off, and I can move on from it. And I think Letter To Self felt like a really important first chapter that I needed to close the page on.”

Now that that’s done, it feels like there’s an exciting next chapter opening up for Sprints. Creatively, they could go anywhere from here. “I think now that some of the really dark subject matter is done, there’s room to inject some of our other influences, and maybe more of the playful side will start to come through — because we all originally bonded over bands like Talking Heads and LCD Soundsystem,” Chubb says. Meanwhile, Chubb and McCann have quit their day jobs in content strategy and advertising respectively, and Callan has suspended his PhD studies on geographies of abortion access in Ireland. They’ve got extensive Euro and UK tours running through the spring, plus their first full tour of the US in March (“They love the Irish over there, so hopefully there’ll be lots of free shots in it for us,” says Chubb).

There’s a sense of anticipation in the air within the band — but it’s a modest one. “Now when people ask me in a bar, ‘What do you do?’ I can go, ‘I’m a musician’,” Chubb grins. “They’ll go, ‘Have I heard of you?’ and I’ll go, ‘Probably not.'”

Letter To Self is out 1/5 via City Slang.

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