On the coast of the Firth of Clyde sits the Ayrshire town of Irvine. A New Town with a long history, Robert Burns lived there for a time, it’s the largest settlement in North Ayrshire and the birthplace of Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Simon Neil, a man who has taken over the world one stage at a time with Kilmarnock brothers James and Ben Johnston as Biffy Clyro. Watching and learning from this impressive rise to fame were another set of Ayrshire brothers and sons of Irvine, PJ and Sean Kelly and their band Culann.
Taking their name from Cú Chulainn, a hero in Irish Mythology who earns the name Culann’s Hound after volunteering to take the place of a blacksmith’s watchdog having killed it in self-defence, the band have undergone various line-up changes before settling on the current incarnation of PJ on vocals and Sean on drums alongside guitarist Greg Irish, bassist Calum Davis and Ross McCluskie on keys. After two singles; ‘Bogus Conclusions’ (2009) and ‘Sweet Release’ (2010), they released their self-titled debut album in December last year after a focused period of writing and recording.
Musically Culann are as strong as their namesake. Their sound is a distinctive blend of rock, folk and progressive. Huge riffs tower above delicate organ motifs, intricate melodies twist and turn on time signatures that change without warning and vocals are delivered with an impressive passion and intensity. Over its ten songs, the album is thematically consistent; concerned with the value of home, family and hard graft. This, while welcome, wasn’t intentional given “there were three people contributing lyrically” says Sean. “I don’t believe there was a conscious decision to go in one particular direction but in the end it seemed we all spoke in the same voice.” This voice is particularly strong on ‘Boomerang’, a song about being true to where you come from despite the pull of ‘the bright lights / And the glow’. Asked how autobiographical the songs are and how they reflect the bands feelings towards their hometown, PJ explains, “We are all from Irvine and are proud to be from here. This has had an effect on certain themes in the album”. He continues, “It’s a proud town with a lot of tradition and history. We feel that sometimes it doesn’t get the best of reputations so some of the lyrics draw attention to that and almost defend it in a way. We all live in Irvine, the songs were all written and rehearsed in the town and it’s where the album was mixed. It feels like we owe a lot to this place and the friends and family we all have here. The support has been invaluable.
‘Culann’ the album was launched at Glasgow’s King Tuts. It was the tenth time they have played the iconic venue, a testament in itself of the work ethic at the heart of the band. “It’s hard to believe we’ve played King Tuts so many times” says PJ, “We have always been proud of the music we have produced and luckily for us we have had great support from the people at DF, who have rewarded us with some great support slots and of course our album launch last December. We are quite focused on what we intend to do with the band, we set targets and make sure they are achieved.” This structure and the delegation of tasks within the band is, they believe, the secret to their success. Following the release of their debut, the band were nominated for, then won the Scottish Alternative Music Award for ‘Best Rock Act’. This win came as a shock but helped increase their exposure and, according to PJ, made them “more determined than ever before” as they wanted to “live up to the accolade and show people we were worthy of it.” With the award being decided through a public vote, the band were able to call upon their followers on various social media accounts, an important asset to any up and coming band though one to be utilised wisely as Sean puts it, social media “makes it easy to portray yourself as something you’re not and unfortunately the internet is littered with bands doing this. However, the advantages certainly outweigh the bad. It’s incredibly easy to interact directly with your fans and get your music to them as well as gaining insight into various happenings in the music scene.”
This honesty and the reluctance to portray themselves as something they are not marks Culann out from many of their peers, especially those looking for the quick road to fame and fortune. Their sound is born of an eclectic range of influences; alongside Biffy Clyro they cite Bob Dylan, Mastadon, Queen and Radiohead as major influences with The Cardiacs, Kerbenok, Miasma, Steven Wilson and Yes their current listening choices. They are not interested in conforming to the expectations of a specific scene. As Ross explains, they look instead to write “without limitations” creating something “that sounds good to us”. Asked if they were ever worried about how the progressive elements of their songs might be received given how the genre has been maligned over the years he responds “the 3.05 song length might be king on Radio 1, but there is and always has been a huge audience out there for people who want something different. It’s natural to wonder about how people might react to your music but we’ve never been worried about the progressive elements.” This sentiment appears to be shared by their fans who Greg credits as seeming “as open-mined as us”.
Looking to create something different led them to one of the defining moments of their album campaign so far, the video to ‘Jerusalem’, the epic album opener set in the Highland Clearances. Directed and filmed by Stuart Breadner who had impressed the band with his work for fellow Aryshire rockers Sucioperro and starring Irvine native Rab Affleck (Dr Who, Gangs of New York, Layer Cake), the short followed the songs theme of pursuit with a striking, franticly paced treatment that concludes in a suitably cinematicmanner. Asked about the importance of investing in the visual side of the band Greg answers that “the video for Jerusalem has had an excellent reception and it’s something we’re all very proud of. It’s a wise investment for any band to a have a captivating music video. For example, an individual browsing Facebook is more likely to watch a video than stream an audio track. It definitely makes the experience more memorable and gives fans something extra to talk about.” He goes on to add that “the content of the video is crucial. I see so many videos of bands performing in the same boring setting for 4 minutes. Ideally you want something unique and original with narrative that will sustain the viewer’s attention. I feel we achieved that with Jerusalem.”
While the importance of having good quality recordings and videos to accompany them cannot be underestimated, playing live is where most bands look to excel and Culann are no exception. According to PJ they started the year with “the intention of playing as many shows as possible” in order to “take our music to places we have never been before.” This summer they closed a stage at the Tiree Music Festival and headlined a sold out Broadcast in Glasgow, all grist to the mill of their growing and enviable live reputation. “We put everything we have into our music,” Ross explains ahead of their six date Scottish tour in September. “We have worked hard to get to where we are now and there is no stopping us in terms of what we want to achieve. We play with a lot of passion and are proud of our live show.” PJ agrees adding, “To play live is what it’s all about. Bands can record, re -record and plaster over as many mistakes as they want (in the studio) but when you play live there is no second take. It’s the purest art form for anyone like us.”
In addition to the September shows, the band has just announced they’ll be rounding off the year playing Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom and another headlining show at King Tuts before sitting down to write their second album. With such a fierce work ethic and the strength of character to follow their convictions, it’s certain that Culann will be around for some time to come. When asked about any tough times experienced in pursuing their art, Sean replies, “Real life is far tougher. We’ve played some shite gigs down the years but at the end of the day you’re playing music you’ve created with good pals.” As the song ‘Friendship and Honour’ concludes: “Friends forever / Close as brothers / Follow the river / Part at the sea”.
Tickets to Culann’s September tour are available at: http://culann.bigcartel.com
Culann’s debut album can be downloaded from: http://culann.bandcamp.com
Written by David P Scott (www.davidpscott.co.uk)