For two years they were a secret waiting to be told. Now The Flaws have unleashed a debut album that promises to raise the eyebrows of all those who think the Louth/Monaghan region’s greatest export is mushrooms. Lead singer Paul Finn tells Tony Clayton-Lea about the journey from covers band to contenders
SITTING at a table in a German hotel, Paul Finn, lead singer with The Flaws, cuts a remarkably calm and affable figure. The previous day at the Melt! Festival, located at some God-forsaken mid-point between Berlin and Leipzig, the Irish band played yet another cracking set and made friends with some very influential people.
Today, Finn is sitting in a hotel that is situated in Germany’s version of Leitrim. He is cool and relaxed, resting between cigarettes and awaiting the tour bus to take him and the band to the second day of Melt! The end of the day will see The Flaws (not willingly or deliberately, and only temporarily) lose their drummer. Inevitably, alcohol will be involved.
The Flaws (who also include Dane McMahon, Shane Malone, Colin Berrill) are over at Melt! due to their involvement in CocaCola’s Band Exchange programme and an associated Coke/iTunes project. The programme encourages the movement of bands between participating countries. Bands can test their material in new markets, connect with new audiences, make friends with people such as promoters, radio pluggers and other industry figures who can assist them in their plans for world domination, and drink as much free beer as possible. Bands also receive a professionally-recorded video from the event which they can use for promotional purposes.
The gig itself is a slow burner. They start hesitantly, quickly get into the zone and then come over all Gladiator- like by unleashing equal amounts of heaven and hell via pop/punk songs as gloriously catchy as 1981, No Room, Lost in a Scene, Slow Dance, You and I and Windmill Talent.
Considering the strength of the material, it’s a wonder more people aren’t aware of The Flaws. Truth is, for the past two years they’ve been a secret waiting to be told. Achieving Vagueness, their just-released debut album, seems effortlessly pitched between pop nous and rock enigma, channelling the ghost of Scott Walker (when he could sing along with a melody line), the spirit of Interpol and the mindset of an astute radio music programmer.
Collectively, The Flaws buck the trend of city-based acts making all the right moves just because they’re in the right place at the right time. Consciously or not, the band – all of whom are from the Louth/Monaghan region – have rejected city boltholes in favour of provincial retreats.
Their strength is that they know the nuances of familiar terrain, the nod of the head from the parish priest as they walk down the street, and the fact that whenever they return from a music industry soiree they might just head to the local GAA grounds to catch the match.
“At the start we were doing what most if not all bands do: covers,” says Finn (as he is known to all and sundry; only his family and people who don’t know him call him Paul). “There were no real gigs for about two years, so we’d play anything we liked – The Stones’s Sympathy for the Devil, The Who’s I Can’t Explain and Baba O’Reilly, some Strokes tunes, some of Radiohead.
“Yet we couldn’t get any gigs, and anytime we happened to get some, we were never asked back, because we were no good. We were playing around the Carrickmacross/Castleblaney/Ardee area, but never went any further than that. And we weren’t known as The Flaws back then; we called ourselves Sweet Relief, a joke name.
“All I ever wanted to do was to write my own music and play it. After the covers thing stopped working, we threw in occasional original material, and we got even fewer gigs! So we decided to cut out the covers altogether and stick to our songs, some of which were decent enough. That’s when it all started.”
Once the band had more than several songs they considered more than decent enough, they booked time in a recording studio in Dundalk. When the studio owner heard the songs, he booked the band for gigs in Dundalk’s Spirit Store. A year later they recorded another demo, the studio owner took on management responsibilities, and record labels began to hunt in packs.
After a six-month development deal, wherein they spent time recording in studio du jour Grouse Lodge, The Flaws looked set to explode. The ingredients were signed, sealed and delivered – a box of songs that could pass muster in anyone’s company. Hired by an offshoot of a label in the Universal Music fold. Gallons of positive comment. A band that had the smarts, the personality, the drive and the experienced managerial strategies. What happened instead was not so much a bang as a damp squib.
“It was all a bit too much too fast,” recalls Finn, the smile briefly disappearing from his face as he taps cigarette ash onto nowhere in particular. “We always knew we had good songs, although we didn’t know if anyone else thought that. We never had high expectations, we just wanted to let it go, let it loose and see what people thought. Whether or not they’d pick up on the music, or get the references in the lyrics, we didn’t mind either way; we were just having a lot of fun. We loved playing, we didn’t expect anything to go skywards.
“But being dropped by the label was a huge disappointment. Promises were made that didn’t happen. Possibly the label couldn’t live up to their own hype. In the long run we came out of it quite well, because another Irish band on that label had
released an album that didn’t do very well. [Finn is talking about, and taking no pleasure in the retelling, the well-publicised commercial disaster that was the Humanzi album, Tremors.] We came away from the label with an album finished, which we own, a load of gear and a studio that we built at a big shed at my house. We soundproofed half of it off, and we all chipped in with the building of it, us and a carpenter friend. Wehaven’t done any proper recording there yet – just demos – but the fact that it’s there is great.”
At first Finn found it difficult to step away from Achieving Vagueness and view it with any objectivity. Not now. “I listened to it as objectively as I could, and I have to say it’s got some standout tracks, some brilliant songs. My favourite song on it changes every day. I was worried that I wouldn’t have a good opinion of it because I was so close to it, but I’m excited about it. It might sell 10 copies, but I’d still have a good opinion of it. Who knows, though – it might even sell 20.”
The plan now is to push the record as much as they can. Associations with major corporations such as Coca-Cola, which are eager to have youth/young adult consumers on their side (a la Jack White’s recent penning of a jingle for the company), are no longer seen as an impediment to credibility.
Not that The Flaws are giving the impression they’d sell their souls for crossover success. Rather, like any rock act with suss, they’re using someone else’s money to reach a wider audience. If such a thing actually happens (it’s a crap shoot, really) then the Big Bad Corporation Suits can validly claim to have given said rock act a leg up when they were starting out.
“We’re working on getting the album to the places in Europe we’ve played – here in Germany, for instance, and Italy, where we played last March. In terms of what to expect, we just want to push it to the limit. If everybody who wants it buys it, then we’ll just move on. Except we won’t take two years to get the next one out. We want to get into a studio, do a three-week stint and get it out.
“We write constantly. We always have a new idea, melody, and we record every- thing. I’m a late-night writer; I don’t sleep normal hours most of the time. When I’m in a creative mood I have to go up to the band room and sit with the acoustic guitar and jam something out. There’s a different tone off my voice late at night that I like hearing through the monitors. Also, there’s a danger to it at that time of night – everybody is in bed, so you gotta be subtle.”
Have The Flaws’s initial expectations equalled the results? They’re pretty much the same, says Finn.
“No one expected that we’d have an album ready to go and to be happy with it, yet we’ve done that. The less we expect, the more things mean to us. Like being here in Germany, walking around wideeyed like kids. If you expect too much, you get let down.”
The Flaws: Colin Berrill, Shane Malone, Dane McMahon and Paul Finn