Artist Spotlight: Silverbacks

    Silverbacks were formed by brothers Daniel and Kilian O’Kelly, who were born to Irish parents but spent part of their upbringing in Brussels. Inspired by their mutual love of the Strokes, the pair started writing songs together as kids, sending demos back and forth between their bedrooms. They eventually recruited bassist/vocalist Emma Hanlon, guitarist Peadar Kearney, and drummer Gary Wickham to solidify their lineup, and started releasing a series of singles across 2017 and 2018. The Dublin band’s debut album Fad – a riveting and playful collection of guitar-driven songs one might hesitantly call “art-punk” – arrived in July 2020, over a year after it was finished, and at which point the majority of album two had already been written. Once again recorded with Gilla Band bassist Daniel Fox, Archive Material is out today via Full Time Hobby, and it sees the band honing their knack for tight melodicism while experimenting with more dynamic arrangements and textures, resulting in an album that both reflects and seeks, however briefly, to break the monotony of pandemic life. Silverbacks imagine themselves as a career band, but if Archive Material is proof of anything, it’s that they’ll keep striving for new ways to achieve the same immediate impact.

    We caught up with Silverbacks’ Kilian O’Kelly and Gary Wickham for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about how their approach has changed since Fad, the inspirations behind their sophomore album, and more.

    What are some things that stand out to you when you reflect back on the release cycle for Fad?

    Gary Wickham: When we recorded Fad, we were very naive to the world of music. We sat on Fad for a really long time, because we recorded it and then there was a record deal that was meant to happen that didn’t happen and we lost like a year doing that. And then by the time we were ready to go and we’d sorted out all the distribution, the pandemic hits, and we had to push it again. So I think the big thing for this album was that we weren’t willing to just sit and wait for that natural cycle of touring Fad, and we’re just going straight in because we want to get to a point where we’re doing like an album a year, almost. We want to put out something every year because we enjoy being in the studio, the guys are constantly writing. Even with this album, because of delays in vinyl production – if it was up to us, we probably would have had this album out last October. We got Full Time Hobby on board, so it actually helped us, but in 2023, hopefully we’ll be doing another album again.

    It seems to me like you were quick to follow up your debut, and even interviews at the time often focused on what you had in mind for the future of the band. Having had that space from it now, do you look back on the release and the reception of the album any differently? Or are you still more focused on the future?

    Kilian O’Kelly: I’m only speaking for myself here, not the rest of the band, but Daniel and I, when we’re working on music, there’s sort of a tendency that the next song is the best one. We’re not sick of it, but by the time it comes out, we’re already thinking about the next project. So for instance, when Fad came out, Gary mentioned there was a few delays that led to it coming out a year after we actually wanted – by the time it was out, I couldn’t be subjective anymore about the song. I couldn’t listen to it subjectively, because of the amount of time you spend listening to demos or mixing it in a studio. And I was always thinking, “A year after Fad, I’ll come back, I’ll listen to it and I’ll listen to it with a fresh pair of ears.” And I’m still waiting for that moment to happen where I go back and back be like, “Oh, remember this part?” I’m not at that point yet.

    GW: I think myself and Peader are probably slightly different – we almost have to act because the guys are trying to move too quickly. They’ll be doing something every three months and we’ll constantly be chasing their tails. But by the time we had done Fad as a unit, we had spent so much time with it, gigging those songs for a long time, and we were ready for some new stuff. You’ve lived with it for too long – in your head, you should have already moved on from this relationship with this album a year ago and you’re still dealing with it 12 months on. But when it came out, it did give it a new lease of life for me. New people hearing it and hearing people’s takes on it made the release enjoyable. It was like, it’s nice to know that what we did does actually stand the test of time, and probably as a unit we’re sick of it, but everyone else is enjoying it. It was a good mindset switch.

    How does that compare to how you’re feeling this week with the release of Archive Material?

    KO’K: I’m excited. I think Gary kind of hit the nail on the head there. The week that the release is about to happen, that’s when the payoff is. You’re excited, aren’t you Gary?

    GW: Yeah. I think for us, it’s always like, we make the albums for ourselves, we don’t get bogged down in trying to do one genre or if we feel like one song – like ‘I’m Wild’, people might think it’s clearly sticking out in the album, we’re happy to put that in because we really like it. That’s one side of it, you do it for yourself, but at the end of the day, we want people to hear this music. So when it’s that release week, it’s nice to know that it’s coming out and whatever happens happens, but you’ve done what you think is the best and you’re hoping people feel the same when they listen.

    KO’K: I hope we’re not coming across as miserable. [laughs] We’re just both halfway through our workday. When Friday comes in and we’re having a pint to celebrate, we’ll be over the moon, I’m sure.

    I’m excited for people to hear it. ‘I’m Wild’ is actually one of my favorites, so I’m happy it made the cut.

    GW: Me too. I’m always trying to get us to do a country album, so I feel like ‘I’m Wild’ is me kind of standing in my own way. [laughter]

    I was wondering if you could share an early memory that you have of enjoying or making music. Kilian, I know you started writing songs with Daniel at an early age.

    KO’K: It came to mind recently that Daniel and I actually used to have joint music lessons. I was learning piano and he was learning flute. We wouldn’t play together – we would actually just sit in on each other’s music lessons when we were kids. I don’t know, I think that maybe spurred on us being able to hang around and try to write music together as teenagers. Our dad was a huge record and CD collector, so it was always going to be a combination of things. If it wasn’t finding a five-string guitar in my granddad’s house or, I don’t know, watching the movie School of Rock – that really inspired me thinking, “Shit, I really want to learn guitar now.” It could be a whole different range of things. It sounds cheesy, but I think we were destined to do it. What about you, Gary? Marching band drums?

    GW: Yeah, I suppose. My dad was a function DJ, he did local radio and stuff, so there was always music knocking around as well. But when I was about ten, I joined the marching band in our school. It was like an excuse to get out of the class to go and see if you want to join this thing, and it was the first time I ever played anything. I hit a drum and it was a lightbulb kind of moment, like, “I think I can do this.”

    I’m curious, if you could play a song from your albums to your younger selves, which one would you pick?

    KO’K: Oh, that’s a good question. On Fad, it would have been ‘Just in the Band’, and Archive Material, it would be ‘I’m Wild’.

    GW: I think ‘Muted God’ [from Fad] would have got me as a younger guy, and then on the new album, actually, maybe ‘Something to Write Home About’. I feel like the percussion and the conga on that song would have caught my ear.

    KO’K: For ‘Just in the Band’ on Fad, for me it’s because when Daniel and I started writing together as teenagers, I think I would have picked that moment, like, “This is what you’ll put out eventually.” Because it was the first thing that when we listened to the mastered version of it, I was like, “Shit, there’s nothing I would change.” Whereas everything we recorded before or since teenagers, there was always something that would annoy me. And then for Archive Material, I’d pick ‘I’m Wild’ because, like, Emma and I are going out 10 years, but if Emma and I heard that 10 years ago, we’d be like, “Holy shit, we’re gonna write this song together.” I think that would be cool.

    Gary, what about you, what would you say to your younger self after playing those songs?

    GW: Yeah, “Get out now.” [laughter]

    KO’K: “Don’t do it, Gary!”

    GW: “Learn how to play the guitar!”

    On the topic of ‘I’m Wild’, do you mind talking about what the writing process for that song was like?

    KO’K: That one was written during the first summer of lockdown. Emma and I had moved into a new apartment to try and like, go solo in life, finally pay rent and everything. But it was so expensive with the jobs we were working, we were paying extortionate Dublin rent prices for pretty much two tiny rooms. We moved in in February, and I realized I haven’t really been doing as many demos as I should be, because the space is kind of like – you couldn’t really write a demo without the other person hearing it. So Emma was like, “Oh, I really like these guitar chords” or whatever. And then usually, when Emma’s interested in the instrumental, that means you have a chance of maybe persuading her to give some vocal ideas a go. So we just sat down some evenings and gave the verses and the chorus a go.

    There was one, it’s actually a kind of a recent point of influence, but I’m not sure if you’ve heard of Weyes Blood?

    Yeah, I saw it as one of the reference points and I actually wanted to ask you about it. 

    KO’K: So, sometimes we’ll write an instrumental demo, and unfortunately, it’ll be as simple as like, the vocal melodies that I’ve recorded on top of it are just out of Emma’s range. And you’d think that having been together for 10 years, we would have clocked out what key or whatever to write songs in. But for whatever reason, there’s a couple of songs on that Weyes Blood album that she put out, Titanic Rising, where it’s perfectly in her range. So that was one of the starting points, and there’s a Weyes Blood song called ‘Wild Time’, and we were actually listening to it quite a lot last summer. And then this idea of wildness as a theme for a song was kind of spurred on by that. And the chords is just trashy Neil Young guitars, that’s the source of inspiration.

    I also read that you were generally quite conscious of having songs that would work around Emma’s vocals more. Can you talk about that?

    GW: There was a bit of a realization within the band, we used to write – we’d call them “Dan songs” and “Emma songs”. Dan songs would tend to be more the heavier stuff and Emma’s would be the kind of nicer stuff. We got better at doing that, but then we realized that having both of them on the song is where the actual power of that is. What we tried to do with this album is, if Emma’s singing, have Dan involved as well, or if Dan’s signing, have Emma doing it as well, or having joint songs. Going forward with other albums, I imagine we’re going to be getting into that a lot more.

    KO’K: One of the things that we said after album one was there’s gonna be more Emma. And now after listening to Archive Material, we’re still saying the same thing: There’s gonna be more Emma.

    You kind of alluded to the topic of independence earlier on, which sort of relates to the latest single from the album, ‘A Job Worth Something’. A lot of the songs on the album come from a more fictionalized perspective, but this one is based on Daniel’s experience working in insurance while living with his sister, who is a healthcare worker, for most of the pandemic. In relation to that, I wanted to ask you, how does being in music fit into your idea of self-worth and contributing to society? Is that something that you’ve thought about?

    GW: It’s not something that I think I’ve necessarily thought about, but I would say, and I think Kilian will probably agree, is that when we weren’t able to play music or when we couldn’t tour, everyone was markedly unhappier. You kind of realize that the outlet of the band is playing live or at least getting to play together in a room. It also feels like we’re administrators of the band during lockdown, not that we’re actually musicians, because you tend to just be like “Is this colour T-shirt the right colour?” or “Has someone done the lyric sheet for the record?” You get a bit bogged down, and without having that actual playing of music, it can become quite difficult to keep that spark going. And I don’t think I ever realized that before. I always kind of thought that music was just there, but when it wasn’t there, you really do miss that part.

    KO’K: To add to what Gary was saying, and to swing your back to ‘A Job Worth Something’, you’re right, Daniel was living with my sister Rachel, who is a pharmacist in St. James, which is one of the main hospitals in Dublin. And he was at that point working on a job which he wasn’t really getting any happiness from, and then on top of that, it was for the insurance industry, but a part of the insurance industry which maybe he found grating – maybe he didn’t exactly agree with or he felt like he was selling the soul to the devil a little bit. He’s writing copy, but he didn’t necessarily believe in what he was writing about.

    That’s one side of it. For me, at the moment I’m working in the Irish Research Council, and a big part of it is to allocate funding to all these post-doctorate students. And some of them will be looking for funding in the life sciences, like cancer research, and then there’ll be a few that come through looking for funding for music, humanities. And it’s kind of like a similar story in your mind, just thinking, what is the worth of writing music for people? What am I gaining from doing this music? Is it a selfish gain or is it a gain for other people? And my thinking is that, you know, when the healthcare workers leave the hospital, they can put their iPod earphones on, stream a bit of music, and actually escape from what was a difficult nine to five. That’s what I get most out of music. That’s the purpose, for me, is that you’re offering escapism to other people, maybe inspiring a change in mood after five o’clock. That’s why I love music.

    What is it about being in Silverbacks in particular that inspires you, whether personally or creatively?

    GW: I suppose on a personal level, we always say we’re Silverbacks first and foremost, you know. We’re a gang, almost, we’re all in it together, we’re all out for each other rather than any individual gain. Which is  a nice place to be creatively, but it’s also a nice place to be when things aren’t going well. If you get a bad review or a gig goes bad, it’s better to have five people on the same side. We really enjoy being around each other, we’re best friends. Silverbacks is the icing on the cake for us, we get to go play music, we get to write songs that – I still have it, like when the guys write a song and I hear it, I’m always like, “That’s such a good song.” It’s nice that we still have that. When we get into a room together, we always enjoy it and we always enjoy the music we play.

    KO’K: Yeah, I agree with Gary. I think friendship is the big one. And then one thing maybe on my side, something I like about music from a selfish point of view is that it’s like a window into someone after they’re gone as well. So you know, in 100 years time, 200 years time, people could come and listen to Silverbacks, to these five Irish people that met and created this thing together. For me, the legacy side of a band is what I always find the most inspiring. Chasing that, like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe we wrote this together.”

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Silverbacks’ Archive Material is out now via Full Time Hobby.

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