A Northern Light, the 3-piece band that combines punk energy and a progressive rock sensibility have lifted some of the gloom around the Coronavirus Pandemic lockdown with the release of their debut album Kingdoms. It’s been a long time in the making but the band are confident that it has been worth the wait.
We caught up with, not literally as we are adhering to the Coronavirus rules currently in place, band members Omar Ben Hassine, Colm Laverty and Darren Doherty to talk about the album release, being in a band during lockdown, how personal issues have affected them and become woven into the band’s musical fabric.
Lead singer Darren Doherty begins. “Omar and I wanted to start a band that combined punk energy with progressive rock sensibilities”. Colm joined the band when he “posted an advert in Charlie’s Coffee Shop in Belfast, where the guys found it a few days later”. It maybe doesn’t have the romantic feel of the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards story, meeting by chance at Dartford Railway Station in 1961, thus forming The Stones, but it happened and A Northern Light was born. Just 3 guys and a computer.
Colm, who went to school in Dungannon, Co Tyrone confesses he “spent almost every weekend at The Fort Bar, in the town, drinking watered-down whiskey. and watching bands”. Thinking about where he grew up Colm says “ being from the countryside really made me appreciate any manner of musical act stopping by, regardless of genre (or quality!). If a Joe Dolan tribute act is the only bit of live music you will see that month, you better make sure you enjoy it”. The joys of living outside of the bigger musical hubs of Belfast and Derry/Londonderry obviously.
Darren and Omar are originally from the North West, Strabane to be precise. And following the formation of the band with Colm in 2010, “gigged endlessly, released a couple of well received EP’s and built a small but committed fanbase”. The album itself was recorded, with Neal Calderwood, at Manor Park Studios between 2014 and 2016 but some unexpected forks in the road meant it took a long road round to its release now in 2020.
The band cite a range of musical influences including Blink 182, Pink Floyd, Rush, Florence and the Machine and The Chemical Brothers. Bassist Colm admits to stealing tricks from Breeders and former Pixies member Kim Deal and also from Tina Weymouth, founding member and bassist with Talking Heads, which let’s be honest, is a good place to start.
When it comes to the writing and recording process for A Northern Light frontman Darren Doherty says that it is very much a joint effort. “The 3 of us are involved at every step of the music and design process, almost every decision is democratic (although he doesn’t admit which ones are not!), but each of us has our strengths”.
All the production and editing, the electronic sounds on the album is handled by Omar, Colm is the visual front of the band, looking after videos, artwork and design with Darren taking care of the lyrics and concepts the band are trying to put across. It is a talented team that makes this energetic band tick.
Kingdoms is very raw with personal issues being put out into the mainstream through their work. Darren admits “as a music fan, what I’m attracted to in songwriting is vulnerability, particularly in men as it’s more rare. It always comes across as brave to me, writing about your feelings, your fears and standing in a crowded room, shouting them at strangers”. For those of us on the ground, those that take time to go and listen to bands, we too admire the bravery of the people who stand up there and pour out their hearts to us. The album deals with families, family struggles and people who use you for their own ends. A sad, but all too prevalent part of modern day life for many. He concludes by saying “if you have not built a sturdy enough kingdom for yourself then you will encounter problems”.
Darren has been very honest about his battles with alcohol in his adult life and admits releasing Kingdoms was emotional, as “during the writing and recording process I was at the height of my drinking”. While preparing for release and listening back to the lyrics he found it all surreal and “more than ever wanted to go back to and give my younger, very lost self, the world’s biggest hug and to say ‘keep fighting’”.
For the band it has felt like a big weight off their shoulders, getting the album out, and feeling a real sense of achievement in reaching their goal. There is no doubt it has been tough, an emotional journey for the 3 of them, but it is clear they are finally reaping the rewards of that hard work.
The band admit themselves that the actual process of writing and recording for A Northern Light is a long one. They don’t divulge in real terms how long, but confess that it is longer than any other of the projects they are involved in. Starting with a lot of “back and forth through emails in the first instance”, then they take it all into the rehearsal room where, and I hope they are joking when they say this, “they start the fighting”.
Talking about whether being in a smaller 3 piece equates to less conflict because there are less streams on input, it all sounds happy in the A Northern Light garden. “If there was one more member of the band nothing would ever get done” says Darren. We suppose this is maybe the reason that the band’s fourth member is a computer!
All 3 musicians have their own side projects and artistic outlets so “combining for A Northern Light is now a joy”. Darren continues “myself and Omar have been best buds for 20 odd years so we definitely have musical spats and in a weird and twisted way, is probably part of the appeal of the band”.
With so many big songs on the album we are all going to have our favourites, the one that touches us lyrically, the one that appeals to us musically or the song that just has one little part that we feel right in the pit of our stomach. The band have their own memorable tracks. Omar says “‘4ft Higher’ stands out the most with me. It’s the one where we made a big leap from simple programmed stuff in songs, to really opening up the electronics in it, where we were no longer afraid of being criticised for hiding behind a computer”. The original demo is a world away from the finished article, we are told. “It now incorporates taikos drums, crazy elm synths and Latin American style conga with a hard rocking 3 piece band”, adding “I spent hours upon hours at home trying to get the parts right for it, not to mention the even harder work doing it all together in a room”.
Colm admitted whilst listening to the finished album he would “always get shivers listening to ‘Bad Drunk’”. It had “dark subject matters, strong melodies, interesting synth textures and a big 80’s rock outro”. It was something the band had always sought to achieve.
With the current situation surrounding the Coronavirus lockdown, the life of a musician is somewhat different in these times. The lack of gigs, and especially the strain on everyone’s mental wellbeing is a huge issue to deal with. “We deal with it all by doing what we normally do” says Omar, “we write and record music and will continue, as ever, to try and turn something negative into a positive”. Darren, like most artists at the minute, hosted a live stream via social media, today’s modern gig style, and the interaction with online fans was a huge positive and Omar , through his solo project “Run to Earth” raised funds for NHS charities with a live DJ stream online. In a nutshell, Omar sums up their current situation. “We are trying to stay busy, that’s how we cope”. There is no doubt we are all doing our best to adopt a similar stance as we ride this storm. It’s maybe the only way to tackle the situation.
‘March Into the Light’ is an anthem. Omar speaks honestly about how the song came about. “I remember feeling extremely low in my life due to personal reasons, but I wanted to hold my head up and get to a better place. I wanted to march towards light, and not darkness”. He asked Darren to write a song entitled ‘March Into the Light’. They are close friends, and have been for a long time, and because of this Darren was able to channel the emotions Omar felt through the song. An acoustic version came first then it was built on a computer with additional electronics. At the time Darren and Omar confessed to being somewhat obsessed with Florence and the Machine, and that feel bled it’s way into the track. Omar states “This song is a transformative anthem that we always wanted to write”.
The album builds it’s way to a climax in a very natural way. But not without a serious amount of thought. As Darren freely admits “we are big Prog Rock fans, so the idea of the listener being rewarded at the end of the listening experience was always on our agenda”. He goes on, “we spent a long time getting the track list right to ensure this”. Colm backs this up, saying “we knew ‘Town of Thorns’ was going to be the last song as soon as we wrote it. It just felt right. It’s a big release of tension after a bunch of dark songs”. Adding finally, “that there is a hope listeners can take away some sense of optimism or catharsis”. And we truly believe that music does this.
On the subject of album number two and whether work has begun on it?. We get a single word from Omar. “Yes??”. Maybe he is just asking the question to himself to confirm that it is all happening again. They are looking forward to being able to be in the same room together, never mind being able to play and record together again.
Anyone who forms a band, or plays in a band aspires to write great songs and music, be noticed and maybe revered all over the world. Otherwise, we presume, you wouldn’t be doing it and putting yourself through the pain that goes with it. We sought to find out, as a collective band, who they would like to be rated alongside?. Colm appeared to have taken the decision to speak for the band when he said “we are all going to say Rush, aren’t we?” . Canadian Prog Rock Gods, who wouldn’t want to be compared alongside them.
There is no doubting Kingdoms is an impressive and thought provoking album, fantastically put together and we tried to get an insight into what the band themselves wanted people to take from the album in its entirety. Omar felt what interested him most was “we want people to live with it, grow with it and see the journey it takes them on”. Continuing, “we just lived and wrote about what we lived and felt, and always put a positive twist to even the darkest days”.
Colm would just be happy if “listeners came away thinking that was 45 minutes well spent”. “If they relate to the lyrics or find an emotional connection to the songs, then that is always a bonus”. For Darren it is very simple. “Save yourself”.
All we can say is that we very much look forward to seeing A Northern Light bring this album out to their fans in the live arena. Those fans will welcome that invite, from the band, into their “Kingdom”.