|Hal interview | Leeds Cockpit | 12/02/05|
"We made them tea and got all the
posh biscuits out."
When you're about to interview a band whose own PR material proudly describes their singer as "blissfully odd", you have to wonder exactly what it is that you're letting yourself in for. It's something of a relief, then, that as the gentleman in question shakes my hand and leads me to an upstairs table in the Cockpit bar, the first words which actually spring to mind are "polite" and... well, "normal". Appearances, however, can be deceptive...
Welcome to the slightly off kilter world of Hal frontman David Allen - a man who, when not spending inordinate amounts of time rerecording his answerphone message, scours markets for useless Victorian bric-a-brac. But only when he's not busy penning irresistible lush melodies and celestial harmonies, obviously...
'The past couple of months I've been writing a lot of songs. But I can't write away from home at all; I can only write songs at my dad's house where the piano is and the beach is close by.' He smiles. 'Even at 40 or 50 I'll always go and write songs at my dad's house.'
It's the house which also played host to the infamous showcase which first got the Dublin boys - then only a trio as opposed to the current quartet - a record deal:
'We didn't even have a band together,' says Dave. 'It was just me and Paul [bass] and Stephen [piano/organ] and the record company people came down and we made them tea and got all the posh biscuits out. And then they were making us tea. We cleared out a couple of tables and chairs to make space for the equipment and rolled in the piano and the Hammond organ. We played two songs and then after about an hour they were going, "Do you guys want another cup of tea?" and we were going, "Yeah, all right; stick the kettle one, I'll have one." Then we played them some of our demos and tapes, then we set up our own gigs with a drummer and stuff, then [current record label] Rough Trade came on board.'
And the Irishman has nothing but praise for Geoff Travis and his team at the label: 'It's kind of weird. All you're doing before you get to the next stage of getting signed and getting the chance to make a record is doing it for yourself, really. Then all of a sudden there's all these strangers with cheque books going, "I tell you what - this is what we'll do", but it's not what we'll do; it's what they're gonna do. Rough Trade never gave us that impression and we just talked to them like we talked to a friend about music and what we wanted to do, and they just let us be. They're so diverse, you know? From the Strokes to us, and then you've got Delays. They've signed some other lovely folk singers - there's a guy called Sufjan Stevens; he's a beautiful songwriter. It's nice that you can have a record label that just lets bands do what they want to do. There's a certain element of trust between the bands and the record company. It's good.'
I was first fully educated in the harmonious delights of Hal in October 2004 upon twice seeing them support Rough Trade labelmates Delays, and Dave remembers the Cockpit gig in question very well:
'I loved it, I really did. We had a great time that gig; absolutely brilliant. The crowd were really enthusiastic and it's amazing when they're wanting to listen to everything, you know - even the slow songs, the whole crowd was just so quiet. It's just amazing when that happens; I think everybody feels good.'
Hal's second single What A Lovely Dance recently charted at number 36, while the insanely catchy Play the Hits is pencilled in as a follow-up.
'I think that's gonna be out in April, then the album's completely finished - all recorded, mixed, mastered and ready to go,' grins Dave. 'I think it's gonna be eleven songs, but we're still deciding and there might be a limited edition one with a hidden track and maybe an idea of what the next record might be like.'
So what of all these quirks and foibles of yours, Mr Allen?
'I started collecting Venetian masks,' he begins. 'You know those beautiful handmade ones? I collect them, and I collect all these Victorian postcards. I've got hundreds of them and, well, all the lads think I'm a bit odd for collecting things like that.' He pauses. 'I collect a lot of junk, really; that's basically it,' he grins. 'All these little curios - I go to markets and get all these optic glasses, and none of them you can use. I'm forever going along to these markets and collecting stuff that's completely unusable.'
And as if that wasn't enough...
'Another thing I do that might be odd is I change my answerphone message every month and record different messages on a dictaphone and I put myself in a different scenario and I slow my voice down. My friends get a good giggle out of it.'
But going back to the music, what does the future hold for Hal?
'We're back here [in Leeds] with the Doves in a few weeks. That's like a dream come true to do that tour. We're doing the first half of a big, long tour, then the Magic Numbers are doing the second. It's just gonna be amazing. They're Paul's favourite band - he's over the moon.'
It's just another in a long list of high-profile support slots: 'We went away with Starsailor as well - we didn't even have a record deal; we had to take time off work. We were all working and doing music in the night-time and, in the space of three months, we took a month's holiday from work.'
So now that they've given up the day jobs to pursue a full-time musical career, are they confident that they've made the right choice? Dave's warm smile returns:
'I prefer this to be honest, yeah.'
Many thanks to Dave and Paul, to Ciro, Alex and Nian. Hal's new single, Play the Hits is released on April 4th. Visit www.halmusic.com for more information.
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