How Overhead, The Albatross made a Choice-nominated album

Stephen Keegan

There’s a soft laugh over the phone. “Yeah, I guess we’re perfectionists in one way,” Stevie Darragh of Overhead, The Albatross tells me. That much is clear.

It’s that perfectionism that allowed the Dublin instrumentalists to grow a dedicated cult following, a following that flocked to Vicar Street to catch them headline last November.

It’s the same perfectionism that has granted the five-piece the opportunity to return to the venue this March – this time playing the Choice Music Prize ceremony after their debut album Learning to Growl was nominated for album of the year.

That laugh comes though, in acknowledgement of the downside of perfectionism. The widescreen cinematics of Learning to Growl took three years to make.

“At the time there was six of us in the band – even though we all lived around Dublin, getting everyone together just purely to write music – it was quite tricky to do,” Darragh says.

Their solution was to go all-in. Following the release of their single Think Thank Thunk in 2012, the six packed all into a rickety van and drove to rural Czech Republic to live and write and record together for three months in a tiny studio with no internet access.

“We had no choice but to work on music,” Darragh says – it helped the band grow up, he feels. “When we came back we had the bulk of the material which we would turn into the album eventually – but I think as a live band took a notch up after that ‘cos we spent so much time together. I’d recommend any band do it.”

The intention was to have the album recorded and finished by the end of the trip, but over there they realised there was much more work to be done, says Darragh, “There were one or two tracks that were finished but there was a lot that needed complete rewrites.”

“You think, realistically, making an album in three months – including the writing process, that’s really a very small period for a band like us… we really spend a lot of time on every detail in our tracks,” Darragh says. “Czech was just pre-production for us in the end.”

Once back in Dublin, there was another “year and a half of just writing the songs”, Darragh says. “One of the things that made it take so long to finish – music, songs change with your mood. Three months ago that track sounded amazing, now it’s like what were we thinking?”

The band continuously expanded the scope of the album, drafting in choirs, brass and string sections. “We’d put so much work into it at that point we said look we may as well go all out,” Darragh says. “It cost money to do all that stuff but y’know if we never made another album again at least we’d made that one. We got to throw the kitchen sink at it.”

It became a difficult task to let go of the songs, to accept they were finished. “It’s so important that it sounds right to us,” Darraghs says. “It’s hard to find a pristine end point. I think it’s more a psychological thing – to say I’m not going to think about it anymore and then over time you let it go. Even though there’s always things you wanna change, you’re still like wow, I’ve never been so proud of work.”

It’s fair to say that the ambition of the work paid off, leading to that Vicar Street show. “We really didn’t think we’d ever get to play a gig like that in this band’s lifetime. I still don’t know if that actually happened,” Darragh laughs.

The return visit for the Choice ceremony is “an amazing thing to be part of,” Darragh says, honoured by the company they’re in. “I was thinking, are we the odd ones out here?” he laughs.

“Everyone else I could see why they got in, but we write eight minute long no-lyric songs – but I’m not gonna question it too much. I’m looking forward to the night just to see the other acts play.”

Darragh laughs again when asked how he’d advise someone who wanted to make a Choice-nominated album. “Jesus, I dunno,” he says.

“All we ever did was make the music we wanted to make, never settled. We’re obsessed with our music, to the point that it’s annoying. It’s more about just keeping things selfish, pleasing ourselves. It just so happened that someone else thought it was worth a choice nomination.”

Perfectionism pays off.

Stephen Keegan