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Columbia Mills – “Heart of a Nation” (Self-released)

2 November 2022

Hailing from Bray, just south of Dublin, Ireland, Columbia Mills took their name from a building on Dublin’s quays that became a scene for raves in the 90s. Their first single, “Never Gonna Look At You The Same” (2014) has a sparseness and sound reminiscent of The Jesus and Mary Chain (minus all the shrieking guitar feedback, thankfully!)

They quickly found what would become their signature sound from there. The closing track, “History”, from the Perfect Day EP (2015) sonically encapsulates what Columbia Mills was about then and is to this day. The six-and-a-half-minute track begins with a simple repetitive guitar riff, vocals, and drums. Stylistically, the band could have stayed in an indie rock lane on this track and it would have been a fine EP closer. Instead, they wrote a song that gradually builds with uncharacteristic (for indie rock) keyboards and techno beats. It launches from there. It could have been a cringeworthy recipe for disaster, merging styles like this, but it works extremely well, adding dynamism and distinction in the process.

Over the next five years, the band self-produced and self-released two excellent albums, along with various singles and remix EP. Honing its sound and style, it stuck to that early blueprint that married indie rock and danceable electronic beats, often within the same song. They rightly garnered comparisons with The National, Glasvegas, White Lies, Foals, and myriad post-punk bands that inspired them all.

The band’s third album, “Heart of a Nation” just came out October 14th. Excited by what I was hearing, I reached out to bassist, Uisneagh Treacy, who graciously took time to answer my questions and share more about the band and the making of this album.

David: The new LP is stylistically very much in the same vein as prior LPs, in a good way. On your bandcamp page [brother and vocalist/lyricist] Fiachra notes that it’s the best album you’ve made. What are your thoughts? And how is it self-producing and releasing your music? Is the band is looking for a label deal at this point? Is that necessary for you?

Uisneagh: This latest album is also my favorite. It’s true that we produced the album ourselves. After making two albums previously, it’s not something that daunted us at all. We feel very comfortable in the studio and a lot of that is not only down to experience but also Michael Heffernan. He recorded the new album, and we have an excellent working relationship with him as he knows us very well, having been a member of the band for a few years around the time of [first album] “A Safe Distance to Watch” (2017). Ste Ward also took a much more active role in the studio and we were able to get the demos into good shape in Ste’s studio before going into Black Mountain Studios and Hellfire Studios. Rob Kirwan mixed most of this album, too. He has mixed all three of them, actually. That would be our “team,” I guess.

With regards to label interest, it’s not something we really discuss much as a band. It’s possible to make an album now in your bedroom, so the traditional role of the labels has shifted somewhat. We would definitely benefit from the clout and financial backing of a label to promote and push the album for us. It is reassuring to know however that the songs are 100% ours and that we have total freedom to do with them what we please.

David: I read on your bandcamp page that the new LP was “supported through funding from the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sports and Media as administered via the Music Industry Stimulus Package 2020.” I’d love to hear more about this.

Uisneagh: We are very fortunate that we got the support of the Department of Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sports and the Gaeltacht to partly finance the making of “Heart of a Nation.” This was an initiative put forward by the Irish Government during Covid to support Irish artists and it made all the difference, I have to say.

David: The band has a good following locally. How much do audiences outside Ireland know the band’s music?

Uisneagh: Our audience outside of Ireland is definitely growing. This is evident in the addresses we are posting/mailing our vinyls and merchandise to. We even have support in the US and Australia! But most of the overseas support is from the UK and Northern Europe. We have toured in the UK a few times now and that helps grow the support base for sure because we get to meet the audience face to face and chat to them. The logical next step for us would be to tour mainland Europe in the coming year to try and build on that support base that we’ve already established through social media and Spotify streams. It is a dream of ours to tour in the United States, too.

David: Along the same lines, how does the band’s music fit into the music scene in Ireland, England, Europe, etc., at present? When I hear “Momentum” (listen here) off the new one, for example, the groove reminds me of Foals, who are also popular here in the US, but are there other bands making music like yours?

Uisneagh: We have never felt part of any music scene in Ireland, and I think we were a little self-conscious of this when we started out. But we decided to plough our own furrow musically which was a brave thing for us to do. It feels like we were the odd ones out when we met the other bands doing the same festival circuits. In hindsight I’m thankful that we remained true to what we were doing and didn’t compromise our sound to try to “fit in.” I believe that this is what has appealed to our fans.

David: Were there any standout intentions with the new LP as far as the sound, lyrics/themes, etc? Were there sounds/themes that you felt you wanted to avoid for fear of repeating yourselves too much?

Uisneagh: The theme of the album comes very much from Fiachra’s observation of the social situation in Ireland currently, where we are going through a major housing crisis. It’s becoming more of a country of those of the “have” and “have nots,” and the gap is expanding. Politically and socially speaking, Fiachra, Ste and myself would be at one, so the themes explored by Fiachra through his poetic lyrics on this album came as no surprise to us. When we began writing for this album, we were conscious of wanting a more upbeat and positive sounding style and the darker themes of the lyrics counterbalance that nicely.

David: When you went to play and arrange the new songs, were there any “guiding lights” in the form of bands/LPs that have been strong influences? I don’t hear anything super specific, in a good way. In addition to The National, Glasvegas, and White Lies, sometimes I hear Peter Hook’s bass style, such as on the track, “Nevada,” (listen here) and other seminal post-punk bands.

Uisneagh: In terms of our influences, I think you’ve pretty much nailed them in the names you mentioned. I would throw in LCD Soundsystem, too. I do recall a conversation we had as we began writing new material for what would become this album. We spoke about bands like Gorillaz, The Cure, and Joy Division, and I think you can definitely hear those influences in there somewhere. As a bass player, I wanted to emulate the style that Simon Gallup and Peter Hook are renowned for: those chorus-soaked, hooky lines played up high on the neck. That was new territory for me, and they are thoroughly enjoyable to play live. We also love that 80’s post-punk genre you referenced.

David: Even when the music has passages of light, dancy pop, Fiachra’s voice and delivery infuses the music with a darker, somber edge, and I think that helps give weight to the music. On the new LP, “Nevada” or “Momentum” are examples. The intros sound like the songs are dance club material, but they shift into something meatier and genre-bending. Are arrangements like this conscious from the get-go when you’re writing and putting together the demos?

Uisneagh: I would say that the arrangements are somewhat fluid at the start of the process of writing the songs. They tend to develop and change over the course of the entire process but the one factor that remains the same is the feel and the vibe of the song. That tends to be there right from the start and is the driving force behind the songs. So, if you listen back to the demos we have on our phones, you can still hear the essence of the songs right there that is also present in the final cut. The approach we took with this album was to give each idea a good chance and to bring them up to a certain level of completion before dropping or sidelining them. This worked well as it gave us a good body of work to choose from for the album that would give us a diverse collection of songs that we felt complemented each other without sounding overly similar.

Thanks to Uisneagh and band management for their time. I highly recommend Columbia Mills to Big Takeover readers, and the new LP is certainly a good place to start.