“Loudness Was The Thing!” Clash Meets The Academic

Craig Fitzgerald and Stephen Murtagh on their new album...

Irish indie quartet The Academic continue to show the depth of their personal and professional stamina. 

Hunkered down at home, just as the world started to open up again post-pandemic, the development of inspiration and ideas for a new album had been in progress for some time, yet the band were aware that there was work to be done. While the work process had been longer, more expansive than planned, they also wanted to use the time wisely.

The process of growing up, adding a few more years, informs this project. Yes, it has been five years since the release of debut record ‘Tales From the Backseat’, but there’s no denying, the anthemic band are back with a sweet vengeance, marking their return with songs that are stronger than previously, signifying a mature sound with delightful hooks and melodies to match. 

Thus far, they have shown an uncompromising attitude when it comes to their ambition, and the follow up project takes the artistic vision further. It was time for Craig Fitzgerald and Stephen Murtagh to assess the lay of the land, and they decided to do so in conversation with Clash. 

‘Sitting Pretty’ is an immense achievement, it marks a new chapter for you as a band. It seems to be reflected in several ways, one being the collaboration with producer and musician Nick Hodgson. Tell me about the work, and what he brought to the project. 

Craig: He has been a friend of the band, there’s this trust. It was great to get in the studio with Nick, he’s like a fifth member of the band. He has such valuable wisdom and experience from his time in different bands. It’s a relief to be in the studio with someone that you wholeheartedly trust, he’s not there to lash out or move straight on to the next artist. 

A mutually beneficial relationship. Like you say, he is experienced and doesn’t distance himself, and he made some great music. It’s a brilliant connection to have, how did you work with him throughout the recording process?

Craig: We originally met under a songwriting partnership. We would go over and spend a couple of days, he became involved as a producer on a track for us on our EP ‘Acting My Age’, it was an enjoyable experience. He doesn’t boast about his production skills, but he’s just got an idea for everything, but it became obvious that was the avenue to go with. We worked with him, he’s got that perfect way of overseeing everything, because he’s done it for so long. He’s good at pushing us outside of our comfort zones as far as genre and arrangements go. He had a lot of discussions with us about the sound and the sonics of the album. 

Stephen: In a way, we discussed what we didn’t want the album to be like more than what we wanted it to sound like, we had proper conversations about it. We wanted everything to be ‘live’ as much as possible because of everything we had heard or were listening to, we felt everything was screaming at the top of its lungs that loudness was the thing. 

Craig: We love that ‘70s and ‘60s production style where the studio is like an instrument, you’re just letting the room, the equipment and playing performance do the talking. If something didn’t sound big enough for those standards, we knew we needed to get the sound right – at the source. It was a learning curve for us because we were just in the studio experimenting, but this approach is what you cherish and learn from. Nick was excellent to work with, he’s done it before.

You were both comfortable with each other. Did he bring out a new confidence, allowing you to show who are you are now?

Stephen: Thankfully, we’ve had enough time to mature into men, as opposed to young boys, it shows on the album in every way. We’ve matured as musicians, as songwriters, and our taste is more finely honed. It’s more cohesive and coherent as a result of a particular time, we’re just that little bit older now. Some of the confidence comes from Nick having his arm around us, and telling us what we’re doing is good, to follow our instincts and express ourselves like that.

The recording style, you touched on it earlier, Craig, tell us about how that manifests itself in the songs? 

Craig: We spent a lot of time on this album together, living in London. Stephen and I overlap musically when it comes to the ‘60s, we share a common love for that time in songwriting. We like a chorus, and what we look for in songs is infectious melodies, we wanted to bring that into the production more. It was decisions we made. 

Craig: We had The Kinks on our minds, we were in Muswell Hill. We just wanted to get across that conscious approach of what we are as a band. Also the Get Back documentary inspired us, we were just playing, trying to achieve a similar sound with our hands and our voices. It’s hard to describe, it’s when you hear it in the studio, you realise that’s exactly what we wanted pretty much on every track. We had landed in a good place. 

Stephen: We were lucky to be in Snap Studios, there was this massive vintage Neve desk, which helps you lean right into how you don’t want it to sound, overly digital or overly modern. They have this unique reverb room, a tile room that we could send sounds to, it’s what Craig was saying, we used the studio as an instrument, adding a human retro touch to the recordings we worked on.

You spoke of the maturity. This record tackles the theme of adulthood, it’s conveyed across.

Craig: It was really important to have a natural progression from what they’ve done, in the past. The most effective way to do that is to make the album about our lived experience, our shared experiences, abandoning everything we’ve done in the last five years since the first album. We’re different people now. 

Craig: We’re faced with much more difficult challenges in our twenties, the first album reflects our late teenage years, emerging into the early twenties. This album looks more directly through our eyes, the challenges, it tackles insecurity, the struggle to adapt to traditional ideas of the ABC of life. It’s honest, it’s about how we’re feeling, how difficult, but also joyous your twenties can be.

The use of hooks is something else, altogether, and the melody is ever present in the music you make. But what drives your melodies, and how easy is it to come up with them? 

Craig: Every songwriter has their thing. Sometimes I wish I was more long winded.. Most of what we listen to always has something that lands you in the middle of it, there’s a familiarity. For a song to get released, it has to resonate with the four of us, that’s just naturally what makes us sit up in a chair, when there’s a melody that you can always land home on. 

Craig: That’s just built in our songwriting and our approach to things, and it’s in everything we listen to. Literally from the day one, when the first song was written in my bedroom, there’s always been an element of a pop structure and not being afraid of being catchy. I don’t get that argument of not being catchy, that’s the way I like to hear music, and if our music isn’t doing that, then what’s the point. 

The pandemic represented a great hindrance to many bands. It’s relief that you can tour and plays shows again, how do you see the new songs in respect of taking them to the live stage?  

Craig: There’s a lot to think about, as this album is different to the first one. We were playing in our hometown, we just wrote, we’re able to rotate songs, when we got to the studio, we knew a bunch of songs, we knew how to play them. Whereas, a lot of this was never played before, but in the studio on that day we would make an arrangement. We spent three days in rehearsals just trying to see how it felt, we were asking ourselves ‘do they live as different beasts, do they stand up to the first album?’.

Stephen: Super-excited to see how they evolve, especially seeing how the fans react to the live noise. We’re picking songs we want to play, but you never know what the fans might be digging first, it’s a huge gamble, and it’s what we missed in our lives so much over the period that was taken away from us. As soon as we got back into the studio, elements of life that we just embraced, the whole thing, there’s no second base take, there’s no overdub. It’s like a rhythm section lifetime, we did that live in the studio.

The Academic have shared the stage with veterans like The Rolling Stones, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, PIXIES and The Strokes. Surely, this is great foundation on which you just continue to add fresh layers? 

Craig: All those opportunities we were given became our mantra as a young band, it was like, don’t piss anybody off, just do your thing and learn. I think it definitely stood the test of time for us because touring is like an animal that we love, we like to get out there and just do it. 

Stephen: It’s our favourite part, after doing a lot of hard work in the studio. We’ve been lucky with festival appearances that are great experiences in terms of playing live, when you’re out of your comfort zone, it’s not your show, but you get on the stage. We’ve been fortunate to have some cool experiences over the last few years. 

What do you count as the highlights? 

Craig: Our very first show back was Reading and Leeds after Covid. It was beautiful. We were one of the very first bands on the main stage. It was at midday, one o’clock, the sun was out, and we opened. There’s a big Irish festival called Electric picnic, we’ve played every single stage at it. We finally got to play the main stage, it was a real pinch me moment. 

Being on that journey must be a magnificent feeling, and it’s special for your fans to be there with you. The fans must be key, what do you count as memorable moments of engagement? 

Craig: One of great things about this band is that people have grown up with us, in a way. With this album, we’re singing about some bad things that have happened in the last five years, and fans have been reaching out. Seeing people who probably are our age, they grew up and have journeyed with us through these albums and EPs. That’s probably my favourite thing, there’s this family feeling to it all that the bands are connected to. 

Stephen: We’ve been blessed with people who have travelled far to come and see us, they keep in touch and hang outside venues. It’s wild, lovely community, and they’re just so nice. That’s one of the great things about touring, it’s a very caring atmosphere in the rooms when we play, that’s a credit to everyone who listens to our music. They make the touring experience so much fun, we’re just  forever grateful for that. 

‘Sitting Pretty’ is out now.

Words: Susan Hansen
Photo Credit: Ed Cooke

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