Setting Dublin alight
Rob Davis, the singer and guitarist with returned Irish exiles, Nero, discusses their surprise gig in Whelan's, the plans for their debut album and their very impressive list of friends.
Upstairs in Whelan's, in a bizarrely decorated room, Rob Davis, the singer and guitarist with Nero, is trying to relax. His band have just come off stage from what was their first gig on Irish soil in nearly two years and what a show it was. "Tonight's gig was pretty good," he says with a modest smile. "I mean I was nervous and a 130 people isn't bad for a gig we didn't even know was happening.
"We came home [from the States] and it was actually the guitarist's twin brother who saw it in the Event Guide and went 'you're fucking playing Whelan's.' And we went 'no, no'. He said 'there it is, are you Nero? Yeah, well then, that's you.' So we blagged Turn's bass rig and their guitar pedals and some of Sack's gear and Joe's [Walsh] stuff. It was just lucky that the guitarist from Sack is left-handed and so am I. It was a bit strange playing with other peoples' equipment."
Taking into account that Nero have been away for so long, getting that many people into Whelan's is no mean feat, but they sure haven't been taking things handy. "At the moment it's in the hundreds, the amount of gigs we've played, we'd never be able to do that here. We just play four or five nights a week when we can. The thing about making an impression in the States is that it's all about live.
"People will go and see unknown bands just because America has a real live rock n' roll tradition. If they see or hear you at sound-check, they'll come back. They just go in without knowing you, whereas here it's like 'oh, The Doves are playing', and everyone goes and sees them, or someone like that. We just have posters up that say 'Nero from Dublin City' and people come in and go 'ah, youse are Irish', which always helps."
In case you're feeling a little lost, here's a quick history lesson. Nero formed in Dublin in '97/98 and were "playing the circuit up and down the country for ages, but nothing seemed to be clicking too well, so we got an American manager. He actually came over to do a documentary on us, to follow us around for two weeks while we were recording. It was like a documentary style, going into our lives, talking to our family, to see what we were like. What a struggling band does to make ends meet kind of stuff." Nero ended up asking him to manage them and he said "yes with just one condition" - that they move to America. That's when things started coming together for the four-piece.
"We were on the East Coast," Rob explains, "and in the first three months, we done like a 47-date tour of the Northeast - Boston, New York, New York State. It's very big, so it takes that amount of time to do a small area. Right off the bat, though, it was really good. New York is hard to get a crowd, but once it spreads…" After playing on a TV music show called "Sounding Board" (the American equivalent of "Jools Holland"), the situation started to really pick up when they suddenly moved out to the West Coast. "It just got even better out there. We started getting big support slots, like we supported The Calling in San Francisco and basically stole all their crowd. So now we have all 16-year-old girls at our shows in San Francisco." He pauses before cheekily adding, "which is a good thing really."
Rob is quick to point out that the band haven't just been gigging and touring since they went to the States. "We actually recorded our first record last month with Barrett Martin, who used to be in the Screaming Trees. We met him in a club in San Francisco and we asked him about producing us. After giving him a CD to listen to we booked a studio in Berkley, California for two weeks, recorded the album and then we went to Seattle to mix it in Pearl Jam's studio." Barrett Martin not only used to be in Screaming Trees, but he's also played with REM, Queens of the Stone Age and Mad Season. Nero's list of celebrity friends and fans doesn't end there though.
After going to see Peter Buck's side project band, The Minus Fives, in San Francisco, they got talking to the REM man and handed him a CD, so he already knew of them when Barrett approached him to play guitar on the album. "When Barrett asked him, he said 'Yeah, I'd love to'. He lives in Seattle, but they were recording in Vancouver, which is just an hour north of Seattle. So he came down and played on four songs, that was great because I'm a huge REM fan."
"He's really nice, he's very professional and he just came in, and he's kinda shy. So he did his stuff and it was grand. While we were recording in California, we sent him up some songs on a DAT tape so he could learn them and do his parts. He did some in his own studio, in his own house and then we put them together. We never got to talk about his air rage incident though," he laughs.
Currently they're doing demos for Atlantic Records in New York who still have to make up their minds if they want to sign the band or not. "The fella we gave it to is second in command and he thinks it's great. He said 'I've got to give it to the main boss'. They're going to have a meeting about it to see what they want to do. It's all very exciting for us at the moment, it's great."
Musically Nero are attempting to do something different, which makes them hard to fit into a specific genre. Rob is adamant in pointing out that they don't want to fall into the stale 'Creedelback' scene where everything sounds "boring and the same". When it comes to describing Nero's sound, he draws a clear distinction between how they sound live, "all messy and distorted" and how they sound on record, "we kinda stripped it back and brought in piano and acoustic guitars and trumpet. Basically tried to make it sound like Sigur Ros. No, I'm only messing, I didn't say that", he smiles, whispering conspiratorially into the Dictaphone.
"It's not as chaotic as it is live. When you're live, you just step on the pedals and raise the volume. It's just we didn't want to make a dumb rock record, we wanted to have a feeling of different colours and emotions. There is some heavy rock songs and then there's some beautiful piano songs." In terms of lyrics, "it just depends on how I feel, it could be a book that inspires me or a conversation. It's all about people's everyday life, the way I see them and the way that they would see me. I try and capture emotions. Most of the songs have a dark undertone to them, because I think it's really hard to write a really chirpy song, unless you're fucking Ronan Keating or something, but then again he doesn't write his own songs, he goes covering Gareth Brooks.
"But, lyrically, it's about everyday emotions from sadness, to love, to hate and it's always different from what your point of view is to someone else's. I kinda study people, sit in the background in a café and earwig into their conversations. See if they're breaking up or things like that. It's just everyday life I try and write about."
The band had planned to return to the States to finish working on their album, but, since playing in Whelan's, there's been yet another twist in the Nero story, one of almost legendary proportions. Ger McDonnell, who worked on U2's hugely successful "All that you can't leave behind" album has said that he wants to produce their debut. With studio time already booked and so many famous names involved, whenever it does appear, it's bound to cause quite a stir. Keep an eye on this band; they've been tipped for very big things.
by Ken McGrath