Five years since a debut album established their reputation as Ireland’s indie-pop sweethearts, The Academic have evolved and so have their fans.
It was never the plan to wait five whole loops around the sun before following up their ambitious and declarative opening statement, but when do things ever go to plan? National lockdowns, a hectic touring schedule and various life decisions meant that The Academic’s release schedule was twisted beyond recognition, but fortunately, it’s given them just the experience they needed.
The four-piece – led by vocalist Craig Fitzgerald, with Stephen Murtagh on bass – have toyed with their sound over multiple single releases and two celebrated EP projects, transforming their charming but admittedly one-note tone into something more complex, albeit with the same catchy appeal.
At the same time, the group have grown up together and have all been forced to address a new reality as maturing twenty-somethings. With that comes a whole new world of stress, but also new opportunities for joy and hope – all of which can be heard on “Sitting Pretty”, an ode to the uncertainty and mixed emotions that come with true adulthood. These emotions are wonderfully extracted by close collaborator and long-time friend Nick Hodgson, the former Kaiser Chief and ongoing songwriter-producer who formed a friendship with these four spritely guys back in their early days.
So, four lads starting to stand on their own two mental feet, a newly-awakened palette of sonic colour, one experienced producer and a desire to flesh out an album of new material – we speak to Craig and Stephen about how it all came together.
Your first album, ‘Tales From The Backseat’, was a distinct sonic and thematic documentation of four lads living out youthful dreams – is this long-awaited as focused, or more exploratory?
Craig Fitzgerald: It definitely is a brief snapshot of the last five years. We got to experiment so much with our two EPs and after messing around in the studio, we’re not afraid of genres anymore. We knew we wanted to go into one studio with one producer and one mixer – we could use that stable environment to try out new arrangements, sonics and productions, and still have them feel like us creating in the moment. We had a lot of songs, some are years old and some are brand new, so we weren’t afraid to divert into new styles.
“Sitting Pretty” navigates the acceptance of adulthood and how messy that can be, which is a complex and confusing reality to come to terms with – is that a journey you’ve followed closely over the last five years?
CF: We always write about what’s going on in our lives; we reflect on what’s happening in our surroundings and, being in a band together, we all face similar experiences. We couldn’t write like that first album now, it would feel very strange if we pretended to be out drinking vodka red bulls and having Saturday night flings. We’ve all grown up as life has thrown its shit at us, and our music tastes have grown too – we’re definitely into a more thoughtful and pensive song writing approach. You can definitely see that on this album.
Do you think that, as a result, you’re less happy-go-lucky than you used to be?
Stephen Murtagh: Maybe! We’re less energetic than we were as teenagers. The mental experience between the first album and now, growing up and really seeing the world… the transition into our twenties has made us fundamentally different people, different musicians and different songwriters than we were five years ago. That’s only natural, and I’m really glad that it comes across in the music. That is more or less what we were going for.
With so much change going on with you all as individuals and as a group, why was now the moment to release your album after such a long wait?
CF: Having two EPs under our belt wasn’t exactly in our plan – we always wanted to be an album band. We kind of knew the road we were going to take, it was just a matter of when we could get travelling. There was no question that Nick Hodgson was the guy we wanted to work with. The songs we had, we knew would suit him. The whole thing made sense to us, there were no crossroads to face.
The Academic aren’t commonly associated with a 60s sound, but that retro sensibility certainly comes across. How do you balance the classic and modern approaches to your music?
SM: A lot of it is following your intuition and gradually building an understanding of what sounds like The Academic. We’ve never sat down and said ‘we should sound more retro’, we just naturally find our place. It’s not a conscious discussion. There are discussions about making the album an enjoyable listen with different flavours of genre and tempo, so those are more likely to be the things we plan out.
Where do you guys fall on the spectrum of live performer to recording artist?
CF: Over the last few years, we’ve become savvier with recording and producing our music, but it is always important to remember that the next live show is just over the horizon. You can get demo-itis in the studio sometimes, the focus becomes so intense. When you jam or riff together, you can often hear the venue in the recording and it changes how you experience your music – it impacts your decision making too. Basically, one thing I’ve learned is: do not get too attached to what you hear on your laptop in your bedroom because although plugins open a world of possibilities, playing in the room has its own unique beauty even if it is ‘less perfect’.
There are some vulnerable themes on this album – does writing together help you to be less afraid of exposing yourself in that way?
CF: I think so. The themes across the album are a bit chaotic. It’s not all about anxiety, but it’s about the rollercoaster ride of life over the last five years. We have great moments and darker, more mature decision-making songs. I have tonnes of ideas and Stephen is like my great editor, condensing all my wackiness. It’s hard to write a song called “What’s Wrong With Me” and have the confidence to show it to someone but we’ve got a good ping pong game going on where we can figure it all out together.
SM: We’ve landed in such a beautiful place in terms of our working relationship on this album. It feels quite neurotic to me, quite overthink-y in a way that we have been in real life. Self-aware, self-conscious, and at times insecure but at other times completely joyous. We had to pick the songs that felt like they truly encapsulated our complicated journey, and that isn’t a black and white process. We arrived at our thirteen songs and hopefully we curated an interesting listen.
Who did you make this record for, and who do the lyrical messages address?
SM: It’s a personal album written about slices of our lives, but we’re in the fortunate position where a lot of people have grown with this band, so many others will be at the same stage of their own lives. People have asked what our big goal is with the record, and the answer we come back to is that we hope our audience find it comforting on some level. They can listen to our more vulnerable moments and relate to it. The biggest goal of this album was to provide comfort for people in something that they can relate to.
CF: The process of making it was, for us, an intimate process of getting the thoughts right, but we were always very excited to hand these songs over to the fans and to enjoy and hopefully they can relate to the things we’ve been through. It’s time for us to stop viewing this album as our story, and hand it over to the people. It’s time for them to make their own stories with them.
How do you reflect on your first album, and how do you expect to reflect differently on this one in five years’ time?
SM: When we look back at the first album, it was a completely honest reflection of where we were at during that time. Hopefully we can look back at this record and see that we wore our hearts on our sleeves, it felt honest, and connected with people in a similar or even better way than the first one did. Looking back, the overwhelming feeling is pride and I hope to have a similar thought on this one.
CF: Hopefully in five years’ time, we aren’t still looking back at just two albums.