Real after Reel
DEBUTThe Yellowhead Project set to release album
They were billed as bodhran boogie, a machination of showband promoter Noel Carty who envisaged a Riverdance-meets-Boyzone type group of handsome young country lads replete with boot-cut denims, Brylcreem ruffled fringes, biceps, and most importantly have the ability to hold a tune.
The twist on trad, this shrewd Rossie hoped, would be the latest standard bearer for the Celtic pervasion on pop culture at the time.
Each band member was carefully chosen - selected from hundreds of 20-somethings who auditioned at Dublin’s Red Box venue for boyband svengali Louis Walsh and Ray ‘Madman’ Hedges, best known for his work with Take That, B*Witched, and Zig and Zag.
The year was 1999, and pop frenzy was cresting nicely. It was clear the industry-savants had hit on something, eventually settling on a line-up featuring Philip Gargan (Tierworker) and Matthew Keaney (Killeshandra), Garry O’Meara from Dublin, and Clare brothers Colin and Joseph O’Halloran. Overlooked for the project were performers who’d eventually find fame as ‘Westlife’. Soon after forming, record label Universal swooped, lured by this fresh take on an already tried-and-tested formula.
Twelve-months later the members of ‘Reel’ were household names. Cue posed pictures, glossy teen mags, wall-posters, keyrings, even exploratory talks for a range of Reel-branded instruments. The scope seemed endless.
Living the dream
Just five years earlier, in the boarders’ rec room at Mullingar’s St Finian’s College, a school renowned for music tutelage, teenage Philip had been chided for confiding his goal to one day share the same stage as his Smash Hits heroes.
Move forward to 2001 and the dream is fulfilled. Philip walks out at the London Arena to the din of thousands of noisy fans high on Pepsi Max after Reel is selected ‘Best Newcomer’ by the same magazine he had once aspired to feature in.
Reel’s star rose through their enigmatic performances, in support of Boyzone’s Ronan Keating, and in opening 12 nights straight at Wembley, ironically, for Westlife on the band’s second UK/Ireland tour titled ‘Where Dreams Come True’.
Recording sessions at London’s Air Studios and LA resulted in Top 10 single ‘Lift Me Up’ (2001), anchored by b-side ‘Beautiful Affair’ and an acoustic version of the title track.
Reel’s debut was followed by the impressive, but ultimately less commercially successful ‘You Take Me Away’ (2002). Twelve months more and the band, for which hopes once soared so high, in the most difficult industries to crack, began to fade. In Philip’s own words, an initial break went on longer than anyone expected. Eventually, Universal called. They asked if Reel was even still a “thing”. The five answered “no”.
“There was no big break-up. People say ‘what happened?’ I could make up something juicy. There was no big ‘the record label dumped us’ either. We just ran out of steam,” remembers Philip.
History is written by the victors. Twenty years on, it would be too easy to simply chalk Reel off as just another failed boyband, consigned to the noughties scrapheap alongside Y2K, ‘Brennifer’, and quiz shows featuring Anne Robinson.
Philip accepts there was an abridged, but deeply unfair, misnomer that Reel were nothing more than melody-shy generics. “The talent was there. Everyone could sing, everyone could play. We were all multi-instrumentalists.
“Soon we were jetting around the place, recordings, doing all the TV shows. It did go down the more poppy route musically which, don’t get me wrong, we went with for the experience and it was amazing. I wouldn’t change it for the world but, creatively, I suppose it’s the reason I ended up recording an album.”
So finally, we get to the crux of this story, where Philip, under the moniker ‘The Yellowhead Project’, a schoolday’s name derived from his crop of straw blonde hair, is preparing to release his debut album ‘Master The Monster’, out May 21.
Singing and music had always been in Philip’s background. He has an innate understanding of harmony and, when picked-up by Reel, had been singing classically with the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir, balancing those demands between his studies at UCD and farming back home near Bailieborough.
By his own admission, the now predominantly Dublin-based Philip was never your prototypical pop-singer. In the end the need to explore his own creativity came as an itch, one that prickled more and more as the years went on. The satisfying scratch has already yielded two critically acclaimed singles - ‘A Million Minds In Tune’ and ‘Strange World’. Newstalk’s Tom Dunne described Philip’s mastery of Beach Boy-esque vocals and harmonies as “close to witchcraft”.
“In less enlightened times, he’d be in trouble!” mused the ‘Pet Sounds’ broadcaster and former Something Happens frontman.
RTE Radio 1’s Fiachna Ó Braonáin lauded how Philip’s music parallels “shades of The Byrds”, while respected Hot Press writer Stuart Clark cooed: ‘A widescreen epic that...channels Messrs. [Jeff] Lynne, [Freddie] Mercury and [Bobby] McFerrin’.
Not bad company by all accounts. TheCeltsuggests one more - American musician Ben Folds. Immediately Philip perks up. Only last year he finished reading the former Five frontman’s autobiography.
“I absolutely love, love, love Ben Folds. I saw him at Vicar Street the last time he was over. It was just incredible, an incredible evening, amazing musicianship,” Philip reminisces.
That ‘Master The Monster’ can invite such genre-bending comparisons, in lesser hands, could have translated into an incomprehensible mess. Not so with Philip’s creative bent.
After Reel ended, Philip stayed in music. He worked as a session singer for other artists, and began vocal coaching, moving sideways too into music education.
Philip also focused his attentions to behind the scenes, finding a willing mentor in Peter Eades, producer of Finbar Furey, Clannad, and Thin Lizzy among many others. It was Peter who produced ‘Master The Monster’, and his expertise proved paramount in helping shape the overall sound of the album.
Clichéd though it sounds, ‘Master The Monster’ was very much a labour of love for Philip.
“I love arrangements, layering music, and the harmonies that come from that,” explains the now married dad to little 17-month-old Cillian.
Philip, who boasts an unusual vocal range flexing from low bass tones to high soprano, initially began recording at Mill Studios in Swords, before completing the bulk of the work at Peter’s own home studio in Portmarnock.
“We kicked things around. Yes, I’m a Brian Wilson superfan, I worship at the altar in certain ways, but there’s so much more. There’s ELO, McCartney, influences I’ve gathered over the years, and I tried bringing them all together to create this sound I had in my head, almost acapella like. I just wanted to hear what I wanted to hear.”
Music as therapy
Outside of music Philip is a practising psychotherapist. He believes strongly in the positive psychological effect music has, whether as a listener, or in this case, creator.
‘Master The Monster’ is a project years in the making. Such dedication shows, even down to how the 10 tracks are carefully arranged, to the artwork compiled by Seattle-based artist Melody Iza.
“Music and therapy goes hand in glove for me. On reflection, these songs helped me move forward,” regards Philip, who is also current musical director with the An Garda Síochána Male Voice Choir. The whole recording process, he remarks, gave him an opportunity to fulfil a sense of authenticity as a musician. “Making this album became one of the most important things I’ve ever done. I’ve a life lived [since the Reel days], but, if I hadn’t made ‘Master The Monster’, I might always have been left saying ‘what if’. That itch would always have been there.”