Three days after capping off the happiest time of his young life, ‘Gypsies on the Autobahn’ frontman James Smith sprawled flat on his bed in his red bricked north Dublin family home.
Dark thoughts ambushed his mind, and through this unaccustomed restlessness James stared blankly, the solace of sleep slipping with every seemingly eternal minute.
Following the couple’s honeymoon, James’ new wife had stayed an extra few days in California visiting family, and now back in Dublin James was as alone as he had ever felt before.
“It never really happened before. It was torturous, I just couldn’t settle. I felt if only this could end I’d be happy,” remembers James. He reflects that the ordeal may mirror the gambit of emotion his own dad experienced, prior to James and his brothers losing him to suicide at a young age.
While such vulnerabilities were explored on the band’s warmly received debut ‘Born Brief’ (2017), the extent to which such personal sensitivities inform the soon-to-be released follow-up ‘Suspended’ (June 28) is undeniable, as evidenced lyrically on track ‘Dreamless’ where James sings: ‘I’ll terrify every inch of my mind’.
“I felt I was experiencing what my dad had been experiencing for the first time,” says James, who has always relied on the closeness of family to pull him back from the brink when confronted by feelings of fear or self-doubt.
James had avoided exposing the fullness of this internal rawness on ‘Born Brief’, in part, for fear of how his own family may perceive it.
“I don’t like talking like that in front of my family because I feel I might scare them. But I came to a realisation that it’s the pain you hide from your family that scares them the most,” he ultimately accepts.
‘Suspended’ is an all round evolution for a band some 13 years on the go. Its beautifully-crafted tracks are liberally themed on an honest desire of hope borne out of moments of genuine struggle.
Fitting perhaps, given that this is a band living with uncomfortable recognition of potential not yet realised.
Signed to Universal Records four years ago (2015), the release of ‘Born Brief’- a record ten years in the making- had meant to herald their ascension, but fell short of expectation.
Learning from that experience, the band has dispensed with the concept of “writing for other people”, says James. Shorn too is the restrictive appellation that Gypsies on the Autobahn are simply just another guitar band to add to the pile, when in reality they can be, and are, so much more.
The muted reception to ‘Born Brief’, when hopes had been so high, “humbled” the collective, confides James, who is joined in Gypsies on the Autobahn by brother Dan on drums, and old school pals Gary Quinn (bass) and Niall Mooney (guitar).
Both James’ and Dan’s “folks” are from Cavan. Mum Bernadine McEnroe is from Crosskeys, and dad Luke Smith from Ballyjamesduff. They grew up just miles apart, becoming sweethearts in their early 20s before moving to Dublin to live and work, and eventually raise four boisterous boys.
The Smiths settled in Cabra, still then a blue-collar working class part of the city, where they set-up home within one of the neatly appointed period houses that so characterises this part of the capital.
“With ‘Born Brief’ we sort of expected everything would fly immediately. We’d signed a deal, put the album out, had all these people talking about us, but for whatever reason it didn’t take off,” educes Dan, sitting next to James, and speaking to The Anglo-Celt from a worn and clearly loved brown leather sofa in the Smiths’ front livingroom.
Adorning the blush pink walls are a variety of family art, the homely sense summed up by a framed set of hand prints - those of James, Dan, and fellow siblings Kevin, who doubles as acclaimed hip-hop artist ‘Kojaque’, and Liam, also an immensely talented musician.
It took for Gypsies on the Autobahn to “stop thinking” about what they were “trying” to do, and “just concentrate on the music” to arrive at where they now comfortably find themselves musically.
“With [Suspended] we had some of the songs from before, when we were recording the first album, but at the time we didn’t feel like they fit. So with this album we really approached it with an open mind to try whatever it was we wanted,” Dan explains further.
“It definitely freed us to come at things from a different perspective. We weren’t reinventing the wheel, just putting a different spin on it,” he says.
James agrees with his younger brother, and both pay tribute to mum Bernadine for the encouragement she bestowed on her boys growing up. She also had a willingness to do without if only to ensure her sons had every opportunity to explore their burgeoning talents.
“We’re forever thankful for that. Music was always encouraged. If there ever was any kind of financial difficulty she definitely hid it from us,” says Dan looking back.
That maternal benevolence in more recent years saw Bernadine convert the family’s garage into a rehearsal space after seeing her boys in their whatever project struggle to forge their way in what is often the most unforgiving of industries.
Allied to that the exorbitant cost of renting even the most lamentable of free space in Dublin. At one stage Gypsies on the Autobahn shared a rehearsal room with the now split ‘Little Green Cars’, forking over €1,000 per month for that meagre pleasure.
“We didn’t even have access to it all the time, and it was such a struggle bringing equipment in and out of town. We did it for about four or five months. It was a disaster,” recalls Dan.
Focuses the mind
The Cavan connection has come in handy too. A holiday home next to their granny’s in Crosskeys is often utilised, not just by the Smith brothers when seeking a quiet creative space before recording, but other friends in other bands as well.
“It’s a good place because there’s no internet up there, and there’s barely phone coverage, so you pretty much have to play music to stay occupied. It focuses the
mind. There’s a DVD player, that’s about it, and board games,” reveals Dan. When the Celt spoke with James and Dan earlier this month, it was brother Kevin’s turn, as Kojaque, whose output was benefiting from the relative rural solitude.
Gypsies on the Autobahn’s appearance at the recent Cavan Arts Festival in Con Smith Park remarkably wasn’t their first performance in the county. In fact, they played on the back of a truck at a windswept Crosskeys Festival. They hope it won’t be their last either as they build towards a future album launch event, as well as finalising what summer festival circuit sessions come their way.
‘Suspended’ materialised after initially entering the historic Westlands studios to complete just two tracks to appear on what was to be two individual planned EPs. They ended up though recording eight songs, several of which the record label found palatable enough to lobby as the foundation of a new full album.
Producer Ciaran Bradshaw manned the desk, and his innate understanding of what direction Gypsies on the Autobahn were driving helped facilitate an otherwise seamless process.
“Again we were able to bring these ideas we had and just let loose,” notes James. “At the same time he’d have no problem telling us, ‘That’s shit, now let’s move on’.
“We needed that.”
Gypsies on the Autobahn’s sophomore release ‘Suspended’ hits shelves June 28, coinciding with the release of the second track from the album ‘Gonna be Strong’.
“We’re excited for sure,” adds James, who personally considers ‘Gonna be Strong’ as signalling the band’s newfound maturity of sound.
“The first track ‘Make You Mine’ was our departure, our thing to say these guys have more tricks up their sleeves.
“We want people to know we now have a different sound and if you didn’t like the first sound, this is something totally different.”