JJ72 – Fergal Matthews

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Interview by Mark Bayross

After 2000’s self-titled debut album and a string of hit singles, JJ72 have toured the world and played at most of last year’s festivals in the UK and Europe. Although they disappeared off the radar a bit here in the UK this year, all that is about to change.

The Irish trio of singer/guitarist Mark Greaney, bassist Hillary Woods and drummer Fergal Matthews are about to release their second album, I TO SKY. Produced by the legendary Flood (U2, Depeche Mode) and mixed by the equally legendary Alan Moulder (Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails), it sees their sound develop even further in scale and impact.

I spoke to Fergal about the new album, big things like religion, and even bigger things like U2.

Tell us about the new album…

For a start, we recorded it with Flood and Alan Moulder – a bit of a dream team for us! We are all fans of bands like Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails and U2, so the chance to work with them was fantastic. This album also differed from the first in that we recorded it more as a band this time – for the first album, Mark wrote the songs and we played them, whereas this time the songs grew more out of us writing and playing together. It’s worked really well – the album’s everything we had ever dreamed of. Although it’s still a dark album, in a way, it’s more upbeat.

How did you come to work with Flood and Alan Moulder?

Actually, they came to us…it was really strange! [Laughs] Flood had heard some of our stuff beforehand – he’d heard some demos – so we knew the guy for a year or so before we started recording the album, but we didn’t think in any way that those guys would want to produce us. When it came to recording the album, we found out that Flood was available and so we went to him and discovered he was up for it!

Did you make a conscious decision to develop your sound in such a dramatic way or did it just happen?

It basically came out of us playing as a band. We didn’t want Flood to make us sound like this or that, but having him there allowed us to approach it in a slightly different way. He listened and helped us develop confidence in our own abilities. I mean, we can’t play our instruments that well – we’re not a band like Muse who are technically very good.

Mark (Greaney) has spoken about the album’s religious imagery. What was behind this concept?

It’s not about any one religion in particular, it’s more the grandiose idea of religion and the way people are drawn into it. We are just saying that music can do the exact same thing, can bring people together and move them. Music has the same effect as religion…but without causing so many wars… [Laughs] The religious imagery brings so much with it – it takes in all the grand ideas of the beginning and end of the world, of a stranger giving his life to others and so on…these are beautiful ideas. Err, don’t get me wrong, we’re not banging on about Jesus here! [Laughs] This is more about the ability of any religion to move you… Also, religion is a search, and it’s only when you’re dead that you find what you’re looking for …

FORMULAE, the first single from the album, is out now – do you have an idea what the next single will be?

Yes and no. Maybe BROTHER SLEEP, but that’s not definite. Let’s see how this one goes and then we’ll decide.

If you were to be compared to any other band, who would you want it to be?

Probably the Smashing Pumpkins – we all admired them hugely…and early U2. They had that feeling of wanting to get something across, but not being sure what it was…

Do you have a favourite track on the album?

Yes, and it keeps changing! I listen to the album every day, and different songs jump out every time – I think the album’s a real grower. At the moment I’m mad into I SAW A PRAYER – it’s so different with that harmony and those backing vocals. It’s deep, but you can also listen to it on a surface level, you can nod your head along to it, you know?

Would Mark and Hilary pick different favourites?

Oh yeah! Mark’s would be SINKING – that song is the best we’ve ever played together – and Hilary’s would change every day too, I’m sure.

It seems like you’ve been away most of this year – did you worry about losing the momentum you had built up with the first album?

We were actually in America and Japan, it’s just that we weren’t here. It’s funny that when a band is no longer visible, everyone assumes they’ve split up or been dropped by the record company. [Laughs] But we’ve been touring, and when you move around, you forget that you haven’t been to certain places for a while. The shows we’ll be playing are the same size as when we left the UK last time, so we’re ok, but we do need to get back in front of people, definitely.

You are touring the UK this autumn – what are your plans after that?

We’re going to tour Europe to raise our profile there again, then it’s back here, and after Christmas, release another single.

You’ve played with the likes of U2, Coldplay and the Manic Street Preachers – what has been the highlight so far?

Playing with U2, but not at Slane Castle – in Copenhagen. It was the first time we played with them and they were absolutely amazing! No disrespect to them – they are getting on a bit – but they still play with so much passion. Every show, they just get up there and do it! They are brilliant, and still as good now as they have ever been… I guess if we’ve wanted to emulate any band, it has always been U2…their drive and passion, and the fact that with all the changes music has gone through, they’ve always been U2. They’ve made a few mistakes, sure, but they’ve always had good tunes and they’re still making great songs. I guess you could say we’d like to have their burning passion…!