The first time Jamie Fox’s parents heard his new band, Fight Like Apes, they weren’t just alarmed, they were downright horrified. The 24-year-old Dubliner had dropped out of DCU — he was in his final year, studying journalism — to pursue his dream of committing to Fight Like Apes full-time, and with the release of the band’s debut EP in May 2007, Jamie’s parents were finally getting to hear the fruits of his labours.
What they heard on the lengthily titled debut, How Am I Supposed to Kill You if You Have All the Guns, were less songs than electric shocks — tracks packed with blisteringly brutal lyrics, screechy vocals courtesy of lead singer MayKay, zero safe guitar hooks and lashings of synth-led digital distortion. Their reactions were not, perhaps, what Jamie had hoped for.
“They were just like, `What is this? What are you talking about? This stuff is disgusting,’” says Jamie. As he sits in a Dublin hotel, looking back on the band’s history from the safe vantage point of 2009, the hirsute co-vocalist and keyboardist can afford to trade a smile with 22-year-old lead singer MayKay: after all, things are very different now.
The week before last, Fight Like Apes were nominated for three Meteor Awards, in the categories of Best Irish Live Performance, Best Irish Album and Best Irish Band. They also recently received a Choice Music Prize nomination for best album for their September-released full-length debut Fight Like Apes and the Mystery of the Golden Medallion. At the time of writing, they are third favourite to take the prize. And they’ve done all this without changing their scrappy, blistering sound even one bit.
As Jamie’s parents have discovered, electric shocks might be dangerous, but they can also be thrilling. While no one would argue that Fight Like Apes are a band for everyone — their musical template is influenced by the distortion-loving likes of My Bloody Valentine, McClusky and Tom Waits — they have a rare and valuable capacity to energise, to enthrall and to provoke. Musically, their name suits them perfectly — echoing the primitivism they have in their sound — on a Fight Like Apes record, howls are blended with snippets from American television shows, and gentle keyboards segue into interesting, button-pushing distortion.
The first time I saw them play was in a hot, sweaty Whelan’s, where they nailed the crowd to the floor with the vigour of their performance. Live, both MayKay and Jamie have a fondness for playing the keyboards with their heads. While all the band cut interesting shapes onstage, MayKay stands out as easily one of the best — and most mesmerising — frontwomen Ireland has delivered in recent times.
Dressed generally in floaty whites or blacks, with her long black hair and banshee wail, she has an air of unpredictability that means crowds will crane their necks to make sure they see as well as hear her. Male fans — writing on Irish message-boards — have described themselves as alternately terrified by her and helplessly attracted to her.
Already, the band has already begun to generate interest from abroad. Their album has just been released in Britain and will be released in Japan in April. America, meanwhile, is looming on the horizon — the band also plan to release an EP there. It’s all happening very fast for a group that formed only in 2006.
The afternoon I met MayKay and Jamie, they are exhausted, having jetted over to London the day previously for a BBC session with Steve Lamacq. “We met Jonathan Ross,” MayKay — aka Mary-Kate — says excitedly, pulling her long black hair onto one shoulder. “He was so dapper. I said hi and then ran off because I was really intimidated.”
Ross, as it happens, is a fan of the band, having played them on his radio show. The Prodigy are also new converts — Fight Like Apes supported them on a recent tour. “Liam Howlett came into our room,” Jamie says. He said, `I love your band.’ And all we could say back was, `I love your band too.’ He sighs ruefully at the memory. “We felt so lame.”
Fight Like Apes still find it strange to be in the backstage area of festivals like Glastonbury or Electric Picnic, much less to be meeting people whose albums they grew up hearing. In person, MayKay and Jamie are far from the punk personas they project on stage: though tired today, they are polite, warm and friendly.
MayKay is the more media-savvy of the pair — unsurprising when you consider that her mother is the well-known journalist Kathy Sheridan. Last night, after she got back from London, MayKay headed straight to RTE to watch her mother on Questions & Answers. Her mother, she says, does the same for her: look around at a FLApes gig — and you’ll probably spot Sheridan.
While, as with Jamie’s family, it took MayKay’s parents a while to get into the band, now they’re committed fans. “My Mum got a record player at Christmas so she could listen to our album on vinyl,” MayKay says. “I think she’d be easy to please — when I was eight, I did a reading at Mass and she was so happy she cried. With my Dad, it’s a bit harder for him because me talking about ex-boyfriends [in the songs] is harder for him to hear. As a band, we’ve probably never written anything fictional.”
Those lyrics, plenty of which are not publishable in a family newspaper, are occasionally gynaecological in their detail and regularly relatively shocking in their honesty. At just 22, you wonder where MayKay gets the nerve, the confidence, to sing with such abandon and write with such vivid, excoriating openness.
“When you write about something that you’re that upset about or bitter about, you just let yourself into it, and that’s just what happens,” she says. She nods to Jamie. “We’ve both got one person each that would shape most of the stuff we have written about. We’ve both been so gutted. Same as anyone with a broken heart — you think, `that’s it, I’ll never love again’. But I love that guy for giving me something to write about.”
A certain template was put in place for the writing process. “If I write lyrics or Jamie does, we have a rule that we have to explain them,” MayKay says. “If he’s giving me a personal song about an ex, I can’t just sing it like I know what I’m talking about. So we usually have some horribly drunken session telling each other what we’ve written about. I see the three lads every day all day. So I bleed my guts out to them. They know more than my sister, more than my Mum.”
“We’re all so honest with each other,” Jamie adds. “It’s probably weird, like a big, twisted family. We say way too much, but I think it helps with the dynamics because everyone knows where the song is coming from.”
MayKay and Jamie met when they were teenagers, on holiday in Spain. “We realised that we went to school beside each other and that we both had an extremely optimistically cynical outlook on life,” MayKay says.
In 2006, both were disillusioned and bored with their college courses — Jamie was studying for his journalism degree and MayKay was studying medicinal chemistry, before switching into Philosophy at TCD.
“We used to leave our houses at nine in the morning to meet up in town and eat all day,” MayKay says. And so a band with bassist Tom and drummer Adrian was hatched — and rather than go the part-time route, the band decided to give it their all, signing with Model Citizen Records and quitting college.
If the interest in them subsequently has been enormous relative to their short history, the backlash has already been correspondingly severe — and it’s not just the band who have been feeling the heat.
Even before an album was released, journalists in the Dublin media were writing hymns to the band. While the coverage was not wholly unjustified, given their obvious potential, it was nonetheless a little surprising considering their lack of a body of work to discuss.
It was hardly any wonder, then, that The Irish Independent’s John Meagher administered a tongue-lashing by way of a review of the first album from Fight Like Apes, complaining about the “excitable” critics hyping up the band and arguing that “there’s an almighty racket all right, but it’s a pretty tedious one — and not nearly as clever as these people think they are.”
With the review also came a blog backlash, but happily the band seem well poised to handle it. “The Irish Independent review was a dig at everyone, at what he sees to be the Irish industry right now,” says MayKay. “If he could write something about our album that was actually about our album, that would be fine — and I’ve no problem with negative reviews. There needs to be both.”
As for the internet-bashers, “Ireland is a tiny place,” says MayKay. “You can usually tell who the people are.” “It’s the same people who are being really nice to you,” laughs Jamie. “While the internet is useful, everyone is a journalist on it. You’d see the backlash and think that, `Oh, they mustn’t be that popular’, but our popularity has never been higher. The bigger you get, the more begrudgery you get.”
While the critics probably won’t trip them up, burn out does seem like it might become a problem. The band, with the exception of their non-imbibing drummer, have gained a reputation for being a hard-living, hard-partying outfit. (“Really? That’s cool,” laughs MayKay, glancing down at the glass of white wine before her. “I like that.”)
Although they’ve set ground rules, albeit slightly precarious ones, for themselves — “I don’t drink Buckfast until a few minutes before going on stage,” notes Jamie — as a foreshadowing of times and tours to come, it seems slightly ominous.
On the plus-side, however, they’ve clearly got their heads screwed on the right way — and songs like Battlestations, Jake Summers and Something Global prove that they’ve got the songwriting chops to realise their dreams. Possibly even more importantly, the energy and ambition are certainly there to do it — as are the precedents.
“Within the space of 12 months, a band like The Ting-Tings went from playing the BBC Introducing stage at Glastonbury — which we just played — to headlining a stage at Glastonbury,” says MayKay. When Fight Like Apes met the band, lead singer Katie offered MayKay some advice. “She said: `It’s going to get hectic, you’re going to want to take a few days off, but just don’t.’
“It sounds like a cliche to say it, but we’re really young, we’re really excited and energetic — and now’s the time that we can do all this.”