Brendan Tallon: “I Love The Power of A Pop Song”

Brendan Tallon from Ballinteer has been a restless creative force in Irish musical life for more than thirty years now. Good Friday just gone saw the release of ‘Old Man Superman’, his first new song since 2012’s Saturday Captains, made with Barry O’Mahony, once of Luggage, of whom Tallon speaks highly below. After a solid thirty-plus years as a band leader and collaboratorーCrocodile Tears, The Coletranes, Revelino, Saturday Captains, and Beatclub, the cover band that has kept him in business as a full-time musician to this dayー’Old Man Superman’ is Tallon’s first ever solo release.

Tallon gets into ‘Old Man Superman’ in depth in the conversation below so for the purposes of this paragraph it’s just necessary to say a couple of things. Firstly, ‘Old Man Superman’ is Tallon’s response to the story of the Skilled Veterans Corps, a group of older Japanese men who volunteered to enter Fukushima in 2011 so that younger men with more to lose would not have to. Secondly, ‘Old Man Superman’ is an irresistible song ー punchy, soulful, effusive, incandescent. The inkling to write this piece arose when on a drive home on the day of its release I put it on for the first time, then immediately had to put it on again for the second, third, fourth and fifth times. When that instant electric connection is made I’m always curious to figure out what just happened.

Although I’ve known who Brendan Tallon is since The Coletranes went Top Ten with ‘I Wake Up’ in 1991, and although I’m from Ballinteer myself, I’d never met him and I didn’t know what to expect from our Zoom chat. I had suspected, possibly through one too many listens to ‘Don’t Lead Me Down’, that I might be interviewing some brooding melancholy character. He is… not that. He was buzzing with energy and ideas and associations and with a profound, moving, and infectious love of the song. It was a joy to listen to Brendan’s enthusiastic explication of the art and craft of songwriting.

‘Old Man Superman’ is now out on Bandcamp. A further two singles are planned for release over the next couple of months and an album Love In These Times comes out this summer.

NC: Brendan, thanks for doing this. 

BT: This is the first one I’ve done for a long time now, except for Alan Corr’s thing the other day, so I might be a bit rusty.

Was the last time you did one of these for the Saturday Captains album with Barry O’Mahony? 

Yeah. Did you hear that? 

I only discovered that album literally this week. 

It was one of those records. I mean, I don’t know what you make of yourself, but I’d still consider it a real gem. A lot of people missed it. You know, Barry and myself wouldn’t be the greatest as far as publicising ourselves. We were good at doing the music and then the writing but when it comes to anything else we would have been like: we’ll make the music and that’s about all we can manage. So the album definitely slipped under the radar, but I know a lot of people who did actually give it a listen have grown to love it. I’m personally very proud of it.

I didn’t know Barry O’Mahony was still active. I remember him from Luggage, who always had this great lost band status to me. There’s this air of mystique about them, and then suddenly, I’m finding that he’s still writing and recording new songs. I know it’s a few years ago now.

Yeah. Luggage played with Revelino, they supported us a good few times. I knew Barry. We used to go to parties and stuff together but we wouldn’t have been great friends. But since then we’ve become great friends and now I see him all the time.

In fact, I ran all the songs from the new album by Barry first. He’s kind of my lyrical editor and he taught me a lot about writing lyrics. When we were doing the Saturday Captains record he said to me ‘Look, I’m going to look after the lyrics, you look after the music’. And you know, I think he’s one of the most unique writers around that we’ve ever had. He’s a master lyricist. And a completely unique voice and a unique vision and a unique way of using language.

He taught me a lot of things about writing lyrics, because during the Revelino years, I tried to come up with my own kind of voice and my own language. And when Revelino broke up I never stopped writing songs. But Barry taught me to write in a more conversational tone. That’s what he would always say to me: make them more conversational. Remember, my lyrics for Revelino were described once in the Melody Maker as “portentous”ーnot pretentious; portentous. And I thought, yeah, that’s accurate, you know? That’s what I was kind of going for. But after that, I wanted to be more direct with my lyrics. And working with Barry taught me a lot because, talking about the album I’m just about to release, some of these songs were written in the year or two after Revelino broke up.

You’ve talked about being in bands and collaborating, but on the new record is it all you?

Well. I’ve described it a few times like trying to climb Mount Everest on your own, you knowーdoing a solo album and playing absolutely everything. The two things I wasn’t able to do was play the drums and I had Fintan Jones, who plays in my cover band, and is a fantastic multi-instrumentalist, to play sax, clarinet, flute. And he helped me with singing a lot of the harmonies together. The lion’s share of it was just myself here tearing my hair out half the time. But, you know, got there in the end.

You said there are songs on the current record that you wrote just when Revelino broke up. Didn’t Revelino break up the guts of twenty years ago?

Well, I wrote two songs in the few years after Revelino. I wasーI’m always writing songs. That’s what I do. Since the first time I bought a guitar. I did a few guitar lessons years ago withーyou know David Kitt? His father Tom Kitt was my guitar teacher in primary school. 

Mine too.

Right! So there you go. So he gave me a few guitar lessons, but then the guitar went under the bed until I was 16 or so. Then I took it out. And the first two chords I learned were G and C and I wrote a song straight away. Before I actually went to learn anybody else’s song, I wrote a song with the two chords I’d learned. So I’ve pretty much been doing it ever since. But when I wrote a couple of songs after Revelino broke up, I realised, OK, I’m going to have to do a solo album. But I was hoping a band would somehow form and I could bring these songs to them, because I just like the togetherness of a band, or brotherhood, or whatever. Then Saturday Captains came along, and that distracted me, but even during Saturday Captains I was writing tunes. In fact, I presented ‘Old Man Superman’ in its earliest form to the lads in Saturday Captainsーwhat do you think of this idea?ーand they didn’t know what to make of it, really. They were likeーno, that’s one of yours, Brendan.

Can you talk about how ‘Old Man Superman’ came about?

Sure. So normally, when I’m writing a songーdo you play guitar? 

Kind of.

Do you write songs? 

Well, no. I tried, in school, and they were not good enough to encourage me to continue to try. 

Right. Well, funny enough, as I was saying to you, the first song I wrote was just G and C. I remember the tune of it and I remember playing it to friends. And they went “Oh, that’s catchy”, you know. So like, straight away, I knewーnot that I knew I could do it but there was something in the songs that I was writing that caught people’s ears or whatever.

But the way I write songs is I pick up a guitar or I sit at the piano and I start playing around with chord sequences. That’s my thing. And singing on top of them, just making up rubbish on top. Gobbledygook half the time, it’s not even English. And if I get a little chord sequence, or a couple of chords that interest me, you’d be amazed how many times the first two or three lines of the song with the melody and the chord sequence just come out of you at the same time. The theme is there, the first lines of the chorus or the verse is there. And this interesting chord sequence.

What always interests me about writing songs, or listening to music, that I don’t think is discussed enough, are chord sequences. And I think any of the bands that come along that make a difference, quite often they use unusual chord sequences. They combine chords in a newish way.

I mean, a classic example is the Beatles, right? Take ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. They’re doing rock and roll, Chuck Berry shuffle, but it’s a G to D to E minor. That’s a folk change so you would expect it to go to B minor but instead it goes G, D, E minor, B major so straight away that’s a new thing. That’s an unusual thing. Having a G, D, E minor, but a B major instead of B minor, that pricks up your ears straight away. And then in the middle eight, there’s a D minor, which is really a show tune chord change, it’s kind of a Cole Porter-y thing to do. It’s a bit slightly jazzy from that original idea. So they’re doing a Chuck Berry rhythm with Everly Brother harmonies to a rock beat, throwing in a Cole Porter thing in the middle with handclaps on it, and it’s all over two and a half minutes. So your ears, I mean at the time, it must’ve beenーWow!

Then something like ‘I Am The Walrus’ has a deeply unusual chord sequence that just works. And then, Bowie’s a classic. If you look at Bowie’s chord sequences like ‘Quicksand’, it’s outrageous, and ‘Ashes to Ashes’ is such an amazing song and underneath it all is this deeply strange but beautiful chord sequence. Then bands like the Pixies come along, and they’re using chordsーthey’re not using weird chords, like jazzy chords, like Steely Dan, but they’re using ordinary chord sequences in unusual ways.

There’s so many examples. Take ‘Here Comes The Sun’. It’s just D, G, and A, right? The simplest chord sequence in the world. But in the chorus, he goes D, G, and E7, and that’s the moment where it just becomes something. It’s just one chord. And I’m really interested by those changes that are very sophisticated but totally instinctive. None of these writers probably studied theory. It’s just all instinctive. And that’s what I kind of try to do. 

So ‘Old Man Superman’ was one of those songs that I sat down with the guitar, and I started playing the opening riff of it, thought that’s cool, where can I go with this? Next section came along then next section, next section, and it was all done in five minutes.

Five minutes.

Pretty much. Five or ten minutes. I don’t know if you noticed that song is in four sections?

Emーno.

Yeah, it starts off and not to get too technical because it would be boring people who are reading thisー

No, go onーI can worry about the readers.

OK, good. So it starts off in A, D, and G. And then it goes into major seven chordsEmaj7, Amaj7, Dmaj7, B. Then is the riff, which is B, A, G, E, D, and then it jumps into the sax break in C. And it resolves by going to F sharp, back to B, to A. So it’s a really, really weird chord sequence, but I like playing around with those kinds of chord sequences, and making them seem seamless. So you don’t notice that these things are happening. That really interests me. So I had the chord sequence pretty much done, it came amazingly fast, because there is so much to it. But it just seemed so natural.

And so my next step would normally be that I would play around with it, try and sing, but nothing was coming as far as a theme or a melody. So I normally just put it up onto Logic, you know, record it onto Logic with a basic drum beat, stick a rhythm guitar down and a bass guitar. And then every time I go back to the computer to work on a song, I’ll put that on for 10 minutes, I’ll fiddle around with the arrangement of it. I still had no lyrics, so I didn’t know what the song was about, you know. So I had the song and it sat there for about two years. And I tried different melodies and different lyrical ideas and nothing really hit me. And I still had no theme.

And then I took a break. I was just surfing around, reading some articles on the Guardian, various newspapers, you know, and came across an article about Fukushima. And the story wasn’t about the Skilled Veterans Corps, but it was about Fukushima. There was a paragraph that, as an aside, just mentioned these guys. So it just hit me really hard. You know, it was a very Japanese thing to do. But it’s also a very human thing to do. A very logical thing to do. I don’t want to get too heavy into this because it is a pop song at the end of day, you know? But at the same time, I was reading a book called The Closing of the Western Mind? Have you ever come across that one? 

No, no.

It’s by a guy called Charles Freeman. And the idea is, it was about the struggle in early Christianity between the Greek and Arab tradition, which was scientific, and the new Western tradition, which was more mythical. In the Greek and Arabic tradition, the direct translation of the first line of the Bibleーwhat’s the first line? First there was…

In the beginning was the Word?

In the beginning was the Word. But in the Greek translation, the beginning was logic. Logos meaning word, which directly translated is logic. Greek philosophers believed that logic was something that could be found, like gravity, that was an immutable force in nature. That in the beginning was the law of immutable logic. This was God’s mind. The other word that they had was Muthos, which is where a myth comes from. And in Greek and in Arab traditions, these things live side by side. Logic the scientific tradition and myth the ceremonial tradition. And when the battle was engaged, the Roman tradition, which was more into the myth, said that God’s mind was more powerful than the logic, his Word is more powerful than the logic, the myth won over from the logic, and in that way, we were kind of flung into the dark ages. No more learning for two hundred years, and the Greek and Arab tradition was kind of destroyed. 

So I was reading this book and the idea that logic was an immutable power was in my head. Then I read the story about this guy, and what he said in the article was that he didn’t see it as brave, this was just deeply reasonable. It was the only logical thing to do. That’s the way he saw it. In the song that became “Logic was his superpower”. So I just went for a walk with this thing in my head and the first two verses came to me while I was walking around Marlay and I just came home. So I had the song then.

There’s something in the song that made me reflect on grandparents in general, specifically my Dad, and a self-effacing generosity I associate with older people. The notion that Mr Yamada would head into a nuclear reactor to save a younger person seemed familiar.

Well as I said, it is very Japanese, but we’ve discovered through COVID that it is quite a universal thing. People will do things for the younger generation that are so selfless. 

I also wanted to make a song that defended scientists and the sciences, because you had climate change conspiracies, you had vaccination conspiracies, you have all these conspiracies. Suddenly scientists were all in this evil cabal, you know, trying to form a one-world government. Where growing up, we always thought of them as idols and heroes. And so I wanted to write a song and put it all in there that defended science and celebrated that idea that people will do that. And as I said, not in a sentimental way. Mr Yamada said, this is not sentimental. I’m just thinking that I will get radiation poisoning, and I will get cancer, but I’ll be 85 or 90 years of age. I don’t want somebody who’s starting out their married life, who has young kids to get this. And that played in a lot with my worldview. 

So I understood immediately when I read the story, but I was telling Bren Berry, who’s been with me and helping me and my family, my biggest champion, since the early days. He’s been in all the bands with me. And when I had the record ready, I contacted him and said, listen I need help here, you knowーlisten to the songs, tell me what I need to do next. And so he said, ‘What are the songs about?’ So I told him about ‘Old Man Superman’, he thought that was fantastic, you know. And then I sent him the song. And I told him all this, what I’m saying to you here, you know about the book and about my feelings about science. And he goes, ‘Well, you’d never know it from the song, Bren’ (laughs). 

But my feeling is that you can’t put all that stuff in, even though that’s what goes through your head when you’re writing a song. You still want the sound to be fun, you still want the song to be something that people can read into themselves. I don’t want to put every word of my thoughts and feelings into it. You distil it down into imagery and if it’s a great fun pop song, it might even travel further with a message than it would if I had written a thirty-verse heavy protest song. So that’s my thing. I just love the power of a pop song. 

It’s interesting when you say you’re not trying to dictate what people hear in the song. At work I run a group where we read poems together and a constant in this group is the variation in perspectives on the same poem. If I brought ‘Old Man Superman’ into this group, and I’ve five or six people in this group with me, I know that everyone else will hear it differently than I’ve heard it.

Well the thing is I don’t consider songwriting to be a high art form. I consider it to be a craft. And for me songs don’t have meaning, you know. I always compare it to a furniture maker. If you carve a great table out of wood nobody asks what’s the meaning of the table. They just know that’s a beautiful tableーit’s something we can sit at, that we can have our dinner at, and we can chat around. And songs are like that. I like the fact that ‘Old Man Superman’ is out there because the final creative act in music is the listener hearing it and getting their own thing out of it. Whether that means they want to dance to it, or sing along with it, you knowーsongs should be used, they should be used at parties, they should be used to relax, they should be used to entertain yourself when you’re driving in a car. They should just be out there. They are not things to be hung on walls in fine art galleries. 

One thing that struck me about ‘Old Man Superman’ was its confidenceーits willingness to use loads of ideas in one song as if ideas were in endless supply. I was listening to it today quite closely, and even in the first one minute and twenty secondsーa lot happens.

Yeah, a lot happens, and it goes through those four stages I was telling you and it goes through those chord changes, and it goes through different ideas and different themes and different moods. And not every song on the album is like that. But I’ve never been really short of ideas musically. And I listen to lots of different kinds of music. I love classical music and I’d listen to Leonard Cohen and then I’d go and listen to Sex Pistols. I’d be listening to the Pixies or Simon and Garfunkel or Schubert and Eddie Cochran. You’re like a little magpie: I never sit down and try to copy but I just have a broad enough appreciation and influences that I don’t mind picking from here and there. I think that’s the way to do it. I mean, pop music is really like a traditional music now, isn’t it? It’s almost like a folk music: it belongs to all of us and all musicians take ideas from each other and that’s how it develops.

I find my listening has changed quite a lot as I got older: has your listening changed?

To be honest, no, because my job at the weekend is playing music, you know? And then during the week, I’m either with the kids or I’ll be grabbing a few hours to make music. So I don’t have a huge amount of time to sit down and devour albums. If I’m recommended an album, I’ll definitely go and seek it out. But I’m not a record collector so much anymore.

And you know, the place that I listen to new music is in the vanwhen I’m travelling back from gigs back in the day, when we were doing gigs. You could be travelling at three or four o’clock in the morning and I’d be listening to Late Date and I’d be listening to the Tom Dunne show. And I just love hearing that variety of new music, you know, and it’s so fantastic. It’s all really strong stuff. And especially when you’re travelling, and it’s night-time, it’s a great way to listen to music.

It’s funny because I was mixing the album down in Meath in Ballivor. So it’s in the middle of nowhere and I’d be travelling home at 3AM and I’d be putting on Late Date, or Fiachna Ó Braonáin would be on, or Cathal. And I’d be wondering, you know, would my song fit in there? Some day will it be on there? And it has been played on there. So it means a lot to me that those shows have taken it up and played it because I listen to them so much. I just love the stuff that they play, but I find that I can’t get too obsessed with anything because I find that it does get in the way of my own workflow. 

I mean, the last time I got really floored by an album was Joe Chester’s Murder of Crows. That stopped me in my tracks, you know, and it stopped me working for about a year. Not because of the songwriting but don’t get me wrongーI think the songwriting is and the singing is exceptional. But what stopped me in my tracks was the quality of the production and the quality of the recording. And I realised, OK, if I’m going to do an album, that’s where I’m going to have to aim. I don’t know if I’m going to get that high, because I was only learning the ropes as an engineer and learning basic recording techniques. But that’s what I aim for. 

And I really wanted the album to sound good because I’m obsessed with sonics as well. Sam Phillips said the first thing people hear is the timbre of a song. It’s not the tune. It’s not the beat. It’s just the overall sound. I was doing a wedding a couple of years ago and there was a song on the radio and I immediately went Oh my God, the sound, just the sound of it. I had to go and find out what it was. It was ‘Across the Universe’ by The Beatles, which I’ve heard a million times, but because it was on a different side of the room I just couldn’t quite pick out the tune. But the sound! The sound was what hit me first.  So that’s something that I’m kind of obsessed with.

Because to be honest, I know I can write a good song. I’ve learned a lot more about lyrics, I’ve learned a lot more about my own voice and how to use it. As opposed to Revelino: we just went into the room, it was like playing live, you just played your live set and it was fantastic. And it was great to have a band to work with like that. But now you’re on your own it’s a different work technique. And one of the things about writing for myself was that, subconsciously, I think when you’re in a band like Revelino you know there’s three electric guitars, you know that you’re going to play these songs in Whelan’s. So you know the venue: subconsciously you’re writing songs with that in mind. 

In David Byrne’s book How Music Works he talks about that. If you write a song and you know it’s going to be performed in the National Concert Hall it’s going to be different from CBGBs or a little folk club.  Even if you don’t know, you’re conscious of that, and subconsciously I was aware that, you know, we’ve got a practice session on Thursday night and if I’m writing a new idea I’m gonna have to bring into this group of lads who are standing there with the electric guitars plugged in the big amplifiers.  So you know, there are certain boundaries, which is a very positive thing because you’ve got your rules, you write within the rulesーit doesn’t mean you can’t write great songs. I think boundaries are a great thing and limitations, in writing, and this time, the boundaries were different. I was on my own. 

Can you say more about that? What are the limitations now? If you’re free to do whatever you want to do, you’re at home recording by yourself in your own time, then what kind of limitations apply, orーwhat’s the palette? 

That is a good question. I suppose I’m limited with what I can do recording here in the apartment because it’s all recorded here. It was all recorded in the apartment, even the brass, and the only thing that was recorded outside was the drums and a little bit of some cello. 

I suppose It’s great when you have a full band, because you go into a rehearsal studio, everybody plays the sound together, you can almost immediately get a feel for the entire arrangement. Whereas when I was working on my own, I mean some of the songsーI probably recorded ‘Old Man Superman’ fifteen times. You’re constantly having to build a track up from nothing, until you get to a point where you can judge whether it’s the right tempo or if it’s the right key for my voice or whatever. So that’s limiting you in a way because you’d have to do so much work, you’re not instantaneously hearing the sound of the song. I mean, with a band you can go, OK, let’s go in and do it, it’s this tempo in this key and record it. And immediately, you can kind of hear what that feels like or sounds like. It’s a huge amount of work if you’re doing that on your own. But it also gives the songs time to ferment.

I found that what I’m always trying to do with songwriting is: it’s like you’re going around and you’re clearing dirt off the ground, and you’re looking for slabs with stuff written in them. You’re looking for something that’s always been there. And you’ve just found it; you’ve just discovered it; you haven’t created it. But when I sit down to write a song, I always think, wow, this is exciting. Who knows in ten minutes what’s going to exist. I don’t feel like I write it though. I just feel like I’m discovering it. It’s just chords and it’s words. So I’m just scrambling around the dirt clearing a bit here and goingーwell that doesn’t look good, that looks okay, but it’s a bit cracked. And then you’re looking for something that seems like it’s always been there. And, when you get that, then I’m looking for the right tempo, for the right arrangement. I’m looking for everything to seem like it always was, if you know what I mean. 

I know you talked about songwriting as a craft but this feels different: songwriting as uncovering. I love that image of wiping the dirt away and finding what’s already there. There’s somethingーI mean, I don’t want to use the word mystical, but that idea that you can find something that’s always been there but just hasn’t yet been expressed yet, but it’s in the ether; that feels very different from craft.

It is. I often thinkーand I write songs every day. I can pick up a guitar and write a song any time I want. But I’ve never sat down and gone, OK, pen, paper, I’m going to write a song. I doodle, I mess around, I play around here, and if I hear an idea that interests me, I’ll go after it. I stick it down on my phone and I listen to it the next day. And if it still interests me, I’ll pick it up again and try and progress it further. But so many of those ideas don’t go anywhere. I mean, I’ve literally, literally, thousands of unfinished songs that are decent ideas, but the ones that go all the way to being a finished song, something happens that you get the next part, and you get the next part, and it just comes. I do often sit here and think, well, you know, anytime I pick up a guitar, an hour later, that could be a great song, a good song. It could be a song that didn’t exist before I picked up the guitar. And that is definitely a mystical thing. But I do think that there’s a craft to it that you learn. It’s like a sculptor or somebody who builds chairs and tables. You get better at it the more you do it, and the easier it is for you to find things. 

One thing that really comes across is just how enthused and energised by this you still are. It’s thirty years plus since The Coletranes and it sounds like you’re still fascinated by what you can discover musically. Like, there’s only so many chords, but there’s an infinite way of putting them together. 

Yeah. There’s a guy called Rick Beato, he has a YouTube channel, which anybody who’s interested in music should check out. And he talks about different things, but one of the things he talks about is: what is the mathematical equation if we’re just using eight notes? And it’s infinite. The possibilities literally are infinite. And nothing excites me more than coming up with a new idea. I mean, myself and Barry O’Mahony, that’s what we do for fun. Like, before COVID, what I would do for a night out is I would go over to his place with my guitar, and we would write songs. And that’s what we do, that’s what we find most entertaining. And we can, you know, we’re able to do it. He’s as tireless as I am. He’s the only person I’ve ever met that can literally go twelve hours without eating and never flag.

So in the zone that he forgets to be hungry kind of a thing?

Oh, yeah, totally. We do that. Yeah, we’ve done that many times. And he’s literally been here when we were recording Saturday Captains and he would go twelve, fourteen hours without eating. I couldn’t quite do that now. But I still have the same feeling for it, you know? 

OK Brendan, thanks a million. It’s great to talk to you. I love the idea that you and other people who were active when I was getting into bands thirty years ago are still doing it now with as much energy and creativity as ever. It’s inspiring to me, so I’m thankful. 

Well, I think we all got into it for the right reasons because we loved music. It wasn’t to become famous. I mean, I never cared about being famous or being a frontman. I just ended up singing because I wrote songs. I just want to write songs the best way I can, produce them the best way I can. And if people get off on what I’m putting out and enjoy it, that’s all I want. And anybody I know who got into music back in those days did because they were just blown away by music themselves when they were teenagers, and the bug just never leaves you. And now every single day I’ll pick up a guitar and write a song and I always feel like God, this could be good. This could be the one!

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