(As published in B-Side ... )
You’d never know it from his breathily yearning singing on Touch of Oliver, the Bar/None debut by his band of the same name, but Diarmuid O'Sullivan has one of the most explosive laughs in indie rock.
And he laughs at almost anything.
Like when I begin my trans-Atlantic phone conversation with him by asking, "Is this Mr. O'Sullivan?" and he answers, "Yeah. A-ha-ha-ha-ha!"
Must be an Irish thing.
Touch of Oliver hails from the same town in southwest Ireland--Limerick--as the Cranberries, whose coattails O’Sullivan’s band might yet ride into some semblance of fame and fortune, what with Dolores O’Riordan’s singing backup vocals on Touch of Oliver’s “Carousel” and all.
But, “Carousel,” brogues, and a propensity for creating songs with subtly surging hooks aside, the two bands have little in common. For one thing, O’Sullivan sings nothing like Dolores O'Riordan--not even when, as on “Why” and “Burn,” he ratchets the intensity up a notch. For another, Touch of Oliver hates to tour.
"I don't reckon," O’Sullivan reckons when asked whether Touch of Oliver will support its album by performing in the U.S.--the only country, as of this writing, where trackers of the Limerick muse can buy it. "The earliest we could get over anyway is September, I think. So I doubt if we will, to be honest with ya."
O’Sullivan says that a lot: "to be honest with ya." He says "Do you know what I mean?," "I dunno," and "like" a lot too--such as when he's asked how it is that he and the three other lads in Touch of Oliver can be burned out from playing live when they’re only twenty-one.
"I dunno. I just didn't really like doing it, like, and neither did the lads really, like. You just get socked around too much, like. It's too much trouble unless it's well put together. Like, we never put together a proper tour. Do you know what I mean? Like, they never ran properly, like. Like, you'd be socked over in most of the venues. Do you know what I mean?"
What he means is that if you live in the U.S. and like the thirteen tracks on Touch of Oliver--as you should since seldom has the ever-popular guitar-jangle ethic been subjected to such a fetchingly rough-around-the-edges stripping down--you're going to have to wait a long time to hear the music live.
And that goes for residents of Limerick as well.
"For a couple of years, we were very popular in Limerick," says O’Sullivan in reference to the esteem in which the locals held his band. "But then we started getting pissed off, like. I don’t know. It's terrible to be on a circuit and not getting out of it. And that's the way it got, like. It was really bad.
"It started off really well. Like, it was getting higher and higher. Then it started getting lower and lower again. A-ha-ha-ha!"
O’Sullivan, Brian Corr (bass, keyboards), Hugh Mulqueen (lead guitar), and Willie Banks (drums) met in secondary school around the age of twelve. By fifteen they'd begun performing cover versions of popular hits of the day.
"Ridiculous covers," O’Sullivan confesses.
Like, how ridiculous?
"A-ha-ha-ha! Oh, I couldn't--I wouldn't even say it. Like, I couldn't, like. A-ha-ha-ha! I couldn't bring myself to tell you, like. They're that bad, like. A-ha-ha-ha!"
Golly. Are we talking Debby Boone? Scandal featuring Patty Smyth? Scandal Not featuring Patty Smyth?
"Like, things like U2, stuff like that. A-ha-ha-ha!"
And for once O’Sullivan’s laughter makes sense: Bono can be pretty funny--and ridiculous--when you think about it.
Not surprisingly, Touch of Oliver doesn’t sound like U2 either.
"The lads just loved it, but I hated them, like, to be honest with ya. I never really liked them. Actually, don't say--God, I don't want to be bitching in any kind of form, like, kind of--you know what I mean?"
What O’Sullivan means is that he has little room to criticize other bands because, as fifteen-year-olds, he and the other Touch of Oliver lads weren't exactly paragons of musical excellence themselves.
"Terrible," he says. "A-ha-ha-ha! Our first gig, our drummer played a dustbin. A-ha-ha-ha-ha! I'm pretty sure he did. Like, I can't remember if he had two dustbins, but he definitely had one. A-ha-ha-ha!"
By 1991 or so, after splitting up and getting back together in various configurations for a few years, O’Sullivan, Corr, Mulqueen, and Banks reformed for a go at, if not the big time, at least something bigger than the local cabaret and pay-to-play circuits they'd grown weary of. This meant, among other things, shopping a demo around.
"We did a demo about six months after getting back together again. And it was pretty good, like. I mean, the playing was diabolical, now that I think back to it, but at the time I thought it was pretty good."
Eventually a tape landed in the hands of Tom Prendergast, the head of Hoboken, New Jersey's Bar/None Records--and, as the luck of the Irish would have it, a native of Limerick himself. According to legend, he cried when he heard it.
O’Sullivan suspects it was the “desperation” in the songs that got to Prendergast, and certainly an urgency of sorts propels Touch of Oliver’s songs, from the very mellow “Click” to the aforementioned and slightly less mellow “Carousel.” “I dig a hole, I dig a well,” he sings in the latter. “I try to save me from myself.” And the refrain of “Mind Bomb Blind” is the acutely discomfiting “She burned my skin!”
Sounds pretty desperate to me.
"They're probably mostly desperate, like. A-ha-ha-ha! Desperate feelings, like. That's the only word I like to describe most of the songs. Not all of the songs or anything like that. I don't think they're that--I dunno. I wouldn't want to get into describing them, to be honest with ya."
Which means folks will have to figure out Touch of Oliver the old-fashioned way--by listening for themselves. And if they like what they hear, there’s good news.
"I reckon we've already written another album," says O’Sullivan. "I think we have another two albums. A-ha-ha-ha!
“Like, we have a load of material ready to go."