When The Rolling Stones handpick you to open up for them at Ireland’s biggest stadium, you know you’re onto a winner. Ireland’s most exciting new export are The Academic; 2020’s Mick Jagger-approved indie-pop princes-in-waiting. A party-starting four-piece, their super-uplifting, hugely melodic guitar-driven sound is the product of a tight-knit gang who’ve been playing together since school, when they first bonded over the sounds of The Strokes and Vampire Weekend.
Craig Fitzgerald (lead vocals and guitar), Dean Gavin (drums) and brothers Matthew Murtagh (guitar) and Stephen Murtagh (bass) grew up in the middle of the Irish countryside, but the lack of big city urban attractions meant they could focus on what meant the most to them; honing their skills and making a beautiful racket. “It’s pretty fair to say that where we grew up is quite rural,” admits Stephen, who ended up joining the band after his big brother brought the other guys round to talk music after school. “Even our closest big town is still a pretty small Irish town. But it’s got quite a reputation for music, which really helped us in the early days.”
The four cut their teeth at local festivals in and around nearby Mullingar – also home to Niall Horan and a favourite of the young James Joyce – some of them more peculiar than others. “There’d be these ‘Father Ted’ festivals,” laughs Craig, of the weekends that would see them playing on the back of a truck to a handful of people in an abandoned field while a rickety old funfair wheezed away in the background. “You’d be surrounded by all kinds of people; street performers, cover bands, fire dancers,” says Stephen of these mini-Glastonburys on their doorsteps. “But they were very much a local thing – I don’t think anyone ever travelled more than a couple of miles to see this stuff!”
That wasn’t the only kind of place where they began honing their craft. “In the beginning almost every gig we played was weird,” adds Stephen. “We opened for Alabama Three in a massive hotel function room in rural County Clare the night Lou Reed died and they covered Heroin by the Velvet Underground. It was like a deleted scene from Twin Peaks.”
Their very first proper gig also had a pretty odd vibe. A battle of the bands at a local pub, they stormed straight into last place, largely due to the fact that in order to vote in the contest, you had to buy a drink. As the band were still only in their early teens, they didn’t stand a chance against all the grizzled drinkers and bands with fans twice their age. “The local metal band who could put away all the whiskey came out on top that night!” laughs Stephen.
Back then they were playing under the French name Maginot “but it became very apparent that wasn’t going to go down well in the middle of rural Ireland,” explains Stephen of their somewhat pretentious early incarnation. At the same time Craig was on a teenage rite of passage and reading JD Salinger’s classic novel of isolation and angst; Catcher In The Rye. Seeing the word ‘academic’ written down on the first page, he was suddenly struck by its power. “The more we looked at it, the more we felt like it sounded like what we were doing,” he remembers. “And obviously we were still all in school together, so it just made perfect sense.” It was a book too which went on to influence much of the band’s early output, which, explains Stephen, “was about that struggle of transitioning from a teenager into adulthood with all the responsibilities and the loss of innocence that goes with it.”
The band have grown up together and those early teenage years of grind and graft have only gone to make The Academic one of the tightest live acts around. They’ve triumphed at SXSW, toured the badlands of the US in the back of a splitter van and built up such a following that they recently sold out London’s Scala – and, pre-coronavirus, a huge Electric Ballroom show was on the cards which had barely a handful of tickets left on sale.
“The last couple of London shows have been fucking crazy,” explains Craig of their wild, wonderful gigs, places where anything could happen… “We’ve definitely embraced the spontaneity of the live show – there’s no exact plan, we’re completely open to anything and living in that moment,” says Stephen of what happens when all of four step onstage. Every show is a totally unique experience, no two shows are ever the same.”
When it comes to the music, The Academic have already taken the honour of releasing an album that’s topped the Irish charts – 2018’s Tales from the Backseat – followed by a taut six-song EP, led by the brisk new wave styled single Anything Could Happen, which draws from the stop-start rhythms of Talking Heads and Elvis Costello. With lyrics about those who are “saving all your feelings for Saturday night” and going on benders of the emotional kind, it’s a song about personal growth, friendship and accepting that nobody is perfect. In many ways it’s the perfect balm for these strange times. “It’s about looking at a friend or someone you know and seeing that they’re not being the best that they can be,” explains Craig, the band’s main songwriter. “I think there can be a lot of self doubt with people. What we trying to say here is believe in yourself, chase those dreams and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. There’s a whole world out there for the taking!”
With its follow-up Acting My Age comes another catchy confidence booster. Here is a warm, full-hearted song about something that’s happened to us all; doing bad things but not being a bad person. “It’s so easy to be harsh on yourself,” says Craig of the track, which shows his easy way with social observation. “But this is about forgiveness.” Their pop credentials shine through on both, with a breezy, classic sensibility blaring out from every bar. For The Academic pop is definitely not a dirty word. “I’ve no issue with us being called a pop band,” states Stephen. “We don’t shy away from the fact that we like that stuff.”
It’s no surprise these songs sound so timeless; they were produced by Nick Hodgson, former drummer with the Kaiser Chiefs, who has since collaborated with Dua Lipa, Mark Ronson, and Duran Duran. “Working with Nick is great, not least because of his indie-disco heritage, a sound that’s had a lasting impact on our childhoods but he is one of the few guys that, when we get in a room with him, everything just flows naturally,” explains Craig. It’s impossible not to hear that energy. We predict big things for The Academic.