One of the more interesting, eloquent and barely referenced bands to have emerged from Northern Ireland during the 1990s are Catchers, who first took shape within the Portrush-Coleraine-Portstewart triangle on the Derry coastline and rode in the Setanta Records colours, for whom they made two fine but often over-looked elpees. And in many respects their story is also the story of that label :- they were primarily song-centred, smart, outward-facing and out of kilter with many of the prevailing moods of the day. They never stood a chance, really.
Much of the Setanta Records story is scarcely believable. The definitive history of what was at first an Irish-skewing label has never been told or explained and, in all likelihood, never will. The imprint’s founder and principal, Keith Cullen, just doesn’t do nostalgia and, throughout Setanta’s twenty year history, consistently preferred the quick getaway. The label was always about the next great song and the next great songwriter and rarely, if ever, stood on ceremony.
And so much of what exists by way of over-view and critical analysis tends to focus on the better known and more commercially successful artists on what, by any standards, is a formidable and varied roster. The Divine Comedy, Into Paradise, Edwyn Collins, A House and The Frank And Walters all enjoyed varying degrees of cross-over success having been hot-housed in the council block squat at Rumball House in Camberwell that served as the label’s offices and, for many years, the living quarters of it’s Chief Executive. And those licencing deals kept the small imprint in coin, the fax machine purring and the wheels turning until such time as the next fragile four-track cassette landed in the mail and turned our heads forever.
But like every other label with form, much of Setanta’s more interesting material exists in the curves and the sidings. A raft of quality Irish bands like The Harvest Ministers, Brian, The Floors, They Do It With Mirrors, The Deadly Engines and Catchers all made cracking records during Setanta’s reign of terror in the early and mid-1990s that are rarely, if ever, spoken of. And I should know :- I was the label’s willing dogsbody for many years, continually putting my ears, heart and typing skills on the line for it.
Twenty five years ago, Catchers – who never carried a definite article in their handle – released an excellent debut album, ‘Mute’ and went on to burn brightly on the fringes of the alternative circuit in France, where they’d recorded that elpee with Mike Hedges. And up the spine of that record were a clutch of songs I’d first encountered in different circumstances over a year previously when, in the name of the cause, I was dispatched to Coleraine to put manners on them.
In the best and worst traditions of the period, the band had sent a crudely-formed demo to the Setanta mailing address , 123, Shakespeare Road, SE24, a fine pile in Brixton owned by a Virgin Prunes-loving builder from Wexford. Featuring an early version of one of their best songs, ‘Cotton Dress’, that tape piqued the label’s interest enough to trigger a gushing note by return mail, stuck inside a jiffy-bag of recent Setanta releases and a compilation cassette compiled by Keith with no little affection. This, my friends, was how some of us conversed and flirted way back.
A couple of them – the ultra-friendly drummer, Damien O’Hara, definitely, and maybe the band’s songwriter, Dale Grundle – met me off of the Ulster Bus that finally pulled in after a mammoth cross-border trek into Coleraine. And, in those sleeping years just before the Good Friday Agreement, fetched me around to a rundown house nearby where half of the band was billeted and where, in the small kitchen, they had their gear set-up and were ready for road.
God knows what they made of me, the man from Setanta, as I took out my notebook and, in the spirit of Phil Spector – or perhaps it was more Phil Spencer ? – took copious notes and sketched out their structures and key design features.
Catchers really didn’t do the wall of sound ;- indeed, much of their better material was more aeroboard than breeze block. But they certainly did harmonies and, then as now, rooted their entire sound in that relationship between the twin vocalists, Dale and Alice Lemon. Who may well have been an item – and they were certainly sharp enough with one another in regular conversation to suggest as much– but weren’t saying. And it was obvious that much of Catchers’ majesty was in the tension that manifested itself as soon as they both got in behind their mics and shared out the singing duties.
I’ve already written glowingly about one of my favourite ever albums, the eponymously-titled debut by a Canadian band, Five Guys Named Moe, which was produced by Donal Lunny in Dublin in 1989 and released the following year on the RCA label. That mighty pop record is under-pinned throughout by the easy vocal exchanges between Jonathan Evans and Meg Lunny and, from as far back as my earliest encounters with local acts like Flex And The Fastweather, The How And Why Insects and The Bedroom Convention, and then onto some of the more considered and formed international standard stuff from Prefab Sprout, The Pursuit Of Happiness and later-period The Go-Betweens, it’s a trick I’ve been unable to resist.
And it was into this space that I felt Catchers needed to be pushed.
My primary connection then, and now, was with Dale. Barely twenty, he was a softly-spoken, no-holds enthusiast who was already experimenting freely and listening widely. His band’s outward appearances belied his own primary instincts :– his favourite records at the time were The Jesus And Mary Chain’s ‘Psychocandy’ and Captain Beefheart’s ‘Clear Spot’, neither of which were apparent in the gut of Catchers’, sweet, sweet sound. Nor, one suspects, overly available around Coleraine which, from what little I saw of it, struck me as a right hole altogether.
And it was certainly far from the groovy world inhabited by The Triffids and The Velvets and to which our hero might have aspired. It was only when, decades later, I finally found myself on the seafront at Portstewart, twelve miles away, that one of Dale’s most primary influences – the calm around that stretch of the Northern coastline – began to make real sense to me. One of the band’s earliest songs was named after the small seaside town and, to this day, I still associate one with the other. Another of their earlies, ‘Summer Is Nearly Over’, also has its roots there and eventually saw the light of day on their ‘Shifting’ E.P.
In that rented tumbledown in Coleraine, and using pretty basic tools, Catchers raced through a full-bodied set for me and clearly didn’t want for decent material. I recall in no little detail the breadth of that collection, skeletal as it was, and which included ‘Cotton Dress’, ‘Beauty Number 3’, ‘Worm Out’, ‘Hollowed’, ‘Summer Is Nearly Over’, ‘‘Spellbound’, ‘Jesus Spaceman’, ‘Country Freaks’ and ‘Shifting’ itself. And I carefully sketched them out one by one, noting Dale’s clever wordplays, the twin vocals and the mountain of opportunity we’d stumbled on.
My scouting report concluded that Catchers were a work in progress and dripping in potential. They certainly didn’t do power, which was to their credit, and weren’t especially cohesive, which was an issue but not an insurmountable one. All told we felt it might be best for them to de-camp southwards for a while, where we could fatten them up and ready them for export. Which is how and why they spent the summer of 1993 in a flat in Phibsborough at a period in contemporary Irish music history when Great Western Square was the city’s coolest and most desirable address. And from where they were able to launch themselves more fully into the meat market and work on their gains.
I snared a couple of live shows for them at The Rock Garden in Crown Alley, where I was doing a turn and earning a crust, and we also landed a radio session for Dave Fanning’s programme out on Radio 2FM, on the back of which Catchers picked up a couple of early mentions in the local press. It was all a bit more intense on and off the field and, with a bit more structure to their rehearsals, they were now developing a bit of heft but, crucially, retaining their charm too.
On a scalding midsummer’s weekend, we fetched up in a small, ground-floor flat in Rathmines and, with Kevin O’Boyle, from another band on the Setanta roster, The Glee Club, on engineering duties, committed four of those early Catchers tracks to tape. It was tight enough in that sitting room where, using a basic four-track portastudio and with a standard drum machine knocking out the patterns, we used most of the channel width for guitars and harmonies. Kevin put in a spectacular performance over those two days and we emerged, I think, with a pretty accurate picture of not necessarily where Catchers were at but more, perhaps, of where they could do. Very quickly afterwards, Setanta determined that they were worth a more substantial investment.
I hadn’t heard that tape in over twenty years until, last month, Dale and myself re-opened the conversation and, as can often be the case with those who have music in common, were able to pick up the threads easily and without fuss :- we had last spoken in 1993. He still lives in London, not far from the old Setanta garret and performs these days, whenever the mood takes him, as The Sleeping Years. And, the odd time, he’ll still perform an acoustic Catchers show with Alice.
I can’t think of Dale, Alice and the rest of the band, though, without recalling another terrific but more sinewy local outfit from that same period, the mighty Dublin pop band, Blink, who were led by my friend, Dermot Lambert, and managed by his late brother, Aiden, about whom I’ve written here previously.
Apart from their clever pop chops and serious live prowess, Blink were also the pivot around which some of the more interesting aspects of Dublin music society revolved at that time. And many were those who fetched up on Sandford Avenue, off The South Circular Road – home of the band’s bass player, Brian McLoughlin – during those years, seeking either shelter from the storm or storm from the shelter.
Catchers were just another outfit to whom the hand of friendship – and quality bed and board – was extended without fear, favour or invoice. And a stellar cast that includes The Candy Shop, Into Paradise, Sack, Robbo, Denis Powell, Mark Kelly, The Forget Me-Nots, Jeff Brennan, Sean Corbett, Andrew Mueller, most of the staff of The Rock Garden and the late Uaneen Fitzsimons, are just some of those who regularly made their way down the SCR after closing time and kept the nonsense going well past the cold light of morning.
And when, to work any excess off, we’d de-camp into the Wolfe Tone end of Saint Stephen’s Green on Saturday afternoons and, using leather and denim jackets for goalposts, play long, free-form football games with whoever fancied it. And Catchers – especially Dale and Damien – always fancied it.
And that, basically, is where we left it after such a full-on nine months in each others’ company. I loved what they were trying to do, had hopefully been of some use to them for a spell when they maybe needed the help and then off-loaded them to those who really knew what they were doing and who could take them further forward. Myself and Catchers were literally going in opposite directions :- they were on the boat for London and I was off home to Cork to get the music television series, ‘No Disco’, going and to fire up the boilers.
As is often the case with young bands in fresh surrounds, they quickly re-freshed their line-up and were soon recording their debut Setanta single, ‘Cotton Dress’, with Darren Allison, who’d been working with Neil Hannon on The Divine Comedy’s second coming at the label. And its fair to say that Catchers enjoyed an eventful five years thereafter, briefly re-locating to The United States, attracting fine positive notices and routinely changing the line-up around the core of Dale and Alice. A second and final album, ‘Stooping To Fit’, was released in 1998, shortly before the band stood it all down.
Dale certainly sounds as fresh and keen now as he did when I first met him up in Coleraine over twenty-five long years ago, still writing and recording but moving at a much more considered pace and to his own deadlines. The older soldiers, those who’ve earned their badges, have that right.
CODA :- An expanded, anniversary edition of ‘Mute’ comes out at the
end of June. Further details can be found on the band’s Facebook page.
Dale and Alice will also play live shows in France around this time.
But for those who’d like to hear more now, https://catchers.bandcamp.com/