30 Days Out Interview: Oisin Leech of The Lost Brothers
Among all the new friends we made at South by Southwest (SXSW) this year, we really like The Lost Brothers. The “Losties” are a duo from Ireland who sing in close harmony, reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel or the Everly Brothers.
Mark McCausland and Oisin Leech met in an dusty old Liverpool library in 2007. Comparing influences, they discovered they both played in various bands and had traveled to Liverpool to take their music to the next level. The pair shared a love of music and influences as diverse as the Carter Family to Sam Cooke, Mississippi John Hurt to Dion and the Belmonts, Phil Spector to the Louvin Brothers, the Impressions to Van Morrison. The pair were regular faces on the Liverpool music scene and when together, people began to call them The Lost Brothers.
Leech and McCausland left the bands they were in at the time and flew to Portland, Oregon, where they hooked up with producer Mike Coykendall (M Ward, Bright Eyes), and recorded in his attic their debut album Trails of the Lonely.
Their folk-tinged music has great atmosphere, particularly on their third album The Passing Of The Night, thanks in no small part to singer/songwriter Brendan Benson, who produced it in Nashville. The songs are sometimes sad, sometimes eerie and moody, from the opener “Not Now Warden,” about a man in prison whose love has moved on, to the sensational “Widow Maker,” a story of a hanging.
Appropriately, The Lost Brothers were invited to perform at the Tribute to Levon Helm that was one of the big closing shows during this year’s SXSW. Oisin Leech of the Losties saw one of our photos and contacted us to ask if we had any shots of him and his partner performing with Steve Earle and others in the climactic song “The Weight.” We did indeed have a few pictures, and in the exchange we had the chance to ask Oisin a few questions.
30 Days Out: I seem to recall you guys have been at SXSW before, but how was this one for you? What did you think? What was the weirdest experience? What was the best experience for you?
Oisin Leech: Yes, we have been to SXSW before but 2013 was our favorite year so far. Mark and I loved it. It’s the first time we have an album out in the United States on Readymade Records and so it was good timing to come to play Austin this year with the new album just out. This is our third album.
Hearing Dave Grohl speak about his favorite punk bands and about his early days with Nirvana was really something. Nirvana was the reason I started a punk band, the Vermin, when I was 14 and Grohl is one of my heroes. The Vermin didn’t gig. We just rehearsed and read Nirvana biographies.
The weirdest experience? It was weird, but weird in a good way, to sing “The Weight” with Amy Helm, Steve Earle and the Midnight Ramble band at Auditorium Shores at the tribute show for the late, great Levon Helm. It was weird to sing in front of that many people – good fun though. I’m not complaining! The Midnight Ramble Band are a wonderful band and it was a big thrill for Mark and I to jump up for a verse.
The best SXSW experience was seeing Charlie Sexton play guitar at Threadgills as part of Will Sexton and Brady Blades’ SXSW Big Bang. It was great fun to be part of Will and Brady’s gig. Steve Poltz, John Murry and Charlie Faye also played. I am a big Bob Dylan fan and to hear Charlie Sexton play in a small venue was like watching lightning. Charlie plays in Dylan’s band.
30 Days Out: Do you approach audiences differently in the U.S. than you would in the U.K.? Is there a different sensibility, or expectation on the audience’s part – and yours?
Leech: Well, it’s funny because I think a lot of folk melodies and lyrics came across the ocean from Ireland to North America over the centuries. And obviously North America sent rock and roll back. I hear it in a county song by Gordon Lightfoot or even in a Bob Dylan song like “Restless Farewell.”
The Lost Brothers’ music is so inspired by American music – Sam Cooke, Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt – maybe sometime an American audience at a Lost Brothers gig are hearing their own music through the voices of two Irish guys. We try to bring our own thing to the table. It’s an ongoing musical exchange. I always love the reception we get in the States and maybe they are hearing older traditions being sung back to them. We never, ever underestimate the audience wherever we play because usually they know a lot more than the singer. A show is what happens between the song and the listener and therein lies the magic of a good or bad gig.
The Everly Brothers sing a song called “Rose Connolly” which was a traditional song in Kentucky but “Rose Connolly” was a traditional song from Scotland and Northern Ireland a long time before it was ever sung in Kentucky. It traveled across the ocean! So it’s an ongoing musical conversation over hundreds of years. Maybe that’s why we feel at home when we play in the U.S. because we’re just a small part of something much bigger that’s been ongoing for a long time.
When we did the U.S. tour with Glen Hansard we could really feel the warmth back from the audience each night from Boston right across to San Francisco over the three weeks. When we play in Ireland and in the U.K. it’s a more edgy experience. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a different atmosphere – maybe you need both worlds, I think you do.
30 Days Out: I love the story about your trip to Portland in the early days of the duo. What do you think of that city’s vibe? Does it have any similarities to Ireland/U.K.?
Leech: Portland is where Mark and I first recorded so we will always have a soft spot in our hearts for Portland – the city of the Rose. We lived there at the White Eagle Hotel and often go back. On our first album Trails of the Lonely we worked with two great producers in Portland, Mike Coykendall and Adam Selzer. We spent many hours in Powell’s book store looking for original copies of John Fante books. Portland has its own unique vibe, unlike anywhere I have ever been. Also our dear friend and musician extraordinaire Paul Brainard lives there. Always great to see Paul.
YouTube: “Under The Turquoise Sky”
30 Days Out: Listening to you live, you certainly live up to all those comparisons to Simon & Garfunkel. But I hear influences that go back a little farther, and wider … Can you talk about your influences?
Leech: Mark and I were lucky in that we grew up around music. Mark’s family were the traveling Moore family band from Omagh. They played my granny’s dance hall in the 1950s long before we were ever born. My mum sings at church each week. My sister Saramai is a great singer and my dad plays violin. Music is everywhere in Ireland. It’s in the water.
My first love was punk rock – English bands like Alternative TV and the UK Subs, Irish punk bands like Striknien DC. Then I got into Nirvana and started to read about Kurt’s love of Leadbelly which opened up a door to Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters and folk and country. Folk is just like punk. It’s an open form of expression with (few) rules. I connected with it immediately. I used to go on Wednesday nights to a Dublin club called the Cobblestone and sit at the very front listening to singers like Sonny Condell and Ger Wolfe.
When people say Mark and I sound like Simon and Garfunkel it’s a big compliment but we never planned that at all. It was just chance. We are big Everly Brothers fans more so. The Everlys raised the game for everyone.
Mark loves Merle Travis and Sam Cooke. We’re both big Chuck Berry fans … Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Johnson, The Louvin Brothers, The Delmore Brothers, Jackson C. Frank, Van Morrison and Them, The Band and Levon Helm is a huge inspiration. We love the Beatles and lived in Liverpool for many years. Then there are bands from closer to home like Sweeneys Men, Planxty with legends like Andy Irvine, Donal Lunny and Christy Moore. I also love Patrick Street with Andy Irvine. Music that grabs the heart strings or gets the heart and soul racing.
There’s a singer from Sheffield, England, called Richard Hawley. He is as good as it gets for me. We made our second album So Long John Fante with some of Richard’s band and producer Colin Elliot.
YouTube: “Until The Morning” (filmed in Austin during SXSW)
30 Days Out: Love “Widow Maker,” especially the video. Can you talk a little about working with Brendan Benson, and what he brought to the table when you worked together?
Leech: It was a big thrill to work with Brendan. He gave us great confidence in our lyrics and in our playing. He taught us how hard you have to work. We made the album in five days and I don’t remember taking any breaks day or night. Then Brendan mixed the album in two days. He is such a great singer and writer himself so it was inspiring to be making a record with him and we had so many laughs during the week. He is a gentleman, a friend, and we love him dearly like a brother. Not only did he make the album with us but he released it on his own label Readymade Records in the U.S. In the U.K. it’s on Lojinx Records.
30 Days Out: What’s coming up for you guys?
Leech: We have 18 new songs demo’d and we have a very clear idea of how we want the next album to sound.We just wrote two new songs in Woodstock which we are very excited about. We just did the Midnight Ramble at The Levon Helm Studios and it was a very inspiring experience. We will do the summer festivals, in June we tour with Billy Bragg and next week we fly to London because Graham Nash has asked us to perform at the opening of his new photo exhibition “Graham Nash – Life on the Road.” Mark and I have no idea how Graham heard of The Lost Brothers but it doesn’t matter I suppose, we’re thrilled that he asked us and we are looking forward to playing and seeing the photos!
YouTube: “Widow Maker”