Preparing to headline the City of Song Festival in Derry, frontman Peter Cunnah talks candidly of the dark days and the light

It’s 1997. Peter Cunnah of D:Ream is on top of the world. His most famous song, ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, is scaling the charts for a third time, having been adopted as the UK Labour Party’s election theme. D:Ream have supported Take That on tour and racked up 12 Top 40 singles and two Top 10 albums in just five years. Cunnah, a one-time guitarist with indie also-rans Tie the Boy, has come as far from his humble Derry roots as it is possible to go without being a member of the Undertones.

Cunnah in the 1990sFast-forward to 2009. D:Ream have been dormant for 12 years, having split amidst record label mismanagement (a ‘best of’ was released instead of the third album, which remains in the vaults) and disputes with ex-members (saxophonist Cian McCarthy unsuccessfully pursued Cunnah for a share of songwriting royalties). When CultureNorthernIreland catches up with Cunnah, now 43 and living in London with his family, he's refreshingly candid about the barren years.
‘I didn’t know what to do after D:Ream,’ he admits. ‘I thought I might as well hang up my glad rags and retire. I had buried that part of myself for many years. I had got away from being Pete from D:Ream. I was a gun for hire, writing and producing for other people. The experience was amazing, but I came out quite traumatised. I had a huge drug habit. I ended up in some dark places with the underworld of society. It took me years before I even started writing anything of merit again.’

In 2008 a chance meeting with former collaborator Al Mackenzie, who had left after the band’s 1994 debut, D:Ream On Volume 1, led to talk of a reunion. ‘I was wandering through the park near my house in Ealing,’ explains Cunnah, ‘and there on a park bench, holding court with a bunch of teenagers, was Al. I went over to him and said, 'What are the odds of this happening?' And he said: 'Forget that. You shouldn’t have made that second album. It was crap.' I’d had about 10 years to think about it, and I said, 'Actually, you’re right!'’

Cunnah says the working relationship with Mackenzie was the key to D:Ream’s initial success: ‘I realised that what had made D:Ream work was the chemistry between me and Alan – the mixture of a DJ and a guitar player. I was bitching to someone recently about how Morrissey doesn’t sound the same without Johnny Marr, and then the truth hit me. I was in denial for years.’ He laughs as he makes the connection with another long-suffering act, the heavy-metal group Anvil, who went from playing arenas to working in catering: ‘You could say we’re the Anvil of dance!’

D:Ream’s third album, the playfully-titled In Memory Of…, will be released on the band’s own label, User Records, in January 2010, after which Cunnah and Mackenzie intend to tour widely. For now, they’re testing the waters with an iTunes-only single, ‘All Things to All Men’, and a homecoming appearance at Derry’s City of Song Festival later this month, part of the Cultural Olympiad celebrations. Cunnah All Things To All Menbelieves the duo’s new material is going to ‘rock people’s world’, but remains realistic about their chances in a pop market dominated by teenagers who wouldn’t know clubland from Clubsound.

‘It would be nice if kids got into it ,’ he says, ‘but I think, like every generation, they just look within their own little sphere. I wouldn’t be disparaging of them, because some of them might have taste, but we’re trying to reach our audience, the people that remember us and know what we stood for – good times and upbeat music. We can’t hope to be 'down with the youth'. That just smacks of disingenuousness. We’re 40-year-old men.’

In closing, Cunnah tells the story of the Northern Ireland music scene as he sees it – and takes a gentle dig at some of Ulster’s latter-day musical breakthroughs.

‘When Tie the Boy were in Northern Ireland, we had fuck all,’ he says. ‘There was no scene, the Troubles had buried everything and we had to beg for gigs. They didn’t even build the Nerve Centre [in Derry] until after I was gone. We had to go cap-in-hand for everything we got. But people like ourselves, Ghost of an American Airman and Bam Bam and the Calling worked really hard to create something. On the back of that, Therapy?, Ash et al benefited. I’m not sure they even recognise it, to be honest.’

Andrew Johnston

D:Ream play the Gweedore Bar, Derry, on September 25. ‘All Things to All Men’ is out now. In Memory Of… will be released in January 2010.