Kowalski are Coming Up
Francis Jones meets the lovestruck pups with piles of potential
Kowalski are a difficult beast to pin down. ‘Indie rock’, that’s one description, and yet such a catch-all term sells them short.
Their sound - space guitar, spiralling synth, tumbling rhythms and that pleading vocal – is brittle with an edge of steel, music that nags with a pleasing familiarity and moments of melodic rapture, whilst managing to remain distinct, beyond the bounds of recognition.
In two years the four-piece has made startling progress. They’ve toured the UK and Ireland, acquiring management and legions of admirers, and released the EP Are You Noisy Sunshine State?.
A confirmation of the band’s potential, ...Sunshine State added further to the fever-pitch fanfare surrounding Kowalski, pushing them onto the radar of one of NI music’s most famous sons.
‘Gary Lightbody was on Today FM and mentioned how much he loved our EP,' recalls dumbstruck guitarist, Dan Brown.
‘Plus he mentioned us on the Edith Bowman show. It’s weird, I mean Gary Lightbody, the biggest selling British artist of the last year thinks you’re good. We must be doing something right.’
Kowalski exude confidence. Meeting three of the band in a Belfast coffee shop it’s clear that they know they’re doing something right. Not arrogance, this amiable group have an innate self-belief.
‘The first song we wrote, ‘Promenade’, is actually quite good … if you like Biffy Clyro,’ adds Brown.
‘It was a certainly a lot better than most of the stuff being written by bands on the scene at the time.’ He pauses, wary of causing offence.
‘What I mean is it was of a very high standard, and we were only seventeen when we wrote it.’
Their sound has evolved from brash, Biffy-indebted beginnings into something more subtle and alluring. Frontman Louis Price confirms that the band are smitten with the music of the Canadian new-wave.
‘At the start when we were struggling to get a grasp of what our sound should be, we were still very much into Biffy.
However, we soon discovered all these other amazing artists, bands who were to have a big influence - Broken Social Scene and The Arcade Fire. Those bands challenged us to write better material.’
Tousle-haired Price is the band’s chief songwriter, modest, quietly spoken, and keen to ensure the contribution of his bandmates is noted.
‘I would write a lot of the songs in my room, but quite a few of the tracks have developed out of just one riff that me or Dan has come up with.
'We’ll take that riff into the practice room to Paddy (Baird, Drums) and Tom (O’Hara, Bass) and the song just happens. Other times I might have a more exact idea of what the end sound should be. It’s like everything else; you have to be prepared to change depending on the circumstances.’
When put on the spot about the lyrical content of Kowalski’s songs, Price becomes coy.
‘With that early material I didn’t really want to write about, ummm … love. So ‘Sunshine State’ is political, about South Carolina and just looking at how bizarre America is in general.
'Lately I’ve realised that love makes an interesting subject, that there are so many ways you can write about it. So yeah; the newer songs are about … love.’
Whether tackling the personal or the political, Kowalski strike a nerve. Their winning mix of indie neuroses and acute social observation has seen the band clutched fervently to the breast of the NI music fraternity.
‘It’s really humbling’ acknowledges Price. ‘I remember the EP launch; we were expecting maybe 20 people. We were getting pretty stressed out, just we’d get enough to cover costs.
'When we opened the doors it was queued right back - more than 250 people. It was a real morale boost for us.’
However it is not just in NI that Kowalski have been making a name for themselves. Their mercurial talent has brought them management and a UK tour with the hotly-tipped Air Traffic.
‘We finalised management when we were on tour last October,’ states Brown. ‘We’re signed to the same company that look after Nine Black Alps and Gemma Hayes.
'The Air Traffic tour allowed the management company to put us through our paces and to see what we were capable of.’
Kowalski are all too aware that despite a plethora of plaudits they are not yet the finished product. As affable drummer Baird suggests, further touring and support slots will enable the band to flesh out and finesse their sound.
‘The UK tour was good for us. The crowd were Air Traffic’s crowd, so it really put us back in our place. It opened our eyes up to how difficult things can be and brings it home to you just how far away you are from being a rock star. At this stage though support slots are what we’ve got to do, we’re still a very young band.’
Confidence and self criticism make for strange bedfellows in the Kowalski psyche.
‘Sometimes we’re far too self-critical, recognises Baird. ‘Honestly, if we play one song badly, that will be the only part of the gig we remember. We’re very harsh. We have very high expectations, which is good, but at the same time it can be hard to be in a band like that.’
Price is quick to second his bandmate’s opinion.
‘Definitely, that is one thing we need to work on, because really it’s hard to enjoy when you’re that tough on yourself. It’s getting harder and harder to go into the practice room with a smile.’
‘We’ve got two new songs in particular which we’re working on, and I’m absolutely raving about them. I think they’re the best songs we’ve written and really bring the band up another level again.’
With rehearsal beckoning the Kowalski boys prepare to depart, leaving me to ponder the tantalising promise of those new songs.
As we make our way towards the door they are already absorbed in discussion ‘what about just keeping the Korg intro but having that lead into …’ oblivious to my presence, lost in devotion to Kowalski.