If more people’s gears turned like Ally Dickaty’s then the world might be a better place. The front-man for the British punk rock band The Virginmarys takes his songwriting quite seriously, choosing to follow his heart by writing about the world around him. It’s a punk thing to do, to question and criticize the powers-that-be who make the rules of how the world runs. Although their music is highly energetic, there are moments of melody and emphasis on the whole picture rather than all-the-time in-your-face vitriol. And their just released record, Divides, is a perfect example.
“The overall theme of the album is the divides among people, freedom and power, injustice, inequality and corruption. Anger, disillusionment, injustice, frustration about where I feel we are in today’s society,” Dickaty explained recently about the soul of the album. You usually don’t hear words like these from anyone other than a politician on the campaign trail but these thoughts are a part of who the singer and primary songwriter is. Born and raised in England, Dickaty thrived on music – The Beatles and the blues and then finally the punk scene – and helped form The Virginmarys a little over fifteen years ago after meeting drummer Danny Dolan at music college. They released several EPs before debuting their first full-length in 2013, King of Conflict.
Divides continues to roar down the path of wake up and realize what is happening. “There’s a lot of divides with us in Britain, many created by the government and media turning people against one another,” Dickaty continued. “We are brainwashed with who to love, who to fear, who is good and who is evil.” Dickaty is quite passionate about getting people to look around themselves at what is happening to their neighbors near and far: “We don’t want to be preachy, but it’s stupid not to get people to start a dialogue about different issues … The heart-breaking thing is that though it’s this bad, people just go on day to day without really caring about it.”
Before we get all hung up on the notion that Divides is nothing but one band’s political podium, music-wise it’s got melodies, hooks, kick ass drumming and just the right amount of rock embedded into the songs to be an enjoyable repeat-play opus, especially with numbers like “For You My Love” and “Motherless Land.” With the help of Gil Norton, who has produced records by the Foo Fighters, the Pixies, Patti Smith and Feeder, The Virginmarys honed their songs into a tight amalgamation of rhythm, rock and attitude.
Glide spoke with Dickaty on the eve of Divides release last week, as the trio, which also includes bass player Matt Rose, was preparing for several in-store acoustic performances in England.
You are getting ready for some in-store acoustic performances, I see.
Yeah, that’s right. The new album, Divides, comes out tomorrow so we’re doing an in-store in Manchester and then we’re doing another one in London.
You’re such an energetic band, how do you readjust to do an acoustic performance like that?
We just play the song and a lot of the time they are written on acoustic and then changed into electric. So we kind of take it back. Certain stuff works and certain stuff doesn’t but you just kind of change stuff about. The really big riffs don’t tend to work on acoustic but I think there’s something great about just a stripped down acoustic performance of the song cause the actual song really comes across to the listener.
What was going through your mind when you were writing the songs for Divides?
It’s just a lot of frustration and anger with today’s society and the bigger divides that are being created with inequality and people. We have these things like food banks in the UK that help the families that can’t afford to eat and just the vast amount of inequality, you know, across the board, where some people have gotten an obscene amount of money and some people, you know, honest, hard-working people, can’t feed themselves or their families. I don’t know, it’s kind of like a scream, just the frustration of what we’re doing and what’s happening and no one else seems to be singing or writing about it. As an artist I feel like I have to.
Why is writing about reality as opposed to fantasy and fiction more important to you?
I can’t really write with great conviction about stuff that isn’t happening firsthand. Maybe that’s something that would happen in years to come where I can write about fiction but our band has always been very direct and very urgent and our songs have always been about what’s happening inside and feelings and emotions and that’s kind of what is portrayed. So I don’t really think that I could write songs about stuff that doesn’t resonate with me.
When you first started writing songs, did they have a conscience or were they the typical kid stuff about girls and cars?
I think as you first start writing as a kid you kind of try and make words rhyme on the page (laughs). I am a big fan of Neil Young, the work that he did in the seventies and a lot of the later stuff as well, and a lot of his lyrics are incredible and you realize how good something can be. So yeah, I think it’s something I have progressed into. I don’t think I’ve always had the same style but it’s something I keep on wanting to be better and better at. The main thing is that it comes from the heart, if you know what I mean, and what is happening in my life right now. It’ll come from that place.
Do you think that ignoring the reality of the world today is the worst thing a songwriter can do?
It’s not the worst thing. I’d say that songwriters or artists, they just need to really connect with what the truth is, what they feel inside, rather than looking at what’s popular and what sells and what they think they should be playing or how they think they should be looking. I think it’s about being individual. If everyone was themselves it’d be absolutely great. But as it isn’t, you end up with a lot of generic sounding music that doesn’t really sound like it’s being played from the heart. And you get that feeling from it as soon as you start listening.
On the new record, how instrumental was Gil Norton to it being the way it is?
Yeah, very instrumental. We worked a lot in pre-production with Gil. He kind of broke down each song and said which bits he felt were exciting and which bits he was getting bored with maybe and could be looked at. Everything was kind of broken down and built back up again. The way that he worked in the studio was a lot different to kind of what we were used to but he was a big influence on how the record sounded and how it turned out. It was incredible working with him.
What was something you did different this time, maybe something new you tried in the studio?
I think we did a lot of layers and backing vocals that we never really did or never had time to do on the first record. We experimented a lot more and obviously we’ve developed as players as well. I think Danny specifically, he wanted each song to sound a certain way. He said he’d never stretched himself so much on the drums. He really put everything into it onto this album.
Which song do you think really highlights this band as musicians?
Oh that’s a difficult one actually. I think “Falling Down” is a very cool one. It shows the versatility, the tempo and the quick riff that’s got like a punk catch. If I could break down instrumentally, it’s really intense. That and then “Walk In My Shoes” is more musical and it’s more of an arrangement. If you put those two together, it probably highlights quite well what the band can do.
Which song would you say changed the most from it’s original composition to it’s final recorded version?
I would say “Motherless Land” changed quite a bit. It wasn’t as heavy as it turned out on the record. But when you bring in someone like Gil and he’s making the whole album kind of fit together, even though there is a lot of styles going on. But I would probably say “Motherless Land” was altered the most.
What can you tell us about the song “For You My Love.”
That was a song that started out on acoustic and it was more of a folky sounding song, believe it or not, and then as I kept on working with it I added more tempo to it and it had that kind of galloping feel. The actual hook came out of when we were jamming over it and that seemed the most natural thing to sing over the chorus. You know, this kind of collective consciousness of, What are we doing? The whole album is a bit of a social commentary.
I understand you had a lot of songs coming into this record. How did you whittle them down to what actually went on Divides?
It was working with Gil really. I mean, there were some standout songs that you always wanted to be on the album. But there might have been four slow, more ballad-y type of songs that you really thought were great and strong but you already had that song on the record and you didn’t want to kind of overload it with too many slow songs. So it was kind of a process like that to keep the album alive and keep it interesting.
Do you still consider The Virginmarys a punk rock band?
There is definitely an element of pop in us cause of the melodies, I think. The Beatles certainly have always been my favorite band and I reckon it always will be so I’ve always had that soft spot for a catchy hook or chorus. But yeah, I think definitely some of the songs have that punk edge and that attitude and that kind of danger and urgency and a lot of the content is anti-establishment and questioning. It’s got a political kind of edge to it. But there is more to punk than just the Sex Pistols or the likes of pop punk where it’s like Blink-182. I think if something’s got that edge to it, like I listen to Public Enemy and I feel like it’s got punk rock in it. We’ve been called a punk rock band, we’ve been called a grunge band and we’ve been called a classic rock band and a blues rock band. There’s definitely rock in there but it’s difficult to actually say. It’s a bit of a broad term, I think.
What was your first “I can’t believe I’m here” moment?
There’s been quite a few of them. Classic Rock Magazine, a huge magazine over in the UK, they have an awards ceremony every year and we picked up the Best Breakthrough Band Award in front of the likes of Jimmy Page and all these guys who have been there and kind of done that and kind of rock royalty. It was this big televised awards ceremony and it just seemed crazy really and being announced and walking up to the stage like you see people do and it kind of felt like, well, that’s what I’m doing now (laughs).
Was it fun or did that put a little pressure on you guys?
It’s not not fun but it was just very surreal. It’s a moment that I will always remember but we’re kind of very humble guys and we talk to anyone. We’ve never really been seduced by the industry side of it. It’s all about the music really and making the best possible records. But of course it’s fun (laughs).
What was the craziest concert you guys have ever played?
I think it would be in Berlin. We played a gig with Queens Of The Stone Age and it was like a huge, like 10,000, and the actual setting was crazy. The crowds were amazing, really up for it, and that was kind of another one of those moments where you just kind of got to pinch yourself and make sure you’re not dreaming. That was a crazy event.
I saw you guys a few years ago when you played Voodoo Fest down here in New Orleans.
Oh that was great. That was with Pearl Jam, wasn’t it. They were playing that night. We absolutely love New Orleans. It’s such a great place. We had a chance to walk around the city and it’s really hot isn’t it (laughs) but the people are really lovely and the whole vibe is great. It’s one of my favorite places to come to.
Will you be touring for the rest of the year?
Yeah, we’re touring and really just getting this album out. We’ve got a UK tour and then some festivals lined up and hopefully get back to the States and do some tours of Europe. Basically playing as much as we can and getting in front of the fans.
To close out, what frightens you the most about the world today and where it’s headed?
Just people as a whole aren’t thinking for themselves really and believe everything they read. If you switch on the news, it’s so easy to get depressed and it kind of feels like a lot of the stuff is run by fear and people are closing themselves off and the whole community spirit is getting lost. I would just hope that people start looking out for each other more and really thinking about what’s going on rather than just switching on the TV and being spoon fed whatever is being told to them. I think you’ve got to kind of look at it a bit deeper and read more than just one paper or watch more than just one news broadcaster.
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough; group photos by Alex Wright