Despite their nomadic ways, THE LOST BROTHERS feel a sense of rootedness in Liverpool. Sam Turner speaks to the Irish duo about their connection with Liverpool’s music scene past and present, hearing about the places they frequented when they formed in our fair city in 2007 and how they’ve changed, and their collaborations with their friends Nick Power and Bill Ryder-Jones.
Mark McCausland: “On the last night of recording our new album, Oisin and I took a late-night stroll around some of the old places. Walking past Elevator Studios, we stopped and stood outside. This is where I recorded my first record with The Basement, under the production of Ian Broudie. Around the corner was the rehearsal rooms – a massive building with fifty-odd rooms, all filled with bands playing into the night. We stood outside and looked up at our old rooms, mine with The Basement and Oisin’s with The 747s.
I spent so many hours, days, weeks, months and years up in that room. I even lived up there in a period of desperate hopelessness. We stood listening to the beautiful racket of a hundred songs falling onto the street until someone exited the building, leaving the door ajar and we ran inside. The place still smelled the same – a mixture of urine, metal and weed. Knowing the perils of the dreaded lift, we opted to take the stairs to the fifth floor.
Back when we practised there, those stairwells echoed with the sounds of The Coral, The Zutons, The Bandits, The Stands, The Little Flames, The Cubical, etc. Now they sing with a new song. We knocked on the door of our old praccy room until someone answered and kindly let us in. The room still looked the same, only the humans were different. Our dust was still there, our pen scribblings still on the walls, and I looked in the corner to see the old piano that could never be tuned.
The piano came from the cellar of the building. Paul Speed (the owner) told us that if we wanted it we could have it. Too big and heavy to put in the lift, we somehow dragged it up six flights of stairs. We took it in shifts. It took two days. When we finally got it in the room we noticed it was impossible to tune, and it sat in the corner, unused for the five years we were there. And there it is still. Untouched. In its place. In its home. In a corner. Covered in cobwebs and dust. Along with our ghosts.”
Liverpool clearly has a special place in the hearts of THE LOST BROTHERS. The two Irishmen, Oisin Leech and Mark McCausland, now based north of Dublin, formed on Merseyside around 2007 after cutting their teeth in an assortment of bands: Mark’s band The Basement were briefly attached to Deltasonic, which put them in touch with some of Liverpool music’s noughties luminaries, while Oisin’s 747s recorded a version of Baby I’m Yours with Arctic Monkeys after releasing their underappreciated record, Zampano. Those were the tail end of some golden years for music in the city: national and international music press were taking notice of The Bandwagon night at the Zanzibar, The Coral had ushered in a Scousedelic renaissance, and Liverpool bopped again.
Despite moving away, the Losties – as they’ve affectionately become known – have travelled extensively, playing and recording in cities across the globe. Last year saw their return to Liverpool to record their fourth album, New Songs Of Dawn And Dust, at Parr Street Studios, with production responsibilities going to another restless product of those kaleidoscopic times, Bill Ryder-Jones. “We are fascinated by Bill’s work as a solo artist. His two albums are stunning; I really respect what he is doing and the sounds he is getting,” Oisin tells me while having some well-earned downtime in Ireland between touring. “So we wanted to bring these songs – travelogues that we had written on the road – to Bill, and he brought things out of the songs that we didn’t even know were there and added his magic dust.”
Oisin Leech: “One of our favourite Liverpool rituals was to go to the Marlborough pub beside The Jacaranda on a Monday night. It was a tiny corner old man’s pub with red velvet carpet and wine-coloured cushioned lounge couches. Every Monday there was an old-time New Orleans jazz band that played their hearts out. These guys were very elderly and were literally playing for their lives. The energy was amazing. Pints were £1.40 so it meant I could buy the entire pub a beer and still have change for the jukebox when the band was done. The jukebox had Fred Neil records on it. I found those Monday nights very inspiring.”
As well as jazz, folk and beat luminaries of the last 60 years, the sounds of heartbreak, hard work and lives of romantic recklessness can be heard in all of the duo’s long players. But Oisin sees the characteristic sadness in the Losties’ tunes differently: “I don’t see them as sad songs; all my favourite songs – whether they’re Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan songs, as well as the inherent sadness in Irish folk music – really warm my soul. I think a really sad song punches through everything and restores your faith to bring you out the other end.”
Oisin Leech: “Another fine Liverpool ritual was to call down to Jongo’s Guitar Shop on Aigburth Road. We would come back to Liverpool after a long tour and just sit off in Jongo’s shop and talk about music. Jongo has gypsy blood in him and he lives and breathes good music. He once helped produce a demo of a song I wrote called Rainkiss. We recorded it round at the now-legendary Honza’s house. Honza… there’s another character who was very good to us in the early days. If Keith Richards and Tom Waits had a baby wizard it would be Honza.”
The Lost Brothers are musicians who, true to their name, live in their songs as well as the sonic aesthetics of various decades. As such, they have spent their career wandering the world working with some of music’s most admired names. “This nomadic lifestyle started without us even noticing. We weren’t living anywhere and were constantly on the road,” says Oisin as he ponders their rootless existence. “I suppose wherever our record collections are we call home.”
Portland (“a great music city”) was the band’s first stop after leaving Liverpool in 2008. There they recorded their first album with Mike Coykendall (M Ward, Bright Eyes) and Adam Selzer (The Decembrists). In between staying in a haunted pub and hanging out at the biggest independent bookshop in the world, they recorded Trails On The Lonely with the help of pedal steel specialist Paul Brainard. A support slot with Richard Hawley then led the boys to Sheffield where they recorded So Long, John Fante with the bequiffed crooner’s band and producer Colin Elliott in 2010. Oisin and Mark were back Stateside in 2011 in Nashville, where they recorded the sublime The Passing Of The Night with the help of Brendan Benson as well as members of the Old Crow Medicine Show and The Cardinals.
You can hear a sense of place in these albums that cuts to the essence of the setting: Bird In A Cage marvellously recreates the atmosphere of a honky tonk, and Only The Light Of The Moon is expertly inflected with Sheffield’s 60s-indebted forlorn romance. Oisin finds that it is impossible to avoid the inspiration which comes with experiencing new places and people: “When you’re on the road, whether you like it or not you’re being inspired by everything you see and the people you meet. This new album was really inspired by the characters we met, trying to get through life and trying to survive.”
Oisin Leech: “I used to get the train out to Formby and take a long sea walk in the mornings. Then on the way back to town I’d try to write a song on the train. I would pop up to see Carl in Hairy Records, chat about Van Morrison, and finish off the day listening to Edgar Jones DJing at La’go. If the night got extended we would all go to the Kif near Parr Street. That was a kind of commune/art warehouse where late-night jams would happen. The next day one could walk off the blues along the Mersey and call into the Beatles shop. All in all it was a great time back then, but Liverpool has a great new vibe about it again at the moment. It’s a buzzing city right now. Exciting times.
News Song Of Dawn And Dust adds to this new vibe partly thanks to Hotel Loneliness, the track penned by another Coral cohort, Nick Power. It’s a tune typical of the Losties’ melodic anguish and bridges the classic songwriting qualities of both bands. “Nick is a huge fan of So Long, John Fante and he and Bill really encouraged us,” says Oisin of the latest collaboration. “Out of the blue he sent us Hotel Loneliness three or four years ago and said ‘I would love to hear the Losties sing this song’. He kind of became our song pen pal, then we all worked together on that song. It was great to see Bill and Nick together.”
The boys are now looking forward to playing the next instalment of Liverpool Acoustic Festival, which takes place at the Unity Theatre in March. “We haven’t actually played [as the Lost Brothers] that often in Liverpool and any excuse we have to come, we’ll be over ‘cos we love it,” says Oisin, “Whenever we step off the train at Lime Street we feel a gust of energy behind us, and we’ll walk up Bold Street and everything’s feeling groovy. In the back of our minds Liverpool’s our home.”
While there are bands in Liverpool who may be ploughing more innovative musical furrows as they learn their trades in the city’s venerable educational institutions, it would be difficult to find a band who live and breathe the musical tradition which hangs in the air of the oldest pubs and practice rooms in Liverpool as much as The Lost Brothers. For that, they will always be welcome here.
WATCH THE LOST BROTHERS PERFORM FOR BIDO LITO! AS PART OF THE ROUTES JUKEBOX SESSIONS HERE.