We had a chat with Lir’s lead singer Dave McGuinness and the film
Like so many Irish bands in the wake of U2’s breakthrough, Lir seemed destined for great things. But, as GOOD CAKE BAD CAKE proves, even the road to near-success can be rocky.
Paul Byrne talks to lead singer Dave McGuinness and the film’s director, Shimmy Marcus.
What a long, strange trip it’s been. Dave McGuinness, the lead singer with Dublin band Lir, chuckles as his old friend, Shimmy Marcus, recounts another night of hedonistic debauchery during one of the band’s many US tours.
“That’s the thing that people forget,” says McGuinness, “even though we never made it to the toppermost, we had an incredible amount of fun. And I thank Shimmy for capturing that in this documentary. It’s so easy to think that someone not making it over the finish line first mustn’t have had a good race, but I wouldn’t change a thing about Lir’s story.” McGuinness takes a comic beat, or two. “Well, actually, if I’m being truly honest, there are a few things I would like to change…”
We’re taking shelter from Ireland’s abundance of liquid sun in a small Dublin café, and talk turns to those early days of wine, women and song. And the very real chance that Lir were going to be Ireland’s next big band. Even bigger than U2.
“I was lucky to be involved with the band very early on,” nods Marcus, “because I used to do all their lighting rigs. And those gigs were mental – you could sense that something was coming.
“Luckily, I had a policy of videotaping the gigs so I could see what was working with the lights and what wasn’t. So, when it dawned on me that here was a band with a story to tell, I knew I had all this incredible footage to call upon.”
“I think a lot of bands, not just from this island, and not just from that era, will relate to what we went through,” offers McGuinness. “You truly believe that you’re going to make it, and when you’re in the middle of an American tour, and you’ve got a field full of screaming girls in front of you, you feel it’s all simply a matter of dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s. The small victories and the small defeats keep on adding up, as you wait for that big break, and, gradually, inevitably, a wheel or two comes loose, but something just keeps driving you forward. To have someone like Shimmy to come along and do an autopsy on all those years, it’s been an amazing experience. You forget half of what happened, and suddenly, there it is, in living colour, splashed across the screen.”
“I don’t think even the band’s families knew exactly what they went through,” adds Marcus. “This was the early ‘90s, when the idea of charting your life online was still a long way off. So, for everyone back home, it was largely a mystery what went on when it came to all those record deals, all those gigs, all those meltdowns”.
“When we held a special screening for the band and their families, there was just this outpouring of emotion when the end credits rolled. Everyone was hugging each other. It was like they’d just come back from the war…”
“In many ways, we had,” laughs McGuinness. “You can lose yourself out there on the road, and when you’re trying to find your place within the music industry. Too much compromise, and you don’t sound like yourself. Not enough, and the labels don’t know what to do with you. And then there’s the simple matter of timing. If Lir had arrived ten years later, I think it could have been a very different story.”
As it was, Lir formed in the late ‘80s, five north Dublin lads who were wild and wacky enough to initially call themselves The Spontaneous Frogs. After a little common sense crept in, the lads changed the name to Uproar. Shortly after Lir came into being, their first EP, 1992’s All Machines Hum In A, triggered the first of many media frenzies. And record label courtings. And then, again and again, disappointment at the 11th hour.
“When it happens once, even twice, you can put it down to bad luck,” says McGuinness, “but when it started happening again and again, and then again, you really do start to think, are we cursed? You’d find someone in a record company just crazy about us, they’d be all set to sign us, and then the management would change. Or the wind would suddenly blow in a different direction, and our sails would suddenly collapse. Shimmy gives a chuckle.
“All that kind of stuff builds character,” he smiles. “But, what good are five Yodas when you haven’t got a record deal? It was pretty baffling, because the band were always coming up with new material, and it was always loved by anyone who heard it.” Not that McGuinness, or any of his bandmates, ever lost sight of the fact that this was not just their story – a million bands have gone through the nearly-was ringer before, and a million bands will follow.
“It doesn’t make it any easier though,” says McGuinness, “knowing that, hey, this is just the way it goes. You feel you’re this close, and yet, you keep falling short. Watching Good Cake Bad Cake helped me make my peace with that, all over again.”
Of course, the one big obstacle Lir faced in their home country was a hard-nosed section of the press who just didn’t like them. Second only to The Saw Doctors at the time for vitriolic reviews, McGuinness still isn’t sure why it was that they were singled out for such tough love.
“I think the press can decide early on whether they’re going to support you or not,” he says. “And after that, it doesn’t matter how great a song you write might be, they’ll have their knives out. I don’t think we fitted into the usual Dublin media scene, and they took that as us being snobbish. It’s like having to charm the bouncer on the door before they’ll let you into some establishments, and we just didn’t even bother turning up. We were happy to stay at home, and write some new songs, when, if we’d been really career-minded, we would have been schmoozing journalists in Lillie’s Bordello.”
Having split up in 1997, the band reformed in 2006, the same year their US label, What Are Records?, released an unplugged download album, 06/93 Acoustic Sessions. In 2008, Lir Live followed, the band’s first album proper since 1995’s Nest.
“We get together every year now for some gigs,” finishes McGuinness, “and it’s always a spark, realising that there are so many people out there who believed in us. We’re writing new material, and we’re hopeful that the documentary will give people an idea of who we are. And what we’re capable of.”
After all that bitter gruel, the band are now just waiting for the sugar. Man.
“Yeah, that’s exactly what we’re doing,” laughs McGuinness. “So, if there’s any country out there that’s been secretly buying millions of our albums, can they please get in touch…?”
Good Cake Bad Cake: The Story Of Lir plays at The Factory, 35A Barrow Street, Dublin from March 21st to March 24th, at 8pm and 9.40pm. Tickets are €10, and you can book by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 087 2704132.