If you try to calculate the amount of music that calls on you to listen to it, you might feel the need to retreat to the nearest cave in order to escape it. Between the deluge of online chatter and most of what you’re force fed on too many radio stations to mention, it’s no wonder that sometimes the best music gets lost, and no surprise that sometimes the best bands get forgotten about.
20 years ago, The Pale made their major label debut with Here’s One We Made Earlier, an album that introduced a band that, from then to now, has succeeded in blindsiding their audience with music that is equal parts eminently melodic and utterly singular. “I’m not good at focusing on the commercial aspects of music and trends,” says The Pale’s lead singer and main songwriter, Matthew Devereux.
Therein lays not only the pleasure for the creative spirit but also the problem for the accountants. Inevitably, The Pale’s tenure on the major label didn’t last too long, and so began a number of years where the band (in effect, Matthew and multi-instrumentalist Shane Wearen) soldiered on. Albums you’ve probably never seen stocked in record shops – Cheapside (1996), Cripplegate (1997), Spudgun (1998) – were released in parts of Europe you’ve probably never been to. The band even changed their name to Produkt, under which name more albums were released to further rippling waves of unawareness.
The aim, essentially, was to retain credibility. “I was inspired by artists whose careers I’ve followed through the years, and I take rather earnestly my inspirations from people who didn’t follow contrived commercial interests,” says Matthew of his cunning but not necessarily financially rewarding plan. “I didn’t want us to be revealed as such, because if you go for the quick buck it very rarely works out.” Back then, he admits, he took what was essentially anti-commercialism to extremes: “I wanted The Pale to have a cult-like following.”
At this stage – cult-like following achieved – Matthew admits to barely eking out a living. Gigging, he remarks, provided the financial wherewithal for him. Shane, meanwhile, played music and taught web design. “I was involved in various different projects, some of which crashed and burned!,” he says. “When The Pale isn’t operative, I play music; yet whenever I go away from music I always veer back towards it after a month or two.”
Call it resilience (compulsion, even), but such a stance is so innate that it becomes part of the creative DNA. And so – without a nod to either popularity or profitability – The Pale carried on. Matthew and Shane admit that while they couldn’t get to grips with the often mercurial nature of the music industry, they still wanted to make musical statements.
“For us to get albums released in even one European territory was a victory,” comments Matthew. “My ambition was obviously not for The Pale to become smaller, but it seemed that we were just out of tandem with the industry, particularly in Ireland.”
The stakes, such as they were, had also gotten too high for The Pale. By the mid-‘90s music acts had to have a financial outlay. “We could go to the table,” recalls Matthew, “we could pull off a poker face and play a game, but we didn’t have the money to put into the pot.”
Yet The Pale refused to fold – “quite simply, myself and Shane have been designed to do what we do.” The frustrating part was that each time they released a new album, virtually everything “was reflected back to our early records and the cheeky chappie image we had back then. We, on the other hand, had been developing, maturing, changing.”
Which more or less brings us bang up to date. Developing, maturing, changing – these are crucial patterns for anyone, let alone creative types. What was paramount for the band, reveals Matthew, was gaining a broader education and the justified notion of an artist “chasing a masterpiece”, which he admits, “is the ignition for my ambition.”
Some people might think such a quest unwise, but there’s no doubting the validity of it. The past five years has seen two albums – The Contents Of A Shipwreck (2007) and Proper Order (2009) – continue The Pale’s pilgrimage for perfection. New album, I Woke Up And I Was Gone, sees the band reach out and grasp it. The album features a dozen beautifully measured songs that nudge the parameters of lo-fi pop/folk – nugget-sized and gem-like, charming tracks such as Company Of Wolves, It Should Be Illegal, The Boy With The Antlers, Hanging Around Airports and An Autograph For My Dad highlight the casual simplicity of perfect pop.
Coming from the pen of a man who cheerfully admits to once being too cerebral for his own good, the new album is a pithy, often poignant departure. “I feel guilty about how indirect or obscure I may have been about certain things,” says Matthew with a wry grin. “We suddenly found the drive again to make the music far more accessible, more direct. I had realised we needed to be. Back in the day, my youthfulness and aggression got in the way of looking for clarity.”
The new songs – largely written over the past three years while Matthew was based in Prague – are based on truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. “When I was younger I wanted the music to do different things, one of which wasn’t the kind of truth that I feel we’ve stitched though The Pale’s work in the past five years. I’ve realised, ultimately, that truth has freed me.” The feedback to this sense of directness has taken Matthew by surprise. “The more honest I was the more I connected with it. The idea that I can be so direct and that people are open-hearted to it is something I never expected.”
‘Roll down the window, throw away the plot…’, sings Matthew on It Should Be Illegal, one of the album’s many highlights. The lyric could well be The Pale’s new modus operandi – after over 20 years of working through life’s stuff and nonsense, it seems they have come to realise, finally, that less is more.
“It’s about everything in its right measure,” reasons Matthew. “I could never understand why some people I know would spend 12 years to be a brain surgeon. But now? Now I totally get it.”