Thanks so much to Pete Major for the interview!
++ So tell me how did the band come together? How did you all meet? Why did you decide to start a band?
Well, thanks so much for asking for an interview … it’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these … this will test my memory!
The Holsteins were formed when Belfast band Firehouse burned out in 1991. The band re-formed as the Holsteins having recruited singer Niamh Rooney via the traditional “advert in the music shop” method. She was the first to call my number (well, her friend was actually … she was too shy!) and so we got together with the band and once we heard her fantastic voice we knew we need look no further.
Strangely enough, we hadn’t really imagined having a female singer (Firehouse were an all-male 5-piece) but most calls responding to the advert were from girls.
Anyway, getting Niamh was the best thing that could have happened to us, and also made us somewhat unique in what was an almost totally male-dominated local music scene in the early 90s.
I’ll cover how the rest of us met in the next question …!
++ Were any of band members involved with bands before The Holsteins? If so, care to tell me a bit of these bands?
James Elliott (who became Firehouse’s lead singer) and myself decided one day during a boring Chemistry class in school that we should form a band and call it “Big Pink Things”. This amused us greatly. What was initially just a joke actually came to fruition when we played, now under the name “Sod This … I’m Off!”, at our school “Battle of the Bands” competition. We had about 12 people on stage and played the Undertones’ “Jimmy Jimmy” plus, for some bizarre reason, which even to this day I cannot understand, “House of the Rising Sun”. We were of course terrible and didn’t win, but I think at that point the spark had been lit for myself, James and Stew McDowall (who became Firehouse & Holsteins bass player) … we wanted more!
Having recruited my friend and neighbour Davy Burton to drum, we started writing songs and practicing. The songs were good, and James had an obvious talent for great lyrics, but in truth our musical ability was very limited and Davy really wasn’t keen on the drums, so we called it a day after a few months.
However due to a chance meeting with a “proper” drummer while gardening (really), we eventually reformed (in 1989) as Firehouse with James on vocals, myself on rhythm guitar, Davy “promoted” to lead guitar, Stew on bass and Mr Brian McNamara on drums.
Everything clicked from the first practice, and Firehouse quickly became regulars on the local scene, receiving radio airplay with our 2 demos and even managed to support Echo and the Bunnymen when they came to Belfast in November 1990.
However following the recording of our 3rd demo, James left the band and went on to form the fantastic “Emily Ryder” … I remain great friends with James to this day.
We then advertised for a new singer and the Holsteins were born when Niamh joined.
++ Why did you choose the name? Was it really because of the cows? I guess you weren’t vegetarians?
I was sitting upstairs in my attic contemplating the band name when I glanced at a postcard stuck to the wall which James had sent me while on one of his many round the world adventures. It featured a Gary Larson cartoon entitled “the Holsteins visit the Grand Canyon” … the shortlist of names that I took to the band were the Holsteins, Fine, Gloria and QFL (Queue For Love) … wisely we picked the Holsteins, and I’ve always thought it was fitting that James had (albeit unwittingly) inspired the name of our new band.
++ Tell me about those two early demo tapes you released? Were these songs released later? Maybe one day we’ll all have a chance to listen to these songs?
“Plastic Poems” (1992) and “Black Recordings” (1993) were both expertly recorded by Belfast music legend Johnny Grant (he told me to say that) … terrific fun and they became remarkably successful locally, with many plays on radio and vying for the top spot of the local top ten chart with the likes of Ash, Therapy? and the Divine Comedy.
The actual demo tapes are no longer available, but the 7 songs were featured on our debut album “Angel Train” along with 3 new ones.
++ What would you say were the main influences of The Holsteins?
This is very hard to answer as the 5 individuals in the band had an incredibly diverse range of musical tastes. Niamh loved Maria McKee / Lone Justice, whereas Brian’s favourite band was Rush!
I always have and always will love the Undertones, but at the time we were playing was probably influenced more by the likes of the Pixies, Julian Cope, Jonathan Richman and the Fall. However when anything was written about us we’d usually be compared to either the Cranberries (which wasn’t that flattering) or Belly (which was fantastic!)
++ I read that listening to a Northern Irish compilation tape, Bullet! Records got in touch with you. Care to tell me a bit about this tape? Was there any other good band in there? Also, who were Bullet! Records and how was the relationship with them?
You are absolutely right that I said that in our biography, but that wasn’t strictly how it happened. Guy Trelford wrote the Official Underground Scrapbook, a local music fanzine, and had sent a copy of our first demo to Stefan Ehret of Bullet! Records in Germany who had been corresponding with Guy for a while. He loved the songs, got back in touch with Guy and then wrote to us asking if we’d like to be on the label … it was that simple. We hadn’t been actively looking for anything like this, so it came as an absolute shock … and of course we jumped at the chance.
Shortly after this, a track of ours (Death By Chocolate) was included on a compilation tape given away with the fanzine called “New Teen Idols”. Other bands on it included Resurrection Joe, Not Freudian, Collectors A.K.A., In-decision, Peppermoth, Fuss, Aquabucket, Jobbykrust and Dirty Noise as well as bands from England, Germany and Slovakia.
So Guy was the man who give us our big break, albeit unintentionally.
Recently he wrote and published a fantastic book on the history of punk in Northern Ireland entitled “It Makes You Want To Spit!”. Worth getting a hold of that one, it’s a great read.
Anyway, back to us! … the day I saw our vinyl-only debut release “Angel Train” was probably one of the greatest moments of my life … it absolutely bowled me over.
Stefan flew over to Belfast for the album launch (personally delivering boxes of albums crammed into his suitcases!) and it was an unbelievable night.
By the time our second release on Bullet! came out, vinyl records had all but disappeared, so “Pop-Gun Riot” was our first CD release. Again, it sold fantastically well locally, as well as in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
We can never thank Stefan enough for all he did for our wee band.
++ How do you remember the scene of Belfast in the early nineties, who were your favourite bands? How do you see that scene compared to the early 2000s when you call it a day?
In the early 90s we played with a variety of great bands including Alumni Feedback, Tart, Flying Saucer Cult, Buzzkill, the Norwegians, Watercress etc. who all had lots of local success without ever getting too much further than that. Still, it was an exciting time to be in a band, and the Thursday night gigs at the Limelight and later the Saturday nights at the Duke of York were wonderful places to be, run by two giants of the local scene, Shep and Johnny Hero (Belfast’s John Peel). They were always big supporters of the Holsteins and that really helped us too.
When we called it a day in 2005, there were still many terrific bands around. However the biggest difference was that in the early 90s (as I’ve mentioned before) it was almost 100% all-male guitar bands … Niamh was a bit of a novelty to be honest. However at the time we quit there were many females playing in bands, which is fantastic and how it should be.
++ You gigged quite a lot, which are the gigs you remember the most and why?
Firehouse- first gig in the Limelight (the most happening venue in the city at that time). We were held up by police checkpoints all around Belfast, and just made it to the venue on time, stumbling on stage with James dedicating the first song “I was a bouncing bomb” to the RUC traffic branch.
Holsteins – album launch at same venue. The place packed to capacity (including many people we didn’t know!) and albums selling by the box load. I remember signing copies of the LP and thinking “how the hell did this happen?”
Holsteins – Robinson’s Bar. Niamh becomes increasingly “chatty” as the gig progresses, thanks to the effects of second-hand smoke emanating from a discarded “herbal” cigarette in an ash-try beside her.
Holsteins – Queen’s Student’s Union. With Davy sent by his work to live in some caravan in Russia (don’t ask) and Chris unavailable, our numbers were severely depleted, but we had a couple of mates step in to help us perform the gig as “the half-steins”.
++ What was the biggest highlight of The Holsteins lifespan?
Strangely, even though the band called it a day in 2005, the biggest highlight for me happened only a few weeks ago. Thanks to a Google search, I discovered the rumour that we’d been played by John Peel was in fact true. Some guy has created a website with an extensive range of Peel playlists, including Saturday 12th November 1994 when Sir John played “Drugstorm” from “Angel Train”. For me, it just doesn’t get any better than that.
++ Your discography is quite large, many released and also compilation appearances, care to tell us your full discography for the collectors out there?
Okay … you did ask! Here it is …
- PLASTIC POEMS E.P. – 4-track cassette (1992)
- BLACK RECORDINGS – 3-track cassette (1993)
- N. IRELAND ROCKS! – 1 track, “Remembered it Glows”, M8 magazine compilation cassette (1993)
- ANGEL TRAIN – 10-track vinyl only album, Bullet! Records (1994)
- NEW TEEN IDOLS – 1 track “Death by Chocolate” on O.U.S. magazine compilation cassette (1995)
- LITTLE WHITE KNICKERS – 1 track “Remembered it Glows” 25 Records compilation CD (1996)
- POP-GUN RIOT – 5-track CD, Bullet! Records (1996)
- …..OFF! -1 track, “Faith in Time”, 25 Records compilation CD (1996)
- LIVE AT THE EMPIRE – “I Could Never Love You” live on compilation CD (1996)
- SUB ROSA – 8-track CD, Shiny Records (1997)
- OBVIOUS – 1 track, “You Leave…I Bleed”, 25 Records compilation CD (1997)
- 7” SPLIT SINGLE (with “die Blumen des Bosen”) – 2 tracks “I Could Never Love You” and “Count the Stars” on Kaktus Records, Germany (1998)
- A SILVER JUBILEE – 2 tracks “A Year and a Day” and “Count the Stars” on compilation CD by Meller Welle Produkte, Germany (1998)
- OOER MISSUS – 1 track, “Medicine”, 25 Records compilation CD (1998)
- OLIVE’S ARMY – 1 track, “Done and Dusted”, 25 Records compilation CD (1999)
- COVERS AND OTHERS – 2 tracks, “They Don’t Know” and “Done and Dusted” on Immortal Records compilation CD (1999)
- BELFEST ’99 – 1 track, “Done and Dusted” on compilation CD (1999)
- DODGE THE GROUND – 6-track CD, Shiny Records (2003)
++ Why do you think you had more success in Germany than in UK? I ask because most of your discography was released in the Teuton country! Did you ever got the chance to play in Germany?
All credit to Stefan on that one. He promoted both releases really well in Germany, leading to a lot of requests for interviews and compilation appearances.
Stefan was keen to set up a tour of small venues around the country playing alongside some local bands, but we never got it organized for various reasons.
++ What is that that you miss the most of those days? If you were born again, would you be in The Holsteins again? Would you change anything?
Perhaps in hindsight we should have been a bit more confident in ourselves and tried to take that next step, beginning with the gigs in Germany mentioned above. We still couldn’t really believe that people believed in us (if you know what I mean) and were hesitant about committing to something on that scale. We were just young guys having fun playing pop songs in local clubs, after all.
But of course, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. It was the biggest thrill of my life playing in that band.
++ When and why did you call it a day? What are The Holsteins doing nowadays?
A little while after “Pop-Gun Riot” Stew left the band and was replaced by Chris. The band then recorded “Sub Rosa” which was released by ourselves, although Stefan kindly sold many copies for us using his contacts. Again we had many positive reviews, great gigs and was probably the most fun we’d had in the brief history of the band, but I also think that by that stage we’d decided that this was very much a hobby and nothing else … there was no big push to become famous pop stars!
Our final release in 2003 was “Dodge the Ground”, probably our best recorded/produced set of songs, but my songwriting had all but dried up at this stage (thankfully Davy and Niamh helped out on this CD), and there was an underlying feeling that the old songs were much more fun to play than most of the new ones. We trundled on until 2005, playing very infrequently and to be honest most of the latter gigs were just social get–togethers for the band members with a quick 20 minute run through some old tunes just for a bit of fun.
Then, in 2005, Brian got married and moved to England and that seemed a good reason to finally call it a day.
However I’m positive that the 5 of us will perform again one day … maybe when we’re 50, or when Cloudberry Records invite us on an all expenses trip to sunny Miami!
++ Anything else you’d like to tell all the popkids out there?
My profound message to the popkids out there is exactly the same as it was 15 years ago ….”please buy our records!” (there’s plenty still available!)
And of course as they will know, being in a band and creating songs that at least some people will enjoy is just the biggest high you could ever experience, and great fun too … so DO IT!
Holsteins – A Year and A Day