Interview Feature: Ollie Cole: The Life and Times of Turn
With three albums under their belts and a live show not to be missed, Turn are one of Ireland’s bands of the last fifteen years. After six years apart, they returned to play this year’s Electric Picnic, now Ollie Cole, Gavin Fox and Ian Melady are back for a series of final gigs.
We’re sitting in a busy Dublin city centre eaterie, Ollie Cole has given up his lunch time to speak to me about Turn, the demise of the band, his solo work and now the final gigs. He’s upbeat and smiling and genuinely looks happy. Your scribe grew up just outside Kells, where Cole is from. He was always the guy with the guitar who always seemed to be in cool bands. Being from a small town can mean you ‘know someone’ but don’t really. It wasn’t until many years later, that I got to know Cole. This is the first time we spoke in depth about his music.
‘We more or less fell out’, says Cole, opening up about the end of the band six years ago. ‘If you were in a really successful band and were making shit loads of money, you mightn’t fall out as easy or else you’d go ‘I hate yer man but I can put up with it.’ In hindsight, there seems to be a few contributing factors as to why the band ended. In the beginning, ‘we were alternative and interesting and everyone had come to see us’, says Cole, ‘it’s quite ironic because that’s when guitar bands weren’t in fashion’. Then along came bands like the Strokes with a jerky angular sound, ‘All of a sudden we weren’t cool, we had just been around too long maybe.’
Turn’s debut album, ‘Antisocial’, was released by Infectious Records in 2001, from whom they later departed. They decided to go the DIY route but the departure of bassist Gavin Fox in 2002, while they were recording tracks for ‘Forward’, seems to have been the breaking point. ‘To be honest we were probably finished as soon as Gavin left to join Idlewild but we went without Gavin for a while but it was never the same’, says Cole. ‘Turn is only good when it’s me, Gavin and Ian. It’s no good when it’s anyone else.’ The band continued without Fox but Ollie Cole recalls the time. ‘We weren’t as good as we should have been and then another irony is that Gavin came back and that’s when we split up.’
Following the release of the band’s self titled third album on Setanta Records in September 2005 and Fox rejoined the band but that didn’t save Turn. In July 2006 the band announced they were calling it a day. ‘When I look back at it, we shouldn’t have split up. Gavin was back, it was me Gavin and Ian again, we should have just made a great record. That’s what we should have done.’ Cole also had the urge to do some different, he wanted to make a solo album. Tensions and lack of communication within the band didn’t help either.
He explains how it was it was hard to get the band into a room to rehearse ‘cos everyone was busy with other stuff’ but also how relations between himself and Ian Melady who had been friends since childhood, were strained. ‘Me and him couldn’t communicate anymore. When you fall out with someone you don’t really care about, that doesn’t matter. It’s easy to be in a band with someone who thinks you’re a dick. You don’t care about them you just go ‘Yer man thinks I’m a dick but I don’t care but when it’s someone that you really love and you’ve been friends with since you were a kid, it’s hard to be in an environment when you’ve fallen out with someone like that, it’s painful, it’s horrible. I didn’t want that stress in my life anymore.’
Ironically, this falling out was one of the reasons of how Turn got back together. Ollie Cole got married earlier this year and in the run up to the big day but Cole wanted Melady to attend even though he ‘hadn’t really spoken to Ian since we fell out’. Ollie says he knew that the pair would always make up, he just didn’t want it to be when ‘something awful happened like someone dying’ but ‘I wasn’t brave enough to just pick up the phone and go ‘Do you want to just fucking meet?’
Then an offer came from Electric Picnic to play at this year’s festival. Cole approached Gavin who in turn asked Ian if he was interested. Melady attended the wedding and Turn played the Electric Picnic. ‘And it was fine, it was all fine.’, says Cole, admitting he didn’t really know how they fell out but puts it down to stress from outside sources, ‘Record companies and stuff like that’. Despite the ups and downs, Cole is constantly smiling when he talks about the band. ‘The great thing about Turn now, is we’re not looking for anything from anyone. We’re not trying to make this how we make a living, we’re simply doing it because we like playing music.’
Isn’t this why people get into bands in the first place? ‘That’s why we were brilliant in the first place too and then we lost.. you get surrounded by business deals and record companies and there’s a pressure to be something else to other people, so it’s interesting that it’s back to where we started from.’
The night before Electric Picnic, Turn played a warm up gig in Whelan’s in Dublin, which your scribe attended. Although it was the weekend of a major festival, the gig which was only announced online the day before, was full and everyone there sang every word of every song. ‘That’s pretty amazing to me as well, it was the same down the Electric Picnic too. It’s like everyone still knows the bleeding, they know everything, they know where the songs are, when it’s going to stop, when it’s going to drop out. Turn were always really good at that,they were always really good at a real sudden stop in the middle of a song, leave just the vocals and then back in again or the chorus or whatever.’
On the night, after just one song, Cole had a broad smile on his face and turned to the other members onstage as if to say ‘Yeah we still got it’. He says he felt that the first time they went into the rehearsal room again and played the track ‘Beeswax’. ‘We just played it from beginning to end and we hadn’t played it in like, whatever it was, five years or something and we just played it from beginning to end. It was perfect, it was brilliant as well. I was just like, yip, sounds amazing.’
Cole is, no doubt, proud of the music Turn produced. ‘It’s really interesting music, like what the drums and bass are doing, the bass, the drum parts the guitar parts, how all the vocals and the harmonies work together, it’s quite fucking complicated.’ Although he says the band were working things out as they went along saying ‘if you sat down to arrange a song you would never do it like that.. We had no idea what we were doing so we ended up coming up with quite interesting arrangements for songs, like, they’re really well arranged and they rock like, they definitely have a power to them.’
When Turn started releasing material, they solely released on vinyl, something with Cole hasn’t lost. His solo debut record, ‘We Albitri’, was released on CD and vinyl while his next album which should be released in 2013 will be a vinyl only release. ‘I really like vinyl now, if we’re having some people round in the house and we’re having some dinner I’ll put on a record or else I’m listening to mp3s. . If I really like it, I’ll go out and buy the vinyl. My main ways of buying music is vinyl and digital so when it comes to releasing my next solo album, I’m going to release it as I would buy it and see how that goes.’
Counting up previous releases between solo work, Turn’s albums, EPs and singles and the band Swampshack before that, Cole has proven himself to be a prolific songwriter with an extensive back catalogue. Cole currently teaches songwriting and sees people who can struggle with their songwriting. He puts some of his songwriting skills down to growing up in Kells. ‘There was just nothing else to do so I wrote songs a lot and I read a lot so.. maybe if I grew up in Dublin as a teenager and I had more distractions, I might have put other things ahead of music.’
The way Cole writes music has also changed saying he would write a verse and chorus for a song in Turn, bring it to Gavin and Ian who would jam it out and it would either work or not. Now though he writes a verse and chorus and records it into this phone or walkman. ‘I call that finished. I say to my wife or somebody else, ‘I wrote the most amazing song today’ and they’ll go ‘play it to me’ and I’ll go while ‘I can’t because it’s not finished’ but to me I know the essence of that is really good’. Outside of Turn, Cole has still collaborated with Gavin Fox and along with drummer Graham Hopkins, will go to the studio and jam ‘thirty or forty little seeds of songs and we’ll just jam them out and develop them in the studio. I no longer write the way I used to write, I’d start off and write a song from beginning to end in one sitting, then Turn was a different thing then the solo thing but no matter what, I’m always always writing.’
He seems a lot freer with his writing now than when in Turn. ‘Yeah definitely, especially with the last album, Oh My Lord!’, he says. ‘Turn was a very fine balance of a few things, like Gavin always wanted just to rock as loud and as hard as possible and I was more kinda melodic one, I’d write the vocal melodies and lyrics and I was always, I felt like I was always out of step with the band or something’. When the band recorded Forward, Cole tells of how the Ian and Gavin laid down the drum and bass lines, then he went into studio with producer Marc Carolan to record the rest as ‘I had a total clear vision of how I wanted that record to sound’. Everything from guitar sounds to layers of harmonies. ‘I was very pig headed I was like ‘This is what we’re doing’ to the point where everyone would fight with me. Usually I was right thank God, usually.’
Cole does admit that he may have got it wrong on one or two occasions but also of how Fox now loves the album. ‘He loves ‘Forward’ now. I’ll go ‘D’ye remember ye prick ye? You fucking fought so hard with me’ and he’s like ‘Yeah, I love it now’, ‘Told ye!’, he says smiling. ‘That’s always going to happen, the three of us are very creative people and we’re all very headstrong and we all cared about it so much so inevitably there was going to be arguments about artistic merits.‘
As a musician, Cole had moved on from Turn, that chapter had closed and he’s working on a new solo record. Has the Turn reunion had any impact on his own material? ‘It is weird, it has put a hold on my solo stuff. My solo album is nearly finished now.’ Cole tells of how he has been touring with Glen Hansard, ‘I did all of Europe with him last year’ and how he was developing the skill of playing acoustically in front of big crowds. He says that Hansard’s fans are there to listen and describes going on stage. ‘They love him and the fact that you’re his guest, as soon as I walk onstage in France, Spain, wherever it was.. Dead silence, they’re all completely listening. I’d always play a really beautiful opening song, one of my best most intricate things and concentrate on that. All I had to do was be good, have good songs and play well. I sold so many albums, it was one of the best support tours I’ve ever done. A lot of the time you have to try and win people over with him, it was like shooting fish in a barrel it was just so easy, they were on your side already’
After playing for three hours, Hansard also did him the honour of playing on one of Cole’s songs at the end of his own set. ‘Glen is a beautiful man like, he’s play on my songs like he’d say ‘Ah I missed Ollie’s set earlier on, I want to bring him on and play a song of his that I really like’. He would then stay at the back of the stage, playing guitar parts on Cole’s songs. ‘I’m singing songs to his audience at the end of his gig. The part of the gig that’s supposed to be his climax where he plays all his hit songs and wins the crowd over, he would give that to me nearly every single night. He would bring me out and let me finish the show, which was pretty amazing.’
While he has been enjoying the solo spotlight, Cole also knew that a Turn reunion was a great opportunity to renew friendships. ‘That was one of the first things when we got together.. ‘What the fuck were we even fighting about?’ It seemed so important at the time, now it just doesn’t.’ Describing the second day of rehearsals Cole says how he wanted to use a capo on a guitar and play a song in a different key, so he wouldn’t have to change guitars when playing live. ‘Straight away it was all kicking off and Gavin was like ‘No, it’s bullshit, it has to be exactly the same.’ I was like it’s not that different. Everyone cares enough to fight, which is a good thing I guess. You have to be thick skinned to be in Turn, there’s no doubt about it , everybody’s a character.’
Ollie isn’t revealing any titles for his next solo album but says how his friend Binser describes it as ‘really like a grown up Turn’. Cole had been listening to a lot of ‘Fleetwoord Mac, ELO, stuff like that’, before his debut solo album ‘We Albitri’, He wanted to do something different to the quiet verse, loud chorus Nirvana style dynamics Turn had. Looking back he says ‘We’re not using any distortion pedals’, I was determined with my first solo album not to do anything that I did with Turn. In hindsight, it’s probably a bit thick because Turn is a massive part of how I do things so with the new one I didn’t have an agenda, I didn’t even know I was making a record. I was recording songs as I was writing them.’ Cole’s intention was to go to the studio and record them properly, he played the songs to some producers and their reaction to his recordings has meant he now has an album ready. ‘I ended up with a record almost by accident, I thought I was making demos. It seems I’m making a record.’
He explains how, on what he considered the demo, he had intended to cut down sections of certain songs but he has ended up not cutting anything. ‘There’s one song called Year of the Bird. Year of the Bird is maybe fourteen minutes long. But there’s something happening all the time. To balance that, one track is eighteen seconds long, another one minute eleven. ‘There’s little bits of things that are very short and then big epic sagas of things. It’s a mental record, there’s dream sequences and everything in it, it’s mental. But I love it, I absolutely love it’
Cole was signed to EMI who asked him if he was recording a new album as they ‘really want to put out your next record but we really have to hear radio singles’. I was like ‘Don’t have any of them on this one’. He actually like writing radio singles, I like writing good catchy pop songs but with this I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to do something else.
Following the ups and downs of record companies and the music industry, what Cole considers success has changed. ‘When you get signed, there’s a great stress and it’s mostly a fear of failure, this fear of not doing well. Then you suddenly realize that that happens to you and it happens in a kind of a gradual way but you realize how important integrity and respect from your peers and stuff like that is.’ He tells of how happiness is quantified and how respect from your peers is ‘Ultimately the thing that makes you happiest of all is respect of your peers and to be respected for what you do and I’ve really seen that over the last few years. Now, I consider music to be, it’s definitely an artform and I’m going to make the best art I can possibly make and people may like it or maybe they won’t or whatever, as long as I feel good about it.
He does value the respect he has gained from other songwriters, especially when it’s someone you respect too. ‘You know why they think it’s amazing, you share the same ideals or something.’ So I guess I would never think about being successful ever, maybe I should, people around me do, like every-time I go on tour with Glen everyone’s like “This is amazing, you should contact a record company in Europe, get them to press up some copies, this is a great opportunity’. I just go like.. ‘Yeah, whatever, I’m not into that, I’m not into chasing success, in that way anymore I’m just like do what I do really well.
Does that mean for Cole to be complete, he must have the triad of writing for other people, teaching and writing for himself ? He thinks maybe it does. ‘You might be right because I’m writing an album at the moment for this kid who won a version of The Voice.’ Cole’s publishing company asked him to write an album for the winner as ‘I know how to write really good pop songs. It’s something I wouldn’t almost do for myself.’ He explains what he means by saying, ‘When I do, I have to fuck it up somehow, if it’s too good, it’s just going to annoy me, or too obvious or something. But with him, I can make it as obvious, I can write him a perfect pop song and I really enjoy doing it, I love writing music, I love being in the studio, I love it, love it.’
While doing that, he’s also been working on his solo album, ‘mental but beautiful as well, a dark beauty, a weird beauty, it’s a proper form of expression this one, even I don’t know what it is, deep inside me kind of expression, exploring that. I love that.’ From speaking to Cole, it’s obvious to see that he still has a huge passion for music, he hasn’t stopped smiling and tells me all at break neck speed. ‘I’m so lucky to have the Turn thing, it’s like a total nostalgia buzz. Playing with Gavin and Ian is so enjoyable but none of them are more important than, they all exist together and I feel happy.’
In July 2006, a Myspace post heralded the end of Turn but also announce a farewell gig. As it’s taken six years and everyone is getting on, is it really the end? Cole laughs, ‘Yeah I wonder, we also could do more music, you never know.’ he speaks of how his friend, singer songwriter Michael Brunnock has mentioned to bring some songs and ideas to rehearsals. ‘I don’t know, I’m not prepared to do that because I don’t know what the others would do. I don’t know what they’re thinking. It’s amazing to think that we’re in a room spending loads of time together and we actually haven’t discussed what we’re doing. No one has had a conversation saying, ‘What is actually going on here ?’ but that’s good because we’re just enjoying it. I think as soon as you start naming things and calling it something or other or picking deadlines, it immediately stops being fun.’
‘Our friendships, that’s the most important things to me. It’s fucking great having my friends back together. The music, I absolutely adore Turn, I love playing that music and I’m really proud of us that we made that music because it still stands up even now, it’s still really good and it still sounds relevant.’
Cole is such a likable guy and it’s refreshing to hear someone speak with actual pride about their own music. ‘Sometimes you see bands and when they come back after six or seven years and it sounds really dated, Turn didn’t, it still sounded completely relevant and good. So I’m really proud of us as musicians, I’m really proud we can play better now than we ever did before but mostly the best thing about Turn getting back together was everybody hugging each other and letting water under the bridge.’ Cole again brings up the perils of record company stress and expectations of success and failure and the changes in the dynamics of the band.
‘We never had fights or anything in Turn, it just became unbearably uncomfortable near the end. What wasn’t being said was just unbearable. It’s unbearable to be in a room with that much tension, I get that happens in any relationship. If you spent a week traveling round with your mother, that would happen. If you spent, you know, what we spent together, five or six years. If you spend five or six years with anybody, a lover, a boyfriend or a girlfriend, you will inevitably get to that point. Hopefully not inevitability but you might. We should have sat down and had a chat and figured out what is it that we’re doing here, what is it we’re doing here and what are we going to do to handle outside factors in our .. what we need it to be a completely air tight solid, you have to be bullet proof to succeed and I suppose we let external forces and factors contribute. The usual story, it’s sad it’s such a rock n roll cliche but it is.’
Getting a little older has helped though. ‘Now I’m like, yeah whatever, it’s part of life. It’s part of growing up and I love the fact that we can still play music together, it’s funny and none of us have changed. We’re all still stubborn and headstrong in our own way but now we just know how to work around each other. It’s not a big deal anymore.‘
Turn play their final gigs:
December 21 The Button Factory Dublin
December 27 Cypress Avenue Cork
December 31 Spirit Store Dundalk
A Full History of Turn can be found on TicketsThere
Another Year Over: Whelan’s 2012
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