Lunch with Cloud Castle Lake

Words by Rosie Gogan-Keogh

The Dublin-based band tell us about finding their voice and recording a debut album many years in the making.

There’s a moment in our interview when I ask Cloud Castle Lake what the best piece of advice they ever received was. Dan laughs and gives Brendan a sideways look. Brendan chuckles: “No, we can’t say that.” Rory looks confused for a second before it clicks: “Oh yes, I know,” he says. It’s the kind of unspoken understanding (read: psychic abilities) that only a band that have spent the best part of a decade together can have.

The restaurant I chose for our lunch was more take away than sit down interview place so we’re back at the TGP HQ, catching up over delicious rice paper rolls and Bánh mì from Dublin’s newest Vietnamese eatery, Pang. From here, we have a bird’s eye view over the rooftops of the former studio (now an Air Bnb) they called home for two months in 2017 while producing their debut album with producer Rob Kirwan (Hozier, PJ Harvey).

“I miss it. At the time, I kind of took it for granted,” says Brendan. “We’d been working towards it for so long and then we were just in the moment. It was lucky to get to work on your music like that.”

Formed while still in boarding school in Kildare, Cloud Castle Lake are Dan McAuley (lead singer, lyricist and synth player) Rory O’Connor (bassist) Brendan William Jenkinson (pianist/guitarist) and the more recent addition in 2014 of a new drummer. Their music has clearly evolved to become more their own but still bares their early inspirations. The addition of Brendan Doherty on drums has given them a jazzier, bigger and bolder sound while holding on to the melodic soundscapes of their roots.

“We said the ideal drummer would be a young whipper snapper jazzer and we eventually found him!” says Dan.

Brendan D was recommended by a mutual friend and couldn’t have fit the bill more perfectly. He had just come through jazz school in Newpark so they invited him to a rehearsal.

“I put on the songs on the speakers and he just stood outside smoking and I was thinking ‘What’s he doing? Is he even listening?’” says Brendan. “Then we started playing and he just had it down. He got the grooves and the changes and we said: ‘You’ve got the gig’.”

In the early days, when they were armed with little more than with a name inspired a Vladimir Nabokov short story, their rehearsals took place in a space called the drum shed beside where their classmates would go to smoke and were heavily informed by their mutual appreciation of Sigur Rós, Radiohead and Björk. It was in this drafty building with bare stone walls, corrugated iron roof and “terrible sound” that Dan, whose incredible falsetto gives Cloud Castle Lake their unmistakable sound, discovered he could actually sing.

“That time seems like a bit of a blur like suddenly you were just able to sing,” says Rory. “Then it was: ‘Dan can sing?’ ‘Dan’s the singer’.”

“Even in the beginning I could only whisper sing. I was very quiet,” says Dan. “I probably tried to sing high to hear myself in that building. It was a bit of a trial by fire.”

Finding their voice was just the start. Some early successes at local battles of the band helped them realise that they had something worth sticking at. But despite almost unanimous critical acclaim, honing their songwriting together and getting booked for a steady stream of gigs, there were several “hard moments” and the next stages of the band’s career didn’t come quickly. By the end of 2013, their original drummer had left to pursue other ventures.

It was at this point when many others might have decided to throw in the towel that marked a major shift in Cloud Castle Lake’s trajectory. Max Rocha, founder of Happy Valley Records, had seen them play early on the Sunday morning of Electric Picnic the summer before and loved it.

It was at end of a long festival weekend and “one of the worst gigs we ever played”. But Max saw through the technical glitches and signed the band to release their debut Dandelion EP. He then hooked them up with a show that most could only ever dream of. They found themselves playing at Max’s sister Simone’s fashion show in the Tate Modern’s epic, cavernous Turbine Hall to an audience of the world’s glitterati. (The venue’s previous billing was Kraftwerk.)

“It was very strange. There were all these reflective mirrors and I could just see Brendan in all the reflections in the mirrors. And Anna Wintour!” says Rory.

With that came management companies and PR people. Through this now rather large network of people with a vested interest in the future of Cloud Castle Lake a (queue shameless plug: TGP produced) video of the them performing their track ‘Genuflect’ live made its way to the desk of Bright Antenna Records in San Francisco.

The video caught the attention of husband and wife team behind the label. They by chance happened to be coming to see U2 play in Dublin so Cloud Castle Lake put on a private show for them.

Nestled in the leafy suburb of Ranelagh, they share a studio with a group of other musicians. It’s a space which has nurtured them and given them a base to evolve on their own clock. Like so many other creative spaces like it in Dublin, they live in quiet angst that could be taken away from them at any moment. But it provided the perfect backdrop for their performance to the label heads and they were signed to release their first album.

Due to drop this spring, the assembly of tracks 10 years in the making is a combination of older work that’s been with them from the early days and newer pieces like the brass heavy ‘Twins’ and ‘Bonfire’, which features Dublin choir Tonnta. The band had considered going to a retreat in the UK to write and record the new material, but then stumbled on Attica Audio Recording where they could invite brass players and a choir to record against the dramatic backdrop of Donegal’s wild and rugged landscape.

“We don’t really like finishing a song,” says Dan. “We’d rather spend a few extra months exploring extra avenues it could go down, but because it feels right. We’re getting faster at writing, but in the early days when we were like 19 and 20 we would spend years on songs.”

Now while they wait for the album to be pressed, they’re working on a last minute score for a feature film, which is still under wraps, and prepping for their US tour.

“It’s a lot of rehearsal and hard work. Yesterday, we were rehearsing and we picked one out that we hadn’t played in a while and went through it. One we left for chance to be captured at that moment,” says Dan. “We played it like twice, and there were moments in it of trying different kinds of things that felt good.”

With the US tour and visas that will let them play there as often as they like, the question must be asked if they ever intend on leaving Ireland:

“I think with touring we get to see the world as well,” says Rory. “It’s a lovely place to be able to hopefully make a living from music and be based here. That’s a real dream because you get to see the world and then come back.”

Good news for us. And as for that piece of advice, I never did manage to get it out of them. It must have been good whatever it was.

Cloud Castle Lake play Bello Bar on January 20th. Tickets available here. Their debut album is out on Bright Antenna this spring.