When The Virginmarys look at the world, all they see is control. Uncaring governments controlling supressed masses. Drugs and alcohol controlling the bodies and minds of the vulnerable. Warmongers controlling the fates of entire nations. Record labels’ controlling naïve, trusting rock bands. It’s what fuels the vitality and vitriol of their second album, and it seems, to them, impossible not to address.
“All you need to do is take a look around you,” says outspoken drummer Danny Dolan. “Everything seems just so fucked up. It’s just a case ‘fuckin’ hell, how much more shit can we take before it gets better?’.” Yet so few acts tackle issues like these, right? “In the sixties, music groups weren’t divided into who’s political and who’s not, everyone was just singing about what was happening. Now when you turn on the radio, every song is about twerking, buying things or tipping a £5,000 bottle of champagne on a girl’s ass. It just makes me want to yell ‘Fuck Off!’”
“You don’t really feel you live in the same world as the lyrics on the radio,” adds singer, guitarist and lyricist Ally Dickaty. “We don’t want to be preachy, but it’s silly not to get people to start a dialogue about different issues. The heart-breaking thing is that though it’s this bad, people just go on day to day without really caring about it.”
The Virginmarys are old hands at soldiering on, but only because they care so deeply. Devoted Macclesfield lads – although Danny originally hails from Manchester and Ally moved there ten years ago from Helsby – they have carved a path to international acclaim with hard graft, hard knocks and hard talk.
“The album is directed at people at the top making big decisions, turning peoples lives into utter shit and scape-goating people that they shouldn’t,” Ally explains. “The whole concept is directed at people who can’t sympathize with what other people are going through in everyday life.”
Naturally for a band so ravenous of riff, they all started out as guitarists. When Ally first met Danny in 2000, aged 16, at Mid-Cheshire music college, Ally had just started writing songs inspired by his upbringing on the blues of BB King and early Fleetwood Mac and his teenage obsessions with Hendrix, Sabbath and “the attitude and aggression” of punk. Danny, meanwhile, had grown up in a house full of drumkits and, having been denied a guitar by his skins-loving dad, eventually got the beat-keeping bug.
“It was the worst course ever,” Danny says of their college experience. “I think during the second year we didn’t even do a full week, we just ended up skiving off and coming to my house. We would jam and bond over bands, that was all we wanted to do. I remember us just sitting in the canteen at school and saying to each other ‘why don’t we just be a guitar and drum band? We can just get in a caravan and drive around France and busk’. In a way, we’re still doing that.”
Their rock lives took a rather more glamorous twist, though, when they formed a band (“very different” from The Virginmarys), got signed and moved to LA to try to become international superstars. Although, after several years, fall-outs with their label and dodgy contracts eventually put paid to the first phase of their careers. “It was quite a clichéd story of how we got disillusioned with everything. We had to start our lives all over again. In a way it was horrible, but in another way we got used to the bullshit early on. We realized that being in a band isn’t really what you though it was as a kid. It’s a business and you got to look after yourself. You’ve got to market yourself in a way that shows you’re not gonna get dictated to and screwed over.”
Back in Macc, around Christmas 2009 they came across Matt Rose, another guitarist, in a pub and convinced him to take up the bass to join them in a new project, The Virginmarys. This time, however, they’d be firmly in control. For the coming years they toured the UK with a rabid ferocity, building a fanbase across the north of Britain and recording an EP every year to self-release. Gradually, word of their vivid punk greatness grew, and they found themselves touring the UK and Europe with the likes of New Model Army, Skunk Anansie and Slash.
“We did the Download festival in 2010 and then we got a four support shows with Slash, which was incredible,” Ally says. “Slash ended up being a big fan of ours. He put us on some compilation CDs that he would put on for Classic Rock and would wear our t-shirts while he was on stage.” “A lot of people thought it was photo shopped,” Matt laughs. “There are a lot of crossover aspects to our sound which makes it hard to market us,” Ally continues. “We don’t really fit into the mainstream, but seeing people like Slash and New Model Army being big fans of you shows you you’re doing something right, if they’re singing your praises.”
Following a well-received self-financed debut mini-album Cast The First Stone in 2010, and with industry and press support behind them, when they came to record their first album King Of Conflict in 2011 their plans to release it themselves were stymied by label interest on both sides of the Atlantic. “Cooking Vinyl got involved and wanted us to sign with them and we ended up putting the album out through them,” says Danny. “Consequently, through them, we ended up meeting people from Wind-Up, which is our label in America now.”
A collection of raw and honest tracks recorded for their previous EPs plus brand new songs - produced by Toby Jepson of Little Angels - King Of Conflict peaked ears across the globe when it was finally released in February 2013. “I’m really proud of that record,” says Ally, “it was perfect for what we were at the time and it won us a lot of fans.” Not least in the States. The lead track from the EP released around the album ‘Bang Bang Bang’ was chosen by iTunes to be their Single Of The Week in the UK and the US and they were propelled to America to promote the record – the besotted iTunes team even met them at San Francisco airport with posters for them to sign.
“America was a massive headfuck really,” says Matt, “but it was an amazing experience, because you hear so much about it as a musician, to actually be there was a dream. It was insane to think that I played in Las Vegas. I never thought that day would come. “
As they rocked America, playing “surreal” radio-sponsored festivals in stadiums with Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and a mammoth 14 shows at SXSW in 2014, they became something of a hit on radio, with ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’ and an acoustic version of ‘Take A Ride’ hitting the Top 40 rock and alternative charts in the US and Canada. And, while touring the USA, Japan and Europe with the likes of Eagles Of Death Metal, Queens Of The Stone Age and Ash, they began piecing together the staggering, more varied tracks that would make their second album, Ally writing songs on acoustic before bringing them to the band to add the punk fire. On their return, though, things struggled to click in the studio.
“We would’ve had it ready to come out in October of this year, but we wanted to get it just right,” Danny explains. “There were a lot of producers we would demo things for and it never seemed quite right. Then our A&R guy in America said ’come up with a list of producers that you’d like to work with’ and Gill Norton (Pixies, Foo Fighters, Funeral For A Friend) was on all of our lists because we just loved the records he produced, growing up as kids.”
Gil loved the demos, so after four last shows in India at the end of 2014 (“We got off the plane and there was a girl in full Indian dress and gave us the same shit the Beatles got like flowers and yellow paint on our faces,” Danny says, “it was really surreal.”) they holed up in Rockfield studios in Wales for eight weeks over the spring of 2015 for Norton to jest, cajole and harangue the album of their lives out of them. “Gil was Incredible,” Matt says. “Really lovely and friendly guy, but you wouldn’t want to fuck about with him. One minute you’d be best mates and then the next he’d take on the vibe of a schoolteacher and put you in your place.” “The typical rock songs over a riff that could’ve gone on the first record were the ones that just never got recorded,” Danny adds. “Gil was all about ‘the album has got to take you on a rollercoaster’. The way Gill worked and pushed us, I recorded very differently than I had done on anything else before.”
The resulting album is undoubtedly one of the most impressive, adventurous and outspoken rock records of the year, tackling themes from the deeply personal to the vehemently political with punk force and melodic panache. From the gargantuan cavern riffs of ‘Push The Pedal’ to the epic finale of ‘Living In My peace’, it’s a record unafraid to scale the barricades and bare its bruises.
Ally sums it up with typical passion. “The overall theme of the album is the divides among people, freedom and power, injustice, inequality and corruption. Anger, disillusionment, injustice, frustration about where I feel we are in today's society. History repeating. Restraint by systems that benefit the few and the choices left to take part or be cast aside and face persecution. The rise of depression and anxiety and use of anti-depressants and drugs across the globe. Disillusion in politicians and democracy. There's a lot of divides with us in Britain, many created by the government and media turning people against one another. We are brainwashed with who to love, who to fear, who is good and who is evil.”
On the political front, the furiously pop metal ‘Free To Do Whatever They Say’ – named in tribute to Bull Hicks’ legendary Go Back To Bed America routine - confronts “the control the system and government has on people”. And the love-as-warfare For You My Love has Ally sneering “they bring their wine and missiles, aim and fire for fun” and promising that “if I must fight, I will fight for you, my love”. “It’s scary how Iraq came and went and we said ‘we’ll never make that mistake again’, but now the threat of ISIS is on the horizon and people go ‘fuck yeah! Go in and bomb them’,” he explains, “I don't trust our government, I don't trust our media, and I know what I feel is right inside. So the only reason I will fight and die is 'For You My Love'. Fighting the good fight.” Even a song like ‘Motherless Land’, ostensibly a rousing rock love story about a heroic, down-at-heels couple escaping down a Springsteen-style highway, is full of references to prescription drug addiction, environmental disaster and how the war on terror only creates more terrorists to fight.
When he approaches personal issues, meanwhile, Ally always finds a wider significance. Giving up alcohol a few years ago - and the disillusionment, depression and boredom that followed – inspired ‘Into Dust’ and ‘Walk In My Shoes’, but he twists them into elegies for society’s most downtrodden, struggling under governments hell-bent on punishing them. ‘They’re continually making living conditions harder,” Ally says, “no equal opportunities, the ones worst affected have no one fighting for them. All the jobs that care for people are the ones that pay the least. It’s very fucked up. There are continual cuts to the NHS and then they blame of the nurses and staff who can't juggle multiple jobs at a time. People working harder than anyone, making genuine changes to people’s lives, are getting paid below the living wage.”
The stirring epic ‘Moths To A Flame’ also touches on drug addiction and the cruelties it brings. “The crimes associated with drugs are just symptoms of the bigger problem of drug abuse. Meanwhile, the people on top don’t want to take responsibility for the harm they’ve caused and just say ‘oh, we don’t care about you’. I wrote it after Phillip Seymour Hoffman and then later Robin Williams died. It's so horrible when you know that incredible talents are fighting demons with substance abuse, and in the end it seems that the demons are too strong.”
It’s not all bleakness and politico punk vitriol, mind. There are heartwarming – and occasionally sexy - bits too. ‘Halo In A Silhouette’ is a lusty roar of adoration over “an unconventional angel whose being true to herself. Kind of like a hippy girl with nettles in her hair rather than flowers”, while ‘I Wanna Take You Home’ is your basic, no-nonsense shagging song, right?
Ally squirms for a deeper meaning. “The verse is a little bit about a social commentary about the church,” he says. “But the chorus, it’s about shagging.”
It all ends in a good place too. The moving stadium ballad ‘Living In My Peace’ finds Ally - sober, eye-opened but struggling with temptations to slip back into his bad old ways - realizing “the only thing I need is buried deep in me… I’m on my way back home”.
“It's like a coming of age and being comfortable in my own skin,” he reveals. “Letting go of all that I hold onto and returning to the source of everything, returning home. you’re tempted by your old vices, but then you go home and realize there’s too much to give up because of your family. You’ve always got that and they’ll never take that away from you.”
It’s a remarkable record full of heartfelt revelations, astute social commentary, rib-crushing noise and head-spinning melody. “I guess it kind of sounds like rock,” says Danny, “but not as you know it.”
Buy in. Lose control.