When The Virginmarys look at the world, all they see is control. Uncaring governments controlling suppressed 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 stupid not to get people to start a dialogue about different issues. 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. The whole concept is directed at people who can’t sympathize with what other people are going through in everyday life. 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. Having first met in 2000 at Mid-Cheshire Music College, Danny and Ally spent much of the decade in a “very different” early band inspired by Ally’s 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. The band signed and moved to LA, only for fall-outs with their label and dodgy contracts to send them back to Macc around Christmas 2009 determined to start again, but firmly in control. They came across Matt Rose in a pub and convinced him to take up the bass to join them in a new project, The Virginmarys, and the trio set about touring the UK with a rabid ferocity, recording an EP every year to self-release. Gradually, word of their vivid punk greatness grew, and they found themselves playing Download 2010 touring the UK and Europe with New Model Army, Skunk Anansie and Slash.
Following a well-received self-financed debut mini-album Cast The First Stone in 2010, their first album King Of Conflict in 2011 attracted label interest on both sides of the Atlantic, eventually emerging on Cooking Vinyl in 2013. A collection of raw and honest tracks recorded for their previous EPs plus brand new songs – produced by Toby Jepson of Little Angels – it made them fans at iTunes, who made ‘Bang Bang Bang’ their Single Of The Week in the UK and US, and something of a hit Stateside. ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’ and ‘Just A Ride’ hit the Top 30 rock and alternative charts in the US and Canada and their live shows there were momentous occasions; they played “surreal” radio-sponsored festivals in stadiums with Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and a mammoth 14 shows at SXSW in 2014.
Creatively too, they never slowed up: 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 varied and staggering tracks that would make up 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 Gil 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.” “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 Gil 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 Bill 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. I wrote it after Phillip Seymour Hoffman 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.