Academic 'Sitting Pretty' as they embark on world tour
Little victory, by little victory” – that’s how The Academic describe their success to date. Their self-released debut album, Tales From The Backseat, with its buoyant guitar hooks, earworm melodies and lyrics about the trials of teenage romance, debuted at number one in Ireland, putting the band firmly on the ones-to-watch list.
That was 2018, and now, five years later, the four-piece made up of frontman Craig Fitzgerald, Dean Gavin, and brothers Matt and Stephen Murtagh, from Killucan, Rochfortbridge and Rathwire respectively, are set to release their much anticipated second album, ‘Sitting Pretty’ this Friday.
It coincides with a relentless tour of Ireland – including the 3Olympia on Friday March 10 – and the UK, including London’s Shepherds Bush Empire for their biggest headline show outside the emerald isle, as well as Europe and the US.
Produced by Nick Hodgson of the Kaiser Chiefs, at Snap Studios in London, Sitting Pretty is an album about navigating life in your 20s; the uncertainties and the ever-shifting sense of self.
They describe it as a tale about “the entrance into true adulthood” and how that can “alienate you from yourself”: “In one moment feeling 100% certain about everything, only to become overwhelmed with feelings of aimlessness and lack of direction in the next.”
There is a maturity to this second album, and indeed among the band.
“This album has been in the works for the last five years in some ways. We had a couple of EPs in the middle, to practise and experiment with stuff,” said Craig Fitzgerald. “Towards the end of the Community Spirit EP, we tried out some ideas, little scrappy ideas, and started thinking of ‘where-to’ next.”
It was October 2020 when The Academic began writing the album.
“We went over to London and started hanging out with Nick (Hodgson), who had agreed to produce the album, and basically we treated it like a nine to five, Monday to Friday, just writing songs and seeing how far we could push it. Then we made a decision to book a studio and we all started jamming.”
It is album of discovery, and self-assuredness. “It’s ultimately about finding your feet… to enjoy the good times and the meaningful relationships along the way,” said Craig.
To date, The Academic have released four singles from the new record: Don’t Take It Personally, a song which puts the young masculine ego under the spotlight; the confident Pushing Up Daisies; the vulnerable songwriting of Homesick; and the latest My Very Best, a song about coming up short.
Sitting Pretty is described (in their promo material) as “a snapshot of a band with the world at their feet, maturing before our eyes. With the ever-growing experience, fanbase and discography of a band far beyond their years, 2023 looks like it could be a big one for The Academic”.
So, how hard did they have to work in order navigate the music industry to get where they are today?
“It has been a lot of work but it’s never been a massive jump, it’s always been very gradual,” said Craig. “You get to take stock and it is now at this stage where you sometimes sit back and go ‘Woah’. We’ve never got carried away or anything, it’s always been heads down, work really hard, and then you get your little moments where you’re like ‘Holy shit, we did that!’.”
Matt: “We’ve always had a really healthy ethos and work ethic as a band, we’ve never expected to be handed anything, and because the journey of this band has been so gradual, it’s been little victories, it’s always been a tiny step, a tiny step, a tiny step, and we’re just trying to keep going, and seeing how far we can push it.
Stephen: “It’s not like we released one song and it’s the biggest song in the world, and then suddenly you’re in the limelight.”
Matt: “And I’m really glad it didn’t happen that way as well because some bands can, you know, so can deal with it perfectly well where they have a skyrocket moment, but that can be too much too for some bands. So we’ve had success but it’s come at a very manageable pace.”
Stephen: “I think fans love that as well, we’ve had such an ordinary beginning and we’ve conquered little things, and it’s been this organic and long process, that I think some people admire the journey. I hope they do anyway.”
The album artwork was designed by Kate Deller, who worked previously with a band called Khurangbin, “They’re a pretty hip band out of Texas,” said Craig. “We really liked her animation style, and she listened to the album and put her spin on what the music sounds like, and this is what she came up with – she designed the album and single covers.
“It’s got a psychedelic look to it, we’ve been retro in production of the album, there’s a slight old-school feel to the production on this album and I think the artwork reflects it quite well.”
How much has your music evolved?
“Loads,” said Stephen. “I guess one of our biggest hopes for the album is that people can hear that – that people will maybe revisit the first one, and while they can still hear Craig singing, you can still identify The Academic, and hopefully they’ll like us, that it is a more grown-up, more mature next progression of our songwriting and our sound.”
Is there a fear of ‘second-album syndrome’
“Second album syndrome can be a thing,” agreed Dean, “But I think we’re confident enough with it now. It’s taken us time to get here, we’ve spent enough time thinking over the songs and making sure that we’re happy with the whole thing as a whole, I think we’re pretty comfortable with it.”
“The Academic kicked off when we were in first year of college, me, Matt and Dean, and Stephen was still in school. We would have all been about 19, and Stephen was about 17,” said Craig.
“We spent so much of the early days literally just as a live act,” added Matt Murtagh. “We spent a good few years building a live reputation, cutting our teeth really, and that is still very much such a strong element for us, we take pride in our live shows, we’re very much a live show, we’re very much a live animal.”
I last saw The Academic on the main stage at Electric Picnic, in front of packed audience on the grounds at Stradbally Hall. Now they are about to embark on a massive tour, taking in Edinburgh, Manchester, London, Berlin, Hamberg, Munich, Paris, Amsterdam, Toronto, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, San Francisco, and the Troubadour in West Hollywood.
“That was a nice moment,” said Dean of Electric Picnic. “It was a bit nerve-wracking because we’ve played nearly every stage at the Picnic, we’ve done the Gerry Fish stage, the Heineken tent, and so to finally get the Main stage was quite a big deal.
“And we’re excited to get back on the road again,” he continued. “We’ve grown to love the studio but we always love touring over everything else, it’s what you want to be doing. We have a massive tour coming up all over the UK, Europe, and America, and even places beyond that we’re working on that at the moment as well. Just to get our head around doing a headline tour of America is a big statement in itself. We did it once before off the first album, and to do it again is a great feeling. To tour America, it’s hard to get over it.”
Matt: “The tour kicks off in Barrowlands in Glasgow, the night of the album release. That’s a pretty iconic room, I mean when I was about 15 I remember watching Oasis on MTV Rocks live from the Barrowlands, so that will be a cool room to play.
“We know pretty much where we’re going to be up until the end of April, when the North American tour ends. After that, it’s getting back into festival season,” said Stephen, “Trying to make a third album somewhere in between,” he added. “This will our first time back in America post-pandemic, and we’re playing some iconic rooms like the Troubadour in Los Angeles, and the Bowery Ballroom in New York, so they’re kind of the moments where you’re like, we’re halfway across the world and we’re in these beautiful rooms and it will be pretty surreal.”
“Our longest drive is Salt Lake to Seattle, it’s probably 11 or 12 hours, up through Wyoming,” interjected Craig. “Touring in America is very different to here. The UK tour is lovely because everything’s so close together, but touring America, you have to recalibrate a little bit, it’s just a constant sense of motion.
“Yeah, it’s just has that old school ‘on the road’ type of feeling, always moving, doing a gig, and always moving,” continued Dean. “It’s all very scenic though.”
So what do you do on the bus? Do you read, play games?
“Anything to pass the time. We do play games, we read, listen to podcasts,” Dean continued.
Stephen: “On the last tour bus we had a movie night, we watched Alien…”
Modern or the original? “No, the original – Sigourney (Weaver) forever!” said Matt.
“We usually bring a football on the tour, and when the bus is parked up we have a bit of a kickabout,” said Stephen. “And books, I’m a divil for non-fiction at the minute,” he continued. “I just read Wichita Lineman by Dylan Jones, about how the song by Glenn Campbell came about.”
“Stephen introduced me to a podcast called Sodajerker,” said Craig. “These two lads from Liverpool and it’s all about famous songwriters, you get an hour and bit on each one, and it’s just never ending, it’s a really good way of tuning out.”
Matt: “I have a lot of books earmarked for the tour. I’m reading one at the minute by Nick Hornby, called Dickens and Prince, he’s a huge fan of both, comparing the two of them – these two tortured geniuses and their artforms and stuff, it’s cool.”
Is that where you find inspiration? Modern literature and pop culture?
“It’s definitely a mixture of what’s going on,” said Craig. “Like the last two years there’s been a lot of home time, downtime. I think the songs have definitely been a bit more about what’s going on in life, like breakups or difficulties with family and stuff, I think it’s always personal. We definitely take inspiration from film and book, in terms of creating it to make it a little more cinematic, but it’s definitely always about what’s going on inside, rather stories on our characters. We’ve tried it once or twice but I think it’s more genuine when it comes from the heart, and that’s what we’re trying to do, make it genuine, we don’t want to be fakers.
“It makes it more relatable for your listeners. You can feel it with a song like Homesick, the third (single) off the album, people reaching out was just so much more. Sometimes you think it should be all bangers and upbeat stuff, but get to a place where you realise that no, we shouldn’t be afraid of the more tender and honest songs.”
Stephen: “With Homesick, we dropped it very last minute as a surprise song, and it got a bigger reaction that more of the upbeat songs because people could relate to it more, they could buy into and attach their own subtext to it.”
Matt: “I think people who are fans can tell when you’re actually being genuine and speaking from the heart.”
Brothers literally and figuratively, with all that time spent together, a lot of time on the road, do they ever fall out?
Stephen: “One of the greatest strengths of this band is we’ve all known each other since we were 12, except for Matthew obviously, because he’s my brother, so we’ve known each other since we were in early adolescent years.
“When you’re on the road and in a van and constantly just around people, you really have to learn when people need their own space. But like Stephen said, we just know each so long there’s barely ever a cross word spoken between us, we’re just not that type of band,” said Matt.
Stephen: “I don’t thing we’re volatile people in general, so I couldn’t even imagine an altercation in The Academic,” said Stephen with a laugh. “Not even a Laurel and Hardy one.”
Having toured with the best of them, The Academic have some ‘pinch-me’ moments.
“We have been really lucky in that way in that we’ve met so many people we’ve admired,” said Matt. “The most obvious one was probably getting to meet The Rolling Stones when we opened for them.”
Stephen: “And most recently over the summer, we got to meet Brandon Flowers, that’s someone we had all been aware of and grew up listening to.”
Craig: “I didn’t get to see him, I was in the toilet!”
Dean: “He just looked like an absolute showman, he just came out in this black suit with sparkles and the hair done, he has that star quality.”
Matt: “This is going back quite a while but when we were young we got to open for The Pixies, and I’m still huge Pixies fan, and I got to meet Frank Black when I was 19 – that was a ‘holy shit’ moment.
With Sitting Pretty just about to drop, and a worldwide tour to be journeyed, The Academic are not resting on their laurels, and have their minds set firmly on the future.
“We want to even spread our wings even further,” said Stephen. “We absolutely love touring in Europe and North America, but we do constantly get comments like ‘Come to Brazil’, ‘Come to Japan’, so that’s a huge ambition of the band going forward is to travel even further overseas, maybe like a South American tour or even do Asia little bit.”
Craig: “And we want a conveyor belt of albums, we want to move, we don’t want to be a band that has five years in between albums.”
Stephen: “I also like the idea of a trilogy of albums, we really kind of keen to get that third album under our belt.”
“There’s hundreds of ideas and songs on my laptop, I’ve got like three folders,” said Craig. “It’s like a crossroads, there’s three different ways it could go, so whatever is the most genuine is the one we’ll go with.”