Niall O’Leary is the lead guitarist of Alta Cura, a five-piece progressive alt-rock band from Bray. Niall, Dan Phelan, and Martin Kileen have been working together since the summer of 2015, bringing on their current bassist Ambrose Bourke and releasing an album and an EP as Buckshot Amber. When they brought on frontman Dan Cusack into the band, they changed their name from Buckshot Amber to Alta Cura. Wanting to go in a different direction, they moved from blues-rock to a more progressive and alternative rock sound. With a name-change and a new frontman, Niall and the rest of his band have released an EP called Storm and plan to release a new EP by the end of the year. I spoke to Niall in the cafe where he had his first gig over four years ago to ask him about his music and what advice he’d give to people trying to start a band of their own.
Tell us about each of the people in the band and what they bring to the table?
Our Drummer Martin’s attention to detail in the composition is a vital part of what we do. Because he’s a multi-instrumentalist, he really helps us organise our ideas. If one of us comes up with a riff or a bass line that’s just sort of a standalone thing but he’d organise in such a way that it becomes a feasible song.
Ambrose really brings a lot to the table with just a catalogue of bass riffs that are the foundation of how we write most of our songs. He’s also a very tight player live, him and Martin have a really good chemistry.
Myself and Dan (the guitarist) tend to layer on top of Ambrose’s original idea. We have a great relationship as the two guitarists he’s great for coming up with stuff that keeps the older Buckshot Amber style, he came up with a lot of the opening riffs to those older songs.
I go for a more ambient sound for my stuff, I enjoy messing with delay and reverb and just being experimental and trying not to play the boring chords, taking a major or minor chord and expanding it more to give it more colour.
And then our singer Dan is a brilliant live vocalist. He always has a good conceptual basis for his lyrics. He’s a very melodic singer, very creative as well a lot like Martin in a way. The way we tend to write is we write the music first, so we give Dan an instrumental track and he’d put his ideas on top of what we have, which is a very hard skill. Dan’s great for adding his vocals on top like it’s an extra instrument but he can write off the top of his head if need be.
What would be the advice you’d give for finding the right people to work with?
A big part of it is being in a close, mutually rewarding relationship with the person is key I think because it’s easier for you to criticise each other. If you don’t really know the person and they come up with a riff, you don’t want to hurt their feelings or whatever. But when you have a really good friendship, you can go “Nah we can make this better” and I think we all have that with each other because we’ve known each other for years. Even with Dan who came into it later, we’ve developed a brilliant relationship with him where he’s properly in the crew. We’re all just good at debating with each other and getting exactly what our vision is across and I think that’s essential.
When you guys are talking about writing songs and making them better, how much do you keep your audience in mind now that you have a bit of a following? Is there any distinction between that and when you writing versus performing?
We tend to write music for ourselves first; that’s the first thing you want to do is just make sure you like it first. If someone else likes it, that’s a bonus. And that’s the way it should be done because if your trying to satisfy the needs of a potential audience then you’re not gonna be satisfied yourself because deep down you’ll think it’s a shit song. In the past we’d try to write a “crowd pleaser” and it’s always the one that’s never in our set and no one cares about because that’s not how you do it. You have to build something that you like first and then if other people like it then they really fucking like it and you have a hardcore audience that loves the same shit that you love. And then you can put your whole energy into playing it live.
The live aspect is an interesting one, performing live you some more scope playing crowd pleasers, you can play some cool covers and rearrange mainstream song. That’s when you can get more into the world of playing to a crowd. But you also really need to be passionate about playing your original music because otherwise, you might as well be a cover band. That being said, having one or two covers in your set that you think would be good on the night is always great can get the buzz going on a dead performance and gets everyone in the mood and then you play your original songs and the buzz stays going.
Does that mindset falter at all when it comes to releasing and promoting EPs and Singles?
You have this idea of trying to be pure to yourself when you’re in the writing process and not caring about anything but when it comes to getting it mastered your just like “god I hope we did a good job.” You have a tiny aspect of worrying if people will like it but I think that deep down if you like what you’ve done and you’re happy with the product, then you should be proud of it going online and you should be proud for other people to hear it. I think you’ll just attract a generally good vibe if you’re actually happy about it yourself. You’ll always have the odd worry about one or two tracks maybe being a bit of a filler. You shouldn’t release something unless you’re a hundred percent happy with it. You don’t want to clutter your library with mid range releases, you wanna have a solid foundation where you direct people songs you can stand behind.
It’s always a stress to promote because the market’s so saturated, it’s so hard to place yourself on the top shelf but you gotta think of it as a work in progress. Our main approach is to try and gig as much as possible and try and show people that we can play live and have a good buzz and then it’s there online if they want to listen to it.
How do you guys write such intricate bass lines and guitar riffs and make them fit in a five-piece without stepping on each other’s toes?
We avoid stepping on each other’s toes by playing different stuff which is why the songs can get so intricate. It also comes from arranging aspect of it which comes down Martin and the rest of us in the rehearsal studio; we’d work out exactly what we were playing. In the old days, it wasn’t as intricate, it was chords and jamming and good ol’ rock but now it’s more precision based. So what we do is make sure both guitars and bass are locked in, we always have a solid foundation with Martin, he’ll never miss a beat, he’s always on it. Once you have that as a drummer you know as a guitarist you can relax more, you feel more confident and you can play exactly what you’re supposed to play and it’s exactly in time. The riffs are intricate but the more intricate a riff is, the tighter we are with it for some reason. I think because in rehearsal we’ll focus on that stuff more and really smash out. And then Dan’s great for staying in his own pocket and not getting distracted by odd time signatures or sudden chord changes, he always stays locked in.
With your first EP out and your second one in the works, are you guys at a point now where you’re refining the sound you have or are you taking the next EP into a different direction?
I think we’ve kinda found what we want to do now. The latest EP, Storm, was kind of a stepping stone for the new style. Half of Storm was written before the band’s changeover so it still has aspects of the old style deep-rooted inside it whereas now we’re completely bridged across to the other side. It’s gotten to a stage that we’re writing songs that feel like “Alta Cura Songs” if you get me. I remember Dan the guitarist saying that to me years ago “once we develop our own sound, we’ll be good to go,” it only took four years but sure. We have more releases on the way and we’re really happy with them; even more so than the last one and we can’t wait to share them in 2020.