Gypsies on the Autobahn are a guitar-based quartet from Cabra on the Northside of Dublin, Ireland. The band comprises of brothers James and Dan Smith, playing alongside their old school pals, Gary Quinn and Niall Mooney.
James and Niall went to the same music teacher at the end of their road. One day, their lessons over-lapped, so their teacher suggested they played together. The session worked very well, so the new partners in musical crime thought they’d enter the school talent contest.
“It mightn’t be the coolest of stories, but it is a good one,” Niall Mooney reminisces laughing. “Gary had only been playing bass for a week. It all started off as a temporary thing for the talent show. We just kept it going. We played ‘Paranoid’ by Black Sabbath and something by the Undertones. This was in the midst of girls doing hip-hop dancing and guys singing Coldplay.”
The lads initially got stuck into covers, as any fledgling band does when they start out and are trying to find their feet. “We mainly did metal covers, which is funny when you think about it now,” adds Niall.
James Smith recalls when he wrote his first original song. “I was 16 or 17 and I’d broken up with a girl,” he says. “I wasn’t in the best of shape, but I decided to record something on an old manual tape recorder. I played it to friends and got enough out of the experience that I wanted to write a second song. We had four or five songs and we decided we didn’t want to do covers anymore. We got the first taste of people liking our songs.
“I’d be quite quiet and I wouldn’t talk to people much, so it gave me a way of expression and communication, and a way of talking to people without actually talking to them.”
The distinctive name Gypsies on the Autobahn was born out of an unusual brain-storming session. “It started in the communal shower of an all boys school,” Niall reveals. We were talking about potential band names, and a friend of ours, who has a few screws loose, starting reeling off all these random names.
“It was crazy stuff altogether – and Gypsies on the Autobahn was actually the least crazy one. We called the band that initially as a joke, but it stuck. Even though most people now calls us the Gypsies. One of the good things about the name is that it is so out there and still so acceptable.”
Their debut album Born Brief is produced by the highly distinguished Rob Kirwan, who has worked with numerous illustrious artists including PJ Harvey, Depeche Mode, Editors, Delerentos, Glasvegas, Orbital, Bell X1, The Horrors, 30 Seconds To Mars, Hozier, and U2.
“We spent four or five days choosing the songs from our catalogue and figuring out how to improve them and take out what we didn’t need,” Niall says. “Rob is great at relaxing us and he is a very chilled dude. His way of telling us to do a take again was to delete it. In a joke way he’d let us know we’d have to do better. The minute it felt good we’d move on.”
Recorded in Westland Row and Exchequer Studios, Born Brief is a beguiling and brilliant record, which is permeated by a palpable sense of loss. “The songs deal with human relationships, but most of the songs came from the death of my father, who committed suicide when I was quite young,” James reveals. “I wasn’t able to talk about it and I needed to talk about it, so writing music was the best way to do it.
“It is amazing how many songs you can write about the one person. They’re about reacting to certain situations and the fact that he wasn’t there. I realized I hadn’t written a song about my mother, so the last song on the album ‘Home’ is about her, and how much she has done for us.
“Niall and I have always had the idea that the songs had to bring some hope to people, although we never actually had to talk about it.”