Wednesday 16 January 2019


It's a drizzly day in Belfast, and Gareth 'Galo' Donoghue has received a late birthday present from his band mate, Declan 'Decky Hedrock' McLaughlin. It's a mug, bearing Mr T's second-most-famous catchphrase. The one about the plane.

"That's one bad thing about this job," laughs Donoghue, explaining his fear of flying. "But it definitely has got better. I suppose the more you do it, you just chip the fear off."

The Japanese Popstars are no strangers to international travel. Their 2008 debut album We Just Are took them around the world, establishing the Derry-based trio's reputation as a mighty force in live dance and electronic music. Think the Chemical Brothers -- but with an extra member.

Three years on, and much has changed for the lads. Following signing with EMI, the group set about recording their second album, featuring an array of guest vocalists. Famous guest vocalists, at that, including The Cure's Robert Smith, Lisa Hannigan, James Vincent McMorrow, and Tom Smith (Editors).

Unsurprisingly, Controlling Your Allegiance is smashing.

"We wanted to have vocalists," says Donoghue (31), "because we realised that it opened up the market for the music, and we put down a list of people that we really want to work with. Realistically, we didn't expect 90pc of people to say yes, but they did, so it is a more vocal album than we expected. Then again, I think it's far stronger for that -- it balances everything off."

I wonder who never replied to their requests to feature on the record.

"Bowie!" he exclaims. "Our manager is a real hustler -- he's really good at getting things he probably shouldn't be able to get -- and he got David Bowie's contact details, and we approached him, but he never came back.

"Then again, when we approached Robert Smith, we never heard anything back for six months, and he came back and said, 'look, I'm really sorry, but your email went into my junk folder, and I was just going through it and I saw it -- please send me through the ideas!' So maybe it went into Bowie's junk folder," he laughs, "you never know."

Originally a bedroom DJ from Dungannon, Donoghue never expected to embark on a career in music, let alone join a group. "To be honest," he tells me, "I probably would have done it for another year or two and then packed it in."

It was through a gig organised by Gary Curran (the third Popstar, and a former promoter) that he came to meet his band mates. Curran and McLaughlin had been friends for years, and the three of them decided to form a group. Their first gig together took place in a courtyard in Limerick five years ago.

"We were all learning," says Donoghue. "None of us came from a producing or engineering background. The ideas that went on to become We Just Are, all came out of that crazy block-writing session and then, from that, we were booked for another four or five shows and it all just sort of snowballed from there."

"We didn't have a notion what we were doing," he says. "Looking back now, we think, 'Christ, how did we get away with it?' I remember we blew up the speaker and, above my head, there was smoke and flames coming out of it at one point. But by the end of the show, there were people on top of each other's shoulders."

Even with a debut album under their belts, the lads held down their day jobs. Curran was a full-time youth worker, McLaughlin worked in a call centre, and Donoghue was a trainee accountancy software teacher.

"We'd be coming back from these mad shows and having to go straight back into that," Donoghue recalls. "You didn't know whether you were coming or going, so it wasn't an ideal situation. But it was brilliant because, each gig, you looked at it like a release from your nine-to-five grind."


Eventually, having missed out on opportunities to play abroad, the group knew that they had to take the leap and focus on the music full time.

"At the end of the day, I only look at it like taking a year out from work," Donoghue offers, "but that's two years ago now, and I'd love it to be three years and four years and five years. It's always in the back of your head," he continues, "you're like, 'Christ, if this all packs in, what'll we go back and do?' But then again, if I hadn't done it, I would be a bitter old man."

We talk about the resurgence of mainstream dance. Acts such as David Guetta and Swedish House Mafia have re-opened the charts to electronic music. "I think those guys have helped major labels become interested in dance music again, and to see it as a viable, commercial way of making money," Donoghue says.

Certainly, The Japanese Popstars have always done things on their own terms. They're keen to keep it that way, too, while maintaining the friendship upon which the group was originally formed. "The recent stuff we've been doing, it's all been working to very tight deadlines. Like anything, it can get stressful," he finishes, "but at the end of the day, it's only music. Nobody's gonna die if it doesn't happen, you know?"

Controlling Your Allegiance is released next Friday

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