He began his musical life with Irish boyband Reel, who were alarmingly hyped as "Boyzone meets Riverdance", but now Cavan man Philip Gargan has found his true voice with The Yellowhead Project, which could be appealingly hyped as The Beach Boys meets ELO.
42-year-old Gargan, who hails from Bailieborough but now lives in Dublin, has taken a roundabout but very scenic route to realising his solo dreams.
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As well as his sojourn doing a bit of bodhran boogie in Reel, he also sang bass with the RTÉ Philharmonic, currently works as director of the Garda Male Choir, and is a fulltime psychologist who uses the curative power of music in his treatments.
The Yellowhead Project (named after Gargan's thatch of straw-like hair when he was a kid) have just released their debut album, Master The Monster, and it's a sunburst of power pop, kaleidoscopic, multi-layered harmonies, Byrdsian guitars, and Beatlesque melody.
"It’s a cliché but it really was a labour of love. I just had an idea and I went with it," Gargan tells RTÉ Entertainment.
"When I was in Reel, we toured the world, had songs in the charts but there was always a bit of an itch from a musical point of view. I had a sound in my head, and I wanted to get it out there. The Yellowhead Project is more art for art’s sake rather than for pop hits."
"There's a lot going on! My schtick is layering up harmonies, I’ve an unusually vocal range so I like to layer myself up and that’s where the original concept came from. Each track just became bigger and bigger."
Master The Monster was produced by Gargan’s collaborator Peter Eades, who has previously worked with Finbar Furey, Clannad, John Sheahan and Thin Lizzy, but the album really got off the ground when Dublin music veteran Deke O’Brien gave Gargan a cache of songs written by the late English musician Mark Holland.
"Sadly Mark never got to hear those songs but I’d like to think he was in the studio with us when we were putting the whole thing together and he’d approve of what we did with his ideas." says Gargan.
The result is an album that bursts with sunshine pop, tricksy arrangements and at the centre of it all is Gargan, challenging his inner Brian Wilson on songs that range from pocket symphonies to epic sixties pop freak-outs.
It seems almost academic asking who his influences are seeing as he wears them on his paisley patterned sleeve, but you can add XTC, wunderkind Todd Rundgren, The Byrds, ELO, and Ben Folds Five to the mix.
"You’re on the money," Gargan says. "I would worship at the altar of Brian Wilson but also The Beatles, ELO, a little bit of Stevie Wonder, Queen for the harmonies. I would refer to myself as a freak for harmonies."
Brian Wilson has struggled with his mental health since his teenage years and as beleaguered record shop owner Rob plaintively asks in Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity - "what came first, the music or the misery?" The curative power of music is something Gargan knows all about and Mastering The Mind opens with A Million Minds in Tune, an anthem and hymn to the collective and universal power of music.
"Music is a catalyst, it helps us focus on feelings and emotions," says Gargan. "It helps us understand ourselves and there’s nothing like music to put you in a place, it’s a snapshot in time. If you work with that it helps us understand behaviour.
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"You can tap into anything creative when it comes to a therapeutic setting, whether it’s music or art of writing. The possibilities are endless."
When he joined Reel in 1999, Gargan was already a very busy boy studying in UCD and working on the family farm back home in Cavan. The final line-up was Matthew Keaney (Killeshandra), Garry O’Meara from Dublin, and Clare brothers Colin and Joseph O’Halloran and during their short stay on planet pop, they supported Westlife for twelve nights in Wembley Arena, had a top ten hit in the UK, and got to wear some itchy looking jumpers.
"I had a ball. I was in my early twenties at the time, I was in UCD before that and I always wanted to give it a lash," Gargan says. "Then we got signed and it was the stuff of dreams. Five young lads, touring around, songs in the charts, playing in Wembley, flying over to LA to shoot a video . . . all of that stuff.
"It was a great learning curve for me, and it gave me a grá for what I would do myself afterwards. It was great but you were a cog in a bigger machine."
The lockdown has obviously had a profound impact on the arts and music in particular with venues boarded up for well over a year and Gargan, like everyone else, has had to readjust. "Overnight, things just dropped off a cliff. It was tough," he says.
"I’m always the director of the Garda Choir as well so all of a sudden, we had no performances, no practising, nothing, and as a musician I do a lot of session singing so that dropped off overnight. You think it would be few weeks and then a few weeks becomes a few months.
"It was the same with my therapeutic work. We weren’t allowed see clients face to face, so I moved online, and a lot of my clients were happy to do sessions via Zoom, but a lot weren’t. At that time, I worked in the field of addiction in the north inner-city community drug project, so we simply just had to close the doors and it was tough for a long time."
However, it did free up time for him to finish his album. "There wasn’t a lot else going on. Although having said that, I do have an eighteen-month-old son!"
As for the title of the album, Master the Monster, it turns out the monster in question is not the mind. "You’re taking to a psychotherapist here so I would say yeah but in the context of the album it actually refers to the songs," Gargan says.
"There’s a lot going on! My schtick is layering up harmonies, I’ve an unusually vocal range so I like to layer myself up and that’s where the original concept came from. Each track just became bigger and bigger.
"My producer layered up instruments and I layered up vocals and we found ourselves saying `this another monster’ so when it came to putting a shape on the whole thing, we were mastering the monster really."
Alan Corr @CorrAlan2
Master The Monster is on streaming sites now.