I can’t recall when and how exactly I got to know of Divine Sinners, but it was probably through the video for Another Lonely Christmas, which I had come across on YouTube; that and the fact that their name is quite interesting too. Hailing from Gozo, they’d been operating mostly under the radar (my radar, at least) for a few years already, and had recorded three albums even before playing their first gig.
That was 2009, and in the years that have passed, Divine Sinners grew from the core duo of guitarists Charles Attard and Frank Buhagiar into a full band that now also includes Marvic Vella on bass and Anthony Livori on drums, who replaced percussionist Eugene Bajada just a few months ago. Following a well-received performance at Rock the South last April, the band will be launching its fourth album Losers Rule with a special live performance at the Coach & Horses in Msida on Friday, May 30.
Having had a listen to the album already, it’s more than evident that there’s a lot more to Divine Sinners than just folk and Blues. It is not without its flaws, but there’s enough on this record to assure me we’ll be hearing more from Divine Sinners sooner rather than later. I caught up with Charles Attard for a chat about the new album and what makes Divine Sinners tick.
Losers Rule is your first album in 5 years – what took you so long this time?
We were used to working at a rate of making an album every 2 years, but our constant gigging held us back from recording. Originally, the plan was for this album to be released in 2010 but we were not happy with what we had recorded earlier and started everything from scratch. We took another a couple of other stabs at it and dumped those as well. Problems were mainly about learning how to record in the new studio Frank (Buhagiar - vocalist/lead guitarist and co-songwriter in Divine Sinners) had built in his garage and getting used to how everything worked. It’s a good thing Frank was in charge of the recordings. If it were up to me, I’d still be trying to figure out how to switch on the computer.
How do you feel Losers Rule relates to your previous albums?
I haven’t listened to our other albums in quite a while now. I’ve personally never really thought about how the albums relate to one another. Laryngitis was chamber folksy and Piece O’ Cake was poppy and I have no idea how to describe Nowadays. Each album we’ve done so far is a different collection of songs that I wrote with Frank. It’s probably safe to say that Losers Rule is the most rock-orientated album we’ve done so far, but that does not mean that we’ve abandoned our folk and blues roots.
Earlier this year, the band underwent a line-up change – how has this change impacted the band’s sound and performance?
We have a different live sound now due to the line-up change. We recently brought in Anthony Livori on drums and, along with Marvic Vella on bass, has blended well with us, giving the band a fuller, tighter sound. Frank and I have been working together since the time movies were still silent, but we’ve only been playing live for a little over four years. This is the first time we’re using a full drum-kit whereas previously we used different kinds of percussion. We sound more like a proper rock band now, whatever that means.
Being mainly active in Gozo, has raising your profile in Malta been tougher for you?
I suppose being from Gozo makes it more of an uphill struggle for us to break through in Malta. However, with networking you do get some sort of exposure. We really owe a lot to those DJs who are crazy enough to play our songs, along with TV presenters who have invited us on their shows.
I was quite surprised by the positive feedback we got after playing our Rock the South slot – thanks to Nick Morales, by the way - and we’re now being asked when our next gig in Malta will be. We also get messages from Maltese people who are planning to come to Gozo, asking us if we have any gigs there lined up so that they could attend, so that perhaps proves we have some sort of following in Malta, however small that might be.
Believe it or not, we were actually asked last summer by a Maltese couple to play at their wedding reception in Malta. This couple had caught us playing a gig in Gozo and wanted us to provide the entertainment, and we did it. Last time I checked, they are still together so I guess we must have done OK. Still, I cannot really imagine us ever becoming a mainstream local success. The Middle East has a better chance of one day achieving peace than we do of making it into Malta’s Top 10 chart.
The title Losers Rule suggests your songs root for the underdog…
I’ve never been able to write a ‘winner’s song’ for the simple reason that I’ve never felt like a winner in real life, possibly because my brain has a tendency to erase whatever minute victories I might have had and focus more on my failures. I did win a sack race once when I was 10, although I did cheat by using a gigantic potato sack and started running before the whistle blew. I got a colouring book for that. Then on my way home, some bullies beat me up and stole the colouring book. Oh well … easy come, easy go.
It would probably be nice to gain a winner’s perspective and be able to write from that standpoint, but with what I’ve experienced so far I don’t see that happening at the moment. My lyrics have always expressed my personal life and feelings, so penning something akin to We Are the Champions would be something totally out of character for me.
The album features some familiar tracks alongside new material, as well as an interesting collaboration…
Growing Up (Is Such a Drag), Bye, Bye, Napoleon, Doctor, Doctor and Spanking the Monkey were all written for the Gozo Creative Theatre’s production of Frank Wedekind’s Spring’s Awakening in 2011. It might have been ideal to release an EP at the time the play was being performed, but we were too busy to do it so we’ve put them on this album. Spanking the Monkey needs no introduction to those who follow us. We’ve just released a music video of it on YouTube where a rabbit and a monkey fight it out in a football ground, and darts get thrown at Albert Einstein. There’s a satirical message somewhere for those who bother to look for it.
We’ve also collaborated with Marie Borg Alden of Stolen Creep on Growing Up (Is Such a Drag) where she sings a folk ballad duet with Frank. The song was re-written for the album. Stolen Creep is one of our favourite local bands and it was great to get to work with Marie, she’s an awesome singer. A special mention has to also go to Ian Schranz who acted as an uncredited mentor on this album. We think he is the patron saint of the local alternative music scene. Losers Rule would certainly not be the album it is without the encouragement he’s given us during talks whenever we met and chats we had.
What made you revert to a DIY ethic for this album? How important has this ethic been for the band in getting to where it’s at on your own terms?
Our previous three albums were done in a professional studio, but we were less than pleased with the results. This led to us building our own studio, for better or worse. The DIY ethic has given us total artistic control and the freedom to do what we want, as sometimes professional studios along with professional producers always strive for a conventional sound, and Divine Sinners never cared about being conventional.
It seems like everyone here wants to sound like a ‘foreign band’. By ‘foreign’ they mean what they perceive as mainstream American or just mainstream. Sadly, most local musicians think that the highest compliment they can ever get for a recording is ‘gee… this sounds like it was recorded abroad’ and we’re simply not interested in hopping onto that bandwagon. We could never be part of that.
All the bad ideas in the production and mixing of the album were mine while all the good ideas were Frank’s. I love albums that sound raw and are not overly-produced to the point where it sounds like soulless plastic. I feel that we’ve managed to achieve that with Losers Rule. As far as aspirations go, we want to continue to make albums that we want to make with some decent songs on them.
A word about the artwork for the album by Steve Bonello…
Frank and I have long been admirers of Steve’s art. If one wants to catch an understanding of Maltese modern life, Steve Bonello’s work is a fine starting point. The Xebgha Nies exhibition (which contained some of Steve’s portraits) that was held recently at St. James Cavalier was a true celebration of Maltese contemporary art. Steve Bonello is an immensely talented illustrator and satirist who has a touch of Seurat in his style. We wanted a minimalistic pop art feel to our album cover and we knew that Steve was the man for the job. It was an honour for us that he accepted to do the cover.
Anything else you’d like to add…
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