Undertones man Damian O'Neill on his superb new solo album An Crann

David Roy speaks to Undertones guitarist Damian O'Neill about his acclaimed second solo album, An Crann, a collection of hugely atmospheric instrumental tunes which finds the Derry-bred musician taking a diverting break from punk rock...

Undertone and solo artist Damian O'Neill. Picture by Rosa O'Neill
Undertone and solo artist Damian O'Neill. Picture by Rosa O'Neill Undertone and solo artist Damian O'Neill. Picture by Rosa O'Neill

PUNKS can be a fickle bunch. While punk rock is/was supposed to be all about breaking rules and creative freedom, when it comes to the music itself there are definitely those who can become downright hostile should their favourite artists discover that elusive fourth chord or perhaps try to experiment with some unusual instrumentation beyond the traditional 'guitars, bass, drums and shouting' set-up.

Happily, Undertones fans are a classier breed, at least judging by the overwhelmingly positive reaction to their guitarist Damian O'Neill's new solo record An Crann ('the tree'). Released last week by London label Dimple Discs and housed in a beautiful sleeve based on a photo taken by O'Neill's daughter, Rosa, his third long-player finds the Belfast-born, London-based musician making an intriguing and engaging left turn from the fizzy punk pop with which he made his name.

This largely instrumental collection finds O'Neill exploring a much more mellow, introspective and atmosphere-orientated musical approach: think 'movie soundtrack', not 'mosh pit'.

Deploying his faithful electric six-string in an expressive, mood-setting manner, O'Neill also gets to grips with mandolin, vibraphone, Farfisa organ and acoustic guitar throughout the album, which features percussion courtesy of top drummer Liam Bradley (no relation to Mickey Undertone) on several tracks including groovy opening gambit Más o Menos ('sooner or later') and its epic slow-burning/building centrepiece La Tengo, the latter featuring spine tingling Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac-informed guitar work which gradually (d)evolves into noisy post-rock expressionism.

O'Neill deftly conjures playful soundtracks inspired by childhood memories on beguiling tunes like Malin Head Imminent, Tune for The Derry Ones and A Quare Visitation (Belfast '65), tips his sailor's cap to the 'son of the sea' with the shanty-informed Manannán mac Lir, and channels the undercurrent of unease so familiar to those who grew up in the north during the Troubles on Lament For Loughinisland.

As you might expect, the man himself was slightly nervous about what the reaction would be to this stylistic sea-change – which has made the positive reviews and comments that have been flooding in since last Friday all the more satisfying.

An Crann is out now
An Crann is out now An Crann is out now

"It's been really positive, I'm really, really chuffed actually," O'Neill explains, sounding genuinely touched by the response to the record.

"I didn't know what people would expect of it, because my background is kind of punk. You know, I'm an old punk rocker, so I thought people might be really surprised or shocked or whatever, but it's been good notices so far, which is great."

Of course, in reality there's nothing more 'punk' than taking people's expectations and completely confounding them – though those who were listening closely to O'Neill's previous record Refit, Revise, Repeat (2018), on which he revisited some of his previous songwriting work with the Undertones and That Petrol Emotion (also featuring brother and fellow ex-Undertone, John O'Neill) will have spotted a couple of sonic signposts for the less traveled musical road ahead.

Mundanian Dream and Angels in Tyrconnell Street were two new instrumental tunes which found the guitarist and his then backing band, The Monotones, trading in mellow, psychedelic folk – though there was also a nice slice of instrumental garage fuzz called No Time Like The Noir Time on there, just to keep people guessing.

"In the end, my favourite songs from that album were the instrumentals, so I just thought 'Right, I'm going to stick with what I do best'," explains O'Neill, who wrote and recorded the album in his home studio during the 2020 lockdowns.

"I'm not the greatest singer in the world: I'm not a lead singer anyway. And I'm not the best lyric writer either. So I thought I'd go further down that instrumental road, more mellow and more introspective, you might say."

Interestingly, while An Crann is certainly mellow in sound, there's actually quite a bit of good old fashioned punk rock anger in its DNA. When asked about his inspirations for the record, the dreaded 'B' word rears its ugly, nationalistic head: as an Irishman who has lived in London for over 40 years now, O'Neill has first-hand experience of Brexit's corrosive, divisive impact on England – not to mention an ever increasing sense of helplessness and despair at its inflammatory impact back home.

Damian O'Neill. Picture by Rosa O'Neill
Damian O'Neill. Picture by Rosa O'Neill Damian O'Neill. Picture by Rosa O'Neill

"As you may have noticed, there's a bit of an Irish theme going on on the record," says O'Neill.

"Over the last few years I've been feeling more Irish, because of Brexit basically. I was appalled that people voted for it here and appalled that the DUP voted for Brexit, because they knew what was going to happen – there was going to have to be a border somewhere.

"They, of course, were expecting it to be on land, which is what they wanted, but then they got conned by Johnson, who promised them that and then screwed them over. It serves them right. And now they are protesting away again about the Protocol and all? You couldn't make it up.

"It got me so friggin' angry, so I just wanted to express more of my Irishness because of that."

Having said that, An Crann is more soothing than seething, a vibe entirely befitting the inspiration for its title: the An Crann peace and reconciliation group founded by Derry writer Damian Gorman in the 1990s.

The record is not a trad-fest either, more a broad amalgamation of musical styles with the odd nod to home where appropriate.

"Manannán mac Lir is the nearest one you could call kind of 'trad-y' in a way, with my rudimentary mandolin playing," chuckles O'Neill.

"There's all kinds of influences going on there. I suppose you could say there's film and soundtracky stuff in there. Like, I'm a big fan of Nino Rota [The Godfather trilogy, 8 1/2] and obviously Morricone, Jerry Goldsmith [Planet of The Apes, Chinatown, Alien], and there's some Japanese influences as well. So it's a hotchpotch of different world influences, really."

Damian in action with the Undertones for the BBC in 2019
Damian in action with the Undertones for the BBC in 2019 Damian in action with the Undertones for the BBC in 2019

With the Undertones currently concentrating on live work celebrating their stellar back catalogue – indeed, the Paul McLoone-fronted band are in Berlin tonight for a blast through their tune-packed past – An Crann has also been a vital outlet for O'Neill's creativity, given that it's been a mere 15 years since the last full collection of new material, 2007's Dig Yourself Deep.

"That's probably true," admits the guitarist, "I was coming up with all these ideas and I needed to get them out there somehow.

"We do keep talking about doing something new though, but everyone's always busy doing other things. So there's always an excuse not to – we're a bit lazy that way. I'll maybe have a word with them this weekend, actually."

In the meantime, for those currently enjoying An Crann, thoughts will already have turned to the possibility of experiencing its evocative highlights live.

Having largely played everything on the record himself, in order for that to happen, O'Neill will first need to recruit a band to help him represent the album's nuanced, multi-layered magic on the stage.

"Brian O'Neill [no relation] who runs the label keeps saying I should [play some shows] and obviously I've got friends here in London who are musicians and who could probably easily replicate the record or even enhance it," he tells me.

"It will take a bit of money and a bit of preparation and rehearsal, but you never know. Come January, I'm basically free until the Undertones start playing again in May. So I'm definitely thinking about giving it a go."

To paraphrase one of O'Neill's best-known songs, it's got to happen.

:: An Crann is out now on Dimple Discs, available via dimplediscs.bandcamp.com.