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Pure pop from Ireland: Pugwash stunning new comp; first U.S. tour

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Acclaimed Dublin band to play Portland Empire on Oct. 9

If you have yet to experience the musical joy on earth that is Pugwash, please allow me to introduce you to 'A Rose in a Garden of Weeds: A Preamble Through The History of Pugwash,' a compilation of 17 delectable nuggets of pure pop genius recorded by the Dublin, Ireland band between 1999 and 2011. Released this week by the passionate music lovers at Omnivore Recordings, the collection is designed as a Pugwash-primer and is a generous dip into a wonderfully rich catalog of gorgeous songs.

From their first release, 1999's 'Almond Tea' to their most recent, 2011's 'The Olympus Sound,' Pugwash have been writing and recording pop masterpieces that some fans (me included) hold as close as they do cherished songs by The Kinks, E.L.O. (and family tree bands The Idle Race and The Move), Brian Wilson, The Zombies, The Small Faces, Crowded House, XTC, Jellyfish and The Wondermints. As it turns out, some of those pop heroes are themselves Pugwash fans. XTC head tune-mogul Andy Partridge is on record with this quote 'Pugwash, at their best, are almost Beatle-like in their greatness. They are THAT good.'

In support of 'A Rose in a Garden of Weeds,' Pugwash frontman Thomas Walsh and band-mates Tosh Flood, Shaun McGee and Joey Fitzgerald, are due to arrive on these shores within days to begin their first American tour, which will include a show at the Portland Empire on Thursday, Oct. 9. Earlier that evening, the band will appear on WCSH Channel 6's '207' program with Pat Callaghan. Pugwash will also perform an in-store acoustic show at Bull Moose, 151 Middle St. in Portland on Oct. 10 at 6:30 p.m.

Walsh says that the upcoming U.S. tour holds special meaning for Pugwash. 'This is the ultimate, ultimate,ultimatedream of this band,' he told me during a phone interview last week. 'To play these songs in America for people who really want to hear them, it will be as if we're playing for the first time.'

Listening to the freshly remastered songs on 'A Rose in a Garden of Weeds,' I'm reminded of how fully developed Pugwash's music has been from the beginning. From the haunting, multi-layered 'Finer Things in Life' (1999) to the dream-like harmony of 'Be My Friend Awhile' from 2011's 'The Olympus Sound,' each of the songs here fits together happily even though the new collection presents them non-chronologically.

The title track, 'ARose in a Garden of Weeds,' first appeared on 2005's 'Jollity' and is one of those 'hear it once, you'll remember it forever' songs. Eric Gorfain's The Section Quartet accompanies Pugwash with a string score that will no doubt bring some fans to tears when they join Pugwash to perform the song live in Los Angeles next month.

'Monorail' is an infectious confection that Beck would probably like to claim as his own while 'It's Nice to Be Nice' instantly brings 'Pet Sounds' era Beach Boys to mind. In fact, it was this song that Brian Wilson referenced when he and Walsh met. As in 'You're the It's Nice to be Nice' guy!'

Clearly, Walsh's pre-Pugwash years spent wood-shedding (literally) hundreds of songs in a shed studio in his family's garden paid off. His gift for crafting meaningful melodic pop has resulted in five Pugwash albums, a sixth that has been freshly written, and two collaborations with Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy as the cricket-centric 'Duckworth Lewis Method' (their self-titled debut received an Ivor Novello nomination for Best Album in 2010).

Special appearances abound on the new collection. Previous Puggers Keith Farrell and Johnny Boyle provided key contributions to the first decade of Pugwash. Popping up in various capacity are the XTC boys, Nelson Bragg, Neil Hannon, Jason Falkner and Duncan Maitland. Liner notes and testimony come from Fountain's of Wayne's Chris Collingwood and Eric Gorfain of The Section Quartet. 'An amazing little piece,' Walsh says giddily. 'I'm very proud of that.'

I envision new fans around the world listening to 'A Rose in a Garden of Weeds' and becoming smitten with the contents. Hearing these songs for the first time is a special thing. Once you fall for them, they never leave you.

Tickets for Pugwash with special guest, Spencer Albee (Rustic Overtones, As Fast As) live at Empire in Portland, 575 Congress Street, are available athttp://holdmyticket.com/event/181338for a total of $8.50.

A conversation with Thomas Walsh can lead most anywhere especially when it centers on music. The twists and tangents are peppered with self-effacing jokes and tastefully delivered and impeccably timed 'F bombs' that have been tweaked just a bit for this piece.

Walsh, 45, spent his wilderness years in the '70s and '80s absorbing, analyzing and dissecting the music of his heroes, including The Beatles, XTC, The Kinks and especially Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra.

Fast forward to just a few years ago. Pugwash has released five acclaimed albums and Walsh is as strong a Lynne-acolyte as ever. He pops out to the mailbox to discover a letter from his hero. 'First of all, I'd like you to know that I'm a big fan of yours,' Lynne wrote. 'I've known about Pugwash for a few years now and I've always admired your lovely vocal sounds and super double tracking,' the letter continued. Walsh was gobsmacked.

'That letterI was in bits when I read it,' Walsh remembers. He and Lynne have since become friends. 'I never thought Jeff Lynne would stand in front of me and say, You're a bloody great songwriter, your voice is amazing and I love Pugwash.''

In March of this year, Lynne invited Walsh to be his guest when he received a star on the 'Walk of Fame' in his home city of Birmingham, England. Last week, when Lynne and Electric Light Orchestra performed their first full concert in 28 years in front of 50,000 at Hyde Park in London, Walsh was there. 'E.L.O.'s greatest-ever live moment,' he wrote on Facebook after the show.

Dow: You were a fan of people like Andy Partridge and Dave Gregory (XTC), Brian Wilson, the Crowded House guys and of course, Jeff Lynne and now they're fans of yours in addition to being your friend. Is that a totally surreal thing to have happen?

Walsh: These are the major league. This is the Premiership the Superbowl of pop. I never thought I would meet Jeff Lynne and I never thought I would get to talk to him about cello sounds on 'Eldorado' (Electric Light Orchestra album from 1974). I've said it before, he's the only man I would ever have sex with. And even then, I wouldn't. I'd have to stop myselfI couldn't follow through (laughs). He invited me over as his guest when he received the star on the Birmingham 'Walk of Fame.' Jeff booked the whole floor of the hotel and there were just four of us. Jeff and his lady, Camelia (Kath - widow of Chicago guitarist, Terry Kath) - she was lovely. There was Phil Hatton, Jeff's closest associate, and me all on the one floor of the hotel. It was quite incredible.

The added bonus that night was Bryan 'bleeding' Adams. Mr. 'Summer of '69.' He came along as well because Jeff has been working with him on his new album. Bryan kept talking in Irish to me. Not in the actual Irish language, but he kept saying stuff like 'tup uh the marnin' to ya.' It was hilarious. I tried to get back at him by working one of his song titles into my response each time. (sings) 'Every time you do that, you do it to annoy me' (sung to Adams's 'Everything I do'). He did it all night!

Dow: How important is the upcoming U.S. tour to Pugwash?

Walsh: I've been obsessed with getting to America simply because, in a very small way, America kept me going. In my little bedsit flat in Dublin, throughout the late '90s and early 2000s, it was always somebody American who would MySpace me at a certain time that's how long ago it was. Or ring me at a certain time like Jason Falkner (of Jellyfish) or came into town like Nelson Bragg (of Brian Wilson's band) they just kept me going. There was this amazing girl who ran Jason's website who said 'Almanac (second Pugwash album 2002) is a great record and Jason's all over it do you mind if I sell copies of it?'

At that time, the album had basically been 'pulled' because the company went bust after it had been released. There were about 600 copies of it sitting in this warehouse in Dublin, along with some copies of 'Almond Tea' (first album 1999) and bits and pieces. I vaguely knew the guy at the warehouse. I went in there and said, 'I don't want to get into the logistics of this but I'm going in there with a friend's truck and I'm taking every fookin'' CD that's mine (laughs). I don't care who owes money to who, I'm taking them.' Those copies went to America and it's a pretty well thought of record now. That's all grist for the mill and a way to just say 'thanks' to those people. Or just go there and play for people who really want to hear us play.

When you come to the shows, shout up requests, you never know. I'll be happy to take them. I might say 'No, not playing that.' Or, 'No, not doing that one. We've never played that one! (laughs).' Really, we're so happy to be playing these songs in America, the gigs could be hours and hours long if we get onto a roll.

Dow: Do you plan on recording or filming during the tour?

Walsh: We've been asked to do an online diary for Hot Press, kind of Ireland's version of Rolling Stone. Lovely people running it. They want us to include film clips from the tour. I bought Joey a little 1965 brown box cine-camera so we'll be taking some Byrd's-esque 1960s cine-cam footage. We've love to get some of that classic footage from the plane that you see in all of the band documentaries with the clouds and sky. Then you hear Roger McGuinn's guitar playing 'Eight Miles High' (laughs). It might cost us a hundred quid to do 30 seconds.

We're very tight and are a great little band. It will be such a buzz for us because we know there will be people there hearing the songs for the first time live.

One of the great wonders of the world for the past 10 years has been YouTube. It's a wonderful thing, but when it comes to filming bands on phones, especially bands like us, it loses its charm somewhat. But I understand. I've gone on YouTube and watched three or four hours of XTC. The visual and sound quality might be crap but it's so brilliant. 'Oh, there they go doing Outside World' or something at a hundred miles an hour.'

I understand there are a lot of fans out there who've only seen us live on YouTube and now they'll get to see us in the flesh and it'ssomuch better, really. And there'sa lotof flesh, Mike.

Dow: (laughing) Well, the camera adds at least 10 pounds.

Walsh: No, it's eight stone. I speak in the old terms. I don't know what that is in pounds. How much is it if youeatthe camera?

Dow: At the moment, 10 appearances are scheduled for the tour. Do you plan on adding more?

Walsh: There are a couple of things coming in that we just can't do because of the logistics. Las Vegas is one of them. There's a wonderful band there called Candy Warpop. They want to do a gig with us but I don't think it's logistically possible. The wonderful Ted Goldthorpe, who runs Sony in America, wants us to come to Nashville. He's been a big fan of the band for a long time. We're trying to see if it can be worked out. It's so expensive, Mike. We did a few gigs in England to get the money for the flights and then work out the accommodations. We're also doing a Kickstarter campaign which should be live anytime now. We'll have some really good offers for people who kick in. They can come along and rub my hair or they could poke me. They can watch Tosh smoke. I don't know where you can smoke in America. That's really going to freak him out.

Dow: The smoking laws are quite strict here. I think it's only allowed in back alleys between 2 and 2:10 a.m.

Walsh: Well, that sounds great because Ireland is extremely strict as well. It's banned in all places here so he's well used to it. We were playing a gig in Dublin once where the smoking area is behind the stage and we were playing for two hours. I said to Tosh, 'Why don't you extend the lead out to the smoking area and have a smoke when you're playing the last song?' So he stood out in the smoking area playing the guitar. I think we're the only band in Ireland who was able to have a smoke during a gig in the last 10 years.

The wonderful Lee Lodyga at Omnivore Recordings is helping us with the Kickstarter thing. He's just a great guy and he's kind of working it in his inimitable way. Omnivore is a heritage label so they're kind of used to working with bands who are dead. I told them 'technically, two of us are kind of dead but there's enough of us alive to make it to America.' Technically, I think Tosh is kind of dead. You have to knock on his head just to make sure.

Dow: When you're here, will you be playing from an established setlist or just mix it up depending on what you feel at the time?

Walsh: I suppose I should share the secret of the band and that isthe band basically hate my guts on one subject. I don't ever do a setlist. That really annoys the band and I don't care because I hate doing them! We do end up doing them before the gig but Tosh wants a setlist for songs I haven't even fooking written yet. He's obsessed with setlists. Shawn is obsessed with setlists. Joey doesn't really mind. He's an absolute legend. He's a slut that just wants to play anywhere. To be honest, we're going to mix it up a bit. We're definitely going to do some songs we've never done before. I think we're doing 12 or 13 songs off the new compilation.

Dow: What is a normal day like for you when you're not traveling or recording? What do you like to do?

Walsh: This is where I shatter the dreams of all of those wonderful people who love our music. Basically, I just hate playing the guitar. I love writing songs. I love playing and I love recording but there's only specific times in a year or a period of your life when you do those things. When I gave up the drink (several years ago), I bought like nine Rickenbackers. That's what I started doing I started playing guitar. I love them all and know them inside out. The thing is I love having them, I just rarely play them. When I do play them, it's exciting. It's fresh and fun.

I love collecting. I'm a huge record collector. Honestly, I could spend days on eBay. It's terrible. It's a drug. Me, Joey and the lads are all vinyl collectors. When we go to England or any of these places, we just drive around looking for second hand shops, Oxfam shops or charity shops. That's what we do all day. We'll enjoy a cup of tea there and it's all very un-rock and roll yet it'sveryrock and roll because we just want to find 78s from Little Richard or extremely rare, ridiculous '60s records from bands with very stupid names. I bought an album recently called 'The Grass is Not For Smoking' by The Green Grass, I think they're called. They were an American vocal band from 1968 and they did a version of 'Walk Away Rene.' I'm a huge Left Banke fan and I picked it up just to hear it and there a couple of good songs on there but the rest of it is just fookin' awful. But the cover isamazing. They're all on glorious psychedelic grass and it's fantastic. We'll buy those albums all day. We'll buy Liberace fookin' albums if they're in mint condition. We won't buy terrible records but if we find records from the '60s that are completely mint, we have to get them. So I collect all the time.

I've also written the next Pugwash album. In February alone, I wrote 17 songs. This will be the first record where we have control of it ourselves so we're not really sure what we're going to do. A lot of people have heard the demos and they love it but we just don't know yet. There are a lot of options.

Thomas owns the rights to the first two Pugwash albums. 'I got them back from the original label which was very kind of them,' he says. The master tapes for 'Jollity,' 'Eleven Modern Antiquities' and 'The Olympus Sound' are owned by 1969 Records, a label that, according to Thomas, was initially formed in 2004 to release 'Jollity.' Thomas named the company (it was the year he was born in addition to being one of the most amazing music years ever). 'Our relationship with 1969 was a loving one and it came to a natural end. It turned into one of Ireland's biggest indie labels for a couple of years and we had a great time. I'm very proud of our association with it.'

All we want to do is go and play. We can't wait to meet our fans especially the American fans. You know how some people are afraid to approach the band after a gig? We want everybody to know that we're just going to have an open room. People can take what they want as long as we don't need it. We had this Japanese fan show up at a gig in a pub in Dublin. She was seated at the side of the stage. I kept noticing she had this book and was writing down song titles, recording stuff on her phone and taking pictures. She was weirdly together like a 'train spotter' and was documenting everything we were doing. She came up to us after the show and that's when we learned that she flew in to see us from Japan an 18-hour flight - and was flying back out the next day. She said she was documenting everything to share with her friends back home. I nearly fell over. I literally picked her up and said 'Right lads, let's go.' We brought her backstage, sat her down and gave her everything. We went through all the guitar cases sheets of paper, lyrics, guitar straps, I gave her my hat. I gave her any of the vinyl pieces she didn't have. We signed everything. This woman flew in from fookin' Tokyo to see us. It's incredible, really. We were planning on just going somewhere after the gig and getting some chips or something. When she showed up, we just stayed there and made her the star. Some people on this tour will be doing 10-hour road trips just to see us and every one of them will get a hug from me.

'The Big Morning Show with Mike Dow' can be heard on Big 104 FM The Biggest Hits of the '60s, '70s & '80s - airing on 104.7 (Bangor/Belfast), 104.3 (Augusta/Waterville) and 107.7 (Bar Harbor)

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