County Westmeath has a long history of churning out excellent music acts: Joe Dolan, Niall Horan, and Bressie are among the number of talented alumni. One of the county’s more recent exports is four piece band The Academic, comprised of Craig Fitzgerald, Dean Gavin, and brothers Matthew and Stephen Murtagh, who met and formed the band when they were in secondary school in Rochfortsbridge. I chatted to Craig (lead singer and guitarist) over a very scratchy phone line, and he told me that the current band is an evolution of a few different experiments: “we had always been playing music together, in various types of bands, (not the official line up that it is now), we kept on learning music together, growing up together, and then when we hit about 17, we wanted to start an original group. So we took it from there and started playing shows in Mullingar and branching out towards Dublin.”

Their debut album, Tales from the Backseat, was released in January 2018, and Craig says that it was influenced by a multitude of different artists. “We were raised on a lot of The Beatles, and Thin Lizzy…we formed the band when we were all listening to early 2000s indie music, like The Strokes, and we would have fallen into a lot of that New York scene, listening to bands like Vampire Weekend. We kind of fell in love with the idea of pop driven music, but with guitar at the forefront; the big indie movement of the early 2000s would have been our influence at the time.” This indie influence played a large part in the creation of their earlier music. “If you wrap your ears around the first album, it is pretty much a debut indie pop record I would say, but I think now that we’re moving on from that, we’re going to be pushing the barriers.” Pushing the barriers means introducing new sounds into their music, and Craig says that they’ve gone back in time for inspiration. “We’re listening to a lot more ‘80s, even ‘70s, and always the ‘60s. Our music’s always changing, we’re excited to push the genre a little bit more now.” The Academic will join a host of other musical acts who are introducing eighties riffs and pop beats into their music, and as Craig puts it, “it’s amazing how we nearly always go back to go forward.”

“We formed the band when we were all listening to early 2000s indie music, like The Strokes, and we would have fallen into a lot of that New York scene, listening to bands like Vampire Weekend. We kind of fell in love with the idea of pop driven music, but with guitar at the forefront; the big indie movement of the early 2000s would have been our influence at the time.”

The last couple of years have seen the band go from strength to strength, from their debut album last year to headlining their own show at the Iveagh Gardens this coming July. With over 500,000 monthly streams on Spotify, their success is only growing, and Craig says that they’re so grateful. “It’s been great. We worked very hard as a band at the start, we played in a lot of pubs to nobody, and built it up and got introductions at festivals. It feels like it’s been a slow yet fast process, we’ve kind of worked our way up.” Recently, the band have reaped the rewards of their efforts. “In the last two years, things have changed, I think that once we got the album out it really gave people a chance to take the band in, and get to know the songs and get to know what we’re about and I think that helped.” Despite their success, they don’t take any of it for granted and aren’t immune to hard work. “We pushed our shows, and the shows got bigger … so it has kind of been a whirlwind of 2 years. But we’re kind of used to it, we’re good at taking the big moments and really appreciating them because we’ve worked pretty hard to get there.”

The band feel that being from a small town in the Midlands has helped rather than hindered their success, and Craig reckons that being one of the only bands in the area was a good thing: “I think coming from a small town area, there wasn’t as much competition, there definitely aren’t as many places to play, but I think we definitely built up a nice homegrown support that helped us when we moved from Westmeath to go play shows in Dublin and going over to the UK. I think we learned our craft from where we were from, and then we had this backbone behind the band which helped us when we were put into bigger scenarios.” Despite their small town beginnings, the band are eager to expand and explore as much of the world as they can. “We’ve always said that we want to go out and tour everywhere, get our music on the radio all across the world. We’ve had some great moments doing that, with US tours, tours around the UK and Europe, so any time we’re given an opportunity to go somewhere new, or if we heard that somebody heard our song in a bar in Switzerland, or a place we’ve never been, we think ‘oh cool, maybe we should go and play a show in Switzerland!’”

“We worked very hard as a band at the start, we played in a lot of pubs to nobody, and built it up and got introductions at festivals. It feels like it’s been a slow yet fast process, we’ve kind of worked our way up.”

Much of an artist’s success rests on the influence of social media, and I asked Craig what he thinks about this, and whether it has changed the way people make music. “I think it’s become a thing now where artists can’t go without social media, it’s so important. It’s like this empty canvas – artists can choose to use it whatever way they want. They can be so open and tell everybody everything, and that’s a really great way of drawing people in and showing them what you’re all about. If you go back twenty years, when you made an album, you put it out and it was in shops, it’s not like that anymore. You’re wondering now are we present enough on people’s phones so they know what we’re doing, you’re thinking about more than just the music nowadays.”

The Academic are just one of the many newer acts breaking onto the growing Irish music scene. They recently took part an event organized by Today FM, where only Irish artists were played on the airwaves that day, and the cover that they performed of Thin Lizzy’s ‘Sarah’ as part of the campaign is worth a listen. “That Today FM thing was brilliant,” Craig tells me. “I thought it was a really sweet thing to do, to promote Irish music in such a lovely way”. He says that promoting homegrown music is so important, and even more so now that the Irish scene is evolving so much. “It’s become so eclectic, it’s not just bands anymore –  there’s pop acts, hip hop acts like Kojaque – and I think you could see that in the ‘RTÉ Choice Music Prize’ nominations list this year, from how varied all the artists were. I think Irish people aren’t afraid to challenge music now, they’re not just trying to fit in, they’re doing their own thing and trying to step out. I think it’s going to become important that we make sure that we appraise these people and put them in front of the right people. Irish music is respected, and it’s loved, and that begins with how we access music.” He names bands such as Inhaler and Otherkin as ones to watch, and says that sometimes there’s almost too much choice: “We as a band nearly have arguments as to who are the best artists in Ireland, which is great to be even able to have that debate.”

“I think Irish people aren’t afraid to challenge music now, they’re not just trying to fit in, they’re doing their own thing and trying to step out.”

They’re now focusing on moving on to their next album, and Craig tells me that they’re preparing some new material ahead of their summer shows in Dublin, Cork and Galway. “We’ve kind of said goodbye to Tales from the Backseat and we’re looking at the next thing. At the moment we’re currently in the studio, we’ve a big batch of songs that we’re really happy with and we’re just trying to finalise which ones we want to go with. So there’ll be a couple of releases over the summer, that’s kind of the near future. We’ve a couple of festival slots around the place as well.” In terms of things they’d like to achieve as a band, getting bigger and better is top of the bucket list, and expanding on their already impressive fanbase. “We’d like to keep on touring, every time things get better, venues get bigger, the music reaches out to more people. That’s always our goal, we just want to push the music as far as we can. And I think that’s a nice goal, because that could never end, you can keep on pushing it. We also have our own artistic goals, for example we might want to make a certain type of album, we want to write certain types of songs, so we’re always having these conversations about what’s going to happen five years down the line. Obviously, a major goal would be that we’d love to be playing in Croke Park someday, but here’s hoping!”

The Academic play the Iveagh Gardens on July 19th 2019, tickets on sale now.