Cranberries guitarist Noel Hogan talks about his band’s origin, its life together and time apart.
The phone rings. It’s Noel Hogan, the Cranberries guitarist. I struggle to sound prepared as I frantically toss papers around my office, looking for my notes. Here I am interviewing an artist who’s sold over 30 million albums, and I can’t find my cassette recorder. So, I try to fill in the blank space with some small talk.
Hogan’s relaxed speech—as he insists I call him Noel—allows me to regain my composure. Maybe it’s the way his Irish accent turns his th’s into d’s, or maybe it’s the way he was very candid from the first word he offered. Regardless, talking to Noel is like talking to an old friend who’s been away for a while touring with his band, and—oh yeah—selling a few million albums along the way.
Early on, it was Noel who was writing most of the music for the band, (then known as The Cranberry Saw Us). Then his brother Mike (bass) and Fergal Lawler (drums) added their respective elements to Noel’s Riffs. The three had been playing their instruments for only about two years when their frontman left to focus on another project.
One evening in May 1990, a then 18-year-old, petite young woman named Dolores Mary O’Riordan arrived with a keyboard under her arm. Her voice—anything but petite—impressed the three, who in turn played some of the instrumentals they’d rehearsed ad nauseum while between lead singers. By the next week’s meeting, the quartet had begun placing Delores’ lyrics with the bands tunes. The first product of this process was “Linger,” the Cranberries’ first song; and first hit.
“That was back in ‘91,” remembers Noel. He adds candidly, “We’ve done that song at every gig we’ve played since then. It kind of adds up.” Indeed, the Cranberries have a number of tracks audiences more or less require them to play: “Zombie” and “Ode To My Family,” among them.
“To be honest, there are times your mind wonders,” he continues, “because you’ve played those songs so many times you don’t even have to think of what you’re doing. And then, you’ll play it the next night and you really enjoy it—kinda funny.”
Though the Cranberries have that handful songs everyone knows, the offers more than few lucky hits. Instead, they have made a career of producing albums that are much more than listenable throughout. Cranberries releases offer a variety of soft ballads and up-tempo rock cuts, while not sacrificing a consistent sound that is uniquely Cranberries.
On the strength of that sound, the Cranberries enjoyed significant success almost from the beginning. However, the effort spent promoting that success was nearly their end. “It just got crazy,” Noel says. “We had toured for so long with very, very little time off, it just got to the point where everything we did had to do with the band. We had no other life outside of it and it just seemed like everything was passing us by. Every time we wanted to take a break, people were going, ‘No, you’ve signed a contract for the next… fifty years, or that kind of thing.”
The band did finally take action before the exhaustion finished them. “Luckily we never fought with each other; we just didn’t talk with each other. We were just going through the motions, so we said, ‘Forget this; we’re going home for a while.” And for almost two years after the release of their third album, To The Faithful Departed, the band all but disappeared from the public eye.
In a few words, Noel remembers how the band members spent their hiatus. “Delores spent a lot of time in Canada because her husband is from there. And she had a kid. Mike went to England and watched a lot of Futbol. He’s a big fan of Fu… uh soccer. Ferrel went to Australia for a while and I just went home.
“We didn’t really see much of each other. But I talked to Delores a few times on the phone. ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ sort of thing—nothing about the band. At the end of seven years of touring it got to the point where we didn’t even know if we wanted to do this [recording and touring] anymore.”
Fortunately, the band’s need to utilize their talents persevered over their reluctance. “About a year after we had taken a break, I started writing a few bits and pieces So Delores and I were talking at one point and I told her I had some stuff. Over the next few months she was listening away and writing her own stuff as well. So, when the guys came back from their travels we decided to go to Canada and try a couple songs and see how it went..” In December 1998, the band played a few of their new creations at The Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, Norway. Their fourth album, Bury The Hatchet, was released April 19, 1999.
Delores would later say of that concert in Norway, “It was funny—the first time giggling together on stage in almost three years and the whole audience is dressed in suits and looking serious! But they loved it!” In addition to never having performed the new songs live and not having performed live at all in years, the Cranberries’ own style adds to the pre-show jitters. Their songs often match intricate and powerful melodies with Delores’ vocal style, which can only be described as inspired. Indeed it is the Cranberries’ own studio work that sets the bar so high for their live performances.
“I think always when you record stuff and then you have to go out and do it live, you’re going ”God, how is this stuff gonna sound now,’” Noel explains. “Obviously, in the studio you have all the time in the world and you can layer and tweak the tracks, making them as big or as small as you want. I think the fact that we toured so much helped us learn how to transform sound live, because a lot of the time you have to look at it in a different light than you what you did in the studio. So live, you’re always going, ‘Oh God, are people going to like this?’ You never really know until you stop touring. Luckily, people tend to like it. But as good as a gig can be, it can be bad just as well. You can have really real stinker… Oh yeah, we’ve had those many times, though the audience might not know it. Sometimes it just sounds wrong and you’re wondering if you’re even playing the same song as the rest of the band.”
Don’t look for any of those “bad shows” if you ever get to see the Cranberries live. Maybe it’s their high standards that makes them so good, but having seen the band perform, I know their live shows incredible exceed the levels set by their studio work. Delores consistently and amazingly takes her voice to unimaginable heights, while Noel, Fergal and Mike play ferociously, pounding out every ounce of sound their instruments allow. After having talked to Noel, followed the band and seen them perform live, I have a sense that they are wiser for their travels, and more comfortable with their musical goals than before, while they remain charmingly humble.
Some critics have described Bury The Hatchet as a return to the Cranberries style of old, regarding the third album as somewhat of an aberration. In fact, the lyrics of their latest effort do focus, like the first two albums, on relationships and related issues.
“To us, this is really like a fresh beginning after taking two years off and being through a lot of crappy stuff before,” Noel reflects. “When we started to write this album, we kind of had a better outlook. In a way, we got to live proper lives for a couple years. So, you know everybody was settled more. I think all that influences the way that you end up writing and playing later on. So, in that sense, then, it brought a new aspect to this album. We kinda lost that by the time we did the third one.”