While walking up a flight of stairs in his first week of secondary school, David Balfe’s eyes lit up. He caught sight of an At the Drive-In badge attached to the backpack of another first-year student, who he shyly approached. “I really hang on to that memory,” Balfe says, recalling how his uncle, Darren, had recently gifted him a CD copy of a release by the post-hardcore band. “I can picture exactly where in the school it was.”
Trudging ahead of him was Paul Curran, who before long became Balfe’s best friend. Across 13 years of inseparable friendship, they bonded over music, setting up (at least) three bands along the way. This peaked with the collective Burnt Out, one of most thrilling short-lived projects in Irish music history, whose gnashing, hyper-melodic post-punk centred both the everyday anxieties and romantic contours of working-class life. Only two songs ever saw the light of day – 2016’s “Dear James” and “Joyrider” – but these wounded street anthems changed the trajectories of their lives forever. Around the same time, Curran had also gained some national recognition for his precocious spoken-word poetry, in which he wove empathy and fury into raw, incisive tales from Coolock, North Dublin, home to more impoverishment, violent crime and drug addiction issues than most places in Ireland.
The pair would regularly nerd out over their favourite musical performance of all time: At the Drive-In’s whirlwind blast through the studio of Later… With Jools Holland back in 2000. Obsessed with the way the short appearance conjured fire and brimstone, as well as the hilarious camera cutaway to a dumbstruck Robbie Williams, they came to a shared understanding: their loftiest dream as live musicians was not to step afoot the Glastonbury main stage, nor was it to embark on a globe-trotting tour. Their fairy-tale instead involved playing Jools Holland, something they joked about all the time.
It’s a Tuesday in late October, 2020, and Balfe is torn over some recent Jools Holland-related news. Ahead of the release of his debut album as For Those I Love early next year, one of the only non-negotiables that he voiced during early discussions with his new label – to grace the same consecrated stage At The Drive-In did all those years ago – is set to be realised. The 29-year-old has been informed that he will record a performance for the iconic BBC show on Friday in Dublin. When we speak over Zoom, his voice is a touch worn from his first rehearsals in years. He’s elated, nervous, confused, all at once.
“This is one of the only serious goals I have in my life, and I thought it'd be something I'd be going 90 about,” he sighs. "Instead, I just rang me Ma and got really upset.” An overwhelming feeling of emptiness has descended on him.
In 2018, he tragically lost Curran to suicide. The scheduled performance is a cruel twist of fate given their blood oath, which has been playing on his mind all week. This is someone whose voice Balfe had heard every day for over a decade; someone he hadn’t ever created music without. Jools Holland's platform feels, he says, like the culmination of every musical interest and relationship he's ever had. From the emo hair halcyon days in a Coolock schoolyard gushing about dissonant rock, to the revelatory first moments he heard Dizzee Rascal and The Streets, to the endless hours him and his comrades spent driving around Dublin at night in a 2001 Renault Clio listening to a “weird mesh of drum and bass, trance, and everything in between”, to his own work as For Those I Love that has brought him to the precipice of indie acclaim.
For about two months after Curran's death – prior to a turbulent period where he almost drank himself “into oblivion” – Balfe didn’t drink an ounce. But he didn't feel sober. “When you step outside into the world, the breeze feels different on your skin,” he says. “You wake up dizzy. It feels like the air never really fills up your lungs.” But on the lonely nights that he returned to the music, it felt “sobering”. He revisited and re-tooled older songs, and in turn started creating new material.
The result of these sessions is a soaring, elegiac body of work that gets to the heart of his community's simmering rage, violence and grief. Where Burnt Out dabbled in existentialism via incendiary rock, Balfe uses a self-produced dance music palette and a collection of spoken word miniatures to explore the platonic love he’s grappled with in mourning – both for his best friend and for his hometown. What emerges on his eponymous debut evokes the rave nostalgia of Jamie XX, the urban melancholia of Burial, and his late friend’s poetic realism and pitch black Dublin wit. Balfe glides, gently and pointedly, across nine tracks, just as does in conversation. When you speak to him, the first thing you notice is that he's a warm, generous soul. He is bright and gabby and disarmingly open. This spills over into his album, an ecstatic outpouring of love packed with artefacts of personal history, including old WhatsApp voice messages.
Balfe has a laconic vocal delivery that lands somewhere between spoken-word and not-quite-rapping rhyming. Sometimes it feels like he's casually telling you a story; other times he's like a conduit for something beyond words. On the tender lead single “I Have A Love”, he cries out repeatedly that his love for his departed friend will never fade. This is an impossibility anyway. Physically and metaphysically, Curran’s voice is knitted into the fabric of For Those I Love – recitations of his poems are buried deep in the mix, his voice and words sampled, his presence graspable in Balfe’s mournful summoning of a “you” and “he” throughout. In Japan, people believe that the spirits of the dead remain part of the lives of the living. This album is a testament to that sentiment.
Balfe’s earliest recollections of growing up in a working-class estate in Donaghmede, Dublin, are invariably “harsh”. As a six-year-old, he found blood stains at the end of his road; a body had been dumped there and then taken away earlier that day. Another dire aspect of life here, he stresses, is the oppressive presence of law enforcement, carried out in Ireland by An Garda Síochána, or the Guards as they are known colloquially. He describes ugly formative encounters with teeth gritted. One day, in particular, Balfe and his young friends were hanging near his house, terminally bored, in a field surrounded by small bushes and overgrown weeds.
“They pulled up with batons and just told us to fuck off home,” he recounts angrily. “Now, keep in mind, at the age of six or seven, you haven't been told to fuck off that many times, let alone being told to fuck off by what you've been told are – or at least what you perceive to be – positive authoritative figures. And those interactions just never changed. I mean, that was our home.”
He talks sweepingly about corruption in Irish policing, listing off a reel of recent institutional scandals, as well as personal brushes with self-admittedly corrupt Guards. “I don't really think they’re there to police working-class communities – they're there to preserve a status quo that protects the middle and upper-class at the expense of the working-class,” he says sharply of the Guards' true function. “The police, in their actions in Ireland, are there just to combat the consequences of inequality.”
One such consequence is suicide. “I don't think there was a way to grow up in this Dublin and not be faced with the tragedy of suicide,” he says, a lump lodged in his throat. “It wasn't new for me when it happened with Paul.” Close by, in the small room in which he is perched, are medical studies, which he has frantically paged through in search of answers. They never come.
Growing up, Balfe didn't have much in the way of financial security, but "a lot when it came down to love and trust". His mother was unemployed for long stretches, while his father was a driver (today, his father is unemployed and his mother works as a secretary in a local hospital). It was his parents who helped pave the way – literally and figuratively – for his art. For years, his parents were “saving whatever little bits they could”. But when Balfe entered his mid-teens, they grew increasingly worried about his future.
Fearing the worst, they took what for working folk is a massive risk, investing in and building a small, red wooden shed at the end of their back garden, hoping it might occupy his creative urges. He reminisces wistfully now about the magnitude of the sacrifice; this gleaming “fucking godsend”. Forgoing holidays and new clothes for the good part of a decade, his parents now believe they have reaped the benefits. “Me Ma has got pissed a couple of times and told me it was all worth it!” he laughs. Today, the garden shed is used as a workspace by his sister – something akin to a family heirloom, a portal from which a creative otherworld can be reached. It was also where Balfe and his friends’ numerous musical projects were conceived.
Formed in 2007, Plagues, who made “nasty metalcore”, comprised three out of four members of Burnt Out. Next came hardcore effort The Branch Becomes, which blunted some of the more serrated metalcore edges off into something more immediately melodic. With Burnt Out, everything changed. For the first time, the music wasn’t recorded in the red shed. Peter, one of the band members, had been living in an undeveloped house, whose open space they felt better suited their needs. The foundation, walls and brickwork were intact, but not much else. No internal walls; no running water; no furniture. A skeleton of a home. Somehow, they managed to conceptualise, write, practice, and record all of Burnt Out’s songs here. Balfe would stay up all night trying to edit his GoPro-recorded videos on a broken laptop, until sunlight would glare through the uncovered windows. "It was just the sort of place where you learn to love each other,” he beams.
Like any music-inclined kid, Balfe went through different phases. Bands such as Minor Threat, Cro-Mags and Void were monumental, but so were the “intense” drug-fuelled house parties he stumbled along to as a wide-eyed 13-year-old. Here, a love affair with dance music – "cheesy" euphoric trance was a particular constant – began. For Those I Love's sound is steeped in these private histories. Textured synths, chipmunk vocal splices, and clattering drums came back to him when started playing around with pirated production software. When I ask when he first started writing poetry, I'm surprised to learn that he never wrote before music. One early literary inspiration, he recalls, was the poetry of John Berryman, immortalised for his searing confessionalist free verse. But Balfe’s lyrical and delivery styles were not premeditated; he “can’t sing for shit”, and spoken-word was a practical vehicle through which he could retain his dialect. This attitude underpinned every art form Balfe and his friends touched: a desire to not only provide genuine working-class representation but also to counter misrepresentations presented by fiercely elitist Irish media and art institutions.
Long before he signed to September Management and fulfilled his lifelong ambition to appear on Jools Holland, Balfe had wished to create just 25 copies of For Those I Love, to dispense them with little fanfare to his loved ones. Listening to the album, you can detect how achingly personal each song and verse is. Vocal snippets of friends, impenetrable in-jokes, countless references to Shelbourne FC and boxing; Balfe’s music, above all, is familial and intimate. From working on it, though, he learned about it's larger purpose. Though For Those I Love is a celebration of all things Dublin and working-class, as well as a paean to friends and family, confronting the darkness always felt, and always will feel, vital.
“I think I'm void of hope but I don't want to spread that fear,” he confesses. “But it's not black-and-white, because if you don't speak to that hopelessness, if you don't vocalise it, if you don't interrogate the systematic violence, things will just stay the way they are.”
For Those I Love is due out early 2021 on September Recordings.