“It has to be 2011.” That’s what Ivyrise singer, songwriter and founding member Ben Falinski decided at the start of 2010. He had already steered his band to notable independent success, scoring Top 10 hits on the indie charts and even playing to stadium audiences, but his has always been a passion that refuses to be confined. So he changed everything. He kept his best songs, threw the rest out, and wrote more; switched up his band, and stopped when he got to the perfect combination of Dan Tanner (guitar/vocals), Mark Nagle (bass) and Josh Key (drums). It had to be just right.
Together they blagged and grafted and self-promoted their way through 2010 and, as a result, much as Ben had hoped, 2011 really is Ivyrise’s year. Most impressively of all, at a point when half the music industry seems to be desperate to sign a record deal and the other half seems hell-bent on proving how fantastic it is to be independent, Ivyrise found their own sweet spot right in the middle. Signing an innovative new fan-funded deal with My Major Company, Ivyrise can further develop their own sound, style and massive fanbase, with the freedom to explore Falinski’s creative vision, while also hitting huge new audiences and building on the incredible emotional link they have with existing fans.
The first step is anthemic single ‘Line Up The Stars’, a bold, buzzy statement of intent bursting with chugging riffs and skyscraping melodies. Written and co-produced by the band, the single’s a powerful opening volley for a band hungry and passionate about every aspect of what lies ahead. Obviously, hunger and passion count for the square root of sod all if the tunes are no good, but this is of little concern to Ivyrise. At the time of writing the band are about to hit the studio with Jason Perry (Kids In Glass Houses, The Blackout, McFly) to polish up the sackful of demos that form Ivyrise’s debut album. If you don’t like thinking big turn away now, because this is a band for whom everything is a little epic: they specialise in widescreen stadium rock with radio-friendly hooks so well-honed you’d think they’d been stockpiling them for years. In some instances, that’s not far off the case: Ben has devoted most of his adult life to songwriting, having stumbled across this passion in his teens when his mother fell ill. “I decided I wanted to write songs for my mum,” he recalls. “And I’d get frustrated that I couldn’t. And then one day it clicked.” For a year he’d spend every lunchtime at school locked in the music room writing songs, and he still writes endlessly today. “I won’t write one song a session,” he admits. “I’ll write fifteen then bin thirteen and concentrate on what’s left. It’s an obsession.”
It’s an obsession that, in the last few years, has proved contagious. Ivyrise’s self-released singles ‘Tips’ and ‘Disguise’ both sold well enough to hit the charts and the band even supported Bon Jovi on their Lost Highway tour. But self-releasing isn’t always quite as rosy as it’s cracked up to be - when it comes to putting out your own music Ivyrise have been there, done that and phoned around for a quote on printing up the t-shirt - and Falinski knew that Ivyrise had to get to the next level. “I wrote down a plan,” he recalls.
“The big question was, ‘how do we keep functioning as a band and stay afloat financially? We looked at our plan and we knew that getting a record deal instantly wasn’t going to happen. We knew there’d have to be sacrifices, we knew it’d be hard work, but we came up with an idea.”
And that was? “We started selling tickets for our tours in queues for other bands’ gigs,” Ben says, adding with no little sense of understatement: “It was, I suppose, a bit cheeky.” No band was safe. But it worked. One You Me At Six queue, for example, bought 80 tickets on a single night. Ivyrise sold thousands of tickets that way. “I’d get more nervous walking up to a bunch of people queueing for a gig than I would do going onstage,” Ben laughs. “You’d walk up to someone with an MP3 player, a handful of flyers and twenty seconds to sell your band to them.” As audacious and borderline illegal as it might have been, it was a plan that led not just to well attended gigs but a massive network of fans up and down the country. They might now be the victim of their own success (“last time we played London there were six bands doing our queue,” Josh laughs) but extreme times call for extreme measures. “We knew it was make or break,” Ben reasons. “We had to get to the point where we could get a deal, and we weren’t going to miss that opportunity.”
As it happens, the deal had a little more to do with the new fanbase than the band had initially expected. While the band were talking to labels about a deal they came across My Major Company, a company which specialised in combining the increasingly popular idea of fan-funded album projects with the invaluable expertise of a more formal record label structure. The company had already had a lot of success in France, and was looking for its first UK signing. “We thought about it for a month and decided it was worth a shot,” Ben recalls. They set a target of raising £100,000, mentally preparing themselves for what might happen if they never hit the target. They got the lot in four days.
It was fortunate timing for the band, who’d tentatively secured the services of superproducer Jason Perry, identified by Ben as “the perfect man for the job”. “He was a no brainer in terms of who we wanted to work with us on the album,” Ben remembers, “so I approached him and when he came back to us and said he wanted to do it it was like, ‘awesome, let’s make it happen’.” It wasn’t quite that simple, of course. “The thing is, when I asked him to do the record I had no idea if we were going to be able to make it. That was the scary thing. I said, ‘Jason, we want you to produce our record’. He said, ‘great, what’s the budget’. And I said, ‘er...’. And he said, ‘well, what label’s it going out on?’. And I said, ‘er...’.” A month later they had the money, they had the deal, and they had the producer.
They also, most importantly, had the songs themselves, and ‘Line Up The Stars’ is just the tip of a hefty iceberg. Listen through the tracks and there’s a definite feeling of these tunes coming together as a body of work, but with enough diversity to keep every twist and turn interesting. Naturally, if you ask Ben to pick his favourites he looks like his head is about to explode - he’s poured his heart and soul into these tunes. Push him further and he’ll mention a few that are particularly important. So there’s ‘Looks Like Heaven’, for example, which he describes as “the most sensitive song I’ve ever written”. It’s hard not to be touched by the simple, innocent promise of the line “I’ll be there to hold you when you’re scared, to wrap my arms around you anytime anywhere”, but it’s also an all-out rock song about loving someone to death. “It took me ages and ages to write,” he admits. “I kept going back to it and changing things.” Other choice picks include ‘Too Much’ (“about those times when everything feels like it’s getting too much for you - it’s like a cry for help with hope on the horizon”) and ‘Hurts’, with its pop twist on classic stadium rock.
At the heart of all this is an extraordinarily tightly-knit band. It’s a lineup which, despite having only been finally completed at the start of last year, has already developed a sixth sense that’ll lead to Ben, Josh, Dan and Mark finishing each other’s sentences as intuitively as they’re starting to complete each other’s songwriting ideas. Nonetheless, their different backgrounds and different sensibilities combine to create a fascinating mix.
Ben, for example, is the band’s oldest member, growing up in Portsmouth and spending his teens at local gigs - he saw Coldplay perform to 25 people - then obsessing about Dylan and Elvis, instantly identifying the latter for his showmanship, songs “and the fact that he basically invented pop music”. After studying at Warwick he moved to London and started touring any venue that’d
have him. And yes, there was busking: everything from Buddy Holly to Oasis. Even then he was thinking big - he used to busk from a setlist - but it paid off and he’d make upwards of £70 a day. At 20 Norwich-raised Josh is, by contrast, Ivyrise’s youngest (and newest) member - his drumming career started when he was three with the arrival of a Thomas The Tank Engine drum kit and by the time he was twelve he was looking up to his favourite drummers John Bonham, Keith Moon and (“for attitude if not drumming”) Ringo Starr. There was little fuss from his parents - his dad would even invent dentist appointments and take him out of school to go and see bands like AC/DC playing live. By the age of 14 he was drumming in function bands - “my apprenticeship”. While Josh was entertaining wedding parties with pleasant party hits his future bandmate Mark Nagle was a self-declared “little shit” who, by his mid teens, was flinging himself into punk, with NOFX and Bad Religion among his iPod’s most played artists. After AS Levels he went straight to music college, which is where he first met Josh and Dan, then after that straight into studio work and session gigs for major labels and other bands. And that just leaves Dan, the Bury-raised guitarist who picked up on his dad’s obsession for Joe Satriani and quickly started picking his own guitar heroes: Jimmy Page, Angus Young. Studying music changed his outlook on life in bands. “Over two years on that course I changed,” he recalls, “from some kid in baggy jeans wanting to play as fast as possible to a songwriter and producer passionate about the details of how songs work.”
Add this whole lot together and you’ve got a group of lads who are the perfect match for Ben’s songwriting, bringing their own spark to existing songs as well as contributing to the music as it moves forward. It can’t move forward fast enough for Ivyrise, but however much they’ve prepared for it over the last few years, and they’ve prepared a lot, it feels like they have some huge surprises in store.
“I’ve just been massively overambitious,” Ben says. “I’ve always wanted to be in a stadium rock band. I have always had a vision of starting something then turning it into something massive, and rock is the only thing I can do. I tried golf but it wasn’t the same.”