At last it’s here – the first full-length album by London Rock-Funk power trio The Dirty Feel. Its name is ‘Truth Be Told’, but as drummer Virgil Howe once observed, maybe it should be called ‘Ten Years Too Late’. Because having strived for a decade to create their masterpiece, the band is unveiling it in the shadow of tragedy.
The Dirty Feel were an astonishing live act, mixing the spring-loaded sleaze-Funk of Graham Central Station with the Blues Rock swagger of Led Zeppelin; guitarist Nick Hirsch garroting the air with lethally taut precision psych; Kerim ‘Kez’ Gunes’ volleys of bass notes ricocheting around the room like rubber bullets; and Virgil Howe, leading the charge from behind the drums, mane swirling as he stampeded across his kit. If you were in a gigging guitar-band between 2001 and 2011, that’s what you might have been unlucky enough to follow. And as you gazed out from the stage across an audience still wide-eyed and unzipped, you may well have wondered why they were supporting you and not the other way round.
Before The Black Keys and White Stripes had cleared a path for Blues–based rock, the Dirty Feel strode almost alone against the tide of no-assed un-funk that comprised the ‘Artrock’ scene of the 2000s. Audiences accustomed to pseudo-smackhead indie-shambles went wild but this adulation was nearly their undoing; they became convinced that their sole ambition in the studio should be to capture their live energy and so followed several unsuccessful attempts to do just that. Frustrated, they allowed themselves to be pulled in different directions by other bands eager to make use of their talents; Virgil played with Little Barrie and the Amorphous Androgynous. Kez joined Virgil in the latter, while Nick devoted more of his energy producing other acts at Pipe Dream, the studio he ran with his twin brother Jake.
Disenchanted with The Dirty Feel, but compelled by a deep musical bond to keep playing together they formed Funk band The Killer Meters calling on the services of, among others, Nick’s best friend and erstwhile Kula Shaker keyboard player Henry Broadbent. The comparative success of this supposed side-project only made their longed for success with The Dirty Feel seem more distant.
But just when it seemed that The Dirty Feel might become a footnote in story of The Killer Meters, they met Kostas Iatrelis, sound man at Camden’s Blues Kitchen, home of the Sunday Jam at which they were all regulars. Kostas convinced them that studio was a place to create a studio album, not try to capture their live sound. Reinvigorated by Kostas’ passion and convinced that they’d finally found a producer who could do them justice, they got to work. Nick, who had emerged as the band’s main songwriter, revisited live favourites – from the haunting and redemptive ‘Somewhere in the Romance’ with its jackknifing guitar lines to the adrenalinised head down charge of ‘Get Down’ – and contributed several new compositions while exploring more progressive directions with songs like album–closer ‘Spanish Silver’. As Kez explains “Nick had always been a big fan of Prince and lately this had combined with his love of Queens of the Stone Age”.
They were right about Kostas; his muscular and imaginative production puts their rock heft at the heart of the sound while his lightness of touch ensures the set never stumbles under it’s own weight. Most of all, it coaxes the subtleties and inventiveness of Nick’s melodies and his acerbic yet heartfelt lyrics to the fore. On ‘Truth Be Told’ the standard Blues-Rock cock-out strut is replaced with wry self-doubt and emotional perceptiveness. Nowhere is this better showcased than on ‘Threadbare Excuse’ where, over a pounding stop-start steel mill riff, Nick sings “Riding a wave just for the crashing, just before sleep – that’s when I start rehashing.”
With the album locked, the band were poised to return to the stage bringing with them everything they’d learnt in the last ten years playing together and apart and unleash their masterpiece upon audiences finally ready for them. But then the band’s long and difficult road turned a corner into a darkness from which it seemed they couldn’t retreat; having lived with serious illness since his teens, Nick Hirsch died on March 18th 2012.
Rated by contemporaries from Jack Sharp of Wolf People to Barrie Cadogan of Little Barrie, Nick’s death prompted an incredible outpouring of love and respect from London’s rock family. Comparing Nick to Peter Green, Barrie praised his not only his perfectly judged combination of passion and restraint and his rare understanding of tone, but also his power as a singer. “Nick never had the need to draw attention to himself offstage but he made you sit up and listen when he started playing.“
‘Truth Be Told’ will make the world do just that. But despite the heartbreak of Nick’s band mates, The Dirty Feel story doesn’t end here. Henry and guitarist Luke Bowman are to join Virgil and Kez and continue The Dirty Feel as a four-piece. With their startling virtuosity, extensive touring experience and disparate influences, it’s an exciting prospect. As Tim Lee, boss of Tummy Touch records says: “Following Virgil Howe’s musical journey for the best part of the last decade has brought me to the hard-rock pure-joy of The Dirty Feel, and I’m mighty glad I stuck it out so long!”