Room For One More: An Interview With Michael Smyth Of Paper Tigers

Saying it loud and proud: placed in Belfast hailing from scattered points in Northern Ireland and even Canada, Paper Tigers are here to sing the praises of their homeland and all it artistically has to offer. "Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole is an incredible hotbed of musical talent; there are so many amazingly talented people from here: photographers, videographers and artists. Local talent from Northern Ireland is drastically underrepresented, which is a shame given there’s such a wealth of it here." Michael Smyth of the band articulates.

"Hayley is actually Canadian and immigrated here when she was very young," he expands, "She’s spent more time here than in Canada, so she’s one of us now! We're kind of mongrels, made up of a mix of everything. I think it’s interesting that we all met and came together despite the geographical distance."

Michael orchestrates shows under Old Crows Promotions, centring on promoting local bands, giving them a platform with resources. He hires photographers to document events, giving bands sought after material to post on socials and offers advice to eager ears. "I’m far from an expert, and I don’t pretend to be one, but having been in bands for over 20 years now, I’ve some experience at most parts of the process. In any band I’m in, I always strive to use local talent when possible, be that to record, mix, master records, or shoot videos and images."

"It’s great to see some bands from here getting signed by labels in the UK, and while that success is to be celebrated, it somewhat begs the question of why they still have to cross the water to get that kind of success. I think there could be more we do at home and champion talent on our doorstep." While there have been leaps and bounds in terms of infrastructure, he proclaims that there is still a long way to go.

In 2018 Michael started writing songs that were contradictory to the heavier tunes he swayed towards traditionally. A love for all things pop with its hooks and harmonies melded with distorted guitars and pounding drums pushed him to make a bold, more melodic step. He started seeking a line-up. "It was actually totally different from the Tigers you see today," he quips, "I was really looking for something special, that right mix of people and chemistry, attitudes, influences and approach to the music and work ethic."

"Emma was introduced to me by our old drummer and is the only bass player that ever played with us live despite a Spinal Tap type amount of people that didn’t work left in her wake. Hayley, I just happened upon on Facebook, there was a video of her singing Led Zeppelin, and I thought if she can sing Zeppelin, she can sing this. So I Facebooked her, explained I wasn’t a creep and told her about the band. We met up and got accidentally kinda drunk together then, a few weeks later, she came to practice and has been there ever since."

Drummer boy Matt came about from a festive shopping trip where, for Michael, the planets aligned; maybe Santa was on the case. "This band were busking across from the shop and started into 1979 by the Smashing Pumpkins: my all-time favourite song. After dropping some serious Christmas Dolla, I waited until they were between songs, went over, explained I wasn’t a creep (again) and swapped numbers, and he’s been here ever since.

"So the band is kinda my baby; I’ve pulled people in and mashed them together until everything fit. We’ve captured that lightning in a bottle now, so it’s really where the band needs to be. There’s a chemistry between us that feels electric."

Female voices and tones were part of the prediction as Smyth's taste features mostly women-led vocals. One makes no mistake that Hayley's voice is extraordinary, and she is a badass performer as soon as she is let loose on stage; he speaks of her in high regard. "She is incredibly easy to work with and open to ideas. More and more, she is taking the reins in terms of melodies and lyrics, but we shared ideas, were devoid of ego and understood what's best for the song, what makes it great. That’s the same across the board in the band. Hayley’s all-time idol is Lady Gaga, grinding contrasting flavours against an alt, punk rock approach.

"There are many female artists that I admire from differing genres: Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill is an incredible artist, so intelligent and bold and fearless, Taylor Swift, for her songwriting and ability to craft earworm melodies, Lana Del Rey creates her worlds that her records exist in; she could easily be one of if not the greatest artist of our time, Lorde, she was 16 when she released Pure Heroine, insane, Pretty Girls Make Graves are a huge influence on me and this band, Sleigh Bells: Alexis is this whirlwind of energy and an incredible voice. I could go on and on: Chvrches, Slow Crush, Madonna; the list is endless".

Fresh track Graceless deals with the internal struggle of doubt leading to self-sabotage. It speaks of being trapped in the mind, searching for a virtual place of sanctuary but finding only the fears we're running from continually. Terror strikes, the sanctity of refuge is tarnished. "It's the vicious circle of overthinking, tearing yourself apart, over analysing every little thing until you make yourself feel graceless. It’s trying to find answers and make sense of what happened in the past. Still not being able to make sense of things, not being able to reconcile events and the person you were then with the person you are now. So it’s a pretty emotional song; it deals with a lot," he thoughtfully states.

"Musically, this song was a big departure for us as it took a step away from that more punk rock, flat out rock song, opened things up, slowed them down a little. The music was written before Hayley had joined, but she put her stamp on and elevated it into this beautiful, emotionally charged song."

"There’s still some distortion and rockier elements in it - no Bon Joviesque ballads yet - it still sounds like us but allowed us to open up more territory. I don’t just want to play three and a half minute punk rock songs the whole time, people would get bored listening, so it’s good to have a wider palette. When we recorded the track, we fully utilised the studio and put different guitars on there; Hayley played a Juno synth in the chorus to give it that bigger feel." It’s up there, he declares.

Constantly striving for inclusivity as a natural state, socially conscious Michael encourages the phenomenon of music uniting strangers. It should never be about division. 'It’s a shared experience that can have a profound effect on people, whether that’s 40,000 people in a stadium or 50 people in some dingy venue. I know I had some of my most formative and transformative experiences in the latter." His upbringing taught him to respect and never judge people for anything other than the person they are.

"We have just come back from a tour of the UK and Scotland. I promoted and booked four of the six shows on that tour. I did my utmost to invite LBTGQ+ bands or female musicians but welcomed bands made up entirely of guys, as well. I want to create a space to allow people to express themselves, allowing them to reach people with their music and get their songs out there."

Expect a safe space at a Paper Tigers show. "You see people from all walks of life: young people, older people, rockers, punks, metalheads, trans people, queer people, straight people, and they’re all there for the music and to have a good time, that’s all that matters. As a band, we are several people from all different backgrounds, sexualities and gender identities, and we are a family." The four are fortunate to feel supported by each other, radiating this to all who come to their gigs.

When organising the tour, he secured a venue called Sidney and Matilda in Sheffield. Not only a bar, the space presents art shows, movie nights and heaps of engaging events. Michael was excited to play. "We got out of the van in Sheffield; it just had this nice feeling. It seemed very open and warm - metaphorically, not physical cause it was freezing. I had booked the bands for it, and they were lovely and played amazingly, Hydeout and Juno."

"We went on, and the crowd were just up for it, really responsive, standing toe to toe with us while we played, came round both sides of the stage, they sweated and danced along with us, sang along with us and pounded out the beats with us." Probably one of his all-time favourite shows. "It’ll certainly stick with me for a long time. We already can’t wait to get back," he optimistically settles.

Article by Beverley Knight