Although they got their start in the L.A. music scene of the early ’90s, the music of Celtic rock band the Young Dubliners has roots as far back as 19th century Ireland. When the group started out, it was primarily a two-piece acoustic act featuring Keith Robert and Paul O’Toole, who would cover Irish standards and give them a modern rock twist.
“The covers we were doing were nothing that anyone here would have heard of,” Roberts said in a recent phone interview. “They were rocked-up versions of hundred-year-old ballads, very much our fathers’ music.”
Roberts co-owned and managed an Irish pub in Santa Monica called Fair City Dublin, and he started the Young Dubliners so that the bar would have an in-house band on Saturday nights. The group eventually grew to be a five-piece and started writing original material when a few record labels began to court them.
“We started getting the attention of some labels, even though we hadn’t really looked for any,” Roberts said. “I think people were more curious about us, like, ‘Who the hell are they? How come they’re not shopping a demo?’ ”
The band was developing a fervent following in the L.A. area – “We were selling out everything we touched,” Roberts recalled – and so they never seriously considered touring. “The record companies were very frustrated with me back then,” Roberts said. “Sometimes when you’re a pretty big fish in your own tiny goldfish bowl, you don’t really know why things would be better elsewhere.”
It wasn’t until the Young Dubs (as they’re known to their fans) agreed to a few out-of-town gigs in Colorado that Roberts said he first realized the potential of being a touring group. “Everything was sold out and people were singing along,” he said. “And I’m thinking, ‘This is the best job in the world.’ That was 20 years ago, and we’ve never stopped. It still blows me away.”
The Young Dubliners now have nine albums under their belt and continue to do most of their work on the road. Their latest record, aptly titled “9,” was recorded last year and entirely funded through fan donations on the band’s official website. (A testament to the devotion of the Dubs’ fanbase: The group raised more than $70,000.) Without the oversight of a major record label, Roberts said the process of working on a record at his own pace was a liberating one.
“We just wrote like crazy, and then we started playing the songs live and we started recording, slowly but surely. It took longer because we didn’t have a record label saying, ‘You have to release this tomorrow,’ ” he said. “But it allowed me to write and rewrite, and go over melodies and go over lyrics. And I think we ended up with something way better than we would’ve made if we’d been with a label.”