Don’t expect Sweet Jane to sound like the Velvet Underground. From left to right: Ruari Paxton (bass), his brother Danda (lead guitar/vocals), Lydia Des Dolles (vocals/percussion) and Donagh O’Brien (drums)

It was a casual Tuesday night at TAB, as groups of hipsters and after-office yuppies huddled together in the dim light, sharing drinks and small talk. 3 men quietly slipped onto the small stage and fiddled with their instruments. Shortly after, a raven-haired woman dressed in all-black, clutching a tambourine, strode onstage and stood tentatively before the microphone.

Then, without much aplomb, Dublin-based indie band Sweet Jane shattered the drowsy atmosphere by roaring straight into ‘Take Me Home’, off their 2008 EP Blackboots and Blackhearts, the murky, lo-fi record that caused a stir in the Irish music scene and earned them high-profile fans like Alan McGee and BP Fallon.

Even in the intimate setting, Sweet Jane’s presence was larger than life. With the finesse and swagger of seasoned performers, the 4-piece (who’ve been together for slightly over 2 years) tore through their tight, 11-song set, cranking out anthemic, dead-on rock tunes like ‘War Cry’ and ‘Bleed’from their 2010 solid debut album, Sugar For My Soul.

Even from the early, spaced-out guitar strains of their opening song, the relaxed crowd put down their drinks and took notice. As the band launched into full rock and roll regalia with their next song, the raw, bluesy ‘Where’s Your Money’, everyone got excited. ‘Black Eyes’ , in particular, shook the small venue, receiving the most raucous cheers and head-banging action from the crowd.

Tour Hard, Play Hard

Fresh from a 3-night stint supporting veteran English rockers Suede on their Irish tour last month, Sweet Jane are in town for Music Matters Asia 2011, their first time in this region. Their TAB gig on May 31 was another addition to their touring repertoire, which reads like a list of Who’s Who in indie rock: they’ve done time with The Kills, White Lies and Glasvegas, just to name a few. Slots at leading festivals like 2010’s Oxegen and this year’s SXSW have also helped them hone their live set.

Speaking to UrbanWire, lead vocalist Lydia Des Dolles was still buzzing from their dates with Suede. “We’ve all been huge Suede fans for so long, and to do not just 1, but 3 nights with them was really special. They looked after us, and were watching us from the side of the stage when we played,” she said.

Not bad at all for a band that started out in 2008 when lead guitarist and vocalist Danda Paxton met Lydia at a house party at 5 am, sparking a musical collaboration that resulted in Blackboots and Blackhearts. Danda’s brother Ruari on bass and drummer Donagh O’Brien completed the line-up.

“Back in the day (before the record deal), we’d be stuck in this tiny van, driving for hours and hours, only to play this 20-minute gig for 3 people. Sometimes it got pretty miserable, and you wonder, when are things gonna change? When will it all end? But looking back, those early days were really so much fun,” recalled Lydia.

Touring with big names like Suede and The Kills have made Sweet Jane a compelling live act, evident during their high-octane gig at TAB on May 31.

Lydia acknowledges that Sweet Jane’s emergence in the spotlight was a hard-fought one, but even then, it helps to put on a bit of rock and roll swagger when dealing with upsets. “We’ve had so many doors closed on us but we still worked really hard, we rehearsed and rehearsed, we toured… Even if only 1 person shows up at your gig, play it like it’s the last gig you’re ever gonna play, as corny as that sounds.”

Dangerously Sweet

It’s hard to put a finger on Sweet Jane’s sound. They’ve been called ‘dream pop and rock and roll’, a curious amalgam that forms the basis of their fuzz-drenched, semi-shoegaze offering, Sugar For My Soul. “The record was a kind of a storybook of the 2 years that we’ve been together as a band,” explained Lydia.

“The title Sugar For My Soul came from the ideology that music is like the food for the heart, and we wanted to play up on that. From start to finish, we wanted it to be a kind of journey.”

In the flesh, however, the band is anything but saccharine, oozing a darker, more dangerous vibe. With dark hair falling across her eyes and tambourine in hand, Lydia Des Dolles cuts a dramatic figure on stage, reminiscent of The Kills’ Alison Mosshart. In contrast to her cool, dreamy vocals, Lydia appears volatile on stage, wrapping the microphone cord around herself, slumping to the ground and even grabbing the mike from Danda, with whom she shares singing duties, in mid-song.

Lydia (centre) in flux. On performing, she says, “Everything else goes out of the window… It’s really like drifting into another world, and then you have to snap back into reality when the show’s over.”

But the real mastermind is Danda, the band’s main songsmith who quietly builds throbbing sonic soundscapes by experimenting with fuzz, distortion and reverb on his pedals. “Danda usually starts with the song on an acoustic guitar, and then he comes to me and we’ll work on the lyrics and the structure. Then we’ll go to the rest of the band and play it and work on it some more. Danda always has the final say,” says Lydia.

Emerging from the Underground

Critics love to compare Sweet Jane to the Velvet Underground because of the Velvet’s song of the same name, but the band tires of this. “Asking us if we’re associated with this and that, to me it’s a waste of question,” Lydia states matter-of-factly. “Especially with our group name, it leads people to think that we sound like the Velvet Underground, but we’re sorry to disappoint because the we have a totally different sound from them.”

“The comparisons can get tiring but it’s not altogether a bad thing. It’s not a bad band to be compared with, because I can think of many more worse bands.”

With the indie scene bursting at the seams with new acts and bands, Lydia firmly believes that the band’s work ethic and dedication to rock and roll will help them tear away from the pack. “In the indie world, I think what’s most important is really, the music itself,” she says.

“I think the message that we have in our music is that whatever we write, it’s released for the listener. It’s for them, it’s not ours anymore. It’s theirs to have.”

Sweet Jane’s debut album, Sugar For My Soul, is out at music stores. UrbanWire is also giving away 1 autographed copy of the album. Find out how you can win.

Photos courtesy of Amos Wong and Jenny Ganeshrays