Dollars to Pounds: Interview with Only Real

Only Real, a young West Londoner who makes woolly pop music, talks life in the city, gummy bears, J. Cole and “cool ghosts.”

October 10, 2013

On J. Cole, gummy bears and cool ghosts.

Selim Bulut is a music writer who lives in London. He has the most meticulously organized iTunes folder in the land. He’ll be writing about some of the excellent music coming out of the UK every other week.

Niall Galvin is a West Londoner who makes woolly pop music as Only Real. His songs are loose, raggedy earworms, with Galvin half-rapping his thoughts and feelings on life over mostly bedroom-produced beats and warm, noodling guitars.

It’s the sort of music that couldn’t come from anybody but Galvin. I’m sitting with him outside a pub near Hammersmith Bridge, overlooking the river. He’s a tall guy with gingery hair and an earring in one ear, wearing a bootleg Simpsons T-shirt he got off eBay. He often starts sentences with phrases like “I suppose…” and he never leaves a trail of thought unfinished, even if it means rambling on for a few moments. He cracks goofball jokes and apologises for them immediately after.

On the way to the pub we passed a church green where Galvin used to skate as a teenager, and he immediately started recounting a tale of woe about a time he got punched by a homeless man nearby. It’s these sorts of experiences that shape Only Real’s newest EP, Days in the City, Galvin’s document of the ups and downs of being a young guy living in London today. As it goes, those are exactly the topics that our conversation covers.

Stream: Only Real's Days in the City EP

You got punched around here—do these sorts of things happen to you often? This was all when I was younger. It’s all pretty dignified and calm now. If a tramp starts an argument with me, I’ll just turn the other cheek.

You mentioned skating earlier, too. Again, that’s something that I stopped when I was younger. I do it occasionally now. But I was never any good. And, like, the pain now is just so much more intense…

How’d you get into it? I suppose how every little kid gets into it. Just, like…

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater? Yeah. Probably. That’s the gateway. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, that’s the one I remember. I had this kid that lived a few doors down from me that was like, really, really, really good. He was kind of like my muse.

Your “muse”—I thought you were gonna say mentor. Mentor is probably a better word. Maybe don’t let him see this. No, I’d have loved to have kept it up, but I’d probably still be just as terrible at it.

So what do you get into when you’re not making music now? Without sounding cliché, I spend all of my time in some way or another making music. Sometimes I feel my mind is clouded by it and I need to give it a break, but within a day I’ll probably be back doing something, because those are normally the times when you have the most inspiration. I drink pints in this pub quite a lot. I watched Breaking Bad until recently.

How long have you been making music that you feel has been good enough to share with the world? I’ve always been writing music in one way or another since I was like 14—since you’re old enough to understand emotions and stuff. I started Only Real about two years ago, but that was just a continuation of what I was doing already.

What was your expectation when you first started putting things online? When I put the first things up, before there was any sort of notable interest, I was just trying to get that notable interest. I didn’t really know how any of it worked—I sort of thought that one person picks up on you, and then you become a popstar.

Do you have any desire to be a popstar? I am very ambitious in that I want as many people to understand me and like my music as possible. It’s part of self-fulfilment, to know that you’re doing something that isn’t just good in your own head. I suppose the popstar thing… I’m not gonna start wearing shiny clothes and get a new haircut any time soon. I would love to be—and I strive to be—as popular as possible without making music that I don’t like.

"Oh my god, this person is literally just like me. We have the same life."

When I was at your gig last week you were wearing a T-shirt with a print of a teddy bear wearing shades and looking chill on it. Why’d that image resonate with you? That’s a make called IMKING. Put that in, they’ll give me loads of free clothes.

I thought it was very representative of yourself. Cool guy, chill guy, but also a teddy bear… …also sensitive. I think on a subconscious level I was picking a character. I could’ve picked an uncool teddy bear, or a cool ghost. But I’m sure those things all matched up in my brain subconsciously. I like gummy bears, as well.

Again, gummy bears—there’s something sweet and childlike about that. Sorry, I’m ascribing all these personality aspects to you. I only met you five minutes ago. I need to get on the couch. No, I can’t deny that I do like gummy bears, but I also like the sour gummy bears, so throw that in your analysis.

Everything I’ve read about you describes you as “chill”, but are you actually very workmanlike beneath the veneer? I am pretty relaxed and pretty chilled out, and I don’t really let things bother me too much. I’m pretty happy. But at the same time, I do just care a lot about my music, and I do work really, really hard. I don’t think those two things really contradict each other. It’s because I enjoy it, I suppose.

How do you think living in London has affected your music? Obviously everyone is affected by the place they grow up. Sometimes I do like to have a brief moment of escapism, but generally it’s just the way it comes out of my head, the topics I like to write about are my feelings and my experiences of what I’ve seen or what other people I know have seen, and I think it makes it quite personal. Everyone gets those things, everyone who goes through and experiences those things, so I think putting it in either a poetic, or amusing, or pretty, or clever way, is a really cool thing to try and do. So I think, lyrically, that’s what I’m trying to do, to get those moments. I find it really cool when I’m listening to music and the person says something and I think, “Oh my god, this person is literally just like me. We have the same life.”

Who do you think does that best? J.Cole, on his mixtapes. I love his albums as well, but on some of the mixtapes, I think he’s got a knack for picking up on things that everyone goes through and putting them in a way that people can perceive them. But intricately, not blatantly. That’s really something that I strive to do, it’s really important that I can get something that’s gonna hit, where people can hear it and be like, “yeah, fuck, that’s exactly something that resonates with me.”

Do you feel more aligned to American rap than UK? Absolutely. I don’t really listen to much UK stuff. I’m not an expert in it, I’m sure there are people doing amazing things—there are bound to be—but for me, it feels like there aren’t any people doing anything that exciting, lyrically. But I don’t want to generalise.

Do you feel you’d want to live anywhere other than London? I’d love to live by the beach in America. Live in the sun, live that life for a bit. I love London though. I think, eventually and inevitably, I’ll live somewhere else, but I’m happy here. Playing shows is nice, you get to walk around and see somewhere [else]—without sounding cliché again, it is really special that that’s a position I’m starting to be in, and hopefully will be more in the future. There are some evenings where I’m like, I’d love to be in a different place right now to get a breath of fresh air.

Because I guess when you’re writing music it’s in a bedroom, curtains drawn… Curtains drawn, windows closed. Which is really great – I love writing music there. But I guess getting inspiration from another environment could be a helpful thing. I’ll find out, hopefully.

From The Collection:

Dollars To Pounds
Dollars to Pounds: Interview with Only Real