Each installment of The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she speaks with the Paul O’Sullivan Band, a band made up of four men named—you guessed it—Paul O’Sullivan. They connected over Facebook, naturally, and released a music video for their only single (so far), titled “Namesake,” this February. They discuss how they wrote it while spread across the globe, as well as their hopes for the band, and try to answer the question posed in their song: What’s in a name?
Paul O’Sullivan, 32, a guitar instructor and caregiver who lives in Hanover, Pennsylvania. (Until recently, he lived in Baltimore, so the others refer to him as “Baltimore Paul.”) He is the lead singer and rhythm guitarist for the Paul O’Sullivan Band.
Paul O’Sullivan, 57, a musician and public-health worker who lives in Manchester, U.K. He plays bass in the Paul O’Sullivan Band.
Paul O’Sullivan, 51, a grief counselor who lives in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. He is the lyricist, guitarist, and backup singer for the Paul O’Sullivan Band.
Paul O’Sullivan, 57, an art and antiques dealer who lives in Weatherly, Pennsylvania. (The others call him “Pennsylvania Paul.”) He is the percussionist and emcee for the Paul O’Sullivan Band.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Julie Beck: Did you know one another before the formation of the band?
Baltimore Paul O’Sullivan: At first, I was indiscriminately adding other Paul O’Sullivans on Facebook. It was like a joke. But then their stuff started showing up in my News Feed, and I got to know them a little bit. Then I [realized], “Hey, wait a minute, we’re all musicians,” so the next step was to form this supergroup of Paul O’Sullivans.
At first it was actually meant to be a trio. It was going to be me, Manchester Paul, and there was this other Paul O’Sullivan who I had my eye on, but he had to turn down the offer, because he was about to go into the studio with his own band. That was in 2014. When he couldn’t do this, I kind of took it to heart, and the band thing was on hiatus. I think it was a year later when I reached out to Rotterdam Paul.
Then I was like, If this band ever went anywhere, I want to have a fourth person to round it out, for the live show, with some added percussion. That’s when I stumbled upon Pennsylvania Paul.
Pennsylvania Paul O’Sullivan: I loved his vision. I had [previously] been an emcee for bands, for dancers, for different events. So even though I wasn’t necessarily a professional musician, I could see myself wanting to be with these other three guys, and providing an emcee role in the band.
Baltimore Paul: Like a hype man.
Pennsylvania Paul: One of my favorite skits is ”More Cowbell,” from Saturday Night Live. I thought, If there’s a band that will let me do the cowbell, I’ll be the goof-off.
Beck: You said you started thinking about this in 2014 to 2015; it’s now 2020, and you released a song in February. That was a long process of getting the band together. Can you tell me about the intermediary years?
Baltimore Paul: I went through this period in my life—I call it the three years of hell. In 2014, I had a pretty serious and rare allergic condition, where my larynx was swelling up. I had to eat pureed food for a year. In 2015, the antibiotics I was on gave me a bad side effect, and I had systemic tendon damage. I was going in and out of physical therapy. And then the third year of hell was 2016. I developed obsessive-compulsive disorder, and essentially locked myself in a room for like a year straight. Thankfully I had a really good therapist; I’m doing a lot better now. But that’s why things took as long as they did.
Beck: Were you guys keeping in touch during that time?
Baltimore Paul: That’s what’s so cool about this band. There is always that stigma, especially among men, where you have to be stoic about what you’re going through, but with these guys I always felt comfortable baring my soul. That’s what songwriting is, that’s what music is—it’s being authentic, genuine, and vulnerable. The greatest songs, it’s almost like you’re reading a page out of somebody’s diary. You don’t have to go through things alone, when you have these awesome guys to bounce ideas off of, and get that support that you need during the tough times. I’m getting a little emotional. It has been a long journey, and it’s so nice to be at the light at the end of the tunnel.
Pennsylvania Paul: I do think it says something that we were all with him over time, without [the friendship] needing nurturing.
Beck: What do you remember about the conversations that you had while getting to know each other?
Baltimore Paul: There’s been all sorts of stuff. In May 2017, when there was that attack at the Ariana Grande concert [in Manchester], when I first heard that, I went to Facebook and I messaged Manchester Paul, “Are you okay?” because I know that was pretty close to his house.
Manchester Paul O’Sullivan: It was like two miles away from the house. It was lovely for you to be concerned.
Baltimore Paul: On a lighter note, we had a group text message going on Facebook; we
were bonding over Joaquin Phoenix’s acting job in Joker. Pennsylvania Paul is very active on Facebook. He’s always posting funny stuff. One day he was out, it was snowing, and he had these funny sunglasses on, and he’s like, “Even if it’s January, I’m still balling out here.” Then I had a pair of shutter shades that I put on. I was like, Two can play that game, and I went outside and took a picture too.
Beck: Let’s talk about the songwriting process—walk me through the origin of the idea for “Namesake,” and what you all contributed.
Rotterdam Paul O’Sullivan: Baltimore Paul was thinking about doing something with our name, that was the idea of the song. He told me about that, and I just started writing some lyrics, and before you know it, it started becoming a song. Then I went back to Baltimore Paul again and he changed around the lyrics and he put great music to it.
Baltimore Paul: It’s a very Bernie Taupin–Elton John kind of collaboration, where Rotterdam Paul took the first stab at it and primarily wrote the lyrics, and then [said to me,] “Here you go, do with it what you will.” After Rotterdam Paul and I built the skeleton of the song, we sent it over to Manchester Paul, and he threw down this really tasty bass riff over it. It was a really nice cherry on top of the thing.
Manchester Paul: It’s interesting really, because [at the time] I was just starting out with remote session work.
Baltimore Paul: He started dabbling in sending files across long distances, and piecing together songs in that way. That’s when I sent him the email. It’s this serendipitous thing that worked out.
Manchester Paul: What has to happen is you have to record it as what’s called a WAV file, and then you have to compress that into an MP3 to make it emailable. Then you have to undo that at the other end, to turn it back into a WAV file. When you sent me the whole full [song], I was just knocked out by it, I really was.
Baltimore Paul: This whole thing had to be a piecemeal kind of project, by the very nature of the geographical logistics involved, but it came together really perfectly. Nobody really stepped on anybody’s toes, we all just played to our strengths. Pennsylvania Paul [joined later]; he’ll help round out the live shows if it ever gets to that point.
Pennsylvania Paul: When that happens.
Baltimore Paul: That’s right, not if, but when.
Beck: What genre would you say the Paul O’Sullivan Band is?
Pennsylvania Paul: It’s been a bit of everything.
Baltimore Paul: We’re kind of keeping it general for now. I don’t think we can be typecast yet. I’m sure at some point you kind of have to [decide], in terms of having a marketing vision, but for now we’re just going to see where it goes.
Beck: Is “Namesake” on iTunes?
Baltimore Paul: Yeah.
Beck: What is it classified under on iTunes, that song?
Pennsylvania Paul: “Namesake” definitely has a little bit of punk in it.
Baltimore Paul: Growing up as a teenager and early adult, I was totally into pop-punk, like Blink-182, Green Day, The Offspring, stuff like that. It’s still in my DNA a little bit. That mix of melody, and a catchy chorus, it’s easy to follow.
Beck: I’m going to look it up on iTunes and find out. [Ed.: It’s categorized under “jazz,” for whatever reason.]
Baltimore Paul: When we released the song in 2016, we never actually told anybody about it, because we were all waiting for the music video to be the official vehicle. Two or three years later, the video came out.
Rotterdam Paul: We were building up to it.
Beck: A couple of years ago, I interviewed a bunch of other Julie Becks for a story. We were all different ages, doing very different things, and there was not really any reason for us to connect beyond having the same name. But I do feel like there was some kind of common ground, or an ease to our conversation that you wouldn’t necessarily expect otherwise. Have you experienced that? Why do you think that people with the same name might have an easier time connecting?
Baltimore Paul: In college I studied communications, and there’s this theory called the “Uncertainty Reduction Theory,” which says that when people are meeting each other for the first time, their main goal is to reduce uncertainty about one another. When you are reaching out to your name twin, this other person who has gone their whole life being referred to as Paul O’Sullivan just like you, you have this built-in commonality. They’re a stranger, but they’re not a stranger.
The name Paul means “small, humble,” and then the [motto of the clan] of our last name, O’Sullivan, is something like, “the steady hand to victory.” That might be a cool double-album concept down the road, you never know.
Rotterdam Paul: We’ve got the same name, and that’s really great, but I think the connection is definitely in the music.
Baltimore Paul: Right, it doesn’t just end with the name. It’s this serendipitous thing, as if the universe were putting this on my lap and saying “Okay, what are you going to do with it?” I want to rise to the occasion, so that’s why we did the song, and made the music video.
Beck: The question in the chorus of your song is “What’s in a name?” Has this experience given you an answer to that question?
Baltimore Paul: People ask me if I like my name, and I do. It’s not as common now, but it’s still comfortable and familiar. That’s always been who I am. A comfortable face that’s always willing to talk, and just easy to be around.
Rotterdam Paul: O’Sullivan, here in Holland, is not a very common name like it is in Ireland. It does make me feel special since I’ve been living here. That’s what a name is to me—[it makes] people interested in where you come from.
Beck: Are you planning to write another song?
Baltimore Paul: The other two Pauls don’t really know this yet, but Rotterdam Paul said to me, “It’s probably time for a follow-up.” I told him, “I want to write a song about—” I don’t know if you heard that story, Julie, about that Zamboni driver who had to fill in to be a backup goalie in the NHL.
Beck: Oh, no, I didn’t.
Baltimore Paul: He’s essentially a modern-day folk hero. The goalie got injured, so he had to fill in and his team ended up winning the game. I was really inspired by that story, so I called Rotterdam Paul. Just like he did for “Namesake,” within a day he had a whole song written. The song’s fantastic.
Rotterdam Paul: He told me the story about the ice-hockey player, and I looked it up on the internet. That night we were going to the movies to see 1917. It’s a really powerful movie about this guy who survives on his own through the whole First World War. This guy in ice hockey who won the match, for me it’s the same thing as the guy who wins the battle in the First World War, so I put two of them together as an idea. It came out as “The Last Man Standing.” Maybe that’s the name of the song.
Beck: Just to wrap up, Pennsylvania Paul, if you’re going to be the emcee, can you take us home and introduce the Paul O’Sullivan Band?
Pennsylvania Paul: I’m an identical twin. So I have a doppelgänger, genetically and physically. When Paul O’Sullivan approached me, I realized that he’s not my doppelgänger, he’s my doppelnamer. So if I was going to introduce the band, I’d say:
“Haven’t we all Googled our name? Haven’t we all wondered, not just what’s out there on the interwebs about us, but Who are these other people that have the exact same name? They live in South Africa, or England, or Russia; they live around the world, but with the internet you can reach everybody. What if, as Baltimore Paul questioned, what if we met our doppelnamers? To demonstrate what our namesakes mean, he put together this band, wrote this song, and created this experience for anybody who’s ever Googled their own name.”
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