Ben O’Sullivan is nursing his first Guinness of the day in Humphrey’s, his local bar in Dublin’s attractive Ranelagh district, when the cursed subject of the pandemic first enters our conversation. “Well, my lockdown was a little different to everybody else’s,” he says with typical humility. That would be putting it lightly.
For 18 months, O’Sullivan did not speak to anybody. Outside of his twice-weekly visits to a Dublin hospital, the 24-year-old producer was holed up in his parents’ attic, spending days and nights feverishly toiling over his craft, and then sitting and watching videos of people in the outside world singing and dancing to the songs that he had been creating.
Shortly before Christmas 2019, he was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, an ultra-rare blood disease that leads to chronic fatigue and a high propensity to infections. “I went on a night out and I was running for the bus,” he explains to NME, describing the night that his life changed. “I fell and knocked myself out on the floor and cut my hands and face open, and they just wouldn’t stop bleeding. We couldn’t figure out why. I went and got the blood tests the next day and they couldn’t believe it.” He pauses. “They said I shouldn’t be alive.”
Receiving such a sobering wake-up call ultimately had a galvanising effect on O’Sullivan and his bandmate, the vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Paddy King. Having only formally started working together as the genre-hopping, dancefloor-friendly 49th & Main six months earlier, the enforced time at home – King would, like the rest of us, join O’Sullivan in self-isolation just a few months later – encouraged them to get on with recording and releasing their music a little more urgently. By the summer of 2020, the sultry, soulful groove of ‘Catching Eyes’ and the indie house-flavoured ‘Don’t You Like It?’ had racked up millions of streams, without 49th & Main ever having even graced a stage together.
Speaking to the two of them now, beyond the relief that a simple pleasure like a couple of drinks together in the pub is now completely normal again, you get the sense that the true weight of the impact of the last two years has yet to fully hit home for 49th & Main. King speaks with glowing admiration about the strength and perseverance that his close friend demonstrated in getting through the dark periods, and as one of the only people that was able to remain in contact with him during that time, the bond between them is obvious to see.
“The response to the music during that time that was amazing,” O’Sullivan reflects. “When all you can do is sit in your bedroom, but you’re seeing videos of people singing all the words, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, this is brilliant’. It keeps you going. I look back at that time with fondness in a way; even though it was complete hell, there are good memories, too.”
The treatment O’Sullivan has received means that he is once again able to lead a normal life, and the timing couldn’t be better. After their 2020 debut EP ‘Neon Palm Trees’ secured them a deal with Counter Records, an imprint of Ninja Tune [Black Country, New Road, Kelis, Bicep], this summer’s follow-up EP ‘Must Be Nice’ saw their sound expand exponentially, ranging from the piano house-meets-indie pop of ‘Up to Something’ to ‘Never Gonna Stop’, one of 2022’s most insistent, addictive dance tunes that has earned the duo justifiable comparisons with Fred again.. and Jamie xx. Now that the world is open to them, the duo are bursting with enthusiasm to finally interact with the fanbase that they have barely had a chance to meet.
49th & Main are about to embark on a future that they could scarcely have imagined when they first met at their Kilkenny boarding school over ten years ago – although even back then, at that young age, they had both already shown signs of budding musical talent. Part of the first generation that learned to play music via YouTube tutorials, King taught himself guitar in his early teens and was busking by the time he was 15, while O’Sullivan was already producing his own electronic music as early as aged 10. “I’m sure everything I made was awful, but I was downloading software and figuring it all out,” he says. “It was fun, it was something no-one else was doing. EDM was big at the time, I was just trying to copy whatever they were doing. Horribly.”
There was one fleeting summer, aged 16, when they flirted with the idea of working together on music – it extended about as far as O’Sullivan lending a beat to one of King’s original Hudson Taylor-inspired tracks – but beyond that abortive session, the collaboration did not crystallise until the two were part of a larger group that travelled to Vancouver to work in the summer of 2019. Staying in an apartment at the intersection of 49th & Main in the city, they began to work together in earnest.
“Our first song, ‘Habits’ [from ‘Neon Palm Trees’], that’s when we were like, ‘Oh cool, we actually did it, we made a song that sounded good!’” says King. “That’s when we kind of realised we might have something. And then we just did it again and again and again.”
By the time of their eventual live debut in December 2021 at Whelan’s in Dublin, the site of legendary early gigs by Jeff Buckley and Arctic Monkeys, they were the one of the buzziest names in town and the atmosphere as they prepared to take to the stage that night was explosive. Their rapidly assembled fanbase were bristling with feral, manic energy, enhanced, perhaps, by being recently released from their own lockdowns. “We walked out beforehand and we could hear everyone going nuts,” remembers O’Sullivan. “It was like, Do they have nothing better to do?! It was very surreal, like we don’t belong here.”
But 49th & Main very much do belong here. With their first UK and Ireland tour starting in December, including dates at London’s Electrowerkz and The Academy in Dublin, those memories of endless days stuck in dusty attics and hospital waiting rooms can finally start to be replaced by unforgettable nights that they have well and truly earned.