It all began back in December 1997, when a chance meeting at a Christmas karaoke party brought together three young, ambitious, and very talented teenagers. Brian McFadden was an actor, a graduate of the Billie Barry Stage School, with a CV including experience in most of Ireland’s major theatres, a starring role on a popular Irish TV show, and a string of wins in local singing competitions. Darragh Deane was an accomplished dancer, having performed on MTV, on various teen TV shows, and extensively across Ireland’s club circuit. Tim 'TJ' Madigan worked on the periphery of the Irish music scene, training at the legendary Digges Lane School of Performing Arts, and working in the country’s national TV network, RTE, and as a publicist for smash hit pop group Dove. At first glance, these three lads - an actor, a dancer, and a publicist - were hardley the obvious choice for a singing group, but a single impromptu performance would change all that very quickly...


Geographically, the three couldn’t have been further apart, hailing from Dublin’s North, West, and South sides respectively, however as the three strangers stood on stage at the Christmas Eve karaoke party - barely even knowing each other’s names - they hit an instant, natural, and incredibly harmony blend, signalling the start of something very special. Unknown to the three lads, and as fate would have it, the karaoke party itself was merely a vehicle for an influential Dublin promoter to search for new talent. He found it! Within minutes of the trio stepping off stage, they were offered a deal by Image Management, and began a lengthy two months of getting to know each other, rehearsing in their City Centre studio.


The name Cartel [meaning ‘the joining together of individuals to form a greater or stronger unit, with a view to taking over an industry’] was chosen. The lads also set about establishing a precedent, insisting on writing, selecting, arranging, styling, promoting, and choreographing the Cartel product entirely by themselves. As well as developing their own sound - an old-school-influenced R&B/pop crossover - they were also to be the first major Irish pop group to perform all their vocals completely live. Something very very special had just been born.


In March 1998 the band finally launched at a pop showcase gig in Dublin City Centre, sharing headline duties with pop trio Dove and performing a live set to an audience which included the Lord Mayor of Dublin, members of MyTown and OTT, and a variety of top managers and agents. Of course, the screaming teenage girls were there too, and, as Cartel stepped onto the stage for the first time ever, the crowd erupted. Any worries about a negative crowd response to their fifteen-minute mix of originals and a cover version were quickly thrown out the window. Cartel spent most of the evening outside the stage door, signing autographs for a vast number of new-found die-hard fans. This was definately the real thing...


As time went by, the word began to spread. Camcorder video copies of the shows were passed from fan to fan, establishing major fan bases around Ireland and the UK. Brian was receiving up to fifteen fan phone calls a day, and Darragh was showing up three quarters of an hour late for rehearsals, because he was caught by the groups of autograph-hungry girls who seemed to be permanently camped outside the studio. Even Tim wasn't safe in RTE, mobbed by fans as he came in and out of work in the TV centre each week. The news of Cartel was spreading, and the profile was increasing.


They were already upstaging bands considered to be the ‘next-big-things’ in Ireland, and certain promoters were refusing to even offer them support slots, for fear of them outshining their own headline acts. At the Telethon ‘98 pop event, management insisted they leave the building straight after their set, both for their own safety, and for fear of audience riots during the rest of the show. Their name was chanted during every other act that night. The boys rejected a national record deal, setting their sights firmly on an international release, and were offered performance slots at the Youth With Talent Showcase, Pride ’98 Opening Concert, and as special guests at the Gary Barlow gig in Dublin’s Point Theatre.


Sadly, the latter of these gigs never came to be. In the run up to the series of performances, the pressure of regular band rehearsals, supporting the project with part-time jobs, and organising every aspect of the band’s output [all whilst keeping up with school-work and trying to have lives as well] began to become too much. Cartel had parted company with their management earlier in the year due to good old creative differences, and, as the stress heightened, the lads decided they needed someone to take the reigns… The 'someone' in question was Louis Walsh - the legendary Irish music manager responsible for turning Boyzone into the most successful commercial group of the nineties.


Brian contacted Louis about a possible meeting with Cartel, but he was already tied up with another project… a Sligo-based boy band with a working title of IOU - later to be renamed Westlife. Brian met Louis at Dublin’s RedBox in a last-ditch attempt to attract his interest. The manager was so impressed with Brian’s determination, image and voice that he offered him a very different proposition - a chance to audition for, and fill the single vacant slot in the Westlife line-up. Needless to say, this incredible offer was a once-in-a-lifetime break, and really too good to refuse, so with the support of his band-mates, Brian (spelt with an 'i') became Bryan (with a 'y'), as he reluctantly left the Cartel project. “Bryan was happy in Cartel… everything had been going well,” explains Rob McGibbon, international music journalist and official biographer for the likes of the Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, and Take That; “At first Bryan felt it was disloyal to Cartel for him to go, but after days of agonising he realised it was too good an opportunity to miss."


Speaking of the split, Tim explains: "Saying goodbye to Brian was hard, but how could we possibly have asked him to stay? Cartel was a dream come true, but with Westlife success was guaranteed. Basically, tonight he's playing Wembley with a load of number one singles under
his belt, so I guess he made the right choice.He's still one of my really close friends, and I'm just really really proud of him". "Now though, everything’s right to re-launch Cartel", Darragh continues. "Bri kinda pushed us into it. He's completely behind it, and he's willing to give us as much help as we need. I mean, having Westlife behind us will be a huge boost, plus we still have a lot of very loyal fans, and a good reputation that goes with the name, and obviously, we've matured and gotten better too. There's so much going for Cartel, it can't really fail"


Initially after Brian [now spelt Bryan] left the band, the remaining members took some time to move on with life. Darragh went on to college to study for a degree in business, whilst Tim became the instructor of one of the biggest dance troupes in the country, performing and choreographing routines for the likes of the Late Late Show, the St.Patricks Day Parade, and the Swarzkopf UK Fashion Show. It was against this backdrop that the band set about looking for someone… somewhere …who had enough talent, energy, heart and personality to fill the very big shoes of Brian McFadden. The search would prove futile for over a year.


As 1999 progressed, the media profile of the band continued to increase, thanks mainly to the Westlife connection. Despite the fact that they hadn’t performed in over a year, the Cartel name was cropping up all over the British music press, depicting them as a talented “R&B version of 911” (Smash Hits, March 1999), and as having “a huge following for such a small band” (Big! Magazine, August 1999); meanwhile, in Westlife’s official biography (Virgin books, £12.99) a sub-chapter on the Cartel story described them as “one of the most popular bands in Dublin… and had about 200 girls following [them] everywhere… People loved it.” Bryan himself wrote that the group was “the best experience of my life until this… we just clicked straight away and everything looked like taking off - it was unbelievable. We were very tight, very together… We even got recognised in the street… It just grew really quickly and I'm sure we could have gone on to do something big. I will never forget being in that band.”


As the hype for the band built itself to surreal proportions for such a relatively unknown band, Tim and Darragh began to realise that time was running short. A couple of attempted replacements failed to recapture the magic, and it began to look less and less likely that this mythical ‘third member’ would ever emerge. Until one day, in late August 1999, TJ came across a video-tape recording of a young amateur boy band from Cork - the biggest city in the South-West of Ireland. More particularly, he noticed the band’s frontman - a powerful R&B pop voice, strong song-writing ability, great stage presence, good visual image, excellent harmoniser, … everything Cartel needed to fill the massive void left by Brian’s departure. He came to be known as ‘Potential Number Three’ within the Cartel camp, as the lads spent a couple of weeks trying to track him down, deciding - as they investigated further - that he really could be ‘the one’.


‘Potential Number Three’, it turned out, was Nicky Boland - a talented young Cork-based song-writer, formerly of local boy group All2Gether. Nicky had been on the music scene for years, working as a free-lance singer and instrumentalist [he plays guitar, keyboards, bass, drums, and an assortment of other instruments], and, having left All2Gether following the same problems Cartel experienced, was now working in the UK with the Spice Girls song-writer and producer, and preparing a bid to represent Ireland in the 2000 Eurovision Song Contest. In September of 1999, Tim finally managed to get a phone call through to Nicky’s house, and, finally, to Nicky himself. Taking the one chance he had to plug the idea to this total stranger, he reeled off the entire story of Cartel, from the karaoke party, to the gigs, to Brian leaving, and all about the fans, and the songs, and the unique sound, the past successes, and the future plans. As Tim concluded, Nicky was silent. After a pause of what seemed like forever, he responded to the offer… “Yeah, I’m interested! I’m very interested!”. Chapter two in the Cartel story had begun.


Since the three met for the first time at the start of October, new Cartel have been engaged in heavy rehearsals, and have quickly developed a tight harmony, a close friendship, and a strong sound, which maintains the original influences, while also adding Nicky’s song-writing and vocal edge to the mix. “I had no intentions of ever doing another pop group after the last one” said Nicky. “But when the boys came to me with Cartel, I really felt it could work. I mean, it has so much going for it, and we just gelled so well so quickly. It's three really creative people mixing ideas, and sounds. And it’s good that we have total say over everything, and it’s not a manager who calls the shots. It's us three. When we go on stage, we’ll be able to look at the video afterwards and say ‘that’s us, and only us’. I can’t wait”.


Cartel’s new live set is almost entirely written and produced by the band members, and we can promise it will be something very very special. The band relaunched as the main headline act at the fifth DTN Pop Showcase event, in Dublin’s Merchant’s Quay Theatre on November 25th… it’s a symbolic kinda thing - Cartel originally debuted at the first YWT Showcase. The gig was small, allowing them to premiere their new materiel to a crowd consisting mostly of friends, family, and long time fans. Needless to say, they rocked the show.


In late 1999, Cartel licenced Sketch Promotions International to set up a basic website to promote the band - It consisted of a couple of photos, a bio, and an e-mail address. Within two weeks, and without any real publicity, the site had chalked up an incredible two thousand visitors! This unexpected public reaction demanded that the site be quickly expanded, and the band instantly pumped their full attention into conquering the web. Cartel Online is now possibly be the biggest website for an unsigned band - anywhere! Maintained by ConMan Productions and Sketch Promotions in Dublin, as well as the original design team from Tim's native Canada, the site is now an elaborate yet easily-navigable shrine to the band.
By Spring 2000, Cartel fan tribute sites were popping up all over the world, and e-mails were literally overloading the Cartel Inbox. One of the biggest developments took place in March, when Danish journalist Karina Brandt set up Cartel Fans United International (CFU) - an intricate fan network, organised into national fanclubs, overseen by a worldwide governing body. With hits on the official site soaring past the twenty thousand mark, and the continued support of CFU, it's clear that the online community is Cartel's biggest asset, and will play a vital role over the next year.


As the Cinderella story continues for the boys, more and more people are starting to catch the Cartel vibe, which brings us to what Cartel’s really all about… Breaking cliches. They're not manufactured, not managed, not styled... They're just three talented guys, free of the usual pop-star stereotypes, who happen to love what they do. They have an entertaining and energetic live show - a welcome breath of fresh air from the current ‘singing ballads in long leather jackets’ pop climate. Most importantly though, they don’t sound like Westlife. Or Backstreet Boys. Or anyone else for that matter. Cartel have spent the last year developing a genuinely unique sound, that you won’t be hearing anywhere else. I could describe it as combining the bubblegum appeal of Old Skool R&B with the raw edge of New Jack swing, all overlayed with a pure harmony-based vocal stlye. Thing is though, music’s supposed to be heard - not described - and seeing and hearing Cartel in the first person is the only real way to see what it is that makes them so special.

They’re not clean-cut teenyboppers. They’re not wannabe bad-boys. They’re just Cartel, and I don’t think there’s any better sales pitch than that.

Don’t say we didn’t warn you…

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