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“We’re just big idea people and not so great on the follow-through shit” – an interview with the Dandy Warhols

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Photo: Joe Eisner

Photo: Joe Eisner

Eagles frontman Don Henley famously quipped upon the band’s 1980 breakup that the group would play together “when hell freezes over.”

That lasted a creditable 14 years before the cash became too tempting and they got together for a money-spinning reunion tour with hell still seasonably warm.

Money was never an issue for Portland, Oregon’s the Dandy Warhols who – in keeping with their similarly named muse – were always more about the art than the cash.

It was the power of an entirely different sense of numbers that led them to take their seminal album, Thirteen Tales of Urban Bohemia, back on the road.

Dandies frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor (the second Taylor is affected) explains to Something for the Weekend that the band were initially reluctant to take their iconic record on tour but were eventually wound down by the logic of unlucky number thirteen.

He says: “2013 was the thirteenth anniversary of 13 Tales from Urban Bohemia. And so with the three 13s we were like, ‘God, everybody does that!’

“You know, Spiritualized doing ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space,’ the Cult touring all of ‘Love,’ it was beginning to become a big thing to do, which of course means that we’re not going to do it.

“But then Zia [McCabe, bassist] kept going, ‘you guys, come on, it’s three 13s – it’s the triple 13 – we’ve got to do this!’

“We’d been talking about this since we finished Come Down. We were like, we gotta tour this whole record, just play it with all the trippiest shit between songs. Of course, we never did because we’re just big idea people and not so great on the follow-through shit.”

The band – and Taylor in particular – are contrary sort of people, meaning that resistance to the very idea of a ‘nostalgia’ tour was strong, but stronger voices won out in the end, and finally fans of the band were faced with the prospect of hearing ‘Bohemian Like You’ and ‘Get Off’ in their original context.

“Somehow, Zia and Pete just kept pushing us to do it so we did, and we got the extra guys and made it happen, and toured the thing.

“We recorded a lot of our shows and started mixing them, but for some reason we had the right cast of characters involved and the mixing went really quickly, so we actually finished and I don’t know how or why this one got finished. We start a lot of things and finish very few.”

Taylor-Taylor sounds sleepy at the best of times – and he sounds every more sleepy as he patiently endures a testing bout of phone problems throughout the interview – but he’s lucid and articulate as he recounts the mistakes the group made recording the live version of Thirteen Tales, their first, and so far only, live record.

He says: “We did no re-recording. I didn’t want it to be like a Sting or a Sheryl Crow live record where you’re like, ‘wow, that’s really clean!’ We wanted it to feel like ‘rock,’ I guess. We didn’t re-record anything. We just went in and mixed it and it’s pretty much just what happened. What happened live is exactly what’s happening when you click play on this record.

“Our intention was to play the record live, all of the parts, all the songs with bits in between – the trippy, drony, weird , ambient stuff and the segues and everything – but as far as the record sounding like the record, I don’t think it sounds at all like the actual record.

“It’s the same instrumentation but the live album sounds really trashy – the mixes sound very trashy and quickly done – compared to the record. I did that on purpose. We wanted to play the record exactly as it exists if you were to buy the original, but for the actual record I wanted it to sound as it is live – I wanted it to sound very trashy and chaotic, sonically, compared to the original record.”

Certainly he’s had few complaints from the fans, the majority of whom were delighted to hear the band reprise their signature record in full.

“There is a certain kind of person that you run into after the gig, and there is a certain kind of person you don’t run into after the gig. It’s everything from a pack of 15-year-olds that got dropped off by someone’s big brother or it’s like a 71-year-old couple who saw the Beatles on their first tour and they love us and they want to talk to us about how we’re like the Beatles to them.

“It’s so random who shows up at our gigs and who we end up meeting at the bar next door afterwards, or at lunch beforehand, or the ATM or whatever, it’s oddly random.

“I got one complaint from somebody who was there at the gig, and they said, ‘it’s really loud at your gigs, the audience is really fucking loud,’ but the thing is we didn’t mic the audience, so you can’t really hear the audience at all! The lesson we learned is: you mic the fucking audience!

The Dandy Warhols’ current tour marks 25 years as a band – something which most bands would mark down as an achievement – if not a downright miracle.

Taylor-Taylor is somewhat more sanguine about his group’s apparent longevity and is as clueless as everybody else as to what exactly it is that has enabled them to stand one another for so long.

He says: “I honestly can’t remember if I thought about it.  I’ve been in a lot of bands – I’ve spent my whole life playing in bands – but having one band work for 20 years I guess is pretty far-fetched. Maybe I just assumed if it works it’ll work forever.

“I remember we said like Andy Warhol’s Factory, we’d have our own Factory one day, and that was a fantasy thing, and then we ended up having like an Andy Warhol Factory but way better. I don’t know, maybe we did actually mention it.

“It seems ludicrous to think your band will stay together for 20 years because how many bands are there that do? There’s U2 and the Stones, and I don’t know any band that has ever stayed together for 20 years.

“They generally tend to break up and get back together for the five-year reunion or whatever, but who has done 20 years straight through?”

Originally published in the Irish Sun on Friday, June 13, 2014.

Written by Dave

June 27, 2014 at 2:44 pm

Posted in Interviews

“We can’t all be astronauts, but at least we can travel in different ways.” – An interview with God is an Astronaut

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Photo: Derval Freeman

It’s said that a change is as good as a rest – and the life of a working musician leaves little time for a rest – so it’s all change for Wicklow post-rockers God is an Astronaut as they take their seventh studio album, Origins, on the road.

The Glen of the Downs natives have long been considered one of Irish music’s best-kept secrets – while they would struggle to turn heads in their own hometown, they’re considered heavyweights on the international post-rock scene and regularly sell out venues across Europe and the United States.

Nevertheless, ten years on from the release of their influential debut album, The End of the Beginning, chief songwriter Torsten Kinsella worried about the potential for things becoming stale, and the band as a collective sought to return to their roots and rediscover what it was that made them tick.

Speaking to Something for the Weekend, Kinsella explains that the ‘Origins’ in this case aren’t so much the musical influences that make up their sonic palette but the intangible influences that motivated them to create music in the first place.

Kinsella says: “Origins for us was to recapture why we did music in the first place. When we started way back in 2001, we were writing music for ourselves and there was no worry about what people expected – nobody expected anything because they hadn’t heard of us at that time.

“It felt like we could forget what anyone expected us to do and just do what we wanted to do. That was why Origins really rang home to me. It feels like starting over again – it feels fresh – and all the things that influenced me to write this record.”

Having operated as a trio for the guts of a decade, they beefed up their line-up to include touring keyboardist Jamie Dean and added guitarist Gazz Carr, while Pat O’Donnell – former singer with ‘80s rock band Fountainhead – was a temporary recruit to add cold, robotic vocals. 

The expanded line-up allowed guitarist and chief composer Kinsella – who founded the band with his brother and bassist Niels and drummer Lloyd Hanney – to take a more experimental approach, creating punchier, more immediate songs to complement the slow build-up and epic crescendos that characterise the genre.

He says: “On record, I think it was important for us to do something a little more immediate this time, rather than the same six or seven-minute epics. Not that we overdid that in the past – we’ve always had shorter structures than our contemporaries – but this time we really wanted to have urgency.

“There are a few post-rock-style structured songs on the album, but it’s the first time we’ve really ventured structure-wise away from post-rock and into a more pop structure. 

“Live it’s great because you have the old songs which are the ‘calm before the storm’ structure, and now you have the more immediate like Exit Dream or Calistoga where they come in straight away. It adds great contrast live.”

Like any rock band worth their skin, God is an Astronaut have based much of their reputation on their arresting live show, and Kinsella feels the newly-expanded line-up is a clear improvement on the old one and will allow them to take a lot more risks in the live setting.

He says: “When I was writing Origins, I knew we were going to need more members because it’s a very experimental guitar record – a lot of people think it’s keyboards, but it’s not. It’s primarily a lot of guitars so I knew I’d need another guitar player in the group, so we got Gaz Carr from Butterfly Explosion.

“Jamie was on keyboards – he’d already been playing with us for two or three years – and he’d also played guitar, so that was great.

“I could really perform every part of this album live, which is what I wanted to do rather than use too much background technology. The five-piece has added a level of improvisation live that we can re-interpret the tracks and feed off the audience, speed them up or whatever we need to do. It’s the best line-up we’ve ever had.”

All this talk of pop structures and lead vocals could give the impression God is an Astronaut have changed, changed utterly, however Kinsella is quick to stress they’re merely freshening things up rather than tearing down the house.

He says: “I think we still play to our strengths and while we come up with some good vocal hooks and melodies, it’s still important to have an instrumental feel to what we do because I feel that’s really what we’re good at.

“I didn’t want the vocals to be more important than the other musical hooks we had. We treated it more as an instrument. We did add lyrics to it, but I think we pushed things forward. At the end of the day, there’s no Bob Dylan in our band.”

The band and Kinsella himself have always been heavily influenced by and enamoured with science fiction, and the theme of space travel crops up time and again throughout their catalogue. Origins keeps things on trend, with a number of tracks that explicitly and implicitly reference space.

He says: “The name God is an Astronaut is taken from Clive Barker’s Nightbreed movie. There was a quote – ‘God is an astronaut and Oz is over the rainbow’ – and we took the first part for our name.

“[The song] Weightless reminds me of something epic. I’d written it before I watched that film Prometheus, but I thought it would have suited the scene where they landed on the planet and there was some kind of intelligent civilisation on the planet.

“It has a bit of a 2001: Space Odyssey effect to it in its own weird way. It’s escapism. Take yourself away from this place and imagine you were a million light years away, and my music takes us to those places. We can’t all be astronauts, but at least we can travel in different ways.”

Written by Dave

March 21, 2014 at 4:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

“These guys were all from the ghetto, and that’s where we were too” – Don Baker on life, death and the blues

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Fresh from his reprisal of gangland figure Thomas Flynn on RTE’s Fair City, Don Baker is eager to return to his first love – the blues – with the release of his star-studded album, My Songs My Friends.

My Heart My Songs features a plethora of guest singers, ranging from legends of Irish music like Finbar Furey and Sinéad O’Connor through to respected contemporary musicians like Gemma Hayes, Declan O’Rourke, Mick Pyro and Brian Kennedy.

The Dubliner’s thirteenth album was two years in the making, Baker having been thrown of his original course by a chance meeting with singer Clara Rose. The impression Rose left was enough to convince Baker to change tack and record the album as a series of collaborations, rather than the straight band album that he had originally planned.

Baker explains that from that point on, the album took on an entirely new character: “It came about as an accident. I met a girl called Clara Rose when I was recording – I was using the songs for myself to perform – and she said she had done support for me years ago. I didn’t even remember, but she gave me her CD and we had a chat.

“I went home and I didn’t listen to it for a couple of weeks, and I eventually put it on and I thought she was brilliant so I invited her in to sing on a song I thought would suit her, Fergus: The Healing Song.

“I just thought she changed the song completely – it was brilliant. The engineer, Stuart Gray, who I was working with in Jealous Town Studios, said ‘what do you think about getting some other people to sing your songs?’”

The project soon began to gather shape under its own momentum, as some of Ireland’s best known musicians got wind of the project and asked to be involved.

“We got Damien Dempsey, Paddy Casey and then the phone started ringing with artists wanted to get on the album. Brian Kennedy happened to walk into the studio while Billy Farrell was working on one of the tracks and made enquiries about who is it, and Billy told him ‘it’s one of Don Baker’s tracks’ and he asked Billy to ask could he sing on the album. It just bloomed from there.”

Baker fell in love with the delta blues as a teenager growing up in the north inner city, and had earned himself a reputation as one of the best harmonica players in the business before landing the role of fictional IRA man Joe McAndrew in Jim Sheridan’s Guildford Four biopic In the Name of the Father, alongside Daniel Day-Lewis.

By then, he had toured Europe and the United States – he laughs as recalls touring with a gospel choir around the Deep South and being the only white man in the group – but it wasn’t until he was almost 40 that he recorded his first album – and twelve more in 23 years since shows how eager he has been to make up lost ground.

While his native Whitehall could never be described as a blues stronghold, Baker recalls how he felt an instant emotional connection with the music from the moment he was first introduced to the likes of Leadbelly and Howlin’ Wolf.

He says: “I was introduced to the blues by a guy called Richard – who now drives a taxi in Belfast – and he lived on Foley Street and I lived in the Corporation Buildings at the time. I was around 16 or 17 – I can’t remember exactly – and the first track he ever played for me was called Dust My Broom by Elmore James.

“I thought ‘wow, that’s something else.’ I just loved the 12-bar blues. These guys were all from the ghetto, and that’s where we were too, so there was a big emotional connection to it – it didn’t matter about the colour of your skin. Some of the best blues players ever were white guys – Johnny Winters, Sid Atkins, one of the best harmonica players is Charlie McCoy. That’s often overlooked.”

My Songs My Friends is a celebration of all of those influences and the subject matter is equally varied. While the album contains its fair share of ballads – and another standout track is the angry polemic entitled ‘Politician’ with John Spillane – there is a sombre, reflective tone to much of the album, something that came as a surprise to its creator.

Baker says: “A lot of comments were made by the artists, like Finbar and Brian, that they thought it was a very spiritual album. I didn’t think that but they seem to think there’s a spiritual element. Lord Have Mercy – the song I sing with Eleanor McEvoy – is a spiritual song for sure, and Fergus: The Healing Song.

“Each Day Today – the song with Gemma Hayes – I suppose you could say is a spiritual song and the one Liam O’Riordain sings, about an alcoholic friend of mine who’s since died. He was a millionaire but he drank it all and wound up on the streets with wine in the pocket and all that. The songs are all autobiographical. They’re all from things that happened to me.”

Fergus: The Healing Song is a track that holds particular significance for Baker, having been written following the tragic death of his wife’s brother.

Baker says: “That was written for my brother in law – his name was Fergus O’Reilly. He died in Tenerife three years this Christmas – it was on St Stephen’s Day. He was on the beach and a wave dragged him out to sea and he subsequently drowned as his two kids were watching him on the beach. We were at home on Stephen’s Day when we got the phone call and that’s where the song starts. Hopefully, people who are suffering bereavement can listen to that and have a hope and find some kind of solace or healing in it.”

Written by Dave

March 20, 2014 at 8:32 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Interview // A Hawk And A Hacksaw

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Ordinarily, coming out from a stint in one of the most buzzed-about indie bands of recent times, a musician would see nothing but a world of opportunity on the horizon.

However Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy Barnes felt nothing but disillusionment following the untimely break-up of Neutral Milk Hotel in the wake of their seminal 1998 record, In An Aeroplane Over The Sea.

The Louisiana band’s two albums had earned them critical praise up the proverbial fundament, but it was very much Magnum’s project, so when their hiatus turned into a full-blown break-up, Barnes was left looking for a new angle to ignite his musical passion.

Speaking from his Greek soundman’s phone following a gig in Ghent, Belgium, Barnes explained that the seeds for A Hawk And A Hacksaw came in the most unlikely happenchance, of forms.

He says: “I bought a record at a thrift store of Romanian music because I liked the way the cover looked. I didn’t even think that I would bother listening to it – I just liked the cover – and it just sat around in my collection for a while.

“I finally put it on one day and it totally blew me away. It was kind of an epiphany. I had been searching around for something to do and some kind of direction and it pointed me in the area that I wanted to go.

“That was in 1999, and from there I began looking into music from Romania particularly but also from different parts of Eastern Europe, trying to understand the relationships between the different types of music. For lack of a better term, it became an obsession.

“I was at a point where I was finishing, musically, with what I was doing and I needed something new to do, but as an outsider.”

Nowadays, with groups like Gogol Bordello and Zach Condon’s Beirut (for whom A Hawk And A Hacksaw served as backing on band on his debut album, Gulag Orkester), there is a strong and well-worn niche for Eastern European folk music in indie rock circles, but Barnes was very much plowing a lone furrow when he began experimenting with the music of the Roma.

Like the aforementioned acts, Barnes has a healthy respect for tradition but sees himself as somebody who adds to the musical tradition rather than simply preserving it, and it’s this curiosity and experimental nature that has led the now five-piece group to incorporate sounds from Hungary, Turkey and, most recently, Mexcian mariachi music into their increasingly complex casserole of influences.

He explains: “There is the idea that folk music should be preserved, and I listen to a lot of folk music by people who are trying to re-do music that was made 100 years ago or more, but it’s not my path. Music evolves, and you can’t really track it or even understand what’s going on with, especially now that things have exploded in terms of what everyone hears.

“You don’t receive it from the village pub, and you don’t receive it from your father teaching you to play the violin, you receive it on record. The whole way that folk music is transferred between people has changed. Even if the transferring is kind of cold and not as romantic as your father teaching you a melody that is 100 years old, that’s just the way it goes and it’s the way living music works.

“The ways these forms move throughout the world – you look at heavy metal music being played in Brazil, and the way it transfers itself between places, I think it’s really interest. In a way, it’s more of a living folk music than a lot of so-called ‘authentic’ folk music that’s being treated as a museum.”

Though he regretfully notes he hasn’t studied ethnomusicology in college, Barnes shows a clear interest in the academic aspect of the music he plays, in the history of Eastern Europe and how its various music forms evolved.

“What I love is the mixture between people – the influence of Turkish music on Bulgaria, Bela Bartok from Hungary, Hungarian music and Turkish music are related, and the movement of people from western Asia, even Hungarian people are supposed to be from central Asia. In the end, everyone tries to find this ‘authentic’ music – like ‘this is the authentic Irish music’ or ‘this is the authentic Jewish music’ – but everything has been so mixed that it doesn’t matter. There’s no point in finding that.

“Have you ever heard of this documentary, Atlantean Quartet? You can find it on Youtube. It’s from the 70s. This Irish guy is drawing similarities between North African music and naval culture, and also Irish music and Irish naval culture. He’s putting this theory up that a lot of Irish people came from North Africa on these ships way back, and the idea that Irish people are only Celtic are wrong. It’s an interesting theory and an interesting idea, and I like looking at those sorts of things. I never graduated from college or studied ethnomusicology – it’s just something I’m into.”

Having incorporated forms of music that stretch the length and breadth of Eastern Europe, and now Mexico, the conversation inevitably turns to whether he could ever see himself playing Irish trad music, but inevitably his train of thought always winds up back in Eastern Europe and the music that re-lit his musical flame over a decade ago.

He says: “I have some Irish in me and I grew up with Irish music, and all my family listens to Irish music so it’s something I grew up listening to. In some ways, when I first heard some eastern European fiddle music, it reminded me of Ireland and that was one of the things that excited me about eastern European music.

“There’s this  book called Raggle Taggle by Walter Starkey – he was an Irish writer and translator. He travelled and met a bunch of gypsies from Hungary in this internment camp where they were prisoners, where they had made a violin.

“He ended up becoming their friend and he promised them he’d go to Hungary and Romania after the war, and he ended up writing a book about him walking around Hungary and Romania in the late 1920s. He meets all these gypsies as he’s walking around, and it has this really nice Irish humour to it. It’s a great book.

“It never occurred to me to use Irish music, but you never know. At this point it’s just fun to listen to.“

Originally published in the Irish Sun on Friday, April 12.

Written by Dave

April 23, 2013 at 5:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Interview // Charles Ross, The One Man Star Wars Trilogy

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A one-man show based around a unique re-telling of one of film’s most epic sagas might not sound like the brightest idea for a money-making venture, but for Canadian Charles Ross it’s probably the smartest business decision he’ll ever make.

For more than 12 years, Ross has been taking his One Man Star Wars Trilogy show to stages around the world – as well as the lucrative science fiction geek convention circuit – and doing something that relatively few actors are afforded the opportunity to do: make a living doing what he loves.

Speaking to Something for the Weekend ahead of his week-long run in the Gaiety Theatre next month, Ross explains that the continued success of the show has surprised him as much as anybody else: “Originally I didn’t think the show would last longer than three months!”

He continues: “It didn’t start as a big idea. I was just trying to combat the continual state of unemployment when you’re working in theatre. As an actor you’re just continually auditioning so I wanted to get some autonomy over my career.

“I tried writing my own stuff and this was just one of those ‘kicks of the can’ that worked out for me. It started out as a bit of a comedy sketch and it went really well as a 25-minute sketch of the first film. It went so well that it seemed like maybe it could be expanded, and that’s what I did – I expanded it to the one-hour thing that you see now.”

Condensing almost seven hours of classic cinema into a one-hour solo performance is a daunting task. As well as voicing all the characters and narrating the story – it’s only a monologue in the sense there’s nobody else talking – Ross adds his own jokes and observations along the way.

He explains: “It’s basically a long-form homage where I kind of flip around wearing a boiler suit looking like some sort of mad mechanic. It’s absurd. It’s meant to be absurd. You really have to see it live – it’s a massive sweat fest.”

Anybody hoping to see pantomime-style light sabre action is in for a crushing disappointment – Ross is adamant that using props would detract from the essential lo-fi character of the show, a key feature it shares with the original films.

“Once you start going down the path of using props, you’ll always continue – it’ll be this big prop show. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for me it would take away from the extremely lo-fi quality. That’s something that the ‘70s films had that the new films lack – that kind of junkyard look.

“They call it the ‘used future,’ where you’re walking around the junk piles of some place in space, cobbling together spaceships out of spare parts. In that way, this is the extremely low-rent version of Star Wars – no special effects.

“I thought it would be a bit more interesting if it was posing the question, what can one person do? I can’t shoot lasers out of my fingers and some of my voices aren’t exactly spot-on with the movie, but it’s mind over matter – me not really minding, and it doesn’t really matter what I can’t do. The question is what can I do, and can I retell the story of the films in one hour.”

Fittingly, Ross’s personal experience growing up with Star Wars is every bit as unique and unusual as his stage show.

“For a few years we lived on a farm, a really remote farm, when I was a kid. We didn’t have any television reception and we didn’t have any radio reception. We had records and we had videos, and the three videos we had were the first Star Wars, Blue Lagoon with Brooke Shields and an eight-part mini-series called Shogun. That’s why I watched Star Wars so many times. “

Wisely deciding that he might find it difficult to pull off Brooke Shields, Ross plumped for the back-up option and stepped into the role of the Jedi, as well as an assorted cast of robots and space villains. It’s just as well, too, because in Star Wars he discovered a story that is about as universal as they come, and particularly poignant given his own detached upbringing.

He says: “It struck me even as a kid that the story of Luke [Skywalker] is sort of like the story of Frodo Baggins,” referring to the hero of the Lord of the Rings saga, upon which he based his second stage show.

“A very disenfranchised person who lives on a farm and doesn’t know how to get out of his life suddenly has adventure come knocking on his front door, and life changes to the point where he loses his ability to go home, but is actually able to effect a great blow against the oppressive powers in the world.”

For Ross, Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings represent a form of escapism that ultimately allows us to believe in the power of the individual as a positive force in the world.

“I mean, who wouldn’t want adventure to come knocking at their door rather than continue on in our drudge of life? It allows us to dream in a passive way that seems to promise that we can discover some hidden lineage inside of ourselves and effect the greatest social change by essentially doing nothing but be ourselves.”

Not surprisingly, Ross’s show has spawned the odd copycat.

“Sometimes you get people who are trying to do the same thing I do, which is unfortunate for them as I have the license with Lucasfilm, and the license with the Lords of the Rings folks. I’m not sure why they want to do the exact same thing – it’s not as though my idea was super-original, I’m not really creating anything that’s not already there.”

More encouragingly, his success has inspired others to offer similar takes on classic stories.

“I’ve inspired people to do one-man or one-woman shows based on Wizard of Oz and things like that, and I think that’s great. I wouldn’t even call it a genre, it’s just a weird style of style of storytelling. It’s almost like being a bard, only without the skills of the original bards, telling a story that we already know in a way that’s unique to us.”

The One Man Star Wars Trilogy opens at the Gaiety Theatre on Monday, April 1.

Written by Dave

April 5, 2013 at 6:03 pm

Posted in Interviews

It’s Up Indie Air // Irish Music Feature

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JacKKnife J and Jambo

The closure of HMV last month with the loss of up to 300 jobs (and thousands more in the UK) was the latest in a steady stream of bad news for the record industry in this country.

The twin pressures of competition from large-scale retailers (notably Amazon and Tesco) and online streaming/downloading has made the existence of the traditional record shop a harder and harder sell, and that’s before illegal downloading is brought into the equation.

On the one hand, HMV’s demise presents an opportunity for those remaining independent retailers – though the death of Road Records is proof that not even the most sacred cows is safe from the slaughter – and it could easily be argued that the skills of HMV’s knowledgeable  workforce were being wasted selling Coronas CDs to 12-year-olds.

Nevertheless, it’s hard not to see HMV shutting down as yet another reason to fear for the long term health of the Irish music scene, with many labels and distributors on the hook for large sums of money if HMV does indeed shut its doors for good and many more jobs are likely to be lost as a result.

Still, it would be a mistake to overstate the importance of HMV. While Mr and Mrs Tesco are no doubt rubbing their hands together with glee at the prospect of being the country’s sole vendor of Coronas CDs, the independent sector north and south of the border has largely been making do without the help of the big-box retailers for decades.

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Over the past five years or so, by far the biggest success story on the Irish independent scene has been the world-renowned Richter Collective, which has helped launch bands like Adebisi Shank (co-owner Michael Roe is the drummer), Enemies and And So I Watch You From Afar onto the international scene through their association with US experimental megalabel Sargent House.

When the label announced it was to shut in November following the release of BATS’ stellar second album The Sleep of Reason, more than a few tears were shed, but in the end it turned out to be a bit of a bait-and-switch.

No sooner had the label put out its final release than Roe popped up as the head of Sargent House’s new European wing, but the moral was still clear: it’s next to impossible to run a record label in Ireland as anything like a going concern because the financial rewards just aren’t there, and even a vibrant label like the Richter had to face the fact that not enough people were prepared to dip into their pockets on a regular basis.

Yet for Limerick label Out on a Limb Records, the Richter’s demise brought unexpected opportunity. They leapt in to fill a void by releasing Take Control, the second album from Dublin post-hardcore trio and Richter alumni Jogging, last month named the in the Irish Sun’s ten best albums of 2012. Earlier this month they released I Hold The Wolf, the first album in a decade from Cork progressive metal powerhouse Rest.

Out on a Limb was born of absolute necessity, as co-founder Richard Bourke explains: “We came together to release Giveamanakick’s debut album ‘Is It OK To Be Loud, Jesus?’ in 2003. Myself and Albert Twomey really liked their live sound and said why not, let’s get the money together to produce a CD and get it out there. Basically we started it as there was no outlet for this kind of music locally.”

Dublin labels Ath Cliath and Working Class Records came together for much the same reason – although it was less a case of limited opportunities as no opportunities that led rapper Jambo and producer Jackknife J to set up Ath Cliath Studios to serve the flowering hip hop scene in suburban north Dublin.

Says Jackknife (real name John Behan): “The studio was set up specifically to record all of us because we didn’t have a base. It’s gas because obviously no labels were willing to take a punt on hip hop acts in this country, so Jambo was the one who said we needed somewhere to have ideas and knock tracks out. It’s a lot better than doing something out of a back garden.”

The Ath Cliath/Working Class family also includes beatmaker GI, rapper Costello and singer Willa Lee, but the biggest name by far is Lethal Dialect, the Blanchardstown/Cabra rapper whose two albums, LD50: Parts I and II, have achieved international acclaim and arguably set the standard for rap music in this country.

Jackknife is currently working with Lethal Dialect on his third album, 1988, which is due for release in the early summer. He promises the record will be a big sonic step forward from the ‘90s boom-bap style of LD’s albums , incorporating more old school dance and contemporary electronic music – the samples I heard more than bear this out.

For Out on a Limb, 2012 has also been a successful year, coming full circle in many ways with Windings – the band fronted by Giveamanakick frontman Stephen Ryan – last week nominated for the Choice Music Prize, though Bourke is quick to point out that business remains precariously poised.

He says: “Getting folks to go to gigs nowadays is really difficult. It is probably the economy but people don’t seem to want to take the chance that this gig might be amazing even if you have not heard the band before. We just want to break even on each release in order to continue putting out quality music.”

For Ath Cliath and their associates, the challenge isn’t so much to break even as it is to be taken seriously as musicians, when even the national broadcaster is quite happy to portray them as a laughing stock within their own country.

RTE’s documentary Irish Rappers was supposed to shine a spotlight on the burgeoning rap scene in Ireland, but by the time it surfaced early last year dozens of hours of raw footage had been edited down to what Jackknife can only describe as a “big-time mockumentary” that did more to hurt the Irish rap scene than help it.

He says: “They did an interview for an hour in the streets out in Ballymun – they were asked to do it in Ballymun, probably to portray the scumbag image – and a horse walked by, as can happen in Ballymun. In an hour’s worth of interview footage, they took the part where the horse walked past for the documentary. The reality of it is nothing like that.”

Another stumbling block is the hostility Irish rappers face from within Ireland when they choose to rap in their own natural accents, a principle on which the new cabal of Irish rappers have refused to waver.

“Damien Dempsey is somebody we’d be in contact with through mutual friends and he fought the same battle. It’s just this country. Professor Green is rapping in an English accent and nobody bats an eyelid, but as soon as Irish rappers start doing it people are like ‘what the fuck are you doing?’ People are getting their heads around it now, finally – it’s taken years for people to accept us.”

As a decade-plus veteran of the independent scene, Bourke sees nothing but continued financial struggle in the future, but for Jackknife the future is filled with opportunity and a strange kind of optimism, though he’s frustrated by how slowly the establishment has been and continues to be in catching up with what’s going on at ground level.

“People have no idea, on a street level, what kind of a response this is getting. The boys are doing gigs in town with 2-300 people easy. There are indie acts getting smoke blown up their holes left, right and centre who couldn’t get five people to a gig – I can’t get my head around it.

“It just takes somebody to take a punt, and hopefully somebody will actually cop on and say, if the boys here are independently pushing music and getting 50 or 60,000 views on a video on Youtube and there are loads of people buying their music independently, if they were to be marketed and pushed then who knows?

“If anything, the music being made here is more honest than what’s being made in the UK at the minute. Lethal Dialect, Jambo, Costello are bar for bar, rap for rap, as good as anyone in America and the UK – but all the lads in America and the UK have deals and these guys don’t. It’s a hard game for the lads to play.”

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$5.2 billion – worldwide revenue from digital music (source: IFPI)

€3.8 million – amount Irish record labels estimate they lose to piracy each year (source: IRMA)

74% – decline in pre-tax profit at EMI Ireland in 2011

20% – drop in physical record sales between 2007 and 2011

€2,000– cost to record and produce an album in Ath Cliath Studios

200 – number of CDs an independent hip hop act has to sell to break even

Originally published in the Irish Sun on Friday, February 8.

Written by Dave

February 11, 2013 at 4:55 pm

Choice Music Prize 2012 // A Preview

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Now in its eighth year, the Choice Music Prize has always attracted controversy and acclaim in roughly equal measure, but has never failed to get tongues wagging about quality home-produced music.

The announcement of the shortlist inevitably provokes as much discussion about what albums failed to make the cut as those that did, and this year is no exception.

Former Choice judge Martin Burns, who runs independent label Flaming June, thinks this year’s selections suffer from focusing too much on acts that have been nominated – and won – before.

“As usual, choosing 10 albums from the hundreds that were released last year is going to ruffle a few feathers.

“There are at least four acts who have been nominated before. It always seems to be dominated by the more established artists.”

The presence of three past winners on the shortlist – Julie Feeney, Adrian Crowley and Two Door Cinema Club – and two former nominees in Delorentos and the Cast of Cheers only adds to the sense of sameishness, especially given last year’s winner Jape was receiving his second award after first taking the honour in 2008.

Burns continues: “I was absolutely certain Seamus Fogarty, Deaf Joe, Sinead O’Connor or Funeral Suits would be nominated. But it didn’t happen.

“However, I was particularly pleased to see Windings and Mumblin Deaf Ro chosen because they are both on small independent labels run by real music enthusiasts and they are both brilliant acts.

“The only record I don’t think should have made the list is Two Door Cinema Club, which was, in my opinion, a weak record compared to their debut.”

Though the shortlists are never particularly eclectic, 2012 is just about an even split between indie guitar bands and guitar-based singer-songwriters, with piano-toting Julie Feeney the only (slight) exception.

Once again, the nascent hip hop scene on the island is conspicuously ignored. Many will be disappointed to see Dublin rapper Lethal Dialect’s sprawling LD50: Part II – the Irish Sun’s #1 album of the year – miss out, but it’s a familiar feeling for hip hop heads. Ditto trad, with the Spook of the Thirteenth Lock’s The Brutal Here And Now harshly overlooked.

On the heavier end of the spectrum, BATS and Jogging could be forgiven for taking their ball and going home.  Most surprising though is the total omission of any electronic music in what has been one of the genre’s finest years in memory, with Bantum, Defcon, Simon Bird and Sunken Foal each releasing superb under-the-radar records.

Burns agrees: “Once again, there were absolutely no dance records that made the shortlist, which has always puzzled me.

“I must admit I was a little disappointed that Katie Kim or Laura Sheeran weren’t included. I was very proud to have been associated with the two albums they released in 2012.

“Then again it really is a poisoned chalice for the judges because there were so many great albums that didn’t get the nod.”

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Damien Dempsey  – Almighty Love: The first album in five years for the Donaghmede singer-songwriter picks up more or less where To Hell Or Barbados left off.  Led by a powerful title track, Almighty Love sees Dempsey’s trademark booming voice underpin a smooth mix of genres from trad through to reggae and electronica and a keen focus on social justice.

Julie Feeney – Clocks: Serial nominee and winner of the inaugural prize Feeney has carved her own niche mixing quirky piano pop with a background in avant-garde and classical music, and Clocks continues in the vein that has earned the Galway songwriter acclaim well beyond these shores.

Mumblin’ Deaf Ro – Dictionary Crimes: With a small change in spelling, Mumblin’ Deaf Ro couldbe the name of a long-forgotten delta bluesman. In truth, he’s only one step removed with a knack for aching simplicity and casting positive light on even the darkest topic. Dictionary Crimes may be the surprise name on the shortlist, but now that it’s there, it would be no surprise if the judges fell in love with its tender elegance and made it the winner.

Wallis Bird – Wallis Bird: Though based in London, the smoky-voiced Wexford songwriter has become a regular fixture on the Irish gigging over the past couple of years. This self-titled album – her third – is her most successful to date, however her bland, electronic-tinged acoustic pop has been done countless times before and will do little to win over non-believers.

Adrian Crowley – I See Three Birds: A third nomination for the Galway man, I See Three Birds Flying is the follow-up to 2009 winner The Season of the Sparks and sees Crowley repeat the formula that made the latter such a popular winner. Crowley’s forlorn, Leonard Cohen-like baritone and lush bedroom orchestrations are again the draw with Crowley’s immense songwriting skill to the fore.

Two Door Cinema Club – Beacon: It’s two in two for the Two Door Cinema Club, the Belfast three-piece having triumphed at the first attempt with 2009’s cross-channel hit Tourist History. Second time around, however, the sheen has been wiped from their previously gleaming veneer and the songs simply aren’t strong enough to separate them from the growing crop of generic indie guitar bands.

Windings – I Am Not The Crow: It takes some believing that in eight years, not one Limerick band has made the Choice Music Prize shortlist – until now. Windings is the brainchild of Stephen Ryan – one half of sadly-departed noise rock duo Givemanakick – and continues his long-standing affair with jangly, off-kilter indie rock with a long list of influences from folk to psychedelic and everything in between.

Delorentos – Little Sparks: After very nearly calling it a day before their second album, You Can Make Sound, Delorentos radically rethought every facet of their musical existence and emerged early in 2012 with their most complete collection of tracks to date. Allied with an innovative promotional campaign that saw them produce a magazine and host pop-up shops around the country, the group’s European success has been earned the hard way but they’re undoubtedly stronger for it.

The Cast of Cheers – Family:  Another group to decamp to London to take on the city’s less forgiving but more lucrative gigging circuit, the Cast of Cheers bullied their way onto the scene in 2010 with Chariot, an electronica-fuelled math rock record that recalled the best of Foals and Bloc Party and was handily made available for free download from Bandcamp. Family is their first album to be recorded in a proper studio and the result is far tighter and more coherent than Chariot – if not quite as exciting.

Heathers – Kingdom: Sisters Ellie and Louise McNamara earned their stripes on the DIY circuit with their cheaply-recorded, mostly acoustic first album, Here, Not There. Lead single ‘I Remember When’ was fortuitously picked up for a large-scale Discover Ireland tourism ad campaign and the pair haven’t looked back since. Kingdom is a big step up in terms of ambition and production value, but in doing so they’ve lost much of the rustic charm that set their debut apart from other pretenders.

Originally published in the Irish Sun on Friday, January 11, 2012. 

Written by Dave

February 6, 2013 at 4:20 pm

Posted in Irish