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.
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.
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.”
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.
“A lot of my music is very vast and expansive, taking ideas to the max,” says a sleepy Dan Deacon down the phone on a day off in Atlanta, Georgia, “and it seemed the lyrical themes were running parallel to the musical themes.”
It’s fitting that the Baltimore-based electronic maestro should speak from the road, as his latest album, America, was heavily influenced by the topography of his home country, observed from his passenger seat window while travelling its length and breadth in support of his breakthrough album, 2009’s Bromst.
Read the full 3,000-word interview here.
Dublin singer-songwriter Mumblin Deaf Ro has endured a lot in the five years since his last release, and his newly-released third album Dictionary Crimes bears all the hallmarks of a man who’s experienced the depths of despair and come out a stronger man.
The loss or near-loss of a loved one is a recurring theme on Dictionary Crimes but the overall message is hopeful and uplifting, underscoring the idea that sometimes the darkest times in our lives serve only to illuminate and strengthen the good.
Ro – christened Ronan Hession – tells Something for the Weekend: “One of the things I wanted to do on the album is take the approach that these things are very bad, but they happen in life. One of the frustrating things when you go through a very dark experience in your life is that you feel you’re alone with it, and to write things down and deal with them humanises them a little bit.
“In doing the album I was careful not to put deliberate happy endings or deliberate positive notes, but I tried to stud the songs with elements of hope and tenderness. Where there are very dark songs about cancer, I hope there’s also a lot of love and intimacy that comes across in the relationships.
“The album concludes with the song ‘My New Broken Leg’ – what that song about is the beginning of the healing process, emerging from the fog of grief and waking up to all the lovely things you have in your life, the people you have in your life.”
It’s a far cry from the glitz of a packed Thomond Park or Stade Marcel-Michelin on Heineken Cup night, but the back room of the Curragower pub in Limerick city set the scene for the next big chapter in former Ireland rugby international Barry Murphy’s career.
Murphy is the frontman of Hermitage Green, the five-piece band who in little over a year have risen to prominence as a nationally-renowned act, touring the length and breadth of the country with their playful brand of modern folk rock that calls to mind the likes of Mumford & Sons and Noah and the Whale.
Murphy was forced to call a premature end to his rugby career last year owing to a persistent foot injury, but speaking to Something for the Weekend he explains that he had already begun to take the band more seriously as their performances attracted ever larger audiences in their hometown and further afield.
Murphy says: “The rugby ended quite abruptly so I did a bit of coaching for a few weeks. It was just over a year ago and the band were picking up a bit of speed even then. We all knew we were on something quite good, so we just decided to do it full time. It’s been close to full-time for the past year and a half or so, playing five or six nights a week.”