Cormac Battle: “A lot of the things that are good seem to have come to us long after the gates closed”
“A lot of the things that are good seem to have come to us long after the gates closed” – Cormac Battle on Kilkenny’s Kerbdog finally getting their due
One thing that’s immediately apparent when talking to Cormac Battle is that the Kilkenny man has no time whatsoever for false modesty.
The 2FM DJ and frontman of reformed Nineties cult rockers Kerbdog is refreshingly honest and unashamedly proud of what he and his band achieved during their six-year stint as a band.
Even so, it’s a bit of a shock to hear him compare the band’s new live album, Congregation, with probably the greatest live album in the history of rock – but that’s exactly what he does.
Battle tells Something for the Weekend on the eve of the album’s launch: “I think it sounds fucking amazing, and I don’t think there’s a live album coming out of Ireland that sounds as good as it since Live and Dangerous by Thin Lizzy, which is a very high benchmark.”
Whether Congregation goes multi-platinum and enters the annals of rock history remains to be seen, but what is certain is that they’ve become one of those rare bands who are only properly appreciated once they’re gone.
Almost as soon as the band decided to call it quits in 1998 after being dropped by their record label, their influence began to spread among the next generation of rockers both in Ireland and further afield – and they became, in Battle’s own word, ‘a musicians’ band.’
He says: “After we broke up, in 1998, people were constantly hearing about our music. Our music took on a life of its afterwards from people copying CDs, and when music became downloadable, and people start hearing a band much more than we realised at all.
“We didn’t realise that people were hearing it more and more, until we decided out of the blue to just do a gig, and suddenly all these people were turning up and we were like, ‘what’s going on here? We couldn’t get two men and a dog when we were going a few years ago.’
“There’s an element of a lot of people finding out about our band after the event, who never got to see us live and had to go back and look at what we did.”
It wasn’t all myth-making either – they’ve been cited as a primary influence by no less a figure than Simon Neill, the architect behind one of the world’s biggest rock bands, Biffy Clyro.
He says: “We became one of those ‘musicians’ bands’ – younger bands coming up were listening to us when we came out, particularly Biffy Clyro who are very big now. It’s very nice and very flattering to hear them say that and say it quite vocally that we were one of their biggest influences.
“That was surprising, but it’s another surprise that comes along with the Kerbdog – a lot of the things that are good seem to have come to us long after the gates closed as far as we were concerned.”
Battle says he was bitter for a long time after the band were unceremoniously dropped by their label almost as soon as they finished recording their second album, On the Turn, and they were literally sent back to the dole queue.
That bitterness has given way to understanding that Britpop had swamped the UK music scene and that the label were probably right that there wasn’t much money in their sludgy, punk-infused metal.
He says: “We came back after making our second album, and we spent over half a million pounds sterling making it in Los Angeles, acting the idiot and spending [money]. We were meant to be there for six weeks and we were there for four months.
“When we came back, the label had the choice of either we push this or we drop them, and they decided to drop us and that was the end of it. I can kind of understand it – Parklife was number one in the charts at the time and I don’t think anybody was going to be interested in the music we were making, and I think the record company recognised that.
“It was hard to be going back to the dole office a week after coming back from LA – having made this amazing album, going into Kilkenny post office for £38 to sign on the dole was difficult! But that’s exactly what happened. I think it was the right album at the very, very, very wrong time, but now we’re getting the chance to rectify things for our own psyches at least.”
With the UK market effectively off-limits, the natural alternative would normally have been to focus on the large rock market in the US, however the massive bill racked up during recording may have made the label’s mind up in that respect.
“Our management and our label didn’t have enough faith to push us one step further and send us to America, which would have made sense at the time, but we were over a million quid in the hole at that stage as I found out afterwards and I think they were unwilling to spend any more money on us.
“If they had pushed it in America things may have been different and history would have been different for the band, but nevertheless that didn’t happen and we did get dropped pretty much as soon as the record was in the shops, but we knew it was coming.”
Ultimately, the band have been vindicated, albeit over a decade later than they would have liked, by the renewed and growing interest in the band – as seen by the positive reaction to their first single in 15 years, Electricity, which was released last month.
And though Battle is happy that his music career led him down the path to a successful career as a radio DJ, he refuses to rule out the possibility of going full-time with the band should things pan out in the band’s favour – and they’re looking towards recording an album in the coming year.
He says: “I’m lucky enough that through the band I ended up working in a radio station and I ended up getting a job I love. I’m not working as a civil servant in the revenue. In some ways the band led me down the road to a place that I enjoy anyway.
“However, if we were Snow Patrol or Coldplay’s size, that would be different. I wouldn’t be working in a radio station – I’d be sitting in the Four Seasons talking to you now with about three press agents sitting beside me.
“I’m getting less and less bitter about the whole thing – because I was incredibly bitter and damaged by the experience at the time – but having said that we had a brilliant time doing it and spent an awful lot of somebody else’s money.”
Congregation is out now. Kerbdog play the Academy in Dublin on November 14th.
“A lot of people don’t know that country music was big in Trinidad at the time” – the Magic Numbers talk their new album and growing up in the Caribbean
Hank Williams, Slash and the Bee Gees aren’t names that would normally be associated with the Magic Numbers, who are better known for their pleasant and upbeat indie pop.
However, over the course of a brief conversation with bassist/singer Michele Stodart, it becomes clear that this is a band who defy convention at more or less every turn.
Their fourth album – Alias – is by some measure the darkest and most introverted to date, so naturally the band’s choice of lead single, ‘E.N.D.,’ is all-out jukebox disco.
Speaking to Something for the Weekend, Stodart explains it was important to have an element of contrast on the record, considering the heavy nature of the subject matter.
She says: “The record is a lot darker, and dealing with a lot of big questions in our lives at the moment, and that track on the album is sort of like a release for the listener.
“It’s one of our most positive tracks out there, actually, and the contrast between that track and a lot of the album is quite different.”
It’s an energetic track and, along with previous single ‘Shot in the Dark,’ Stodart considers it to be one of the more exciting tracks to play live.
She feels that with Alias they’ve finally managed to translate the energy and intensity of their live show onto record, something they’ve struggled to realise in the past.
It’s the first record the foursome have recorded in their recently-assembled home studio, and far from offering the temptation to overdo things, Alias turned out to be their easiest recording experience to date.
Much of which owes to their decision to record live to tape as much as possible, which the four recording vocals together and with minimal overdubs, and Stodart proudly notes that in the majority of cases it was the first or second take of a song that turned out to be the one they used.
She says: “We tried to capture the band’s live energy and adrenaline on the record, and all of that thing we’ve been playing live together for a long time and finally getting those ‘tingle at the back of your neck’ moments on the album, we’ve finally learned how to do that.
“Two weeks prior to going to record the album, we went into a rehearsal room and tried out all the songs, and Shot in the Dark just seemed to have its own kind of energy.
“I kind of didn’t want to map it out too much in the structure and the arrangements, and it became one of those songs that you kind of just let it go. You can hear it in the backing vocals, where me and Angela are just kind of taking a line when there’s something we feel or want to say out loud, and it’s completely different from how we usually do a Magic Numbers song.
“We went into the studio with the idea of going, ‘right, let’s just completely let go’ and this sort of wild abandonment thing came out in Romeo’s guitar. It was great to be a part of that, really, and we all just played the best we’ve played, really positive and confident in our playing, and it came across in that track. We knew then it was going to be the first single off the record.”
The band comprises two pairs of brother and sister: Michele and her brother Romeo, lead singer and guitarist; alongside singer/percussionist Angela Gannon and her drummer brother Sean.
This arrangement came about by accident rather than design, as Stodart explains.
“We fell together in a way. Romeo and Sean played together in many bands before – Romeo was the guitarist, he wouldn’t sing, and Sean was the drummer.
“They were going for ten years and the other members left and went off to do their own thing, families and jobs, and then I was playing the guitar and I’d be writing my own songs at home.
“We had our own home studio, because mum had converted a front room, so there’d be many a day and many a night when Romeo and Sean would be in that room.
“One night, Romeo asked, ‘hey man, we haven’t got a bass player, do you want to try out some stuff with us?’ I don’t think they actually meant for me to join the band on that day, but it fell together really nicely.
“Me and Sean loved playing together, and I was able to sing as well, which he never had. Suddenly, Romeo started writing songs with backing vocals, so me and Angela officially joined the band. Within a year, we’d been signed with Heavenly.”
While the four met and became friends when all were based in London, Michele and Romeo had a nomadic childhood that included formative years in Trinidad before relocating to New York and, finally, returning to the UK.
Stodart explains that the lack of certainty growing up ensured music was a constant comfort for herself and her brother and had a powerful effect on their journey to pursuing lives as musicians.
She says: “It had a huge influence on us growing up in realising that music was forever going to be a constant in our lives – everything else was going to change, our friends and family, we’d miss our family when we moved, and our surroundings changed, but the music was always the thing that kept us solid.
“That in itself was a big thing that gave us something to cling to. Musically, the different cultures, like in Trinidad they had calypso music and there’s also a huge staple for country music there – a lot of people don’t know that country music was big in Trinidad at the time. Our uncle used to listen to Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and all the greats, and that stayed with us being four years old and listening to these great songs.
“And then, moving to New York, and realising that any dream is possible. If I did want to be singing or if Romeo wanted to be Slash, which he did at the time, it was possible. New York has this energy that makes you feel like you can do anything you want. Moving there made us what we are today.”
Alias is out now. The Magic Numbers play Dublin’s Academy on September 27.
The title of Sinéad O’Connor’s tenth studio album – I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss – may sound like the title of a brash and typically opinionated record from a brash and typically opinionated artist.
First impressions are notoriously unreliable, however, and digging beneath the surface reveals quite the opposite – it’s a character-based record that’s more as thoughtful and introverted as it is confrontational, as typified by lead single Take Me to Church.
Speaking in Dublin’s Westland Studios – formerly Lombard Street Studios – where, fittingly, she made her very first recording as a 15-year-old, O’Connor explains that she is enjoying the freedom being afforded to her by the new, more detached writing style.
“It’s not autobiographical. There are possibly three or four female characters on the record, and then there are three songs that are about me personally: Eight Good Reasons, How About I Be Me and Dense Water Deeper Down.
“The rest are these characters, and a particular romantic journey of one of them. There is one character who is perhaps learning the difference between projection and reality as far romantic matters go, and Take Me to Church would be her ‘Eureka!’ moment.”
The spine of the album centres around this one particular, unnamed, character, for whom the songs are an expression of her gradually coming to realise that sometimes the reality of love and illusion of love are very different things.
She says: “She’s had a set of illusions about someone – beer goggles, for want of a better expression – and she’s come to realise the difference between projecting onto somebody what she wants to be there, and the actual reality.
“She’s coming to understand the difference between love and desire – if you have only desire, that’s like a bird with no feet, and if you’ve only love that’s like a bird without wings. It sounds a bit deep and meaningful but at the end of the day they’re just pop songs.
“If you could describe the album, it’s basically the shit that women think when they’re in love.”
O’Connor’s decision to switch from the highly personal and visceral style of songwriting that resulted in classic albums like The Lion and the Cobra to working with characters came about in a rather unusual way.
“It started with the last record,” she says, referring to 2012’s How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?, which is also the title of the opening track on I’m Not Bossy.
“When I was younger I had a different platform for writing songs – I guess they were very personal and I had a lot of stuff to get off my chest – but with the last record a bunch of movie people had sent me scripts and asked me to write songs for movies, and what I used to do was write the songs and not give them to them.
“Because of that, the character in the movie would be the person singing the song, so that suddenly became my favourite way of working. Not that I wouldn’t write a personal song as such, but you don’t really need to if you can manage characters.
“It’s brilliant because it’s all completely imagination. Somebody compared it, which was really accurate, to being a puppet master. To some extent it’s you and to another extent it’s not – you can be much more free, and the puppet on the string or the character on the end of your arm can be a lot more free, and do things and talk about things that you couldn’t.”
The freedom to broach traditionally difficult or forbidden subjects has been a life-long battle for O’Connor, beginning at the age of 14 when she started to write songs as an outlet for feelings she wasn’t able to express openly.
She says: “I was about 14 when I realised I could make money from songwriting, but I didn’t become addicted to it until later, when I was about 15 or 16, and I got more addicted over the years.
“It was out of necessity – I had a lot of shit to get off my chest. The Ireland I grew up in is hopefully unimaginable to the younger generation, but the place I grew up was a theocratic place. There was no such thing as therapy, no chance of recovery for people like me who came from child abuse or whatever, so music was really a therapeutic platform.
“[Music] was a place to say the shit I couldn’t say anywhere else, that was forbidden anywhere else, whether it was ‘I love you’ or ‘I hate you’ or whatever. It was really a form of therapy until, really, the last record when I started to write about other shit.”
Organisations in Ireland and further afield, such as First Fortnight, have done a lot to put musicians at the forefront of the movement to promote awareness about mental health issues, and O’Connor can see a clear difference between the attitudes expressed by her children – aged from seven to 27 – and those of her own generation.
“Somehow, and for some reason, the worst thing to be considered in this world is mentally ill,” she says.
“The reason that is the most frightening thing to be considered is because people get treated like shit, if they’re perceived to be mentally ill, so their illness is used as something to beat them up and discredit them.
“That’s something that I don’t understand and I don’t think we can necessarily change, but it won’t be until everybody over the age of 35 has passed away and the theocratic way of thinking and conditioning will pass away at the same time.
“What I observe from my children is that they think differently. When they’re hanging out with their friends I can see they think differently. They’re much more compassionate and they’re much more understanding. They wouldn’t dream of using the word ‘crazy’ as a term of abuse, or using somebody’s illness as something to beat them up with.
“It’s a disgusting world, really.”
I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss is scheduled for release on August 15th and plays the National Concert Hall in Dublin on August 16th.
“We’re just big idea people and not so great on the follow-through shit” – an interview with the Dandy Warhols
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.
“We can’t all be astronauts, but at least we can travel in different ways.” – An interview with God is an Astronaut
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.”
“These guys were all from the ghetto, and that’s where we were too” – Don Baker on life, death and the blues
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.”
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.