“Music has given me more salvation, and more hope, and more joy in my life than everything else in the world put together.” – An interview with the Dandy Warhols’ Courtney Taylor-Taylor
Portland rock veterans Dandy Warhols are enjoying somewhat of a purple patch in the past 18 months, and are back in Ireland for the second successive summer to headline Indiependence in Mitchelstown, having starred at Bundoran’s Sea Sessions last year.
This summer’s extended jaunt, frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor tells Something for the Weekend, is largely on the back of ‘Chauncey P vs All the Girls in London,’ a single the band unexpectedly dropped in February, ostensibly to let people know they were still alive.
“We shred, we’re amazing at guitars – that’s our thing – vocal harmonies. [It was just to] re-lay it down and put it out there that we rip. It was also just to get the phone to ring, you know?
“[It was] for labels to call up and be interested and to have producers and big mixers, and it did – it got the phone ringing.
“We have a lot of people we’d like to work with that, if we didn’t have anything out, wouldn’t call us back, or maybe not bother listening to an mp3 of something we were working on. You just have to do stuff.
“We got a lot of festivals going, ‘woah, this band is amazing.’ We’re getting a lot of calls still to play festivals and have a great super party summer on the heels of just releasing one song. One song now, and the 20 years of rock that came before it.”
Taylor-Taylor speaks slowly and thoughtfully in a distinctive deep voice, occasionally losing his train of thought as his speed of mind outpaces his lazy west coast American drawl.
He reveals the band are well on their way to recording album number nine, the follow-up to 2012’s This Machine, though anybody expecting anything soon is likely to be disappointed as the band – particularly the singer – are sticklers for detail in the studio.
“We’re cranking the bigger parts of the machine up again. I think next year will be a big year for us. We have nine or ten songs more or less complete at this point.
“It’s going to be a lot of work, but we should have a record out next year, it looks like.
“We own probably one of the coolest studios in the world, or ever, and we like to be there. We party there, we work and we record, and we do stuff all the time, and you get these songs.
“We build them to where they are nearly as perfect as we can make them. That’s sort of how our lives go. A lot of revolving around the studio.”
He describes the band’s mode of operation as more akin to a group of painters planning an elaborate artwork rather than a typical rock band – in the studio at least.
“Zia [McCabe, keboardist] and Pete [Holstrom, guitarist] showed up last week – I was in there every day that week on my own, then they showed up with a hard drive.
“Pete had come down and grabbed a bunch of tracks, gone back to his house, because he has a studio in his basement – a small, tight, really efficient [studio].
“Pete had taken it back to his house where he could work faster, and he had done a tonne of work on it in his basement, so me and Pete spent the day working the stuff into the big mainframe mix.”
“It’s more of a thinktank. I feel like we’re more a group of painters than a rock band when we’re in the studio.
“We are the most anal motherfuckers on the planet. Somebody said to us, aeons ago, ‘the genius is in the details,’ and we just took it way too seriously.”
Taylor-Taylor has never been one to shy away from expressing a controversial opinion (“I’m liable to say anything,” he says proudly), and he insists the Dandy Warhols were just about the only rock band doing anything remotely interesting in the mid-late nineties.
“In the early days, it was awful and it was hard for us. We were the punk rock band. We were the only band on a major label that was big finger to grunge, to rap rock, to mean people. It was fashionable to be mean and stupid back then.
“We were the only band who were going, fuck you, we’re just going to have fun, and we’re not going to be mean. We’re going meet other bands and hang out with them, not hate other bands and badmouth them. I can feel my mind darkening even just going there.”
At the same time, Taylor-Taylor describes himself as a natural contrarian, and it’s sometimes difficult to separate his opinions from some of his more outrageous statements. What is clear is that the band make a point of avoiding and subverting cliché.
“Back when the Strokes were big, and everyone sounded like the Strokes, anything that sounded like the Strokes at all we had to remove, or it turned us off. It made us feel like ‘god, now we sound like we’re trying to be the fucking Strokes like everybody else.’
“A couple of years ago, after the big [Foster the People hit, ‘Pumped Up Kicks], that song was huge and everyone sounded like that. Everybody had one hit all over Europe and America that sounded like Foster the People.
“That record was amazing and I love it, but I had to stop singing in that soft, breathy voice because I was just tired of it, and I was afraid people were just going to think we were jumping on a bandwagon, even though I’d been doing it for 15 years at that point.”
The past year has seen him developed a particular affection for Cork’s the Vincent(s), who will support the Dandies on their Dublin date, having stumbled across them walking around a festival “outside Cork” – which turns out to be Donegal, which is at least technically true.
“I heard this band that was beautiful – super heavy riffs, something really beautiful going on. I thought, this is a great take on that whole Sabbath, Black Angels, that whole angle. This is a great and different and very fresh take on that whole LSD, big riffs, psychedelic thing.
“I ended up mixing a track for them and they got some good mileage out of it, then I mixed another one last month with my engineer Eggleston.”
Ultimately, in spite of the odd exaggerated or ill-advised statement, the depth and breadth of the Dandy Warhols catalogue, and the level of detail and love contained in it, demonstrate the axiom that actions speak louder than words, in Taylor-Taylor’s case at least.
“I do love to make outrageous statements like ‘I fucking hate music!’ I do like to say goofball shit like that.
“Obviously, in the deepest part of myself I think I love music more than anything. It has given me more salvation, and more hope, and more joy in my life than everything else in the world put together.”
The Dandy Warhols play Indiependence in Cork on August 2nd and Dublin’s Academy the following night.
“You can accidentally spend your whole life working on your own songs, and it gets really insular after a while.” – Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz on his new approach to writing songs
The passage of time, and the way that we deal with it, is a constant theme throughout the music of Counting Crows.
It’s the subject of arguably the group’s greatest contribution to pop music – ‘A Long December’ – and one they return to on ‘Possibility Days,’ a sort of companion piece to the former, which closes their latest album, Somewhere Under Neverland, their first in six years.
Hits like ‘Mr Jones,’ ‘Round Here’ and ‘A Long December’ have become such indelible artifacts of the Nineties that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume the band had gone the same way.
One notable contribution to the Shrek soundtrack, ‘Accidentally in Love,’ which earned an Oscar nomination in 2004, the band have kept a fairly low profile over the past decade as frontman Adam Duritz struggled with addiction and insomnia.
The reason for the gap of six years between records, however, is somewhat more simple. The band set off to do their own projects, which for Duritz amounted to beginning work on a play and, while he was doing that, he felt writing music for the band would be overcomplicated.
“It’s not that I stopped writing or anything,” Duritz tells Something for the Weekend. “I was just writing for the play.
“It was so different writing for other characters for the first time in my life, I didn’t want to deal with the confusion of having to write for two things at once and choose which songs would go where. So I just wrote for the play and then recorded cover songs with the band.”
2012’s Underwater Sunshine, was something the band had planned to do as far back as 2003, when sessions for a covers album evolved into the original album Hard Candy. Duritz’s self-imposed songwriting amnesty presented itself at the right time to finally follow through.
Duritz comes across a little withdrawn and cautious in his speech but he becomes suddenly more animated when the subject turns to songwriting, particularly when he speaks about how taking a step back from his own music has allowed him to write in a completely new way.
He says: “You can accidentally spend your whole life working on your own songs, and it gets really insular after a while. You don’t even notice it happening, but you start to have a very rigid idea of what makes a song good. I’m not sure it’s a particularly positive thing.
“I had been wanting to write differently for a while and struggling with it because, in my life, I have usually written songs in one sitting. I judged them to be good if I finished them; if I didn’t finish them I figured it was because they weren’t good.
“Over the years, I was really starting a lot of things and not finishing them, and I couldn’t figure out why. I would get really inspired by an idea, and then all of a sudden I’d think it wasn’t that good.
“I think what was happening was that I was starting to write from a different perspective and I didn’t really recognise that as a good, different thing – I just saw it as a shitty version of what I’d been doing before.”
“I really thought for years the only way to write really, really meaningful songs for me was to write about myself, because that was the only thing I knew about. When I wrote for the play I realised I wrote some of the best songs of my life, and they weren’t really me, but they were about how I felt.
“If you thought of blue as what’s good, and different gradations of blue as different versions of quality to you in your life, and one day you make something that’s green, you might see it as a really good green, but you might just see it as a shitty blue, a blue that wasn’t right.”
What finally convinced him to have faith in a more character-based style of songwriting was when he played for his bandmates the sketches of ideas he’d previously have thrown away, and they “flipped out,” as Duritz puts it.
Somewhere Under Wonderland’s opening track, an eight-and-a-half minute ballad that follows the lives of two curious friends on the fringes of the society – a song Duritz feels, in many ways, sums up the positive change in his songwriting.
“’Palisades Park’ is not a story about me, but it is very much a story about how I feel, and it is very much related to a lot of experiences I had in my life. It’s also very much a story about two people who are not me at all.
“That was really liberating because I could write about people whose lives I sympathised with, I felt like I understood, I had all this pent-up feeling about, but it’s not the life that I’d led. I think it may be the best song I’ve ever written.”
The song – as, indeed, are many on Somewhere Under Wonderland – is interspersed with symbols and references to cultural landmarks of classic America.
‘Palisades Park,’ for instance, is interspersed with allusions to the iconic boxing match between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries – the first heavyweight title fight between two black men.
“Jack Johnson is a figure in American history that always really intrigued me. This amazing person, this very intelligent, gregarious black man at a time when most black people in American didn’t dare say a peep.
“Jack Johnson lived with a white woman, out of wedlock, and went around beating the crap out of everybody.
“He paid for it a lot in later life – they got him. He was an interesting figure. He’s almost like a mythological figure, like Paul Bunyon chopping down trees. He’s almost like this bigger than life person.”
Inevitably, the song encapsulates its author’s pre-occupation with the passage of time, through his speculation on what Jeffries must have been thinking as he lay, stunned, on a Reno, Nevada canvas.
“That moment in that song when the guy is thinking about memories and remembering where he is. Wherever you are in your life, you can sit there and you can’t figure out how did you get to where you are from where you were, but the thing is that you don’t get to go back.
“You don’t get to go back and figure things out or change anything, and that’s really what it is at that moment in the song. Jeffries is lying on his back, staring at the sky, because he’s just been knocked on his ass.
“He was so certain that was not going to happen, but there’s no way to go back and figure out why – it just happened.”
Counting Crows play the Royal Kilmainham Hospital in Dublin on Wednesday, June 24th.
“I didn’t vote for Bez’s Reality Party – this was the first time I ever voted in my life so I thought I better not waste my vote!” – Shaun Ryder on the up
Between drugs, reality TV and the lasting cult success of the Happy Mondays, it’s easy to forget that Shaun Ryder’s biggest success as a musician came about in the middle of all that with Black Grape.
The hip hop-heavy electronic act came about when the Happy Mondays unravelled in the mid-nineties and straight away achieved something the Mondays never did – a number one album – with their debut album, It’s Great When You’re Straight… Yeah.
In the midst of all that came Britpop, New Labour and Euro ’96 and, all of a sudden, it was popular to celebrate Britishness and Englishness through music, and Black Grape rode the wave with a hit single, ‘England’s Irie,’ right on the cusp of the football tournament.
As is traditional with Ryder’s music projects, Black Grape burned brightly and quickly before burning out and, within three years, they too split in the wake of in-fighting and ever-escalating drug problems, which years later would see co-founder Kermit on his death bed.
The last couple of years have seen the two main protagonists – Ryder and Kermit, real name Paul Leveridge – re-connect, but it was the 20th anniversary of their first album and a kernel planted by Ryder’s publisher that saw them re-unite for a tour, which takes in three Irish dates, ending at Sea Session in Donegal next weekend.
“The girl who does my publishing reminded me that it was the 20th anniversary of It’s Great When You’re Straight,” Ryder tells Something for the Weekend.
“Really, Black Grape is just me and Kermit – the rest of the guys were just session musicians.
“Me and Kermit did all the writing and all the producing with Danny Saber, who played most of the instruments on the album, and when we took it on tour we just got session guys in.
“Kermit has been getting better and better each time I’ve seen him, and he’s in a really good place, better than I’ve ever seen him for years.
“17 years ago he had to have a priest out for the last rites in the hospital because he was dying. He’s 50 and he looks about 29.”
“I met him a couple of years ago at a Snoop Dogg concert, and I saw him a couple of times after and he got better and better and better.
“It’s great to see him so happy – he’s in a great place. When we did it 20 years ago we were still on that treadmill, that hamster’s wheel of albums, tours, press, having just come out of the Mondays.
“I’m older and wiser now, and it’s better than ever. It’s enjoyable now. I didn’t realise what a great album It’s Great was, and there’s some good stuff on the second album.”
While the Mondays were successful in their own right – Step On remains one of the era’s iconic tracks, and Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches a classic album – but Black Grape had the added advantage of good timing, surfing the crest of the Britpop wave without ever considering themselves part of it.
“We knew we had something really good. At that time, the Britpop thing was just happening.
“I remember somebody playing me the Oasis album that hadn’t come out yet, and it was about to drop, and the whole Britpop thing took off. We weren’t really part of that, but it was a great year for music.
On ‘England’s Irie’ – still one of the best songs in the fairly limited cannon of pop songs about the beautiful game – came about rather more fortuitously, as Ryder proudly declares he has no interest in football.
Rather, it was Keith Allen, father of Lily and later chart-topper with another celebration of football and English cuisine, Vindaloo, who drove the project and the band were happy to bask in the success.
“We were working with Keith Allen at the time, and Keith came in and said we’re going to do this song for the Euros. If you listen to the song he’s singing a lot of it and he’s taking the piss out of the Mancunian accent.
“I know fuck all about football. I was born at the back of Old Trafford and I’m a red by birth, but I don’t do football. I get a lot of pleasure out of saying ‘I’m not a football head.’
“I still think the Manchester United team has Georgie Best, Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and Eric Cantona in it. It means nothing to me.”
Recent years have seen a resurgence in interest in the Mondays, including stints on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here and Celebrity Big Brother, and the original Happy Mondays recently did a stint in the jungle in central America for the BBC.
“We went to this tribe of percussionists in Panama and made music with them. When the show goes out, you can download the track and the money from that will go to the tribe and allow them to carry on the life they’ve had for thousands of years.”
Ryder also fronted his own History Channel show where he hunted UFOs in South America – he recounts a story to me of his own encounter as a child – and plans to release a solo album early next year, which he recorded with Sunny Levine, grandson of the legendary Quincy Jones.
Bez, meanwhile, though only ever a nominal member of Black Grape, isn’t part of the reunion as he continues to focus on his burgeoning political career, which saw him land 700 votes in the recent general election in Salford.
“Bez thinks he’s going to be Prime Minister some day, he really does. And I’ll be there for him.
I mean, I didn’t vote for Bez’s Reality Party – I’ll be 53 in August and the election we just had was the first time I ever voted in my life, so I thought if I’m going to do something as important as this I better not waste my vote!”
Black Grape play Dublin’s Academy on June 19th and the Sea Sessions festival in Bundoran on June 21st.
“We came down the chute different” – Black Stone Cherry’s John Fred Young on his love of Ireland, songwriting and growing up in a rock n’ roll family
Black Stone Cherry may not be a household name in Ireland – or even their native America – but the Kentucky quartet have deservedly earned a reputation as a fearsome live act.
It’s been four years since the self-described Southern rock band last played in Dublin – to a packed out Whelan’s – and they return four years wiser with a new album, last year’s Magic Mountain, in tow.
Following a brief tilt at crossing over to the mainstream, Magic Mountain sees the band simplify their approach and return to the formula that took them from an old shack on drummer John Fred Young’s farm to festival stages the world over.
Young speaks to Something for the Weekend on the eve of their three-date stop in Ireland, before spending the summer touring the UK and mainland Europe.
“Working with Joe was unreal,” says Young, referring to producer Joe Baressi (Melvins, Kyuss), with whom they recorded their fourth studio record.
“Joe Baressi is one of the sweetest guys and one of the most intelligent people when it comes to, sonically, getting sounds in the studio.
“We went out to Pasadena, California in 2013, in the Fall, and it was just magical. Joe has this Hot Rod shop, that used to be an auto shop for working on motors, and he just gutted it and put in a studio in this old brick building.
“Joe wanted us to just have a record that we could be proud of. As for his producer’s hat, Joe didn’t step in and tell us where to put stuff or how to do this and that – it’s more like he became part of the band, like a fifth member.
“We cut to tape for the first time in our career, which I thought was just awesome.”
The band’s previous record – 2010’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea – saw the group take on a more commercial bent.
At the behest of their label, they drafted in commercial rock producer Howard Benson and worked with songwriters-for-hire in an attempt to fit the mould of rock radio. It wasn’t a comfortable fit.
Young says: “Howard is a great producer as well with a totally different bag of tricks to Joe – a pop guy.
“It was incredible making that record because we learned stuff that we never thought we would have taken away from our experience with a producer like that.
“It’s always the way when you’re a band working with a record label that you get somebody who wants to mould you into something that’s ‘hot’ at the moment.
“In America, the way people hear about rock bands is through rock radio, and we’re just not an active rock radio band – we’re a live, classic rock, lifestyle band. We’ve got to write songs that won’t get us on the radio but will appeal to our fans and will also work in our live show.”
“We worked with 30 or 40 different writers in 2010, and it was a great experience getting to meet all those people, a lot of Nashville guys. It made us better songwriters, for sure, and we’re so proud that that happened.”
The band have been back on the road since the start of May, having taken a six-month break from touring as John Fred became a father for the first time.
Young’s father, Richard, and his uncle Fred (also a drummer) are members of the Grammy Award-winning southern rock band the Kentucky Headhunters, and they helped the teenagers cut their teeth on the live circuit.
Young says: “We actually started on Chris’s birthday, June the 4th, 2001. We started rehearsing in my dad and uncle’s old shack that my great-grandmother gave to them. Every day after school we’d just pound it. Our band’s been together almost 15 years, which is longer than some people’s marriages!
“If I wasn’t in this band, I’d be a fan of this band. I know that sounds a little vain, but I don’t mean it like that, but we’re a band that are doing something that not a lot of bands are.
“We’re bringing classic rock influences we grew up on, rehearsing in our house on the farm, surrounded by ’60s and ’70s posters on the wall to keep the heat in, because there wasn’t any insulation in the ’30s and ’40s when this old shack was built.
“We were 15 and 16, looking at Cream and Mountain and Led Zeppelin and the Who, and old blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.
“We got an ancient pedigree at a young age, and that’s what separated us from a lot of bands that just grew up on what other kids our age were listening to, like Korn and Limp Bizkit and Nine Inch Nails.
“We’re so lucky to have had parents who turned us on to those artists, and I think that’s one of the reasons why we came down the chute different.”
Like so many in the American South, Young comes from Irish lineage and his excitement at returning to Ireland for a couple of shows is clearly audible, even down a phone line.
“I remember the first time we came to Ireland in 2008, maybe, when we were playing some smaller clubs, and I always fight to come to Ireland.
“It’s not even that we have to fight sometimes, but when booking agents and tours are going together, they want to hit all of the UK and sometimes Ireland, because you have to take the ferry out there, kind of gets left off.
“I’ve got a love for Ireland – my family are descendents like many other people here. We’re really psyched we’ve got three shows in Ireland, so it’s going to be incredible.”
Black Stone Cherry play the Pav in Cork on June 15 and the Academy in Dublin on June 16.
“It was socially important for the kids to have some music in the north of Ireland and not be annexed off completely.” – Rory Gallagher’s brother Dónal on the famous Irish Tour of ’74
It was 40 years ago in December that Rory Gallagher embarked on his iconic Irish Tour, a week-long venture taking in both sides of the border at a time when the majority of international acts ignored the island completely.
The tour was beset by problems from the very beginning – the Troubles at their height meant they had barely a week to plan the Belfast dates – and they were forced to improvise when Ronnie Lane’s mobile recording unit was held up in the UK as they couldn’t find an insurer willing to take on the risk.
With him throughout that tour – and indeed the majority of his career before his untimely death in 1995 – was his younger brother Dónal, who first served as a roadie for Rory’s band before stepping up to become his manager both on the road and off it.
With the eight-disc CD and DVD set recently re-mastered and re-released to coincide with the milestone, Dónal speaks to Something for the Weekend about his still-vivid recollections from one of blues and rock’s iconic records.
“Frankly, the last thing I wanted to hear from Rory was that there was a film crew coming on tour with us,” he says.
“In those days you didn’t carry such a big lighting rig, but that all had to be supplemented for film lighting.
“You couldn’t actually get confirmation for the dates in the north of Ireland. You’d have to wait until a ceasefire was agreed or some sort of truce over Christmas, and that was usually at the last minute, and it was usually around the 19th of December you’d find out a truce had been agreed until such a date.
“Jim Aiken [the promoter] would then go and book the hall, so you were never quite clear when you’d do the dates and everything had to be done at short notice.
“If you’d had the aid of text and mobiles and emails, it wouldn’t be so bad, but in those days it was hand-written letter or Telex machines. It was probably all the better for it in some ways, as it generated its own adrenaline.”
By the mid-Seventies, the once-thriving Belfast rock n’ roll and blues scene had fizzled out to virtually nothing – Rory had made his name in the northern city as the face of Cork trio Taste, but it was an utterly changed place to which he deigned to return as Christmas approached in 1974.
Rory was one of the hottest properties this side of the Atlantic by this time. He’d recorded with Muddy Waters and Jerry Lewis, and in early ’75 the Rolling Stones were interested in bringing him in to replace Mick Taylor, who had recently walked away from the band.
This meant he could afford to be choosy about whom he worked with, and he had the luxury of rejecting the advances of two film crews who sought to make a documentary emphasising the Troubles – which was precisely the opposite of what Rory was trying to achieve.
Dónal says: “Rory didn’t want the thing portrayed as a political statement. It was about the music and it was about that generation of fun-loving, music-loving people. You had internment and all sorts, and in the media kids in Ireland had been portrayed in a terrible light, and the other side was showing kids coming to a concert and enjoying it.
“It was also laying down the gauntlet to other bands to come back and tour in Ireland because that had all stopped. There was no visiting musicians touring. It was socially important for the kids to have some music in the north of Ireland and not be annexed off completely.
“It was fundamentally important that it wasn’t portrayed that way – there had been two other approaches that had been refused on the basis that they had wanted to make the whole thing political.”
While the aim of the tour was partly to challenge bands to once again tour north of the border, the reality was that it was an undertaking fraught with difficult for everybody from bands and performers to promoters and the fans themselves.
Dónal says: “You had the scenario where promoters couldn’t put gigs on because they couldn’t get insurance, and second of all you had the responsibility that if you do put gigs on and you invite kids into a city centre, you’re putting 2000 kids into the Ulster Hall and god forbid something untoward would happen.
“Nobody wanted to have that kind of responsibility. And coming into town and going home, there were so many incidents in the evenings that you had a curfew imposed by the British Army.
“I remember going up there for different purposes and you had to be back in your hotel by eight in the evening. And as well as that, if you were a visiting band you didn’t know whether your hotel would be in the car park in the morning.”
In spite of the difficulties created by the political situation, the tour was a success across the board, as attested to by sold-out shows in Belfast, Dublin and Cork. Hectic though the schedule was, the brothers found plenty of opportunities to enjoy themselves outside of the gigs.
“There were some incredible moments, and sadly not filmed. A high point for me would have been the night after the Carlton Cinema in Dublin, we went back to the Gresham Hotel across the road and some of the Dubliners turned up because they’d heard about the band.
“Rory had played on a show with the Dubliners in the Sixties. It was Luke Kelly, John Sheahan and Barney McKenna. We went out and got some acoustic instruments and next thing there was a session in the foyer between Rory and the Dubliners with Luke Kelly signing all night.
“The film cameras were put on it but Rory didn’t want any lighting because it would have destroyed the atmosphere so the film never came out, but somewhere there’s an audio of that moment.”
“The following morning, I was on my way down to the Liffey with Barney McKenna – he used to go fishing in the Liffey and he had a boat moored up by the bridge – and somebody said to me ‘do you realise you’ve got to be in Cork tonight?”
The eight-disc Irish Tour ’74 box set is out now.
“We’re an unusual proposition so for me it makes complete sense to keep things on an unusual footing.” – Public Service Broadcasting’s J Willgoose, Esq
It’s not the image the Soviet space program might have envisaged for its crown jewel – two men in spacesuits breakdancing to a funk song named ‘Gagarin.’
Then again, the song and video’s creators, Public Service Broadcasting, specialise in taking the history we know – or think we know – and playing it back to us in a radically altered context.
‘Gagarin’ – as the name implies – pays a unique tribute to the first man to walk in space, layering state broadcast footage atop a backdrop of a fat funk bass line and spitting horn section.
It’s quite a contrast from the staid, sombre post-punk upon which the band built their reputation, and the element of surprise is one that chief music-maker J Willgoose, Esq (possibly an affectation) says is key to the band’s philosophy of never becoming too comfortable.
Willgoose tells Something for the Weekend: “[Gagarin] sounds a bit different in terms of instruments and genre, being a bit more funk-oriented than our usual stuff, but I think you’ve got to keep changing things and keep trying to work in different ways, otherwise you’ll just go stale and keep making the same record over and over again.
“I don’t want to do that. If you do happen to lose a few people along the way, purely because you’re trying something new, I think you’ll make that up in people that you’re gaining from not doing the exact same thing.
“It’s got the reaction we’ve expected, which is broadly very positive and a couple of people online saying it’s not as good as Spitfire, and what they really mean is that it doesn’t sound like Spitfire, but it shouldn’t because it wasn’t designed to.
“We’re not a normal band, you know? We’re not two guitars, bass, drums, singer prancing about all over the place. We’re an unusual proposition so for me it makes complete sense to keep things on an unusual footing.”
The pair’s first album – 2009’s Inform-Educate-Entertain – sampled British and American propaganda films from the 1930s and 1940s and paired them with electro-infused rock in a way that was as disquieting as it was entertaining.
On The Race For Space, they’ve taken on a much greater subject and with it a suitably expansive sound that, while perhaps not being quite as ambitious as space exploration, is a step up in terms of scale and depth.
“When we conceived this album, there were a few things we wanted to do in terms of scale and the instrumentation – the size of it, in a way. It seemed to me like working with the space race, which is such a massive and dwarfing thing to write about, would be a good thing to provide a backdrop to that a sound with a bit more breadth to it.
“There was also a slightly more pragmatic element, because of the way we work, that if you want to pick a certain era in time to write about you’ve got to know there’s good footage available you can use to tell an interesting story. As soon as we got the Russian footage from the BFI, we knew we were on our way with it.”
While the pair make no clear political statements on the album, Willgoose feels the very act of selecting samples is a form of commentary in itself, and he’s particularly interested in the way the same information was presented by the Americans and the Soviet Union and what that says about their respective societies.
“Politically, it’s quite interesting in terms of the source material, in terms of how open and accessible the NASA material is and the number of amazing histories you can buy of theirs – proper history.
“And then contrast that with the Russian stuff. One of my favourite lines on the album, and it may only be profound to people who know the history, is on EVA. It’s Alexi Leonov and he says ‘ten minutes in space, ten minutes that shook the world.’
“That’s how the Russians chose to present that story, but he was actually out there for 20 minutes, far longer than he was supposed to be, his suit swelled up massively and he had to let some pressure out of a little valve and go in head-first when he wasn’t supposed to and basically nearly died.
“Whereas NASA were quite open about some of their bigger failures – the notable one being Apollo One – and the way the Russians present it I find illuminating. It’s still kind of true to this day, the way the two societies are structured and how closed, in certain respects, Russian society seems.
“I think the way the Russian one is so nakedly not actually true, in certain respects, says a lot about how they like to control media and control the message, and I think that’s still true today.
“If you look at media freedom in Russia – it would be a lot lower on that index than the USA. I found this a stark illustration in how little has changed.”
Space exploration is something Willgoose has always been interested in, and there’s an element of The Race For Space that mourns that dormant chapter in history, though he stresses it’s intended as an album people can enjoy whether or not they’re interested in the subject matter.
“It works on all kinds of levels, whether or not it’s lamenting a case in which, although technology has moved on, we don’t send manned missions to the moon anymore and this age of manned space exploration missions seems to have gone.
“It seems like a rare instance where technology has gone backwards in a way – there aren’t many things where you can say ‘we used to that but we don’t do that anymore’ about something that is technically innovating.”
As for the video, Willgoose refuses to be drawn on whether it is, in fact, him and partner Wrigglesworth, dancing in spacesuits.
He says, possibly only half-joking: “We get asked that a lot and we can’t talk about it because we’ve signed a confidentiality agreement with ourselves, and will actually have to take ourselves to court if we do!
“We like to let people use their imagination and if people want to believe it’s us then they’re perfectly welcome to, and vice versa. Some people seem to want to say it’s us and some people want to say it’s definitely not us – we’re on the fence.”
The Race For Space is scheduled for release on February 20.
- Sinead O’Connor – I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss
Sinead O’Connor scored her first number one album – not that chart position means all that much – since 1991’s iconic I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got with the similarly wordy I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss, earlier this summer. O’Connor’s tenth album isn’t so much a return to form as it is a brilliant record in its own right.
Having liberated herself from the confines of autobiographical writing, she approached the record as if writing the soundtrack of a film. She told Something for the Weekend in the run-up to the album release: “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.
“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.”
- Hozier –Hozier
While Sinead O’Connor’s Take Me to Church lit up our album of the year – an entirely different song of the same name was lighting up the pop charts all over the world. Bray has never been renowned as a heartland of the blues, but one suspects Andrew Hozier-Byrne had a broader church in mind when he composed the euphoric alternative love song; the Brendan Canty-directed video, which depicts the violent reaction suffered by a same-sex couple in an unidentified place, is genuinely chilling too.
The album is a soulful mix of blues and rock which wouldn’t sound out of place alongside 1970s Van Morrison, and has already produced two further hits in From Eden and Sedated.
- Johnny Marr – Playland
It took Johnny Marr the guts of 25 post-Smiths years to finally treat us to a solo album, last year’s The Messenger. Album number two, Playland, shows why it’s such a shame we had to wait so long. Playland expands on a theme developed on The Messenger whereby Manchester-born Marr takes inspiration from the urban geography of his home town and the characters who live on its margins.
Playland takes its title from a seedy arcade the music-mad young Marr would visit to hear the latest rock n’ roll tunes. He told SFTW: “Music sounded really good in there and you were hearing all the kicking music of the day coming in through distorted speakers, in the same way as I was in the funfare and football matches.
“It was always about hearing chart music – this was obviously before you had stuff being beamed down to your pocket through your phone. It was pre-walkman! Unless you just walked around with a transistor radio to your ear, you went to those places to hear music all day long.”
- Against Me! – Transgender Dysmorphia Blues
Were just about any other band to title a record Transgender Dysmorphia Blues, it would likely come across as a cruel joke at the expense of those who suffer its effects. Not so for Against Me!, whose singer Laura Jane Grace shocked many when she announced that, having identified as a man for most of her life, would begin the transition to living as a woman.
The album is a discomfiting, challenging and angry punk rock record that documents Grace’s experiences and the experiences of transgender people in navigating a world that is both intentionally and inadvertently cruel.
- Lethal Dialect x Jackknife-J – 1988
SFTW were big fans of Lethal Dialect’s first two albums – LD50 Parts I & II – and the Finglas rapper’s ability to marry dark, complex rhymes with a sinister, brooding atmosphere. The follow-up sees the man born Paulie Allwright ditch much of what was great about those albums, but in doing so he’s opened up as an artist, aided by the stellar production of fellow Dubliner Jackkife-J.
Speaking to SFTW before the album’s release, Allwright said: “As an emcee, you have to show the ability to tell stories. With 1988, I’m not doing any concepts to prove myself as an emcee. I’m not trying to prove I can rap. I’m just putting a bit of myself out there.
“With this album I’m telling stories that are true, stories I have personally experienced – it’s me. That’s why it’s 1988 – it’s me.”
- The Hot Sprockets – Brother Nature
Dubliners blues rockers the Hot Sprockets aren’t a band that will be familiar to the eyes of many, but they’ll certainly be recognisable to most discerning ears: Cruizin’ has soundtracked the ubiquitous TV advert for a bank, while Soul Brother has been a mainstay in RTE Sport ads. Their second album, Brother Nature, is a short and infectious collection of Americana-tinged pop songs.
As guitarist Tim Cullen told SFTW, a big leap forward from their very raw debut: “With the first album, we’d hear songs on the radio, and the song before it would sound much bigger and the song after it would sound much bigger, and you’d know then that you’re missing something there.
“When we did finish recording the second album, and we were like ‘this sounds actually amazing and we did take it to the next level,’ we knew we could let it go under the bridge like the first record.”
- Wife – What’s Between
There was some amount of surprise when Cork black metal act Altar of Plagues announced they would play their last show in 2013, shortly after the release of Teethed Glory & Injury, however the new electronic influences on the record demonstrated that James Kelly’s mind was already elsewhere. London, in fact, where life in the city had tuned him into more electronic influences, and his debut album as Wife sees him flit between sugary synths and bleak, ambient pop a la Burial.
Kelly told Something for the Weekend: “London’s a strange place to live having grown up in the countryside. Living here where having a conversation at 2 in the morning bleeds through the walls, it totally changes your lifestyle. Subconsciously, it changes your psyche going from living in a spacious rural area to the city.”
- Trophy Scars – Holy Vacants
Trophy Scars built their reputation on fierce and obtuse hardcore punk but, like many reformed punks, have taken a shine to the blues in their dotage. Holy Vacants completes the New Jersey five-piece’s transition from punk to all-out blues rock, and it’s a transition they’ve made sound far easier than it sound be.
It’s a dark and harrowing record punctuated by expert musicianship, furious blues riffs and frontman Jerry Jones’ menacing croak which, though it may sound inelegant at first, is as fine as the rest of the record’s considerable parts.
- Pianos Become Teeth – Keep You
Pianos Become the Teeth’s three albums to date have each, in different ways, been defined by frontman Kyle Durfey’s struggle to come to terms with his father’s slow deterioration and eventual passing as a result of multiple sclerosis.
On the first two records, that manifested itself in the form of crushing, ultra-dynamic hardcore and Durfey’s piercing, screamed vocals. Keep You takes the band in precisely the opposite direction, with post-rock melodies and layered, elegant sounds underpinning Durfey’s pained vocals, which are none the less raw and emotional for the lack of screaming.
- Mastodon – Once More ‘Round the Sun
Having sold out Dublin twice in 2013, Atlanta progressive metal machine Mastodon repeated the trick last month when their single date sold out almost instantly – although in truth they probably could have sold out a week straight had they been so inclined.
It’s a phenomenal achievement for a group whose background in stoner metal and prog should, rightfully, consign them to obscurity within their own families, but Once More ‘Round the Sun is yet another example of a heavy rock record that has serious pop sensibilities without sacrificing the elements that made them such an interesting band to begin with.