The Great Balloon Race: Lifting Off

The Great Balloon Race play Coughlan’s on May 5th, launcing a new album and breaking a near-year-long hiatus. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with guitarist Marcus Gordon.

A quiet fixture of Cork’s progressive and psychedelic live bills since their emergence at the beginning of the decade, The Great Balloon Race have married folk and jazz inflections to the broader church of leftfield musical sensibilities. For guitarist/vocalist Marcus Gordon, the process of settling on a solid line up with which to do so has been a gradual process. “We’ve been knocking around Cork for a good few years now, starting with myself and Jonathan (McNicholas – guitar/vox) playing acoustics, picking up and losing members along the way as bands do. I like to think we’ve a settled lineup now with Dan (Walsh – drums) and Declan (O’Shea – bass) though: they’re quite sound.”

New album Gently, Gently is due for release on May 5th, and is being accompanied by a special release show at Coughlan’s, with support from Wirral/Cork troubadour Laurie Shaw. Having been sat on for an extended period of time before its release, Gordon’s memory has lapsed on the matter somewhat, painting the picture of its creation in broad strokes. “It was quite some time ago now, but I remember it going pretty smoothly. We knew the songs well going in, and we tracked the majority of it in a five day block session.”

The album is a follow-up to their debut full-length, 2012’s Cardboard. With years and a few extended live excursions under their belt between recordings, the process of recording was a lot different, going into it. “With Cardboard, I remember being much more inexperienced about the recording process and the specific headspace you have to be in. The songs were not as fully formed going in, and Dan had just joined a very short time before, so it all took a good bit longer to get down. I’m proud of how it all turned out in the end. We had things a lot more worked-out going in this time, and even though the songs still got changed and refined quite a bit, it was generally a more streamlined process. Declan had recently joined, but we’d already played a few shows, and he’s a stone cold professional, so it wasn’t any bother to him.”

The album releases on cassette via KantCope, a Cork-based record label specialising in the sonically interesting run by Leeside psychedelia stalwart Roslyn Steer, and releasing exclusively on tape and in digital formats. Gordon is wry about the hype for retro releases. “Tape was the new vinyl, and then it was the old CD, and then vinyl was the new CD, but now tape is the new vinyl so it was the natural choice for us in this chaotic digital age. KantCope understands this so it’s worked out well. Download codes included in every cassette!”

The label itself is home to some wonderful music. Among artists in its still-short catalogue are Steer herself, three-piece doom-folk outfit Morning Veils, Walsh’s solo jazz project Fixity and Sky, Horse & Death, the paranormal-inspired project of Altered Hours man Kevin Terry. A hefty document of weird music in the area, but a neat fit for the future of the band. “As long as we can produce music worthy of a place amongst our labelmates, and as long as they can stay on top in the format wars, we can hope. But who knows – the future is murky and terrifying.”

The band is part of an ever-expanding clutch of proprietors of psychey, jazzy, dreaminess in Cork City, many of whom have become battle-tested veterans at this juncture. Gordon is encouraged and even drived on by this longevity. “Many bands that started around the same time as us are still going strong and there have been many more younger, more attractive bands founded since which is always great to see. It can be disheartening to see a lot of the venues we used to play closing down for various reasons, but as long the people hold the weird shit in their hearts we’ll be fine.”

As stated earlier, the band play Coughlan’s of Douglas Street, on May 5th, the release day for the record. Releasing at the end of a long period of inaction, it seems as though the lads are ready to pick up where they left off. “I’m just really happy to playing with this band again. The last show we played was Body & Soul last year, so we’re ready to go. If you come down to the show on the 5th, you can forget about having a face after, is all I’m saying.”

Of course, the long-ball game is always a discussion for bands with an album freshly out of the way, especially to stay a few steps ahead while working on the independent level. Gordon is already thinking about it. “I say again that the future is murky and terrifying, but maybe we’ll get around to recording another one there in a bit – we have the material already, I think.”

The Great Balloon Race play Coughlan’s on May 5th, with Laurie Shaw in support. Tickets €10, available from coughlans.ie. New album Gently, Gently releases on cassette and download via KantCope on the same day.

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