Eschewing finely-honed songwriting for propulsive rhythm and improvisation, The Bonk are a rising quantity in Cork music. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with bandleader Phil Christie.
Since emerging in the last two years, The Bonk have become a lesser-spotted, highly sought-after musical animal, with the emphasis of creative head and Waterford man Phil Christie, also of O Emperor, focused firmly on new adventures in composition & creation. “So far, the project has been based around my curiosity about writing more rhythmically than I am used to. I got very interested in swung rhythms, repetition and improvisation. A lot of the songs/recordings are based around different iterations of those kinds of ideas.”
The process of Christie and collaborators’ jams is much the same live as it is in studio, leading with feel and instinct rather than any fine-honed sense of melody or songwriting largesse. “Most of the tracks that we have recorded so far have been approached as live performances. We’ve tried to develop a fairly strict non-thinking atmosphere while doing it, which has meant that the whole process has been quite enjoyable so far. Usually the instrumental tracks are laid down together as a group, and vocals are added later.”
This heads-down, no-nonsense nature is a contrast to Christie’s other parish, as he finds himself very much at the centre of activity regards composition and performance, calling the shots and leading the project in a profoundly more improvisational direction. “The main difference would probably be in the nature of the composition process. With O Emperor, ideas would usually take shape through collaborative jamming and part-writing. There would be more emphasis on specific arrangements. The Bonk tends to use more limited structures and to explore improvisation in developing these basic ideas.”
This approach to creation and performance has seen the band slowly begin gigging more around town lately – Sudden Club Weekender at the Kino last year being a notable occasion. How was that and how do you reckon the Cork scene will be without Cork promo outfit Southern Hospitality Board for the foreseeable? “We really enjoyed playing that night. That was the first time we had played through our whole set and we were opening up for Altered Hours, which was great fun. Southern Hospitality Board have been really great for music around the city since they started up. They’ve set a very strong precedent for approaching live music in a really interesting way in Cork. We were very chuffed to take part in Quarter Block Party last year and were very well looked after by Aisling and Caoilian. I would hope that more people will be inclined to follow their example now but I do look forward to their next venture.”
The band has begun releasing singles in a slow but steady fashion, with second single Monologue seeing the light of day in March. Christie explains the plan of action is down to growing on the live reputation they’ve accrued. “So far, we’ve been pretty low-key in what we’re doing, so I guess it’s mostly the people who have seen us live that will have checked out the track. The release was a quiet affair but we’re quite relieved to finally start getting more of the recordings off of our chests.”
Having reassembled after various delays, the band played Coughlan’s this past month, with support from the solo outlet of band member Patrick Freeman, a long-tenured journeyman of Irish music. “We’d been without our guitarist, Jim Christie for quite a while, so (this gig was) a reunion of sorts for the group. As well as releasing a new track, we tried some new material along with some alternative arrangements of old things, and it was fun. We share a few members with Patrick Freeman’s group who I believe are also set to release some new material very soon. I’ve been playing with Paddy for a long time and it’s always a treat for me to hear his songs in a live context.”
After a slow build, it seems more patience is the answer for The Bonk for the time being. “We’ll be releasing an album later this year and playing more gigs. Still doing the music.”
The Bonk’s latest single, Monologue, is available for download now from the band’s Bandcamp.