Having blazed a trail around the world for Cork’s indie scene in the late nineties and early noughties, Rubyhorse are lined up for a return this January at Ballincollig’s Winter Music Festival. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with guitarist Joe Philpott.
One of the great hopes of the city’s music scene as the nineties wound their way into the millennium, childhood friends turned alt-rock powerhouses Rubyhorse found success upon taking flight to Boston in search of a wider audience. Having established themselves and dallianced with major labels, the band are set to return after playing a run of shows in 2016, with a new body of work finished and planned for release later this year. Guitarist Joe Philpott delves into the band’s creative process this time around. “It’s been unusual for us. In the past, we used to take Decky’s songs, and shape them on the road, in the rehearsal room and the studio. With these tracks, Decky had them lying, and felt they might suit Rubyhorse so we got together just to see what would happen. They were put together in Deck’s studio, very much in a nuts and bolts fashion, and we figured out how to play them live afterwards. In essence, the opposite of what we used to do!”
With the songs and stories therein under wraps for so long, the conversation inevitably turns to the finality of completing a piece of art. It must be difficult, drawing a line under these songs after a long gestation, and so much work, before letting them go, in a sense. “It’s always hard, because nothing ever feels finished. We actually did about three versions of each track. The challenge is not to forget it’s about the song, and the emotional delivery of that. You can spend an eternity adding ear-candy and production tricks, but there’s a line you need to draw before you start getting self-indulgent, and start thinking that adding more stuff is going to make a difference. It won’t, and that’s just artist insecurity.”
Another sojourn Stateside is also planned for the new material, a market with which the band has long had an affinity, and tangible critical & commercial success. Though the band intends to return to where a core following exists in order to share new music, they’re planning on playing it by ear somewhat. “We have a fanbase in the States, if the new material strikes a chord, and it feels right to play out there we will. We’ve had offers to play, so that is exciting. We’re not going to overthink it. Even though technically we’re still signed out there, we’re probably going to put this out ourselves. Again, it goes back to doing this for ourselves, as opposed to having a big master plan.”
Any self-respecting music hack would be remiss if they didn’t ask about that aforementioned tangible success, in this case, a hit that at one time was frankly inescapable. ‘Sparkle’, acknowledged as the band’s big single and one that follows the band around thanks to years of airplay and ad placement, has generated endless goodwill and set the foundation for the band as a going concern among the wider indie/alternative listenership in Ireland. “I love it. It’s a great song, is still playing on radio today, and it still sounds great. That period for the band was incredible. We were lads from Cork in our twenties, literally living out our dreams, seeing the world, and playing music.”
The sessions for the album from which ‘Sparkle’ came, ‘Rise’, included a guest appearance from now-departed Beatle George Harrison, on slide guitar for album cut ‘Punchdrunk’, also due for a special anniversary release this year. How did that come about? “It goes back to the surreal nature of our lives back then. We were in South Beach, Miami, mixing the record, and we were having an argument on a beach in December as to whether we should ask a Beatle to play on our album! We did, and he said yes.”
Back to the present day: the band has a couple of Cork dates ready to go before heading out further afield with their new stuff, including Ballincollig Winter Music Festival at the White Horse, on the 27th, and Cyprus Avenue the following week on the 3rd. Following the pressure-cooker of the studio, Philpott collects his thoughts on heading back out in front of hometown audiences. “It’s a great feeling to be playing Rubyhorse gigs again. We’ve always enjoyed the live aspect of the band, and home has always topped our expectations.”
Cork’s scene is healthier and more eclectic than it has been in a very long time, as has been well-documented. When asked for his take on recent events, Philpott offers a glowing appraisal of the city’s soundscape. “I think Cork has always been a vibrant city for music. From Rory Gallagher to Fatima Mansions, if you threw a stone where we grew up, it would land on a band room. It’s the diversity of the artists, and the audience that makes it unique. In the past the scene may have relied on a movement, be it blues, folk, punk, trad, new wave, dance, electronic or pop, and then everyone got the same haircut and bought the same shirt. Now you have great stuff happening across the board, and a more open-minded gig-going crowd, which makes for a creative, vibrant scene all round.”