Dr. John Cooper Clarke: “Get Me While I’m Alive!”

He’s the Bard of Salford, a punk-performance poet par excellence whose influence has trickled down from sharing stages with Joy Division to collaborating with the Arctic Monkeys. Ahead of his show on April 28th, Mike McGrath-Bryan chats about poetry, stagecraft, and the legacy of punk with Dr. John Cooper Clarke.

John Cooper Clarke is in very good form at the other end of the phone, a midweek presser interview happening on a sunny afternoon. Personable and honest, his Mancunian-accented voice resonates warmly down the line, spoken deliberately but with good humour and a wit you’d expect from a performer whose way with words and non-traditional influence led him to a legendary career, culminating in a doctorate from the University of Salford. He mulls over a line of questioning he’s been sent in advance. “We’ll talk about it like gentlemen”, he chuckles. It’s almost disarming, coming from a man of his stature.

Growing from a young boy in Manchester with the gift of a turn of phrase, to the artistic contemporary of bands like The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks, and Joy Division, rock ‘n’ roll mythologists might be slightly surprised that his body of work began with a very brief stint in folk clubs in his home city. It’s a dichotomy that didn’t quite sit right with him for a few reasons, and set the tone for how he’d proceed. “I give ‘em a wide berth, to be honest. Maybe once or twice. But if you grew up in 1950s England, you’ll remember that enjoyment of folk music was rigidly enforced, to counter the perceived Americanisation of popular culture, which I was in favour of. I always saw folk as some creepy, state-sanctioned f*ckin’ brainwashing technique. I’m not talking about Christy Moore, Dylan or the Pogues, more Morris dancing and that anti-American rubbish. I wanted to get into show business. I’d determined I would take it up as a profession, and the only way I knew of, really, given that there weren’t any venues, or any chance of anyone from my background getting a publishing deal right away, was to drag it into the world of showbiz!”

Poetry had scarcely been reaching non-traditional audiences up to the point of Clarke’s youth, reaching his family via Pam Ayres’ recurring spot on ITV’s postal-vote talent show Opportunity Knocks. In a world of YouTube poetry videos and shortform content, the idea of poetry topping the billing on such a television show today is nearly astounding, but for Clarke, it was what he needed to win his family over on his calling. “When I became interested in becoming a professional poet, I didn’t get much encouragement. They were only thinking of my welfare, I’m sure, but my parents pointed out that to their knowledge, no-one had ever made money out of it (laughs)… I’d mention famous modern poets like Philip Larkin, and they’d say ‘he’s a librarian’. Things like that. They were trying to be kind and discourage me from an ill-advised avenue of wealth.”

As mentioned, Clarke earned the moniker ‘The Bard of Salford’ by sharing stages with greats of the punk oeuvre across the late seventies and early eighties. While his live run and recorded work placed him firmly in that genre’s performance-art pantheon, to Clarke, it was a means of getting out and expanding his range. “Let’s deal with that moniker. After getting lumbered with that label, my first priority was to move to London. Who wants to be a local eccentric? F*ck that. The world of punk-rock provided a ticket for this, it only lasted two years, I think, but it provided an intense personal connection for the fans. For me, it got me out of Manchester and around the world, several times. It provided an opportunity for this kind of thing. It only lasted two years, and very few people were involved, but its effect on the cultural world, and in the UK, was disproportionate (chuckles). It shows you the power of mythology! It’s developed its own mythology which has intensified over time. And a general “anti-hippieness” that was so intoxicating at the time.”

A long-form poetry film is something that is just not seen anymore, much less given the opportunity to reach any sort of audience. While formulating a question on his memories, or current thoughts, of the creation of his own masterwork, ‘Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt’, he’s quick to issue a correction that’s shown up in this very parish lately via the festival rounds. “I’ll give you one – Cyrano de Bergerac, with Gerard Depardieu. Blinder! It’s got swordplay as well! ‘Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt’, I haven’t seen it in about thirty years. It hasn’t aged very well, I imagine. I watch my films once, and once only. Why suffer more?”

Salford returned the favour to its Bard in 2013 with an honorary doctorate from the University of Salford. Given his feelings on the discrepancy between literary academia and non-traditional forms nowadays, it must have been quite an experience to receive that recognition. “Why not me? At first, I thought, ‘why me?’, but then I read somewhere that Benjamin Zephaniah has sixteen doctorates from as many universities. ‘Thank you’, that was my response. Anything that entitles me to call myself Doctor, ‘thanks very much’. You don’t see him using them, though, he doesn’t call himself Doctor, and he’s entitled sixteen times over, whereas me, I won’t let people forget about it! I’m not wearing those ridiculous clothes in daylight and not call myself Doctor!”

His legacy in music continues to this day, including collaborations with the Arctic Monkeys and Reverend & the Makers, and regular live appearances reciting his own work at music venues around the world. When asked for his thoughts on the influence of his work on younger musicians, poets and performers, however, he’s happy to let that with those he’s influenced. “You’d have to ask somebody else, really, Mike. I’m glad of all the interest that I’d been shown, by Alex (Turner, Arctic Monkeys frontman) and Ben Drew, who used one of my works in the movie ‘Plan B’. I’m very grateful for this mass-media attention, obviously? What’s a poet if nobody knows about it? Without glamour and/or money? A schnorrer, a beggar (laughs). Anything that brings me closer to financial security (laughs louder).”

Clarke is playing Live at St. Luke’s on Sunday April 28th, with Mike Garry and Stephen James Smith, as part of an extended run of Irish dates he’ll have been on, including a big show at Dublin’s Vicar Street. He readily offers a message to the gig-goers, word-speakers and general culture-vultures of the Leeside city. “The last one I did in Ireland was three weeks ago in Vicar Street, which was fabulous. There’s no reason to suspect that St. Luke’s won’t be every bit as good. All I can say to the people of Cork is: ‘no pressure, but get me while I’m alive!’.”

John Cooper Clarke is playing Live at St. Luke’s on Sunday April 28th, with Mike Garry and Stephen James Smith in support. Tickets €30 on sale now via uticket.ie.

Jill Staxx: “I Don’t Want to Confine Myself to Any Genres”

Having cut her teeth on Dublin’s community airwaves, selector Jill Staxx is curating a show for RTÉ Pulse. Ahead of appearing at Red Bull Free Gaff, she talks with Mike McGrath-Bryan.

Having been at the cutting edge of Irish hip-hop with the Staxx Lyrical show on Dublin Digital Radio, selector Jill Staxx has been in a unique position to observe the rise and development of the genre from a fringe pursuit to centre-stage in the country’s independent music scene. As moved things forward as a live DJ, however, including an appearance at this weekend’s Red Bull Free Gaff in Dublin city centre, her scope as a producer/presenter has expanded to electronica and into the post-genre mindset. Enter The Jill Staxx Show, her new venture on RTÉ’s digital-exclusive Pulse station, breathing some rarified air as a progressive radio at the forefront of the state broadcaster’s support for Irish artists and producers. “Dublin Digital Radio is an amazing, independent platform which gave me the opportunity to produce and host the Staxx Lyrical show which was dedicated to old-school, independent and underground hip-hop. I was not limited to what I could play at DDR, but when I crossed over to Pulse, I took it as an opportunity to play music which would extend far beyond hip-hop. I am interested in many styles of music and I don’t want to confine myself to genres. My show on Pulse incorporates a wider range of musical styles such as jungle, house, techno and pop among many others. When I started at DDR, I had no previous experience in radio and learned as I went along with the help of some of the incredible people at the studio, in particular Cormac Walsh. Pulse offered me formal training in the weeks leading up to the show which exposed me to many new technical aspects of radio. It has been a great opportunity for me to explore new terrain and develop my sound.”

Whether it’s for a live set, or putting together a show for radio, every DJ has a means of choosing tunes that balance their own listening and creative impulses with empathy for a room, or listenership. Staxx lets us in on her thought process for whittling down her collection for a set like this weekend at Red Bull Free Gaff, and how it changes between live sets and broadcast. “My radio shows can be very different from my live sets. For shows, I’m more interested in showcasing the artists, and playing new releases. It’s a bit more informative, and can easily switch from softer styles into up tempo ones. However, that changes in live shows. I learnt early on that playing laid-back hip-hop at 1am in a sweaty club will leave you with some really confused looking faces so you need to strike a balance between music you love, and keeping the audience moving. Naturally, the music I play out will be dependent on the time, the venue and the event. I’m constantly searching for music to try and keep my sound growing so that I’m not playing the same thing all the time. I think it’s important to constantly challenge yourself, if it feels stale to you it will feel off to your audience. It’s important to take risks, to keep searching for special songs but also not to be afraid to play big anthems when the time is right. Most importantly you need to stay true to your sound and what you genuinely love.

Recent mixes for the show have made clear the aforementioned emphasis on Irish producers and artists, existing within the worlds of hip-hop, bass and electronica that Staxx has been spinning. Much has been made of a new golden age for the genre in Ireland, a continual and ever-shifting narrative trope that changes with times and media, and it’s something that Staxx is passionate about, especially in light of problems with perception that independent music has had in the eyes of casual Irish listeners. “I personally feel the music scene in Ireland is thriving right now, and people are definitely paying more attention to local artists. However, there are times I’m shocked by how often Irish artists get overlooked within their own country. What is particularly interesting about the music scene in Ireland at the moment is its diversity. This is not only apparent in the variety of music styles being produced but also within the range of artists in terms of gender, age, diversity of backgrounds etc. Irish artists I’m enjoying at the moment include Irish rapper and singer Biig Piig. Also, my last show guest LOLZ introduced me to Lee Kelly’s EP ‘Layers of Identity’ which is a really beautiful record I’ve been listening to lately. I would also recommend Dublin’s ‘Wriggle’ collective who all create really interesting bass, hip-hop, trap and some other good stuff I struggle to define!”

Red Bull Free Gaff is happening next weekend in Dublin city centre, with a massive lineup of Irish artists, producers and DJs, right at the forefront of the scene that Staxx has been documenting and platforming. She’s DJing across the weekend, including the weekend’s Sunday Brunch, and for her, the lineup’s homegrown feel is validation for her support. “Yeah, it’s really nice that Free Gaff is a lineup of all Irish artists, it just shows that there is sufficient talent here to have an all-Irish lineup, and that we can use the spaces available to us to create a unique experience for music lovers. I sometimes feel there’s this “grass is greener” mentality to the arts in Ireland, and that as a creative you need to move abroad to get the most out of your creative efforts. Don’t get me wrong, I acknowledge that we’re a small country, and that has its limitations, but I think it’s important to trust in what we can do here to drive things forward. I was also pleased to see the event will incorporate many styles, as I sometimes feel events can be a bit safe and stick too closely to one genre. It gives an opportunity for many different artists to come together and celebrate what is so special about Irish music right now. To be honest, ten years ago I’m not sure if the same event would work. People didn’t respond as well to local scenes like Irish hip-hop the same way they do now. Audiences are becoming a lot more open and interested in local talent. I’m not in anyway against having international acts over here, but casting the spotlight solely on Irish talent sends a really positive message to artists and audiences alike.”

The Jill Staxx Show goes out Sundays 6pm to 8pm on RTÉ Pulse, available at rte.ie, on the Irish RadioPlayer app, on all Saorview devices and on DAB radio.

Denise Chaila: “Every Time I Listen, I Flex”

(This is the full, unedited version of a piece published on RedBull.com on Friday April 12th, in advance of the brand’s ‘Free Gaff’ weekender event in Dublin)

Following the release of two-track single ‘Duel Citizenship’ in January, rapper Denise Chaila is poised to change Irish hip-hop, combining a newfound confidence with a burning passion for addressing the big social questions facing the scene. Ahead of her appearances at Red Bull Free Gaff, Mike McGrath-Bryan sits down with the ‘Man Like Me’ wordsmith for a conversation.

We’re approaching the height of exam season, and amid all of the usual stress and strain that students all over the country face, Denise Chaila conveys a quiet, well-spoken confidence down the phone. Fair play to her for keeping a level head: balancing a sociology degree with a burgeoning musical reputation is no small feat. Not that she’s one for small feats: having contributed to the success of Limerick/Clare outfit Rusangano Family as a spoken-word collaborator, Chaila directly addressed some of the major discussions in Irish hip-hop in January with the release of debut extended-player ‘Duel Citizenship’, almost immediately garnering wider attention, and premiering tunes via tastemaker blog Nialler9.com.

The road to ‘Duel Citizenship’ was a long and winding one, taking in her involvement in the ever-vibrant Shannonside music scene, and spoken-word work. Bringing her ideas and vision to Rusangano man MurLi, the process of getting the music out and into the world was the end of another journey. “(Now that it’s out), it puts me into this space where there’s so much more I want to create… the process of working with MurLi probably began in 2012, when I moved to Limerick. I was around when they started the band, a really cool thing to see happen. In some ways, I’ve been working on a body of work for quite a while, and when I decided my emotional and mental health… all these things were in a place where I could commit to music, MurLi was the first person I rang. I went over to the house that night, and MurLi’s always cooking. He was able to compose this stuff, and marry it to my hopes and dreams, really, as fluidly as if he was living in my own head!”

The E.P.’s leadoff, ‘Copper Bullet’, addresses the conversation of what a ‘female rapper’ is, and rightly calls out the idea of gender or identity as a sub-genre, a novelty to be used as a tagline for promoters or music writers. It’s met a hugely positive reaction, and most importantly, has initiated conversations. “I think it takes more than a single statement to effect change, but it’s made people more conscious of how they use the terminology. If that’s happened, I’m really grateful, because we define our world by the words that we use, and if I’m not going to say, ‘she’s a female architect’, or ‘she’s a female doctor’, I really see no reason why we should keep to this idea of ‘femaleness’ as a novelty, not something that you can represent within the canon of musical literature. I think that what it’s done is made people more conscious of that while talking to me about their favourites, which is an interesting byproduct of that. Just the fact that it is being emphasised makes me proud. I want to hear your Foxy Browns and Lil’ Kims next to your Jay-Zs and 2Pacs.”

Nowhere is Chaila’s resurgent swagger more evident also than in her contribution to Sim Simma Soundsystem’s track ‘Man Like Me’ alongside God Knows, taking direct aim at some of the insecurity inherent to male-dominated cultural spaces. It’s a big tune, tackling a big inequality, borne from collaboration and mutual support among friends. “It was fun, and it’s a song that came from such a place of joy, that every time I listen to it, I flex (laughs). God Knows’ little sister, Geraldine, that song is hers. It belongs to her, and my little sister, and so many others… my family has taken that song and ran with it. I thought that was really interesting, because I’m also finessing pronouns. I’m frustrated by the way people speak about me on that song, like ‘do you need to have a conversation on gender?’, but at the end of the day, it was incredible to see so many people across an age spectrum really adopt (that attitude). In the studio, Ben (Bix) did a tonne of ad-libs that made us shook, we were vibing and dancing to it, it was just… joy, and by the end of the track, I’d imagined this angry song, I was just giggling, I lost the plot in studio.”

Studying sociology at the University of Limerick has informed Chaila’s ballsy approach to the conversations of gender, sub-genre and identity in Irish hip-hop, but that love in turn was sparked by music to begin with, something that’s evident when she talks about how she implements those ideas. “For me, music is a process of trying to create the world around me. There’s a writer, Anais Nin, and she has a quote, ‘one writes, because one has to create a world to which one relates’, and sometimes you look at the world that your parents or school have made for you, the way people have taught you to define yourself in relation to other people, and it just doesn’t work. I went into academia as a child of grime, hip-hop, dancehall, someone who has learned to remix my reality, to make it fit me before I understood what it was, because culture wasn’t made for me, I didn’t fit in the boxes my friends did growing up, and it gave me a real sensitivity to language.”

Red Bull’s ‘Free Gaff’ weekender, happening in Dublin city centre from April 19th to the 21st, will be her first major live outing since the extended-player’s release, and she finds herself sharing the billing with some of the country’s most vital artists, producers and DJs, across three stages. It’s the kind of challenge she’s been waiting to take. “I’m excited. I’m more nervous about the fact that I want to see people play, and want to be part of this space as a punter. I’m also really excited to see my name on that line-up, with Jill Staxx and Daithí, all those people that are just… I’m nervous (laughs). I’m really excited about the idea of being onstage again, after all this time, having been a rapper, intermittently, it’s the exception, rather than the rule. Having a space where I can look around, and just vibe. I feel like there really wouldn’t be a better place.”

With her year off to a huge start, and Free Gaff serving as an essential port of call in the run-up to the summer festival season, there seems to be no stopping Denise Chaila at the moment, a state of affairs that’s being backed up with more music and projects in the pipeline. “More music. More music this summer, actually. I’m still in studio with MurLi, and we’ve been really cooking. I think that’s what startled us a lot about the reception to ‘Duel Citizenship’: when we put it out, I just wanted to say ‘hi, world’, and the world said hello back, and it was like, ‘oh, hey’ (laughs). I thought I would just slide through, and go back into hibernation, and no-one would notice, but now it’s really amazing. I’ve been playing, making things, reading and writing, and learning, getting to know my artistic personality. Now that I’m settled, the next thing is a mixtape, then getting ready to tour and gig more consistently than I am now!”

Shane J. Horan: “You Gotta Do It”

Over the past few years, photographer Shane J. Horan has been an important part of the Cork music community. Not only has he documented the recent development of the scene for Goldenplec.com, but he’s provided advice and support to local music industry professionals, drawing from his own experience and expertise. Mike McGrath-Bryan gets a chat in about the hard work involved.

From his time running gigs in Limerick cafés, to co-founding community metal promoters Bad Reputation and sharing his knowledge with a new generation of promoters and artists on presenting and framing music, the importance of the work of photographer Shane J. Horan in the Cork music scene cannot be understated. Most recently, he and Good Day News contributor Cailean Coffey have been working together to document gigs and artists in Cork city via Irish music site goldenplec.com. His professionalism and dedication to the ongoing health DIY music and its culture in the city is rooted in his own passion for collaboration. “It’s people creating, and pushing themselves to do more. It means so much for people to get out there, and show what they have made to others. To allow others to take part in the experience. I know people can agree that getting out there and making a human connection is more important, with social media sucking people in these days. However, it’s always been important. It’s inspiring to see individuals in corpse-paint and kilts, or making rhythms and expressing themselves. Take Post-Punk Podge: if expressing yourself means putting an envelope over your head, and banging out dance tunes on a violin, then you gotta do it.”

Not only are collaboration and working together toward a common goal a professional motivator for Horan, but the community spirit engendered by Cork’s music scene has been a big part of his (and others’) personal life, as collaborations become friendships. “I mean, I’m surprised at the amount of people that bond over watching that Post-Punk Podge. It’s the work of others that helps us express ourselves. Sometimes just to dance, sometimes to question your values. It’s the grouping and bonding of people. It might start with a chat at a gig, and then you’re sharing a house with one guy, and working in a job with another. Sometimes it’s years apart between things happening.”

Developing over the years, first as an events professional, then as a photographer and music aesthete, Horan has loaned his skills and expertise to promoters in Limerick and Cork city, most recently mucking in with Cosmonaut Music, a promotions marquee for ‘aggressive but intelligent music’, to paraphrase founder Cormac Daly. As Daly himself transitions into a managerial role for local artists, Horan discusses his experience working together with a driven and focused promoter. “I have worked loads with Cormac of Cosmonaut, in many different venues, and as part of many different teams. He is very responsive to suggestions and collaboration, which makes for a great work environment. I generally keep my mouth closed, though when given the chance though I’ll find myself relighting the stage. After that it’s a case of just being observant.”

As mentioned at the outset, Horan is presently working with Goldenplec.com, and aside from his own work and building a mighty portfolio of music photography, he’s been working with Cailean Coffey, utilising his own contacts to enable Coffey’s own work and professional development via the Irish music-media survivor. “Working with GoldenPlec is a pleasure. I couldn’t ask for better than working with Coffey. I helped him with a few introductions, and since then it’s a partnership. It’s great having a sounding board for your ideas, and with someone who has a different experience and needs something else from the same events. We come from two different points of view on many things musically, I don’t think our playlists overlap. Often, Coffey has a history and insight into how things work which I’d never get as a photographer. It’s also beneficial to see what he sees at gigs and in music media. Highlights how you need to draw influence from all different parts of society.”

GoldenPlec itself is something of a survivor, now, with 16 years of serving Irish music under its belt. Rare has been the digital long-runner among Irish outlets, to say nothing of the changing role of print in media consumption, so the question is: how does an outlet like Goldenplec stay relevant and adapt? “I think they’ll adapt well with the ever-changing landscape of media consumption. They keep their ears close to the ground, and aren’t afraid to cut their own cloth either. There’s a high level of communication within GoldenPlec. Ideas get pitched around all the time, and there’s loads of freedom to experiment. I think the pressure of the changing media will be on bands to self-promote. It’s a delicate balance between staying relevant and over-exposure, but it’s an interesting thing when your local act is fighting with the likes of CNN for your attention and time.”

Having spent a number of years in Cork building a body of work to stand by, the photographer now has his sights set on the future, but is holding his cards close to his chest regarding the specifics. “There’s a couple of projects just started, and a few areas of my personal work I want to focus on. I’m currently drafting up a list of who I want to document. It will be a case of a lot of logistics, which is something that isn’t really seen when you just see the finished work (laughs).”

Search “Shane J. Horan Photographer” across all your social media, and check Goldenplec.com regularly for his visual coverage of Cork city’s music scene.

King Zepha: “We Do What We Want”

With a self-produced fusion of ska, rocksteady and jump-up blues, Yorkshireman Sam Thornton is ready to take a working-class English sound to genre fans in Ireland under the moniker of King Zepha this month. Mike McGrath-Bryan finds out more.

Couched in the warm familiarity that reggae recorded directly to tape seems to magically generate, and possessed of a sunny disposition without resorting to genre stereotype, Yorkshire outfit King Zepha have a gentle balance of sonic elements to keep both casual listeners and die-hards happy. Led by producer, songwriter and live bandleader Sam Thornton, the project’s new album ‘Northern Sound’ releases this month, a one-man job written/arranged and produced by yourself and released via boutique London label Happy People. After preparing the record for the better part of a year following a two-month spell of songwriting, Thornton took it upon himself to realise his vision in every aspect of the recording process, performing tracks and overdubs on everything. Not that life didn’t get in the way over the course of proceedings, though. “As the father of a boisterous 6-year old and 18-month-old twins, I’ve had to adopt an as-and-when approach, often involving whole nights holed-up in my attic, hunched over a mixing desk. I couldn’t have managed it without strong coffee and my wonderful, supportive partner, Natalie. The test-pressing of the vinyl LP has just arrived. It was pressed in Ireland, by Dublin Vinyl, and it sounds great. I’ve rehearsed all the new material with the band, and now all that remains is to get out there on the road and play it live, the fun part!”

It’s unusual for a central person to take a ‘producer’ role as a featured musician nowadays, with bands, soloists and collaborative songwriting having long since overtaken the studio system of “star” producers and their in-house bands, etc. Transmuting his own ideas to a live setting, then, is a continuation of time-honoured tradition and method. “I’ve been brought up listening to, and playing in, big bands and jazz bands. In that tradition, there’s usually one or two players in each group who contribute compositions/arrangements and the rest are players who bring the music to life. I’ve never actually played in a band that compose songs collectively, so I don’t know how that works. With the writing and the producing I find it easier to do it myself, at home, and then send rough recordings out to the band to learn. We are all involved in other musical projects and this seems the most productive way for us to work. In the early days of King Zepha, we’d try out my original compositions in our other band, Louis Louis Louis. We’d just sneak them in, between two cover versions, and see what response they’d get from the audience. We’ve got a good system for working out songs and vocal harmonies now. Our pianist always takes the bottom harmony, our bassist the top, and so on.”

Recording to eight-track tape is a brave move in the current technological climate, for many reasons. The ease of digital recording has changed the game, and while a number of studios still proudly boast of using tape equipment for the as-live process, parts for old gear and tape itself are increasingly becoming a specialist business. Thornton speaks on how the method informs the message. “Over the last ten years, we’ve experimented with everything from using just one ribbon mic for the whole band, straight to a two-track tape machine, right through to full digital recordings. We’ve even tried overdubbing one instrument at a time for complete control over reverb, bleed, etc. before arriving at the sound we like best. We’ve tracked this album using an 8-track, quarter-inch tape machine and, because of the amount of tape hiss, you have to hit the tape quite hard. This produces a bit of distortion, but it’s nice distortion, not the horrible “clicky” sound you get from digital distortion. That slightly distorted sound reminds me of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s rocksteady recordings by Lee “Scratch” Perry, my production hero. It’s definitely not the “textbook” way of recording, but I love it.”

The title of the album and subsequent live incarnation, King Zepha’s Northern Sound, bears immediate and heavy connotations of working-class English subcultures, harkening back to obvious ports of call like Northern Soul. When asked about the implications, however, it’s as much a call to belonging and togetherness in a time of barely-precedented social and cultural fracturing close to home. “I didn’t realise until now that I had such a fixation on geography! To be honest, the “northern” reference is more of a descriptor than a political statement. The band are all from northern towns and cities, mostly in Yorkshire, and this is reflected in our dialect, appearance and sense of humour. Musically, there is a very strong Jamaican influence too. I think that our album titles and artwork reflect this fusion. There is a political message in some of our music, but it is one of unity, not of division.”

An interesting aspect of the record, with that in mind, is when it zeroes in on the views of Brits abroad, taken from conversations on the band’s touring excursions. It’s a contentious question, amid a hail of Little Englander stereotypes and gags about Marbella, but in the context of the facts of the ramifications of Brexit, a positive realism, and confronting Brexiteers’ greatest-generation rhetoric, are important. “Without generalising too much, Brits abroad are an interesting breed. Watching a group of them on holiday, for example, can be like watching a group of toddlers or chimps in a zoo and it can be embarrassing sometimes being tarred with the same brush. I’ve been asked a few times, whilst touring in mainland Europe, why did “we” vote to leave the EU. The fact is that the British public are hugely divided on this. Roughly half the population wish to remain and many people didn’t really understand the ramifications of what they were voting for. There was, and is, a lot of propaganda and fabrication, being circulated by the tabloids and social media, on both sides of the fence. I’m very pro-Europe, as are the other band members. Our current Government have a terrible track record of looking after the poor, the elderly, the vulnerable and our workers’ rights. EU legislation currently keeps them in check on some of these issues and, if the UK were to leave the EU, I dread to think what monstrosities they’d unleash.”

It is this fear, brought on by the seeming sleep of reason that Brexit has wrought on the United Kingdom’s citizens, that informs the record’s sunny nature in other ways: the sustained push from certain political quarters for disunity is ready to be met with a rally to the aforementioned togetherness. “The question of Brexit has driven a wedge between people, from all walks of life, and seems to have encouraged some unsavoury characters, such as Nick Griffin (former leader of the far-right groups National Front and British National Party) to resurface from underneath their rocks. Hate crime, xenophobia and Islamophobia are on the increase and people are genuinely scared. And of course, in Ireland, there is the worrying issue of a potential hard border between NI and the Republic and the impact it could have on the peace process. It’s very telling that the politicians who started the Brexit process have done a runner and left the people with a mess to clear up, whichever way it goes!”

Amid the weight of all this, the band are getting on with it, playing the Crane Lane Theatre in Cork on the 21st as part of a run of Irish dates to get the new album out there. Ska and reggae have always had small but dedicated followings in the city, but with the emergence of genre festivals in the county in recent years, and a new community group having just been agreed upon, the timing is perfect. “This will only be our second time performing in Ireland, and our first appearance in Cork. The theatre looks fantastic, and I’ve heard great things about the city from many of my friends who’ve performed at Cork Jazz Festival. I can’t wait. I’m a huge fan of Guinness, and it really is so much better in Ireland, so that’s another thing I’m looking forward to.”

King Zepha’s Northern Sound play the Crane Lane Theatre on Sunday April 21st. “Northern Sound” is available now on all streaming services and on 12” from Happy People Records.

Inni-K: “Something New Opened Up In Me”

Eithne Ní Chatháin’s new album under the alias Inni-K resides somewhere between Irish folk’s brittle nature, and quiet indie innovation. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with the Kildare woman about writing, recording, and the Gaelgoir revival in Irish music.

Inni-K, the working name of singer and multi-instrumentalist Eithne Ní Chatháin, brings a broad church of sounds under her remit. Parlaying a background in folk and trad music into contemporary composition, elements of wider folk, indie music of various hues and more experiemental fare permeate her work, playing to the strengths of a clear, yet distinct voice. Her penchant for progress has brought her to share stages with a gamut of established names, including Malian kora exponent Toumani Diabate, drummer Jeff Ballard, Frames man Glen Hansard, Liam Ó Maonlaí, Lisa Hannigan and many more.

Second album ‘The Hare and the Line’ has released this past month via Green Willow Recordings, marking the end of a four-year wait and heralding an expansion for Ní Catháin’s sound that makes itself felt right from the opening seconds of its title track, not shy of asking grand questions (‘how do you/I define her?’) of her own place as an artist and as a human being. With the album available now, the question of what comprises a ‘finished’ record emerges, chiming with her feelings on the album as a whole. “I feel very satisfied & proud, to have the new album completed, and to have it out in the world. I really look forward to performing the songs live over the coming months, at gigs and festivals, (and also) to see how people interact and engage with the songs.”

The creative and post-production processes differed this time around, coming together over the past year or so, after the jettisoning of an unreleased long-player. The disappointment of a body of work not coming together can be a difficult one to overcome for many artists, but Ní Catháin took the impasse and new start as a challenge. “I pretty much had the guts of an album of different songs ready to go about a year ago but something in me knew to hold off, they didn’t feel quite right. I think, in hindsight, they were a stepping stone in clearing the way to the new songs on this record, but it is always a little disappointing to let go of something you’ve been working on and face the blank page again. In doing so, however, I think something new opened up in me, and the songs on this album came quite easily once they came. They are, I think more personal in theme and tone, and feel quite different.”

Collaboration and co-writing opened up the process of creating the new record for Ní Catháin, with arrangements and post-production making all the difference not only for getting the record done and dusted, but for doing so in a manner that kept her own engagement up as a creator. “The whole process was a much less lonely experience for me than ever before. It was a lot of fun. Songwriting for me seems to be an alone endeavour, maybe necessarily so; and I do really enjoy that. But from the moment I brought the songs to my friend, drummer & main collaborator Brian Walsh, things started getting interesting. Brian was more involved in the makeup of the songs much earlier in the process than with my last album (‘The King has Two Horse’s Ears’), and I think the songs are richer for that.”

Post-production began after that whole process came to its conclusion, with producer and engineer Alex Borwick leaving his mark on proceedings. The motley crew decamped to a remote location in the depths of winter, with embellishments made at various locations thereafter, and the resulting mix of atmospheres resonates throughout the record. “We totally hit it off as a team, and within a couple of weeks, after pre-production work on the songs in Rathfarnham with Alex, and with Brian up in the lovely Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Monaghan, (we) headed to a farmhouse in Co. Wicklow with two jam-packed cars full of our gear for a week before Christmas, and got to work on the bones of the album… we kept working pretty much over Christmas, spending a day recording rhodes, organs and piano up in the stunning Hellfire Studios, in the Dublin mountains, and then in various guest musicians houses around Dublin. I was so happy to have such great musicians & friends join us for the project: Dónal Gunne on guitar, Seán Mac Erlaine on clarinets, Patrick O’Laoghaire (I Have a Tribe) on backing vocals, Caimin Gilmore & Cormac O’Brien on bass. It was a really fantastic collaborative experience and I couldn’t have asked for a better team.”

It’s eclectic company to keep, but Ní Catháin is no stranger to breathing rarefied air, having shared the stage with some of the living legends of folk musics from all over the world. Her comfort with operating within folk is displayed most deftly on the new record in the quiet, tape-warm sparseness of ‘Póirste Béil’, and it’s this ability to bridge gaps that has put her to the forefront of the new wave of trad and folk. “I’ve seen it mostly in Dublin, just ‘cause that’s where I spend most of my time, but I’m sure it’s the same around the country. It seems there’s more of interest in songs and tunes, in a stripped back kind of way, that they stand on their own. There’s definitely more pride, and an interest around it now, and so many fantastic singers and musicians.”

Ní Catháin’s use of bilingual lyrics is an important talking point regarding her place on the Irish music scene, as the mother tongue has made a steady re-emergence in Irish music. Rappers like MC Muipéid and Belfast trio Kneecap, dancehall crooner Ushmush, blackened metallers Corr Mhóna, and even Corkonian humourist Craic Boi Mental have all made An Gaeilge central to bodies of their work. It’s a point of pride for many people. “It’s great that Gaeilge is being used in different genres, and that people are finding it to be the expressive, poetic and beautiful language that it is. Again, like the resurgence in trad & folk music, it’s inspiring and uplifting to see more people take pride in our own language. I saw Kneecap perform in Inishbofin last summer, they were something else! (laughs)”

Just off the road from gigs in the US and Canada over the course of February, Ní Catháin and collaborators are hitting the road again, this time with a national tour to back the new record. This jaunt around the country includes a pair of Cork gigs, in Coughlan’s of Douglas Street and Levis’ village pub in Ballydehob, two modern-day outposts for forward-thinking folk. It’s the jumping-off point for the kind of interaction she relishes from a gig. “The Cork shows are the first dates of the Irish tour, and two more gorgeous, intimate venues you’d be hard pressed to find. I love both venues, and can’t wait to play them. We hope to raise the roof with the new tunes!”

Inni-K plays at Coughlan’s Live on Douglas Street on Friday April 5th, and at Levis’ of Ballydehob the following night. New album ‘The Hare and the Line’ is available now across all digital services. For more information, check out inni-k.com, and stay tuned to her social media presences.

Hot Cops: “It’s Been Borne of Dissatisfaction”

Having put in the hard yards over the past few years on Northern Ireland’s ever-fervent DIY scene, Hot Cops are co-headlining a national tour, including a stop at the Roundy next month. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with vocalist/guitarist Carl Eccles.

There’s an immediacy to the music of Belfast trio Hot Cops that’s almost disarming upon further contemplation, really: taking in bits of the indie/alternative oeuvre and melding its poppier aspects to a distinctly Northern strain of smirk and sarcasm. It’s become something of a calling card for the band and their contemporaries, a small but dedicated scene of low-fidelity guitar pop, grappling equally with the current condition of existence, and the post-genre cultural mood. New single ‘Negative One’, the lead-off for an upcoming new body of material, sums this up nicely, a compact running time and pop song structure holding sweet-and-sour riffings together, both lyrical and musical.

Ahead of touring the new single and other new tunes around Ireland with compatriots Junk Drawer in tow, Hot Cops’ Carl Eccles is quick to outline the nature of his compositional economy, and the process that followed it. “‘Negative One’ was the first song I wrote after we had taken a break because of the disintegration of plans we’d made in 2017. I was sitting down to working on the demo for an older song idea, but the main riff for “Negative One” was the first thing I played when I picked up my guitar that day, so I thought I’d just record it quickly in case I forgot. Once I’d written the bassline, I flicked through the notes for lyric ideas I keep on my phone and strung together the ones I felt were most fitting with the tone. It took about an hour to write and record the demo after the conception of the riff, but half the lyrics had been written months before.”

When quizzed on how it’s been received live and among the usual Irish music people, Eccles boils down the process behind the song to its essentials, refusing to ‘pedestalise’ such ideas as wider approval. For Eccles, the feeling of performing it live is the end result in itself. “Most of my writing is coming up with fragments of ideas, documenting them and then just waiting and working on other things until I can find a way to bridge them together. We try not to get too bogged down on the reactions of others, the most important thing is if we’re happy with it, but it’s always nice to get some kind words, and we’re open to constructive criticism. It’s been a highlight in the sets of our last few shows, there’s a real bounce to the track and the audiences have latched on to it.”

This single, and other previous releases, was recorded by Chris Ryan of Robocobra Quartet, an exceptional fusion of hardcore punk, jazz and spoken-word statements, of which two of Hot Cops are members. He’s an interesting dude on multiple levels, from your writer’s experiences in interviewing and reviewing their work, but it’s surely an odd one to work together in studio with someone growing ever more used to horns and string sections? “Chris is a delight. He’s very creative and supportive in the studio and committed to making sure things sound how we want them to sound”, says Eccles. “He encourages any of the more experimental ideas we might have but will be fully honest when he thinks something isn’t working or is taking away from a song. Communication is the most important thing when recording with someone and he’s been very patient with us considering how insufferable we can be. Recording ‘Negative One’ was very straightforward. We did a few live takes of bass, drums and guitar and decided on the best one and overdubbed vocals afterwards as well an additional guitar.”

‘Negative One’ follows on from the compilation and release last year of ‘Speed Dating’, a collection of remastered singles from recent years. Each released on a DIY basis through various online platforms, they formed a contiguous body of work that benefited well from a lick of paint. “This task was pretty simple, as the tracks had been written and recorded around the same period of time. In our minds, they’ll always fit together.”

It seems to be a really good time for DIY rock ‘n’ roll in Ireland again, for many reasons. The amount of great bands that have been touring and gigging small venues around the country lately is testament to this, while it’s a good bet that the industry success of the likes of Fontaines D.C. and The Murder Capital wouldn’t have happened five years ago. From the lads’ vantage point, it’s an interesting time, to paraphrase the old curse. “I like how it’s been borne of dissatisfaction, and people’s passion for finding a way to do what they love. 90% of artists can’t just be artists, they have to be their own managers, bookers, PR, social media wizards, etc. It’s not ideal, and it’s something everyone struggles with, especially ourselves. But it’ll never stop being inspiring to me to see people put in all the hard work, purely because it’s something they believe in and want to do. Good examples of this are the DIY LK collective in Limerick, who’ve rejuvenated their alternative music scene, and the Pizza Pizza Records gang in Dundalk, an entirely independent label putting out records and putting on shows for acts they love.”

By the same token, Belfast has always been ticking over with great DIY music of all stripes and sorts. Eccles collects his thoughts on the upsides and challenges of being part of that scene. “The upsides are that you’re in great company and there’s such a wide variety of music being made that there’s something for everyone. The people are friendly and there’s always familiar faces at all kinds of shows. The hardest parts are starting out because at first it can seem quite insular and afterwards it’s difficult to successfully expand beyond your own scene just because you’ve grown accustomed to it, playing somewhere new can feel like starting over again.”

Hot Cops are playing The Roundy on April 5th for Alliance Promotions, as part of a few nights of touring alongside Junk Drawer. Gordy and Arlene’s house of DIY wonders has been continuously putting on great gigs for the past few years around the city, taking chances on venues and shoring up the local scene, and on this scene, they’re giving over the floor to new outfit Culture Night to open the show, a side-project of local DIY stalwarts referring to themselves as Cork’s answer to Guided By Voices. It’s a hell of a fray for relative newbies to be thrown into. “We’ve never been to Cork, but we’ve been hearing good things about the Roundy. It’s likely to be a little daunting, but we’ve played with Junk Drawer loads of times, so there’s some reassurance.”

Hot Cops, Junk Drawer and Culture Night play The Roundy on April 5th, an Alliance Promotions presentation. Tickets €10, available on the door.