Shrug Life: “There’s a Small Victory in Articulating Absurdity”

Observers of the mundane, be-moaners of the grind and fond custodians of lo-fi pop propulsion, Dublin trio Shrug Life have been doing the rounds for a few years now, and with 2014 E.P. The Grand Stretch long since committed to the review pages, the long-term project of putting down a full-length has finally come to fruition. Recorded in 2015-2016, the semi-eponymously titled album, sees the band address their mission statement in more detail, marrying a slow seethe at the state of play with some genuinely excellent power-pop. Vocalist/guitarist Danny Carroll provides the context for the band’s complaints regarding modernity.

“Shrug Life is the shared hobby of three man-children from Dublin, and collectively, we started stumbling into song in the summer of 2014. At this time, I was permanently lamenting my spirit-sapping career in the cancellation department of a TV & broadband provider. Keith (bass) was jumping from temp job to temp job and secretly hatching a plan to become a meme-worthy emoji translator, and Josh (drums) was committed to going on the session at every music festival in Ireland. He managed about nine that summer. Thankfully, we’ve been able to tolerate each other since then.”

The band is very obviously influenced by the Irish tradition of power-pop gems, including a love for the Undertones, as well as the lo-fi pop scene in Dublin. Lofi staple Fiachra McCarthy (So Cow, Dott, Squarehead), then, must surely have been the best possible hand at the production tiller. “Fiachra is a good man for reference points. His knowledge of music is encyclopaedic and his love for guitars unending. He’s also a big fan of using a mini-megaphone he bought for a tenner in Tiger, and open to the notion of using a 1watt Fender mini-deluxe for recording guitars. What more could we ask for?”

The band’s focus is heavily set on critiquing the current way of things for young(ish) people and the failings of Irish society, gleaned from their own experiences and the common experiences of our generation in (post-) austerity Ireland. How does one settle on a more, for lack of a better term, light-hearted approach to heavy topics? “There’s a Keith Richards quote I like: “rock n’ roll’s great weapon is humour”. In theory at least, it makes the message easier to listen to. There’s a small victory in articulating the absurdity of Irish society. In the bleak gags and self-deprecation, I’m trying to diminish the power these factors have over my life. Maybe in acknowledging its ridiculousness it becomes that little bit more tolerable.”

A highlight of the record is the joyfully riffy ‘Temp Job’, a koan to the shitty side-jobs that serve as distraction from our own callings and an Elastoplast over the shotgun wound of unemployment. It also showcases the band’s real strength – gentle observations of topics that, while not a tonne of bricks in the short-term, are just as crushing and grinding as the more immediate social concerns. Carroll outlines the creative process and considerations behind the commentary. “Every song tends to demands its own approach. Something consciously political and outwardly focused usually takes a bit more research and reading – it’s less instinctual because you’re trying to distil a bigger, social topic into the confines of a lyric. You start to ask questions of over-simplifying things and the perspectives sacrificed to fit this subject into a song. However, I think with any polticial/social commentary it’s about humanising the impact of the issue. How do macrodecisions affect myself or others on a micro level? “Personal ennui” can also take time to express, but it’s certainly a more navel-gazing process. Those songs have more to do with taking ownership of your own shitty situation or nagging conflicts.”

Pro-choice homily ‘Your Body’ seems more relevant than ever off the back of last week’s March4Choice. Carroll has no issue discussing the obstacles facing the Repeal campaign are now that Leo Varadkar has called for a referendum, including the attempts at tone-setting that official Ireland has already tried to get a start on before the formal date is announced. “If the marriage equality referendum is anything to go by, the next few months could be very difficult – anti-choice campaigning will inevitably rely on scaremongering and distortion of fact. Organisations such as ARC are excellent in helping people consider the facts and myths surrounding this issue. There’s an obvious obstacle in the fence-sitting taken of Varadkar and others, but the March For Choice last week chipped away at my pessimism. It’s funny, we were playing in Galway recently and I was accosted by a 50 something man who waited all gig to tell me my belief was wrong and he’d been about to buy our album but would no longer do so, because of our pro-choice stance. I politely informed him that I would rather express my belief than have his money. That night he messaged us on Facebook to re-iterate “any band that promotes the killing of unborn babies should have been aborted themselves”. Seems like a contradiction in terms there, but that’s just one microcosm of the idiocy we’re up against.”

Considering how irrelevant the idea of the seemingly unending “death” of rock’n’roll is, does even entertaining the argument for it in ‘Japanese Bonus Track’ kind-of validate the kind of tedious rhetoric that the aul’ lads that complain about guitar music being “dead” come out with in lieu of bothering looking for new tunes? Ah, but I love “the aul’ lads”. I’m complicit with and repulsed by the nostalgia surrounding “rock’n’roll”. I make music documentaries for RTE Radio 1, and the first significant one I made was celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Thin Lizzy’s ‘Whiskey In The Jar’. I enjoy the notion that rock n’ roll is permanently dying, or now graduated to the stage of niche old man concern like jazz. The song is also a comment on the endless commodification of this once rebellious concept – be it bloated Beatles reissues for granddad or the overpriced summer festival for junior. All that said, you’re quite right, if you think it’s dead, you’re probably disconnected from what’s happening around you locally. Stop moaning, go to a gig!”

The band is working with Little L for the local release, a prodigiously active label for physical releases in Ireland at this stage, and Seattle-based Jigsaw Records is handling the album’s international release. Carroll outlines the plan from here. “Young Callum Browne is the impresario behind Little L Records. A good friend and guitar nerd. I suppose his contribution boils down to caring about what we do – going to gigs and encouraging the endeavour where most others are indifferent. He’s doing a few tape cassettes for anyone who owns a car made before 1995. And for anyone who owns a car made from ’96 onwards, there’s the compact discs of Seattle’s finest, Jigsaw Records. The latter came about at the suggestion of Tuam tunesmith Brian Kelly (So Cow/Half Forward Line). I asked him for advice when the album was complete and he suggested Jigsaw. Yet again, their optimistic assistance surpasses the embarrassed disinterest of the rest of the world. The plan is to muddle through as we always do… then world domination. Maybe beg Aiken or MCD for a support, get ignored by Hard Working Class Heroes, y’know, the usual.”

The Dublin launch of the record happens on the 20th at the Grand Social, with Limerick’s Slow Riot and local boys Handsome Eric supporting. Coming off Galway and Belfast launches, Carroll is happy to finally be playing the home leg of the album’s launch excursion. “It’s actually these scant few gigs that make the thing real and worthwhile to be honest. We’ve gotten to meet so many pleasant people from different parts of Ireland over the last couple of years, and it’s those connections that justify all the other slog. We’ve wanted to play with Slow Riot for a couple of years now. It was actually a mutual friend of ours, Brian Morrissey, who encouraged Josh (drums) and I to play together in the first place. Handsome Eric is the project of the enviably young, talented Steve O’Dowd and features the aforementioned Callum B on drums. His songs remind me of how I felt at age twenty, but had no capacity to articulate. Suffice to say, we’re hyped to have a party with our friends… you’re all invited.”

Ganglions: “We Might as Well Make a Thing of It”

Melding the smarts of math-rock with a warm but smart-aleccy pop streak, Sheffield/Cork trio Ganglions have come into their own in the past year or so, marking the release of debut EP Fetch! with their maiden Irish excursion, including an appearance at this year’s Quarter Block Party in Cork. This week sees the trio return to Ireland for a string of dates to launch follow-up extended-player Thirsty, including dates in Dublin, Galway and Limerick and a return Leeside engagement.

A few days removed from the main swing of gigs after the band’s appearance at last weekend’s Clonakilty International Guitar Festival, singer/bassist Eimear O’Donovan discusses the creative process behind their new offering. “It was quite a similar process to (writing/recording) Fetch! Generally we write the music first, starting with a guitar riff, and then ideas for lyrics come from somewhere and we put the two together. I guess one way it differed was that we had a bit of experience writing together this time around, so it was a bit quicker and a bit more comfortable. My Wife Won’t Stop Flirting With Me was written entirely by Chris (Saywell) on guitar, Brian (Scally) and I put drums and bass to it and then we recorded the instrumental track. We then sat in Brian’s bedroom/makeshift recording studio and brainstormed lyrics and vocals for a few hours, recording them at about 1 AM when we were happy with what we had. It’s a bit of a risk because you could come back to it with fresh eyes and find out that you hate what you’ve done, but luckily that didn’t happen.”

Releasing digitally via Sheffield collective Audacious Art Experiment, Thirsty also features as the A-side of a double-sided cassette, release with Fetch! rounding out their discography to date on the flip. O’Donovan is enthused about the format’s continued renaissance, and to have the first E.P. appended to their new work. “Tapes are great. They sound different to digital, there’s a different sound quality to it compared to vinyl, or anything else. There’s a real resurgence of tapes as a format in the DIY scene as they’re so cheap and accessible and small and dinky. We would have loved to have done vinyl but cost and time constraints meant it wasn’t possible this time around. We self-released Fetch! on digital only last year, and we always really wanted to do a physical version of that E.P. I personally don’t like physical releases that are only a couple of songs, it seems wasteful. So, doing a tape with 8 tracks on it, it feels like there’s enough music there to make it worth peoples’ whiles. Buy our tape.”

With one foot in the Steel City’s DIY scene, and the other still firmly planted in the Rebel County of O’Donovan and Scally’s sonic upbringing, one could be forgiven for getting the band’s elevator pitch muddled up, especially with the band’s voices sitting over a somewhat different sonic palate than the high-velocity Irish math-rock of recent times. “We usually describe ourselves as Sheffield/Leeds math-pop-rock-punk-something etc., as two of us are based in Sheffield and one in Leeds. Sheffield and Leeds are really close together, only an hour’s drive apart, but both cities have a really distinct DIY music scene. We like to keep the Cork connection though, I’m from Cork city and Brian from, Clonakilty so that’s where our musical education and experience and influence came from initially. I think that’s important to nod to that. Also we can’t really hide our literal Cork accents so might as well make a thing of it.”

Ganglions’ tunes revolve around homelier topics, ranging from the joys of mundanity to pearls of general knowledge, with live favourite Chindogu serving as example. Meanwhile, Thirsty provides commentary on some weighty topics, from the idea of authenticity, to heteronormativity as marketing pitch. O’Donovan gets into the nitty-gritty of subject matter and concept. “We just try not to take ourselves too seriously. We love playing music and playing gigs, and making people nod and dance and smile and laugh. We like to write lyrics collaboratively, where we try to make each other laugh and hit upon the thing that’s warm or silly enough without being too ridiculous. Chindogu, for example, is just a great thing, the Japanese concept of useless inventions.”

Math in Ireland is in an odd place – with exponents like Adebisi Shank and Enemies now in the history books and veterans like And So I Watch You From Afar more active on the world stage, it’s a time of transition for the genre, in which O’Donovan sees much reason to be hopeful. “There seems to still be things happening for math-rock in Ireland – the Fecking Bahamas Ireland compilation was testament to this. You’ve got great bands like The Redneck Manifesto, Yonen, Alarmist, Leo Drezden, so while we can’t really say from a distance whether it’s a cohesive “scene” or whatever, it seems there’s still the interest there at least to some extent. I have huge respect for bookers and promoters who put on and support this kind of music in Ireland, as there’s significant risk attached to promoting something so niche.”

Merch is obviously vital for any independent band’s operation, acting as both promotion and petrol money, but Ganglions’ shirts to date have been adorned with a resting, unsmiling yet seemingly contented visage, peaceful yet pensive. “That illustration is by the very talented and wonderful Jess Thomas. It’s inspired by some of the imagery from Chindogu, the “face splash guard / to keep your shirt neat” lyric. If you look up chindogu on Google image search some very funny images appear of Japanese useless inventions. How could we not write a song about them?”

This week’s whip around the country sees the band accompanied by Dublin instrumental math outfit Chancer for a double-headline tour, kicking off tonight in the Bowery venue. O’Donovan outlines the band’s mindset heading into it. “We are excited and ecstatic to be playing around Ireland! We’ve only played Cork before, and now Clonakilty, so to be playing Dublin, Limerick and Galway for the first time is class. We love Chancer’s music and I’m a big fan of Rachael Boyd’s solo stuff, so we are excited to play many gigs with them.” Their homecoming is merely a pitstop, though, ahead of the next chapter of their onward march, with more releases and touring in the works. “We hope our next release will be on vinyl, and we want to get writing an album quite soon. We’ve played gigs up and down England but want to do a cohesive tour and take in lots of places we’ve not played yet, as well as hopefully making it to Scotland for a few gigs.”

Review: Exmagician @ Cyprus Avenue, Cork (05/02/17)

Written for Hot Press in February of 2017. Unused.

In a city overburdened with festivals and events for this time of year, and on a freezing Sunday evening, it’s a small but dedicated crowd that greets Northern Irish four-piece exmagician, an outfit with more than enough DIY credibility behind them thanks to members’ involvement in dearly-departed electronic outfit Cashier No.5. Their new-found sound is a little bit of a departure, but the work has paid off, resulting in a deal with influential UK label Bella Union, releasing last year’s full-length Scan the Blue.

If it’s an intimate crowd upstairs, opening duo Waldorf and Cannon appear to make the most of it, gathering attendees around them for a set that takes in a number of road-tests of new tunes, alongside a couple of ditties in the likes of Syntax Error and The End of the Line. Relatively uncomplicated fare, the pair offer up alt-rock-informed power-pop that makes the most of a barebones setup, including a mad, double-pedal drum box that makes for intriguing gear-nerd watching. Finishing up for their own giggles on a stripped-down, slide-guitar take on the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, they can’t be faulted for delivering a homely, snug take on getting straight-to-the-point guitar-pop.

The atmosphere seems to put the boys from exmagician at ease, also. Bantering casually as they’re getting on stage, it all sets the tone for an informal run-through of the band’s relatively short set, albeit one delivered with all the gravitas and layering their studio material hints at. It makes for an odd juxtaposition, actually: the lads proceed to get on first-name terms with their attendees, discuss that night’s Superbowl & their opinions on the half-time show, and outline their evening’s social plans inbetween missives from a set of singles like Bend With the Wind and Place Your Bets, nestling alongside cuts from the aforementioned album.

Not that the lads take a quiet night as an excuse to phone one in: they clearly enjoy being among friends, and it feeds into a spirited display. The wide, accessible, psych-inflected sonic vistas they recreate for the assembled heads have the feel of a private performance, as quieter tunes like Desperado float by dreamily, and the Stone Roses-esque psychpop of Plan Retrieval gives way to shuffling slow-burner Feet Don’t Fail. While innovation isn’t high on the list of priorities here, it’s made up for in charm and a subtle fullness in arrangement that plays on the familiarity and comfort these tunes evoke.

Place Your Bets brings the evening to a close, and the band raises their glasses to the crowd before doing so – a fitting accompaniment for an easy, hazy, almost sleepy slice of reverb-laden psych that suffers little for being stripped of an ambitious horn section, making something of their phalanxes of effects pedals and creating a suitably big wall of sound in time-honoured tradition. A suitably satisfying conclusion to an atmospheric set, delivered with confidence in their songcraft.

Women in Cork Music: We Built This City

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Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with M.SEA, Nicole Maguire and record auteuse Eilís Dillon about the importance of women to the Cork music scene.

It’s difficult to ascertain in a short, convenient space the precise historical importance of women to Leeside music. All one need do is look at the scene’s history. Elvera Butler, Downtown Kampus auteur and Reekus Records head, was among the first of Cork’s contemporary scene to oversee a release, the now-sought after Kaught at the Kampus. Cellist Úna Ní Chaninn was undoubtedly the missing piece in post-punk lads Five Go Down to the Sea’s mad sonic puzzle. Angela Dorgan, formerly of the Triskel Arts Centre and the late Cork Music Co-Op, is now the head of First Music Contact in Dublin, overseeing Hard Working Class Heroes fest and providing a lifeline to artists looking to get started in a difficult industry.

The examples lead all the way out to today, where Aisling O’Riordan is one of the city’s busiest promoters and production managers, musician and promoter Edel Curtin helms the award-winning Coughlan’s venue and Leah Hearne of Cork County Council’s Arts Office has been instrumental in affecting change in the county’s cultural scene. To even boil it down to a few examples is difficult, but such is the importance of women to the city’s music community. Women are an important and strong part of the Cork music scene”, says Eilís Dillon, co-proprietress of Records and Relics, one of a new crop of Leeside vinyl outposts, “they’re taking on leading roles in all aspects of the scene not just as musicians but also as promoters, producers, writers and bookers.”

Cork’s music scene by its nature is close-knit, and mutual support abounds for people pursuing their passions in the face of various obstacles, and the same holds true among women in Leeside music and arts. “I see more and more women on the scene all the time. The number has definitely gone up in acoustic music in the near-decade I have lived in Cork. It’s amazing, exciting and I love the feeling of possibilities and collaborations.”, says Mary Claire Woolley, a.k.a. freak-folk singer M.Sea. Country/folk singer Nicole Maguire echoes these sentiments. “There’s more and more women in the industry, currently, some amazing female talent here, and I’m proud to be called a Cork musician.”

Maguire puts this phenomenon down to the city’s relative indepedence from the auspices of traditional music industry forces. “Because there’s a lack of labels and big-company support in the Irish scene, a lot of the Cork just have balls, they get out there and do what a record label and promoter would traditionally have done. It hasn’t stopped people, and that’s what shines through.” Dillon is quick to reflect the general camaraderie among female creatives summarising their strength in the Cork scene. “There are so many amazing Cork musicians out there to choose from, the ones I know and really love, are the ones who are unapologetically themselves, they are the real role models and heroes for younger generations.”

Elaine Howley (Altered Hours/Crevice/Mourning Veils)
Cork psych-rock quintet The Altered Hours’ calling card is that they “exist in a swirl of the hypnotic”, and it is arguably around co-lead singer Elaine Howley that this sound and fury revolves. A beguiling onstage presence, Howley’s voice, both alone and in tandem with guitarist Cathal MacGabhann, is possessed of almost otherworldly strength and inspiration. Most importantly, it’s backed by a complete fearlessness about its uses across various collaborative projects.

Senita Appiakorang (Shookrah, Lakerama)
Absolutely astounding on-stage, Senita Appiakorang is the voice of Leeside neo-soul collective Shookrah, a preternaturally powerful instrument that carries both the weight of both the band’s more introspective moments and the bombast of its celebratory outbursts, as seen best in the band’s single Woman. Also collaborates with Irish producer Graeme S. as Lakerama, and has guested with the likes of Daithí and Le Galaxie in the recent past.

Rachel “Pixie” Koeman (Young Wonder)
From a diminutive frame emerges the voice that has placed Cork Scandi-pop collective Young Wonder at the forefront of independent Irish music. Accentuated by a theatrical flair in evidence throughout the project’s live outings and jaw-dropping promo videos, Koeman’s tones and lyrical prowess are undoubtedly at the centre of the band’s multimedia experience. It’s done well by them so far – while they’ve been quiet as of late, the band was shortlisted last year for a Choice award.

Roslyn Steer (solo, Mourning Veils, KantCope Records)
To see Roslyn Steer on stage solo is to witness someone transcending herself, becoming lost in the moment and completely immersing herself in her music. Melodic as a songbird, Steer’s voice emerges almost upwards from the noise created by a guitar and barebones effects setup, and creates a haunting dichotomy of sounds in the process, serenely telling some heavy stories. Involvement in all-female trio Mourning Veils aside, Steer is also a prominent figure in Cork independent music’s infrastructure, founding and running cassette label KantCope.

Clare Sands (The Clare Sands Trio)
Raised amid music was Clare Sands, singer, songwriter, and leader of the eponymously-titled Clare Sands Trio. Falling between two pews, Sands specialises in the folkier end of the blues, having been introduced to the genre as a teenager by her mother, although her musical experience goes back to learning traditional Irish fiddle from the age of four. Having done time gigging around New York, she returned to Cork to finish her music degree and begin her solo/bandleader ventures, finally releasing her debut album, Join Me at the Table, this month.

Mary Claire Woolley (M.Sea)
Sometimes, you simply don’t know what’s going to be handed to you. Despite playing guitar from childhood, Mary Claire Woolley hadn’t performed publicly until the last few years owing to various factors. It took a serious hand injury to put her relationship with music and its importance to her in perspective, but she hasn’t looked back since, assuming the mantle M.Sea, and specialising in a bluesy strain of freak-folk. Most recently, she’s launched in E.P., and spoken/performed at TEDx CorkSalon’s #CorkLovesMusic event.

LYRA
Beginning her musical explorations at the tender age of six thanks to some sisterly encouragement, Co. Cork singer LYRA now finds herself at the start of something new, having played her debut Irish shows under the pseudonym at the week of writing. Now based in London, she’s released her debut E.P. W.I.L.D., and working with local management folks Tileyard, has just begun to make her mark with pop music that’s well-honed in the art of dynamics, alternating from big Florence-esque hooks to varying degrees of layered ambience.

Áine Duffy
Coming in for praise from Tony Clayton-Lea and Tony Fenton alike, Áine Duffy has been a presence in Cork venues for the past few years after touring the world and acquiring an accomplished session CV, finding her stride most recently in a new musical partnership with local musical wunderkind The Hypnotyst. Combining their mutual musical disciplines with a mutual love of all things rave, the duo have happened across an extroverted electronic rock sound that carries a distinct accessibility.

Nicole Maguire
Leading with finely honed country-pop, perfected on excursion to Nashville, Nicole Maguire has worked hard to work with the best, among them producer Mitchell Froom (Pearl Jam, Ron Sexsmith). Her apprenticeship in Music City served her well upon her Leeside return, and she’s since shared stages with the likes of Paul Brady, Donovan, and Damien Dempsey. She returned to studio in 2015, and second full-length Wishing Well released earlier this year.

Sara “Bear” Ryan
Making major inroads in the local singer-songwriter scene in the last year or so is Sara “Bear” Ryan, a young Kildarewoman living in the city. A student of the Vocal Performance degree in the Cork School of Music, she’s notched up support slots for Mick Flannery, John Spillane and others in the Irish acoustic oeuvre, releasing debut single Belle in August of this year, replete with a period-piece video shot in Temple Bar and the Wicklow Mountains.

Vicky Langan (Wölflinge)
Referred to as the “queen bee of Irish noise” Vicky Langan is a prolifically-active figure in the Irish avant-garde, working across sound-art, experimental film and installation. Performing solo as Wölflinge, Langan cuts an intense figure, projecting herself and the vulnerability of creativity via an assortment of live and synthesised sounds. A long-running audiovisual partnership with director Max Le Cain has resulted in a residency in the Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris, next year.

Siobhán Brosnan (Shiv)
One of the central pillars of electronic music in Cork, Siobhán Brosnan, a.k.a Shiv is a DJ, promoter, and blogger, working primarily with London-based techno blog Skirmish, and as part of Cork hip-hop auteurs Cuttin’ Heads Collective. Currently co-promoting techno nights at the AMP Venue, the Skirmish crew have most recently joined counter-culture newspaper Rabble as resident music experts, and curate live mixes from a revolving door of Irish electronic artists on Cork community station Room101.

Ellen King (Elll)
Founder of GASH Collective, a group dedicated to the promotion of women in experimental electronics, Elll has been a constant in Cork’s microcosm of drone, noise and minimal techno, as a producer, DJ and promoter. This winter sees the long-awaited release of debut E.P. Romance on Sligo-based label and distro Art for Blind Records.