Robocobra Quartet: “Violent, Dissonant Noises”

Belfast spoken-word/jazz/hardcore fusionists Robocobra Quartet have been blazing a trail over the past few years. With their second album on the way, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with bandleader Chris Ryan about experimentation, extremity and a filling station on the M6.

For artists, comparisons and references to admired figures can arguably create more trepidation than motivation. Once a revered name is uttered and invoked in connection with an upcoming band, it’s stuck in press releases, rehashed by gig promoters over social media, and used as an easy point of reference for journos and DJs with the luxury of a few minutes’ research ahead of features. Your writer has the unfortunate honour of laying this burden on Belfast outfit Robocobra Quartet. While not, in fact, a quartet, but an assembly of musicians available on a given night, this constant shifting of sonic tectonics merely adds to the band’s unpredictability, a jarring and exciting racket that spurred your scribe to refer to them, in passing, as ‘Fugazi meets Charles Mingus’ for a UK publication a number of years back. Second album “Plays Hard to Get” is due on vinyl and digital formats in May, and as we get settled into a chat, the well-mannered and decidedly chipper Chris Ryan, speechifying drummer and bandleader, relates, with a wry smile, how this designation followed them as far as college radio in the United States while on tour there.

But while it is exceptionally hard to not draw comparisons to sonic trailblazers past while pondering the angular, aggro jazz of Robocobra, the same seeming fluidity that applies to their musical broadsides extended across the range of their creative and production processes of their upcoming full-length. “There was definitely a much more blurred line between writing and recording on this one. Any time you commit something to recording, it always comes out a little different than imagined. In producing it, I wanted to respond to those changes and improvise just as much in the mixing & editing as the actual performing. When you leave things malleable, it allows for the musicians to respond strongly and take ownership over their performances.” Material that’s aired in the run-up to the new record’s release has seen the band extend its range and explore the weird Venn diagram of sounds and textures available to them, especially in terms of jazz instrumentation and arrangement. “That’s interesting, I think the album is just much more extreme in all directions. It has some of our most ‘jazz’ material, but also parts that are certifiably metal as all hell! It has some of the most gentle performances we’ve done but also some of the most dissonant violent noises we’ve ever made. Just a wider emotional-dynamic-range I guess.”

Themes of alienation, trepidation, etc. are holdovers from the band’s first record, the wonderfully-monikered ‘Music for All Occasions’, however – modernity in all its pettiness, distance and squalor is put through the filter of Ryan’s personality, experiences and spat-out verbiage throughout. While social commentary is no doubt at the heart of Robocobra Quartet’s music, the vitriol with which themes and concepts are thrown at the listener are from that certain place. “I find that I tend to get the most negative or dismal parts of my personality out through the lyrics, which kind of ‘cleanses’ me for real-life interactions, where I tend to be generally happy and polite. It’s hard to think about how something looks or feels when you’re in it, and even though the album is mastered and off to the vinyl plant, I still feel very much “in it”. Ask me again in about a year and maybe I’ll have a more eloquent response!” With ‘Music for All Occasions’ now firmly in the rear-view mirror for Ryan and associates, the conversation turns briefly to how he feels about the album now that he’s had some time to live with the finished product. Staying true to form and reflecting the band’s forward-looking nature, however, Ryan is eager to relate his experience with creating it to the grand vision he has for the new platter. “We definitely did that one a lot quicker than this record. There’s more of a simplicity to Music For All Occasions, but this album is much more layered. Some of my favourite albums offer you new things to hear with each listen, even after years. There’s a lot of the orchestration on this album that is somewhat buried, or momentary, to offer that kind of effect. There are drum machines, and string sections, and voices all over the place that are only really audible on headphones. Jeez… some mix engineer, eh?” (laughs).

The state of independent, experimental and otherwise ‘difficult’ music all over the island is one of rude health, across the genre spectrum. Hailing from a vital and busy Belfast scene that has carved a new identity for itself in recent years with precision post-punk and fearless experimentation, Ryan has a more nuanced take on the current upswing in noises and the people making them. “There are people doing beautiful things of their own volition all over the place, at all times. It’s usually the work of individuals with a will to make cool things, so I think it’s better to prop up those individuals, than thank the collective consciousness, which I think doesn’t really exist. Everything is in waves though, and I think even when things look terrible there are still people out there working hard and expressing themselves, always.” Off the back of the release of the new record, the band is touring the mainland UK and the continent throughout the summer, building on a live reputation that sees them neatly skewer the live demographics between the regular gig-going scene for noisy rock and the fringes of jazz festival infrastructure. Ryan is quite specific about his thoughts heading into the fray, traversing the line between sincerity and irony in fitting fashion. “There’s a really pretty petrol station in the north of England called Tebay Services on the M6 that is a little like paradise. That will be nice, especially in June which is when we’re on the UK leg. There are also a few venues/promoters that we’ve worked with a few times before so it will be nice to say hello again and see how they’ve grown and changed. We’re just dipping our toes into mainland Europe at the moment, but I’m told there’s more stuff coming up towards the end of the year which should be nice. They seem to pay us a lot of money in Europe and are extremely attentive audience members, so hoping for more of that.”

Robocobra Quartet’s new album, ‘Plays Hard to Get’, is available for preorder now from robocobraquartet.bandcamp.com in vinyl and digital formats.

Pleasure Beach: On the Go

Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with Pleasure Beach singer Alan Haslam about their journey so far, big singles, and their upcoming Cyprus Avenue show on March 2nd.

Belfast dream-pop/indie outfit Pleasure Beach spent the majority of last year building from the late-2015 release of debut extended-player ‘Dreamer to the Dawn’, surfing a wave of momentum from anthemic debut single ‘Go’, a near-inescapable proposition for fans of independent music in Ireland that year. Vocalist Alan Haslam takes some time to reflect, at the outset of a conversation about his band’s upcoming debut Irish headline tour. “We recorded that record at a really exciting time for the band, right at the start when the initial industry and audience buzz was ramping up. Those songs are still very close to our hearts, and we’ve kept them in our live set for almost every show we’ve played since. Listening back now, eighteen months or so after they were recorded, I can hear how much more confident we are playing them these days. The high notes are certainly easier to hit than they were!”

‘Go’ was possibly one of the strongest starts a band could ask for, surely, a shimmering, hazy slice of big guitar-pop – and it occurred, far from any sort of big, mad stroke of inspiration, from a fairly innocuous jamming session that predated the band’s existence. “It was a great way to burst out of the traps, that’s for sure. It was the only song we have that was written and recorded before we put the band together, just Lisa and I in the studio recording for fun. Back then we never could’ve foreseen it’d be released at all, let alone go on to be something of a hit record. It was great to see it blossom, and it’s amazing seeing audiences singing it back to us when we play it live. That’s really the best thing you could hope for as a songwriter and I’ll never get tired of that. We all still love that song.”

What was the subsequent process of finishing up and recording the songs for the ‘Dreamer to the Dawn’ E.P. like? “When we record we do it fast. Mainly down to financial constraints – studio time is expensive – but it also helps to capture the essence of a song without getting bogged down in sonic minutiae. When you only have three days to track three densely-produced songs there’s an urgency and adrenaline buzz to the process that can manifest itself in the record, and I think that comes across in that E.P. Not saying I wouldn’t take six months at Joshua Tree for our next record, but it is a kind of masochistic fun working to a tight schedule like that.”

The reaction to the extended-player has largely been positive, with the band getting straight to work by touring and capitalising on the attention they’ve received. “We’ve had a really warm welcome into the arms of the music scene, particularly in Ireland. Over the last year we’ve played to audiences that none of us would’ve dared dream about until now. It’s been really great, and we’ve met some incredible people along the way. To know that your music has made even a tiny impression on the lives of strangers, live or on record, sort of validates that reckless life decision you’ve made to become an artist. It’s a good feeling.”

The band are heading into their maiden headline excursion around the island, and it’s a thought that’s not without trepidation for Haslam and crew. “My primary thought is “will the van break down?” In fact, there’s no question. It will break down. But that’s happened loads of times and we’ve never missed a show! Aside from that we really can’t wait. Irish audiences are by far and away our favourite to play for and extra receptive to new material, of which we’ll be playing a lot.”

Pleasure Beach are playing Cyprus Avenue on March 2nd, having debuted in the Crane over the Jazz weekend for a Jameson/Hot Press Bow St. Sessions show. Haslam gathers his thoughts on the event. “That was a lovely show. We were incredibly well looked after by the Jameson/ Hot Press folks, and it was a treat to hang out with the Wyvern Lingo guys and Amaron & Magic, the beatboxers. Prodigiously talented one and all, and we got to collaborate on a couple of covers too. which was brilliant craic. The Cork audience were great, and gave us a really enthusiastic reception. We can’t wait to come back.”

Said new material was premiered there also, which is quite the departure from shoegazey, Krauty touches and into straightforward pop. “I think our songwriting and arrangements have got a little more concise over the last year or so, and we’re leaning a lot heavier on synths and electronics these days too. I guess that’s what gives the new material more of a pop aesthetic. Fear not though! The big guitar songs are still in there, and a lot of our brand new stuff is bigger, more guitar-y and a whole lot more shoegazey than ever before!”

It’s looking like a big year for the band after this tour, with a full-length in the offing. “We have a few releases lined up, all heading towards an album towards the end of the year. We’ll be on the road, in the studio and crouched over ancient laptops in our bedrooms writing a whole load more material for you to wrap your ears around. Many adventures await.”

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.