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.

Bouts: “Nothing Worse Than Seeing a Band Phone It In”

A new album and a UK/Irish tour have been a long time coming for indie-pop four-piece Bouts, who return to the road this month after a five-year absence, including a stop at The Roundy. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with guitarist/vocalist Barry Bracken and bassist/vocalist Niall Jackson.

Half a decade can be an eternity in the realms of Irish independent music. For Dublin indie-pop outfit Bouts, scattered across the world by circumstance and work, it’s been made an even longer wait by the exponential pace of change in music consumption in recent years. With the exception of intermittent singles and remixes, the band’s last studio excursion was 2013 long-player ‘Nothing Good Gets Away’, a collection of noise-inflected pop that endeared them quickly to a cross-section of music aficionados. When sitting down to talk about the process of writing its follow-up, ‘Flow’, guitarist/vocalist Barry Bracken conveys the extent of effort that’s gone into keep the band’s home-fires burning ahead of its release next month via their own Wonky Karousel label. “It’s always immensely enjoyable to record an album. Our process was relatively straightforward, just a little drawn out. First sessions were in late 2016. We grabbed time together when we could over different weekends between then and now, in Ireland and the UK, further rehearsing and refining ideas. Not taking too long to let them become over-thought. That’s the single biggest difference between this album and the last. With minimal band contact, maximum focus was required. The songs were written in a kind of pressure-cooker atmosphere. and it definitely added to their immediacy. They’re as finished as they could be, and a decent representation of where we’re at. Although you usually end up outgrowing them quicker than an audience, due to the turn-around to get tracks from ideas to an actual record.”

The post-production and mixing process for ‘Flow’ featured the re-appearance of a few familiar heads from Bouts’ prior sessions – veteran Irish producer Fiachra McCarthy helped with the album’s direction, and the team of Jesse Gander on mixing duties and former Fugazi collaborator TJ Lipple on mastering, returned from the band’s last record. Bassist Niall Jackson recounts the ‘Flow’ sessions and the process of working together to get the record over the line. “Fiachra is basically one of us, same tastes, values and geekiness when it comes to guitar tones and giving things a lash. We could not recommend him more. I’m sure he won’t thank us for mentioning it, but most days our eight-hour sessions turned in to twelve-hour ones, and it was usually him going ‘G’wan, give this weird Fender Jag-Stang a go’ at the end of a day (laughs). It was our first time working with him, whereas with Jesse and TJ, we’ve never worked with anyone else for mixing and mastering since our debut album in 2013. They do a perfect job every single time, and are very reasonable to work with when it comes to revisions or advice.”

Wonky Karousel is a DIY record label via which the band has worked over the years on the band’s physical self-releases and various side-projects. This time, there’ll be a very small 12” vinyl run of ‘Flow’, as the record goes mostly to streaming services, the biggest change in music distribution over the last five years. Jackson discusses the band’s approach to the short-run release. “Basically, we still have a hundred copies of the first record underneath our beds, so this time we thought ‘well, let’s make it difficult, the other way around’. It means we’re paying more per unit, but at least it puts the impetus on the listener. Do you want to listen to a s**t stream, and have no physical relationship with the music produced, or do you want a great-sounding record and become lifelong friends with us in the process (laughs)? Ah no, we really don’t care how people consume it, the vinyl is there for the people that really want it, or want to help us make more music, the stream/digital version is gonna be more than enough for most these days. The most rewarding thing is people wanting to listen at all.”

Going back on UK and Irish tour to support the record, the question naturally emerges of trepidation or nerves about going back out there ‘as’ Bouts. After everything that the band has been through to get to this point, Jackson insists that it’s simply a matter of getting back on the horse. “We’re doing this as best mates, playing songs we love and wrote ourselves, whether five people turn up, or we pack the places out, and we’re going to give the exact same amount of energy. Nothing worse than seeing a band phone it in.” Likewise, getting back into the swing of doing press and getting radio play, after doing well with specialist shows at the BBC and RTÉ in the past might present challenges, but it’s being taken as par for the course. “Yeah, ‘same s**t, different day’, really. You would like to think people invested in music from Ireland are aware of who we are, and if not, that they might listen and think ‘well, this is good enough to play’. But again, it is pointless worrying about that stuff.”

Friday February 1st sees the band play the Roundy on Castle Street, alongside indie/psych outfit Any Joy and a solo show from the effortlessly prolific Laurie Shaw, in a fantastic piece of booking considering the DIY aesthetic shared by all involved. Jackson collects his thoughts heading into the gig, and expounds on sharing a billing with Shaw in particular. “Ah well, people like Laurie are the reason to get back out there. He really puts a cat, or seventy-five cats, among the pigeons, what with his furious album production rate. As for Any Joy, we’ve yet to have the joy of seeing them, so it’s a win-win situation. We’ve also being dying to see and play The Roundy. At the end of the day we’re all live music fans, and your opening acts should be bands you would pay, or go to see, even if you weren’t on the billing at all, never mind headlining it. Cork has traditionally been very good to us, too, people tend to show up.”

Bouts play upstairs at the Roundy on Friday February 1st, with support from Any Joy and Laurie Shaw. €7 at the door, kickoff at 9pm.

Mark Geary: “Just See How It Moves You”

On Friday September 14th, songwriter and scorer Mark Geary takes to the back room of Coughlan’s for an intimate show, but for a man on his fifth long-player, intimacy is far from unfamiliar territory. Ahead of the gig, Mike McGrath-Bryan sits down for a chat about gigging with Jeff Buckley, changes in the label model, and the future for artists.

“I remember the morning I left Dublin, my mother wouldn’t speak, too upset, crying so much. It’s crazy how some details stay vivid.” Some people are just inherent storytellers, and with over twenty-five years of experience and five solo albums under his belt, Mark Geary more than has the experience on which to draw, answering in suitable fashion the question of his initial excursion to New York in the early nineties, to pursue his craft. He continues:  “I had a bag I had sold two guitars, both of which were gifts, to make the flight money, which broke my heart. Also, that it was a one way ticket: those desperate moments, where choices are limited. I had no job and no prospects of one. I had a beautiful girlfriend, who protected me from some of the darker moments in my life. I had an address and $100 in my pocket, that got me two days and then I would have to find work. I had been playing guitar for a little band in Leixlip. Great people, I learned so much. I had played most of the venues in and around Dublin. At the Dublin was broke, broke and broken. I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t on the dole and being creative. Please don’t think that was some creative utopia, it absolutely wasn’t.”

At nineteen years of age, then, the culture-shock of landing in New York and being immediately situated at the centre of folk music and singer-songwriters at the time must have been terrifying, but if the goal was to improve, being plonked alongside the like of legendary troubadour Jeff Buckley in the Sin-é venue at such a tender age was an excellent way of getting one’s mettle tested. “New York completely made me. Almost like it gave me armour. The speed of the place, the people, the posturing, the grandeur. And the brutality and how violent it could be. The lightning bolt of realization of what I didn’t know, couldn’t know and wasn’t able… and I learned that the list of things I wasn’t able to do had better be addressed, and fast. The Sin-é cafe, my brother Karl’s place along with Shane Doyle, the coffee house scenes of the East Village and the Lower East Side. You could hustle a show in these places for tips. The trick was to get songs together and get my shit together, to be on the stage. It may sound odd but the greatest help I was ever given, was that I was offered no help whatsoever. ‘You wanna play here ? How many people can you bring!?’ ‘Oh I don’t know anyone.’ ‘Well, you better start getting to know people who might wanna come hear you.’ And really, that’s how it began. Just playing and playing.”

Playing regularly at the venue, as well as clubs around the city, rapidly sharpened Geary’s wits and skills, working with the likes of Buckley and an all-star cast of musicians that passed the venue’s doors. “Sin-é was in full swing, I just happened to land at that moment. I would wake up. And go straight to the cafe, sometimes opening up the place. I always remember how there was always something coming up – a band on the way and an event to go to, it felt like it was the center of the universe. All young people believe in such things… it became clear to me that I needed to go and get beat up (laughs)! Musically speaking, what I mean by that is, that I just hadn’t played in front of audiences, and really had a few songs. So I needed to grab as many gigs, and learn and learn, and fucking die a death on stage, and then go out after work and do it again.”

Geary revisited his roots thereafter, with a 2003 live album recorded in New York City – what was it like to see that whole time in the rear view mirror, so to speak? “It finally started to feel like a  ‘home game’. I had to leave Ireland in order to learn how to play, and to have lived a bit, in order to write about what I had seen. So returning to New York, I guess I was attempting to showcase what these ‘lullabies’ had become. A thousand gigs later, I had become just enough comfortable to be able to be present and at ease. And my friends were there to witness it, and to share the moment with me.”

Geary’s debut solo album was the starting point for SonaBLAST! Records out of Kentucky – at square one not only for a relatively busy indie label, but taking that risk right as labels had the change in business model thrust upon them by technological advances. That must have been quite something. “I was actually bartending at the time the label was founded. Gill Holland, the label’s founder and my lifelong friend, basically on a wing and a prayer, and a book called ‘Record Labels for Dummies’, set up the label so I could record my first album. I had four songs recorded just on my own and Gill funded the rest. No plan, no contract, just a handshake at 4am over eggs and bacon. I remember people I knew getting very serious record deals, lots of money advances, etc. Those bands have broken up and even those labels. But I’ve continued to make music, movie soundtracks etc., the odd movie role along the way. That’s crazy, right? So, I think that’s the way forward. Be everything. Be creative in everything, make art, make coffee, make food, make shapes.”

Newest album ‘The Fool’ released last year, Geary’s fifth studio album in all. With the finished product now done and dusted, he muses on the protracted process of the record. “This one took a while – three years in the writing. I’ve been playing in lots of places, new audiences etc. Such a shot in the arm for me. So I was only interested in the new sounds and songs, as they came. You go to the guitar and you see how you’re feeling, see if there’s anything that’s been left by the song fairies (laughs). A little phrase, a chord you hadn’t heard that way before. That’s how you do it. Few weeks with Karl Odlum and Dave Hingerty on drums, making noise and playing with ideas. What starts to happen is I start to join the dots, like there’s a pressure to finish. I work better with a gun to my head. During the recording I wrote three songs in one morning/early afternoon. By evening we had tracked them. Amazing, really. You start to commit to the lyrics and scribble as you go.”

Also renowned for his scoring work, including the like of Sons of Perdition, Geary is unusually brief on the process of scoring, and how it differs from the usual vagaries of songwriting for one’s self. “Totally different animal, which I love. You learn how to serve the movie as opposed to serving the song. It’s wonderful to sit with notes on the film and just see what moves you.”

Geary is playing Coughlan’s next month on Friday 14th, as part of his latest round of homebound touring. He’s drawn to the Leeside city by familiar names and faces. “It’s always been special, it’s always been important, and if you don’t know that – someone in Cork will tell you fast enough (laughs). I’ve been traveling for gigs for years now. The Lobby, the Half Moon, Crane Lane. Coughlan’s has become the go-to place – the people there, the kindness and appreciation shown has always been such a balm to me.”

As if to leave on the storytelling note he came in on, Geary finishes the conversation on a story, as closely told as to an old friend. “The story from the Lobby, when I was just starting to play back in Ireland, we made a deal of it, but it was really quiet. We’d pull the gig, but if more than five people came then we’d go ahead with the show. There were four payers on the night, actually, two couples, which was great. We waited and waited, and still no one, until this guy fell up the stairs and kinda slumped in the corner. Neither at the gig nor out – so he officially made five, and the show went ahead (laughs).”

Versive: “Why We Keep Doing What We Are Doing”

With exposure on Kerrang! Radio in the UK and contention on the Irish download charts, Dublin alt-rock outfit Versive stand ready to try their luck with America. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with guitarist Conor Walsh ahead of their upcoming Leeside excursion.

Since assembling in 2015 from the wreckage of Dublin’s late-2000s pop-punk scene, four-piece Versive (not to be confused with now-defunct Cork electronic-pop trio Versives) have diligently been writing and releasing material, keeping a steady gigging pace and quietly becoming something of a hot proposition for fans of the broad ‘alt-rock’ brushstroke. In that short space of time, something more mature and brooding has emerged, maintained by a collective effort, says guitarist Conor Walsh. “When we recorded our first song ‘Blackout’, in Manor Park studio, the tone of it came out very raw and darker than our previous projects. Thanks to that one song, we all knew what direction to take the band. We are all heavily influenced by loud rock guitar bands, like Foo Fighters and Four Year Strong, hence why we have three guitars. We also all listen to many different genres of music. All that fused together… makes the sound of Versive. For the first E.P., I mainly wrote all the music, and Kelan (O’Reilly, vocals) did vocals but for our newer stuff, everyone is involved with writing, which makes life easier for me (laughs).”

Most recent single ‘Blind’ was released in September via U.S. label King Sound, ahead of more tracks to be released shortly in an as-yet indeterminate format. They’re shaping up to be something special, inspired by the Stateside journey the band took to work with their heroes and  get them done. “So we went over to the States last November, and started demoing tunes for our next release out at Wachusett Recording Studio in Massachusetts. The new songs are produced by Michael Harmon and Alan Day (guitarist/vocals of Four Year Strong). Thanks to these lads, they brought our sound to the next level. We are feeling pretty good about them. Some of the songs are heaviest we have ever written and some have a slightly lighter vibe to them. It’s just a good mix of everything.” Having previously worked with UK label Scylla and Dublin concern NVR MNT, the band’s latest label dalliance finds them at the centre of their own work as musicians, with guidance on hand, according to Walsh. “There is no difference at all, at the end of the day, the label doesn’t do the work, the band does. The labels we have been part of and are currently, with are there for support and to guide us if we have any questions. But for the most part, we are still DIY as f**k. Just the way we like it.”

Single ‘Pretend’ last year charted on the Irish iTunes Music service, brushing off the mainstream sales charts, and placing highly on a rock singles chart dominated by casual fans’ endless consumption of genre standards. What was that like, and is there still merit in charts as a barometer of taste/opinion in the streaming age? “It was amazing to have the single get into the charts, we weren’t expecting it. And the fact it happened for ‘Pretend’ and ‘Blind’ is kinda mind-blowing. It shows that people still listen to rock music, and not just that silly mainstream pop music.  Although it’s not that important to get into the charts, it sure is a nice feeling that people went out of the way to purchase our music. We actually released our first physical CD last month into Tower Records, and we sold out of stock twice in the shop within a few days. That really showed there is a demand for physicals, which meant more to us than the charts. I hope people continue to support music and buy their favourite bands’ releases, it’s the reason why we keep doing what we are doing, ‘cause the fans support us.” The aforementioned single also premiered in the UK via Kerrang! Radio, whose namesake magazine, are now under new management and seem to be taking their duties as gatekeepers for young rockers a bit more seriously, as opposed to simply making a rock-themed yoof lifestyle mag. Despite the premiere treatment over the airwaves, exposure from the enduring weekly has been elusive. “I had no idea they are under new management, and to be honest we have had little dealings with Kerrang!. We are delighted that they played our music, but when it comes to the magazine and the people that run it, we haven’t really been in contact at all.”

The band haven’t been the only ones benefiting from an upswing in Irish music, as well-documented within these pages in recent years. In light of a lack of prime-time exposure on Irish media, independent music of every stripe is reliant on community effort and support from within. This has historically included word of mouth and the thumbs-up from trusted sources for more casual listeners. Walsh briefly name-checks a few going concerns he’s been into as of late. “There are some badass bands around Ireland at the moment, the bands I’ve been really digging lately would have to be Just Mustard, Tanjier, Overhead the Albatross and Screaming Giants.” Versive are playing Fred Zeppelin’s on Friday the 18th, with support from young Leeside alternative bands Skies Behind, dealing in self-proclaimed ‘Irish pop-punk trash’, and Primus-esque messers Red Sun Alert. Ahead of stepping foot in the big red room upstairs again, Walsh recently did a bit of research. “We played in Cork two years ago at the same venue and it was a great show, so we are expecting to have a great time. I checked (the supports) out the day they got announced, they seem cool and look forward to rocking out with them.”

This date acts as prelude to a busy summer for the band, and a rehearsal for a much-busier touring schedule for late in the year, hitting Irish cities and generally keeping the momentum up. “Releasing our new tunes by the end of the year and our next single “The Problem”, which will be (out) over the summer. We also have a full Irish tour in the works for November, so we are looking forward to announcing that in the coming weeks”.

Seán MacErlaine: “The Process is Different”

On a break from creating trailblazing contemporary music with ensemble This is How We Fly, woodwind musician Sean MacErlaine talks to Mike McGrath-Bryan about his gig this weekend at the Triskel.

Contemporary music in Ireland is marked out by a preponderance of curious minds and consummate musicians, striving to move the classical oeuvre forward and encountering success on the national and world stages. Amid all of the movement, Seán Mac Erlaine, a Dublin-based woodwind instrumentalist, composer and electronic producer, finds his creative home, performing solo and with touring ensemble This is How We Fly.

Sitting at the Venn diagram between folk, free improvisation, jazz and traditional music, MacErlaine also collaborates with a number of outfits and artists in improvisation, theatre and radio. His new solo album ‘Music for Empty Ears’ is launching this month, MacErlaine’s third solo record, and MacErlaine details the creative and production processes while working with some of his regular collaborators. “I prepared a lot of material to bring over to Oslo, which is where we recorded the album. The recording only took two days, and a lot of material was torn apart and reordered, and we’d make it in order to suit the group. There was a lot of input from (Norwegian sampling pioneer) Jan Bang as a producer, as he’s worked a lot as a producer over the years. Super, super-experienced in that field, so he would guide me in ways that I wouldn’t have had on my first two albums, where it was literally just me on my own. The process is different, much more about collaboration. And the two of them, Jan and Eyvind (Aarset, guitarist) have worked together for years over countless records, so I had so much to learn from them, and it was a privilege.”

The record releases through Ergodos, a Dublin record label dedicated specifically to contemporary music in the classical idiom – longtime supporters of MacErlaine and his work. He’s quick to outline the importance of the label to his music and the wider contemporary community. “They’re super to work with. Highly dedicated, over-the-top dedicated, from the big picture to the tiny details. They have so many skills within layout, design, putting things together, and in live performance, helping organise these gigs. They’re great. They have their own space, now, in Dublin. So they have a great little hub, people coming in and out, very busy. Musicians and composers, very into what they’re doing, so I’m glad to be releasing with them.”

In the process of maintaining a busy artistic schedule, MacErlaine often finds his work crossing over into other media. Last month, he was involved with a live-scoring of cinematic classic The Four Horsemen for Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Festival last month, alongside members of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, Adrian Crowley and Kevin Murphy. What was the process of scoring almost on the fly like, in terms of cinemagoers’ expectation and creating to the ‘beat’ of the work? “The first thing is to have some shared understanding of what the film is, what it might be trying to say, and to have some idea of the tone that the film is setting. And that might seem obvious, but people have different ideas and (interpretations) of the tone of the film, and someone will have an opposite opinion. We have to have some kind of consensus. Then it’s about having the right kind of people in the room, then, and being able to listen to people, respond appropriately, then link in and make sense with what’s going on on-screen. It can be an interesting extra step, when you have a film in front of you, but it comes down to listening to each other, and listening to the film. Something might sound nice, but it might not make sense in sync with the screen. You have to make some hard decisions to serve the film, and give more nuance to the director’s intentions.”

His other outlet, This is How we Fly, saw its second album ‘Foreign Fields’ released late last year to acclaim from specialist press, and though the touring and such is in the rear-view mirror, he’s not yet given himself the time to settle into the record as a finished work. “I haven’t listened to it in a while, but I’m very proud of that record, and happy with the way we made it! We made the first record and that was great, but one of the key things about the group is the four of us being on stage, interacting with each other and then the audience. Very important in all my music that there’s a give and take between artist and audience, a sort of spirit flow. In some other projects, some musicians work in their bedrooms and find that’s ‘where the real stuff happens’, and ‘if only they could bring that to stage’. But with us, it’s the opposite, being able to perform in front of people, and the element of movement is important and really gets expressed. You’re really able to capture that on a record.”

MacErlaine is playing the Triskel Christchurch on Saturday night as part of a clutch of dates in support of the new record, and looks forward to reacquainting himself with the intricacies one of his favourite venues in the country. “I’ve been lucky to play there a few times over the past number of years, and it’s beautiful, a very special space, and I’ve gone to gigs there. A great space to listen to gigs. I’m very happy to come back to Cork and work there.”

“I must say, I’m a fan of Cork”, he intones with stress in his voice, as if taking care with his words when addressing as discerning a music market as Corkonians. “I’m a Dublin man, but I’m a great fan of Cork. It’s true. I could see myself living there. After three or four years, I’ve finally made sense of traffic and parking, but I’ve finally made sense of the geography of the place”, he laughs, possibly blissfully unaware of Patrick Street’s recent partial pedestrianisation. After his upcoming clutch of dates on his own, MacErlaine can barely take pause for breath before his next musical engagement comes calling. “The week after, I’m going to Estonia to work on a piece I’ll be performing there with musicians in September. I’m playing with Macnas in Galway, making a piece about the monster Crom for the Theatre Festival there”. So I’ll be composing new music there, then This is How We Fly are heading to Scotland, with a residency to be announced. So lots of things to keep me off the streets!”

Wild Rocket: “A Fascination with Cognitive Dissonance”

With their third long-player now in the rear-view mirror, Dublin space-cadets Wild Rocket are heading to Cork this weekend as part of a rare terrestrial excursion. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks with bassist Moose and synthman Niallo ahead of the journey.

Over the past few years, the outer reaches of Ireland’s music scene has registered periodic blips of strange activity on its periphery, indicative of trails of space radiation left by astral travel. The trajectory pictured is awfully similar to the journey of Dublin space-punks Wild Rocket, a hefty proposition that have sat at the intersection of accessibility, heft and psychedelia, slowly building cosmic momentum over the course of intermittent touring and a string of long-players. Third album ‘Dissociation Mechanics’ was released last summer via Sligo label Art for Blind, and Moose, the outfit’s manipulator of low-end distortion, has much to discuss regarding its creation.

“Well, we were living with the record in some shape or form since the beginning of the band. Some of the songs are older than those found on our first album, it was just a matter of it being the right time to document them in their final state. Obvious example would be ‘Caught In Triangle’, which contains some the first riffs we wrote together. I think the last two albums are indicative of our range but ‘Dissociation Mechanics’ feels a bit more varied, from fast to slow, loud to louder, etc. We’re excited to see where we end up with the next songs, but in the meantime we’re still very much enjoying playing these songs live. At the same time, we’re not afraid to take a few chances with structures or ideas with the songs, to keep things developing and moving forward. I’m sure if we went back and recorded it all again, it’d be a little different but really for us the album is a snap shot of that particular time and place we were in so there’s nothing to change or be unhappy with.”

The process of assembling a Wild Rocket record, while deriving from a bank of existing riffs this time around, is based on improvisation and experimentation, not only with instrumentation, but with arrangements and production. “Phase-changer” Niallo talks about the band’s composition process and how it informed the production and post-production of their latest long-player. “Typically how we write songs is we get together once a week or so, and jam and keep jamming riff ideas, until something develops that we all feel an affinity with, or just feels right. Things have gotten more difficult from album one to album two, as Breslin, our drummer, is living in London now. As a result, we don’t get to jam all together as often, but thankfully it hasn’t slowed us down. If anything, it just means the jams build up and up, until they need to be released in a torrent when we do get together. It also led to us doing more with repetition and opening up songs, or more so sections of songs, to be improvised live which has been great fun and strangely satisfying. With respect to recording we recorded with The Deaf Brothers in their studio on Abbey Street in Dublin. As with the first album we went in and recorded the basic parts together but then we had a lot more fun getting into layers of guitars, synths and effects. We kept going until it became an envelope of dense fuzz, swirling textures and whatever else came into our warped imaginations, all of course delivered with a snarl.”

‘Dissociation Mechanics’ is drawn together by an overriding set of themes/concepts, feeding from the current state of flux humanity finds itself in on several levels. Moose goes into further detail on the narrative behind the record. “The general concept of the album is about the human race’s amazing ability to continue cycles of destruction through an inability to learn from our mistakes, but also the possibility that we can learn from those mistakes via a sort of transformation, and finally put an end to the destructive cycles. It’s informed by a fascination with the collective cognitive dissonance we as a species are capable of, while also being influenced by the natural and societal landscape that surrounds us here. We’re fascinated with science, and the realm of science fiction, which ties into the sounds we make so when it comes to the actual lyrics, we’re always informed by those realms too on this album, especially black holes, whirlpools and portals to other dimensions. Finally, I love how a lot of the best sci-fi is left open to interpretation, so there’s always some of that.”

As mentioned at the outset, the record was released on vinyl via Art for Blind, a formerly Cork-based label that ran a stall out of the now-defunct Cork Community Print Shop, and now operates out of Sligo’s Model arts centre. Niallo is keen on acknowledging their role in the band’s rise, and their working relationship. “Two of us had worked with Art For Blind on previous releases with (previous bands) Hands Up Who Wants To Die and Wolfbait, and knew the lads pretty well, so when they offered to help with the release of this album, we were more than happy to work with them. It’s been great working with them, and no doubt we’ll work with them on further releases.”

The band are playing the Poor Relation this Saturday, alongside crossover thrash/hardcore Corkonians Bisect and post-rockers Aerialist in a killer lineup. Niallo collects his thoughts on heading to Cork as part of a weekend of gigging. “It’s great to play Cork. The scene in Cork at the moment seems to have hit a nice rolling boil once again. I see Cosmonaut Music getting a lot of positive press these days, something we can support, Cormac and the lads are doing a cracking job. Tombstone and Box Gigs have been doing amazing stuff for years too, and it’s great to see them and many other promoters working with a real community spirit. Definitely translates to great gigs. We played at the GGI Fest with Bisect last summer, and it was my first time seeing them, having heard so much. Any chance to look at (vocalist) Phil explode on a stage is always welcome. The new album they are putting out is meaty and aggressive, with messages that I think we can all get behind. Aerialist have shown that their knowledge of texture and dynamic is bang on. I’m looking forward to hearing it live!”

Al Foran: “I Had the Opportunity to Show Off”

Comedian and impersonator Al Foran has gone from aping movie-star accents in his living room to social media success and involvement in McGregormania. As his new stage show heads for the Opera House, Mike McGrath-Bryan chats with Foran about his rise and the effects of socials on stand-up in 2018.

Social media has changed comedy utterly in the past decade or so, with the methods of delivery and writing for sketches and observations changing to fit multiple platforms with distinct audiences. While the Rubberbandits’ wanton acts of Dadaism were a natural fit for YouTube and early watercooler-talk virality, and Alison Spittle has found her footing via a joyous series of podcasts for Irish network Headstuff, the Irish tradition of impersonations seemed lost, or at least committed to old media. Enter Dubliner Al Foran. With a following of over 310,000 Facebook users, regular appearances on RTÉ’s Funny Friday, and his status as a staple for visual contributions to Joe.ie as well as the banter-industrial complex of ‘lad’ pages on social media, Foran seems ideally positioned to ruffle feathers. With over a hundred separate voices in his repertoire of comedic impressions, his storytelling relies on sitcom premises such as crossovers and farce to add new context to the appearances of regular targets like Conor McGregor, Roy Keane and Éamon Dunphy.

For all this pop-cultural literacy and social media savvy, though, the foundations of Foran’s career were laid early on in life, in a household where the markers of a growing and globalising pop and sporting culture were a constant amid the bustle. Sat in the Opera House’s quayside Elbow Room, he recounts his earliest comedic ventures. “Every impersonator will tell you this, they would mimic their family, the aunties and uncles at the family weddings. The parties, the 40ths, the 30ths, the 21sts. That’s what I did, as a young kid. At my parents’ wedding in 2002, at the top table, I got up and did maybe a 15-minute set impersonating my uncles, my mam, my dad, my older brother. It started with that. I had a knack for it. As for famous people, I was maybe in my teens, but I watched a lot of movies, a lot of television, and I would pick up on the voices. I watched a lot of football, and I started impersonating Alex Ferguson, Harry Redknapp, and all those characters.”

Fast-forward a few years, and suddenly the media of television and film were robbed of their ubiquity and command over household entertainment – social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were accessible across everything from phones to videogame machines, and freed of the constraints of network broadcasting and its standards & practices, Foran set about getting to work on refining his craft and reaching people. “Eight years ago, I started putting up my videos on YouTube. I did my first gig when I was eighteen, in my local community centre, and I started sending videos from there, to 98FM, TodayFM, 2FM: they’d get nowhere, obviously. While social media did have a presence, there weren’t many ‘content creators’, so, for a few years, I did film production in college, and in 2014 I set my Facebook page and it was there that I had my opportunity to show off my repertoire of impressions. See, there was Mario Rosenstock and Oliver Callan for a long time, and they were on the two biggest stations on the country. So it was hard to get my own work out there. People will say, ‘oh, it’s a talent’, but you have to work at it and improve it”.

For the democratising effect that social media has had in allowing talent to reach a wider audience, the relative security for high-performing stand-ups is all but gone for a new generation in Ireland – the club shows mightn’t always lead to the tours, which, in turn, effectively no longer lead to chart-topping DVDs, panel shows, and the attendant trappings, advances and royalties. Foran assesses a changed working environment. “I think it’s absolutely fantastic. It’s given guys that are so talented – Enya Martin, Rory Stories – they’re doing all these relatable sketches and putting them out to thousands of people. It’s changing everywhere, the US, the UK, but it’s a lot more prevalent in Ireland. Social media comedians are getting a lot more traction. The guys in the UK have millions of followers, but they’re all still online, no-one’s made the move to stand-up yet. And looking at it overall, there’s maybe one show and the soccer that people are watching on television, the rest are streaming on Netflix, and (the likes of) Facebook are going to introduce streaming services.”

Foran’s international star turn came last year, amid the hype and hustle of the eventual boxing match between former WBA champion Floyd Mayweather and Irish UFC icon Conor McGregor. Turning up at a spoken word show of Mayweather’s in London, initially as a support act, Foran’s ‘McGregor’ later surfaced during the Q&A at the end of the show, issuing a ‘challenge’ for the later-confirmed and subsequently much-ballyhooed contest. It sent Foran stratospheric in the days after, with footage from the event making its way around the world. “I was invited over to perform, to warm up with a few little impressions, and he got told that there was a lad that impersonated Conor at the event. He didn’t see me at all, when I performed. But he said to the organiser, ‘let that guy come on stage to me at the end of the Q&A, let him ask questions.’ Lo and behold, I got asked all this, and it was just, (gasps audibly) Jesus Christ. The only interaction we had was on-stage. I’m critical of the video – I didn’t like my Trump impression, but the Mike Tyson, he was very happy with. I got a little fist-bump off him for that!”

Foran’s new show, ‘Impersonate This!’ sees him arm himself with the full arsenal of celebrity impersonations at his disposal for a full stage show. In addition to his Irish pop-culture references, the voices of international political figures, movie stars and sporting heroes are plucked from their lives of luxury and slammed together in unusual or unfortunate situations, and Foran is ready to make it happen. “When people see me on social media, they see, at the click of a finger, impression after impression after impression. We’re gonna make that longer, with more sketches and a lot of VT. We’re going to make use of the video wall (we have), as it’s effective and as a one-man show, I do need a bit of help from the screen. I’ll be nervous, but if you’re not nervous, there’s something wrong with you.”

The Opera House might present its own challenges for solo artists, but so too does it represent something of an arrival Leeside for Foran – and a homecoming for his family on the night of March 30th. “Sentiment. My grandparents on my mam’s side are from Cork, and my grandmother was a soprano, and performed at the Opera House. Many years ago, she sang here. It’s a big thing for my family, especially that side. So that will be a nice touch. And I love Corkonians. They’re just straight in their views and their opinions, no bullsh*t. I love it. I look forward to it.”