Juanita Stein: Taking on a Global America

After five years of writing and recording, Howling Bells frontwoman Juanita Stein’s debut album foreshadows her debut solo tour. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with her ahead of her upcoming Fred Zeppelin’s date.

A long road has led Juanita Stein to where she presently stands: as frontwoman and rhythm guitarist of London-based outfit Howling Bells (and before that, their initial, Sydney-based incarnation, Waikiki), she’s basked in critical acclaim and undertaken comprehensive world touring, both as a headline act and in support of arena-botherers like The Killers, in the process making Clash Magazine’s Top Women list in 2009. Bringing herself back to square one, Stein’s first solo album America was five years in the making, and will be showcased by her first headlining solo tour, including an excursion upstairs to the red room in Fred Zeppelin’s on Wednesday October 4th. On the phone before heading out on the UK leg of her tour, she’s understandably excited and nervous about going it alone. “Straight away, it’s equally liberating and nerve-wracking. You don’t have the support system that you’ve had for many years. There’s a lot more autonomy, but a lot more responsibility, as I’m finding out today trying to figure out electronic stuff I haven’t had to before. The logistics are overwhelming but for the most part I’m looking forward to performing my own material.”

Beginning life in 2012 and with studio work getting underway three years later, it’s fair to say that Stein has taken her time in bringing her material to life. A personal reflection on the changes the world has undergone from her view on a tour bus, America takes on the American dream, and its knock-on effects on cultures worldwide, in withering, sultry alt-country fashion. In the studio, meanwhile, it was a time of development. “I suppose I collaborated a lot more with the producer, as there wasn’t a ‘band’, per se. A lot of discussions going back and forth. A lot of effort gone into lyrics, a lot more so on this record. The other thing was there was a bunch of guys playing on the record I’d never worked with before, so that was strange, because I’d been playing with the same guys for over a decade. That was really interesting. They were amazing, they brought something fresh. Conceptually, I hadn’t set out to make a record that was specifically about America, but I guess my subconscious was overwhelming, in making what was obviously an ode to America. It was only when I sat down and listened to it that it dawned on me that that’s what it was about.”

The album’s lengthy gestation period has allowed Stein the opportunity to live with various stages of it, before settling on a final product and arranging for its release. Stein explores how she feels about the record as it was at its conclusion, and how she’d have done things in the intermittent time before its release this past summer: “I feel like it was a very honest interpretation of those songs in that point in time, but I would probably do them differently now because I’ve lived with them and I’ve been playing them live, and they always take on another life. I had no idea what the songs were when they were first recorded. Now I’m a lot more familiar with them. In retrospect, I’m very happy with it and I think it’s a quietly soulful record.”

After the upcoming UK/Irish dates, Stein has something of a coup lined up for November, as she accompanies The Killers on their UK arena dates that month. The difference again arises between treading those massive stages alone versus being with the band, as well as the topic of spending road time with one of the mainstream’s biggest bands of the last two decades. “There’s not a whole lot of downtime. They are incredibly supportive, they have always have been. Optimistic, I suppose. It’s nice to be on the road with people who support what you do. And they’re about as well-oiled a machine as you’re going to get. It’s absolutely incredible to watch that happen and take something away from it. I’m obviously not going to copy their arena setup, but their professionalism is pretty mindblowing. As far as myself doing shows without the band: I don’t know. I’m nervous and game in equal (measure).

Of course, this isn’t Stein’s first rodeo away from Howling Bells and her established means and methods in a general sense, having appeared on numerous other bands’ records in guest capacities. When asked for her favourite, she makes mention of a little-known group of upstarts from the UK. “The Coldplay one was pretty special, it (album Mylo Xyloto) was the biggest album I’ve ever appeared on, even though it wasn’t in a predominant role. It was really interesting coming from a very organic, indie, lo-fi background to step into these spectacular, large (studio experiences).” How does the creative process differ between collaborators when sessioning? “It was literally turning up to studio, getting a sheet of lyrics and running through it a few times. If something sticks, it sticks, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Some people want your input, and some people like what you do sonically and that’s what they ask you to bring. They’re completely different”.

With all of the activity ahead, Stein wouldn’t be to blame for taking it in for a moment, but the future looms large and plans for the foreseeable are underway. “Thinking about a second record. I have a US tour coming up in December, that’s my first solo American tour. That’s as far as I’ve gone (laughs).”

Juanita Stein plays upstairs in Fred Zeppelin’s, Parliament Street, on Wednesday October 4th. Tickets €15 on the door.

Cork’s Venue Crisis: Have Heart

Cork’s arts scene faces major troubles in terms of spaces for practice and performance. And while the issues are important, we’ve been here before on a regular basis, writes Mike McGrath-Bryan.

“Cork Gets Her Heart Back”, read the headline of an article on Totally Cork man Gary Meyler’s blog The G-Man, when independent music institution PLUGD Records reopened at the Triskel Arts Centre in 2011. And indeed, six years later, with the influential record shop and its sister cafe Gulpd vacating the Triskel Arts Centre in search of a new, more racket-friendly setting, it would be very easy to sink into a state of despair for the arts scene in the city. One wouldn’t be blamed for doing so, either, with a seemingly inexorable procession of arts centre and gig venue closures not only being a feature of life in the city in the past year, but seemingly a background setting for Cork music over the last decade or so. The fact is, no matter what buildings we attach ourselves and our memories to, turnover on venues and arts spaces has been a fact of life to which the city’s music scene has adjusted over the years.

In 2011, we thought the city’s music scene would never recover from the closure of the Quad, the oft-romanticised Batcave tucked under the Bowery nightclub on Tuckey Street. With remnants of the venue effectively erased from the Bowery complex’s recent refurbishment, it’s down to those who were there throughout the mid-late aughts to keep bright the memory of a place we all could call home, a place where intriguing leftfield music of all shades were given space and time to be seen and heard. Furthermore, with the ever-able Darragh McGrath at the book, it gave a generation of Cork musicians, DJs and promoters their first gigs, without question of compromise. The place was what it was, and a lot of people are already wary of the nostalgia that surrounds the Quad, but it was an important space in the city that to many summarised their early music experiences and gave them freedom to find voices, playlists and carnival-barking chops.

The following year saw the closure of the Pavilion on Carey’s Lane in its fondest-regarded iteration, run by Cork music veteran Joe Kelly, with the likes of Leeside hip-hop legend Stevie G onboard, and the members of what would become the Southern Hospitality Board learning their craft. Saturday nights were the highlight, with the cream of new Irish talent descending on the venue over the years for the early Saturday slot, as well as in-window gigs downstairs. Everyone down through the years, from Stiff Little Fingers and Killing Joke to Kanye West and Lee “Scratch” Perry trod the stage of the ornate yet cavernous room, itself a former cinema, and to this day this incarnation of the venue is writ large in the annals of Leeside music. We thought it’d be a tough one to claw back from.

2016 saw the closure of Barrack Street outpost Mr. Bradley’s, becoming a venue almost out of necessity in dealing with the extended effect of mid-recession venue closures and specifically identifying a need for new venues for heavier music in Cork under the eye of booker Michelle Rumley. A fantastic array of denser sonics came through the backroom of the wooden-panelled aul’ lad pub just up from the old Nancy Spain’s (which itself fell victim to a failed reboot amid noise complaints from beer-garden gigs and DJ sets), from Northern doom troop Nomadic Rituals to Lars Frederiksen of Rancid fame. Regular nights and once-offs also formed the lifeline of many micro-scenes, including rockabilly meetup Rumble on Barrack Street, and the early voyages of reggae/ska night The Moonstomp, now resident at the Sextant. It reopened this year, after a facelift, and with no further plans for live music, it leaves an immediate vacancy for an intimate space.

Of course, these are just three local closures out of a litany of events that hurt music in Cork, aside from larger economic events and the wider cultural changes of pre-drinking, online gaming and Netflix among other factors: short-lived venues like An Réalt Dearg on Barrack Street and Bourbon Street (on McCurtain Street, confusingly) were never really given a chance to develop a bottom line of music fans on which to build for the long-run during the recession years; the decision by former indie/alt-rock touchstone An Bróg to abandon original live music before a refurbishment that saw them concentrate on a more casual audience; and in a move that is still much underestimated in terms of the void it left at the heart of student life in the city, the closure after nineteen years of Leeside clubbing mainstay Freakscene/Danascene, a broad church that brought together music heads in the dying days of their teenage tribalism, provided a fun yet cool LGBT* space, and whose all-encompassing weekly emailer was many revellers’ introduction to the wider vista of Cork’s live music scene.

The point of all of this is not to wallow in losses, grievances, and the passing of a wasted Millennial youth, far from it. It would be too easy to do so, even in a city that is seemingly rushing to rid itself of its atmosphere & inherent charm amid a shower of doughnut shops and multinational chains.

The parallels are simply there to be drawn with the present situation. The scale and loss of arts centres and gig venues in the past year has been unprecedented for a 12 month period: Camden Palace Hotel, Cork Community Print Shop and PLUGD/Gulpd Café have had to vacate premises for various reasons, while Sample Studios and the Circus Factory have thankfully found new locations after extended searching. These have been events that have dispossessed hundreds of visual and sculpture artists, bands that were using these spaces to practice and take tentative first steps, and the community efforts that went into maintaining and promoting these spaces and their merit to Cork city. But just like the recession-era gig venue closures, and before them the closures of numerous venues readily identified with various golden ages of Cork tunes, from the Arc to Sir Henry’s, Cork’s wider artistic community has been blessed, whether via inheritance or sheer underdog will, with the ability to survive and come out of hard times, bigger, better and braver for its endeavour. No matter how large the closure, no matter the initial impact of its loss, people and collectives have always regrouped.

We’re all still here. The musicians, promoters, gig-goers, sound-artists, bloggers, record-slingers, deejays, press folk, radio nerds, all of us are a small component in a community that functions with that little bit more difficulty for losing one of us, but functions in a slightly new way when new components get added. The music community in Cork has always lived on the passion, creativity and occasional bouts of bloody-mindedness of the people therein. When there was no coverage of what was happening here musically, and very little document either, people made zines & blogs, and created their own canon of Leeside music knowledge; set about constructing record labels, from Reekus to Penske, in order to provide a platform for growth.

Survivors like Cyprus Avenue, planning to expand its upstairs venue and open a café on street level, and Fred Zeppelin’s, entering its eighteenth year in business, have thrown various artists and communities a lifeline on which to build. Spaces like The Roundy and The Friary provide an intimate setting for music of many shades. Cork Community Artlink has provided a home for artists of multiple disciplines, proudly showcasing its importance to the Shandon area via its annual Dragon of Shandon parade. New record shop Bunker Vinyl can proudly boast a studio space for music education and rehearsal as a new and defining feature, while community music efforts like Music Generation Cork City provide new ways into music education for people that may not have received the opportunity to do so before. This magazine and other outlets will endeavour to shine a spotlight on the talent this city harbours, while online radio services like Room101 and Irish Radio International give voice to music aficionados, providing radio training and allowing them to share the music that moves them, away from the restrictions of tightly-controlled FM services.

This is to say nothing of the wider comeback story of small-town music venues nearby, with Connolly’s of Leap seeing a second generation of the McNicholl family of promoter/organisers rally all manner of mad, wonderful events under its famed hammers, DeBarra’s maintaining a strong outpost for music in Clonakilty, and Levis’ of Ballydehob bringing home awards. O’Mahony’s of Watergrasshill will hopefully follow suit, while the upcoming Mallow Arts Festival will hopefully be the first step toward renewing arts in the North Cork area.

In 2009, PLUGD Records left its spot on Washington Street, their hands forced by rates and rents unchanging in the face of challenging trade environments. Mourning took place among the shop’s faithful as the very heart of the community, it seemed, was being removed. But we all know that’s not what happened. Jim and Albert slung stock under the table of their old ticket desk, upstairs from their former HQ, to trusted regulars. They hosted pop-ups at the Réalt, often to the delight of regulars sauntering up for a pint. And when the opportunity arose, they went as far as opening up in an abandoned former power station on Caroline Street, a bitterly cold building that nevertheless generated as much energy with PLUGD within as it did in its heyday. And after a long wait, Cork did seem to truly have a crown jewel restored when PLUGD moved to the Triskel.

But with all due reverence to the joys of the G-Man at that time, Cork city’s heart wasn’t restored in one day. It was always kept going, on love, grit and invention. It’s within each of us to weather the current difficulties, because within each of us is where the beating heart of Cork arts lies.