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.

Dee Dee Bridgewater: Yes, She’s Ready

For legendary jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, the upcoming weekend allows her to continue exploring her roots, following the release of new album ‘Memphis, Yes, I’m Ready’. She tells Mike McGrath-Bryan about her journey to date.

The body of work that Dee Dee Bridgewater has created in four decades of music and stagecraft is a daunting task to summarise in a quick explainer: Grammy-winning vocalist, Tony-winning theatre performer, United Nations dignitary, and most recently, a recognised master of her craft. Coming up in the nineteen-seventies, Bridgewater cut her jazz teeth working alongside the likes of Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie as part of the Thad Jones Big Band. Bridgewater discusses working alongside names and faces that have become part of jazz history. “It was wonderful. I was at the start of my career, and it was wonderful to have been embraced by all of these legends. It was really like my school, like music school, as I had no formal musical training, and it was exceptional to be called to do gigs with people like Dizzy and Sonny.”

As mentioned at the outset, Bridgewater pursued a parallel life in musical theatre, winning a Tony and obtaining a Laurence Olivier Nomination. Balancing the disparate artforms became part of her life, and she observes the differences there were in their respective creative processes. “There would be a common thread. In musical theatre you are working in an ensemble, and in jazz, depending on the size of your band, it would also be an ensemble situation, having to pull your weight, to make the whole as good as possible. But when you’re doing theatre, you’re dealing with specific songs, staying married to melodies, you’re not supposed to improvise, as the way you come in or out of a song can be a cue for someone else. With jazz you have much more freedom of expression as it’s based on improvisation.”

This year Bridgewater was awarded with one of America’s highest honours in the jazz genre: the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Master recognition. At a time when the Endowment and public arts funding is under grave threat from the Trump administration, Bridgewater is vocal about the importance of the arts to public life. “It was wonderful to be recognised. I did speak out (in my speech) on the fact that this current administration is trying to cut back on all things cultural. So far, the NEA has been left intact, and that’s a good thing. As an individual, I feel somewhat obligated to speak out, to voice my opinion when the platform allows itself. I’m not one to use the stage to speak out politically, I don’t think that’s correct, but whenever I can, depending on the platform, I speak my mind. For example, the new show I’ll be performing in Cork, I use the song ‘Why Am I Treated So Bad?’ as an opportunity to speak about race relations, and what’s going on in the United States right now.”

New album ‘Memphis, Yes I’m Ready’ sees Bridgewater brings together songs from the Black radio of your childhood, continuing the exploration of your life in music. What was the process like this time for returning to Memphis and choosing songs? “Returning was a great experience for me. I first went back in 2014 and to see the places you lived in, the neighbourhoods are still there, is a wonderful thing. To visit the school where my father taught, that’s great. Those are just like putting puzzle pieces together in one’s life. I picked songs predominantly from when I was able to catch WDIA radio in Flint, MA when I was growing up. It became about songs that would go together, the centrepiece for me was a song called ‘Givin’ Up’ by Gladys Knight and the Pips, the very first song I heard on this station. At the time I was listening to it secretly, I didn’t know my father was one of the original DJs on WDIA when they had created the all-Black music format in 1949. He was known as “Matt the Platter Cat” and worked alongside B.B. King and Rufus Thomas.”

Bridgewater is playing the Jazz Festival as a headliner at the Everyman Palace on Sunday night. Ahead of the visit, she’s excited about reconnecting with a little piece of her ancestry, and getting into the spirit of the weekend. “I’m very excited! It’s a festival I’ve wanted to do ever since I was performing, especially when I moved to Europe, to live in France. I didn’t seem to be on the radar, I don’t know (laughs). I’ve got some Irish descent. My middle name is Eileen, and I have 17% Irish ancestry, so I’ll be coming home! It’s a great show, the melodies are very simple, I think people will really enjoy it. It’s music that makes you feel good and gets you to dancing.”

The Bonk/Fixity: Improv Jazz & Psych-Rock Exploration

One of the sleeper hits of the Jazz Festival is set for upstairs in the Roundy on Castle Street on the Sunday night, as psych-rock outfit The Bonk launch their new album with Leeside jazzists Fixity in a double-headline show. Mike McGrath-Bryan investigates further.

Since debuting in earnest in 2015, The Bonk have been on a slow boil of gigs, including Cork’s Sudden Club Weekender and Quarter Block Party festivals, and intermittent single releases that have been received well critically. Led by O Emperor man Phil Christie, the project explores the influences of he and the revolving door of collaborators around him. Songcraft gives way to spontaneity, and slivers of jazz, Nuggets-esque garage rock and early psychedelia are heard amid the dichotomy of regimental rhythm and melodic liberties. Debut long-player The Bonk Seems to be a Verb has been released this month via Drogheda collective/label ThirtyThree-45. Christie discusses the process behind assembling and producing the full-length. “The album collects pieces from various recording sessions over the last few years. The arrangements are mostly based around rhythmic layers and improvised melodic lines. It’s an approach that allows for a nice variety of directions to emerge and so I thought I would keep going until things started to sit nicely together. The recording process was very good fun and very much driven by curiosity which was nice as the studio can sometimes become a frustrating place if you’re too rigid about the outcomes. It was a pleasure working with Brian at ThirtyThree-45. I came across the 24-hour digital radio station that he runs last year, it’s called ‘The Augmented Ear’ and I highly recommend checking it out! I noticed that he had posted a callout for submissions for the cassette label. As it turned out, we have similar musical inclinations, and we were both glad of the opportunity to work on something together.”

The album does indeed release on cassette, an increasingly frequent reoccurrence that seems to have outlived the initial novelty value of the mini-revival the format underwent at the beginning of the decade. But with so many options available now, more casual music consumers might be forgiven for asking what the attraction is. “With the tapes… there are sides, which is an upside for us (laughs). It’s nice to have to flip them over. Brian comes from an art background himself, and so I think he is interested in the materiality & design of the objects and packaging, and would like to continue building up an interesting series of releases. So, we were also very happy to be a part of that project. Besides that, half of the tunes were recorded onto a four-track cassette recorder, so there was something nice about reproducing those sounds as they were captured.”

The band completed its first round of touring in its current state in April of this year, and while people-wrangling of any scale can be difficult enough, getting a multiple-headed beast like The Bonk around the country must surely have presented challenges. “Given that the band can stretch up to seven of us, the logistical element of the operation can be a little daunting at times but I’ve really enjoyed playing the songs live, and it really makes a difference to have the full group involved. It’s kind of cool because all of the recordings are live versions in themselves, and so every performance stretches the tunes in different directions. This time around I think everyone is a lot more aware of those possibilities. It’s also just a very pleasant experience to meet people in different venues and hang out, it makes the hours of solitary bedroom mixing worthwhile.”

The band’s double-header with Fixity on Sunday October 30th sees the band at the centre of attention in one of the city’s pillar venues for alternative and experimental events, a status backed up by the relocation of PLUGD to the upstairs space in daytime hours. “We’re delighted to be able to have the gig in in The Roundy and very pleased that PLUGD is back up and running. It’s really a testament to all the great stuff that’s happening in Cork that a new home for weird noises and gigs has been provided so quickly since the closing of the venue at the Triskel Arts Centre – respect to all involved, it’s all good news. But yeah, we’re very much looking forward to that show. It’s the last gig of the tour and we’ll have completed four gigs on the trot with Fixity by that stage – the levels of achingly inane psychobabble should be peaking around then!”

Channelling his experience as one of Cork’s busiest tubthumpers via stints with several Leeside bands, Dan Walsh’s Fixity emerged from the fringes of the city’s psych-rock scene, a maze of side-projects from which Walsh distinguished the project with sharp live turns into jazz-tinged explorations. Walsh and collaborators have had a bit of a break from the constant stream of releases that accompanied the band’s establishment in the past few months, the highlight of which was the release of studio full-length ‘The Things in the Room’ via Cork imprint Penske Recordings, on which Walsh is keen to comment. “It was a beautiful experience making that record, from start to finish. When the four of us were in the studio that day, we didn’t foresee someone like Albert (Twomey, Penske/PLUGD) having the passion and capacity for trust to bring it to peoples’ ears in the way that he did with a double-LP on Penske. We were commited to the music we played that day, and that’s still true. (Collaborators) Emil, Nils and Fredrik threw themselves into my music and the present moment with intention and strength of character, and when people do that, it’s a gift to all involved. There have been lots of heavy days of music since for Fixity as a result, and many more to come. I count that as a success.”

Walsh’s work at the helm of Cork Improvised Music Collective in the former Gulpd Cafe seems to have had a knock-on effect on the Leeside scene in recent years: improvisation seems to be returning to the fore, whether it’s Walsh’s projects, the slew of improv bands featuring Shandon-based Darren Keane, or the improvised nature of the work of bands like ooSe and Bhailiú. Walsh discusses the nature of sustainability and effort for the niche in the city’s scene. “I can only really speak for myself, and I’m not sure if improvisation has ever been a large part of what goes on in Cork, but I know that the improvisers I have known here have always been resourceful in putting on independent events so that they can get it done, and encouraging of others in its benefits as a means of music-making. A few promoters like Joe and Stevie in the Pav who put on STINK gigs on the regular, and Jim Horgan in Gulpd taking on CIMC have made a difference in giving myself and others opportunities to continue exploring it. It’s the kind of thing that grows when shared, I think, and that’s part of trying to uphold a rich tradition of its place in music in general if it’s something you are passionate about.” When asked about the next step for Fixity after bringing PLUGD’s jazz proceedings to a close, Walsh is far more succinct: “We’re going to record an album the day after.”