Irish Indie Label: “Just Getting Off Your Arse and Doing Anything is Worthy of Support”

This coming Saturday, October 14th has officially been declared Irish Indie Label Day in Ireland by a coalition of independent and DIY record labels dotted around the country. An initiative kicked off by Cork’s Penske Recordings and Sligo-based Art for Blind label, it entails a day-long record fair in Whelan’s in Dublin, featuring over a dozen indie imprints’ stalls, zines, and a special gig later in the evening to mark the occasion. For Art for Blind man Dany Guest, it’s the realisation of a long-held concept. “The idea has been floating around my head for a while, and is something me and Edel (Doherty, AFB label partner) have discussed at length over the last few years, having seen the success of things like the Indie Label Market in London. We decided to ask Penske to be involved because we know Albert so well and know he is totally on our wavelength and has been a big supporter of what we do since before we even landed in Ireland. To me the big thing that differentiates it from similar initiatives is that to us the community, integration and social aspects of the event are of equal importance to us as the commercial goal of flogging records and merch.”

Contrary to the idea of the death of the traditional record label model, a very wide spread of labels exists around the country in a number of genres, each facilitating and creating the bottom line for the development of their genre/community. Among the other labels listed alone for this event include: Little Gem (Dublin), Touch Sensitive (Belfast), Deserted Village (Galway), Lunar Disko (Dublin), Distro-y (Sligo), Box Emissions (Cork), Fort Evil Fruit (Cork), Sofia (Leitrim), Bluestack (Sligo), Rusted Rail (Galway), and Rudimentary (Belfast). Albert Twomey, founder of Penske Recordings and former hassler at Plugd Records, speaks on the process of outreach. “We contacted labels that we liked to start with & fleshed out the field as we figured everything out. There were some labels that were not interested/ available to attend & we may have missed out on others but this is all part of a learning curve I guess. Other labels/creatives have been in touch once they heard there was an opportunity to represent. There is still an opportunity for folks to get involved by contacting artforblind@gmail.com.”

Whelan’s is obviously an epicentre of music in Ireland and one that famously deals with a lot of bigger names coming through the doors – Twomey is quick to divulge if they have any hand in what went into the event at all, and what their involvement means to the enterprise. “Whelan’s were very open to getting involved from the start. It is great that we have access to the upstairs area from mid afternoon to the early hours. Not many venues would be able to facilitate a market & event for various reasons. Darren & Dave from Whelan’s have been incredibly helpful. It became evident that Dublin would be the best place to host the market/event but we do hope to replicate it in other Irish cities if everything runs smoothly & venues/labels are interested.”

As mentioned, the festival exists to shine a light on independent labels in the country in 2017, as well as highlight the challenges they face. As mentioned, Twomey runs Penske Recordings, home to The Jimmy Cake, Percolator, and Dan Walsh’s Fixity, and one imagines even with the weight of distributors Cargo behind him, that it’s still a tough game without a big PR presence. What challenges does an indie label like Penske face on the daily? “It can be a struggle, even with the support of an international distro like Cargo. They also take care of the Penske digital catalogue, and my sales rep there has been incredibly helpful. Plugd did lots of business with them, and I reckon they have the best reach and labels on their books: Constellation, Rocket Recordings, Hyperdub, etc. I guess the increasing cost of getting a record recorded, pressed & promoted are the principal challenges for Penske. Building up relationships with record store folks and distros is the easy part, even if I have the reputation of being a cranky-pants.”

As well as labels on the ground, there’ll also be zinemakers and booksellers, occupying an important space in-between slabs of wax at the fair. Rusted Rail Records man Keith “Keef” Wallace speaks of his delight at this area of DIY culture being considered specifically. “As someone who used to sweat over a hot photocopier making ‘zines at the turn of the century, I’m delighted to see the resurgence of ‘zine culture, a physical expression of something which could have been lost in the digital drowning pool. It’s all part of DIY culture, an alternative form of transmission, and that can only be a good thing to add to the conversation around underground musical culture.”

The challenges for record sales extend out to retail, also, a situation Twomey is only too familiar with via his stint with Plugd, an erstwhile hangout of musicians and creatives in Cork slated to reopen in the coming days in the city’s Roundy gig venue. The realities of peddling vinyl from this standpoint are no easier than getting records on the shelves to begin with. “Selling music can be a very challenging endeavour overall. In fact, Belfast is losing a really great store in Sick Records over the next few days. The cost of rent and rates in major cities has always been really prohibitive for small businesses. There is also lots of competition for the small pool of disposable income available to your target audience. Plugd is lucky to have a solid customer base & a very supportive arts/gig-going community. I am looking forward to getting my hands dirty at the market, to be honest, as I’ve missed the buzz of selling records & engaging face-to-face with customers.”

The post-match gig happens in the venue at 8pm, and boasts a suitably strong line-up. Guest gives us the runthrough on who’s who and their relation to the day’s endeavours. “Well, firstly, Alien She are a three-piece experimental post-punk band from Dublin. Their debut LP, ‘Feeler’ will be out on Art For Blind in November. Gross Net is the weirdo noise solo outlet of Phil Quinn (Girls Names). It’s great to have Gross Net as Art For Blind released a Gross Net cassette a few years back, and his debut LP was released by Touch Sensitive who will be joining us at the market from Belfast. Finally Girlfriend is a fledgling Dublin based garage punk/emo band who we are really looking forward to catching live.”

The Altered Hours: “It’s Always There”


As one body of work fades to memory and another begins to unfurl for Leeside psychedelia outfit The Altered Hours, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with frontman Cathal MacGabhann about the creative process, recording in Berlin, and the ebb & flow of change in the band’s home city.

In the realms of the arts in Ireland, relating a practitioner’s body of work back to their press material is often rightly met with cynicism from certain quarters. But for Cork-resident quintet The Altered Hours, a seemingly vainglorious claim to “exist within a swirl of the hypnotic” is not too far from the band’s sonic mark. Striking a gentle balance between psychedelic rock’s thoughtful abandon and dour post-punk precision via shoegaze’s more sparse reaches, the band’s current fuzz-laden attack is the end result of years of experimentation across a number of singles and extended-players, no surprise given their roots in the Leeside city’s mid-aughts folk and improvisation scenes.

In January of last year, the band, fronted by the duo of guitarist/vocalist Cathal MacGabhann and musical polymath Elaine Howley, finally released their debut album after nearly eight years together. In Heat/Not Sorry, recorded in Berlin’s Funkhaus studio in the early part of 2015, arguably sees the band at their most focused, as perhaps best evidenced on walls of sound like heads-down album standout Way of Sorrow. MacGabhann opines on what brought about such a wait, and how the creative experiences that led to the album informed the band’s curiosity for wider horizons. “We could have probably put an album out earlier than we did, but we were excited to continue working with Fabien (Leseure, engineer/producer on the band’s eponymous E.P.), so we took the time to arrange a date, and store up all our songs for this one month long recording session with him. I’m glad we did, as I loved working with him, and he taught me a lot. If I’ve learnt anything from those initial releases, it’s that I enjoy changing the environment around us from project to project. It causes you to push with and against new ideas and learn from experience, not from fear of change.”

The band’s directness of sound comes from their collective creative process, as the years have given the Altered Hours a keenly-honed feel for what works and what doesn’t once the exploration of jam sessions has finished. This instinct with which the band has operated in recent times was the modus operandi behind the record’s creation. “What happens with me is, I’ll just be making up something constantly, either half a song, a beat, bass line, ranting & humming into my phone, or just song names or whatever. It’s running through my mind, 24/7. So when it comes to recording this album, it was just a matter of picking out what we wanted from a large bunch of ideas and jams we had to create an album.” Being transplanted from the relative comfort of Cork city, where the band have been at the centre of the musical community via their presences in a succession of DIY studios and rehearsal spaces, to the frontier of the German capital in the post-hipster gold rush, presented its challenges, but also placed MacGabhann in his element for his part. “Coming from rural Ireland, I think I have quite a hunger for large cities, as it still feels exotic to me. So getting the chance to record in Berlin has been nothing but a pleasure.”

In Heat/Not Sorry was released in a joint effort between Cork-based record labels Art for Blind, since relocated to Sligo and residing in its Model Arts Centre, and Penske Recordings, founded by Irish indie-music cornerstone Albert Twomey. While it’s far from unusual to see independent or DIY labels split minor releases in order to keep costs down or burden-share the work of releasing a record, such collaboration is seldom seen for a band’s debut LP, usually the preserve of a label establishing a routine and bottom line for their newly-acquired property. It’s a relationship built on trust and mutual respect between all parties on the creative and administrative ends, one which MacGabhann is evidently at ease with. “We’re grown a very strong relationship with both Art For Blind and Penske. It feels great to release music with them, as they’ll always be on your side and treat every group or release with support and an open mind. Just, really nice people to work with.”

The album has been received well by critics and the wider music community: glowing reviews in print holdouts Hot Press and The Thin Air followed a positive reception from the blogosphere and social media to advance streaming singles, with no greater authority than the Irish Times weighing heavily in the band’s favour despite questions about the concept-art aspect of the LP. From there, the band arguably became the country’s worst-kept musical secret, with sold-out shows for the likes of Aiken Promotions as well as comprehensive continental touring. “I guess we got to gig a lot more since that release, which we welcomed with open arms. It’s my favourite way to expend energy”, smiles MacGabhann. Seeing the band in action dispels any notions of pretension or studiousness that all of these imperatives may bring to mind. A finely-tuned machine, the ‘swirl of the hypnotic; becomes more of a whirling dervish, particularly Howley’s otherworldly, stage-consuming charisma and lead guitarist Kevin Terry’s slivers of ingenue amid the chaos. The band’s reputation stems from that penchant for fierceness stems from that same forthright approach that informs them as creators. “We don’t think about it too much, especially the live show. We are just very passionate about our music, and music in general. We are always just ready to play, so we don’t need a particular ritual to get us going. It’s always there.”

The band’s status as something of a flagship for music in the southern capital was brought into sharp focus in recent times, as the band hand-picked to play the final night at community-central gig venue Gulpd Cafe before its closure earlier this summer. Cork is currently in the grip of something of a crisis for the arts, with the majority of the city’s major multipurpose spaces closing, scaling down or relocating owing to the ongoing wider property-market pressures, among other factors. Licensed gig venues are also seemingly at a premium compared to the boom years or even the bust, despite the town’s renown as a cool second city stemming mostly from its history of off-kilter music and spaces. That same call felt by many to the city’s artistic underbelly is what keeps MacGabhann there. “I moved to Cork by chance. Some close friends were moving there for college, so I just followed and got work. I’m glad I did, because it was a wonderful place to start a band, especially during the recent recession. It allowed us to haunt some very interesting abandoned buildings. It’s a shame to see this huge shift happening again in Cork, and all the venues and spaces that closed in recent months. But I think as long as everyone keeps making stuff, then the arts community can’t die, and it will always find a place to prevail. The boom can come and go, but ideas outside the realm of commerce will remain. This isn’t ideal, but it’s an idea worth holding on to.”

Word has emerged from the Altered Hours camp in recent times of a new extended-player on the way, the result of a further pared-down set of sessions that seems likely to further distill their knack for various musical frames of reference. But what might seem to be small steps to listeners and critics upon its eventual release, represent a giant leap for the band’s mission to retain their independence and creativity, as their dogged self-direction has extended from the jam rooms and into the production suite. “We just finished it, and are getting it ready for a release very soon. We recorded it mostly live in studio. This one was recorded as quickly as possible so it’s a little closer to that live sound, I think. We mixed this one ourselves, and I really enjoyed that.”

Percolator: Brewing New Sounds

Brandishing a sound that resembles a Venn diagram of shoegaze, indie, Krautrock and post-punk, Percolator’s development has been slow and steady over the past number of years, with a series of singles and extended-players finding their way out as the band proceeded. This work has led to debut album SESTRA, releasing this month via Cork’s Penske Recordings, developed concurrently to the band’s output to date, says bassist/synth-slinger John “Spud” Murphy. “The EPs were made during production of the album. They were released kind of as examples of the what we were working on at the time and the sounds we were experimenting with. On the album, the production on each track is different so getting all of the tracks to flow together seamlessly took a lot of work and time.”

The album was recorded and mixed in Murphy’s Guerilla Sounds studio, in Dublin city centre, where unshackled by commercial pressure or label budget, the band could pursue their muses freely and for as long as necessary. “Doing all of the production ourselves was great, because we had complete control and could take as much time as we wanted to experiment and get unique sounds, rather than persuading another engineer to make it sound the way we wanted it. The only drawback to this is that it took us a long time to finish . It being our music, we were extra precious and slaved over every minute detail for years.”

SESTRA releases via a split arrangement with Penske Recordings and French label Permafrost. It’s made the process of releasing an album, and manufacturing the physical product a lot smoother, and lead to more live dates. “It was quite easy to organise. Penske would’ve been at the top of our list of Irish labels. When we gave Albert a listen he was into it straight away. We met Etienne from Permafrost on tour, and he heard the album and was into putting it out in France and organising a tour for us. Having a European label involved means we can cover more ground with the release and share production costs.”

Single Crab Supernova released a week or two back, with an interesting video to say the least premiering a few weeks in advance via Belfast music site The Thin Air. The visuals were the result of some improvisation with filmographer Thom McDermott. “We weren’t sure what we wanted, but an evening messing around with a camera and a projector with Thom yielded some weird results that suited the song, and had the psychedelic imagery that we’re into. It was all kind of on the spot experimentation. We weren’t sure what would work or not but it was nice to be able to try anything.”

The album’s artwork has been laid out by Irish independent music legend Paul G. Smyth, centred around the work of painter Gus Hughes. It’s the reflection of the music the band had sought over the course of its creation. “Hughes’ work is oil-based, with lots and lots of layers that really suits the music, pleasant but a bit odd, and the idea of getting to use the work of someone we know was very appealing. Paul looked after the layout, even down to choice of font. It helps to have an external opinion especially when we tend to be indecisive.”

Of course, Penske Recordings is the brainchild of one Albert Twomey, better known as the mercurial hassle-merchant of PLUGD Records, a Charleville man with an unfortunate love for Tottenham Hotspur. A central figure to Irish independent music, much less the local scene, Twomey’s in-store witticisms, putdowns and one-liners have their own Twitter fan page. The band are effusive when asked to discuss his involvement. “What a legend. Anyone that is even vaguely associated with the underground music scene is aware of Albert, and his Godfather like presence.

The outfit are playing Coughlan’s on April 28th, with Cork psychedelia/shoegaze/alternative youngsters The Sunshine Factory in support. Under the watchful eye of local music personalities like Alliance Promotions’ Gordon O’Keeffe, the band has come on in leaps and bounds since surfacing in 2015, with a tour support for psych legends The Telescopes under their belts. Percolator are relishing the chance to share the stage. “We’ve heard their Soundcloud stream, and are looking forward to seeing how it translates live. I’ve only been to Coughlan’s for a pint, and I really liked it. One of very many pubs in Cork that are nice to sit in. Have heard great things about the venue itself, and we’re really excited about the gig.”

Their upcoming brace of live shows sets them in good stead for further adventures down the line. “We’re doing a two-to-three week European tour in June to support the Permafrost release. We’re planning to do more shows here with a really good Irish band later in the summer. Outside of this we’ll be continuing pre production of our second album.”

Percolator play Coughlan’s on the 28th, with The Sunshine Factory in support. More information on tickets available via the venue’s social media.