The Bonk & Percolator: An Odd Venn Diagram

Cork-based improv outfit The Bonk and Waterford shoegazers Percolator are teaming up for a Bank Holiday show at South Main Street’s Spailpín Fanach venue. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks with members of the bands about a big double-headline bill.

Psychedelic rock and its associated strains of wayward noise-making have formed an important foundation for the city’s current-day music scene, providing means of sonic exploration and a community to underpin it all. Drawing inspiration from a wide social and geographical web of influences, and running almost entirely on a DIY basis, psych-rock, if not too nebulous a term, has provided a fertile ground for Cork’s musical undergrowth, from which improvisational ensemble The Bonk have emerged. Something of a supergroup including members of O Emperor, The Bonk have been a semi-regular fixture on gig lineups around the city since their inception a few years ago and on May 5th, co-headline a special gig at the Spailpín Fánach alongside Waterford shoegaze outfit Percolator, promoted by Cork-based blog overblown.co.uk.

Initial excursions in live performance were followed last year by the release of debut album ‘Seems to be a Verb’. Bandleader Phil Christie is enthusiastic about how the record has been received in physical form. “We’re very happy with the record ourselves. It was really good fun to record and we were delighted to be able to work with (Irish indie label) thirty-three45 on the cassette release. We were just really glad to get it out there, and start playing some gigs so it was a bonus that people seemed to pick up on some of the stuff when it came out.” Rooted deeply in the improvisation scene that’s been brewing slowly in the city over the last decade, The Bonk’s creative process is lateral at the best of times, but with new material on the way, new directions for their music are emerging. “We have started recording some new tracks in the last couple of weeks, which has been good fun. We also have a good horde of stuff that we have recorded over the last couple of years that we’re still tipping away on, so there’s plenty to be doing at the minute. Our sense of direction isn’t great but so far flutes seem to be featuring a bit more!”

An Spailpín Fánach’s intimate atmosphere and tiered venue layout have provided for a unique gig-going experience, and as it happens, this gig on the 5th will be both bands’ debut within the venue’s stone walls. “I’ve never actually played in the Spailpín but have heard great things. We are really looking forward to sharing a bill with Percolator these gigs – we’re big fans and I think it’ll make for an interesting combination of noises on the night.” After the upcoming swing of gigs that this stop forms part of, The Bonk and its constituent parts are getting down to basics. “We’ve got a good few shows booked over the coming months, but we’ll also be working on getting some new stuff ready for release in the autumn. Myself and (drummer) Dan Walsh have begun working on a new project, The At This Times, which is also a source of craic at this particular time. Music is some effort.”

For Percolator, it’ll be their first gig in the city since appearing among the headline artists at this January’s Quarter Block Party weekender at Amp Venue, an excursion that packed out the Hanover Street club. John ‘Spud’ Murphy, Percolator’s bassist, is effusive about the festival’s whole experience. “Quarter Block Party was amazing. We were very impressed with the organisers’ use of spaces. We had forgotten how many weird and wonderful rooms Cork has to offer. Our show in Amp was a very good introduction back into the live arena, as we’d been working on new material and not gigging for about 6 months. The sound system was great, and fader wizard Joe Cusack did a great job with our sounds.”

Debut album ‘Sestra’ was released last year on vinyl and digital formats via Cork label Penske Recordings, and went on to critical acclaim and an accompanying run of venue-filling gigs around Ireland. A document of a band paying studious attention to its craft, it catches the trio at their odd Venn diagram of Krautrock, shoegaze and psych-rock. At the helm of recording and production at his Dublin-based Guerrilla Sounds studio, Murphy was proud, but is ready for the band’s next move. “We are all absolutely delighted that we managed to get it out of the studio and into the world, after our endless tweaking and re-recording. However, we will never be able to listen to it ever again!”

Alongside a domestic release via Penske, the indie-label operation of Cork musical stalwart Albert Twomey, the album was also issued on wax in France via DIY label and booking partners Permafrost. Murphy goes into detail about the motivating factors of working with both labels, especially dealing with Twomey’s legendary wit and candour. “Penske and Permafrost each gave us the boot up the hole that we had been working towards all these years. Both Albert  and (Permafrost label boss) Etienne are machines, in their own way, especially compared to our quivering gelatinous mess. Albert definitely kicked a bit harder, but it’s okay taking the big boot from one of The Godfathers of the Irish underground music scene.” So, any odds on a follow-up, then? “We’re currently in the middle of recording album number two. Which we’ll hopefully be ready to share with the world something before 2025”, says Murphy, with what looks for all the world like a wry grin.

Radio On: Tuning In to Cork’s Post-Punk Legacy

On August 24th in GULPD Cafe, several veterans of Cork’s post-punk community of the ’70s and ’80s will gather for a discussion on the sights and sounds of the time. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with panellists Jim O’Mahony and Ricky Dineen, as well as DJ John Byrne.

“I think there’s a lot of nostalgia surrounding certain musical events, artists, or even venues in Cork…. there’s too much sometimes, to be honest, but I think this was a very vibrant and musically creative time here, which is often airbrushed over… I think there’s a distinct musical difference in the terms punk and post-punk, and I’ve always thought there was a really good post-punk scene not just in Cork, but in Ireland in the late ’70s, early ’80s.” Jim “Comet” O’Mahony speaks on the aforementioned post-punk landscape of Cork, the subject of Radio On, an event happening at the Triskel Arts Centre on the 24th.

Encompassing a discussion panel inspired by the Paul MacDermott radio documentary “Get That Monster off the Stage”, charting the life and career of Finbarr Donnelly, vocalist of Five Go Down to the Sea?, Nun Attax and Beethoven, the event also includes a DJ set of Leeside tunes of the time from John Byrne. Much is made of Donnelly’s legacy, and Byrne is quick to provide a wider picture. “It’s right that Finbarr Donnelly should be remembered and lauded. His improvising sensibility as a vocalist made him unique. His ability to take this sensibility into punk and post-punk music set him apart from his contemporaries. However there was a large cast of players in all the bands that Finbarr played with, that were also important. Obviously we have Ricky Dineen who was involved in all those bands, and has his own instantly recognisable playing style. A further listing of notable contributors over the years… Philip & Keith ‘Smelly’ O’Connell, Mick Finnegan, Giordaí Ua Laoghaire, Mick Stack, Una Ní Chanainn, Maurice Carter, Daniel Strittmayer. I’ll bet Ricky could roll-call a dozen more!” Dineen, Donnelly’s best friend and collaborator, is far more pensive about the differences between the legend of Donnelly, and the man he knew. “Most of the music-related Donnelly stories have probably been told by now. ‘Larger than life’ is probably an overused term to describe him. His public ‘mad’ persona was in complete contrast to the quiet, deep-thinking Donnelly. The more personal stories are best kept for a ‘warts and all’ biography, if anyone wants to take it on.”

The epicentre of all of this was the oft-romanticised Arcadia Ballroom, a former showband ballroom just across from Kent Station. Ricky muses on the sights and sounds of a now-iconic venue. “The Arc was like a supersized GAA hall. Upstairs, it had a café and seated area at the back where you could take the oul’ dolls. It had no beer licence, so everyone used to get tanked up in the Handlebars pub beforehand. The atmosphere was always good, even though the occasional fight broke out (sometimes involving ourselves). The DJing was varied, from punk rock to disco,Good Times by Chic being a particular favourite. Of course the bands were always good, thanks to Elvera (Butler, former UCC Music Society chair), she seemed to get every half decent band that was on tour. If you could imagine a venue like the Savoy selling out every Friday and Saturday night with relevant bands, that would be the Arc.”

The discussion falls as thirty-five years have passed since the release of Kaught at the Kampus, a split record released by Elvera Butler’s Reekus Records that took in live recordings of Nun Attax, Mean Features, Microdisney and Urban Blitz during a late-1980 gig at the Arc. Says Jim: “It was a huge achievement for four Cork punk bands to put out a record in 1981. Cork was a very grim place at the time, with high unemployment and emigration, with very little prospects for a bright or even dimly-lit future and the so-called Irish music industry didn’t exist outside of Dublin, so this was a very big deal.” An achievement that perhaps seems a bit humble in a day of Bandcamp and streaming, John remembers its importance to the scene of the time. “The concept of rock bands of any stripe working and living in Cork, making records – that went right against the general grain. Before the punk generation, only a couple of blues-rock bands had achieved this. Thankfully more bands took this example in the 1980s. I know that some of the participants consider the record to be in the realm of juvenilia now, but it clearly delineated the wild differential in musical stylisations that had evolved in a couple of short years since the English punk explosion. For these two things at least, the record had its place.”

The importance of archiving this and other Leeside cultural events is outlined by the presence of the Northside Folklore Project at the event. Jim holds forth on why. “It’s very important from a historical point of view that this period of music and culture in Cork be documented and preserved. The fact that it wasn’t a mainstream scene shouldn’t lessen its significance. This is a whole umbrella that not only takes in a big punk and post-punk movement in the city, but also a very vibrant mod and skinhead scene. People who are into music in a serious way always gravitate at some point towards music that’s old and interesting so all this stuff needs to be there for them, and it’s also nice for those of us who were there to look back on. It helps jog our memories.”

Radio On happens on Wednesday August 24th at GULPD Cafe in the Triskel. Kickoff at 8, free-in.