God is an Astronaut: “Everything Felt as Natural as It Could”

With ninth album ‘Epitaph’, Glen of the Downs post-rockers God is an Astronaut have prepared their most sonically and thematically heavy record yet. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks to co-founder Niels Kinsella ahead of their gig at Cyprus Avenue on February 8th.

Traversing the world, and creating a vast palate of sounds in and around the post-rock genre’s outer limits, Co. Wicklow five-piece God is an Astronaut have seen and done possibly everything there is for them to see and do, enduring nearly everything a band could have thrown at them at a turbulent time for independent music. And yet, for all of their accomplishments and a rich body of work, when it came time to face down a profound personal tragedy, the band took shelter, pride and comfort in creating a transformative, wildly cathartic and heartbroken piece of music. In doing so, they’ve arguably emerged with an album that’s redefined them as a creative entity, and bears the hallmark of the kind of soul-searching only that grief can inspire in someone.

New album ‘Epitaph’ released in April of last year via Napalm Records, a new label for the band after years of alternating between UK indies and self-releases. Niels Kinsella, one half of the brother duo at the heart of the band, is careful to discuss the inspiration behind a crushing yet vital musical proposition.We are very happy with the album, even though it was a very difficult for us to write. It was written in memory of our seven-year-old cousin, whose life was tragically taken just over two years ago. Working with Napalm Records has been positive, they’ve been very supportive and respectful of our identity.”

Tapping into the groundswell of emotion and experience that bereavement evokes, the band took a turn for the sonically and thematically heavy, wrenching out of themselves a heavy, at times guttural take on the band’s traditional play with sounds. Oddly enough, then, the record is rooted in the most bare-bones idea preparation one imagines a band like God is an Astronaut engaging in. The songs themselves were written all in the immediate aftermath and were essential for us to try and come to terms with this extremely traumatic event, words could not express our feelings but the music could. All of the songs are about the different aspects of the tragedy so naturally this is by far the darkest and most personal record we have ever written. The songs were mainly written on a Piano, it offers a larger combination of notes than a guitar and helped capture the exact emotions.”

For the first time in the band’s long and storied run, they were joined in studio by a creative ‘third-person’ in a non-production role, with Rob Murphy and Conor Drinane of Dublin electronic duo Xenon Field taking part in songwriting and improvisation, to provide another perspective. “They helped us a lot in post-production, and really understood what we were making. They wanted the style to further reflect the subject matter by making the sounds more broken/imperfect. For example, they put the sounds through various tape devices with bad tracking, the notes warbling in and out tune helped it feel more haunted. Using lots of tape saturation made it feel more stressed. We used lots of experimental plugins like Unfiltered Audio SpecOps, and lots of analogue outboard like the Niio Iotine Core, Mutronics Mutator and Snazzy FX Tracer City.”

Working as a unit between four of them, and including the contributions of former members and guest musicians, Xenon Field ensured the Brothers Kinsella’s trademark sonic interplay would be evident. The group set out to ensure that everything felt as natural as it could throughout production. “We also introduced a doom-laden guitar sound in sections, tuned to drop A, but with a twist. I put an Earthquaker Rainbow pedal on my guitar which warbles the tuning in and out of tune, that combination really captured the dread and ugliness that some of music was conveying. We also used live amps on this record, as amp simulation equipment didn’t quite fit the style. It had to have a raw flavour. Jimmy Scanlon, who owns Jimi’s Music Store, helped me out by supplying lots of vintage amps, and also played on our record. We used ribbon mics to keep the sound warm. The drums were mic’d with a pair of Ribbon Coles 4038, which is something we never used before. It gives the drums a dark sound that the music craved for. It was also the first time we did analog mastering, we wanted something more vintage and authentic.”

There are a wide variety of topics & themes at play in the record, coming under the main theme of grief and catharsis; including imagery of mythology and natural beauty. Arrangement and ideas aside – how was it to focus on dealing with such an overwhelming, universally relatable sadness into a body of work?In one way it was therapeutic for us, but in another it was overwhelming having to relive those feelings over and over again as we worked on the record throughout, at times it even became oppressive. It was important to have some positivity and hope on the album to balance it out.”

The band has recently pressed its entire back catalogue back onto vinyl, on sale now at various tour stops. Kinsella outlines the process of getting the band’s catalogue together after an extended mastering process, and how it was to view an extended body of work in the rear-view mirror, at least in terms of a set of physical pieces.We had remastered our entire discography back in 2012, with Tim Young at Metropolis Mastering Studios in London, so it made it quite manageable to revisit the masters, as they were all on file, and cut them to vinyl. It was very gratifying, and even nostalgic, looking at our entire body of work at the same time. When we laid out all the vinyl on the table so many memories came back to us.”

The vinyl revival is an ideal opportunity to supplement live and merchandise income, but has yet to make up ground for loss of artist revenues as streaming overtakes both CD and now download as the prime digital format. While catalogue reissues and streaming revenues have gone a way to addressing the shortfall from the possible death of ‘owned’ formats, as is the case for many artists, the solution hasn’t quite arrived yet for the band, who also find themselves facing the challenge of changing habits that streaming has caused among casual consumers. “Ultimately streaming hasn’t really helped, if anything it’s lessened our revenue. Fans who have bought our records in the past are now content to just sign up to a streaming service, and the artist revenue from that is significantly less. You can also see trends of listeners just listening to specific playlists, for example ‘ambient music’, where the artist identity isn’t even that important, the listeners are only interested in one specific style to suit their mood, and do not want be subjected to a mixed variety. So that, in my opinion, kills the concept of an album where there is a journey. For us, it’s fifty percent live shows and merchandising, and the other fifty percent is releasing new music, which is a big change in the last ten years, where the revenue was seventy percent releasing new music and thirty percent live shows and merchandising.”

Before heading to Bucharest in May to support the Cure, and ahead of touring the US later in the year, the band returns to Cyprus Avenue on Friday February 8th as part of its coming run of Irish dates, for the first time since the venue completed its expansion late last year. Kinsella collects his thoughts on the old venue, a regular stop of theirs, and anticipates changes.I haven’t seen the changes in person yet, but I am pleased that Cyprus Avenue has finally been expanded. It was difficult in the past to fit on stage, and we had to leave some production out. I think from an audience perspective, it was hard to see a band clearly.”

God is an Astronaut play at The New Cyprus Avenue on Caroline Street, on Friday February 8th. Tickets onsale now from cyprusavenue.ie.

The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock: ‘History Rarely Repeats, But Often Rhymes’

Retelling the story of the 1913 Strike and Lockout with an eighteen-piece guitar orchestra was always going to be a big ask. Allen Blighe and Enda Bates of Dublin folk-rockers The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock discuss the endeavour.

For over a decade now, Dublin-based five-piece The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock have been fusing the folklore and musical traditions of their home city with sounds and processes from further afield, with elements of drone and post-rock sitting alongside the foundations of folk and trad across their previous pair of full-length records. In addressing and recontextualising tradition during the ‘decade of centenaries’, though, The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock have set themselves some massive tasks in recent years. In 2013, the band undertook to document and chronicle the lived experiences of the hundreds of thousands of workers denied basic human rights in the 1913 Strike and Lockout. The final product, ‘Lockout’, is a concept album in four movements, finally releasing this March via Dublin/Sapporo label Transduction, after a number of live airings in the intervening years. Having lived with their work for a while, band founder/vocalist/lyricist Allen Blighe is content with the band’s work. “Initially it was planned as a short piece to tie into the Lockout anniversary but it grew legs! A lot happened, many were born, and many passed away in that time. We feel both happy and relieved to have created something original and ambitious, yet still quite cohesive.” Bassist/vocalist Enda Bates, himself no stranger to large-scale musical endeavours, expands on the size of the task at hand. “It was a big, complex project in all sorts of ways, both in terms of the writing and the production. We’re never stuck for ideas as a band, but the music does seem to take its own time. In the end, we’re very happy with the result and despite the logistical demands, it was really great working with an electric guitar orchestra.”

It goes without saying that anyone looking to tackle the story of the Strike and Lockout has their work cut out for them, being as it is an early milestone in modern Irish history, and in the story of organisation and struggle among the Irish working class. Taking a story with ramifications that lasted for generations, and that continues to reverberate in Irish society, and making of it a work for an eighteen-piece guitar orchestra was always going to be demanding on storytelling, compositional and logistical levels, according to Bates. “We knew we wanted to tell the story of the Lockout chronologically, and Allen had a list of key events he wanted to cover in the narrative. So we developed a timeline for the piece based on that, and it seemed to fall naturally into four sections. We already had some fragments of music written that seemed to fit nicely with certain events, and I had an idea for the opening in which each guitar comes in string by string and builds to big crescendo before dropping back down to just Allen by himself. From then on we just worked through the timeline, sometimes arranging existing ideas for the orchestra, and sometimes writing new material to fit the narrative. The story of the Lockout contains moments of great hope and unity, but also plenty of violence and despair at times too. So musically we tried to represent this through very consonant material and this big, open C tuning on all the guitars, alongside some very dissonant rhythms and harmonies for the darker moments.”

In building a timeline to work along and tell stories across the duration of an album, Blighe is keen to outline the extent of research done on both the story’s main plot, and on concurrent events of the time, aiming to present a fuller picture of a society in turbulence. ”Much reading was done on the subject. Padraig Yeates’ excellent ‘Lockout: Dublin 1913′ was a big influence. Also, Jer O’Leary’s impassioned performances of Larkin speeches really struck a chord, if you’ll excuse the pun! There were many challenges in compressing such a complex story into an album. For example, we just didn’t have time to fit in anything on the controversy surrounding the so called “Dublin kiddies’ scheme”, where the church blocked efforts to send strikers’ children to sympathetic English families to escape the deprivation of the Lockout. Some other themes, such as those presented on “Suffrage”, part of the 4th movement, were important to include. This deals with the struggle for voting equality, and Markievicz’s legacy, one as chequered as many of her male contemporaries but judged more harshly for no other reason than her gender. Matching the music to the narrative was a really interesting process. In the past we’ve written the music first, and then found lyrical themes to apply. For this project we flipped that around, which was a rewarding change of approach.”

There’s obviously a great resonance to the story today, over a hundred years later, with the current cultural impasse at the top of Irish politics and a working situation getting ever tighter for countless people since the introduction of austerity. Blighe discusses the similarities. “The decade of centenaries has been an interesting time to reflect on what exactly Ireland is. Where 1916 and the war of independence were about the struggle for national sovereignty, the Lockout and the Civil War were struggles to define exactly what this nation might be. Things are much different now but as the saying goes ‘history rarely repeats but often rhymes’. The Lockout was a struggle for a fairer deal for workers against a very hostile and callous bunch of Dublin employers headed by William Martin Murphy, head of the DUTC, the tram company and owner of the Irish Independent, who enjoyed the tacit support of the law and state. Today we have a few similar characters. Ireland since the collapse has been murky to say the least, and there are many questions around banking regulation, the wind-up of Anglo, NAMA deals such as Project Eagle, the sale of Siteserv, the write-off of debt at INM, the constant policing scandals as the disclosure tribunal continues to unfold, and most importantly, the housing crisis. There is a sense that the gains of trade union movement are being systematically stripped back in the name of competitiveness in a system that exponentially breeds inequality.”

While that might seem grim, Blighe continues to outline what can be done domestically, and what lessons can be taken away from previous popular mobilisations. “Our fear is that if a positive left wing movement, in the mode of the Water protest movement is not enacted to deal with this inequality, then we will see a slide to the far right. Irish nationalism has always had an element of Connolly’s vision for social justice. The far right are chipping away at this, and the high level corruption and growing inequality feeds this. A cynic may say that power corrupts, and that a system needs corruption to function. While in the many snares of national debt, the overreliance of tax avoidance schemes etc., there may be no hope for huge change. However, while waiting for some broader international change, there is plenty we can be doing. The water movement proved that ordinary people can organise and effect change. The housing crisis must be dealt with in a similar fashion. We can do this with the same determination and belief if we try. In a similar fashion the political and legal corruption can be challenged successfully. These goals are pragmatic and realisable.”

Another anniversary dealt with in recent years is the Easter Rising, which the Spook tackled in a shorter-form piece, entitled ‘Bullet in the Brick’, also released via Transduction in 2016. Being that the label is based in Sapporo, Japan, it’s surely an odd arrangement to co-ordinate a release, let alone pressings, deliveries, etc. Blighe explains. “Transduction is the brainchild of our good friend Patrick Nesbitt, a Finglas man relocated to Japan. He’s a veteran of the Dublin music scene since the late ’80s, and despite the big distance he has a keen interest in the Irish music scene. Talking to Nez on a VOIP call the other week it felt like he could have been five minutes up the road. Distance has fewer implications with technology and it’s been interesting to see how much of the process of writing, recording and releasing this album has been accomplished online, from us recording demos in different countries, arranging mastering with Balance Mastering in the UK, or Nez ordering duplication in the Czech Republic from Japan! Nez is a true music fan and enthusiast who had support independent music in Ireland and Japan for a long time now. We’re very lucky to have him behind us.”

With a date in Dublin’s Pepper Canister Church confirmed for March 16th, and further national touring to be announced for June, it’s a busy time for the Spook of the Thirteenth Lock. Not that it’s stopped Blighe and crew from making yet more plans. “Beyond this record, we’d love to keep playing electric-guitar-orchestra shows. It’s an incredible buzz to make such a big sound with such a big bunch of friends! However we’re also looking at stripping back toward the original five-piece line up for something less complicated. Ideas are also building for the next record, which may be something more rooted in Faerie and otherworldly myths, than history.”

‘Lockout’ is available on March 16th online and physically via Transduction Records.

Megacone: Hitting Cork With Absolute Magnitude

Ahead of their trip to UrbanJungle on November 12th, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with Megacone guitarist Conor Callan about their formation, new extended-player and the support they’ve received so far.

With a sunny disposition as prevalent in their output as their consummate musicianship and eclectic musical frame of reference, it’s little wonder that Dubliners Megacone have developed the following they have in recent times. The progressive/math-rock quintet have only been together a few short years, but have taken on the Irish music industry already, quickly rising to headliner status and doing so at a relative young age. Guitarist Conor Callan explains the band’s beginnings, stemming from time together in BCFE’s renowned music course. “We all met in music college in Ballyfermot. Ross (guitar), Podge (guitar, etc), Bala (bass) and Nimai (drums) were all in a band already playing together. We were all really good friends, and would jam in classrooms quite often. I, nervously, messaged Ross and asked if he thought the band could use a third guitarist. He invited me down to jam with them and we came away with the starting bits of The Accidental which is the first tune on Fondle Fantasy.”

From the off, the band have distinguished themselves live, no mean feat to accomplish in such short order in Irish math-rock/prog circles. Playing fast and loose with genres and influences, the band remain accessible, yet seem to relish leaving something to unearth on repeated listens. Callan recalls the band’s early excursions, as their initial set was coming together. “We went down quite well at our first few shows. The rest of our class in college was really supportive. Watching back videos of our first shows we definitely weren’t as good as we thought we were (laughs).”

Debut extended-player Fondle Fantasy released in 2015. Conversation turns to the initial process, and Callan recalls the band’s first attempt at putting an EP together, as well as the attendant work. “The whole writing side of it came quite naturally. The four songs that are on Fondle Fantasy are the first four songs we wrote together. We were really excited to be recording at all, and then on top of that we were recording with David Prendergast (of Dublin post-rockers Overhead, The Albatross). It was a great learning experience, and we got to spend a nice chunk of time doing pre- and post-production out in David’s studio in Clane. I think it was our first time all recording to a professional standard, despite having been in other bands, and recorded with other projects before. It was a lot of work, but a great learning experience and a lot of craic was had.”

The band’s live engagements began to pick up, among them regular bookings with Dublin alternative/DIY bookers & promoters Dimestore, for whose support the band have been especially grateful. “The Dimestore lads have been a great support for us, they gave us a lot of gigs playing in Sweeney’s (Dame St., Dublin) when Dimestore had a weekly event there. They also gave us an amazing slot at Knockanstockan festival in 2015. It was our first time playing the festival, and we were playing it at 10pm on the Friday night, so we were over the moon about it. It was such an amazing night, and gave us a big audience we otherwise mightn’t have gotten. Then we got an equally amazing slot at Knockanstockan 2016, so those Dimestore lads are good lads.”

The band’s new extended-player, Absolute Magnitude was recorded alongside Rian Trench, one-half of recently-disbanded duo Solar Bears and a busy producer and engineer in his own right. Callan gets into the whole experience. “It was pretty exciting, getting to record with Rían, and his co-producer Robert “Scan” Scanlon. We got to go out to The Meadow, Rían’s studio in Delgany. It’s a pretty special place, and it is sort of secluded, which is really nice. You can really just get into it, without much distraction. We had only planned to record two songs Crocodile Dundalk and Absolute Magnitude but we got the two of them done and still had another two days in the studio. So we quickly got together some click tracks for Dance of the Sand Wizard and Straight for the Juggler. It was a little hectic getting everything done, but Rían and Scan really know what they are doing, and we are really happy with the end result.”

The EP’s eponymous lead single is a stomper to say the least, and your writer’s first thought was to ask what rush of blood to the head brought it all on. Callan dissects the song’s creation. “We played an early version of Absolute Magnitude at the Fondle Fantasy EP launch, so the tune has been floating around for a long time. It just came together from a bunch of different parts that we made fit together. Our process is the same for most songs. It’s a lot of time writing parts as a band, or as individuals, and then making this random part work organically with that random part. There’s a lot of trial and error in working out songs but when they are finished, we are usually pretty happy because we have spent so long working on them.”

The band is playing UrbanJungle, the basement venue of the Mardyke complex, on the 12th of this month, with support from Cork proggers Meniscus and the debuting Aponym. The latest in metal auteurs Pethrophile Promotions’ Welcome to the Jungle night, it’s the conpany’s penultimate gig of the year, and occurs before the announcement of their 2017 programme. Megacone have been to Cork before, on occasion, and Conor, like the rest of the band, is fond of gigging Leeside. “We love playing down in Cork. We have played down there a handful of times. The last time we were down, we played the Crane Lane with our friends and Cork natives White-Line Fever. We had a great crowd, and the people of Cork seem to really dig our music, which is always a plus (laughs).”

It’s been a fairly hectic two years for the band, but as 2016 winds down, the band focuses on the future, and Callan leaves the conversation on a cliffhanger. “We have some pretty huge, juicy news to announce for 2017, but we can’t announce it just yet. Soon. Very soon.”

Megacone play UrbanJungle on the 12th of November, with Meniscus and Aponym in support. Tickets are €5, kickoff at 8pm.

God is an Astronaut: Plotting a Course

Before setting off on tour and finishing their next record, God is an Astronaut play Cyprus Avenue on Saturday the 23rd. Guitarist Torsten Kinsella speaks with Mike McGrath-Bryan about the future, overarching themes and genre labels.

“We are still really pleased with it and it’s working out very well live too so we couldn’t have asked for much more.” Last year saw the release of God is an Astronaut’s fifth album. Helios/Erebus was positively received, and guitarist Torsten Kinsella is positive about its place in the Glen of the Downs post-rock outfit’s increasingly storied canon. “We began writing it in late 2013, we road-tested a lot of the material live first before releasing it. It helped us gauge the reaction way before the release. We wanted this record to capture the sound of the band live, which hadn’t really been our primary aim in the past. Centralia was the first track we wrote, which set the mood for the rest of the album. While there was a lot of heavier tracks, we also wrote some ambient tracks, which is a very important side of the band too. Most of the tracks began with an electric guitar, or piano, and some began with soundscapes, and from that we carved out melodies.”

The as-yet untitled next LP will be released through Austrian metal label Napalm Records following an announcement last year. Kinsella explains how that working relationship come about, and breaks down how the new deal stands to benefit the band. “They approached us, initially we weren’t really interested but after speaking to them off and on for a few months, they seem to really understand what we’re about. They were enthusiastic for us to retain artistic control which was important. They have a big marketing budget for our next album which we hope will increase our profile substantially. They have allowed us to work as long as we want on the next record so we will take our time to ensure we write the best record we can.”

The band has, by and large, been an independent entity for its whole run, avoiding most, if not all, of the usual Irish industry pitfalls. How has the band done so while maintaining sustainability, and how does it change with the Napalm deal? “We have been lucky, and we have worked very hard and written music that resonated well with many listeners. Keeping control has enabled us to strategise wisely throughout our career. We were in a good position when Napalm approached us so we were able to get an agreement that really made a lot of sense, for example we still retain our full rights to our back catalogue outside the Napalm agreement which was hugely important to us. The deal is a fair one, with above average percentage splits, so as long we write a good album and they do a good job marketing it, I do believe we can become more successful.”

Talk turns to the band’s upcoming live excursion on the 23rd. When asked for any stories or memories of playing Leeside, one story comes to Kinsella’s mind. “The time we played in Cyprus Avenue a few years back and there was a storm raging outside, the river had burst its banks, and the rain was hammering down through a hole in the ceiling on me while we were playing. I was lucky not to get electrocuted.”

Next year will be the band’s 15th anniversary. In 2002, the term “post-rock” was a lot different, as were perceptions of the genre. Kinsella explores his relationship with the term, and contrasts perception of the band against the band’s own aims. “When we began, we were labelled as dance/trip-hop, with the release of our second album we began to hear the term post-rock, we weren’t familiar with the genre, or the other groups at the time. There were obvious differences to what we were doing compared to the rest, our tracks were considerably shorter and we had much more electronics than the other groups. Today of course, it’s all become integrated as part of the post-rock sound. I’m not really sure what post-rock fans’ perception of us is today, I keep away from online forums etc., reading positive or negative opinions pollutes our vision, so we just keep our heads down and write the best music we can, that represents who we are and how we are feeling at that time.”

In that post-rock, as a largely instrumental enterprise, lends itself to capturing moments in time and allowing listeners to interpret that through their own filters and frames of reference, how has the process of deciding what theme, or what moment, or feeling, changed? “That really depends on what’s happening to us, and around us. Right now the world is going through a dark phase with a massive amount of innocent casualties in the Middle East and in turn the continuing rise of religions extremism. That really influenced Helios/Erebus. Our front cover was largely influenced by the Aztec calendar. I believe when you look at the history of the Aztecs, we have a lot in common. The Aztecs were keen astronomers. They designed whole structures around the sun, moon, and the stars and paid special tribute to them with their buildings.But they also had a dark side to them. The Aztec religion was full of gloom and doom, as it were. They lived with such fear that they offered blood sacrifices to the Sun God, in hopes that he would assure the rising of the sun each day. So all in all, not too much has changed when you look at the world we are living in today. The immolation of innocent captives, beheadings and the mass bombings of innocent civilians in the name of religion and politics are still celebrated by many. I think we could learn something from history.

Turning an eye from the past and the bigger picture to the band’s immediate future, God is an Astronaut are in the eye of a storm of activity at present. “We are currently on tour in Italy and we finish up in Romania before coming home to do a few shows in Ireland. We’re returning to the US in late August, for a headline tour. It’s been five years since we have been there last. We will also be returning to Greece, Barcelona and Germany in November. We are also writing new material for the next album.”

God is an Astronaut play Cyprus Avenue on Saturday the 23rd of this month. Tickets available from Eventbrite and the Old Oak.