Scrobarnach: Up from the Undergrowth

Heading into its third year and placing its roots in Watergrasshill’s Ballindenisk House, Scrobarnach Music Club’s annual festival brings the best in Irish electronica together. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks to festival heads and artists. (N.B. – this article ran the day before this year’s installment announced its cancellation!)

With a name that quite literally means “undergrowth” as Gaeilge, Scrobarnach Music Club’s eponymously-titled annual events have been true to their word, allowing for Ireland’s electronic music community to breathe and spread its wings in wider, more secluded spaces. Heading into its third year, and moving to its new home of Ballindenisk House in Watergrasshill, festival co-founder and director Ian Hart explains the process behind establishing the new fest. “Scrobarnach was the brainchild of a group of event organisers and club promoters – myself, Tim Dowling, Paul Daly and Jasper Mathews, who all worked regularly together at various events within the industry. In the summer of 2015, they sat down and decided they would put their combined skills to use and create their own unique festival experience “Scrobarnach”. The aim was to create an independent, affordable, and eco-friendly event which supported the local industry, hence the BYOB and “leave no trace” policies which has been applied since the start.”

The communal creative process behind the name for the festival exemplifies its DIY spirit, the result of ingenue and banging a few heads together, according to Hart. “The name took a while to get! We spent a few days going back and forth on ideas, the festival was set to be held at the Moneytree, a site right on the outskirts of a beautiful forest outside Portlaoise. The site was quite wild and had some amazing natural features, we wanted to hold on to its charm, so this had to be in the name too, however we eventually thought up “Undergrowth”. This didn’t have much to it in terms of an attractive name, but after some time it was Paul Daly who had the idea to use the Irish, which is “Scrobarnach”, we all knew straight away from there this was it”.

The emphasis on genres of electronica unrepresented on bigger festival bills has helped establish the festival, with days of programming dedicated to psytrance and drum‘n’bass garnering equal billing among the festival’s attractions. Festival operations manager and Cork electronica staple Jamie Behan discusses this. “The goal of the festival is to give festivals ‘back’ to (fans of) psytrance, back to drum‘n’bass. These are the people who started off these festivals, Life was a psytrance festival originally. They’re being ignored by bigger festivals, so we’re bringing them back in. It’s not just us, there are loads of smaller, festivals around the country, that have come up in response to the changes the bigger festivals have undergone. What we want to do is bring psytrance and drum’n’bass back into the fold, alongside house and techno, and not treat them like they’re dirty genres. There is a crowd for them, a massive following, and we want to recognise them.”

It’s a diverse line up, that puts Irish talent firmly in the limelight and sees them comprise the majority of the billing, while allowing a choice selection of international headliners like Neil Landstrumm, Stranger and Ansome, to help the festival reach a wider base. Behan outlines the festival’s gradual process regards finding artists and DJs to place on an ever-growing platform. “At the very start, the first thing we looked at was techno, and we wanted a really impressive lineup. More underground techno acts that we liked, rather than booking Dax J or Blawan, and for supporting acts, we were just going to look around the country, for the best Irish techno that there is. It was literally as simple as that. Same when we moved into house. After choosing techno acts, we found that we didn’t have enough room for everyone that we wanted from Ireland, and when we moved to booking the house stage, we did the same thing, and we thought, ‘do we really need to look outside Ireland?’. There’s enough talent on this island, with established acts like Fish Go Deep and Sunday Times. And then, what we noticed the amount of collectives there was, and that’s when we focused on collectives and takeovers from the people that were pushing quality music around the country. Techno & Cans in Dublin, D.I.E. in Limerick that have been doing amazing things in Limerick for seven or eight years. Looking further into the undergrowth, if you will, the Labwork guys are putting on house, techno and disco on Sundays in Mullingar, and drawing big crowds, in Mullingar for underground electronic dance music. These are guys doing amazing things for electronic music outside of the main hubs. Next year, we’ll be expanding our Irish offering further.”

A promotional emphasis on the work of electronic music collectives is seldom come-by for a festival, even though many cities’ scenes and music communities are dependent on collective endeavour. Many of the country’s collectives will be hosting takeovers of stages during the weekend, showcasing their efforts and providing a feel for what they’re about. Representing Cork’s Vinyl Below collective of DJs and promoters is Stephen O’Byrne. “There are a number of hard-working collectives in Cork that spend each month promoting their party and aiming to win the biggest crowd that they can by putting on the best and most interesting shows. As the scene for electronic music in the city is limited at best, there isn’t a huge crowd to go around. A festival that showcases most, if not all, of the electronic music collectives in Cork is a great way of giving people a sample of what they might have been missing, or might not have even heard of. All of our local electronic music talent, as well as a host of spectacular international acts playing on our doorstep is a great way to maintain and boost the interest in the genre. We’re looking forward to seeing what the weekend will bring, it’s something that Cork has lacked for a long time.”

Also appearing at the festival are Cork hip-hop crew Cuttin’ Heads Collective. Resident cutman DJ JusMe outlines the importance of collectivised work to creating, establishing and hopefully raising the bottom line for a genre or subgenre in a city. “Speaking from a hip-hop perspective, the (idea of the) collective has had a huge positive impact for Cork. You can go see a couple hip-hop gigs a month that will be well attended, fun nights. It’s an outlet for local artists to perform, it’s a place you can go have a drink with like minded folks, meet other artists and DJs.”

The festival is now well-established, and is fully fledged in attractions, layouts, etc. Behan goes into what lies ahead for the rapidly-expanding weekender and the music club behind it. “We have plans for 2018 to hold more one-offs, with focus on certain themes, or genres. Those are in the works. As for the festival itself, we’ll be looking to turn it into more of a multimedia event, having workshops on music production, discussion panels, etc. More of a music festival in a broader context, with workshops providing audience participation.”

Scrobarnach 2017 happens on August 11th and 12th at Ballindenisk House in Watergrasshill. Tickets for the BYOB camping event are available, as well as exclusive guest podcasts, from scrobarnach2017.com.

Mallow Arts Festival: Bringing the Arts Home

Mallow Arts Festival is currently underway, reprising the town’s original summer arts programme for a new generation. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks with festival curator Tadhg Curtis.

Established with the stated goal of establishing the arts as a part of life in the North Cork town, Mallow Arts Festival kicked off last night with a performance from John Spillane in the inaugural performance of the current incarnation of the festival. Over the course of the next few days, a number of acts will appear around Mallow, from Louisiana’s Sweet Olive String Band and the Shandrum Céilí Band, to Shandon Guesthouse improvisers The Quiet Club and upcoming acts, like Saint Caoilian, Ealadha and Outsider Y.P., in addition to the town’s first major visual arts exhibition in two decades, film showings curated by Cork film-maker Ger Browne, one-man theatre from veteran performer Dominic Moore, and other local arts attractions.

Various efforts have been made over the years to kickstart the arts in Mallow, succeeding to varying degrees. Mallow Arts Collective co-founder Tadhg Curtis explains some of the history behind contemporary arts in the town. “The first Mallow Arts Festivals were held back in the 1970s, when a group I was part of at that stage, while I was in my twenties, called the Mallow Arts Collective, a group established by Danny McCarthy, held a number of festivals. We managed to attract national names such as Clannad, Freddie White and Paul Brady to play Mallow. We also hosted national touring exhibitions, and equally, with cinema, we had late-night showings of Fellini films. That led onto the formation of the Mallow Arts Alliance in the ‘80s, where we teamed up with the then-Arts Club and the Pilgrim Players theatre group. Mallow Arts Alliance had a number of festivals again through the 1980s, up to the early ‘90s, at the stage then, it disappeared off the radar, and there hasn’t been an arts festival in Mallow for quite a number of years.”

The collective was assembled from local individuals with track records in the arts with the intention of bringing their experience to a submission process for a major announcement in the town. “There’s an umbrella grouping in Mallow called the Mallow Development Partnership, a grouping of state agencies, community bodies and the Chamber of Commerce. Mallow last year heard the announcement that the County Council were looking to establish an arts centre in the old Town Hall. MDP decided it should make a submission in regard to the use of the Town Hall, and what ideally they’d like to see. They asked me to do it, but I decided I wouldn’t do it on my own, I’d approach people that had been active over the years in the arts. I approached six or seven people who all came onboard, they joined in making the initial submission, and then forming Mallow Arts Collective.”

Twelve months ago last week, Mallow Arts Collective assembled a pair of arts events, the Living Space weekenders. A kite-flying exercise for the viability of arts in the area, their purpose was laying the groundwork for the longer-term goal. “After we made the submission, we took a look and said ‘is this arts centre going to be successful?’. We looked at a number of arts centres around the country which had become white elephants, because there wasn’t a community group based around them. We decided that if Mallow was to have a successful arts centre, that there needed to be a more vibrant arts scene. We agreed that we would promote and co-ordinate arts activities in the region, to help make that happen.”

The first year of a flagship arts festival in any town is always a matter of convincing people nearby of the viability of the endeavour. And while not every venue has been responsive, a number of high-profile establishments in town have lent their weight to events happening throughout the weekend. “In the case of (the Hibernian Hotel and adjacent venues, run by local entrepreneur Darren Owens), absolutely no challenge, totally welcoming, totally positive, right from the very beginning. Anything we’ve asked for in relation to that complex, be it Ocana’s, the Hi-B or Keppler’s, full, 100% co-operation. Regarding some other publicans, our initial idea was to try and have something in every single pub in Mallow. That hasn’t proved possible up to now, maybe ‘twas overambitious for a start. Think we mentioned it to about four other publicans, and three have responded. We’ve jazz in Jim Keeffe’s, who’d normally have country-Irish on a Friday night. We now have the likes of Ringo: Music Bingo in Maureen’s, a pub that would have very little entertainment, etc., and again, in Albert Lynch’s, we have a pub with an entertainment history, it has embraced the concept of having a bluegrass band, a folk band, and a post-rock band as well. All of that is very positive.”

Programming arts in a town that hasn’t had much exposure to the arts in the bones of a generation presented challenges in terms of creative direction, in terms of a balance to be struck between what might play well locally and taking risks. “We have to say to the community that as a new group, we can provide a little of what you want, or what you’d be interested in. That was the idea between being conservative enough in the main attractions, like John Spillane, who we anticipate would have a general appeal anyway. The Shandrum Céilí Band are dual All-Ireland champions, and that may be another safe bet to some extent. Beyond that, we’ve experimented with everything else. Bluegrass, jazz, ambient, electronica, hip-hop, we’ve brought in a number of different sessions that’ll all be strange to Mallow. We’re saying to people in Mallow, ‘we can do what you want, but we’ll also open your eyes to what else is out there’.”

The multidisciplinary line-up for the festival has been announced locally over the past couple of weeks via its website and social media, culminating in last week’s brochure. Curtis gets into how the lineup has been received and what the feedback has been. “It’s been positive, I must say. People were deprived of any sort of a festival, really, and they’re looking at the brochure and I imagine there’s a few raised eyebrows. But the message is that the vast majority of the acts and artists are free. Come along and find out what it’s all about. If you get involved, state what you like and sample what’s new, you can have a part to play in ensuring the future of the festival.”

With a full bill of arts and music ready to go, asking Curtis to choose his own highlights results in a moment of something between enthusiasm and indecision. “Everything. (laughs) Practically all of the music, like the all-dayer in St. James’ Church on Saturday, very experimental. I’m a fan of bluegrass, so I’m looking forward to the Sweet Olive String Band at Albert Lynch’s. Finally then, we have the best guitarist in Cork, Robbie Barron, in his blues band Bate to Debt on Sunday night at Keppler’s. At that stage we’ll be over the worries, and I’ll be enjoying it.”

This year’s festival is in readiness, and surely thoughts turn to the next step for the Mallow Arts Collective. “The whole idea is to try and stimulate and invigorate an arts scene in Mallow in preparation for the Arts Centre in Mallow. It’ll be two or three years before that comes on stream so what we need to do is keep having events, having festivals, try to keep having people motivated and mobilised, so that at the end of the day, when the centre comes, people will be dying to get into this, they’ll know what they want from it and have a variety of activities they’ll want to be part of.”

Mallow Arts Festival is ongoing, until this Sunday. More information on times and venues at mallowartsfestival.com, and on their Facebook & Twitter.

Coughlan’s: Going Live for Fourth Festival

September 21st-25th sees Coughlan’s on Douglas Street serve as the epicentre of Cork music during its flagship Coughlan’s Live Festival. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with venue coordinator Edel Curtin.

“Coughlan’s annual festival has become an important event on our calendar, as it marks the anniversary of the venue. It’s always a nice time to take stock of what has happened in the previous twelve months, and to celebrate all the great musicians we have had the honour of hosting. The festival is a chance for us to say “thank you” to the people that have supported us since the beginning, so we try to have as eclectic a mix as possible and keep some of the shows free. It’s nice for us too, to be able to remind ourselves that we have made it through another year, and hopefully done a good enough job in the process, especially with so many venues having to close their doors.”

Edel Curtin, booker for Coughlan’s on Douglas Street and its sister company Coughlan’s Live Promotions, is preparing for the venue’s annual centrepiece event, Coughlan’s Live Festival. “This year’s festival will be a cracker. We’re very excited about having Rusangano Family thanks to our friends in Southern Hospitality Board. John Blek and the Rats is always a fantastic show to go to in Coughlan’s, and our silent disco has proved hugely popular over the past few years. The Voice Squad promises to be a really special show too, and it’s their first time playing the venue. All in all it promises to be a great weekend!”

In its fifth year, also headlined by talent like Hermitage Green, and Lisa O’Neill, the festival marks the space’s fourth anniversary. Edel talks about the roots and beginnings of Coughlan’s as we know it. “For years, previous to Coughlan’s becoming a venue, I had it in my head that I’d like to be part of a small music venue. At the time I was still working as a musician, and Cork didn’t really have a small intimate space for musicians to play. There seemed to be a gaping hole where The Lobby used to be and it became an ambition of mine to try in some small way to fill that void. Myself and some friends started a casual session that took place every Monday night in Coughlan’s. It was good fun and started to draw a crowd. At the time the back room wasn’t really in use, and although it’s very small, it seemed like a nice space to try something. I organised a festival for that September and the rest is history, I suppose! People liked the venue, musicians liked playing it, and after that weekend I started getting enquiries from more musicians that wanted to play. I never thought it would turn into what it has, to be honest, and a huge part of that is down to the incredible support we received.”

The venue tapped into a rich, but underutilised, vein of acoustic-led genres and sub-genres, something that hadn’t really been pushed to a venue’s forefront in recent years in Cork City. What was behind the decision to lead with this genre, right as others were appealing to other, contemporary audiences? “I suppose the type of shows that were put on were largely dictated by the venue itself. I wasn’t sure what would work in the room volume-wise, but I knew there wouldn’t be a problem with the more acoustic shows. Over time we were able to experiment a bit more, and take a few chances. Personal taste also played a part, to a degree, but I think as the venue grows, we are broadening the types of shows that we put on. Rusangano Family at this year’s festival is a good example of that I think.”

Quickly beginning to outgrow the walls of the backroom of their headquarters, the Coughlan’s team began expanding into other venues in town, collaborating and co-promoting with Cyprus Avenue and The Oliver Plunkett to name a few. “Coughlan’s Live Promotions happened quite organically off the back of the venue. We were fortunate that some of the musicians who had previously played Coughlan’s and were now in need of a bigger venue wanted to keep working with us. Having come from playing music as a profession, there was already a good relationship with a lot of the venues in the city, and thankfully they were receptive to us putting on shows. It’s great to be able to use these
venues, and it’s exciting for us to be able to book acts that we might not necessarily be able to have in Coughlan’s.”

The hard work and entrepeneurial spirit of the Coughlan’s team has reaped rewards, with the Hot Press and IMRO Venue of the Year award in 2013 taking pride of place at the venue’s entrance. “Winning awards over the past few years has been genuinely very humbling. To know you have the support of so many people is a great feeling. This is not an easy job to do, there’s a huge amount of work that has to be done behind the scenes in order for the venue’s doors to stay open, and to see this recognised is hugely encouraging for us. People have really gotten behind us, and that is the biggest reason for us being able to continue doing what we do. We are blessed too that we have fantastic staff, there’s a really great team and I think people see that and want to support it. It’s a huge reason for people returning to the venue, they know they will be looked after, treated well and greeted by a familiar face. We don’t have the biggest stage or best lighting rig, but the place has atmosphere and character and I think that counts for a lot.”