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

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.

Wild Rocket: “A Fascination with Cognitive Dissonance”

With their third long-player now in the rear-view mirror, Dublin space-cadets Wild Rocket are heading to Cork this weekend as part of a rare terrestrial excursion. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks with bassist Moose and synthman Niallo ahead of the journey.

Over the past few years, the outer reaches of Ireland’s music scene has registered periodic blips of strange activity on its periphery, indicative of trails of space radiation left by astral travel. The trajectory pictured is awfully similar to the journey of Dublin space-punks Wild Rocket, a hefty proposition that have sat at the intersection of accessibility, heft and psychedelia, slowly building cosmic momentum over the course of intermittent touring and a string of long-players. Third album ‘Dissociation Mechanics’ was released last summer via Sligo label Art for Blind, and Moose, the outfit’s manipulator of low-end distortion, has much to discuss regarding its creation.

“Well, we were living with the record in some shape or form since the beginning of the band. Some of the songs are older than those found on our first album, it was just a matter of it being the right time to document them in their final state. Obvious example would be ‘Caught In Triangle’, which contains some the first riffs we wrote together. I think the last two albums are indicative of our range but ‘Dissociation Mechanics’ feels a bit more varied, from fast to slow, loud to louder, etc. We’re excited to see where we end up with the next songs, but in the meantime we’re still very much enjoying playing these songs live. At the same time, we’re not afraid to take a few chances with structures or ideas with the songs, to keep things developing and moving forward. I’m sure if we went back and recorded it all again, it’d be a little different but really for us the album is a snap shot of that particular time and place we were in so there’s nothing to change or be unhappy with.”

The process of assembling a Wild Rocket record, while deriving from a bank of existing riffs this time around, is based on improvisation and experimentation, not only with instrumentation, but with arrangements and production. “Phase-changer” Niallo talks about the band’s composition process and how it informed the production and post-production of their latest long-player. “Typically how we write songs is we get together once a week or so, and jam and keep jamming riff ideas, until something develops that we all feel an affinity with, or just feels right. Things have gotten more difficult from album one to album two, as Breslin, our drummer, is living in London now. As a result, we don’t get to jam all together as often, but thankfully it hasn’t slowed us down. If anything, it just means the jams build up and up, until they need to be released in a torrent when we do get together. It also led to us doing more with repetition and opening up songs, or more so sections of songs, to be improvised live which has been great fun and strangely satisfying. With respect to recording we recorded with The Deaf Brothers in their studio on Abbey Street in Dublin. As with the first album we went in and recorded the basic parts together but then we had a lot more fun getting into layers of guitars, synths and effects. We kept going until it became an envelope of dense fuzz, swirling textures and whatever else came into our warped imaginations, all of course delivered with a snarl.”

‘Dissociation Mechanics’ is drawn together by an overriding set of themes/concepts, feeding from the current state of flux humanity finds itself in on several levels. Moose goes into further detail on the narrative behind the record. “The general concept of the album is about the human race’s amazing ability to continue cycles of destruction through an inability to learn from our mistakes, but also the possibility that we can learn from those mistakes via a sort of transformation, and finally put an end to the destructive cycles. It’s informed by a fascination with the collective cognitive dissonance we as a species are capable of, while also being influenced by the natural and societal landscape that surrounds us here. We’re fascinated with science, and the realm of science fiction, which ties into the sounds we make so when it comes to the actual lyrics, we’re always informed by those realms too on this album, especially black holes, whirlpools and portals to other dimensions. Finally, I love how a lot of the best sci-fi is left open to interpretation, so there’s always some of that.”

As mentioned at the outset, the record was released on vinyl via Art for Blind, a formerly Cork-based label that ran a stall out of the now-defunct Cork Community Print Shop, and now operates out of Sligo’s Model arts centre. Niallo is keen on acknowledging their role in the band’s rise, and their working relationship. “Two of us had worked with Art For Blind on previous releases with (previous bands) Hands Up Who Wants To Die and Wolfbait, and knew the lads pretty well, so when they offered to help with the release of this album, we were more than happy to work with them. It’s been great working with them, and no doubt we’ll work with them on further releases.”

The band are playing the Poor Relation this Saturday, alongside crossover thrash/hardcore Corkonians Bisect and post-rockers Aerialist in a killer lineup. Niallo collects his thoughts on heading to Cork as part of a weekend of gigging. “It’s great to play Cork. The scene in Cork at the moment seems to have hit a nice rolling boil once again. I see Cosmonaut Music getting a lot of positive press these days, something we can support, Cormac and the lads are doing a cracking job. Tombstone and Box Gigs have been doing amazing stuff for years too, and it’s great to see them and many other promoters working with a real community spirit. Definitely translates to great gigs. We played at the GGI Fest with Bisect last summer, and it was my first time seeing them, having heard so much. Any chance to look at (vocalist) Phil explode on a stage is always welcome. The new album they are putting out is meaty and aggressive, with messages that I think we can all get behind. Aerialist have shown that their knowledge of texture and dynamic is bang on. I’m looking forward to hearing it live!”

The Altered Hours: “A Wiry Energy”

Ahead of a new extended-player and their biggest European tour to date, Corkonian psych-rockers The Altered Hours are set to take on larger stages. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with vocalist Elaine Howley ahead of a hectic time for the band.

The Altered Hours have for nearly the last decade struck the balance between aggression and introspection, punk and psychedelia, the internal monologue and the external circumstance. Garnering momentum in recent years after shifting from folk to psychedelia, shoegaze and post-punk influences, the band’s success has been emblematic of the emergence of a new generation of independent music in the city, including an infrastructure of DIY artists, promoters and labels with their roots in improvisation and experimentation. 2016 saw the release of the band’s debut full-length proper, ‘In Heat/Not Sorry’, one of the year’s best records, followed by a flurry of touring around the continent and the Irish festival circuit. After a break, the band’s next extended-player, ‘On My Tongue’ is ready to go, and releasing on March 9th. Vocalist Elaine Howley discusses the EP’s recording. “This group of songs was first played in our old studio in York Hill. They have a wiry energy, and we wanted to record them in a fast-paced way. After playing them live for a while, we booked three days at Bow Lane studio in Dublin and worked with Daniel Fox and Cassandra Retinské to record them. They were both great to work with and I enjoyed their approach, we had a chance to experiment and be spontaneous.”

From what we’ve heard of it in advance, the E.P. moves the band further in a post-punk-inflected direction. The band has been labelled a lot of things by now, including in these pages, in an attempt to quantify their ever-shifting sound. It must be amusing from the inside to see. “It’s true, our music has been called lots of things, and between us we have brought different influences in or get fascinated by different things. I think we will continue to explore different approaches – it keeps things interesting, and means we can keep moving. Really, I think the music comes out how it will, and you just have to allow it be. I’ve started to think of it as Rock and Roll, it makes it simple for me because that’s more of an attitude than a sound, and I can believe in that.”

‘On My Tongue’ is another release via the duo of Cork-related record labels Penske Recordings (the brainchild of Cork music mainstay Albert Twomey) and Art for Blind (formerly based in the Cork Community Print Shop before its closure), who also split-released the band’s debut album to great success. What’s that relationship been like to continue on with? “It’s great to work with Penske and Art For Blind again, both labels have been involved in putting out some of the most exciting music in Ireland in the past few years, and it’s good to be a part of that. I’m grateful they have put the time and energy into putting our music out on record, and continue to support us.” That full-length has been in the can and on the shelves for over a year now. Howley explores her feeling on the body of work that went into it with the benefit of hindsight and distance. “It’s always hard to be objective, but time does help to hear it differently. I think it is a record that is abrasive, and has beauty too. It feels good that we documented those songs – it’s always a relief to make a record and be free to move forward.”

Late last year saw the band take on their largest hometown stage yet, at Live at St. Luke’s, in the former cathedral in the area. The feeling of that gig among those assembled afterward, and in the days after, was of a band that had ‘arrived’ – there was just a different energy and it’s fair to say there’s a different buzz about the band as a result. “I had no idea how we would fare in such a cavernous space, but we tried it and the gig felt comfortable, like a celebration. It was so enjoyable to play for a crowd like that. People were up on their feet, it felt like a rock show, and that was unexpected in a church. It was nice that we could play a different kind of space and the music could translate, and that we could be comfortable and connect.”

Ahead of the new record’s release, the band has been warming up with dates around the country before heading to the continent throughout the month of March. The new material has done well on the road. “The dates so far have been lots of fun. The Galway and Limerick shows were both my favourite I’ve played in those cities. We’ve been playing the full EP over the set, and the vibes have been good!”  

The band is playing It Takes a Village festival at the end of this early run of dates, heading to Trabolgan to make noise amid the attractions and holiday homes, alongside names like Young Fathers and Fujiya & Miyagi. “We’re looking forward to going. It’s really cool to see a festival like this happening in Cork, Joe Kelly has a great way of working, and a vision for gigs. I’m especially looking forward to seeing Anna-Mieke, Fixity and Strength NIA.” As EPs often are, the whole enterprise serves as both a standalone work, and a taster of things to come. “When we get home we will work away in our studio on new music. Planning to release lots of music over time. There will also be a new track on the Art For Blind 7” series.”

O Emperor: “A More Oblique and Meandering Way”

O Emperor return to Quarter Block Party on the Friday night, headlining the festival they helped place on the map with its first headline show in 2015. Mike McGrath-Bryan chats with guitarist/vocalist Phil Christie.

It’s been a while for formerly-Cork-based psych-rockers O Emperor: two years, to be precise, since their last set of live excursions, and three years since their last record. Having bubbled away under the surface for the last while, the lads confirmed their return late last year with confirmation that they were to headline Quarter Block Party festival. The existence of new material was confirmed a few weeks back, with the band confirming a drift further from old-time songcraft to further improv/feckery than previous excursions. Guitarist/vocalist Phil Christie digs into their method this time around. “The new recordings came out of completely free interactions/jams that we collected and edited over the last couple of years. It was a really fun process. In the past, although arrangements would be collaborative and shaped by jamming, the integral idea for a song would usually be sketched out by one person. This time around, we found ourselves just starting to play with no predetermined directions, and see where we ended up. In fact, many of the tracks that are taking shape now, started off as musical jokes, and most still have yet to shake off their joke titles, which are heavily coded in nonsense Waterford vernacular. It became interesting to see how being completely ‘unserious’ proved helpful in staking out new ground.”

Last we heard of the band was the ‘Lizard’ E.P., released in 2015 with physical editions being headed up by Dublin label/stall Trout Records. With a few years to live with the record and it settled neatly into a growing back catalogue, now’s the perfect time to look back at its creation and how their process differs this time around. “Personally, I like the record, still. It was written and recorded very quickly and felt ‘ignorant’ in a satisfying way. We had a tendency to pore over productions/arrangements for too long on previous excursions, and on ‘Lizard’ we gave ourselves a break from that. I think we were getting a kick out of the idea of short, weird pop songs. The new record follows on somewhat from that approach, in that there are still some songs in there, but they are approached in a more oblique and meandering way.” What form might that new body of work be taking, or is there a decision still pending in that regard? “An album-like lifeform should appear soon. There is a big backlog from the sessions that we’ve done though, so this will hopefully just be the first batch with more to follow.”

The band has always been fairly eclectic in nature, but has been growing progressively varied in terms of musical reference points over the past number of years. It’s tempting to ask Christie what the lads have been vibing on as listeners, and how much of what gets listened to bleeds over into jamming and getting music finished. “We’ve all been getting into different things over the last couple of years, I guess – we haven’t had a lot of time in the van together, which would have been where we would have had some intense periods of cross-pollination of ideas. From what I can remember of recent geeky chats with the lads Serge Gainsbourg, Galt McDermott, Thelonious Monk have all been getting airtime.”

Christie’s own body of work as frontman of semi-improvisational psych-poppers The Bonk has kept him more than busy in the past while, also, making the most of the downtime that life can sometimes place on a band. What’s the difference between the creative headspaces needed for both projects? “I think the main thing about the O Emperor project is that it’s based around what happens when the five of us get together to play. Having played with each other for so long, we’ve kind of developed a way of negotiating ideas, and each other, that is particular to us. The latest record felt good to make, because our initial investigations of ideas were captured without any filter. The Bonk is a lot different in that regard, as it usually begins with a specific arrangement/idea coming from me and then the band will improvise around these structures.”

The band are playing the Friday of Quarter Block Party, upstairs in AMP on Hanover Street. As mentioned, it’s the band’s first gig in about two years, and conversation turns to how they’re feeling heading into it as both musicians and gig-goers in their own right. “Ah yeah, we’re dying to get out playing again, and it’s nice to have some new stuff to explore while we’re at it. The lineup for the weekend is great though – personally hoping to get to see Tandem Felix, Davey Kehoe and Anna Clock if possible.” It’s far from the band’s first rodeo with QBP, though: O Emperor headlined the inaugural event, with a gig at the Triskel so packed and so in demand heading into it, that even a festival wristband mightn’t have guaranteed a reveller entry. Christie’s recollection of the evening is short but sweet. “Richie managing to get a swim in between soundcheck and the gig. And solid music craic in fairness!” So how’s the rest of 2018 lookin’ for the boys beyond Quarter Block Party? Is an excursion around the country for festival season looking likely? “We’re slowly getting used to writing emails again so we’ll be trying to get out and play as much as we can – we’re also continuing to record new material and get ready for further releases.”

The Altered Hours: “It’s All in the Guts”

The Altered Hours have been on a roll in the last eighteen months or so, going from the release of debut long-player In Heat/Not Sorry, to European touring, to bringing the roof down on Cork venue Gulpd Cafe on its final night (all of which you can read about in Village Magazine’s piece on the band from last month). Now, ahead of another body of work’s creation and the grind attendant to same, the band are headlining on Sunday night at Live at St. Luke’s, the biggest stage they’ve ever played at home, on the busiest night of the Cork Jazz Weekend. Cathal MacGabhann, guitarist/vocalist, discusses how the band have been about the venue and the challenge of filling a church of that size with all that noise. “We haven’t really approached this with the mindset of how big or small the venue is. Essentially we would play anywhere, but this is an interesting opportunity for us to surround ourselves with an atmosphere we are less accustomed to. We have been working on a couple of new songs which I’m excited about… the set list is looking like quite a mixed bag right now.”

The new stuff being aired is being tested out with the acoustic properties of St. Luke’s Cathedral in mind, with some numbers providing an element of dynamic to the Hour’s frenetic, speedball live shows. MacGabhann addresses the challenges in framing material for such an event. “We have played in so many different types of venues at this stage you kind of get an instinct for what might work and where. That being said, we always try something new when we can, and it’s always at its most fun when you really don’t know if it’s going to work or not. It’s all in the guts.” Tickets to the event (€20 from come with a download of a new odds and sods collection curated by the band. After eight years together, there’s sure to be a few gems that have gone through the cracks. “Over the years I’ve been compiling demos, sounds, loops and other acoustic offshoots from studio sessions. I’ve always wanted to release these things intermittently, and I feel this is a good time to do this. The ‘mixtape’ is called ‘1000 Years’ and it’ll be available online for everyone in the near future.”

Waterford songwriter Katie Kim, off the back of a Choice nomination for fourth album ‘Salt’, and being a kindred soul for the band musically, is also confirmed for the bill, but the biggest surprise of all is the announcement of Spacemen 3/Spiritualised bassist and writer extraordinaire Will Carruthers in a supporting role, also. This, of course, is fresh off his autobiography last year, and a massive crowd-funding campaign for his healthcare bills. An unusual hookup for the band to say, the least. How it happened wasn’t, so much. “I met Will at a roast dinner party in Berlin (laughs).”

The band have also been busy on various side-projects: Morning Veils, one of vocalist Elaine Howley’s side-projects, recently turned up on one of Limerick skratchology don Naive Ted‘s new E.P.s, providing vocals, sounds and other noises for ‘Go Home To Your Wives’. In Howley’s absence, MacGabhann lays out the process to the best of his knowledge. “I think they went into the studio together a couple of months ago, and just went for it. I love that track… and all of Ted’s work. Big fan.” Likewise, bassist Paddy Cullen has also begun experimenting with electronic music in recent times, following a longtime engagement with drone/noise. “Patrick has always had a keen ear for electronics and over the years has used it more and more in our group. Since the early days, we were heavily involved in the 24-hour drone parties and stuff like that (in Cork). He uses electric shavers and vibrators and other trinkets on his bass & FX…I love it.”

The gig goes down at the Jazz Festival, the absolute busiest time of the year for music in Cork, where the city is teeming with casual revellers and music fans alike for hundreds of gigs in dozens of city-centre venues. MacGabhann has his highlight for the Jazz Weekend in mind already. “The Bonk (psych-rockers) & (improv jazzers) Fixity are playing the same night as us and I’m hoping we can make it down after our show. It’s a late show.” With a milestone like St. Luke’s approaching, the band already have their next few steps planned out, and while MacGabhann keeps his cards close to his chest, it’s looking like a busy few months for the Altered Hours camp. “We are recording at the moment… it might turn into an album. The next EP is enroute, along with full tour dates. And ‘1000 Years’ will see the light of day sometime soon also.”

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.”

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.”

The Bonk: Back to the Primitive

Eschewing finely-honed songwriting for propulsive rhythm and improvisation, The Bonk are a rising quantity in Cork music. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with bandleader Phil Christie.

Since emerging in the last two years, The Bonk have become a lesser-spotted, highly sought-after musical animal, with the emphasis of creative head and Waterford man Phil Christie, also of O Emperor, focused firmly on new adventures in composition & creation. “So far, the project has been based around my curiosity about writing more rhythmically than I am used to. I got very interested in swung rhythms, repetition and improvisation. A lot of the songs/recordings are based around different iterations of those kinds of ideas.”

The process of Christie and collaborators’ jams is much the same live as it is in studio, leading with feel and instinct rather than any fine-honed sense of melody or songwriting largesse. “Most of the tracks that we have recorded so far have been approached as live performances. We’ve tried to develop a fairly strict non-thinking atmosphere while doing it, which has meant that the whole process has been quite enjoyable so far. Usually the instrumental tracks are laid down together as a group, and vocals are added later.”

This heads-down, no-nonsense nature is a contrast to Christie’s other parish, as he finds himself very much at the centre of activity regards composition and performance, calling the shots and leading the project in a profoundly more improvisational direction. “The main difference would probably be in the nature of the composition process. With O Emperor, ideas would usually take shape through collaborative jamming and part-writing. There would be more emphasis on specific arrangements. The Bonk tends to use more limited structures and to explore improvisation in developing these basic ideas.”

This approach to creation and performance has seen the band slowly begin gigging more around town lately – Sudden Club Weekender at the Kino last year being a notable occasion. How was that and how do you reckon the Cork scene will be without Cork promo outfit Southern Hospitality Board for the foreseeable? “We really enjoyed playing that night. That was the first time we had played through our whole set and we were opening up for Altered Hours, which was great fun. Southern Hospitality Board have been really great for music around the city since they started up. They’ve set a very strong precedent for approaching live music in a really interesting way in Cork. We were very chuffed to take part in Quarter Block Party last year and were very well looked after by Aisling and Caoilian. I would hope that more people will be inclined to follow their example now but I do look forward to their next venture.”

The band has begun releasing singles in a slow but steady fashion, with second single Monologue seeing the light of day in March. Christie explains the plan of action is down to growing on the live reputation they’ve accrued. “So far, we’ve been pretty low-key in what we’re doing, so I guess it’s mostly the people who have seen us live that will have checked out the track. The release was a quiet affair but we’re quite relieved to finally start getting more of the recordings off of our chests.”

Having reassembled after various delays, the band played Coughlan’s this past month, with support from the solo outlet of band member Patrick Freeman, a long-tenured journeyman of Irish music. “We’d been without our guitarist, Jim Christie for quite a while, so (this gig was) a reunion of sorts for the group. As well as releasing a new track, we tried some new material along with some alternative arrangements of old things, and it was fun. We share a few members with Patrick Freeman’s group who I believe are also set to release some new material very soon. I’ve been playing with Paddy for a long time and it’s always a treat for me to hear his songs in a live context.”

After a slow build, it seems more patience is the answer for The Bonk for the time being. “We’ll be releasing an album later this year and playing more gigs. Still doing the music.”

The Bonk’s latest single, Monologue, is available for download now from the band’s Bandcamp.

The Great Balloon Race: Lifting Off

The Great Balloon Race play Coughlan’s on May 5th, launcing a new album and breaking a near-year-long hiatus. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with guitarist Marcus Gordon.

A quiet fixture of Cork’s progressive and psychedelic live bills since their emergence at the beginning of the decade, The Great Balloon Race have married folk and jazz inflections to the broader church of leftfield musical sensibilities. For guitarist/vocalist Marcus Gordon, the process of settling on a solid line up with which to do so has been a gradual process. “We’ve been knocking around Cork for a good few years now, starting with myself and Jonathan (McNicholas – guitar/vox) playing acoustics, picking up and losing members along the way as bands do. I like to think we’ve a settled lineup now with Dan (Walsh – drums) and Declan (O’Shea – bass) though: they’re quite sound.”

New album Gently, Gently is due for release on May 5th, and is being accompanied by a special release show at Coughlan’s, with support from Wirral/Cork troubadour Laurie Shaw. Having been sat on for an extended period of time before its release, Gordon’s memory has lapsed on the matter somewhat, painting the picture of its creation in broad strokes. “It was quite some time ago now, but I remember it going pretty smoothly. We knew the songs well going in, and we tracked the majority of it in a five day block session.”

The album is a follow-up to their debut full-length, 2012’s Cardboard. With years and a few extended live excursions under their belt between recordings, the process of recording was a lot different, going into it. “With Cardboard, I remember being much more inexperienced about the recording process and the specific headspace you have to be in. The songs were not as fully formed going in, and Dan had just joined a very short time before, so it all took a good bit longer to get down. I’m proud of how it all turned out in the end. We had things a lot more worked-out going in this time, and even though the songs still got changed and refined quite a bit, it was generally a more streamlined process. Declan had recently joined, but we’d already played a few shows, and he’s a stone cold professional, so it wasn’t any bother to him.”

The album releases on cassette via KantCope, a Cork-based record label specialising in the sonically interesting run by Leeside psychedelia stalwart Roslyn Steer, and releasing exclusively on tape and in digital formats. Gordon is wry about the hype for retro releases. “Tape was the new vinyl, and then it was the old CD, and then vinyl was the new CD, but now tape is the new vinyl so it was the natural choice for us in this chaotic digital age. KantCope understands this so it’s worked out well. Download codes included in every cassette!”

The label itself is home to some wonderful music. Among artists in its still-short catalogue are Steer herself, three-piece doom-folk outfit Morning Veils, Walsh’s solo jazz project Fixity and Sky, Horse & Death, the paranormal-inspired project of Altered Hours man Kevin Terry. A hefty document of weird music in the area, but a neat fit for the future of the band. “As long as we can produce music worthy of a place amongst our labelmates, and as long as they can stay on top in the format wars, we can hope. But who knows – the future is murky and terrifying.”

The band is part of an ever-expanding clutch of proprietors of psychey, jazzy, dreaminess in Cork City, many of whom have become battle-tested veterans at this juncture. Gordon is encouraged and even drived on by this longevity. “Many bands that started around the same time as us are still going strong and there have been many more younger, more attractive bands founded since which is always great to see. It can be disheartening to see a lot of the venues we used to play closing down for various reasons, but as long the people hold the weird shit in their hearts we’ll be fine.”

As stated earlier, the band play Coughlan’s of Douglas Street, on May 5th, the release day for the record. Releasing at the end of a long period of inaction, it seems as though the lads are ready to pick up where they left off. “I’m just really happy to playing with this band again. The last show we played was Body & Soul last year, so we’re ready to go. If you come down to the show on the 5th, you can forget about having a face after, is all I’m saying.”

Of course, the long-ball game is always a discussion for bands with an album freshly out of the way, especially to stay a few steps ahead while working on the independent level. Gordon is already thinking about it. “I say again that the future is murky and terrifying, but maybe we’ll get around to recording another one there in a bit – we have the material already, I think.”

The Great Balloon Race play Coughlan’s on May 5th, with Laurie Shaw in support. Tickets €10, available from New album Gently, Gently releases on cassette and download via KantCope on the same day.