The Shaker Hymn: “There’s No Redoing Things”

New single ‘Dead Trees’ sees Corkonian poppers The Shaker Hymn in hollering, apocalyptic form. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with vocalist Caoilian Sherlock about the process behind the band’s upcoming third album.

It’s one of those odd things, independent music: for a wide umbrella of music that prides itself on creative freedom and cultural autonomy in order to help progress the overall artistic discourse, there’s also no shortage of revivalists of various stripes, putting a new lease of life into previously well-worn sonic tropes. It’s been hard in the past to look at Corkonian psych-poppers The Shaker Hymn and not get some degree of the warm-and-fuzzies: emerging from teenage adventures in the folk and alternative genres, second album ‘Do You Think You’re Clever?’, self-released last year veered wildly into tape-hiss, big sounds and the kind of vocal harmonies the like of Supergrass would have been envious of at the outset of Britpop. It was a mix that intrigued a lot of people, and preceded a furious touring schedule in small towns and small venues all over the country, before the band took a breather to try other things and collect their thoughts before readying another salvo of new material.

In that context, then, the band’s new single, ‘Dead Trees’, is something of a surprise: though the hard-won authenticity of fuzz and hiss is granted permanence via recording directly to analogue tape for the first time, it’s something of a beast of its own. Vocalist/guitarist Caoilian Sherlock, a naturally happy-go-lucky fellow, drops the youthful distrust of the band’s post-Millennial fug in favour of fire-and-brimstone doomsaying, warning of an uncertain future, in direct contrast to his fine fettle as we meet at L’Attitude on Cork’s Union Quay for a natter. Sherlock is relaxed about the response the single has met with at the band’s gigs so far this winter, a return to live activity that foreshadows an upcoming third album. “It’s been good. I forgot what it was like to do gigs. We hadn’t performed in about a year, except for one gig in Belgium where we tested out all our new songs. It’s nice. The songs are different. It seems boring to other people, but they’re longer. I guess we’ve given up the idea of trying to impress anyone else, I think. When you’re a bit younger, you try and write something to get in the charts, or something. We’ve been doing that since we were sixteen. We’re twenty-eight, twenty-nine, now. The point of us being in a band to give us that expression that comes from being together, so there’s less rules and a lot more of a democratic process going on between the four of us. The intention is to make the most exciting thing we can.”

The process of creating music for record is obviously far different now than it would have been in the days of the band’s broader influences, and in trying to put down a document of where they are at present, the outfit have opted to keep recording their third album on tape, in order to instill the same sense of urgency, immediacy, and the finality of limited takes into their tunes. “Music nerds will be like, ‘oh, how exciting!’, but for those that don’t really care about the music recording process: we’ll be recording to tape, like they did up until the late Eighties, early Nineties. It means everything has to be done live. That’s exciting for us, ’cause it’s a different process, there’s no sitting at the computer and redoing things. If you sound good or bad on the day, it doesn’t matter: that’s what happened, and that’s really exciting for us. We recorded two albums in three years and before that tonnes of EPs, so the recording process can get a bit flavourless, so for us, this is a bit of spice,” smiles Sherlock.

‘Dead Trees’ itself touches on some fairly hefty business, shifting creative focus from bon-vivant appraisals of the maladies of twenty-somethings in the binds of austerity and ladder-pulling, like in previous single ‘Trophy Child’, to altogether broader subject matter as mentioned at the outset of this piece. The question is: what prompted this turn for the thematically heavy? “’Trophy Child’ was on our last album, and I couldn’t help but write about things that were going on around me. All my friends were going away to the UK, leaving Cork to go to Dublin, go to Australia and New Zealand, coming back, then going to South East Asia… much of that album was about that lost kind of feeling, not that I was lost staying in Cork, but a lot of people around me were having the conversation of not knowing where to go. So a lot of the songs were about that. This time around I wanted to write from a more thematic point of view, as much as I could, but not so personal, more universal. So, I was doing a lot more travelling, as this album began to be written. I got to go to Iceland and LA, and other places I’d never seen, new landscapes, so I wanted to write something about nature, and the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t not write about the world after Trump, and Brexit. There was a heavy feeling at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, so there’s a lot of that on this new album. There’s also a lot of joy and excitement, and a feeling of ‘ooh, what’s gonna happen next?’”

The band’s recent downtime allowed Sherlock to spread his wings on a solo basis as Saint Caoilian, releasing his debut one-man effort, ‘The Faraway’, earlier in the year. Away from a shared creative process, Sherlock’s tendencies toward lovelorn pop, bearing the hallmark of power-pop pioneers like Big Star, are writ large all over leadoff single ‘I’ll Be a Fool For You’. It led to a massively busy summer of gigs, both in support of his own record and of fellow Corkonian troubadour Marlene Enright, and with the ball rolling on the endeavour, there’s little stopping him from continuing his path inbetween bursts of band activity. “I’m recording another EP this December! It’s funny, the reason Saint Caoilian came about was because I had about fifty demos at home. They weren’t going anywhere, and they weren’t necessarily Shaker Hymn songs. On top of that, I’ve been in this band since I was sixteen, you can’t expect three other people to travel all the time, can’t expect them to drop everything because you’re anxious about your life. I wanted to travel for the summer, so I recorded an EP that gave me an excuse to do just that. The process of the Shaker Hymn will take another year or so, but with Saint Caoilian, I can do everything in a week or two, book some dates.”

Sherlock’s tour of duty over the winter also extends to festival management of one of Cork’s most important festivals, Quarter Block Party, transpiring this year from February 2-4th along the city’s historic spine. Among the first wave of acts announced so far for the Main Street community extravaganza are comedienne Alison Spittle, fresh off her new work with RTÉ, and Waterford post-punks Percolator, returning to the city after launching recent LP ‘Sestra’ on Cork-based label Penske Recordings. Rolling out more announcements, fundraising & organising for the event itself will occupy Sherlock’s entire remaining free time for the winter, and he’ll not be able to raise his head above the parapet much. “Between here and Quarter Block Party, I can’t see much further than that. Keep the head down over the Christmas, then Quarter Block Party on the first weekend of February. After that, maybe sleep for about a hundred years?”

The Shaker Hymn’s new single ‘Dead Trees’ and Saint Caoilian’s extended-player ‘The Faraway’ are both available now across all digital services. Quarter Block Party tickets are onsale now, more info and lineup updates at quarterblockparty.com.

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 uticket.ie) 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 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 coughlans.ie. New album Gently, Gently releases on cassette and download via KantCope on the same day.