Robocobra Quartet: “Violent, Dissonant Noises”

Belfast spoken-word/jazz/hardcore fusionists Robocobra Quartet have been blazing a trail over the past few years. With their second album on the way, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with bandleader Chris Ryan about experimentation, extremity and a filling station on the M6.

For artists, comparisons and references to admired figures can arguably create more trepidation than motivation. Once a revered name is uttered and invoked in connection with an upcoming band, it’s stuck in press releases, rehashed by gig promoters over social media, and used as an easy point of reference for journos and DJs with the luxury of a few minutes’ research ahead of features. Your writer has the unfortunate honour of laying this burden on Belfast outfit Robocobra Quartet. While not, in fact, a quartet, but an assembly of musicians available on a given night, this constant shifting of sonic tectonics merely adds to the band’s unpredictability, a jarring and exciting racket that spurred your scribe to refer to them, in passing, as ‘Fugazi meets Charles Mingus’ for a UK publication a number of years back. Second album “Plays Hard to Get” is due on vinyl and digital formats in May, and as we get settled into a chat, the well-mannered and decidedly chipper Chris Ryan, speechifying drummer and bandleader, relates, with a wry smile, how this designation followed them as far as college radio in the United States while on tour there.

But while it is exceptionally hard to not draw comparisons to sonic trailblazers past while pondering the angular, aggro jazz of Robocobra, the same seeming fluidity that applies to their musical broadsides extended across the range of their creative and production processes of their upcoming full-length. “There was definitely a much more blurred line between writing and recording on this one. Any time you commit something to recording, it always comes out a little different than imagined. In producing it, I wanted to respond to those changes and improvise just as much in the mixing & editing as the actual performing. When you leave things malleable, it allows for the musicians to respond strongly and take ownership over their performances.” Material that’s aired in the run-up to the new record’s release has seen the band extend its range and explore the weird Venn diagram of sounds and textures available to them, especially in terms of jazz instrumentation and arrangement. “That’s interesting, I think the album is just much more extreme in all directions. It has some of our most ‘jazz’ material, but also parts that are certifiably metal as all hell! It has some of the most gentle performances we’ve done but also some of the most dissonant violent noises we’ve ever made. Just a wider emotional-dynamic-range I guess.”

Themes of alienation, trepidation, etc. are holdovers from the band’s first record, the wonderfully-monikered ‘Music for All Occasions’, however – modernity in all its pettiness, distance and squalor is put through the filter of Ryan’s personality, experiences and spat-out verbiage throughout. While social commentary is no doubt at the heart of Robocobra Quartet’s music, the vitriol with which themes and concepts are thrown at the listener are from that certain place. “I find that I tend to get the most negative or dismal parts of my personality out through the lyrics, which kind of ‘cleanses’ me for real-life interactions, where I tend to be generally happy and polite. It’s hard to think about how something looks or feels when you’re in it, and even though the album is mastered and off to the vinyl plant, I still feel very much “in it”. Ask me again in about a year and maybe I’ll have a more eloquent response!” With ‘Music for All Occasions’ now firmly in the rear-view mirror for Ryan and associates, the conversation turns briefly to how he feels about the album now that he’s had some time to live with the finished product. Staying true to form and reflecting the band’s forward-looking nature, however, Ryan is eager to relate his experience with creating it to the grand vision he has for the new platter. “We definitely did that one a lot quicker than this record. There’s more of a simplicity to Music For All Occasions, but this album is much more layered. Some of my favourite albums offer you new things to hear with each listen, even after years. There’s a lot of the orchestration on this album that is somewhat buried, or momentary, to offer that kind of effect. There are drum machines, and string sections, and voices all over the place that are only really audible on headphones. Jeez… some mix engineer, eh?” (laughs).

The state of independent, experimental and otherwise ‘difficult’ music all over the island is one of rude health, across the genre spectrum. Hailing from a vital and busy Belfast scene that has carved a new identity for itself in recent years with precision post-punk and fearless experimentation, Ryan has a more nuanced take on the current upswing in noises and the people making them. “There are people doing beautiful things of their own volition all over the place, at all times. It’s usually the work of individuals with a will to make cool things, so I think it’s better to prop up those individuals, than thank the collective consciousness, which I think doesn’t really exist. Everything is in waves though, and I think even when things look terrible there are still people out there working hard and expressing themselves, always.” Off the back of the release of the new record, the band is touring the mainland UK and the continent throughout the summer, building on a live reputation that sees them neatly skewer the live demographics between the regular gig-going scene for noisy rock and the fringes of jazz festival infrastructure. Ryan is quite specific about his thoughts heading into the fray, traversing the line between sincerity and irony in fitting fashion. “There’s a really pretty petrol station in the north of England called Tebay Services on the M6 that is a little like paradise. That will be nice, especially in June which is when we’re on the UK leg. There are also a few venues/promoters that we’ve worked with a few times before so it will be nice to say hello again and see how they’ve grown and changed. We’re just dipping our toes into mainland Europe at the moment, but I’m told there’s more stuff coming up towards the end of the year which should be nice. They seem to pay us a lot of money in Europe and are extremely attentive audience members, so hoping for more of that.”

Robocobra Quartet’s new album, ‘Plays Hard to Get’, is available for preorder now from robocobraquartet.bandcamp.com in vinyl and digital formats.

Autonomads: “Write About It, Document It”

Ahead of a headline show in Fred Zeppelin’s next week, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with Porl, drummer from Manchester anarcho-punks Autonomads.

Living by a strict code of do-it-yourself ethics is constantly getting harder for musicians. The net is tightening on independent labels and artists in light of the ongoing changeover in habits to paid streaming, and questions of how the money trickles down persist. Meanwhile, city centres are changing all over Europe, and gentrification has seen to multiple city centres’ DIY spaces. Against all of this in the back, Mancunian dub/ska punks Autonomads continue to plough their own furrow, with fourth record ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ releasing in February of this year via the Ruin Nation label. Drummer Porl talks about how it came together. “We wrote the songs for this record over the year or so before recording, with a couple of the tunes only really coming together just before we went in to the studio. We recorded most of it over two days in the Lake District, about a year before it was released. We used the same engineer as our last album, ‘One Day This Will All Be Gone’. The house belongs to our mate, she let us have free run of the place, so had cables trailing around the house, micing up guitar cabs in cupboards. We built a ‘vocal booth’ out of some mattresses that were lying about. If you listen closely you can hear the sound of the fire crackling on ‘Babylon Rock’. It was all pretty relaxed, and easier doing it away from a professional studio where time is money and it can feel a bit clinical.”

The band is currently dealing with being split between three cities, and working away on other musical projects at the same time. Touring and releases stay co-ordinated and organised, but with the effort of the whole band, staying connected while occupying different roles. “Once upon a time, most of us lived together, so booking a gig was as easy as walking around the house and knocking on a few doors. These days it’s WhatsApp and emails! On the surface it might appear organised, but most of the time it’s like a pan of spaghetti on the back burner (laughs). I do most of the booking and gig listings, Eliot handles the orders. We all feed ideas in and meet up when we can. Usually about an hour before we play a gig! The plan is to meet up for a few days at a time at a mate’s pub, and practice on blocks like that. Being in Bristol, Manchester, Windermere, Stratford and having other projects takes some juggling, but it happens because we all want it, I guess. If we weren’t all best mates it would be hard!”

Aside from a 7″ release of the EP, ‘All Quiet…’ is also finding its way out on tape this summer – what’s the continued appeal of a tape pressing now that the novelty factor of the tape revival is all but done away with? “A label from Manchester called Prejudice Me are taking it on, along with an American label, No Time Records, and Hamburg’s Uga Uga tapes. All people we’ve met over the years. I guess it’s another format that people still like, still collect, et cetera.”

Leadoff digital single ‘All Roads Lead to Hulme’ sets the tone for the record, an impassioned response to gentrification in their hometown and the cultural changes wrought by ongoing property speculation and poorly considered urban regeneration programmes. “The photo on (the front cover of the 7”) was taken by (band member) Iain. Hulme, Manchester. Hulme is significant for the travellers, squatters and wrong’uns. The development of this area was the focus of most the record, and the high rent prices & new builds are forcing people to move on.” It’s easy to draw comparisons to what’s happening here in Cork, with arts centres being cleared out of the city centre for offices and a Celtic Tiger-style property bubble pricing longtime city-dwellers out of their homes and communities. Porl has advice for artists, activists and workers dealing with displacement in the wake of gentrification. “Write about it, document it, it’s a people’s history that needs telling. Future generations can end up standing in the shadow of these buildings and developments, alienated from their environment and not knowing the history of an area. Hulme has always been home to the punks, hippies, crusties and anarcho types, and with that comes a creative and diverse force. The tide of gentrification that attempts to wash this away can leave people feeling alienated, and it’s important to tell these stories, resist high rents, squat and occupy space.”

Political music is everywhere, and more accessible than ever thanks to streaming. And yet, whether through a growing concentration of media ownership and interests, or a lack of curatorship on the part of streaming services, there’s a dearth of social/political music in the ‘mainstream’ or even relatively broad musical conversation. It’s a tough one to discuss without the threat of co-option, as Porl posits. “Do we want our music and that of our community co-opted by the same machine we’re singing against? So many bands with integrity and a voice enter the mainstream and get their art watered down into a pallid and consumable gruel, with nothing but the image of ‘social conscience’ left. An image that is sold back to us at too high a price, even though it was one that we all helped to create with love, hope and hard work. It’s very hard to penetrate the media sheen and come out smelling of roses. The mainstream music industry is a charade. You get into the magazines and the radio shows and TV by paying an agent to pay the agents of such institutions. All the romance and beauty of this industry that we believe as kids getting in to it is false. The reason so very few bands with integrity and a message reach the dizzy heights of the NME and Radio 1 is because they aren’t prepared to pay.”

Autonomads heading for Ireland in the next few weeks with tour support from solo side-project Captain Hotknives, and local support from alt-rock-informed punk rockers Audible Joes. It’s new territory for the band, but they’re ready to take on the red room upstairs on Parliament Street on the 10th. “We’re all really looking forward to coming to Ireland, as none of us have been before, and we have heard lots of great things!” It’s the relative calm before a storm of festival dates and touring for the record, suitably chaotic amid the rest of their lives. “We’ve got a few gigs dotted about in the UK. Manchester, Kelburn Garden Party, Swinefest and some others, then we’re off to Germany for a few festivals in July. Fire and Flames – a good anti-fascist crew putting this together. Then in September, we’re going to the Netherlands, Belgium and about again… between all of this, we are fitting in other tours and working precarious jobs to fund it all (laughs). We’ve all maintained pretty flexible jobs in order to carry on doing music. It can be tricky, but it means our creative stuff can keep its integrity and not be about the dosh!”

‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ is streaming and available for download at autonomads.bandcamp.com

Hope is Noise: “It’s a Simple Philosophy for Us”

From humble roots as a secondary-school jam band in Ballincollig, Co. Cork to features in UK media and EU/US touring, alt-rock/post-hardcore four-piece Hope is Noise are often slept on when the conversation of veteran Irish acts emerges. Five full-lengths and two decades in, the band maintains somewhat of a godfather status in the city by the Lee, marked by their enduring passion for creating a racket, and their similarly endless support for the local scene. Premiering this Thursday at IndieCork Film Festival, ‘Head in the Clouds: The Hope is Noise Story’ charts their course over the past twenty years, unfolding a story of friendship, patience and loyalty.

According to vocalist/guitarist Dan Breen, the secret to keeping patience with one another for that long is relatively uncomplicated. “Well, it would be a lie to say that we have never got pissed off with each other over the last 20 years but it has never reached the epic levels of hatred you hear about in other bands. In my opinion most bands usually break up because of one, or a combination of three things: money, addiction, egos. We’ve never made enough money or enjoyed worldwide acclaim as a band for any of those to become an issue (laughs). But really it’s a simple philosophy for us, as long as we still love writing and performing the songs we’ve written, Hope is Noise will stay together. The balancing of band and personal lives is also something we’ve been lucky enough to be able to make work too. As long as we can meet up once a week to practice, there will always be Hope is Noise. Y’know, it’s funny that it was being friends that initially brought the band together but it’s been the band that has been so important in keeping us friends.”

‘Head in the Clouds’ sees the band, for the first time, taken through the archives for a look at Hope is Noise to date – ample archive video, photography and posters help illustrate the band’s story alongside new interviews. Breen reflects on having these kinds of milestones to hit in the first place. “It’s hard to believe its been twenty years since we first started jamming in my bedroom. The neighbours were pretty understanding but I think we did put a crack in the ceiling of the kitchen below us with all the noise, and bouncing around going on. To be honest, to have made it this long is really testament to our perseverance. There was plenty of occasions where we should have just thrown in the towel and stopped playing, like after the Sunbeam fire in 2003 (wherein an entire newly-built rehearsal space on the city’s northside burned down). However when Hope is Noise started in 2005, it felt we had finally stumbled onto something good. Since then we’ve been Hope is Noise, for better or worse. Personally, playing music with my best friends for over twenty years has been an amazing privilege so having this documentary is a really cool way to mark this.”

Such a trawl through the years must obviously come with burdens of proof for certain stories, the reopening of old wounds, and so on, with the process and storytelling serving as motivation to gut through it. What was Breen’s favourite aspect, if any, of the production of the documentary? “Firstly, it has to be working with the young lads from Gobstar Film. Over the last two years, they have produced, directed, edited as well as cajole four lazy lads in front of a camera and get us to talk about stuff we had long forgotten. They were big fans of the band and it was this that inspired them to come on-board and make the documentary. It’s amazing what they achieved with no budget and a simple story. We had a great laugh working with them, though they should probably get community service medals for working with OAPs (laughs). Secondly, looking at the old film footage was cool too. Actually, what shocked me the most during the production was how little video footage we had. If I could go back in time, I would have definitely recorded and cataloged way more but you never think about those things as you’re going through it. We were able to locate about 10 hours of old band footage as well as photos, posters etc and combined this many hours of interviews to make a short 35 minute documentary. It’s a credit to Ger and Jim that we got it over the line. To be honest, we were conscious throughout the making of the documentary that we didn’t want it to appear like a vanity project, and we were well aware that we didn’t really have the usual ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ backstory you find in the typical music documentaries, so if the project has just ended up on my computer, serving as nothing more than a nice trip down memory lane then that would have been that. Thankfully, the lads found a story in all our ramblings and meagre digital footprint that they wanted to show to the public. Hopefully, it won’t be our Some Kind of Monster (laughs).”

Last year’s ‘Demons’ album saw the band tackle their personal dramas and thoughts on life in broader terms, including mortality, friendship and politics, and it made for the band’s most relatable record yet. Breen gets into how the record was made, and the driving force behind the next act in the Hope is Noise story. “With everything we’d recorded previously, I always think there’s roughly a million things I would change, but this record only has about one thousand (laughs). This was the first record we produced fully by ourselves, so of course, there are things we would have done differently with hindsight, but overall, we’re very proud of it. The songs on this album fit very well into our live set, and we really enjoy playing them. The album has bittersweet memories for us as it was the last thing we got to record with our long-term engineer, producer and friend, Lawrence White who sadly died about a year ago. I had already discussed the next album with him and plans were afoot about how we could record it better and more efficiently. His death really threw us for six as he was meant to be an important part of the band’s foreseeable future, but his death has also re-affirmed our desire to keep playing music for as long as we can.”

The band will be accompanying the screening of the documentary with a live gig at the Poor Relation in Cork this Thursday. A good time, then, to get Breen’s thoughts on a newly-established centre of off-kilter gigging in town. “This will be our first time playing there, so we’re really excited about that. The Poor Relation has been putting on gigs for a good while now and seem to be willing to put on more alternative and heavier ones which is always a bonus. The place is laid out in a way that reminds me of the Quad when the main bar and stage are in the same room, open-plan style. The stage looks pretty big too compared to other ones we’ve played in the past. We hope the gig goes well and that we will get to play many more there in the future.”

The band is featured prominently on the programme for the IndieCork festival this year, an important outlet for independent culture of all kinds in the city, now heading into its fifth year, co-ordinated by local arts veterans and maintained by a year-round community effort. Breen talks about the importance of Indie to the city. “Over the last six months we were wondering what we would do with the documentary when it was done. Thankfully, IndieCork gave us the chance to launch it and get it out there. I think its important that events like IndieCork continue to be organised and supported because they give a rare opportunity and platform for independent artists to showcase what they do. A similar platform should be done for independent music in the city but you would certainly need the right sponsors and organisers like they have for IndieCork. We are thrilled to be part of the festival this year and looking forward to the night and hopefully future collaborations with the event and other participants.”There is lots of talk at present about the gig/venue situation at present in Cork, which is starting to get a little better with the re-opening of PLUGD as an overall event space and venues like The Poor Relation and the Village Hall, but is still reeling from years of venue closures and retoolings. Breen gets into his feelings on the matter, and the changes that have occurred. “The closure of so many venues in Cork is really just another sign of the times. Over the last decade or so, there has been a slow accumulation of changes in the music industry that had led us to where we are. You just have to look at how, in response to the modern ways of consuming music, record companies, radio stations and promoters now package music and events. They do it to reach the widest audiences, which sadly leaves little room for ‘old-fashioned’ Cork DIY bands like us to play regularly.

”I read a newspaper article a few months back about the demise of guitar bands and the venues that would normally have profited from their popularity. Basically the long-held dominance of guitar-orientated music is in danger of becoming a niche musical genre like Jazz. The closing down of so many once prominent venues in the city is the simply the result of less people going to see local original guitar bands. Most venues and bars gear everything towards the more palpable types of acts like covers band, singer-songwriters, trad, DJs etc. Fewer places want the hassle of putting up with the racket we make. To me, the biggest result of the loss of so many venues is that there is now a distinct lack of international touring bands passing through Cork. Sure, there have been tons of big acts filling the Marquee, and other big venues, but acts that would have played venues like Sir Henry’s, Nancy Spain’s, the Savoy, the Half-Moon and the Pavilion are no longer playing here. Pat and I went to Galway to see Shellac two weeks ago, scratching our heads as to why they hadn’t been brought to Cork. The knock-on effect is that local bands are denied the opportunity to play with these bigger bands, to play to new audiences and improve their stagecraft.

”There is no really infrastructure in place here anymore for touring bands of modest size/success to make coming to Cork worth their time. All the money and effort seems to be going to cater for the bigger more financially secure acts. You can have all the convention centres you want in Cork but the loss of the city’s small and medium sized venues will have a larger impact on the local scene. I know for us it is certainly harder now to get gigs, find support bands and encourage people to attend, so we have to limit the amount of times you play Cork and make every gig counts so people may be more inclined to come back (laughs). What’s happening in Cork is indicative of what’s happening throughout the entire Irish DIY scene in general, connections that were in place over the last 15 years have fallen away as record labels finished, venues closed and promoters/bands gave up. I hope we’re in a period of transition waiting for new blood to re-energise the scene. I would agree that there have been signs of improvement lately. Along with venues like Fredz and the Crane Lane, that still give bands like us an outlet, new venues like the Poor Relation and El Fenix, and the really active metal scene with cool young bands and promoters point to signs of rejuvenation, but sadly I don’t think it will ever get back to the way it was.”

What next for Hope is Noise? “Very simple, keep writing songs and get to the studio in the coming months to record the fifth album and keep playing gigs. We are definitely not going anywhere soon (touch wood)!”

Irish Indie Label Day: “Just Getting Off Your Arse and Doing Anything is Worthy of Support”

This coming Saturday, October 14th has officially been declared Irish Indie Label Day in Ireland by a coalition of independent and DIY record labels dotted around the country. An initiative kicked off by Cork’s Penske Recordings and Sligo-based Art for Blind label, it entails a day-long record fair in Whelan’s in Dublin, featuring over a dozen indie imprints’ stalls, zines, and a special gig later in the evening to mark the occasion. For Art for Blind man Dany Guest, it’s the realisation of a long-held concept. “The idea has been floating around my head for a while, and is something me and Edel (Doherty, AFB label partner) have discussed at length over the last few years, having seen the success of things like the Indie Label Market in London. We decided to ask Penske to be involved because we know Albert so well and know he is totally on our wavelength and has been a big supporter of what we do since before we even landed in Ireland. To me the big thing that differentiates it from similar initiatives is that to us the community, integration and social aspects of the event are of equal importance to us as the commercial goal of flogging records and merch.”

Contrary to the idea of the death of the traditional record label model, a very wide spread of labels exists around the country in a number of genres, each facilitating and creating the bottom line for the development of their genre/community. Among the other labels listed alone for this event include: Little Gem (Dublin), Touch Sensitive (Belfast), Deserted Village (Galway), Lunar Disko (Dublin), Distro-y (Sligo), Box Emissions (Cork), Fort Evil Fruit (Cork), Sofia (Leitrim), Bluestack (Sligo), Rusted Rail (Galway), and Rudimentary (Belfast). Albert Twomey, founder of Penske Recordings and former hassler at Plugd Records, speaks on the process of outreach. “We contacted labels that we liked to start with & fleshed out the field as we figured everything out. There were some labels that were not interested/ available to attend & we may have missed out on others but this is all part of a learning curve I guess. Other labels/creatives have been in touch once they heard there was an opportunity to represent. There is still an opportunity for folks to get involved by contacting artforblind@gmail.com.”

Whelan’s is obviously an epicentre of music in Ireland and one that famously deals with a lot of bigger names coming through the doors – Twomey is quick to divulge if they have any hand in what went into the event at all, and what their involvement means to the enterprise. “Whelan’s were very open to getting involved from the start. It is great that we have access to the upstairs area from mid afternoon to the early hours. Not many venues would be able to facilitate a market & event for various reasons. Darren & Dave from Whelan’s have been incredibly helpful. It became evident that Dublin would be the best place to host the market/event but we do hope to replicate it in other Irish cities if everything runs smoothly & venues/labels are interested.”

As mentioned, the festival exists to shine a light on independent labels in the country in 2017, as well as highlight the challenges they face. As mentioned, Twomey runs Penske Recordings, home to The Jimmy Cake, Percolator, and Dan Walsh’s Fixity, and one imagines even with the weight of distributors Cargo behind him, that it’s still a tough game without a big PR presence. What challenges does an indie label like Penske face on the daily? “It can be a struggle, even with the support of an international distro like Cargo. They also take care of the Penske digital catalogue, and my sales rep there has been incredibly helpful. Plugd did lots of business with them, and I reckon they have the best reach and labels on their books: Constellation, Rocket Recordings, Hyperdub, etc. I guess the increasing cost of getting a record recorded, pressed & promoted are the principal challenges for Penske. Building up relationships with record store folks and distros is the easy part, even if I have the reputation of being a cranky-pants.”

As well as labels on the ground, there’ll also be zinemakers and booksellers, occupying an important space in-between slabs of wax at the fair. Rusted Rail Records man Keith “Keef” Wallace speaks of his delight at this area of DIY culture being considered specifically. “As someone who used to sweat over a hot photocopier making ‘zines at the turn of the century, I’m delighted to see the resurgence of ‘zine culture, a physical expression of something which could have been lost in the digital drowning pool. It’s all part of DIY culture, an alternative form of transmission, and that can only be a good thing to add to the conversation around underground musical culture.”

The challenges for record sales extend out to retail, also, a situation Twomey is only too familiar with via his stint with Plugd, an erstwhile hangout of musicians and creatives in Cork slated to reopen in the coming days in the city’s Roundy gig venue. The realities of peddling vinyl from this standpoint are no easier than getting records on the shelves to begin with. “Selling music can be a very challenging endeavour overall. In fact, Belfast is losing a really great store in Sick Records over the next few days. The cost of rent and rates in major cities has always been really prohibitive for small businesses. There is also lots of competition for the small pool of disposable income available to your target audience. Plugd is lucky to have a solid customer base & a very supportive arts/gig-going community. I am looking forward to getting my hands dirty at the market, to be honest, as I’ve missed the buzz of selling records & engaging face-to-face with customers.”

The post-match gig happens in the venue at 8pm, and boasts a suitably strong line-up. Guest gives us the runthrough on who’s who and their relation to the day’s endeavours. “Well, firstly, Alien She are a three-piece experimental post-punk band from Dublin. Their debut LP, ‘Feeler’ will be out on Art For Blind in November. Gross Net is the weirdo noise solo outlet of Phil Quinn (Girls Names). It’s great to have Gross Net as Art For Blind released a Gross Net cassette a few years back, and his debut LP was released by Touch Sensitive who will be joining us at the market from Belfast. Finally Girlfriend is a fledgling Dublin based garage punk/emo band who we are really looking forward to catching live.”

Shrug Life: “There’s a Small Victory in Articulating Absurdity”

Observers of the mundane, be-moaners of the grind and fond custodians of lo-fi pop propulsion, Dublin trio Shrug Life have been doing the rounds for a few years now, and with 2014 E.P. The Grand Stretch long since committed to the review pages, the long-term project of putting down a full-length has finally come to fruition. Recorded in 2015-2016, the semi-eponymously titled album, sees the band address their mission statement in more detail, marrying a slow seethe at the state of play with some genuinely excellent power-pop. Vocalist/guitarist Danny Carroll provides the context for the band’s complaints regarding modernity.

“Shrug Life is the shared hobby of three man-children from Dublin, and collectively, we started stumbling into song in the summer of 2014. At this time, I was permanently lamenting my spirit-sapping career in the cancellation department of a TV & broadband provider. Keith (bass) was jumping from temp job to temp job and secretly hatching a plan to become a meme-worthy emoji translator, and Josh (drums) was committed to going on the session at every music festival in Ireland. He managed about nine that summer. Thankfully, we’ve been able to tolerate each other since then.”

The band is very obviously influenced by the Irish tradition of power-pop gems, including a love for the Undertones, as well as the lo-fi pop scene in Dublin. Lofi staple Fiachra McCarthy (So Cow, Dott, Squarehead), then, must surely have been the best possible hand at the production tiller. “Fiachra is a good man for reference points. His knowledge of music is encyclopaedic and his love for guitars unending. He’s also a big fan of using a mini-megaphone he bought for a tenner in Tiger, and open to the notion of using a 1watt Fender mini-deluxe for recording guitars. What more could we ask for?”

The band’s focus is heavily set on critiquing the current way of things for young(ish) people and the failings of Irish society, gleaned from their own experiences and the common experiences of our generation in (post-) austerity Ireland. How does one settle on a more, for lack of a better term, light-hearted approach to heavy topics? “There’s a Keith Richards quote I like: “rock n’ roll’s great weapon is humour”. In theory at least, it makes the message easier to listen to. There’s a small victory in articulating the absurdity of Irish society. In the bleak gags and self-deprecation, I’m trying to diminish the power these factors have over my life. Maybe in acknowledging its ridiculousness it becomes that little bit more tolerable.”

A highlight of the record is the joyfully riffy ‘Temp Job’, a koan to the shitty side-jobs that serve as distraction from our own callings and an Elastoplast over the shotgun wound of unemployment. It also showcases the band’s real strength – gentle observations of topics that, while not a tonne of bricks in the short-term, are just as crushing and grinding as the more immediate social concerns. Carroll outlines the creative process and considerations behind the commentary. “Every song tends to demands its own approach. Something consciously political and outwardly focused usually takes a bit more research and reading – it’s less instinctual because you’re trying to distil a bigger, social topic into the confines of a lyric. You start to ask questions of over-simplifying things and the perspectives sacrificed to fit this subject into a song. However, I think with any polticial/social commentary it’s about humanising the impact of the issue. How do macrodecisions affect myself or others on a micro level? “Personal ennui” can also take time to express, but it’s certainly a more navel-gazing process. Those songs have more to do with taking ownership of your own shitty situation or nagging conflicts.”

Pro-choice homily ‘Your Body’ seems more relevant than ever off the back of last week’s March4Choice. Carroll has no issue discussing the obstacles facing the Repeal campaign are now that Leo Varadkar has called for a referendum, including the attempts at tone-setting that official Ireland has already tried to get a start on before the formal date is announced. “If the marriage equality referendum is anything to go by, the next few months could be very difficult – anti-choice campaigning will inevitably rely on scaremongering and distortion of fact. Organisations such as ARC are excellent in helping people consider the facts and myths surrounding this issue. There’s an obvious obstacle in the fence-sitting taken of Varadkar and others, but the March For Choice last week chipped away at my pessimism. It’s funny, we were playing in Galway recently and I was accosted by a 50 something man who waited all gig to tell me my belief was wrong and he’d been about to buy our album but would no longer do so, because of our pro-choice stance. I politely informed him that I would rather express my belief than have his money. That night he messaged us on Facebook to re-iterate “any band that promotes the killing of unborn babies should have been aborted themselves”. Seems like a contradiction in terms there, but that’s just one microcosm of the idiocy we’re up against.”

Considering how irrelevant the idea of the seemingly unending “death” of rock’n’roll is, does even entertaining the argument for it in ‘Japanese Bonus Track’ kind-of validate the kind of tedious rhetoric that the aul’ lads that complain about guitar music being “dead” come out with in lieu of bothering looking for new tunes? Ah, but I love “the aul’ lads”. I’m complicit with and repulsed by the nostalgia surrounding “rock’n’roll”. I make music documentaries for RTE Radio 1, and the first significant one I made was celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Thin Lizzy’s ‘Whiskey In The Jar’. I enjoy the notion that rock n’ roll is permanently dying, or now graduated to the stage of niche old man concern like jazz. The song is also a comment on the endless commodification of this once rebellious concept – be it bloated Beatles reissues for granddad or the overpriced summer festival for junior. All that said, you’re quite right, if you think it’s dead, you’re probably disconnected from what’s happening around you locally. Stop moaning, go to a gig!”

The band is working with Little L for the local release, a prodigiously active label for physical releases in Ireland at this stage, and Seattle-based Jigsaw Records is handling the album’s international release. Carroll outlines the plan from here. “Young Callum Browne is the impresario behind Little L Records. A good friend and guitar nerd. I suppose his contribution boils down to caring about what we do – going to gigs and encouraging the endeavour where most others are indifferent. He’s doing a few tape cassettes for anyone who owns a car made before 1995. And for anyone who owns a car made from ’96 onwards, there’s the compact discs of Seattle’s finest, Jigsaw Records. The latter came about at the suggestion of Tuam tunesmith Brian Kelly (So Cow/Half Forward Line). I asked him for advice when the album was complete and he suggested Jigsaw. Yet again, their optimistic assistance surpasses the embarrassed disinterest of the rest of the world. The plan is to muddle through as we always do… then world domination. Maybe beg Aiken or MCD for a support, get ignored by Hard Working Class Heroes, y’know, the usual.”

The Dublin launch of the record happens on the 20th at the Grand Social, with Limerick’s Slow Riot and local boys Handsome Eric supporting. Coming off Galway and Belfast launches, Carroll is happy to finally be playing the home leg of the album’s launch excursion. “It’s actually these scant few gigs that make the thing real and worthwhile to be honest. We’ve gotten to meet so many pleasant people from different parts of Ireland over the last couple of years, and it’s those connections that justify all the other slog. We’ve wanted to play with Slow Riot for a couple of years now. It was actually a mutual friend of ours, Brian Morrissey, who encouraged Josh (drums) and I to play together in the first place. Handsome Eric is the project of the enviably young, talented Steve O’Dowd and features the aforementioned Callum B on drums. His songs remind me of how I felt at age twenty, but had no capacity to articulate. Suffice to say, we’re hyped to have a party with our friends… you’re all invited.”

Ganglions: “We Might as Well Make a Thing of It”

Melding the smarts of math-rock with a warm but smart-aleccy pop streak, Sheffield/Cork trio Ganglions have come into their own in the past year or so, marking the release of debut EP Fetch! with their maiden Irish excursion, including an appearance at this year’s Quarter Block Party in Cork. This week sees the trio return to Ireland for a string of dates to launch follow-up extended-player Thirsty, including dates in Dublin, Galway and Limerick and a return Leeside engagement.

A few days removed from the main swing of gigs after the band’s appearance at last weekend’s Clonakilty International Guitar Festival, singer/bassist Eimear O’Donovan discusses the creative process behind their new offering. “It was quite a similar process to (writing/recording) Fetch! Generally we write the music first, starting with a guitar riff, and then ideas for lyrics come from somewhere and we put the two together. I guess one way it differed was that we had a bit of experience writing together this time around, so it was a bit quicker and a bit more comfortable. My Wife Won’t Stop Flirting With Me was written entirely by Chris (Saywell) on guitar, Brian (Scally) and I put drums and bass to it and then we recorded the instrumental track. We then sat in Brian’s bedroom/makeshift recording studio and brainstormed lyrics and vocals for a few hours, recording them at about 1 AM when we were happy with what we had. It’s a bit of a risk because you could come back to it with fresh eyes and find out that you hate what you’ve done, but luckily that didn’t happen.”

Releasing digitally via Sheffield collective Audacious Art Experiment, Thirsty also features as the A-side of a double-sided cassette, release with Fetch! rounding out their discography to date on the flip. O’Donovan is enthused about the format’s continued renaissance, and to have the first E.P. appended to their new work. “Tapes are great. They sound different to digital, there’s a different sound quality to it compared to vinyl, or anything else. There’s a real resurgence of tapes as a format in the DIY scene as they’re so cheap and accessible and small and dinky. We would have loved to have done vinyl but cost and time constraints meant it wasn’t possible this time around. We self-released Fetch! on digital only last year, and we always really wanted to do a physical version of that E.P. I personally don’t like physical releases that are only a couple of songs, it seems wasteful. So, doing a tape with 8 tracks on it, it feels like there’s enough music there to make it worth peoples’ whiles. Buy our tape.”

With one foot in the Steel City’s DIY scene, and the other still firmly planted in the Rebel County of O’Donovan and Scally’s sonic upbringing, one could be forgiven for getting the band’s elevator pitch muddled up, especially with the band’s voices sitting over a somewhat different sonic palate than the high-velocity Irish math-rock of recent times. “We usually describe ourselves as Sheffield/Leeds math-pop-rock-punk-something etc., as two of us are based in Sheffield and one in Leeds. Sheffield and Leeds are really close together, only an hour’s drive apart, but both cities have a really distinct DIY music scene. We like to keep the Cork connection though, I’m from Cork city and Brian from, Clonakilty so that’s where our musical education and experience and influence came from initially. I think that’s important to nod to that. Also we can’t really hide our literal Cork accents so might as well make a thing of it.”

Ganglions’ tunes revolve around homelier topics, ranging from the joys of mundanity to pearls of general knowledge, with live favourite Chindogu serving as example. Meanwhile, Thirsty provides commentary on some weighty topics, from the idea of authenticity, to heteronormativity as marketing pitch. O’Donovan gets into the nitty-gritty of subject matter and concept. “We just try not to take ourselves too seriously. We love playing music and playing gigs, and making people nod and dance and smile and laugh. We like to write lyrics collaboratively, where we try to make each other laugh and hit upon the thing that’s warm or silly enough without being too ridiculous. Chindogu, for example, is just a great thing, the Japanese concept of useless inventions.”

Math in Ireland is in an odd place – with exponents like Adebisi Shank and Enemies now in the history books and veterans like And So I Watch You From Afar more active on the world stage, it’s a time of transition for the genre, in which O’Donovan sees much reason to be hopeful. “There seems to still be things happening for math-rock in Ireland – the Fecking Bahamas Ireland compilation was testament to this. You’ve got great bands like The Redneck Manifesto, Yonen, Alarmist, Leo Drezden, so while we can’t really say from a distance whether it’s a cohesive “scene” or whatever, it seems there’s still the interest there at least to some extent. I have huge respect for bookers and promoters who put on and support this kind of music in Ireland, as there’s significant risk attached to promoting something so niche.”

Merch is obviously vital for any independent band’s operation, acting as both promotion and petrol money, but Ganglions’ shirts to date have been adorned with a resting, unsmiling yet seemingly contented visage, peaceful yet pensive. “That illustration is by the very talented and wonderful Jess Thomas. It’s inspired by some of the imagery from Chindogu, the “face splash guard / to keep your shirt neat” lyric. If you look up chindogu on Google image search some very funny images appear of Japanese useless inventions. How could we not write a song about them?”

This week’s whip around the country sees the band accompanied by Dublin instrumental math outfit Chancer for a double-headline tour, kicking off tonight in the Bowery venue. O’Donovan outlines the band’s mindset heading into it. “We are excited and ecstatic to be playing around Ireland! We’ve only played Cork before, and now Clonakilty, so to be playing Dublin, Limerick and Galway for the first time is class. We love Chancer’s music and I’m a big fan of Rachael Boyd’s solo stuff, so we are excited to play many gigs with them.” Their homecoming is merely a pitstop, though, ahead of the next chapter of their onward march, with more releases and touring in the works. “We hope our next release will be on vinyl, and we want to get writing an album quite soon. We’ve played gigs up and down England but want to do a cohesive tour and take in lots of places we’ve not played yet, as well as hopefully making it to Scotland for a few gigs.”

Honeyblood: Honeyed Tones from Scots Duo

Honeyblood vocalist/guitarist Stina Tweeddale chats with Mike McGrath-Bryan about their new album, tour footage, and what lies ahead.

It’s a time of expansion for Scottish punk/pop duo Honeyblood. Sophomore effort Babes Never Die has landed on shelves, with the record’s eponymous leadoff single now doing the rounds. What follows in the coming months will be the band’s biggest tour yet, taking in another circumnavigation of the UK, debut Ireland dates, and gigs in Asia and Australia. Vocalist Stina Tweeddale speaks on her relief in getting the music out there and seeing the response it’s received. “It’s very daunting putting out the second record, so, I’m very glad that Babes Never Die has connected in the way it seems to have done. People get the ideas behind the record and that’s more than I could ever ask for.”

The curse of the difficult second album seems to be no issue here – equally spirited and noisy, it amply shows off the pair’s knack for melody. Tweeddale’s writing process was a lot more defined, and the project benefits from a newfound collaborative songwriting process. “Definitely there was a change… I started demoing more, the tracks were coming together with sounds and basslines which didn’t happen with the first record. And of course, Cat is now here to collaborate with me (on drums) which makes all the difference. I guess with this one I had a bit more of a clue of how to go about making an album.”

Taking in the sights and sounds of the band’s touring activity over the past year or so, the video for the Babes Never Die single was constructed entirely from found footage and photography. “This video could not have been made without the help of our fans who filmed and were part of it. It was made over three months of touring the US and UK and also includes a lot of footage that Cat and I filmed ourselves. It’s really just the reality of what our tours are like.”

Touring as a two-piece – how might it differ from heading out with four, five people, in terms of keeping each other’s company almost exclusively in the car/van/bus, etc? Is there a risk of cabin fever, for lack of a better term? “It’s great. We tour in a little van and scoot around! Nowadays we actually do take a few other people on tour, so it isn’t ever just us, but we fortunately don’t get too sick of each other’s company. I think we would have stopped long ago if we did!”

The album has released via Brighton-based indie Fat Cat Records. For a band so attitudinal, what does a label infrastructure offer that the do-it-yourself approach perhaps mightn’t? “We had the opportunity to work with FatCat from a very early stage with Honeyblood. I guess we have really formed a business with their help as a label. I do entirely believe in bands self-releasing though – I think it’s a hard task, but a very worthwhile one.”

April 7th sees the pair head to Cyprus Avenue for the Leeside stop of their tour, part of the run-up to a massive London show at the Koko, the biggest in the band’s run so far. When asked their thoughts heading into their Irish stretch, however, none of this is in mind – the date is a night of celebration. “It’s Cat’s birthday the day of the Cork show! So, I’m hoping we are going to have a very fun night indeed!”

In a time of exponential growth for the band, the summer festival grind comes calling, before the next step of the journey. “We will be hitting a fair amount of festivals this summer and then back to do some writing at the end of the year, maybe for the next album.”

Honeyblood play Cyprus Avenue on April 7. Tickets available now via the Old Oak and cyprusavenue.ie.