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.”

Naive Ted: “I Don’t Know How Else You’d Do It”

Taking to the Roundy on Saturday night, hip-hop experimentalist Naive Ted sets out a sonic stall of new and unheard tunes, ahead of their release this year. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with Andy Connolly, the man behind the mask.

On stage, he’s Naive Ted, a mute, lucha-mask-clad skratchologist with a penchant for levelling venues with his wildly experimental strain of noisy hip-hop and electronica. Off it, he’s Andy Connolly, musician, social music tutor, festival organiser, and the brains behind DIY hip-hop label The Unscene, proving to be a lifeline for those on the genre’s fringes, throughout the country. In 2015, Connolly released under the Ted pseudonym The Inevitable Heel Turn, his debut under the name and first release since splitting up the “one-man duo” of Deviant and Naive Ted. It’s a certified headwrecker, taking in noise, jazz, some heavy-duty beats, and an eclectic array of samples. Connolly’s satisfied with his work. “People did like Heel Turn. I was surprised really. Still am. Suckers for punishment? Heel Turn was the first time I really got to grips with composing digitally, via Ableton Live. With Heel Turn, and in general, I was just trying to make “my” music, free of scene associations or contrivances. Did I succeed? That’s up to the listener. But I’m my own biggest fan, no one loves my records like I do”, he laughs.

Connolly’s new body of work has been bubbling under for a while as well, effectively since the release of the last one, and is ready to be premiered at Quarter Block Party on Saturday. What can we expect to hear blaring out of the Roundy? ”The sound of the new record is…. everything is f*cked and you’re to blame so you might as well have a dance? Which in fairness is very similar to Heel Turn. It’s probably a fair bit faster. Yeah, ’tis certainly a fair bit faster. And has more of Ted playing the synth and guitar pedals. We had a few friends round too. So it’s the same, but quite different.”

2016 was a busy year for Connolly away from the decks, with his release project (rather than any formal label arrangement) The Unscene becoming a real hub, not just for Irish hip-hop, but releases like unearthed tapes from Limerick noise project Agro Phobia. It’s arguably one of the best labels in the country at present, but Connolly is quick to cut out any lofty talk and explain the label’s DIY ethic. “The only reason Unscene exists is to provide space for the music I like, by people that I know. I haven’t the time, nor the inclination to make it anything but a repository for stuff I like that mightn’t otherwise see the light of day. I can write something resembling a press release, we’ve a mailing list, I’ve a few contacts in the media and I know a load of DJs so it’s better than letting it rot on your hard drive. I do tend to keep it lowkey, rather than shout it from the rooftops, call it an aversion to commercialism, maybe, but I also have a day-job so it’s certainly not a real label in any sense of the word.”

The label’s activity is fueled by this desire to document the current body of sound emerging from areas of Irish hip-hop, but stems from necessity and earnestness of endeavour. “I help where I can, some projects come fully formed, in the case of (Waterford beatmaker) Nylon Primate or (Cork/Galway duo) Run the Jukes, I literally just help with any costs incurred, host it and do the PR. In other cases I might help out with the the recording or mixing too. And then there’s the Ted stuff. But it’s all just an extension of ‘doing the art’. For the most part these are skills I’ve picked up from being an artist, e.g. I never set out to learn Photoshop, we just needed a poster for a gig and no one we knew could do it so I downloaded the trial and figured it out. I’m not a mixing engineer but I did MMPT in college and I’ve been mixing music to make music for years and hanging around with people doing cool shit for over half my life, you just absorb it naturally, or pick things up out of necessity.”

Irish hip-hop is in something of a golden age at present, thanks entirely to the co-ordinated efforts of people looking to make things happen on their own. Connolly isn’t alone in his efforts, with Cork playing host to the likes of Cuttin’ Heads, Young Phantom’s Outsiders group and others. He’s effusive about the buzz of the aforementioned. “Cork is great. Always has been, as long as I’ve been going. Being from Killarney, it was the closest city to us, so it definitely has a special place in my heart. So many of my formative musical experiences happened there – it was where I first saw in real life all the shit I had only listened to, and read about. And in that sense Cork continues to be an inspiration. It’s been a real pleasure witnessing the transition of the Cork hip-hop scene from when I entered the fray, from Elementary, into the LiveStyles festival, and now what’s happening with the Cuttin’ Heads collective. I’ve been looking for an excuse to say it and this seems like the place… Jus’Me! How lucky is Cork to have that dude? Hip-hop MVP of the country for years now. Obviously he does so much sterling gruntwork setting up gigs and keeping things ticking over like the underground trooper he is, but his artistry is so damn high level. DJ-wise, on a modern hip-hop tip, there’s not many out there better, it’s a world class standard he’s at. And if you live in Cork he’s probably playing in a pub near you right now. Lucky b*stards.”

A few years ago, longtime pro wrestling nerd Connolly created and composed the ring entrance music for New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Bullet Club faction of villains, thanks to an acquaintance with Fergal Devitt, now known as WWE headliner Finn Balor. The theme boosted Connolly’s international presence, as the onscreen rise of the brash baddies coincided with growing interest in the product in the West. They’ve been in contact since, with Devitt even sharing the music of Ted protege Mankyy recently on Twitter. Connolly reflects on the impact the Bullet Club connection has had. “Seeing Bullet Club win the belts in Tokyo Dome with my song playing was pretty damn cool. It was also somewhat of a validation of my own professionalism. I made a song in my bedroom that’s good enough to get played in stadiums and on TV. That was pretty satisfying.”

Another, not so frequently mentioned aspect of Connolly’s work is youth work, as part of Limerick’s MusicGeneration programme. Via this project, he’s reached out to and worked with some fantastic young talent, including rapper Jonen Dekay, beatmaker Mankyy and others. Connolly explores the relationship between the art and its social benefits. “I’d put the label, the youth work and the music as being different sides of the same practice, that they are all indeed one and the same, or at least borne out of the same idea, i.e. that workshops with groups of teenagers, releasing independent music and performing are just ‘doing the art’. I don’t know how else you’d do it. As far as ‘social good’ of youth work goes, you can read about that elsewhere, written by people with far more expertise than I. Suffice to say, I really enjoy and value the work, the young people are continually inspiring and it provides me with a living. Result.”

Connolly is returning to Quarter Block Party this year, after headlining in 2015. What are his memories of this instalment of the event, and what’s he looking forward to seeing in this year’s programme? “First QBP was a fine time. ‘Twas probably the first ‘proper’ Naive Ted show after the previous experiments at Community Skratch events and LiveStyles. Excellently disconcerting and made me think that maybe we were onto something (laughs)… I’m mad to catch Crevice since I saw the vid on YouTube a while back. And last time I saw Arthur Itis, he was onstage smashing a printer with (rapper) Spekulativ Fiktion and (sound artist) First Blood Part Two so I’m keen to see what he’s bringing to the table…”

A big year awaits Connolly and his masked creation after the dust settles on Block Party. “Ted’s gonna be bleeding music for a while this year. There’s an EP with (Unscene artist) Post-Punk Podge in the bag, should be with ye before the end of the month. And then there’s The Minute Particulars. It’s a series of music by Naive Ted with some appearances from friends, neighbours and musical acquaintances. I wouldn’t call it an album. Just keep an eye out.”

Naive Ted plays The Roundy on Saturday night as part of Quarter Block Party. Kickoff at 10.45, tickets €10, or admission with a weekend/day pass.

Brigid Mae Power: “The Work Somehow Gets Done”

Quarter Block Party’s Friday night headliner, Brigid Mae Power, speaks about the festival, her recent self-titled “debut” album and the process behind it.

Gently swelling drones and metallic sounds punctuate the brittle psychedelic folk of Brigid Mae Power’s making. A cathartic listen at first, Power’s self-titled new album has been marked by the artist as her first “proper” long-player, released last year via Tompkins’ Square Recordings. Power readily explains the story behind this monikering, and the resourcefulness she’s used in the past. “Well, in a very basic way, it’s just because it was able to get to a wider audience, because it was released through a label. And also it was recorded ‘properly’ as in, in a studio. My previous album (I Told You The Truth, self-released) had been recorded by a handheld Zoom recorder that I just left in the middle of the room, in a church. Which had a nice effect, but it was done because I had no recording equipment or way to pay for a studio. So I was making use of what I could around me.”

The record itself was a long time coming in earnest, and when the time was right, Power took herself out of her own environment and out to the States, to work with folk singer Peter Broderick in his studio in Oregon. The process was quick and necessity was the mother of invention.“Well, some of (the songs) were very old, that I hadn’t yet put lyrics to or finished lyrics for, and then some were written just before I went over to Oregon. I basically had a plane ticket booked to go over, and then had two and a half weeks to have songs ready. So every morning when my son was in playschool, I forced myself to finish up all the half-written songs I had. Then when I went over I had about ten songs, and I just played them live and trusted Peter to add anything he could hear working with the song.”

The process was a departure from Power’s usual working conditions, going about the matters of recording and production alone. “It was an amazing experience, in many ways life-changing, but it was great because although we have different ways, we really met in the middle with a similar intention, so working together was easy. I think why I had worked so much on my own before was because I was sort of waiting to meet someone who would understand what I was after. Someone who doesn’t label things.”

Power has released her music via a number of independent labels, settling with folk/archival label Tompkins’ Square for the new album. How have they been to work with? “They’ve been great, I’ll always be grateful for Josh (Rosenthal, label head and renowned “record man”) giving me the chance to release my album. He was committed instantly to doing it and treated the music like it had value.”

Though the record is a deeply personal assemblage of tunes, as one can discern just from listening, Power is frank in her admission that there is limited personal importance of any of the usual routine of music for her. “To be honest, I’m not a day-to-day musician at all. I’m very busy with being a mother mostly. I walk around like a headless chicken most of the week. I sometimes think of how I would love the time to play every day, and set aside special time to work, but then I realise even before I was a mother, I wasn’t a day to day musician either. I’m quite the procrastinator and very disorganised. I can’t work to a schedule at all, the work somehow gets done and I sort of magically can’t really remember how or when. When I have every intention of working in one space at a desk or something, it’s like my whole body avoids it, and I go up and write or play guitar on my bed instead. But I see how for some people routine is important and keeps them balanced, but for me, and I have tried many times, it just doesn’t work. I have to throw routine out the window and see where I naturally gravitate to in the day. I have to sort of feel called to do it, if you know what I mean.”

Power’s releases are fronted by her own visual art, but much like her own relationship with creativity, says no rhyme or reason goes when selecting her cover artwork.“I don’t think about it so much. I definitely alternate between phases of when I am doing a lot of painting or doing a lot of music. Right now I’m doing more music than art. Sometimes I will sort-of see a few colours in my mind or some lines, and then I go to draw… with music I definitely gravitate towards it more if I feel a need to communicate.”

Power is playing Quarter Block Party on the Friday night, at St. Peter’s Church, and headlining the fest alongside Naive Ted. Having had a look at the extended programme, she’s enthused about the proceedings. “It looks great! I’m looking forward to catching lots of things. There’s lots of acts whose names I don’t recognise, and I like going into something with an empty slate so I can be surprised. I actually played at the Quarter Block 2015 and was really impressed with the festival, so I’m honoured to be headlining a show.”

Quarter Block Party is the outset of a busy upcoming year for Brigid Mae Power, including an anthology extended-player and more touring, as she outlines to finish our conversation. “This year, I will be releasing an EP/mini album with a German Label called Oscarson on vinyl that comes with additional artwork. I think that will be out in April and it’s all older songs that have been re-recorded and one cover of the song ‘As I Roved Out’. The songs aren’t necessarily connected to each other so it kind of has a ‘collection’ feel to it. I’m going to be doing a fair bit of touring and also I’m hoping to have a new album ready by Autumn.”

Brigid Mae Power plays St. Peter’s Church on North Main St. on Friday. Doors are 10.30, single tickets are €10 or admission with a day/weekend pass.