The Light Runners: “It’s Been a Journey”

Cork-based reggae outfit The Light Runners are no strangers to the rigours of the road. Recounting their stories in their upcoming E.P. was another process entirely. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks to guitarist Mark Fenny.

The Light Runners are a world-travelled proposition to say the least. Featuring a diverse range of musicians from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Zimbabwe, Denmark and Ireland, the band fuses several elements of reggae from through the genre’s development and history with an African rhythmic sensibility. The end result is energetic but earnest, staying true to the band’s stated aim of maintaining authenticity to roots reggae, aiming to explore and confront the anxieties of the current age.

The band have been gigging steadily for the past few years now, but the band’s background and experience stretches back years, and spans a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, that have shaped and informed the band’s music. Guitarist Mark Fenny explained the band’s convergence on the Irish reggae scene. “We’re a mix of musicians from all over the world, from all different avenues. Myself and the bass player happened to be playing in a cover band at the time, and the lead singer, Lazare, approached us and asked ‘do ye want to be in a reggae band?’ and we said ‘absolutely!’. We’ve been doing that ever since, that was in 2014. We’ve been going from strength to strength, really, we had our debut at Electric Picnic this year. It’s been a nice little journey so far.”

‘War and Migration’ is the band’s new E.P., bringing together work from numerous recording sessions after collaborative songwriting and road-borne fine tuning. The process of bringing all these disparate elements together was another labour of love. “Myself and the bass player wrote the title track, we brought the rhythm and chords to our lead singer, and he did the lyrics to it. He writes about 90% of our lyrics, ‘cause he’s just got a great head for it. The theme is ‘war and migration’ because we wrote it at the time of the Syrian refugee crisis, so it’s very much a reflection of that, it’s not even symbolic, it’s in your face. He wanted to express that message, so he took that song that we had written for him, and wrote lyrics on top of it… (The E.P.) was recorded in three different locations. We did some work with a guy called Ciaran Culhane up in Limerick, great time for him. He did two of the songs, which we recorded two years ago. We got an offer to record in the School of Music, a magnificent studio, and we cut another three tracks. Then we did more vocals in Dave’s (bass player) garden shed. That all got mixed by (Charleville man) Darren Rea, he recorded the last of the vocals, mixed and mastered the whole thing. He’s always amazing at what he does.”

With the combination of experiences and stories that the band’s members have to offer, ‘War and Migration’ is a record heavy with personal investment and earnest storytelling. Fenny gets into the impact on the creative process that these stories have had. “Some of the lads used to play in bands in the Congo, two huge soukous bands, OK Jazz and Zaiko Langa Langa. The latter were a massive band, they toured Africa and Europe. Once they got a bit of money together they said ‘that’s it for us, we’re going to move to Ireland and start again’. Because even though they were playing with one of the biggest bands, they were still being paid very little. The Congo has (also been in the grip of) dictatorships, our drummer was falsely imprisoned for many weeks because of his views on the government at the time. The guys from Ireland? Our lives are very boring (laughs).”

The band have been hard at the festival circuit this year, but a unique stop for them was at IndieCork’s festival centre last month, playing the Dali venue upstairs on Carey’s Lane. For the band, the opportunity to ply their craft through the venue’s newly-installed Arcline sound-system was one not to be passed up. “If you give us a bigger stage, we’ll give you a bigger show, so we absolutely loved being on that stage. It was so much fun, we got to jump all over the stage, we weren’t shoehorned in, like we usually are. So that was a lot of fun, and it was nice for IndieCork to think of us and bring us onboard. We’re more than happy to be a part of Cork arts and culture, and really let people know that we are supportive. We were quite happy with that sound, too.”

The band plays on November 20th at Cyprus Avenue, to launch the extended-player. Although they’ll unfortunately not have the opportunity to christen the building’s new venue, they’re bringing a new setlist and the band’s usual energy to Caroline Street. “We are going to do our best to put on a show for everybody. We purposely made it very cheap, it’s only €5, because we just want to cover the cost of the venue. We want all of our friends and family to come, everyone, have fun, have a good experience, and (help us) officially release the new record.”

The Light Runners play Cyprus Avenue on Tuesday November 20th. €5 in the door, kickoff at 7.30pm.

Cian Finn: “Making It Work Was Always a Hustle”

Having travelled the world and worked with legends in his field, Cian Finn has slowly been brewing his own reverential brand of reggae. This weekend, he returns to Cork after living here for six years, and talks to Mike McGrath-Bryan about two very different shows.

A well-rounded veteran of his craft, Galwegian singer, musician and songwriter Cian Finn’s body of work is inseparable from the love of his life: reggae music and culture. Not a big shock in any case regarding musicians, especially where an established and easily-executed set of social and cultural tropes exist, but the degree to which his passions inform his work is readily evident, in everything to how his music is presented, in gig posters and album artwork, to the journey he’s taken around the world in pursuit of it. “I started listening to reggae around twelve years of age. A friend of my folks would have been on holidays in Jamaica, and brought back an Island Records compilation of reggae on CD, then left it at our house after a party. There was a lot of Motown & soul music played in our house at that time, so this new music sounded familiar, like tropical soul. Songs like ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ by Jimmy Cliff & ‘Soul Shakedown Party’ by Bob Marley were anthems to me then. In my later teens, I started going to jungle and drum & bass nights in Galway, hearing for the first time remixes of more modern Jamaican music. At sixteen, I got a summer job in Dara Records in New York for three months & started collecting hip-hop records. KRS-One was my favourite, and a lot of the hip-hop records had a reggae influence to them. The next summer, my cousin got married near Nice, in the south of France, so I stayed on and got a job gardening in the area. There, I went to see Burning Spear live, which was an incredible experience, and the friends I made introduced me to modern Jamaican music, which was more high-energy & had a hip-hop influence to it. So at that stage, I was hooked, and started learning Peter Tosh & Bob Marley songs I’d recorded onto a tape at a house I was staying at, and started busking them in Nice, then onto Amsterdam and Barcelona.”

A nomadic early adulthood brought Finn back to Ireland, where chance encounters led to the formation of Finn’s first notable musical endeavour. Reggae is a strange one in Ireland: while it’s never quite obtained mainstream status beyond the usual tropes, casual listeners are more than amiable to some of the genre’s more relaxed aspects, while the genre has a solid core of crate-divers, sound-system operators and musicians that’s sustained it all along. Getting something going against that background took time and effort. “I moved to Cork at nineteen, and formed a band, Intinn, with two childhood friends from Galway and a great guitar/bass player we met in Cork. We played covers of rare reggae and dancehall songs we loved to listen to, and then as time moved on, we began writing original music. Making it work was always a hustle. Haggling fees from venues, getting favours from friends with vans to drive us into the unknown, selling extra tickets from festivals to cover costs… madness, but a brilliant experience.”

Intinn’s debut album saw Finn confront the nitty-gritty of creativity, production and post-production for the first time, and the experience was almost marred by a brush with the musical establishment in Jamaica. “Intinn’s debut album was self-produced by the band, with a lot of help from our good friend Seán Salmon in 2011. The process was mental. Recorded in bedrooms and kitchens of rented houses, with blankets duct-taped to the walls for sound reasons. We were inexperienced, but full of passion & ideas. The album was later sent to a highly-regarded Jamaican producer for proper mixing, to raise the quality of the record, but he took the money and ran. We were broke!”

Debut solo album ‘This Applies’ followed three years later, and saw Finn take matters into his own hands, and in the process, cross paths with modern reggae royalty as subsequent touring criss-crossed the European festival circuit. “The band split around 2013, I think, and a year later, I was on tour with a producer I’d started making tunes with in Cork, called Radikal Guru. Prince Fatty was performing after us at Ostroda Festival in Poland, and I was blown away by the sound of the tunes. He’s captured the sound of the seventies reggae that had originally magnetised me to it. So after the show, we talked, and he invited me to visit his studio in Brighton. A few weeks later I headed over, and we started to produce the “This Applies” album.”

Finn’s most recent Irish festival engagement came at Macroom’s Townlands Carnival festival, happening two weeks ago. While reviews have been positive, Finn holds the festival in particular esteem for its work with electronic and bass music over the last five years. “Yes, Townlands is great. I really like the style of the festival, and their taste in music. It reminds me of Boomtown festival in the UK. A piratish, jungle-steppin’ circus of bass music, with a dash of reggae.” The following week, Finn performed at the Poor Relation in the city centre, as part of the Cork Heritage Pubs’ Ska and Reggae Festival season, now in its second year. For Finn, it’s symbolic of the genre’s modern development in the city. “The scene in Cork has meant a lot to me over the years. I lived there for six years & was a regular attendee of Revelation Sound System parties, (Kinsale dub band) Wiggle gigs & West Cork raves. It’s great to see Cork having an annual reggae and ska fest in the city.”

This Saturday, Finn returns to Connolly’s of Leap, taking another trip under the venue’s famous hammers with a full sound-system. The following day, he heads to the city, and showcases a body of work he’s been working on for a while now. “The acoustic gig in the Yoga Loft on Sunday this week is very different from my regular shows, like the one this Saturday at Connolly’s of Leap, which are generally high-energy, bass-heavy, big-speaker affairs. This gig will be unamplified and unplugged, voice and guitar, with explanatory introductions to where the songs came from. I’ve written around thirty acoustic songs over the years, so this gig will be a showcase of those tunes. An acoustic album is also in the pipeline.” That forward-looking perspective informs Finn’s schedule going forward, as he seeks to expand his touring footprint into the New Year. “Next is to finish the new album, inbetween gigs, before the winter months. Gigs in Waterford, Dublin, and a few more festivals, including Electric Picnic and a trip to the UK. Heading on tour in Kenya around New Year’s, and then off to India for early 2019. I also have recently started to release my own productions on Emerald Isle Records, with a new tune available for download now.”

Cian Finn’s new single ‘Refugee-La’ is available for streaming now on Bandcamp.

Brushy One-String: “I’m An All-Purpose Person When It Comes to Music”

In the lead-up to his upcoming appearance at Townlands Carnival festival in Macroom, YouTube star Brushy One-String talks to Mike McGrath-Bryan about his life, his music, and how a chance encounter brought him his fortune.

The story of Brushy One-String’s ascent to musical notoriety wouldn’t go amiss in the canon of the great musical underdogs: the orphan child of musicians, including famed reggae vocalist Freddie McKay, Andrew Chin’s own journey of musical self-discovery led him down several creative cul-de-sacs, but while dealing with illiteracy and other external issues, developed a keenly-honed balance of reggae fundamentals, soulful vocals and wider musical reference points. The one thing he needed was a hook, something that would mark him out in an island with a surfeit of musical talent. Then it came to him in a dream. “I got a vision one night that I should play a one-string guitar. When I went to tell my family, they were all laughing, but my uncle’s girlfriend said ‘Oh, dreams do come true. Take your guitar out and play with one string’. So I took my guitar out, and I began to practice, and I became the perfect one-string guy. Practice makes perfect.”

Melding the reggae archetypes with bluesy grit, and the aforementioned winks in the direction of soul and American roots music, the persona of Brushy One-String emerged from Chin’s eclectic explorations, espousing a journeyman blues painted large in broad musical strokes. A wider palate of sounds and stories had always spoken to Chin growing up. “I love reggae, I love blues music, R’n’B, love songs. I love the stories they told. If the beat is up to my tastes, I’ll be interested. I’m an all-purpose person when it comes to music.”

This approach was informed by the breadth and depth of music with which Chin was surrounded growing up: his family’s prominence in music locally aside, instruments, records and other points of reference were all around him as he grew up. “I started when was a teenager, I loved the drums. My grandma, she had a church, and I had to play the drums, like every Sunday. After that, I played drums professionally, standard drums, conga drums, tambourine. Now I play all my percussion with my one-string guitar (laughs).”

The big break Brushy received came from a chance encounter with documentary film-maker Luciano Blotta. Blotta had come to Jamaica to film Rise Up, a piece following the fortunes of three young artists over the course of five years, in rural recording studios across the island. As the documentary process was winding down, Blotta happened across Brushy outside a studio, and was compelled to film a performance of his song Chicken in the Corn. Initially tacked on to the end of the documentary, the clip itself became a YouTube hit, documenting his oddball, percussive play. Said success led Blotta to track Brushy down again and seek to represent him to a wider audience. “That was really magic. I was in Mandeville at the time, I’d just spent five years in England. I was in studio and I’d seen this white guy with a big camera, y’know, was videoing everybody. And I was so broke, I really did want the money. I walked over and I was like, ‘’Ey! White guy! I’ll sing you a song. I took out my guitar and I played him Chicken in the Corn. That was the first time I met him. I forgot all about it, then I heard he’d come back to Jamaica for this documentary he was making. I’d see him in the street, but I didn’t recognise him. He was looking for me, because he wanted me to play something else again. I didn’t recognise him, so I approached him with the same approach as the first time. ‘‘Ey white guy, what’s up, I want to make some money.’ He was like ‘you don’t remember me? I recorded Chicken in the Corn. I’m going to put it up on YouTube, I need you to sign these papers, etc, etc.’ I couldn’t read properly, so I just signed the contract, and thought nothing of it. He called me up three weeks later, and said ‘you’ve got 30,000 views, we should do something about this’. I was like, ‘WHAT?’. We did the first album from there.”

A life-changing experience like this was bound to impact on his career, and so it went that Brushy put down that first album with Blotta’s help, bolstered by a wide reach to a larger audience courtesy of YouTube. The question must surely have hung over Brushy’s head of how this change would affect his career, but found his message was perfectly suited to bring writ large. “It was a difficult change for me, because I was gone for five years. When I got back, I didn’t know what to do for an audience to know that I’m here. I tried (a few things) and went on Jamaican TV, than Luciano called (and the video went viral). Everyone was like ‘this guy is different! A one-string guitar!’ It got wild. The song itself, Chicken in the Corn, isn’t a generation thing, it’s for old and for young, talking about good people and bad people, ups and downs, in a fun way, y’know? It’s reality, you try and do the things you love and people will try and take you down, try to stop you. It’s easy to explain to anyone, and everyone can relate.”

Brushy takes on another EU tour this summer for the festival grind, including a stop at Townlands Carnival, happening next month in Macroom. With a couple of years of worldwide touring under his belt, he’s enjoying the road and looking forward to the event, some pre-gig jitters aside. “I’m nervous every so often, but I always try and that creativity to get the confidence to go out, start and finish.” It’s the last hurdle ahead of the next chapter in his ongoing story, with new material on the way and the challenge of maintaining longevity ahead. “Right now I’m working on a song as we are speaking. I’m working on the next album. I want the next album to have a full sound, and to be able to take that and put it on the road.”

Brushy One-String plays Townlands Carnival, from July 21st-23rd in Rusheen Farm, Macroom. For more info and tickets, check