The Bonk & Percolator: An Odd Venn Diagram

Cork-based improv outfit The Bonk and Waterford shoegazers Percolator are teaming up for a Bank Holiday show at South Main Street’s Spailpín Fanach venue. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks with members of the bands about a big double-headline bill.

Psychedelic rock and its associated strains of wayward noise-making have formed an important foundation for the city’s current-day music scene, providing means of sonic exploration and a community to underpin it all. Drawing inspiration from a wide social and geographical web of influences, and running almost entirely on a DIY basis, psych-rock, if not too nebulous a term, has provided a fertile ground for Cork’s musical undergrowth, from which improvisational ensemble The Bonk have emerged. Something of a supergroup including members of O Emperor, The Bonk have been a semi-regular fixture on gig lineups around the city since their inception a few years ago and on May 5th, co-headline a special gig at the Spailpín Fánach alongside Waterford shoegaze outfit Percolator, promoted by Cork-based blog overblown.co.uk.

Initial excursions in live performance were followed last year by the release of debut album ‘Seems to be a Verb’. Bandleader Phil Christie is enthusiastic about how the record has been received in physical form. “We’re very happy with the record ourselves. It was really good fun to record and we were delighted to be able to work with (Irish indie label) thirty-three45 on the cassette release. We were just really glad to get it out there, and start playing some gigs so it was a bonus that people seemed to pick up on some of the stuff when it came out.” Rooted deeply in the improvisation scene that’s been brewing slowly in the city over the last decade, The Bonk’s creative process is lateral at the best of times, but with new material on the way, new directions for their music are emerging. “We have started recording some new tracks in the last couple of weeks, which has been good fun. We also have a good horde of stuff that we have recorded over the last couple of years that we’re still tipping away on, so there’s plenty to be doing at the minute. Our sense of direction isn’t great but so far flutes seem to be featuring a bit more!”

An Spailpín Fánach’s intimate atmosphere and tiered venue layout have provided for a unique gig-going experience, and as it happens, this gig on the 5th will be both bands’ debut within the venue’s stone walls. “I’ve never actually played in the Spailpín but have heard great things. We are really looking forward to sharing a bill with Percolator these gigs – we’re big fans and I think it’ll make for an interesting combination of noises on the night.” After the upcoming swing of gigs that this stop forms part of, The Bonk and its constituent parts are getting down to basics. “We’ve got a good few shows booked over the coming months, but we’ll also be working on getting some new stuff ready for release in the autumn. Myself and (drummer) Dan Walsh have begun working on a new project, The At This Times, which is also a source of craic at this particular time. Music is some effort.”

For Percolator, it’ll be their first gig in the city since appearing among the headline artists at this January’s Quarter Block Party weekender at Amp Venue, an excursion that packed out the Hanover Street club. John ‘Spud’ Murphy, Percolator’s bassist, is effusive about the festival’s whole experience. “Quarter Block Party was amazing. We were very impressed with the organisers’ use of spaces. We had forgotten how many weird and wonderful rooms Cork has to offer. Our show in Amp was a very good introduction back into the live arena, as we’d been working on new material and not gigging for about 6 months. The sound system was great, and fader wizard Joe Cusack did a great job with our sounds.”

Debut album ‘Sestra’ was released last year on vinyl and digital formats via Cork label Penske Recordings, and went on to critical acclaim and an accompanying run of venue-filling gigs around Ireland. A document of a band paying studious attention to its craft, it catches the trio at their odd Venn diagram of Krautrock, shoegaze and psych-rock. At the helm of recording and production at his Dublin-based Guerrilla Sounds studio, Murphy was proud, but is ready for the band’s next move. “We are all absolutely delighted that we managed to get it out of the studio and into the world, after our endless tweaking and re-recording. However, we will never be able to listen to it ever again!”

Alongside a domestic release via Penske, the indie-label operation of Cork musical stalwart Albert Twomey, the album was also issued on wax in France via DIY label and booking partners Permafrost. Murphy goes into detail about the motivating factors of working with both labels, especially dealing with Twomey’s legendary wit and candour. “Penske and Permafrost each gave us the boot up the hole that we had been working towards all these years. Both Albert  and (Permafrost label boss) Etienne are machines, in their own way, especially compared to our quivering gelatinous mess. Albert definitely kicked a bit harder, but it’s okay taking the big boot from one of The Godfathers of the Irish underground music scene.” So, any odds on a follow-up, then? “We’re currently in the middle of recording album number two. Which we’ll hopefully be ready to share with the world something before 2025”, says Murphy, with what looks for all the world like a wry grin.

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.”

Percolator: Brewing New Sounds

Brandishing a sound that resembles a Venn diagram of shoegaze, indie, Krautrock and post-punk, Percolator’s development has been slow and steady over the past number of years, with a series of singles and extended-players finding their way out as the band proceeded. This work has led to debut album SESTRA, releasing this month via Cork’s Penske Recordings, developed concurrently to the band’s output to date, says bassist/synth-slinger John “Spud” Murphy. “The EPs were made during production of the album. They were released kind of as examples of the what we were working on at the time and the sounds we were experimenting with. On the album, the production on each track is different so getting all of the tracks to flow together seamlessly took a lot of work and time.”

The album was recorded and mixed in Murphy’s Guerilla Sounds studio, in Dublin city centre, where unshackled by commercial pressure or label budget, the band could pursue their muses freely and for as long as necessary. “Doing all of the production ourselves was great, because we had complete control and could take as much time as we wanted to experiment and get unique sounds, rather than persuading another engineer to make it sound the way we wanted it. The only drawback to this is that it took us a long time to finish . It being our music, we were extra precious and slaved over every minute detail for years.”

SESTRA releases via a split arrangement with Penske Recordings and French label Permafrost. It’s made the process of releasing an album, and manufacturing the physical product a lot smoother, and lead to more live dates. “It was quite easy to organise. Penske would’ve been at the top of our list of Irish labels. When we gave Albert a listen he was into it straight away. We met Etienne from Permafrost on tour, and he heard the album and was into putting it out in France and organising a tour for us. Having a European label involved means we can cover more ground with the release and share production costs.”

Single Crab Supernova released a week or two back, with an interesting video to say the least premiering a few weeks in advance via Belfast music site The Thin Air. The visuals were the result of some improvisation with filmographer Thom McDermott. “We weren’t sure what we wanted, but an evening messing around with a camera and a projector with Thom yielded some weird results that suited the song, and had the psychedelic imagery that we’re into. It was all kind of on the spot experimentation. We weren’t sure what would work or not but it was nice to be able to try anything.”

The album’s artwork has been laid out by Irish independent music legend Paul G. Smyth, centred around the work of painter Gus Hughes. It’s the reflection of the music the band had sought over the course of its creation. “Hughes’ work is oil-based, with lots and lots of layers that really suits the music, pleasant but a bit odd, and the idea of getting to use the work of someone we know was very appealing. Paul looked after the layout, even down to choice of font. It helps to have an external opinion especially when we tend to be indecisive.”

Of course, Penske Recordings is the brainchild of one Albert Twomey, better known as the mercurial hassle-merchant of PLUGD Records, a Charleville man with an unfortunate love for Tottenham Hotspur. A central figure to Irish independent music, much less the local scene, Twomey’s in-store witticisms, putdowns and one-liners have their own Twitter fan page. The band are effusive when asked to discuss his involvement. “What a legend. Anyone that is even vaguely associated with the underground music scene is aware of Albert, and his Godfather like presence.

The outfit are playing Coughlan’s on April 28th, with Cork psychedelia/shoegaze/alternative youngsters The Sunshine Factory in support. Under the watchful eye of local music personalities like Alliance Promotions’ Gordon O’Keeffe, the band has come on in leaps and bounds since surfacing in 2015, with a tour support for psych legends The Telescopes under their belts. Percolator are relishing the chance to share the stage. “We’ve heard their Soundcloud stream, and are looking forward to seeing how it translates live. I’ve only been to Coughlan’s for a pint, and I really liked it. One of very many pubs in Cork that are nice to sit in. Have heard great things about the venue itself, and we’re really excited about the gig.”

Their upcoming brace of live shows sets them in good stead for further adventures down the line. “We’re doing a two-to-three week European tour in June to support the Permafrost release. We’re planning to do more shows here with a really good Irish band later in the summer. Outside of this we’ll be continuing pre production of our second album.”

Percolator play Coughlan’s on the 28th, with The Sunshine Factory in support. More information on tickets available via the venue’s social media.

Pleasure Beach: On the Go

Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with Pleasure Beach singer Alan Haslam about their journey so far, big singles, and their upcoming Cyprus Avenue show on March 2nd.

Belfast dream-pop/indie outfit Pleasure Beach spent the majority of last year building from the late-2015 release of debut extended-player ‘Dreamer to the Dawn’, surfing a wave of momentum from anthemic debut single ‘Go’, a near-inescapable proposition for fans of independent music in Ireland that year. Vocalist Alan Haslam takes some time to reflect, at the outset of a conversation about his band’s upcoming debut Irish headline tour. “We recorded that record at a really exciting time for the band, right at the start when the initial industry and audience buzz was ramping up. Those songs are still very close to our hearts, and we’ve kept them in our live set for almost every show we’ve played since. Listening back now, eighteen months or so after they were recorded, I can hear how much more confident we are playing them these days. The high notes are certainly easier to hit than they were!”

‘Go’ was possibly one of the strongest starts a band could ask for, surely, a shimmering, hazy slice of big guitar-pop – and it occurred, far from any sort of big, mad stroke of inspiration, from a fairly innocuous jamming session that predated the band’s existence. “It was a great way to burst out of the traps, that’s for sure. It was the only song we have that was written and recorded before we put the band together, just Lisa and I in the studio recording for fun. Back then we never could’ve foreseen it’d be released at all, let alone go on to be something of a hit record. It was great to see it blossom, and it’s amazing seeing audiences singing it back to us when we play it live. That’s really the best thing you could hope for as a songwriter and I’ll never get tired of that. We all still love that song.”

What was the subsequent process of finishing up and recording the songs for the ‘Dreamer to the Dawn’ E.P. like? “When we record we do it fast. Mainly down to financial constraints – studio time is expensive – but it also helps to capture the essence of a song without getting bogged down in sonic minutiae. When you only have three days to track three densely-produced songs there’s an urgency and adrenaline buzz to the process that can manifest itself in the record, and I think that comes across in that E.P. Not saying I wouldn’t take six months at Joshua Tree for our next record, but it is a kind of masochistic fun working to a tight schedule like that.”

The reaction to the extended-player has largely been positive, with the band getting straight to work by touring and capitalising on the attention they’ve received. “We’ve had a really warm welcome into the arms of the music scene, particularly in Ireland. Over the last year we’ve played to audiences that none of us would’ve dared dream about until now. It’s been really great, and we’ve met some incredible people along the way. To know that your music has made even a tiny impression on the lives of strangers, live or on record, sort of validates that reckless life decision you’ve made to become an artist. It’s a good feeling.”

The band are heading into their maiden headline excursion around the island, and it’s a thought that’s not without trepidation for Haslam and crew. “My primary thought is “will the van break down?” In fact, there’s no question. It will break down. But that’s happened loads of times and we’ve never missed a show! Aside from that we really can’t wait. Irish audiences are by far and away our favourite to play for and extra receptive to new material, of which we’ll be playing a lot.”

Pleasure Beach are playing Cyprus Avenue on March 2nd, having debuted in the Crane over the Jazz weekend for a Jameson/Hot Press Bow St. Sessions show. Haslam gathers his thoughts on the event. “That was a lovely show. We were incredibly well looked after by the Jameson/ Hot Press folks, and it was a treat to hang out with the Wyvern Lingo guys and Amaron & Magic, the beatboxers. Prodigiously talented one and all, and we got to collaborate on a couple of covers too. which was brilliant craic. The Cork audience were great, and gave us a really enthusiastic reception. We can’t wait to come back.”

Said new material was premiered there also, which is quite the departure from shoegazey, Krauty touches and into straightforward pop. “I think our songwriting and arrangements have got a little more concise over the last year or so, and we’re leaning a lot heavier on synths and electronics these days too. I guess that’s what gives the new material more of a pop aesthetic. Fear not though! The big guitar songs are still in there, and a lot of our brand new stuff is bigger, more guitar-y and a whole lot more shoegazey than ever before!”

It’s looking like a big year for the band after this tour, with a full-length in the offing. “We have a few releases lined up, all heading towards an album towards the end of the year. We’ll be on the road, in the studio and crouched over ancient laptops in our bedrooms writing a whole load more material for you to wrap your ears around. Many adventures await.”