The Altered Hours: “A Wiry Energy”

Ahead of a new extended-player and their biggest European tour to date, Corkonian psych-rockers The Altered Hours are set to take on larger stages. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with vocalist Elaine Howley ahead of a hectic time for the band.

The Altered Hours have for nearly the last decade struck the balance between aggression and introspection, punk and psychedelia, the internal monologue and the external circumstance. Garnering momentum in recent years after shifting from folk to psychedelia, shoegaze and post-punk influences, the band’s success has been emblematic of the emergence of a new generation of independent music in the city, including an infrastructure of DIY artists, promoters and labels with their roots in improvisation and experimentation. 2016 saw the release of the band’s debut full-length proper, ‘In Heat/Not Sorry’, one of the year’s best records, followed by a flurry of touring around the continent and the Irish festival circuit. After a break, the band’s next extended-player, ‘On My Tongue’ is ready to go, and releasing on March 9th. Vocalist Elaine Howley discusses the EP’s recording. “This group of songs was first played in our old studio in York Hill. They have a wiry energy, and we wanted to record them in a fast-paced way. After playing them live for a while, we booked three days at Bow Lane studio in Dublin and worked with Daniel Fox and Cassandra Retinské to record them. They were both great to work with and I enjoyed their approach, we had a chance to experiment and be spontaneous.”

From what we’ve heard of it in advance, the E.P. moves the band further in a post-punk-inflected direction. The band has been labelled a lot of things by now, including in these pages, in an attempt to quantify their ever-shifting sound. It must be amusing from the inside to see. “It’s true, our music has been called lots of things, and between us we have brought different influences in or get fascinated by different things. I think we will continue to explore different approaches – it keeps things interesting, and means we can keep moving. Really, I think the music comes out how it will, and you just have to allow it be. I’ve started to think of it as Rock and Roll, it makes it simple for me because that’s more of an attitude than a sound, and I can believe in that.”

‘On My Tongue’ is another release via the duo of Cork-related record labels Penske Recordings (the brainchild of Cork music mainstay Albert Twomey) and Art for Blind (formerly based in the Cork Community Print Shop before its closure), who also split-released the band’s debut album to great success. What’s that relationship been like to continue on with? “It’s great to work with Penske and Art For Blind again, both labels have been involved in putting out some of the most exciting music in Ireland in the past few years, and it’s good to be a part of that. I’m grateful they have put the time and energy into putting our music out on record, and continue to support us.” That full-length has been in the can and on the shelves for over a year now. Howley explores her feeling on the body of work that went into it with the benefit of hindsight and distance. “It’s always hard to be objective, but time does help to hear it differently. I think it is a record that is abrasive, and has beauty too. It feels good that we documented those songs – it’s always a relief to make a record and be free to move forward.”

Late last year saw the band take on their largest hometown stage yet, at Live at St. Luke’s, in the former cathedral in the area. The feeling of that gig among those assembled afterward, and in the days after, was of a band that had ‘arrived’ – there was just a different energy and it’s fair to say there’s a different buzz about the band as a result. “I had no idea how we would fare in such a cavernous space, but we tried it and the gig felt comfortable, like a celebration. It was so enjoyable to play for a crowd like that. People were up on their feet, it felt like a rock show, and that was unexpected in a church. It was nice that we could play a different kind of space and the music could translate, and that we could be comfortable and connect.”

Ahead of the new record’s release, the band has been warming up with dates around the country before heading to the continent throughout the month of March. The new material has done well on the road. “The dates so far have been lots of fun. The Galway and Limerick shows were both my favourite I’ve played in those cities. We’ve been playing the full EP over the set, and the vibes have been good!”  

The band is playing It Takes a Village festival at the end of this early run of dates, heading to Trabolgan to make noise amid the attractions and holiday homes, alongside names like Young Fathers and Fujiya & Miyagi. “We’re looking forward to going. It’s really cool to see a festival like this happening in Cork, Joe Kelly has a great way of working, and a vision for gigs. I’m especially looking forward to seeing Anna-Mieke, Fixity and Strength NIA.” As EPs often are, the whole enterprise serves as both a standalone work, and a taster of things to come. “When we get home we will work away in our studio on new music. Planning to release lots of music over time. There will also be a new track on the Art For Blind 7” series.”

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 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.”