One album, their own beer and performing in a cardboard box: twenty years of King Kong Company

A SELF-PROCLAIMED COLLEGE BAND reformed to a heyday later in life that far exceeds their 90s peak, King Kong Company are fast becoming Ireland’s go-to festival act, and with good reason.

The Waterford based act are a high energy, upbeat dance six-piece with plenty of stage moves. One member performs in a cardboard box with crudely cut eye holes, while recent outings include a trip to iconic UK festival Glastonbury, a tea party at Michael D Higgins house, and even the launch of their own unlikely beer infused with Buckfast, with King Kong Company plastered across the front.

Colin Hoye, the group’s trumpeter, is the one member currently based in Dublin, and met the Gazette to describe what’s been a strange journey and a wildly busy summer to date. Amazingly, their self-titled debut of 2016 is the band’s only formal release to date, despite performing together from 1996 to 2000, and then from 2011 to today.

“The technology wasn’t really there to do what we wanted to do back then,” Hoye recalls. “We had this massive eight track and you couldn’t even get the drums alone onto it. We have so many channels now. We had a manual drum machine that we started and stopped for every track back then. We did the best we can, but trying to actually make an album would have been too hard, or too expensive at the time.”

“Second time around [following the band’s reformation in 2011], I think we were looking for a mid-life crisis and found one. We had no misconceptions about what we were going to get out of it this time. But we’re surprised at how well it’s gone for us.”

“When we decided to get back together, we used the power of social media to help us along the way. We decided to do twelve tracks in twelve months, and our friend John Loftus basically said that he’d do the videos for us. Those videos sparked a lot of the characters we have now, and those characters came into the live shows. It’s almost more of a product at this stage.”

When it came to the album, Hoye recalls the live set up being very much a key factor. “We had to do everything we could to bring the live sound into the album,” he explained. “It would have been very easy to just do it very electronically, but you want to move the music around to have that live effect to it. We are very much a live band, and we wanted to show people what we sound like live with the album. In a way we were kind of dreading the album as we knew it would be so much work. We used to be more like acid jazz, so it’s a bit of a change of direction from what we sounded like in the late 90s. But nobody sound like that anymore.”

Having put a focus on obtaining a really musically talented cast, brought the simpler elements of the story to the fore and utilized a clever set extremely well, the latest incarnation of Once – showing at the Olympia Theatre until late August – is astoundingly well done.

Adapting Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s music and taking much that is good from the 2007 movie, the musical is set entirely in a surround with the feel of an old-school Irish pub, the fluid cast almost constantly on stage in their entirety as they perform the backing track to a gentle tale.

Niamh Perry, playing ‘girl’, is the undoubted star. Credit has to be given for her convincing and unwavering switch into a Czech accent, but what really stands out are her vocals, and the restrained tension she creates around the lead man Brian Gilligan.

While the pre-interval part of the show is relatively light hearted, full of local colour and witty patter, things take an intense turn after the interval, with the emotional love story at the heart of the tale coming to the fore to glorious effect.

The stage comes to life to suit, too, and there’s an impressive array of character development, in the narrow but entertaining lives of ‘Girl’s Czech housemates, the occasional but memorable appearances of her daughter, and Phelim Drew’s wacky interludes as music store owner Billy, a lively stereotype of the witty North Dubliner.

Then there are the gimmicks. The best come in the pre-show, pub-style performance from the cast, which takes place with the audience on stage and able to buy from the bar positioned as part of the scenery. It works well, too, but the key here is in the simplicity and the casting. Perry is outstanding all round. Gilligan has a solid voice and his character constantly seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown, while the extras have a smart dynamic adding to the humour.

All in, Once is a wonderfully produced package, with ample entertainment value that also tugs firmly on the heartstrings, the relationships thoroughly believable. The emotion in Perry as she bowed before an opening night audience said it all: this might be just another step on the road this musical has been powering down over the last few years, but it is also something very special.

As published in the Dublin Gazette, July 13 edition. Reproduced here with permission.

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