Wonderfully Weird: the Charming 60s-Pop World of No Monster Club

From (kind of) faking his own death to releasing a single album with enough tracks to fill an entire radio show, No Monster Club’s Bobby Aherne recalls a career that’s hard to define.

BOBBY AHERNE doesn’t particularly like convention. As a core member of the wonderful Popical Island collective, a loosely formed Dublin record label that thrives on collaboration, his main outlet No Monster Club has been flirting with the fringes of the Irish music scene for some time, performing lyrically sharp bubblegum pop.

His themes are broad, their coherence, perhaps, coming from the fact that No Monster Club is emphatically not about the conventional pop subjects. Bursting with colour, Aherne’s tracks explore Africa, wish retirement on an artist he’s sick of hearing, riff on the buzz of charity shops, and happily harmonize on drinking and smoking in parks. In his latest project, he’s releasing a short EP every month for all of 2017.

“I didn’t want to do a whole album again, as it’s such a big project,” Aherne tells us, and as a man who once released a record with over forty tracks on it, an album might be bigger for him than most. “I just wanted to do songs this year without having to be coherent. There have been songs as a band, as a three-piece, and just solo stuff, as well as longer, more thematic pieces. With this project, I have the freedom to do that.”

The result is – in the best possible way – weird. On the latest two-track, Aherne explores the festival of Samhain, but throws an Ace of Base cover as a b-side (“it’s okay, because it’s one of the tracks that isn’t written by the Nazi one in the band”). Earlier releases – each presented with a kind of abstract, newspaper print EP cover – include a cover of Lally Stott’s 70s hit ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’ and a jaunty summer ode to doing things yourself and Factor 50 sunscreen.

Things have been more fantastically odd in the past, though, like the time Aherne released a jokey press release for a track claiming that he’d died. Having taken it seriously, an American publication ultimately released a brief expose ‘revealing’ that the musician – who’d never been less than active on social media in the meantime – was still going strong.

“There was some grief,” he recalls. “Some blog ran a piece on the track, saying that sadly I’m dead now. The PR ‘story’ was that the track was put together from shoeboxes under the bed. The comments section had some mad stuff in it after people realised. There was one guy who said he couldn’t believe this guy, and that I deserved to be dead, and someone who is dead should get to take my place. Then a Chicago place did an expose that I’m not actually dead. I did find it funny.”

Julie Feeney: a Comeback Adventure in Balian Beats

The award-winning Galway opera-pop singer and composer joins an unusual Gamelan orchestra collaboration in Dun Laoghaire.

Combining a plethora of talents, Julie Feeney exploded onto the Irish music scene in 2005 with ‘13 Songs’, a delicately perfect Choice Music Prize winning album on which she personally plays no less than eleven instruments.

Renowned for her theatrical and intimate live performances, she’s gone on to tour the world, write operas, play a ten-night stint at the National Concert Hall, become influential in fashion circles, and even qualify as a primary school teacher.

It’s been a quiet few years for Feeney, however, and the way she’s chosen to return might surprise. Having contributed to an album alongside them in 2015, Feeney is now performing live as a much-valued guest of the Irish Gamelan Orchestra.

Gamelan is the traditional formal, orchestral style of Java and Bali, in Indonesia, and it’s visually spectacular. It consists of drum and xylophone-style instruments, some of which are made out of metal, and some wood, alongside vocals and key changes far outside of western orchestral norms.

Feeney was originally brought into the Irish Gamelan Orchestra as part of their collaborative approach to music. The collective invited star musicians with a classical edge – like the Galway-born pop-opera fanatic, and Belfast’s piano-meets-poetry artist Duke Special – to contribute alongside spoken word acts like author Joseph O’Connor (Ghost Light) and ex-Riverdance man Colin Dunne.

While the project is very much an aside for Feeney, it clearly evokes a passion. “The orchestra is almost overwhelming, physically,” she explains. “The set up, with the guests, probably sounds a bit like a variety performance, but it really isn’t. They asked different composers to contribute pieces, and I originally composed a short 20-minute piece with Michael Murphy to play at a college launch. I’m very lucky, I don’t really get asked to do things that don’t sound great to me, and this was really exciting from the start.”

Famine Tales: Declan O’Rourke Returns with Meticulously Researched Stories of Old Ireland

Sat somewhere in the realm where storytelling and music meet, Dubliner Declan O’Rourke has spent more than a decade researching his latest offering. It may just be his magnum opus.

Declan O’Rourke is not your typical modern-day musician. Having powered onto the Irish music scene in 2004 with debut ‘Since Kyabram’, he became a radioplay mainstay with hit single ‘Galileo (Someone Like You)’.

After touring with Bob Dylan and Snow Patrol, though, O’Rourke was not to be lured by the temptation to repeat the same trick. Instead, he’s stood a million miles from pop tropes, writing on the workhouses his grandfather worked in, or ruminating on arranged marriages. At times, he’s had the RTE Concert Orchestra on board. At others, his music has been beautifully toned-down and delicate.

This latest release, ‘Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine’, is the result of sixteen years of research into the untold stories of the 1840s, a passion product that’s been a rumbling constant in the background of O’Rourke’s entire career so far.

“It just took that long to research,” O’Rourke tells the Gazette of the chunk of his life dedicated to this album. “It needed that. Regular songs come and go, but when you’re dealing with something where the material is based on information that you have to find, there are mountains and mountains to wade through.”

“What I was looking for was personal stories. There’s a lot of legislative information and political background about the famine, but the personal accounts are few and far between. Most of Ireland’s poor were illiterate at the time. Then there was the phenomenon of not talking about it afterwards. Stories that were passed down just kind of died out.”

So O’Rourke dug in, searching out tales from every corner. “If you keep going through books, you eventually find voices and stories,” he explains. “Then it’s about finding the best ones to get an overview of things, and paint different sides of what happened. Part of it was also about making sure I didn’t miss out any really important bits. I’m not an avid reader, so it was laborious. The crafting of the songs themselves wasn’t so hard, but because of the academic nature, you’re second guessing yourself to make sure you’ve got it right.”

50 RO’CK: The Middle-Aged Return of Ross O’Carroll Kelly

Rory Nolan as Ross O’Carroll Kelly

After twenty years of poking fun at south Dublin’s posh rugby culture, Rory Nolan reprises Foxrock’s main man at the Gaiety. This time he’s in his 50s.

Ross O’Carroll Kelly, Paul Howard’s satirical Irish Times mainstay, recently reached twenty years of printed tales. Howard’s rich, pretentious, egotistical and utterly hilarious rugby-loving character has had quite a ride. In the various tomes released over the years, he’s rescued friends from an African country he can’t pronounce, managed the Andorran rugby team, interfered in north-Dublin gang wars, and come up with more excuses for where he might have been last night than we could possibly recall.

The latest full-length offering, entitled ‘Operation Trumpsformation,’ was released last month In it the main man is knee deep in it again, while his dad is running a political campaign to build a wall around Cork, offending all comers, and wearing a suspiciously Trumpian hairpiece.

While the books are very much a present-day parallel universe, the theatre version of Ross runs to a different timescale: ‘Postcards From The Ledge’ leaves behind the present, and heads for the year 2029. The main man is running an estate agent, his daughter about to marry a man he loathes, and our hero still just a few good matches away from the Ireland squad, naturally. Rory Nolan plays Ross, as he has in the previous three different O’Carroll Kelly stage sagas, and this time he’ll be going it alone.

“I can’t wait for people to see it,” Nolan tells us. “‘Postcards From The Ledge’ has Ross on the cusp of fifty years old. He’s the managing director of Hook, Lyon and Sinker, and life has been good to him, Ireland is attuned in a way that it’s a good place to be if you’re Ross O’Carroll Kelly. We meet him on a day when he’s valuing a house in South Dublin, which turns out to be where he grew up, in Sallynoggin. Obviously, he’d rather it was in a different country. It’s conjuring up all kinds of memories for him.”

“At the same time, his daughter Honour is getting married to a guy he really doesn’t approve of. Maybe he’s everything that Ross isn’t. He’s on the road to total meltdown, and it just makes for great comedy. People love to see his up and downs, but I think they want him to get there in the end, too. I’m always surprised how audiences are always gunning for him. They really want  to see Ross win.”

Ross, of course, isn’t the brightest spark, and that’s part of the challenge for Nolan. “It is quite hard to act as stupid as Ross is,” he admits. “But Paul’s writing, I’ve really never come across anything quite like it. Playing Ross intertwines the comedy and the character. You have to follow the timing of what Ross is doing. It’s quite unaware. If you tried to acknowledge what was going on, it would fall flat on its face. There’s always something at stake for these characters, though, so it’s not just humor for the sake of humor.”

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: Too Much Love in the Internet Age

American indie icon Alec Ounsworth talks fame, and how you get past it.

THERE WERE A FEW months in 2005 when Philadelphia indie band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah were very much ‘the next big thing’. The brainchild of frontman Alec Ounsworth (who also writes all the music released under the moniker), the band’s pre-album demos made them one of the most vaunted of early internet hype bands. The eponymous debut album sold so well it needed a second pressing in weeks, with the presence of David Bowie at early shows only adding to the buzz.

If you were feeling particularly harsh, you could argue things never got any better for Ounsworth. The self-titled debut is certainly a recognisable and memorable entity for any mid-00s indie fan, but follow up ‘Some Loud Thunder’ (2007) never reached the same highs, and the notoriety of the sound Ounsworth invented in his bedroom has only declined since. Ounsworth, though, is happy just doing his thing.

“It was a little disconcerting,” he says of those early highs. “I felt like I had no control over what was going on. I had built a bit of a cult following around Brooklyn and New York at the time, but suddenly I went from playing shows to hundreds, to playing for thousands.”

“The second album was a bit of a reaction to overexposure. A lot of people had a lot of expectations of me, and I felt like it had nothing to do with me. I felt like I burnt out pretty quickly, and the first track, in particular, was a reaction to that. While I wasn’t trying to alienate anyone, the first album wore me down. I wasn’t really bothered if anyone liked the second one. I did it for me.”

The opening track on that second album Ounsworth’s referring to isn’t exactly subtle in its fame-rejecting credentials. ‘All this talking, you’d think I’d have something to say,’ he croons, adding ‘breaking glass, and pretending to start something big’.

“I don’t measure things by the past anymore,” he explains. “I’m more comfortable with who I am now, and with the level of venues, and fame, that I’m at. I won’t resist attention outright, but I feel like it has to be natural and honest, and it didn’t feel like that the first time around.”

Theatrical Poetry-Pop in Duke Special’s Latest Adventure

Belfast’s most enigmatic man turns his musical lense on another poignant theme

INVENTIVE BELFAST solo artist Duke Special’s latest album is imaginatively different even by his standards. Peter Wilson – a mainstay of Northern Ireland’s boisterous music scene – has long drawn influence from his surrounds. These include an album based entirely on a Paul Auster novel, and another based on the work of famous photographers featured in the New York’s MMA.

Wilson jokes that his latest release, is influenced by “gardening,” (a genuine love of his) but quickly gets down to the real detail of forthcoming ninth album ‘Hallow’: putting to music the poems of popular Belfast writer Michael Longley.

“Poems don’t tend to have choruses,” Wilson explains of the challenges of the tracks, which carefully mirror Longley’s originals. “I have a huge amount of respect for Michael, and I felt I had to be really careful about how I used his work. Some of his poems have a great refrain or a line at the heart of things that I could use, but to make them work I had to live with things a bit.”

“I wrote one song over a year ago and gave it to him. He was speaking at an event, and he was really delighted and encouraging,” Wilson said of now 78-year-old Longley. “After that I sent him stuff as I went along, including artwork, stuff like that. I really felt like it was a great responsibility. It was both wonderful and scary”

Wilson is being typically modest: under the Duke Special moniker he’s become a stunningly delicate performer, basing his style on intricate and smartly-charming piano tracks, soulful, honeyed vocals, and a turn of phrase Longley himself would no doubt appreciate.

Bringing his influences very much from the music hall days, he’s a theatrical, dreadlocked, vaudeville-style performer, seemingly aiming to connect deeply with his crowds. Wilson has twice been nominated for Ireland’s national music prize, Choice. He tells us he likes to be “a bit of an enigma on stage,” and has referred to his look at “hobo chic.”

Much like his earlier work – check out hit singles ‘Freewheel’ and ‘No Cover Up’ to get a feel – ‘Hallow’ very much draws from the old school of music. It’s written almost entirely around piano and vocals. Sure, Wilson layers in plenty of other instrumentation such as double bass and guitar that he describes as “layered and embedded around” the main tracks, but the heart of his music is very much one man, one great tune, and a piano.

Otherkin: The Great Rock ‘n Roll Gamble

Half the band left behind medical qualifications to hit the rock scene, so what makes Otherkin fit to succeed?

Otherkin Official photo – credit Jake Hazeldine

THE COVER of Otherkin’s debut album – much like the band’s borderline maniacal live performances – is one big, bold statement. Ahead of the release of ‘Ok’ this month, two members of the band got the album title tattooed on the inside of their wrists.

It fits in with the band’s heady, in-your-face rock vibe (they call themselves ‘grunge-pop’), one that’s made David Anthony, Luke Reilly, Rob Summons and Conor Andrew Wynne famous (in certain quarters) for roughly-hewn pop-rock ditties, but also for crowd surfing and brash, buzzing gigs. The cover, and new symbol of the band, feels symbolic: it’s simply that tattooed arm reaching for the sky.

Their story of the album begins with a shot in the dark, and a certain amount of characteristic mayhem. “We decided to take a gamble on an expensive video for our first single,” vocalist Reilly tells us of the loveable fury of ‘Ay Ay’, “and insist that if a label wanted to sign us, they take the video as part of the deal. It worked out well [the video now has in excess of 100,000 views in its various YouTube guises].”

When it came to recording ‘Ok’, it was important to keep a similarly raw vibe. Recording music, typically, requires click tracks, steady hands and carefully constructed ‘perfect’ versions of songs, often layered from individual instrumental setups. Looking to maintain that live buzz, however, Otherkin’s recording sessions saw Reilly “charging about the place with a bottle of wine in his hand. We built our reputation as a live band, and it was important to capture that on the record,” Summons tells us.

“I think it does that,” he continues. “We used to get this wonderful backhanded compliment a lot, ‘you guys are way better live’. We’re hoping people will hear this album and feel we’ve grabbed hold of what they liked about that.”

Blood or Whiskey: Celtic Punk on a Wing and a Prayer

The long-running Irish punk act fuse The Dubliners and The Clash in a memorable, brash, political barrage.

Earlier this year, trad-punks Blood or Whiskey spent a month touring the US. Playing 26 shows as a support act for Dropkick Murphys in just 30 days, they added to a growing reputation in American punk circles. Then they came back to Ireland to resume their day jobs.

It’s a strange aspect of the Celtic punk scene – which typically fuses trad tropes, tin whistles, Irish folk and harmonica – that the two biggest acts in the genre have only loose, emigrant links with Ireland. On our shores, it’s seen as very much a musical niche.

Dropkick Murphys are Boston Irish, while Flogging Molly – an act Blood Or Whiskey supported in the Olympia Theatre just two weeks ago – are led by Dave King, born in a pre-gentrification Dublin 4 tenement, but very much based out of L.A. In terms of home-brewed Celtic punk stylings, Blood Or Whiskey are as big as they come, and regularly tour with both the rowdy American acts.

They might be heading on their first punk rock cruise this summer, but getting by hasn’t proved so easy back home, as frontman Dugs Mulhooly explains: “we definitely get more offers from the US and central Europe. People don’t see it as a thing here, because it is us [as a nation], it is what we do.”

“We’ve seen Japanese bands play music with an Irish crossover, though, but in general, Irish music is saturated here. People know these songs. We remember when Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys weren’t filling big venues here. They’d be playing 4,000, 5,000 when we went out with them elsewhere, but grinding it out here. That has changed now, but it hasn’t always been like that.”

For Blood Or Whiskey, though, the punk DIY ethos – building it yourself – is important. “To record an even half decent album costs eight or nine thousand quid,” drummer Chris O’Meara, the other remaining original member of a band that formed in 1994, explains.

“it’s a costly adventure. If you have a record label backing you that’s one thing, but we do it ourselves all the time. We don’t believe in Fundit, in going to the fans. You shouldn’t be begging people to make you a rock star. We all go to work, and do jobs with our hands as well. The thought of asking someone to give me money to release an album… I don’t believe in fleecing your punters to bring out albums. You do it yourself.”