Newly expanded to an eighteen-piece and back with a beautiful concept album dedicated to a key moment in Irish history (just in time for St Patrick’s Day), Spook Of The Thirteenth Lock look set to cement their place as one of Ireland’s most original acts…
There’s very little conventional about Spook Of The Thirteenth Lock. Their conversation flits happily between their pervasive politics – substantially left-leaning – and the charisma of their music. They work on albums for years before launching them onto the market, playing relatively rarely, with a focus on areas like historical accuracy. They also make sure they enjoy the ride.
The product is rock that’s riddled with Irish influence and hefty chords, but also comfortably distinct from trad, the Irish punk scene or even local folk.
Their growth has been an incremental one, in a sense, though rarely less than fantastically ambitious. “We started out as a four-piece, around 2006,” guitarist Enda Bates tells us. “For the second album we bounced up to a five-piece, then added an extra guitar. After that last album, we started to change our approach, and added all the extra guitars.”
That growth to an eighteen-piece has seen Spook Of The Thirteenth Lock develop into a different kind of band, one that’s able to produce layered power and gorgeous, jarring nuance.“Technically it is a full orchestra,” Bates explains, “in that its lots of different people playing the same part. There’s the core group, and they take care of the more complex, melodic stuff, and then the guitars are divided into four parts, playing together.”
“There are some American groups that put together symphonies for one hundred or two hundred electric guitars, but there’s not much out there like it. It’s an incredible sound, it’s like the comparison between one violin and an orchestra of violins. You get this really thick, slightly jarring feel.”
“It was something we were always interested in,” he explains of the change, and it kind of thematically fit with Lockout, with the big groups of workers all working together.” The Lockout he refers to, of course, is the industrial dispute between 20,000 worker s and their employees that took place over the rights of workers to unionise and preposterous working conditions, led by Jim Larkin and James Connolly in late 1913 and early 1914. The Lockout had impacts across Dublin society.
“You really have to do your reading for something like this,” vocalist Allen Blighe says of the project, having approached the new album with all the vigour of a passionate historian. “We got a few different sources. There was a housing collapse on Church Street in Inner City Dublin, for example, that killed a lot of people. It was kind of the Grenfell Tower of its time. There’s a very short book that’s recently been put out locally in Stoneybatter about it that’s very powerful. That was a big influence.”
“Some of our songs in the previous albums had historical themes, but they were distinct songs,” Bates recalls. “With this one we wanted to tell the story of the Lockout on a full album. Before we had much music written, we already had the narrative and structure all planned out. We knew the lyrical ideas, which is the other way round to how we used to work in the past, with the music coming first.”
Those narratives filter naturally into the music. “We use this very harmonious open tuning on all the guitars to represent the strength and unity of the unions,” Blighe explains. “But then there are the dark moments in the story, in which we very deliberately create dissonance, whether it’s rhythmic or harmonic dissonance, to represent those themes. There’s also big and small. There’s all guns blazing, all guitars going, and different points where it really shrinks back.”
“In terms of arrangement, it can be really interesting. It uses the dynamic range in different ways. It’s not just a noise fest. In fact it’s quite sparse at times.”
Blighe and Bates aren’t afraid to express their own admiration for the Lockout strikers, or their sense that the relative absence of such collective action is a sad reflection of modern society. “It’s about capital versus labour, ultimately,” Blighe says, “even if it’s not really expressed that way anymore.”
“Historically we lost the battle of the Lockout, but when World War I broke out there was no surplus of labour anymore, so it was a superficial failure, as there was no surplus of labour anymore. The union involved became SIPTU, still the biggest union in the country. It created conditions for what came next.”
“There are huge differences between then and now, but there are some themes,” he argues. “That capital against labour fight is still very much relevant.Tenement slums back then were full of vermin, and people were struggling for food. It was about accommodation, and the security of accommodation is a huge things again now. One of the successes of capital, I guess, has been to take that debate out of the equation. It’s not really discussed anymore.”
The 1916 anniversary, though, has brought some clarity to the era, in Bates opinion. “It’s perhaps less mythologised, and treated with a bit more context. I remember the Lockout being talked about in very positive terms, but not being explained as this socialist action.”
“As a subject, though, it’s handy in a way. We’ve always liked tying our songs together, with big intros and outros, and this is just that idea times ten. It’s complex, but it’s cohesive, and you know where you’re going.” The journey might have had its simplistic sides, tonally at least, but the result is spectacular: a deep, detailed and original album no other Irish act could have written.
Spook Of The Thirteenth Lock play Dublin’s Pepper Canister Church on March 16, as part of the St Patrick’s Day Festival, with support from Landless. ‘Lockout’ is released the same day.
This article is part of my weekly music column for the Dublin Gazette, reproduced here with permission. Note: this column is published in the Dublin Gazette several days ahead of on this website. The Gazette is a freesheet paper available across Dublin, published on a Thursday. Pick up copies at these locations.
View the article as printed below: