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The Free-Wheeling Reincarnation of O Emperor

Returning to the scene after a break of a couple of years, O Emperor leave behind their hang-ups, delving into a free-spirited, avant-garde, industry-ignoring new phase. The Waterford act are back, but not as you know them…

When they burst onto the Irish music scene with major-label debut Hither Thither, O Emperor were a band known for their meticulous attention to detail. They wrote beautiful, haunting indie-pop songs that meandered wonderfully, every note carefully adjusted in agonised-over studio recordings.

That startling attention to detail was a blessing and a curse: at times a constraint on the release of the band’s music, but creating a distinctive and much-loved sound that propelled them to national attention. In hindsight, frontman Paul Savage admits “We needed to let that perfectionism go and accept that at a certain point what we’ve done is actually fine. We used to obsess over things like the exact level of reverb. Looking back, I don’t think other people really notice or care about things like that.”

After a couple of years away, O Emperor returned having done a full 180. New single ‘Make It Rain’ is the first offering from an as yet untitled new album, and the first of a series of pre-album singles set to come out over the course of a year. The band also completed their live return with first show in some time last week at Cork’s Quarter Block Party.

“We did most of the recording two years ago, but we’ve only got to mixing now,” Savage explains. “We’re very bad at taking our time with things. We got a notion to go ahead with it now, though, so we’ve gone ahead. We’ve gone really rough and ready with stuff. It’s actually written live. It’s just live jams. We recorded two to three hours of us jamming and picked out bits we liked, and chopped up and constructed some bits in the edit. Then we added the vocals later, but even the vocals were kind of made up on the spot in some cases.”

“It’s influenced by things like Sun Ra, Can, and krautrock stuff, and really concentrates on atmosphere. It can actually be quite difficult to reproduce live, and it’s really radically different to anything we’ve done before. It’s already evolved quite a lot from the record in rehearsal and in the live show, as it’s very difficult to actually reproduce what you did before. There are clashed notes, odd chords, stuff like that.”

“We’re trying to base the live show in a framework and jam around that,” he continues, “which can be hard to do, especially where you’re nervous. It’s easy to mess up on the spot, but it’s really exciting to do.”

Music Magpies: the Eclectic Indie Beats of Django Django

Having bounced from a bedroom-DIY debut that brought a Mercury Prize nomination, to a follow up they seem to have dismissed as an uninspired blip, Django Django – an almost impossible band to peg – are back with a third album, ‘Marble Skies’, and heading for Dublin..

Django Django have been hovering around the edges of a burgeoning indie scene for years, hard to define but easy to love. They draw in aspects of straight-up indie rock, electro-punk, mild psychedelic tendencies and plenty of varied, often-sampled beats.

The entire concept seems to hang on limitless experiment, something that’s evolved strongly through their careers, and now revolves around a large practise room in Tottenham (North London), crammed with their monstrous vinyl collection and all the instrumentation they need.

“We have to take it a little differently now,” frontman Vincent Neff – a native of Derry – says of the band’s everyday life. “When we’re back in London, it’s very much a normal working schedule, as some of us have families, so the whole all-night, up drinking while we write music thing is largely a thing of the past. That’s totally different on tour, of course, but when we’re recording we have to consider family life.”

“What we produce comes largely from a lack of belief in genre. Dave [Maclean, the band’s producer and drummer] has a crazy techno record collection, while the other lads have other influences. There are five or six new records coming into the practise space every week. Growing up in the 90s you were going to a gig one night and a rave the next, listening to the Happy Mondays and hard house. I don’t really understand how anyone can just be into a genre, and come out with stuff like ‘I just listen to techno’. That idea eroded for us a long time ago.”

There are difficulties with that variety, of course, not least in Django Django’s textured and nuanced sound being extremely difficult to reproduce live. “It takes a long time to sort,” Neff admits, laughing. “You get onto the stage and it sounds different. There are definitely some songs we just can’t do, and others that are different live, that we change the rhythm of, or use different instruments.”

“Some songs we try for a few minutes as a live setup and it’s immediately obvious it’s just not going to work. Others we kind of stumble on solutions.”

Bags of Talent: the Offbeat Charm of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers

Red Hot Chilli Pipers – an award-winning Scottish bagpipe band not to be confused with the Los Angeles rockers who inspired their name – are famed for their live show. With more than a dozen bagpipers and drummers on stage, they cover Avicii and AC/DC, Coldplay and Journey, whilst explore trad traditions, and absolutely pulsating with bouncing energy.

It didn’t start like this, though. In fact, the group leapt to prominence as the star of ‘When Will I Be Famous?’, a sub-X Factor TV show. They were a fantastic novelty, but one that was clearly going to have to adapt to survive the usual post-show drop-off. And adapt they did.

“When we won the TV show, we didn’t even have a website,” bagpiper Willie Armstrong recalls. “We got lots of offers to play and it was an incredibly exciting time for us all. Bear in mind most of us had other jobs, so it did get a little stressy.”

“The big difference between our band and the many other acts that have been through the same thing is that we are incredibly hard working. We realised very quickly that the fan base was really driven by the TV show; people were fans of the TV show and not necessarily fans of the band. We still had to build a fan base.”

“If we had nothing to offer, the gigs would have dried up quickly. We had to make sure our product was strong enough that people would come back, and they’d come back with their friends.”

The live show, then, has become the band’s thing. Naturally, that leans on a certain amount on the recognisability in their tracks, but also on the unique twist that the bagpipes and drums put on them.

“We have invested a great deal in the production side of our shows,” Armstrong explains. “Our lighting engineer flies in from Poland, and we have the two best sound engineers in the business. The equipment we use is all top of the range. Every part of the live show is recorded and then dissected after each performance. Nothing is left to chance as we have too much respect for the paying audience.”

Take out the calipers: the thick-skinned return of Paddy Hanna

Having put aside his demons and tackled the dramas of recording an album that really didn’t go to plan, Paddy Hanna’s had a rocky road to his sophomore release, but he’s staring proudly over those roadblocks.

Castleknock native Paddy Hanna has been in a fair few bands in his time, but over the last few years, he’s been operating under his own moniker, drawing the crowds through the distinctive vocals of his leftfield indie-pop ditties.

A former core member of popular and borderline-defunct DIY collective Popical Island and frontman for one of their key acts, Grand Pocket Orchestra, Hanna released his debut album ‘Leafy Stiletto’ in 2014. Years later, his return with his latest ‘Frankly, I Mutate’ might be greatly delayed, but has already drawn the attention of the likes of NME and Stereogum through its early singles. His style is one of emotive vocals, gorgeous yet jarring instrumentals and slow-building, dramatic peaks.

It’s been a difficult road for Hanna, though, who’s never been afraid to speak his mind on the problems musicians face. “Things are totally different this time,” he tells us. “I’ve had line up changes and life changes. I’ve tackled some mental health issues; spent some time on finding things that work. I started working on this album when I went onto medication. I was looking at things with a new clarity.”

Things were to go a little haywire, though, with the recording process brutally interrupted, and the album release – originally planned for last year – heavily delayed. “I lost my manager half way through the two weeks in the studio,” Hanna recalls. “It was strange, as he’d introduced me to Daniel [Fox, the producer who was to be heavy influence on the album’s style], and really set this project in motion.”

“The wall of sound affect Daniel introduced is an essential element on the new album. It was our project, in many ways, but my old manager decided half way through that he didn’t want to carry on. It’s a funny one. You’ll hear it on the album. Half the tracks are me excited about being back in the studio, and have that feel to them. The other half are very different. After the manager left there was some drinking and some really wasted vocal takes. I guess the contrast is part of the mystique of it.”

Astonishingly, the studio was to close shortly after Hanna’s recording, too, meaning a number of tweaks to the record had to be done elsewhere, further complicating the process by the requirement for a new studio a fresh set up. Eventually, the seasoned performer – at something of a loose end – hooked up with Galway music legend and Roisin Dubh main man Gugai, who will release ‘Frankly, I Mutate’ on his Strange Brew label.

Future Stars? 2018’s Most Likely in Irish Music

As we edge into another year, we can’t help but look ahead to 2018 in Irish music, casting a glance the way of the country’s great hopes. There’s plenty to be excited about, from a rising hip-hop scene to plenty of impressive and lairy rockers, but we’ve narrowed it down to just seven rising stars. Here are our picks for Ireland’s most likely breakthrough artists for the next twelve months…

Jafaris

Ireland’s hip-hop scene seems to get better by the day, and while Rusangano Family are the much-acclaimed kings, Jafaris – who played Ngig in Sing Street – is coming up fast on the outside. With a quick quip constantly to the ready and a live show that seems to wow everyone before him, the Diffusion Labs rapper is working on a 2018 album as a follow up to the sensational Velvet Cake EP. Add the man to your ‘must see’ list before he starts playing anywhere bigger: when a vocalist delivers this kind of cuttingly intense honesty together with the boisterous on-stage persona that Jafaris has made his own, the result is certain to fly. [website]

Bitch Falcon

After a patchy 2017 that saw the three-piece undergo a personnel change, this grungy Dublin outfit are all set to fly once again. They seemed to be everywhere for a little while, with their pounding, intense live show backed up with an early single nodding to obscure parts of the body (TMJ) amongst a sprinkling of lairy, crafted riff-laden tracks. They have a cult-like following on the Irish guitar scene, and November’s new single ‘Of Heart’ created some buzz in the UK music press, too. And who wouldn’t want band merch with that particular band named emblazoned all over it. In a word, ferocious. Brilliantly so. [website]

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New Year Festival: A Very Dublin New Year

Custom House Quay during Dublin New Year Festival

Kodaline, light, aerial performers, brave water-tech and drumming mayhem: what to see at Dublin’s New Year Festival

It’s that time again: the year’s most anticipated night out, followed by a hungover vow to change yourself for the better, a gym owner’s favourite couple of weeks, the odd salad, and finally everything getting back to normal.

Dublin’s New Year Festival has been lighting up the city (literally) over the last few years, and has slowly expanded from mainly a big gig to a whole lot more. This year’s stars are massive Swords band Kodaline, who will be accompanied by Keywest and Hudson Taylor in an extremely local-leaning pop-fest lineup.

That core event is long since sold out, but there’s plenty of other stuff to explore, much of which is free, and spread out across December 31 and January 1. These events include several light displays (which are free ticketed events on the Custom House – register through Ticketmaster), acrobatics, smaller concerts, flyboarding and a host of pop-up performers.

We caught up with a few of the people involved to ask them all about what they do…

Heliosphere

Carrying out acrobatic performances whilst hanging from oversized helium balloons seems like a wacky and potentially dangerous idea, but also a nice way to present gymnasts in a new way, against a bright background, and allow them to perform.

Heliosphere pioneered the concept. “Research, testing and practise,” were key, they say, adding “we research the science so an envelope of just the right size and which is light and strong enough to hold the helium, is used with enough ‘useful lift’ for the aerialist to fly but be manipulated from the ground safely by the crew without so much lift that they fly as well.”

Vulpynes: Bring the Punk, Bring the Noise

Punk two-piece Vulpynes are only three singles old, but already look a good bet for Dublin music’s next big thing. So what has the lairy pair making waves in London and Berlin?

DUBLINERS VULPYNES had an inauspicious start. Formed after drummer/ vocalist Kaz Millar placed an advert on Boards.ie looking to form a band (future partner in crime Maeve Molly McKernan was the first to reply), the post eventually resulted in a four-piece. They played only covers, and lasted mere days.

Millar and McKernan had felt something click, though, and after a brief search for a bassist, decided to start making original material, and to go it alone. Their sound takes much of its inspiration from the 90s. It’s raw, nodding distinctly to acts like Hole, Alice in Chains, L7 and Soundgarden. Riddled with reverb, abrasive and fearless, it comes from a band dynamic that was very much full speed ahead from the off.

“We started off really determined,” McKernan recalls. “We were just eager to play, and took any gig we were offered. It’s a mentality we’ve kind of continued with. We want to play live, and the more people see us, the more people know us. It’s a word of mouth thing. With the UK shows, we reached out to promoters the first time around, and since then we’ve been invited back to do shows. We’re going to Berlin this month, too, and back to the UK in 2018.”

While relatively underground at least for the uninitiated (it’s based largely around a small handful of labels and venues, though there are surprisingly numerous bands), Dublin has long had a powerful and close-knit punk scene, based around lairy nights out, an enticing community spirit and supportive culture.

“It’s a really friendly community of bands,” McKernan explains. “They really want to help each other out, and they love music. It’s that community where we feel at home, and we’ve found it so welcoming. Everyone’s so genuine, with a real community spirit with no backstabbing, and we love it.”

While they connected specifically in order to form the band, the stories of Millar and McKernan’s journeys with punk are surprisingly similar. McKernan’s mum introduced her to bands like L7 and Hole at a young age, and now shows her support for Vulpynes by drawing, producing stunning illustrations of the pair as skeletons, or foxes. Millar’s older sister channeled Nirvana and Alice in Chains into her life.

Super Extra Bonus Party: Return of the Underdogs

Seven years after their last release, Ireland’s favourite indie outliers Super Extra Bonus Party return with a new single. They look back to their blistering best.

IT’S EARLY 2007, and against all the odds, Newbridge band Super Extra Bonus Party are stood on the stage collecting a gong and a large cheque, having taken home the Choice Music Prize for their self-titled debut album.

It’s probably the most controversial decision in the history of the competition. Cathy Davey, Delorentos and Kila are all household names, and all have acclaimed albums up for the award, but it comes as little surprise to those with their ear to the ground of Irish music. An album that’s only touched on the fringes of mainstream consciousness has, in some knowledgeable corners, been hailed as the most inventive Irish album in a decade.

With follow up Night Horses, the hip-hop/ indie fusion act returned with abundant Dublin-scene special guests in 2009, accompanying the searing and memorable release with a series of blistering and beloved live shows, before calling an indefinite hiatus in 2011.

Whispers of a return began as early as 2015, and with November’s new single ‘Switzerland’, the revered six-piece (seventh member Rodrigo Teles has sadly departed Irish shores for his native Brazil) have finally returned to the fray.

“It had been kicking around for a while, but the decision was made out the back of a pub in Dingle in December 2014 as part of a ‘tired and emotional’ chat we all had while on a mate’s stag,” Gavin Elsted tells us. “We felt that we had left things unfinished and without any external pressure, wanted to start working on music just to see if the old spark was still there.”

“It was never about the relationships in the band, because in the intervening years we’d still hang out whenever we could, so when we eventually took the first step into the studio, it was like we never left. There was so much joy at being back where we felt we belonged. I still think in some ways it’s an excuse to hang out a bit more with each other, but at least now we have something to show for it!”