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Stomptown Brass: “bit of an audacious task looking back, but we wanted to host a funeral for the truth”

Stomptown Brass are an eight-piece, sometimes-conceptual brass band famed for their live performances. The Dubliners, in short, are a bit nuts, a lot of fun, and probably far enough from the conventions of popular music that theirs will be a slow but intensely rewarding journey around the fringes. They always look like they’re having an absolute blast.

If I were to start a band, they’d be a bit like this. I caught up with them to see how it’s all going; here’s what Brian Ryan of Stomptown Brass said of their journey so far…

Hi lads, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. How is life in Stomptown Brass right now?

We’re getting a couple of laughs together for our new tour that’s kicking of this month. Having spent the summer practicing new music and getting some recording sessions down we’re looking forward to sharing with your eardrums.

Can you tell me how all this started out for you, and what you thought might come of the idea back when you started?

During the end of our college days, our pal James O’Leary (aka Mr. Music Man) brought a few of us together for Murphy’s ice-cream on Wicklow Street to tell us he wanted to first learn how to play the trombone and second, start a brass band to play his compositions. One of our first tunes was called Rutland Blues in honour of our first practice studio that suffered a collapsed roof causing us to move out fairly lively.

Obviously you’re very much focused on producing a really strong live show. What are the key elements of that, in your views?

We don’t set out to produce or engineer a strong live show. We just aim to incorporate new elements to our shows that we’re interested in and we put a good bit of welly in to try to get it the best we can. Requiem for the Truth show was our first attempt at this, incorporating theatre or something entirely new for a brass band performance. A Show Curious Eyes & Ears was an attempt to make our music more accessible to children (and parents!), and with this new upcoming tour we’re trying something entirely new for us. So hopefully at least two people out there will like it; then bingo, hello international stardom.

Twisted Wheel: “I had issues in the past, but I got the help that I needed and I have changed my lifestyle for the better”

Twisted Wheel are a Manchester institution. Beloved of Liam Gallagher and having gone through a series of ups and downs, playing huge venues and falling apart due to drug problems before recovering to their current touring status, the four-piece have a devoted following away from the radio play world of 21st-century indie.

I spoke to frontman Jonny Brown about the band’s redemption, and the journey so far.

First of all, you took a bit of a break a while back. Have things been any different since you returned?

Massively. The dynamics to the music industry is totally different to how it was ten years ago, and I believe social media has a lot to do with that. We are living in a new age generation where sounding and looking great isn’t the only factor to success as a band, your social media has to look the part too; which in some cases I don’t mind, as I can be more intimate with fans at a click of a button.

You seem pretty confident about the contents of the next album – what constitutes success for you guys at this point?

As an unsigned band, I’m pretty proud of the achievements we have made all on our own and any success big or small we achieve at this point whilst we are unsigned, let’s us know we are heading in the right direction. To name a few big successes: one is getting a number one in the physical charts for our last EP, ‘Jonny Guitar’ and being personally asked to support Liam Gallagher at both Manchester and Finsbury Park, based solely on the fact he enjoys our music. I was also pretty chuffed to hear my all-time hero Shaun Ryder said we were one of his favourite bands to come out of Manchester.

It’s been quite a long time since you last put out a record. Obviously lives change, perspectives change. Did you take a different approach this time around?

Definitely. I’ve grown up a lot. Learnt a hell of a  lot through my mistakes. Developed a better way of living and adapted my creativity to the music industry we have today.

Slowthai: “There’s this hidden side to society that most people don’t see unless they live it”

‘There’s Nothing Great about Britain’ reads the title of Slowthai’s debut album, the cover of which features the man himself in a rustic wooden stockade, restrained naked before a large block of council houses as the occupants look on. 

If you know a little about the history of the Northampton rapper – a rising star of the increasingly pervasive and hard-hitting British hip-hop scene – it’s easy to see why such sentiments would appeal. Slowthai – Tyron Frampton to his friends – was brought up in a tough estate in the East Midlands, and struggled through early life. He’s determined to pay back those less fortunate.

“The 99p tour, it’s because that’s the price of an ice cream,” he laughs about his incredibly cheap recent UK tour. “I don’t want people to miss me because they can’t afford it, you know?”

There will be plenty of people fighting for tickets for the hard-hitting lyricist, a man who’s abrasive style has seen him come on stage in body bags, make videos featuring him wrapped naked around his girlfriend, and produce cutting lyrics dealing with how at one point in his life, drug dealing seemed like the only realistic career choice.

“I did some dumb stuff and I was going nowhere,” Frampton laughs. “I was doing some labouring and working in Next. I got in trouble for giving my friends the employee discount. It was a difficult life. There’s this hidden side to society that most people don’t see unless they live it.”

Frampton found a way out, though, his almost skittishly varied music drawing the attention of the notorious tastemaker poll, BBC Sounds, where he was ranked fourth most likely in British music in 2018. “That was weird,” Slowthai says. “They just called me and told me I was on it. I wasn’t expecting it. I’ve got a lot more attention since, I guess, but these things don’t really matter. I want to be a musician, I don’t really care about that stuff.”

London African Gospel Choir: “Graceland just seemed perfect for the sounds and message of the choir”

Graceland is, for me, quite simply one of the best albums ever made. I’ve never had the time nor the talent to study the music of Paul Simon’s classic back to front, however, so I’m somewhat in awe of a group of musicians who would use their collective talents to adapt it into a beautiful interpretation of the original. Enter the London African Gospel Choir, who have worked with everyone from Tom Jones to Idris Alba in their storied journey so far.

Crystal Kassi, the choir’s founder, told me all about their exploration…

Could you tell me a little about how this project came to be?

Towards the end of 2016, the Columbo Group, who run the Jazz Café, approached us and asked us to cover the album. They had asked us to do cover other artists such as Kanye West, which wouldn’t have been a good fit, but Graceland just seemed perfect for the sounds and message of the choir. It was only supposed to be one show, but it sold out within a day, so we ended up doing 6 shows over 2 weeks in the Jazz Café, Camden and XOYO.

Does it link in with previous projects the choir have done?

Not really, we’ve covered a few songs here and there when they were requested, for corporate events. For example, when singing alongside the Soweto Gospel Choir at the O2 Arena. Graceland was actually quite a challenging project for us, but we’ve used it to push ourselves, and it’s shown us how much we are capable of.

Do you have a personal affinity with ‘Graceland’?

I always loved the album, especially the richness and colour of South African music.

Is there a specific person assigned to play Paul Simon in the performance, or is it a shared role? What about the guest vocalists on the album?

No, we have 8 incredible singers who share the lead vocals throughout the show. Some songs, like Crazy Love are sung as duets. We include Miriam Makeba’s Retreat Song, which was performed in Paul Simon’s 1987 African Graceland Concert.

Obviously, there are some quite substantial South African links on Graceland, which turned out to come at a great time for him. Musically, do the influences stand out to those more familiar with the South African music scene?

Yes, especially amongst the musicians, who are really invested in their art, so would look into the styles of Paul Simon’s band. However, they are all also heavily influenced by the music from their own specific countries, so the audience will get the South African foundation laid by the original composition, with hints of Congolese music, high-life, and East African
tones too.

Dan Sheehan: “I have been becoming increasingly aware of how greed is allowed to cause the air we breathe and the water we drink to become polluted and toxic”

Dan Sheehan, an American rocker with distinctly Irish roots, is currently on a mission to draw awareness to growing global issues through his deep-diving political album ‘Tales From Earth Incorporated’.

In it, Sheehan steps away from his pure rock background and instead dips into a more international sound, taking aim at the corporations that he sees damaging the world around him, and taking advantage of national assets. Green themes, from climate change in general to rising sea levels and an attempt to build a Wallmart next to a Mexican heritage sight fill his lyrics.

With his own musical heritage including a host of musicians who’ve toured alongside Morrissey, Pearl Jam and Yes, Sheehan doesn’t think he can change the world, but is happy lending his voice to an ever-expanding choir of discontent.

Let’s talk about the eco side to your music as, obviously, it’s a big thing for you. The world seems to be coming around to the idea that being green is really important, slowly. How did you come to write a whole album about the idea?

The album is more loosely about the effects of greed on the world, which inevitably brings up what’s happening to the environment. Over the last several years, I have been becoming increasingly aware of how greed is allowed to cause the air we breathe and the water we drink to become polluted and toxic, and I find it insane that we should allow this to continue, so I wanted to raise awareness about just how devastating climate change is, and we also touch on matters such as indigenous rights, which is an important issue in the Americas, and the American refugee crisis which of course also relates to the European refugee crisis.

Can you tell me about some of the people and places you speak about in the album?

There are two songs about Mexico, one called “Teotihuacan” which is an Aztec name for a town with famous Aztec pyramids, next to which Walmart (one of the big American chain stores) wanted to build a large store which was done despite historical zoning and environmental concerns via a massive bribing scheme . One is “Cross the Border” which is both about guns crossing the border from the U.S. to Mexico, and then people crossing over to the U.S. as they flee those very guns. The Pacific Island of Kiribati as while as the Maldive Islands and Bangladesh come up in the song “Wishing Well” which is about how these three nations deal with the rising sea levels from climate change. Two songs are about Africa – “Black Gold” is about Nigerian author Ken Saro-Wiwa and others who were scapegoated and hanged after protesting oil drilling off the coast of Nigeria in the ’90s, whereas “Kimberley” is about Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe forcing men, women and children to mine for diamonds to fund a counter-rebellion. There is also a song about the displacement of indigenous Brazilians currently occurring called “Dam That River.”

SYLK: “We want to let the past inspire us while creating something new with it, too”

They’re new to the Irish music scene, but there’s a substantial story behind SYLK. Having met and dreamed of forming a band as teenagers, they take their inspiration from the mood of 80s synth acts and dingy post-punk, and focus heavily on their atmospheric live show.

The result is a distinct mood, one that fits with smoky backrooms, shoe-gazing slow dances and textured energy. They’re also a distinct part of what they view as an increasingly boisterous queer scene, and in the process of bedding in some great collaborations.

I spoke to the duo in the build-up to festival season, to check out what they’re all about…

You call your music Darkwave, which I understand is a type of underground electronica. Tell us about it…

Yes it is. And we want our music to take you underground, to somewhere dark yet somewhere vivid and energetic. Our tone is inspired by the underground darkwave culture of the 1980s, with the beginning of bands like Depeche Mode & Joy Division. When we listen & learn about past movements in music, like dark-wave, which stood out to us as it has such a mix – new wave, synth-pop, post-punk & gothic rock, we wanted to let the past inspire us while creating something new with it too.

Our sound is inspired by popular culture, we use a lot of synthesizers in our songs, experimenting with them by putting them sounds through loads of different guitar pedals, usually with a lot of distortion! We also record a lot with an electric baritone guitar to create ambient textures and then a lot of vocal manipulations too – something that we really explore after being mind blown by music concrete of the 1940s. We have a love for heavy bass lines and massive minor textures and we think this comes through in a lot of the music we create right now.

I haven’t seen you live show yet but I’m told it’s quite a trippy, spaced-out experience. Is that what you’re going for?

Yeah it is! We aspire for our live shows to be an immersive experience – we want to connect with people and in that time let them forget about everything and get lost in the music, to feel the unknown, an adrenaline buzz, to feel excitement. Our live show is the most important thing for us, we love how it feels to see an artist/band we admire and we wanna create that for our show. When we write our songs, we craft them around our live vision.

Stereophonics: Walking their own Rocky Road

Welsh rockers Stereophonics were once on the brink of becoming one of the great stadium bands. Back in 2002, they headlined Glastonbury after finding fame off the back of two superb early albums. They’d produced a succession of lightly snarling radio hits, lyrically smart and evocative, and took asides into subtle, touching love songs.

Things went off the rails slightly over the years. Former drummer Stuart Cable died. Albums slipped from platinum to gold, and the venues got that little bit smaller as guitar music fell out of fashion. Sticking to their distinctive vocal style and observational songwriting, however, the band maintained a passionate hardcore of fans, and proved their longevity: their still filling fields, if not quite the ones they were nearly two decades ago. 

Latest single ‘Chaos From The Top Down’, is an example of their class. Oddly reminiscent of memorable early single ‘Local Boy In The Photograph’, it references a knife attack that took place at the end of lead man Kelly Jones’ street, and is crammed with lightly abstract points and intelligent lyrics.

“For Kelly, it’s personal because of where it happened,” Jones’ brother Rich, guitarist, explains of the single. “It’s a lack of policing, the politics behind the funding, stuff like that. We always write about what goes on around us, our experiences. I think a lot of our work is along the same lines. It’s not overly political, but there’s always something going on that leads back to politics and politicians.”

“For me, I’ve been listening to Kelly’s lyrics for 25 years, and obviously being brothers we come from very similar backgrounds. He just writes what he believes in, and I think that’s always stood to us.”

It’s certainly served the band, and comes with its own minor issues, such is the depth of their catalogue today. “We’re getting to the point where it’s very difficult to pick setlists,” Jones laughs. “There are some must have songs, some new songs. We have this kind of greatest hits skeleton that we work from, and a few songs that we’ll nearly always play. Tracks like ‘Dakota’ and ‘Local Boy In The Photograph’.” 

Ham Sandwich: Mellowing Into Form

Ham Sandwich (photo by Dara Munnis)

NOW LONG-ESTABLISHED as one of the most desirable suites amongst the Irish indie scene’s popular furnishings, Kells band Ham Sandwich have started taking life at a different pace.

With their boisterous live reputation established and a firm fanbase in tow, there’s no particular need for Niamh Farrell and her band to keep on churning out the tracks. Instead, they’re taking time to explore other interests, hopping in and out of their lives as musicians as the mood strikes them. There are songs being structured, gigs being planned and touchpapers being lit. It’s all just a little more casual, a little more confident than before.

“We’ve just taken a step back, taken a chance to enjoy other sides of our lives for a while,” Farrell explains. “We’re still writing stuff in the background, and working towards releasing an album. We’re not putting too much pressure on ourselves, but we’re keeping the Ham Sandwich train going.”

“The people who generally come to our shows, it’s because they love the live experience, the party atmosphere that we try to bring to every gig. It’s a good thing when we go back to gigging, it’s really exciting when we haven’t done one in a while, like now.”

Ham Sandwich will be breaking their time-out with a debut 2019 show at Leopardstown Live in early June, at a venue Farrell has fond memories of. “It’s really good fun, sort of a fun early-afternoon evening thing,” she says. “You get a race named after you. It’s really good craic, and it’s the kind of gig where you might get a few people who haven’t seen us before.”

“Last time I had to stand there while the horses walked around me in a circle and pick out my favourite. I put a €2 bet on and it won, so that was good fun.”