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Robocobra Quartet: “We have a kind of Jekyll and Hyde thing, like a Trojan horse”

Belfast band Robocobra Quartet flit around in the margins of an unusual genre combination, somewhere between hard-edged rock and jazz. It’s an intentional fusion of disparate experimentation, an unusual, blended sound that makes the group difficult to sum up, but fascinating to explore.

Having won acclaim from the likes of the BBC and The Guardian, the (often, but not always) four-piece are busy working away on their new record, which Chris Ryan – a man with the unusual combined role of drummer and vocalist – took the time to talk us through.

“We’re writing a new record, and we’ve always wanted to do something different every time with our work,” he explains. “The last one was kind of Brian Wilson like, a bit manic with lots of different things, like half songs with different bands, nuts studio stuff, that kind of thing. This time, we’re doing a thing a bit more like Black Flag or The Ramones, just playing the entire set for a year live and then going into the studio and putting it down almost as it is when we do it live. It’s very different.”

“We try not to do a straight up reproduction of our recordings live. We try to improvise a lot, I think that resonates more with people. I think live is where people normally ‘get’ us, and the record takes a bit longer. I guess that’s one of the reasons we’ve gone for a more straightforward live recording. I do a lot of work producing bands for a living, so in some ways Robocobra Quartet are a kind of guinea pig for the things I’m trying out.”

There are advantages to being seen as sliding along the edges of two distinct styles of music, and one of the keys to Robocobra’s huge variety of styles of show is the band’s ability to walk those lines to their advantage, and keep a foot in each of the punk and jazz camps.

“We were lucky in a sense that the [Northern Irish] Arts Council, who helped fund our last album, was to an extent immune from the political problems up here,” Ryan explains. “I guess in a way, the good things take a long time to trickle down, but the bad things do, too, so there were still good people in the Arts Council doing their jobs and helping out, even before the power sharing arrangement.”

Alex Tierney: “I was just hanging out at home and within a couple of minutes I was preparing for my biggest gig so far”

Alex Tierney had barely started out when he got the call to play one of Dublin’s most noted venues, the Olympia Theatre, supporting a huge chart name in Lewis Capaldi at just a couple of days’ notice.

The 20-year-old, who’s very much taken with the hip-hop and production, but lays it over more pop-style tunes, launched his debut single ‘Over The Maybes’ last month.

He’s already been the subject of plenty of label interest, but for now the focus is personal developmnet. I spoke to him about the journey so far..

Congrats on the debut single. It seems like our unusual times played into its production. Has the shutdown kind of worked for you?

Definitely, the lockdown really helped me focus on just making music and working at my own pace so I think I’m making some of my best work at the moment.

How did you find the process of writing, recording and producing entirely by yourself?

I started writing it right at the start of lockdown and didn’t know what vibe it was gonna be until I found the right guitar effect then that sort of set the tone. The recording and producing side of things was a really fun experience because at home there’s no studio time limit so myself and my brother just made the most of the equipment we had at our family home during lockdown and everything just fell into place.

Can you tell me a little about the story behind the track?

The song is basically about that feeling so many people can relate to where you know how you feel about someone and the situation feels so right but maybe there’s something holding them back from telling you how they feel.

The Lewis Capaldi support slot is some grab considering you didn’t have any music out at the time. How did it come about?

Lewis got in touch with my manager two days before the show and asked if I’d like to support him. I was just hanging out at home and within a couple of minutes I was preparing for my biggest gig so far which was pretty insane!

How did you find the experience playing on a stage like that?

Playing on that stage was unbelievable! Growing up in Dublin, the Olympia Theatre is definitely one of those milestone venues that every musician wants to play in so to get the opportunity to open up for one of my favourite acts there this early in my career was incredible! On top of that, I think it was one of my best performances yet which just made it that bit more special.

Hinds: “We have always loved live shows, we toured almost the whole world before putting any albums out”

Spanish indie four-piece Hinds are something of an exception to the restrictive conventions that have typically governed their genre. Indie rock has traditionally, to an almost ludicrous degree, been the preserve of quite a specific grouping, largely white, male and set in modern English-speaking cities. 

The Madrid-based four-piece, consisting of three Spanish women and Dutch drummer Amber Grimbergen, are a welcome change of pace that sit a long, long way from those traditions. It’s been harder to break in from that outsider perspective. Indie rock bands from non-English speaking Europe that succeed in places like Ireland are a real rarity. That Hinds have succeeded, recently returning from a tour supporting The Strokes that stopped off in Belfast, speaks volume for the quality of their music.

“I think we may have seemed ‘exotic’ playing kind of American music with Spanish accents,” Grimbergen laughs when I ask her about their status in the genre. “I think people are getting more used to girls in bands, and girls on stages, and it’s no longer “the thing to talk about,” but I still think it is harder for girls in music and we still get more shit than male artists.”

Hinds were on the verge of releasing their third album, ‘The Prettiest Curse’, when the coronavirus hit, halting their ever-popular tours, and ultimately halting the album, too, with its release pushed back for happier times.

“It feels amazing to have it done,” Grimbergen says. “It was a long process, building this album, way longer than the previous two albums. It sounds so different, it really is a good third album, in my opinion, and we were all so excited to finally put it out.”

“We weren’t really sure about the delay being the right move, but it seems it was. It was just intuition, and seeing the whole world was going to be shut down… it didn’t make sense to keep the original release date. The new one feels like good timing.”

Strange Bones: “I often get hit in the face with a guitar”

A quick glance at Strange Bones‘ demeanor probably gives a solid idea of what to expect from the feisty Blackpool band. Fronted by the imposing, tattooed Bobby Bentham, a man who has been known to lead the band live in a face-covering gas mask, the punky, protest-embracing sound feels a natural fit.

The band, after all, are underdogs, if born of strong underdog stock. Having grown up surrounded by early-punk gristle, they’re off the beaten track when it comes to music’s city trends, and willing – see it as their duty, almost – to hit the road hard. The gritty, hotly-tipped act are most likely to rise through their pulsating live show.

“We’ve gone for a bit more of a breakbeat vibe,” Bentham tells me of what will be their second EP, ‘Blitz Part 2’, which references different sides to their upbringing. “Three of us in the band are brothers, and our parents kind of threw us into the breaking world of punk music at a very young age. It was a good environment to nurture a bit of an attitude towards life.”

“As we grew up and we managed to get out of Blackpool, we also got heavily into electronic music, a lot of jungle and dub. I like to mix it up, to constantly evolve to keep things exciting. It’s not just for other people, it’s for my own sanity.”

“My earliest memories of music, I think I was about 8, and my dad took me to a punk festival. I remember thinking it looked like a lot of fun, and deciding almost on the spot that I wanted to do that, too.”

Strange Bones, are, perhaps, an inevitable result, then, a natural evolution from what they call “the town that time forgot, stuck in the 70s.”

“All the money we make from touring is put into recording equipment,” Bentham continues. “We record it all in Blackpool, in house, which gives us a lot more freedom to experiment. When you’re working to the clock in a studio it’s a bit restricting, so it’s good to take our time. We end up, with tracks like ‘Napalm’, using about the fifth version of the song. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and sometimes that’s a bad thing, but it’s worth it.”

Side 4 Collective: “I just sent them the beats and connected them up and sat there eating sandwiches”

Dave Hingerty’s day job is as one of Ireland’s most successful drummers, a regular behind the kit with the likes of The Frames, Kila and Josh Ritter. Naturally, he’s made plenty of contacts through his job, and the whole thing has led to an unusual record.

Side 4 Collective are, perhaps, the ultimate ‘isolation’ style group, in that some of them have never met, though their output far pre-dates our current situation. Their album is constructed with the layering of their various contribution on top of Hingerty’s drum backdrop. Their new record ‘We Burn Bright’, which features Josh Ritter, Paul Noonan (Bell X1), Joe Chester, Ben Castle (Radiohead, Blur, Amy Winehouse) and Katy Perry drummer Adam Marcello.

I caught up with Hingerty to find out all about it…

Congrats on the new record. Can you tell me a little about the story behind it?

It all started with my obsession with recording drum ideas at soundchecks and at home. I have that type of personality that can’t stick to a practice routine and I go on tangents almost immediately and got into the habit of recording any new creations.

I feel like I am a frustrated guitar or bass player, and I think I try to express melodies through the drums often subconsciously.  This in turn led to the idea that I could use all of these ‘melodic’ or experimental grooves and beats as a ‘first point in writing’ and invite lots of friends and artists to challenge them to write a song or piece to one of these grooves.

You seem to have gathered quite a collection of musicians around you. How much did they contribute to the construction of the record? 

Almost Everything. I just sent them the beats and connected them up and sat there eating sandwiches while Anthony (Gibney, Audioland Studios ) did the real work, recording and mixing. I did ‘Anti Production’. I worked with Steve Albini a few times in Chicago with The Frames etc and he never liked the whole ‘produced by’ title. Like him, I just didn’t want to get in the way. The whole spirit of the project is musical and sonic freedom. Now and then I made some suggestions or played a keyboard, bass or xylophone badly.

This is quite a creative departure from The Frames. Is this more along the lines of your personal taste?

Probably yes. Not that it’s musically so different, but it’s more focussed on freedom and experimentalism. I love The Frames music and I love the music I play with Kila, and also with Josh Ritter, but there isn’t always room for creativity and I often have had to ‘play for the song’. So, for this Side 4 project, these poor artists were forced to work with my rhythmic creations. So, there is more of me creatively in Side 4. I am wide open when it comes to taste, but I prefer if music is brave and performed with emotion though, otherwise I smell a rat.

The album, you say in the press blurb, is a departure from the need to be commercial. How does that pressure influence bands in general, do you think?

Following on from the last question, I do feel that nearly everyone I work with panders towards what they think will be more acceptable to the record-buying public, as opposed to what they really want to make.

Freud used to encourage his patients into ‘free association’ which means talking honestly and continuously and without a filter. We need more of this in music, I think. We need a new wave of punk. Raw, real, and brave. This, I would hope, would freshen everything up.

Where are the mavericks these days? The David Bowies and the Iggy Pops and the Georgie Bests, John McEnroes and the Alex Higgins’? There is too much music now that is slick and sterile I find. Over edited. Overcooked. And, commercially speaking, mostly in the hands of the wrong people.

Dagny: on chilling and connection.

Norwegian pop starlet Dagny – Norvoll Sandvik, to her family – is a name that’s been on the lips of many industry types in recent months, with her debut album one of the most anticipated pop launches in recent years.

Despite the ‘fresh’ feel around the singer and her bubbly, emotion-laden pop, however, she’s actually been around the fringes of the London’s pop scene for many years, biding her time and waiting to make her move. 

When we caught up with her just ahead of the album launch, she explained that things have changed recently, and she’d just had enough of messing around the edges. She decided to take some of her massive songwriting backlog public, with the likes of The Guardian and NME throwing their weight behind her.

“The last six months have really been a different thing,” she explains. “I’ve been working on the album, and it’s really been my first big project, in a way. That’s been super motivating and exciting, but also a bit scary.”

“I started off songwriting, not performing, but once the performance came, that kind of took over,” she continues. “I spent a lot of years just performing, releasing some singles and an EP and just going with the flow. I was trying to get as much traveling and performing into the diary as possible. At times, working on an album felt further and further away from happening, and it got to the point where I didn’t know what I was waiting for.”

“I said to myself, I have 250 songs, I’m sure I can find 12 that hold together as an album. Funnily enough, I’ve been writing songs for ten years and I ended up putting on tracks only from the last 18 months, as they just felt more relevant to me. I think everyone who writes thinks their most recent stuff is their best, and I just tried to concentrate on what my vibe is right now, rather than looking to the past. The album isn’t conceptual, but because of how it all relates in my head, it almost felt like that.”

The Clockworks: “The Galway influence is still there in the sense that we still feel like we’re in our own bubble a bit”

The Clockworks. Credit: Oscar J Ryan Photography

The Clockworks are a rock band out of Galway, but relocated to London, where they’ve been signed by Alan McGee’s Creation Records, but continue to forge their own path.

Deliberately located slightly outside of the natural musical heartlands of London, they draw disparate influences, feeling equally inspired by a range of different scenes. The live show, we’re told, is pretty epic, and they’re just been on Soccer Am in front of millions.

These guys are on their way…

Congrats on the new single. ‘The Future Is Not What It Was’ feels like a message for our time. At the risk of asking the obvious, what specifically worries you at the moment?

This song was written a while ago, and coincidentally it seems to be the right song for us to put out at the moment. We’ve had it recorded and planned for release in May-June since last year, but I think a lot of the ideas it touches upon are so prevalent in the public conscience now; one of the central ideas being that we may feel so much more advanced than 50 or 100 years ago, but a lot of the major issues are still the same.

To be honest, it feels like there is a lot to be worried about.

The murder of George Floyd is horrific and sickening. The Black Lives Matter protests that have followed Worldwide, and the increased awareness that they have provoked, are hopefully a sign of the door opening to elicit real change. As many people have rightly pointed out, well, publicized, overt acts of racism are the tip of a huge insidious iceberg of this discrimination. That’s extremely worrying.

COVID-19 of course is a big one. Because it has and continues to affect every element of normality, it feels like nothing is as it should be. Like most people, we’re just trying to keep our heads down and get on with it really. For us personally, it has definitely given us time to see family, take stock, make plans, and do some writing. We’re lucky to have had that opportunity, there are so many people who haven’t been as fortunate.

You seem to draw influences from that jagged, in-your-face Mancunian scene. Do you also look at what’s going on this side of the pond, and the recent rock success stories?

There isn’t really a precedent of many bands coming out of Galway, and I think this was great for us because musically we felt almost equally as removed from Dublin as we did from London or Manchester or New York. We took in everything, and it all felt like a possibility for us, because we never had the pressure of conforming to the norms of a scene. Galway has a small and strong community of artists who are all completely different, but supportive of each other. It’s great to see Irish bands making a splash over the last few years, and becoming part of the wider culture of bands and artists.

Pauli: “In a funny way, I can see how the current situation might benefit a complete newcomer like myself”

In a funny way, amid all the chaos of the modern-day, new artists like Pauli represent hope, or more specifically the idea that lockdown will serve as a positive for some, a chance to break out of a shell.

Pauli has been making music and contributing to various projects for years, having started producing music as a child, but hi new EP ‘Isolation Station’ sees him emerge from the shadows and announce himself for the first time, a project born out of the isolation he’s been experiencing, and his take on others experiences, too.

I spoke to him to explore his own isolation, and what led to this moment…

Congrats on the debut EP. A strange time to release it, but what can you do! Did you do anything different because of the shutdown?

Thanks, James, I’m looking forward to seeing what the response is. To be honest, the lockdown is the thing that spurred me on to finally release some tracks. I had been planning this for a while but having more time on my hands to dedicate to doing it ‘properly’, coupled with a little spike in inspiration recently has helped me to make that final step.

Was this opportunity a kick up the rear in some senses?

Exactly right. In many ways, I was ready for this for a while now. I have been writing music for many years already, and getting better and better at home recording and production recently. With so much more time on my hands, and not having the distraction of pubs and attending gigs and whatever else, I didn’t have any excuses left. The time had come!

Obviously the music industry is differing at the moment. Can you see some benefits, too, given the impact this shutdown has had on you?

In a funny way, I can see how the current situation might benefit a complete newcomer like myself. With live events cancelled for the foreseeable future, it gives me a chance to build a following through my EP release first. I don’t have to scramble for stage time and gig opportunities, which is already a competitive marketplace, even for established acts. This way, I have an opportunity to hopefully build a bit of a following over the next few months and build some momentum that way, and be prepared for when gigs finally get going again.