First Three, No Flash: The Specialist World of Music Photography

Kieran Frost in the photo pit as The Script play Croke Park

I talk to specialist snapper Kieran Frost about the niche world of music photography

At almost every sizeable gig you’re ever likely to attend, they’ll be a small exodus of camera-clutchers from the very front just three songs after things get going. Popular musicians, you see, typically believe they look their best at the start of a show, and they want to show their good side. Photographers are there, by design, for the sweat free, visually perfect early moments.

Some artists are so tight on their imagery, in fact, they specify the side of the stage photos are to be taken from, or manipulate the lighting early in a show to ensure photographers get a specific type of image.

And then, usually three songs in, photographers are often escorted from the front barrier and out of the premises. They hold a camera full of photos, but are forbidden from watching the remains of the show to prevent sneaky [less perfect] shots from being grabbed by the professional from the back. Quite the irony, in today’s camera-phone heavy concerts.

Kieran Frost, a freelance music photographer who works with photo agencies like Getty, and features regularly in the likes of the Irish Times, Q Magazine and on musicians billboards, gave us an insight into the world he occupies night after night.

“Normally there would be e-mails between me, my editor and the publicist a few days before a show to arrange access,” he begins, explaining the set up. “The day of the show, I’d listen to some of the act’s music, and possibly research what other photographers have gotten from previous dates on the tour, to give some idea of what lighting profile the band are using, and what kind of restrictions photographers may face.”

“In the evening, I turn up, get my access pass, and head into the venue. If it’s a larger venue, I say hello to security and I sort out my gear. If it’s a smaller venue, I have to hope the front row are going to let me squeeze past them for a song.”

“The usual rule is we get the first three songs, then we have to pack our gear, and get out of the way. I’d usually stick around for a bit of the gig, if I’m allowed, then head home, edit 20 to 30 images, and caption and file them that night.”

Why Rubberbandits Matter…

It’s high time the comedy hip-hop stars were given credit for their insight and intelligence.

YOU MOST LIKELY KNOW Rubberbandits for something daft. It might be that ‘Horse Outside’ video, their numerous appearances on RTE’s ‘Republic of Telly’, or an episode of ‘Rubberbandits’ Guide To…’. You might even remember their channel 4 outing with the ‘Almost Impossible Gameshow’. In the latter, they had contestants complete ludicrous mini-games like ‘groin croissant’, in which the frustrated participants had a few seconds to shake free a plastic pastry attached to a certain part of the outside of their jumpsuit with velcro.

They are, in short, quite exceptionally silly. But their satire also has a tendency to shine a light on Irish society. Put aside the croissant shaking, or songs about ‘Spastic Hawks’, and some corners of their professional output is subtly but brilliantly political.

They take a satirical look at race relations on ‘Black Man’. ‘Spoiling Ivan’ documents the friendship between a grown man and a child, playing off the inbuilt societal assumption that labels such a friendship as somehow wrong. There’s even an ode to holding off on sex, and its relationship benefits.

Far beyond the music, their use of social media, and public comments on sensitive issues have stretched in scope and become ever-more assured. It’s a trend that seemed to really kick off when Blindboy Boatclub called into Joe Duffy to debate the drug references in ‘Horse Outside’. In doing so, he absolutely shredded an irate caller, confidently explaining the duo’s thinking in the process.

The Road Less Traveled: a Chat with Belfast Musician Tony Wright

BELFAST MUSICIAN Tony Wright is a real enigma of the Irish music scene. Once at the absolute heart of breathtaking instrumental act And So I Watch You From Afar – a swirling tornado of rock so successful they toured arenas alongside Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters – he quit, picked up his acoustic guitar instead, and currently lives the life of a troubadour, hopping homelessly between friend’s couches, and strumming for a living.

Not that he has any regrets at all: what Tony’s become sits better with him. It’s closer to who he is now, and allows him to step away from the commercial side of music and explore at his own place.

“For all the And So I Watch You From Afar albums, we really had a deadline from the labels to produce the record,” he recalls. “It was very much a product; a commercial process. That didn’t sit well with me. Now I’m making music when I want to make music. It feels so much more natural.”

What Wright sounds like now is hard to define. He hops between gloriously emotional guitar-pop songs – performed under the moniker VerseChorusVerse (a nod to Nirvana, though largely a sarcastic one) – and fiery collaborations where he seems to absorb a part of the soul of his musical partners. He spits out delicate and heart wrenching interpretations that wildly differ in style depending on who he’s working with.

Naturally, doing this homeless, and with mental health difficulties he pointedly speaks about publically in an attempt to end stigma, is not the easiest. “I’m lucky enough to have a lot of friends who’ll put me up, so I’m not literally on the street,” he says of his situation. “It’s partly circumstance and partly Tory government that have me here. But mentally I’m doing well now. Some days it’s like walking a tightrope, and you have to keep your eyes on the horizon to be sure you don’t fall off, but I’m doing okay, I’m allowing myself space.”

King Kong Company: Meet Ireland’s Wild Festival Heroes

One album, their own beer and performing in a cardboard box: twenty years of King Kong Company

A SELF-PROCLAIMED COLLEGE BAND reformed to a heyday later in life that far exceeds their 90s peak, King Kong Company are fast becoming Ireland’s go-to festival act, and with good reason.

The Waterford based act are a high energy, upbeat dance six-piece with plenty of stage moves. One member performs in a cardboard box with crudely cut eye holes, while recent outings include a trip to iconic UK festival Glastonbury, a tea party at Michael D Higgins house, and even the launch of their own unlikely beer infused with Buckfast, with King Kong Company plastered across the front.

Colin Hoye, the group’s trumpeter, is the one member currently based in Dublin, and met the Gazette to describe what’s been a strange journey and a wildly busy summer to date. Amazingly, their self-titled debut of 2016 is the band’s only formal release to date, despite performing together from 1996 to 2000, and then from 2011 to today.

“The technology wasn’t really there to do what we wanted to do back then,” Hoye recalls. “We had this massive eight track and you couldn’t even get the drums alone onto it. We have so many channels now. We had a manual drum machine that we started and stopped for every track back then. We did the best we can, but trying to actually make an album would have been too hard, or too expensive at the time.”

“Second time around [following the band’s reformation in 2011], I think we were looking for a mid-life crisis and found one. We had no misconceptions about what we were going to get out of it this time. But we’re surprised at how well it’s gone for us.”

“When we decided to get back together, we used the power of social media to help us along the way. We decided to do twelve tracks in twelve months, and our friend John Loftus basically said that he’d do the videos for us. Those videos sparked a lot of the characters we have now, and those characters came into the live shows. It’s almost more of a product at this stage.”

When it came to the album, Hoye recalls the live set up being very much a key factor. “We had to do everything we could to bring the live sound into the album,” he explained. “It would have been very easy to just do it very electronically, but you want to move the music around to have that live effect to it. We are very much a live band, and we wanted to show people what we sound like live with the album. In a way we were kind of dreading the album as we knew it would be so much work. We used to be more like acid jazz, so it’s a bit of a change of direction from what we sounded like in the late 90s. But nobody sound like that anymore.”

Review: Once @ Olympia Theatre, Dublin

Having put a focus on obtaining a really musically talented cast, brought the simpler elements of the story to the fore and utilized a clever set extremely well, the latest incarnation of Once – showing at the Olympia Theatre until late August – is astoundingly well done.

Adapting Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s music and taking much that is good from the 2007 movie, the musical is set entirely in a surround with the feel of an old-school Irish pub, the fluid cast almost constantly on stage in their entirety as they perform the backing track to a gentle tale.

Niamh Perry, playing ‘girl’, is the undoubted star. Credit has to be given for her convincing and unwavering switch into a Czech accent, but what really stands out are her vocals, and the restrained tension she creates around the lead man Brian Gilligan.

While the pre-interval part of the show is relatively light hearted, full of local colour and witty patter, things take an intense turn after the interval, with the emotional love story at the heart of the tale coming to the fore to glorious effect.

The stage comes to life to suit, too, and there’s an impressive array of character development, in the narrow but entertaining lives of ‘Girl’s Czech housemates, the occasional but memorable appearances of her daughter, and Phelim Drew’s wacky interludes as music store owner Billy, a lively stereotype of the witty North Dubliner.

Then there are the gimmicks. The best come in the pre-show, pub-style performance from the cast, which takes place with the audience on stage and able to buy from the bar positioned as part of the scenery. It works well, too, but the key here is in the simplicity and the casting. Perry is outstanding all round. Gilligan has a solid voice and his character constantly seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown, while the extras have a smart dynamic adding to the humour.

All in, Once is a wonderfully produced package, with ample entertainment value that also tugs firmly on the heartstrings, the relationships thoroughly believable. The emotion in Perry as she bowed before an opening night audience said it all: this might be just another step on the road this musical has been powering down over the last few years, but it is also something very special.

As published in the Dublin Gazette, July 13 edition. Reproduced here with permission.

Dublin gigs done differently: how Sofar Sounds reimagines concerts

Photo by Chris Basford

A global phenomenon that’s taken off in the city, Sofar Sounds turns unique spots into one-night-only gig locations. They won’t tell you who’s playing.

FREE. SIMPLE. SOCIAL. The concept of Sofar Sounds is one that very much returns music to its roots, kissing goodbye to gig promotion, ticket sales, headline tours and conventional stages.

The idea is simple: find an empty space, borrow it for the night, bring in musicians and invite strangers to enjoy them. The whole shebang is done on a donation basis, and there are other twists: the acts playing – big or small – have no particular priority of billing (there’s certainly no headliner), and nobody bar the organisers knows who they are until they turn up and start playing.

From a punter’s perspective, the gigs are essentially a ‘pot luck’ night out, but one that’s become increasingly known for its high-quality curation when it comes to performers. The venues can be pretty special, too – anything from someone’s front room to a cafe, a church or a historical site. Every gig is recorded for posterity and released online a few weeks after the show takes place, meaning Sofar also has a stunning selection of atypical music videos to their name.

The concept encompasses over 300 cities worldwide, and is a growing tour de force in Dublin. Clare O’Hanlon got involved in the local version of Sofar Sounds after stumbling across a call out for music-loving people in the city a couple of years ago, and has been at the heart of the action ever since. The project has been active here for four years – it only founded globally in 2009 – and has grown in O’Hanlon’s time to bigger venues, better equipment and a monthly scramble for tickets.

“It’s got a loyal, respectful following now, but it’s also become really popular,” O’Hanlon tells the Gazette. “It can get a little difficult to keep the balance with tickets. We try to keep a balance of new people and regulars, and make sure everyone gets their chance, but it can be difficult.” Not that popularity is a bad problem to have, of course.

“In terms of venues, we work with what presents itself, and we’re often approached to offer spaces,” O’Hanlon says. “We have to make sure people understand the concept: this is not private entertainment for the person who’s venue we’re using, for example, so they can’t takeover the tickets. It’s a public thing, and not every venue is suitable to host, but we get some great spaces.”

Review: Green Day @ Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin

THIRTY ONE YEARS into a career that’s taken Green Day from gritty pop-punk scenesters to a far more accessible brand of pop-rock, California’s finest still play Kilmainham with the energy of an act auditioning for their first big break.

An indication of the sands of change came earlier in the day, however, as frontman Billie Joe Armstrong spent the morning searching for the quayside venue where the three-piece first played Dublin way back in 1991, only to find it’s now a Starbucks.

While time has certainly changed Green Day, too, all evidence is it hasn’t dulled them one iota. Armstrong’s brutally energetic, interactive fronting of the band is the kind of cheese-fest that sometimes falls the wrong side of cringe – particularly in his habit of espousing his band’s ethos on stage as a list of mundane inclusivity catchphrases – yet is utterly absorbing.

The balance here is strong, too. After opening with three new-ish songs (the very first of which features an audience member on stage draped in an Irish flag), there’s a comforting depth of the back catalogue to be trawling for the older fans. The likes of ‘Longview’, ‘She’, ‘When I Come Around’ and ludicrously glorious cross-dressing anthem ‘King For A Day’ are delivered at near album quality, and with just enough snarl around the edges.

The continued presence of lots of essential albums ‘Nimrod’ and ‘Dookie’, served up together with the best of ‘American Idiot’ and even a dabble in the uninspiring ‘Warning’ on the setlist is the act of a band aiming to please. Newer material is so thin on the ground here it could almost be a career retrospective, a crowd-pleaser that lasts 25 tracks and two and a half hours.

The highlights are acoustic closer ‘Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)’, huge fireballs across the back of the stage during peaky choruses, a lengthy pre-gig audience sing-along to Queen (plus a pink rabbit ‘giving birth’ to giveaway soft toys), and an entire track played on guitar by a young audience member who was then handed the instrument to take home. For all the oohs, ahs and hand waving, it’s utterly engaging.

Harsher critics will say modern Green Day is pop-punk by numbers, and there’s an element of truth there: Armstrong, Dirnt and Cool are very much fire-shooting, stadium-loving rays of sunshine these days, doing little more controversial than singing about masturbation and venting against Trump while throwing in the odd Operation Ivy cover on the process.

That the show lacks edge, truthfully, only matters if you’re holding Green Day true to their 90s roots. What they do offer is one of the music scene’s better doses of nostalgic familiarity, packaged in one of the liveliest, most memorable stage shows going; more ‘Having A Blast’ than ‘Burnout’.

As published in the Dublin Gazette, July 6 edition. Reproduced here with permission.

Hothouse Flowers talk life in the slow lane

The Dublin act Rolling Stone magazine once called ‘The best unsigned band in Europe”’ reveal how they’ve been spending recent years, and the quiet, steady progress of their first album in a decade.

TO THE UNINITIATED, it seems like Hothouse Flowers have been on the wind-down for quite sometime. Despite regular shows, there hasn’t been an album released formally in well over a decade. The band that emerged from Colaiste Eoin in Booterstown so powerfully that they never had to get real jobs after school might appear to have gone a little quiet. Not for long.

“What’s going on with us is a bit like those people who starting tiling a bathroom in 2002 and still haven’t finished,” Fiachna O’Braonain explains. “There hasn’t been an album in ten years, yet it feels like we haven’t stopped gigging. We all have very different lives outside the band. I have three children under five. It’s hard to get out of the house.”

“I’ve been doing different projects with different people,” Liam O’Maonlai adds. “I think it was about three years ago we got invited to play in Windmill Lane for Culture Night. In payment for that we got eight days studio time. We didn’t actually avail of it until a year ago. Those eight days really facilitated us. Often you can get these gigs where you have to put a lot of money in to set things up, but they wanted us to make a record there. And we did, we made a record. We narrowed it down to eleven pieces of music. Maybe towards the end of the summer, maybe earlier, it’ll be here. There’s just a couple of little things to address.”

“There is already an album called ‘Let’s Do This Thing’. It’s on the website but nowhere else. I had a listen to it and decided it didn’t sound quite as good as the rough mixes, so we’ll be putting it out again. Everyone who already bought it will get it a second time for free, but they’ll be another version, another part of the project.”