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Mark Graham: “You will not hear ‘Whores of The Lizard People’ on any radio station, there’s a lot of swearing and slander in it”

Mark Graham, an integral member of party-hard festival lovers King Kong Company, is a Waterford music legend. As well as his work with the band, he’s spent recent months releasing the brilliant Irish Music Industry podcast, something of a scene bible, and made himself utterly integral to the Irish music landscape in the process.

He’s typically modest about all that, of course, as he comes into the launch of a new concept, Mark Graham vs King Kong Company, a kind of solo-offshoot of his musical day job. And what a charismatic one it is, too.

The biggest bombshell of this interview by far for me, though, was Mark’s revelation that in a few years he plans to head off into the world and cycle for an extended period, leaving us without his considerable expertise. Best lap it up while he’s still here. Here’s what the main man had to say about his new project…

First of all, let’s talk about this new side project. What’s the story behind it, and how will it link in with King Kong Company?

It’s very much linked to King Kong Company. We often find that we’ll be working away on material, stuff that we’re really getting into, but when it comes around to this time of year, we know that those tracks will never see the light of day because they just won’t fit into a festival set. They might be too slow, a bit too serious or just not gelling with the other material. Those tracks form the basis for these remixes and reworkings.

There’s an obvious stylistic difference between this and your musical day job. Do you see it as more of an emotional, poetic outfit as opposed to an energy-driven thing?

My musical day job is teaching music technology-related subjects to students on the BA Music course in Waterford Institute of Technology. Pretty much all the stuff I do can be related to that job in some way. But yeah, there probably is a bit of a difference between these latest remixes and full-on KKC tracks. I suppose it goes back to that previous point, they’re not full-on bangers, they’ve been written with something else in mind.

I’ve been surprised in the past to read and hear King Kong Company described as a ‘dance band’, I always just thought I played in a band, full stop. Without doubt, what we do is heavily dance-influenced, but there’s ska, reggae, rock, post-punk, spoken word and god forbid, even a bit of folk in there too.

These remixes lean heavier on those other influences, and releasing them
from a slightly different angle hopefully won’t fuck around with what
people expect from a KKC show.

Dreaming Of Jupiter: “Being in a room with all of our favourite people, vibing to tunes we’ve put our hearts and souls into – what more could anyone want?”

On the face of it, Dreaming Of Jupiter are a classic beat-driven dance-pop band, one that, perhaps, owes a subtle debt to the poppy floor-fillers of the mid-90s, like a toned-down N-Trance twisted with some modern licks and obscure, beat–led influences.

They call their sound ‘ambi-groove’, which sounds, above all else, like a whole lot of fun. Latest single ‘Beyond A Vibe’ would perhaps, under less surreal circumstances, be one of those songs that reverberating through a summer.

The three-piece, with vocals by Zoe Gough, have been gathering some serious radio play in recent months, and are working on making 2020 their biggest year to date. Here’s what Zoe had to say about the journey so far…

I understand you’ve invented a genre label for yourselves, Ambi-Groove. Can you tell me a bit about it?

Yeah for sure! Any time anyone would ask us how we sound, we always seemed to come back with the words ‘groovy’ and ‘ambient’…We feel our style has a range of influences. We are all natural groovers, that’s for sure. We’re big on funk and soul genres, even reggae…but we also have a strong appreciation for textures and love to create a soundscape for the listener. We aim to create a new textural palette with each song, with a kind of sonic space where the listener can get a little bit lost in the mood of each track. That’s where ‘Ambi-Groove’ originated from, I suppose.

How varied are your tastes in music, and how are they feeding into the tracks you’re producing?

Super varied. We’re all from different backgrounds and we each bring different flavours to the table for sure. Of course, there are lots of acts we all listen to a lot…the likes of Little Dragon, Nao, The Internet, Bonobo, Tycho and so on…but then we’ve each got our own tastes too ranging from 90s Hip Hop, Neo Soul acts like the wonderful Jill Scott, to grittier sounds of the Bristol underground scene and Trip Hop vibe – the likes of Massive Attack and Portishead and so on, all the way to classic P-Funk and Soul vibes of Chaka Khan and Chic to clean vibey pop of the likes of Dua Lipa and Jessie Ware.

We just love music, and the more we listen to, the more we learn, and the more interesting it all becomes. That’s what we love about this, we just never stop learning and we can literally move in so many directions! Sometimes we love to take a classic reggae concept or idea and completely re-think it and use it in a pop context for example, or a groove that has it’s roots in a trip hop idea, but we’ll modify it and adapt it by changing the choices of timbres we use or how we mix it to fit into a track with a soul vibe, you know what I mean? Pushing boundaries and trying everything – that’s what we love. 

Tell me a little bit about the tracks you have out so far – They strike me as very much a taster for a more long-form, ambient piece of work. Is that fair?

Yeah – absolutely! We would hope so. Like, we would definitely love to do an album, when we are ready. We don’t rush anything though, we never have, and we will know when the time comes. Would we love to have a strong concept and depth to it? Yes. With a couple of pop bangers on there too of course :).

James Cramer: “It’s funny – when I write a song it could be on my bed, in the studio, on a plane, wherever… and then as if by magic it’s suddenly halfway across the world on a TV show!”

Until recently, James Cramer has been as much a part of what you might call the ‘hidden’ music industry as a star in his own right. Part of the quirky and dynamic ‘Tupelo’, he’s also spent much of his musical life behind the scenes, crafting songs for others.

The multi-intstrumentalist who’s worked with Hermitage Green and Eleanor McEvoy plays every instrument on his own work, which has seen him feature on Canadian TV series ‘Hello Goodbye’, and will shortly see him feature on the BBC adaption of Sally Rooney’s debut novel ‘Normal People’.

Latest single ‘Simple Man’ is, he feels, the closest to his ‘true sound’ he’s ever got. I caught up with James, virtually, just ahead of its release…

I understand you have a substantial background working with others as well as your own work. What are you most proud of to date?

I’m proud of being able to make it a career. When I started out I was advised by lots of people to not write my own songs – to write other people’s instead. I’ve managed to see a lot of the world because of my own songs so that’s something I’m very proud of.

Do you approach writing differently when you’re writing for yourself, or with Tupelo, or for somewhere else entirely?

I write constantly so I have lots of songs in different genres; if a project comes up I usually have some in the locker. If I write with someone else I might buzz off their vibe and usually new ideas come to the surface quickly that way.

Sometimes, an artist might want to cover one of my compositions or do a co-write. That’s great too because the artist might be totally different to me so it brings different elements into the song – they will be the one performing it and recording it so it needs to suit them artistically. At the end of the day, they’re all songs. If you sing it in a different key, or play it using a different instrument, it’ll sound totally different but in its essence, it’s the same thing.

I’ve learned over time what will work for certain projects. My manager, Ian, always reminds me to not get frustrated – to just keep writing. The songs will be used in the future, they just they might not suit right now. He’s been right!

Rrestlers: “it reminds me a bit of Sigur Ros the way the songs can put you in a trance, that’s the unspoken aim”

A new act born out of plenty fo experience, Rrestlers come from the same north Dublin stable that’s pumping out acts like Girl Band and Fontaines D.C, but sit in a very different sonic world.

Intent on a kind of escapist, swirling approach to music that aims to put the listener in a trance, they draw on a wealth of experience and the energy that came from a temporary role subbing in another band.

Their debut track ‘Spore’ could hardly be more timely, given it deals in isolation, abandonment and a lack of contact. It’s also a seven-plus minute epic. Here’s what they had to say about it all when I caught up with Paddy Groenland, vocalist with both Rrestlers and his other act, Paj.

Tell me the story behind the new act – is it intended to go far outside of your collective previous experience?

Sure. Paddy here, vox & bass. I play with Ryan Hargadon in Rob de Boer’s band and it started there. Last year I asked Robbie Barrett and Ryan Hargadon to do a festival gig with my group (Paj). They were depping on that gig but the vibe between us was so good that I forced us to start a new band.

There’s a mad connection there where we can just start making noise and turn it into something that sounds like a song. RRestlers is a source of pure live energy and a release for all of us so I think it has crazy potential.

What are you bringing from your various other roles into RRestlers?

Robbie has the most astonishing control of the drums, Ryan is patient and brilliant accompanist and I’m able to connect the two of them. There’s a lot of wisdom there because we’ve been around the block with loads of different bands. Because we’ve all played a lot we’re patient and let a vibe develop – it reminds me a bit of Sigur Ros the way the songs can put you in a trance, that’s the unspoken aim.

Spore could hardly be more appropriate. Presumably it was written prior to the pandemic. What was it intended to refer to?

It was intended to portray the feeling of an isolated singular being, believe it or not. I read the Kurdish phrase ‘I’ve no friend but the mountain’ about being abandoned by the world and it struck me as so melancholic and profoundly sad. The opening line is ‘invisible people, touch me not’ and that sets the tone.

The music came from our first jam together and I remember we were all vibing off of the epicness of it.

Dirty Dreamer: “songs are shaped through hours of improvising and just seeing where the mood takes us”

For a little while, Come On Live Long were quite a big deal in Irish indie circles. A quirky, disparate band, their output was mellow and effortlessly charming, and won them a coveted Choice Music Prize nomination and the chance to expand outside Ireland.

That’s all on hold for now, however, and several of the members have gone on to form a new act, ‘Dirty Dreamer‘, a light electronic act with hints of ambient music in their style, and an overall buzz that recalls the likes of Zero 7, or the lesser-known corners of Moby’s quieter moments.

I caught up with Daithi O’Connor to talk about their new venture…

This is quite a departure from Come On Live Long. How are you finding the change?

We are loving it. Although Ken, Louise and myself have been playing together for years and years, the Dirty Dreamer project feels very fresh and each of us is bringing something new to the table.

Can you give me a quick outline of the evolution from Come On Live Long? Who’s still involved, and does this mean that COLL are finished?

The Dirty Dreamer project consists mainly of myself, Ken and Louise and also our good friend Paul Kenny who plays drums with a host of acts such as James Vincent McMorrow and Jape. We had almost 10 amazing years in Come On Live Long, released two albums independently, toured Canada and got a Choice nomination.

We did all of that completely independently. We haven’t drawn a line under the band but at the moment we are happy out with our respective projects. Rob is doing amazingly well on his own at the moment and he works extremely hard so we are delighted to see him doing so well.

We haven’t heard the second single ‘Electric Sleep’ yet – tell me a bit about that.

‘Electric Sleep’ is a song that has been kicking around for quite a while. It started out with just Louise and a piano but has had many iterations over the last few years and we think we finally nailed it this time. The full version has an ambient outro that Ken and I recorded out on Achill Island a few years ago. We recorded an old harmonium in a tiny church on a very stormy night and built it from there.

Is there much more on the way? Are you set up for live performances yet?

Yes, we have another 4 track E.P almost finished. We have been writing and recording for quite a while now so we constantly have new material ready to go. As regards gigging, we had hoped to put on our own show in May but that now looks unlikely with ye old virus.

Raglans: “We believe in what we do, so we continue. We set no targets other than enjoyment”

Raglans have been mainstays of the Irish music scene for some time, and they’re also an interesting quirk in it: something of a throwback to the heyday of indie, with infectious songs, undeniable Brit-pop influences, a cult following, and a confidence that can be utterly infectious.

Take their recent return: Raglans departed the music scene for several years to live their own lives away from it all. It’s a kind of unspoken battle in music circles sometimes: it’s essential to have something interesting to write about, and sometimes that involves stepping away from the grindstone (I know, because the same applies to writing), but stepping away from the grindstone can also be a route to loss of momentum, especially difficult to do when things are going well.

Nevertheless, Raglans did it, and now they’re back, loaded with energy and ready to deliver a sparkling new album following the release of single ‘One More Drop’ in late January. Frontman Steve Kelly told me about their plans…

You’re fresh back from a long period away from music. How has that been, and how has it fed into the new record?

The time away was essential for me personally, it’s important to scratch another part of your brain sometimes. I can’t speak for the other lads but we have always considered it a marathon and not a race, we never blinked at the idea of slogging it in the back of a van for months on end to play shows and grow the band so we could keep doing what we love to do. Now we have a fresh perspective, in our songs and in our minds but the goals remain the same. Create, perform, travel, enjoy!

How did you spend that time away?

I went to Spain, where my family emigrated in 2013. I set up a business with my Dad and brother which was a brilliant experience, I tasted a brand new type of life and culture and wrote lots of new songs for many new albums.

Do you feel differently about all this than before the time away?

Yes, I’m sad to see so many of our contemporaries and friends no longer performing together – The Strypes, The Hot Sprockets, Otherkin, Enemies to name but a few. It seems unfortunate that in many cases, economic realities can disrupt what seems like a foregone conclusion. We are seeing currently how fickle the world is anyway, so it’s a shame we are deprived of the great works of some great collaborative artists. We believe in what we do so we continue, we set no targets other than enjoyment, and have never been rich so it’s grand like.

HMLTD: “We’re in the midst of a spiritual crisis”

HMLTD’s early career has been a dramatic one. A London act that sit somewhere between a boisterous protest and a broad, flamboyant cultural experiment, they’re difficult to pin down on anything from genre to outlook, exhibiting a kind of glam-punk, style-borrowing ethos.

Once, they were a major label investment project, making and then dumping an expensive album along the way, as NME hyped them as the next big thing. With a new version of that debut album, titled ‘West of Eden’, finally on the market, they’re experimental approach has brought them to a scatty but enthralling release, and a more natural (to them), anti-capitalist stance.

Frontman Henry Chisholm is a politically poignant figure, and he’s not in the least bit shy about the journey the band have been on so far, or how he views modern day society. It’s not a pretty angle.

“People are isolated,” he explains. “We’re in the midst of a spiritual crisis, and I think things like Brexit, Trump, these things are just responses to a larger crisis. At the start of the 20th Century, religion started to collapse, which is a good thing in some ways, but I don’t think it was fully replaced. Collective views have disappeared, and we’ve been left with this kind of alternative individuality. That’s part of why the left are no longer viable. We all see things as individual, not from the view of a community.”

The album title, in a typically oblique way, is a reference to HMLTD’s inherent air of protest. ‘West of Eden’ is a reference to biblical banishment, a nod to Chisholm’s broader metaphor. They’re not religious, so much as borrowing the imagery to make a point. In this case, it’s about the band’s own “spiritual quest,” one they hope to bring an audience along with.

“We live in a world that’s toxic, and full of exploitation,” Chisholm continues. He’s happy to talk about this stuff in-depth – delivering the message, it seems, is the core purpose of the music. “It sits oddly releasing a record in a commercial way,” he admits. “We don’t think we’re going to bring down a system, of course. That’s not realistic, it’s more about spreading a message. We have to work with what exists.”

Bessie Turner: “Nearly dying definitely gave me a new lease of life. I came out the other side quite hardened and definitely a little braver”

Bessie Turner is one of those oddly calm rockers, a guitar-led singer-songwriter not afraid of the odd riff, but able to lift audiences with emotional insights and deeply personal stories.

It’s been a tough couple of years for the Suffolk-based singer, who’s recovered from a near-death experience to take her musical story on the road. I caught up with her ahead of her show in Dublin’s Sound House, supporting Gengahr, to talk over new single ‘Donkey’, and how she’s bounced back…

Donkey seems to be something of a treatise on life’s frustrations – understandable. Does your music generally offer a type of therapy?

147437%. I can’t imagine not being able to express myself in this way. I’m really lucky I do, I’ve been writing since I was tiny.

I don’t know about in the UK, but in Ireland surviving as an artistic, creative type is very hard. How are you finding it so far?

It’s not easy but that’s part of it. Financially it would be impossible for me to survive at the moment from my music but that just adds to the drive and experience of it. I already look back fondly on how it all came about from nothing and nowhere.

You seem to be drip-feeding your music. Does it just make sense for you at the moment?

Exactly. I was quiet for so long in terms of releases due to ill health and building myself back up again so it feels so good to be in the position to just keep popping songs out.

How far off is an album likely to be, and what would you expect to change when it comes to producing one?

That’s a tough question. I’d love to release an album this year but it has to be right. I’ve met some amazing producers so it’s just convincing someone to invest their time on me really!

I guess the forthcoming show is one of your first in Ireland. Are you expecting anything to be different when you play here?

The Guinness to be the best tasting of all time ever. I’ve never been to Ireland but Guinness is my go to drink and I’ve heard it’s the best ever in its place of birth…..

Are you concerned what Brexit might mean for shows like this one?

I try not to think about it. It’s an obvious mistake, it gets way too much airtime and I don’t like encouraging the people that voted poorly with my thought processes. I love the EU.