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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.

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.

Sounds Of System Breakdown: “The events of the past few weeks have reinvigorated the case for protest music”

Sounds Of System Breakdown‘s self-titled debut album, released in 2010, is one of the sounds of my early years in Dublin. Encapsulating the gritty urban-ness of the less-touristy aspects of the city, it was a shining electro-pop record riddled with enthralling beats and whip-smart lyrics.

They’ve been relatively quiet in recent years, being spread as they are between a houseboat outside Dublin and a new home in London, but recently returned with new single ‘Connect With Me’.

How much do I personally rate this band? They were my wedding band, playing exclusively their own material. Here’s what they had to say around the launch of the new single.

Welcome back, lads! It’s been quite a while. How does it feel to be working together again?

I guess we never really stopped, we just had to slow down a bit as other life events took precedence. It’s great to have three pairs of eyes and ears on everything again. Honestly, there’s a great feeling of focus now – I think a bit of distance from the last few records has given us a better understanding of our sound.

It must be quite difficult given your disparate living situations. How do songs like the new single come together in practice?

It was kind of iterative. I’d usually demo something, then Ed would do a rough drum take, Richy would try some vocals on top. Then after a few listens we’d chat about what worked and what didn’t. We avoided preciousness wherever we could so you’ll hear a lot of the demo stuff in there, mixed with better quality recordings. It was about keeping whichever take had the best energy.

Can you tell me a bit about the story behind the single?

It came from the bass line – everything else came from that in a really instinctive way. The lyrics are supposed to be little snapshots of memories all jumbled up together. The words feel secondary to how the meter and sounds elaborate on the rhythm section.

Isaac Butler: “I found my sound in LA, working with the other musicians opened my eyes”

Isaac Butler shot to prominence when he released ‘Moon Song’, a track that he tells me he didn’t really expect to go too far. Now with almost a million streams for that debut, he’s worked with Adele’s session musicians, developed a new style, and featuring on The Bachelorette.

Determined to make the most of his unexpected break, I caught up with Isaac as he made the most of lockdown, streaming and writing his way through our new circumstances…

Hi Isaac, first of all, how are you, and how are you finding this enforced break? Are you making use of it musically?

Hello! I am very well thank you. Yeah to be honest I’m finding the break OK. At the start I was freaking out a bit at having to cancel shows and all the festivals being called off. I also had a few supports slots lined up that obviously aren’t happening, but I’ve kept very busy over the last few weeks writing with people over zoom and keeping active on social media.

At the beginning of the lockdown I did a YouTube series under called ‘Distance Doesn’t Divide’ where I basically got each member of my band to record themselves in their bedrooms playing their parts in each of my songs. I then put all the videos together into a split screen video and posted them on YouTube. It was great craic and people seemed to enjoy them. I also got my first brand collaboration with River Island! I did a live stream gig on their Instagram and they sent me out some lovely clothes. So I can’t complain!

‘Moon Song’ was clearly a huge success for you. Were you surprised by the traction you could get with a debut single?

The reaction to ‘moon song’ was amazing. I put the song out with no real expectations. I was toying around with the idea of releasing original music so I played a few songs for my music teacher who I stayed in contact with after I left school.

Pretty much immediately after he heard ‘Moon Song’ he said we have to get that recorded, so he called up a friend of his Billy Farrell a well known Irish producer to help out. We recorded the track in a few days and I made a really simple music video with a few friends, and the rest is history. It continues to be the song the people know me for which is funny because I just put it up for the sake of putting it up, there was no reasoning behind it, and today it has just under a million streams, pretty crazy.

Eden Isle: “We live to perform for an audience: to deliver emotions and see them mirrored on the crowd”

Cork rock band Eden Isle are a rising name in the city, but bring with them ample experience from various projects that preceded them.

Drawing in range of rock-tinged influences, the band pride themselves on their live show. I checked in with them as they launched new single ‘Four Leaf Clover’.

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

Four Leaf Clover is reminiscing about old friends and scenarios, waking up after great nights together and how you’ve changed as people.

Your band name and some song titles have a distinctly ‘Irish trad’ feel to them. Is that a conscious thing or just a natural impact of your environment?

The band name is based on our happy place as in our band room and creative space.

How did you all meet and become a band?

Ame and Kev met originally (after Ame was looking for a singer) then Kev brought in a new bassist, Carl. After a while Ame brought in Ed and Carl brought in Shane, that is how we formed as a band. Blackpool rehearsal studios is where our band was born.

How do your tracks typically come together?

Being a pianist and guitar player, track ideas would usually start from me (Ame). Since we got Shane in, he has been in the same role as Ame: a music-ideas initiator.

Ed and Carl are precious in their structuring our ideas and not alien themselves in creating and sourcing them as well.

Usually, Kev comes last but definitely not least: he adds the lyrics, ideas and helps us structuring as well. This is rather a collective effort and we love the process of music creation!

Luke Clerkin: “The EP explores the themes of mental health, love, regret, closure, and the question of love itself”

Having been part of the ‘Take Back The City’ initiative in Dublin, and written a song about it, as well as playing over 250 shows in a single year, Luke Clerkin‘s exploration of the Dublin music scene has been thorough, political, and at times extremely full-on.

Having used his experiences as both lessons and fuel, Clerkin’s now back with his EP ‘What Little Time We Have’, in which he tries to condense his fast-flowing, emotional take on life into a lively, poppy style.

Ahead of the launch of his single ‘Nocturnal’, Clerkin talks me through the journey so far…

Can you tell me a bit about ‘Nocturnal’?

Nocturnal was written over two years ago, months after I stopped seeing someone that I’d been seeing for a while. The song explores the initial moments of nervousness and lust that were involved in the beginning, and then it moves on to the feelings of regret after it finished.

The regret comes from myself, wondering if I should have given more time and energy on ‘a love that was distant but almost near’. This song is my first step into releasing something with real pop elements, and it also shows me with a full band energy that I wouldn’t really be known for.

What will be the themes of ‘What Little Time We Have’ when it arrives?

WLTWH explores the themes of mental health, love, regret, closure, and the question of love itself. These themes are things that constantly come up in my life, so putting them together made sense to me, and putting this out will essentially be my closure on the situations that inspired the songs.

Deeply personal songs seem to be a theme with your music. Is there an element of self-therapy to it all?

Absolutely. Writing music is part of my self-care routine. When I’m feeling emotional about something, or if I’m feeling hurt or annoyed, I’ll pick up my guitar and I’ll write about it. Honestly, there is no better feeling for me than finishing a song that is about something that has affected me badly.

Saul Blake: “I learned to approach my writing in a different way”

Amid the rapid rise of Irish hip-hop in recent years, Galway has sometimes seemed a bit like a missing link next to the growing scenes in Dublin, Cork, and particularly in Limerick.

Why that is isn’t entirely clear, but the west-coast city does have its own burgeoning scene, with rappers like Saul Blake keen to play up the accented style that gives them a unique feel west of the Shannon. Blake had been quiet for several years, working away behind the scenes, but recently returned with ‘Empty Homes’, a punchy political track about Galway and Ireland’s troubles with homelessness.

I asked him all about it…

At the risk of getting you to explain the obvious, tell me how you feel about the homelessness crisis in Ireland…

The Homeless crisis in Ireland is honestly a disgrace. I see it as a completely resolvable problem, and I feel like the people in power should be ashamed for taking so long to take any real action and for renting out properties at mad rates for their gain.

What made you decide to write a track about it?

Early last winter, just before Christmas, I was walking around Galway city. I have lived in Galway for most of my life and spent a lot of time walking the city’s streets, I’d never seen so many people sleeping rough. Tents were scattered around the pathways where the luckier people slept, others barely had a sleeping bag.

I was freezing walking around in a jacket and I couldn’t even imagine how hard it must be to have to sleep out in that cold and rain, not to mention how unsafe they must have felt knowing how Galway’s nightlife can get pretty wild. It made me sad at first but then I just got angry that things were able to get so bad and began to work on ‘Empty Homes’.