Thought Brownie: “I plan to write at least four lines every day, for the rest of my days, dropping words like it’s hot”

Thought Brownie, a.k.a Hari Shenoy, is a naturalised Irishman from India, a man in his early 40s releasing what he himself describes as an unlikely rap album. It’s the consequence of some life changes: tackling autoimmune disease that came up during Covid, and finding the power of artistic persistance as he began writing four lines every day to create a larger whole, the product of which is the record ‘Man Of Subtance’.

Referencing everything from the history of his native India to the war in Ukraine to Studio Ghibli as influences, Thought Brownie’s diverse cultural explorations ooze out in his music, making for one of the more unusual, mesmerising and thought-provoking records I’ve heard covering music in Ireland, a startling display of imagination in the face of self doubt.

In what I believe is the first written interview with Thought Brownie about his album, he filled me on just what it’s all about, and how it came to be, asking the broader question: what do you want to do with the time you have left?

You have a background on my side of the music industry. What shifted you over to producing and releasing your own music?

I was a music journalist covering independent music, mainly rock and metal in India. I did that for five years from 2007 to 2012. It was a brilliant experience that gave me access to new artists and to learn why they did what they did. I enjoy writing in general and writing about music in particular.

In my 30s, I went all in on a corporate job. My life was all about running on the hedonic treadmill. I wanted early retirement, after which I said to myself that I will finally relax, resting on the laurels of jobs well done. That perpetual state of being in sprints caused stress, anxiety and burnout, because everything that gave me fulfilment was outside of me. I was chasing the approval of others to feel good about myself, prioritising elusive milestones over abundant moments and neglecting to stay in the present moment.

The pandemic didn’t help either. In January 2021, I got diagnosed with an autoimmune health condition that shifted my perspective. It made me aware of how nothing is promised. I know I can leave my life right now, and I must make sure I can live my life right now.

I felt like the best way I could come to terms with the physical, mental and emotional challenges I faced was to write my way out. What I wrote turned into verse and that gave me the idea to create something. It felt like the right answer to the question I keep asking myself each day – “Yo Hari, what will you do with the time you have left?”

Can you tell me a little of the story behind ‘Man Of Substance’?

The original name I wanted to assign for the album was “Cheaper than therapy”. Then I figured that having a nom de plume that sounds like “Pot Brownie” should give me licence to call it “Man of Substances”. I finally decided that “Man of Substance” sounded right to me in my head.

I began writing the album when Russia invaded Ukraine. I have been to Kyiv and loved the time I spent there. My Ukrainian friends made me feel welcome the way people from India make their international friends feel welcome. It hurt to see them hurting. War made me wonder why we, as a species, are so blatantly invested in acts of self-sabotage. Carl Sagan’s speech about the “Pale Blue Dot” felt more relevant than ever and I decided to adapt it into rap.

All other tracks began falling into place as I explored topics related to time, mental health, ambition, inner peace and growing up.

Before this, I was writing a musical on the history of India. I am so grateful and so inspired by what Lin Manuel Miranda did with Hamilton, that I decided to create an Indian version. What’s the worst that could have happened?

I was making progress there but I’ve since set that project aside for now. I need to understand my own story before I could do justice to telling the story of nearly 2 billion people.

The League of Ireland without a team: can you be a fan of a league?

As the League of Ireland prepares for the 2024 season, which kicks off this evening, I am preparing to spend (some of) my Friday evenings travelling all over the Dublin region supporting… no one in particular. While the concept of groundhopping (you can find mine here) is certainly not alien to football fans, the idea of watching a league on a week by week basis without picking a team, or even one that could potentially be in that league one day, is likely an odd one. After 15 years of watching the League of Ireland, though, I’ve found it the best way.

The key value it gives me (and my son) is that I can pick the game that looks like it might be the most fun each week. Not that it’s typically necessary in the League of Ireland, but I have a booking record at every club within an hour of Dublin (and a few further away, too), and when I look at the League of Ireland fixtures on a Friday night with the intent of heading out, I look for what I think will be the best game.

Not ending up at the same place every week probably has a lot to do with having a loose definition of what the best game is. Last year, for example, I went to Bray Wanderers on the second game of the season, because I wanted to check out Kerry right after their acceptance into the League of Ireland. I wanted to see what their fanbase was like, how they were coming together (not great, as it turned out – they had a really poor season), and what style of play they would have. As it turned out, I also got to see their first ever goal at League of Ireland level (they lost 3-1).

Later in the season I decided I had a liking for the Louth derby, and went to Drogheda United v Dundalk, at either side’s ground. It has pyro, a slightly edgy atmosphere, and typically a few goals. Speaking of goals, picking Bohemians v Cork City (a 5-0 hammering) was a good call, and my absence of having a ‘team’ meant that I saw Shamrock Rovers and Derry City play several European games in Tallaght, a chance to see a few teams from outside Ireland (I would have gone to more European games, but unfortunately it was quite a poor year for Irish sides in Europe).

Of course, there are certain things I particularly enjoy. I have a soft spot for stadiums that feel like they’re from the 80s, so while my son will almost always opt for Shamrock Rovers given the choice (sorry, Shamrock Rovers fans, it’s the McDonalds in the Square carpark he’s most enthused about), I would fairly regularly opt for Shelbourne or Bohemians, just because it feels like going to football when I was growing up.

I have a soft spot for some teams, too. Drogheda United, for example, seem to gather odd results, often threatening the big clubs and losing to the little ones, and I enjoy the chaos. Bohemians left-leaning thing is not for everyone, but I’ve always enjoyed that, too, not least for the grafitti and the memorable away shirts. It would be a huge stretch, though, to say that I support any of those clubs. I simply don’t: their results don’t effect me on any meaningful level at all. I just enjoy the games.

One thing that’s different about the League of Ireland to what I grew up with in England is that while it’s growing in popularity (try getting a Bohs ticket at late notice), a lot of people here don’t go to games, don’t know a lot about the league, and don’t grow up supporting a team. As such, for a lot of people it might become necessary to ‘pick’ a team.

For those getting into the game, yes, of course, go down to your local team, enjoy the (in my opinion very good value) entertainment, and throw some money in the coffers to help the league’s development. But equally, especially if you live in Dublin and have, potentially, comfortably half a dozen clubs within an hour, consider simply picking something that looks entertaining one week, and then doing the same the next, and so on. I’ve found it a great way to engage with the league, and at this point, I can’t see myself every picking an Irish club. I’ll simply keep flitting around soaking up the best the league has to offer.

Gemma Hayes: “I went back into my head to start writing music again”

Gemma Hayes has been flying under the radar for a little while. The delicate guitarist’s soulful approach to music has taken her on a journey, one that explores the deeply personal, but also one, you get the sense, that she’s not quite building her life around.

In fact, some time away from music, and living abroad, was put a halt to by covid and saw her come back to writing. She’s now at the stage where a new album is almost ready to go.

“Covid brought me back to music, I was forced into a situation where my world was very small, so I went back into my head, and started writing music again,” she says. “I had no distractions or excuses. My kids are getting older, too, so I could leave a room and know they wouldn’t… well, die,” she laughs.

“Being able to pick up a guitar and play, having the mental, physical and emotional time to do it again was big. The next album is around the corner, but being an independent artist, there is no deadline as such. The first song will be out in November, though, and I’m playing the songs live already. You can tell how songs resonate once you play them to a room full of people, you hear it differently, which is an extraordinary thing.”

“Sometimes I change a song as soon as I play it live,” she continues. “With one song, we were playing it as a little two-piece, and we started to dig harder, to really pick it up at the end. It was very mellow on the album, but in a live setting it just grew bigger, so we went back and picked it up in the studio. It became something far more exciting because of playing it live.”

The Psychs: “You try screaming about Drinking on a bus at 9:00am on a Monday…”

The Psychs, on the face of it, are your typically gritty rock n’ roll band. With a series of pulsating singles having already taken them to iconic scene-fest Other Voices in Dingle, the four piece have evolved from an earlier, mellower sound into singles like their latest ‘The Bullet Song’, a quick-fire effort lent depth by their use of church organs.

I caught up with vocalist Billy Kid Jones ahead of the band’s show at the Workman’s Cellar on February 3rd.

Congratulations on the impending headline show. What can we expect from you as a live act?

…The unexpected.

Can you tell me a little of the backstory of how you came to this place?

Myself and Ben (guitar) were travelling around doing a bit of a Gimon & Sarfunkel thing and then one day we decided we wanted more and had this fire in us that demanded a bigger and more hard-hitting sound. Ben put out the call, straight off the bat we met Clampo (Bass). We had a drummer but parted ways mutually, went 9 months without a drummer! which I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a band that has drums in their songs but no drummer but it’s difficult. Then rather miraculously we met Aaron (drums) the rest is history.

What’s the inspiration behind your particular style of music?

We all come from different musical backgrounds, Country, Funk, Jazz, Blues but we all meet at the communal water fountain of classic Rock n’ Roll.

You formed in peak covid era. Did that have any impact on your development as a band?

Yeah but sure if that was a bingo number the whole hall would cheer, it definitely was a major obstacle but I mean we’re still here so…if anything it proves we don’t give up easily.

You’ve already had quite a few cool experiences as a band. Have any stood out?

Opening in the 3Olympia, Other voices and of course most recently being on Fanning at Whelans which was so different to what we’ve done. Normally playing live you’re like some Vampire that can just sleep til noon then crawl out of whatever lair you’re in and roll onto the stage, on Fanning we had to play those songs first thing in the morning! You try screaming about Drinking on a bus at 9:00am on a Monday…

What’s been your favourite experience as a band so far?

I know myself and the boys would all agree that opening in the 3Olympia Theatre has been the highlight so far. It was insane, it was a real “who let the dogs out?” moment. We didn’t know quite what to expect but the crowd was so amazing! I remember myself and the lads looked at eachother and we all thought the same thing “we could get use to this”

The Five Best Books I Read in 2023

It’s become an annual tradition of mine to put together a post about my favourite books of the year, in part, I think, as I find reading to be such an essential part of writing, and one of the bits that I don’t, as a matter of course, write about. Each year I present my favourite five of, typically, about 50 books (51 this year – perhaps half of that reading on the bus to work and back), because I think being in the ‘top ten percent’ of stuff that grabbed my attention within a year is a fairly strong recommendation.

This year’s selection is a bit of a mixed bag, and contains a strong element of off-the-beaten-track wanderlust. I think it’s an excellent selection – always happy to receive some tip offs in return, hit the comments section!

(while you’re here, check out my top books from previous years: 2022, 20212020201920182017, and 2016)

The Curtain and the Wall by Timothy Phillips

This is not just one of my favourite books I read in 2023, but one of my favourite books I’ve ever read. In it, Timothy Phillips travels, as the name suggests, the length of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, exploring the history and the modern-day impact of the old cultural divide from Norway to Berlin.

What’s great about it, though, is that it manages not to sit too heavily in the realm of staid history, and instead explores a series of personal takes on the wall and its impact, with lots of local input delivered and plenty of oddities, with the facts interspersed. There are some really cool little thing that most people might not have heard of, like the area of Finland briefly occupied by Russia and how trains were allowed to pass through is subject to strict searches and black out windows, or how a war nearly kicked off in an inaccessible part of Norway in the middle of the Cold War. Asides in areas like Azerbaijan, too, give it an ‘off the beaten track’ element. A really excellent read.

The Border  by Erika Fatland

I didn’t set out to recommend two of my “best books this year” with a heavy focus on Russia, but it worked out that way. In this one, the author examines the impact of Russia on its neighbours by travelling around the country’s entire border, a difficult task especially in areas like rural China, that leads to some great travel stories. She starts on a kind of adventure cruise ship for the wealthy and elderly working its way around the north of Siberia, an odd an isolated wasteland in large parts, before dropping in on North Korea, and parts of China and Mongolia that are heavily influenced by their neighbour.

This is mainly a travel book but with a nice bit of history woven in, and a lot of conversations that explain the impact of Russia on local populaces at some risk to the people involved (names are often changed). That means a chunky 600 plus pages, which made it probably my longest read of the year (I’m not really into vast tomes, generally), but it justifies it and remains interesting throughout. Well worth a look.

Groundhopping: Crusaders (v Carrick Rangers, Seaview)

Competition: NIFL Premier Division

Date: 30 December 2023

Result: Crusaders 2 – 0 Carrick Rangers

Tickets:  £13 for adults, £9 concession.

Attendance: circa 1,000 (best guess)

Game/ Experience Rating:  ☆☆☆

The Game: I was quite disappointed in a first half that we watched from the very quiet family stand up against the Shore Road, with both teams lacking quality in the post-Christmas cold. It got a lot better in the second half, with Crusaders pressing Carrick until they first broke through with a nice passing move, and then pressured the fairly well-supported visitors into a red card, at which point the game felt over. It finished 2-0, with Crusdars legend and one club man Jordan Owens grabbing the second.

It wasn’t an exciting fan experience: perhaps the lack of excitement around it all came from the positions of the two sides. Crusaders are in a bit of a nothing position, isolated in the middle of the NIFL Premier League table with Cliftonville and unlikely to finish anywhere other than right where they are. Carrick already look safe from relegation below them. This was my first glance at the NIFL though, and I can’t say the quality impressed me all that much.

The ground:  Seaview is located in what is clearly a very unionist part of Belfast, with lots of flags around the neighbourhood, but even parking our Irish registered car outside I didn’t ever feel uncomfortable – in fact, i found the place to be quite welcoming. The ground has some nice aspects: a tall stand on one side, a two-storey bar that was quite cool to walk around in one corner, and some popular food stalls that we couldn’t face the queues for. The little standing area in the back left hand corner was particulary good; we stood there for the second half and it was a huge improvement atmosphere wise.

Extras: A programme was available, though having no sterling, I didn’t get it. The bar looked particularly good. It would be useful if they made ticketing policy around youngsters clearer on the website – I paid £9 for a two year old just to be sure we got in online. I suspect I didn’t need to.

Assorted asides: Truthfully, we came up to Belfast for the Glentoran game that was rained off, hoping to see The Oval. This was a solid compromise, though, under the circumtances.

My totals for the year so far:

Games: 20. Home wins: 12 Draws: 4 Away wins: 4

Goals: 56. Home goals: 37. Away goals: 19. Goals per game: 2.80

VIEW ALL GROUNDHOPPING POSTS HERE.

King Kong Company: “we’re not a typical mainstream radio kinda band”

Photo by Colin Shanahan

King Kong Company are, by their own admission, focused on simply being the ultimate live band. The Waterford natives’ lively stage show features a member with a cardboard box over their head and the kind of riotous energy that draws back ever growing crowds. In fact, their return to Electric Picnic this summer was the stuff of legends.

It’s that secretive band member, known as simply ‘Boxhead’, who King Kong Company put forward to chat to the Gazette ahead of their forthcoming shows, and it’s a wild ride.

“Over the years we have worked hard to carve out a name for ourselves as a live act, best seen in our natural habitat on the festival circuit,” he tells us. “We’re not the typical mainstream radio play kinda band so we put our energy into what we love – a kick ass show, getting down and dirty with the headaballs.”

“The oddest place to play, hands down, was at the Aras. Asking Michael D Higgins if he was getting anythin’ off that will forever be a special memory. Sabina was loving it.”

“The people you see onstage really are only half the team responsible for a production,” he continues. “The whole King Kong Company family includes members in charge of PR, lights, sound, monitors, visuals, drivers, and lasers. Even down to the efforts of bubble boy Kev, our balloon thrower extraordinaire, everyone has their role and we share the common goal of putting on the best show we can.” 

“We may not always agree on artistic visions but any of this can be settled with a friendly headlock. We are united in the fantasy for years now about getting someone onstage in a gimp suit. It hasn’t happened yet. Sad face. But we did get our lampy onstage doing the chicken dance. Pretty close.”

This kind of shenanigans is, it has to be said, typical for King Kong Company, who’s primary aim seems to hover somewhere between making music and having the most outrageous fun possible. One time, for example, they made a beer that was infused with Tonic Wine, together with a local brewery, because why not.

Art Crimes Band: “lost love, wild nights, harsh days, romance and pain.”

Cork act Art Crimes Band are, it’s fair to say, atypical of the Irish music scene. A slow-building set up who’ve been on the live music scene for years, they draw influences from jazz and R&B, creating a complex six-piece fronted by the charmed vocals of Grace McMahon. The result is versatile, difficult to pin down, nodding to anything from Hall & Oates to John Legend alongside their jazzier influences. 2022 marks a comeback.

“It’s been amazing,” McMahon says of the return. “I didn’t realise how much I had missed performing live. The first gig back, I was full of nerves and worried if it would all go ok. I got on stage and the energy from the crowd was electric, and right at that moment all worries disappeared. It’s a feeling I will never forget.”

The band took a notable step forward after the lockdown by involving Abbey Road studios in their latest single, ‘Neon Skyline’, with one member of the band tracing some roots to the iconic London spot.

“After using different mastering engineers over the years we usually were not fully happy with the results,” Niall Dennehy says. “We loved the smooth warm sound from masters coming out of Abbey Road. My Uncle, who passed away about 20 years ago, worked as an engineer in Abbey Road in the 1950s when it was called EMI Studios. He taught me all the fundamentals of studio engineering growing up. So I think it’s fitting things come full circle and our tracks get an airing around the walls of Abbey Road.”

“‘Neon Skyline’ is the first track I wrote during Covid lockdowns, about three months in or so,” Stephen Kirby explains. “It is rough nights and long days, inspired by a trip to Vegas a few years ago. The chorus is about craving contact, positive or negative, just human interaction.” 

“The lyrics are put through the filter (for lack of a less modern term) of the story ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ by Jay Mcinerney. Neon Skyline is lyrically about lost love, wild nights, harsh days, romance and pain. Musically, it’s about blending solid and static patterns with fluidity and movement to create a complimentary sonic landscape for the story.”