The process of new music discovery in Ireland has always been an interesting thing for me (and probably no one else, let’s be honest!). I find the Dublin blogosphere quite saturated, which is great, especially when so much of the content’s so well written, but it also means that when I learn about something knew I love, it more often than not comes via either the band themselves, the PR, or (probably 70% of the time) someone else writing about it. Mostly, when I find something totally new myself, it’s likely because I’m in a quiet part of the country where there’s no coverage, or through a session, Bandcamp surfing or a support slot. Overhead, The Albatross are a rare exception: I discovered them one day because I’d just decided I wanted to go out and see nothing in particular. And they were sensational. The second time we ever met, Joe, Vinny and I (and no doubt a few others memory has blocked out) ended up getting messy in Sin E with MayKay from Fight Like Apes, which probably tells its own Irish music scene story in way (as much as I like all of them, I’m not really close enough to any of them to call them friends).
Anyway, enough of my rambling, my point is Overhead, The Albatross are superb. They’re unlikely to be huge simply because of the style of music they produce, but it’s technical, loud, intuitive and reminds me a lot of what enthralled me about ASIWYFA in their early days. Joe certainly seems to know his stuff, so I was thrilled when he agreed to do ‘State of the Nation’, with the added bonus of sussing out just how long it’ll be before i get to hear an album out of these guys (still to be confirmed, if you can’t manage another couple of paragraphs, but it sounds like major progress is being made). Without further padding, here’s Joe on Overhead, The Albatross, the Irish music scene and just what is happening with that debut album…
Overhead, The Albatross have been on the scene a while. Am I being mean in saying an album’s overdue? How’s progress?
We have and it is overdue, don’t worry about being mean, the more kickings we get over it the sooner it’s likely to come out. For a while our friends and family were joking and teasing us that the album will never see the light of day but now I think some of them really believe it. Most people close to us are more reluctant to ask about it these days! I’m happy to report that we’ve been putting in some big sessions in the studio lately. We have a track list, a title, the artwork starting to fall into place and most importantly the music has gotten to a point where we’re no longer having to imagine what it’ll sound like when it’s all done, it’s finally getting there. Writing and recording an album is a new experience for some of us, myself included, and I almost regret not documenting better the phases you undergo throughout the process. Right now we’re all so excited about what we’re working on, we are dying to get it out but we’ve been excited like this before about the same record, we’ve also been stressed by the scale of it, worried that it’s not going to be what we want it to be, frustrated with not being able to gig the new music yet and how long it’s taken us but, as tumultuous as that all may seem, it’s always felt like the best thing in my life, I think the guys would agree.
Did I see a tweet about strings? Can you tell me more?
You did. I think our intention was to always utilise strings and other orchestral sections as more than a texture in the background but I don’t think we’ve really done that properly until we started writing this record. Two of the guys in the band have a particular affinity for bowed instruments. Stevie, one of our guitarists is a music teacher and studied music in Maynooth so he lapped it up there. Luke, another guitarist was force fed Stravinsky as a child and was only allowed to eat when he could recite The Rite of Spring by heart. If it wasn’t for them I don’t think we’d spend nearly as much time writing for strings. In the last year or so we got to know Lia Wright, who is an immensely talented violinist. Honestly Lia has bolstered our live show and helped us with string arrangements so much that it’s hard to imagine what we did without her. With her help we enlisted members of the National Symphony Orchestra and National Concert Orchestra to play on the album. Working with players of that calibre was really intimidating, it was surreal really. I missed the days out recording with them but by all accounts they were a joy to work with, they really threw themselves at the task. Those 9-5 musicians don’t mess around.
What would you consider a success for an Overhead, The Albatross album at this point?
Ideally, this album would get us set up so to speak, I don’t really mean financially, we’re not going to make money selling records. I mean set up in the sense that we’d feel ‘established’ then. We’d see this as our first real release, everything up until now being kindling of sorts. Personally, I’d see success for this album being the ability to tour it well, throughout Europe with a view to touring America and Japan too. It would feel so great to be able to tour an album and then come home for a bit before getting straight into writing again. I’m not sure that really answers your question though. I think for it to be a failure it’d mean we never toured it and realised it live to its fullest potential. Let fate or karma or whatever else bite me in the ass for saying this but we’re not going to let that happen.
From a band perspective, how difficult is the financial side of the music industry? How well would you have to do, for example, to pay for your own equipment in full from your music? What about to pay yourself minimum wage for every hour you spend on it?
If there are bands similar to us in a similar situation and they’re making enough exclusively from selling music and touring we need to figure out how to do that (that’s the dream, right?) Off the top of my head I can think of a handful of Irish bands signed to good labels who need to work separate jobs to get by. I think bands have more realistic expectations about getting signed these days. By that I mean you know you’re going to have to work some other job to sustain what you love doing, I’m sure that goes for any other medium or discipline. Maybe it’s only when your band becomes more of a corporate entity you can rest on your laurels a little bit, although probably not even then. I’ve not had the pleasure of that experience to provide decent insight.
It’s difficult to say how well we’d have to do to pay ourselves a minimum wage because we spend so many hours outside of the studio trying to keep things afloat. If we could spend eight hours a day working on the band we would, and to make the kind of money to sustain minimum wage for six of us we’d probably have to gig for better money than we’ve ever gotten once a week (costs included). That’s not realistic in Ireland for a band like us. People would get bored of us for a start and it’s just not realistic.
Are various aspects of the industry fair to non-pop acts in Ireland? Do you feel you get the love you deserve on radio/ in papers/ on TV, for example? Does Irish music in general get the love it deserves?
We’ve gotten a lot of love I think. We’ve had coverage on national radio thanks to Dan Hegarty and we were featured on The Works last year. That’s probably more than most bands of our ilk have gotten. We have to be realistic about the sort of coverage we can expect due to the nature of our music. Most of our songs clock in around eight minutes and we’re not so keen on doing radio edits. We cut a song down to fit on The Works but it felt weird to me. I’d rather write a three minute song than chop something up. In fairness to Dan Hegarty he plays our music in full when he does and it’s something we’re grateful for.
This is the most difficult question you’ve asked me, this is my second attempt at trying to answer it, I’m pretty conflicted. Of course it would be great to hear more Irish music on radio and television. I think we can read about it enough on the blogs and through publications like the GoldenPlec Magazine and Hotpress if we want to. I don’t think there’s much academic discussion about music in Ireland and maybe that’s a problem. I’d love to read more about the social history of music in Ireland rather than a list as long as my arm of gig reviews.
I think Irish music gets a lot of love but I think what you’re asking is if it is coming from the right places. Independent journalists and bloggers fly the flag all day every day when it comes to Irish music and I’d imagine it’s a labour of love (ed: it is, the day this website pays for iteself I’ll be happy!). People turn up to pack out venues every weekend to support Irish music and there are some DJ’s who do as much as they can to squeeze an unsigned Irish act into their playlists. I think maybe it’s a bit misguided of people to demand radio stations play more Irish music when those stations couldn’t care less about Irish music, not really, they’re not there to represent you. Like I said, there are some DJ’s who do and they’re fighting the good fight but you’re talking about corporate and internationally owned companies. It’s in their interests to churn out the manufactured stuff most of the time, tune into something else.
I’m not going to try to list all the places you can find Irish music on ‘big media’ but one of the better places to find Irish music is ALT Éire on Radió na Life and The Alternative on 2FM. Lyric FM have a great show called Nova full of things I’ve never heard before, maybe bands like us would do better pitching themselves there. DJ’s like Claire Beck from TXFM write regularly in The Sun about Irish music and obviously the big one is Jim Carroll in The Irish Times whose column I enjoy because it’s not the usual review stuff. On TV there’s The Works and Ceol ar Imeall when they’re on too.
What are the Irish music scene’s greatest strengths in your view? What about the downsides?
I’m going to put my hands up here and say my involvement with local music has been minimal at best lately so my opinion is likely to be irrelevant. I don’t really go to many gigs anymore, I don’t put on gigs anymore. I buy local records when I can but I rarely give bands the time I should, local or international. This isn’t any reflection on the music that’s coming out of here, at least don’t think it is. Has everything gotten terrible while I’ve been hiding?
I’ve always been pretty impressed at how vibrant the Irish scene is considering our population. We have, and have always seemed to have a bustling punk and hardcore scene for example. We have these great electronic producers that aren’t trying to pretend they’re from Berlin or London and when international acts come over, the local supports can almost always go toe to toe with them. I love seeing a local band killing it in a support slot. I love the following some bands have. Somebody was chatting the other day about running into another person who had the same ASIWYFA tattoo as him. As ludicrous as that sounds it’s sort of deadly.
In terms of weaknesses I can’t really think of any venues in Dublin that I’d like to hang out in, nor can I think of any I really like going to see gigs in. The problem is I don’t know if we have the population for more venues, or venues that don’t have to serve as cash cows for bars. District 8 has been playing a blinder for techno gigs lately but there’s nowhere I want to see a band these days. The bookers and venue managers all seem really committed to their places and I know the kind of work that goes into it on a smaller scale having tried my hand at it once upon a time so I’m conscious of annoying people here but yes, that’s a problem for me. Maybe that isn’t so much to do with the Irish music scene and more to do with personal tastes.
Give me a little personal musical history: who did you listen to growing up that made you want to make music? (go on, make it cringe-tastic!)
I can only really give this personally because Ben is the only person in the band I’ve known since I was a kid and we weren’t good friends until we started the band. There was always a lot of Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd and The Beatles playing in our house at home, Led Zeppelin too, Ricky Lee Jones, Fleetwood Mac and my Dad playing covers of all of those on a guitar from songbooks we had in the kitchen. I guess I started playing guitar with my brothers and my Dad at home and then gave it up when I got too cool for it. I hadn’t really thought about it but that was really what set things in motion.
When I got to school I remember vowing never to get on stage as long as I lived. I was terrified of the idea. Then I started listening to punk and metal and being super angsty (never stopped being super angsty). Then I met Stevie in school and he was really into Nirvana so I wanted to play that. Our friend Scott was really into Jimi Hendrix so I got into him too and we all formed a horrifically teenage band called…’Cynical’. (You asked for cringe). We actually played one gig when we were 15 at a Blast thing in the Voodoo Lounge. We covered Moby Dick and Voodoo Child and then three godawful songs (that I still love, get off my back) and then disbanded shortly thereafter.
If it wasn’t for Stevie and Scott in school I’d still be making my way through Euphoria and Dave Pearce compilations. Having said that, if it wasn’t for the terrible trance I was into I would never have found all the electronic music I like now. I think my musical tastes as a kid were pretty vanilla for a typical smelly rocker, I’d like to think I broadened my horizons afterwards. I got very into metal throughout school and joined a band called Steelined who then became Red Enemy. I was in that band for six years and now they’re doing better than most metal bands in Ireland, look what happens when I leave a band!
If you could change one thing about the way music functions at the moment, what would you do?
While I think streaming is great and it’s taken all the effort away from stealing from artists (hnnnng), I think it’s lead to a really passive sort of listening. I was slagged off on Twitter for talking about ‘passive listening’ but I think it makes sense. Without having done even the most cursory bit of research I’d bet that most people who are using a streaming service are doing so while they’re glued to a screen. If you’re reading an article, you’re not really listening to the music and vice versa. Obviously people have had music on in the background since the beginning of mass produced portable music formats, but I think it’s gotten to a stage where so many albums are hot with the blogs for less than a week and then they’re lost to the annals of things-people-worked-really-hard-on-that’ll-never-be-heard-again. This of course is pertinent to us as we’re about to release an album. I don’t think albums will survive forever. To be honest, the thought of putting an album out is a bit terrifying, there’s always that chance that you’re throwing a few years of your life into a bottomless chasm. What I’d really like to do is change people’s attention spans, by force if necessary. Maybe exclusively by force.
You seem very into recording and the recording process. Is that just part of a broader love of music?
We must seem really into recording actually. Everything we post is from the studio because David our pianist owns Clique Recordings in Kildare. It’s our base of operations and we wouldn’t be a band without it, not really.
It’s funny you should mention process because a lot of what’s taken us so long with this album is figuring out the process. We didn’t realistically think we’d come home from the Czech Republic in 2012 with an album, but we did think we’d be a bit closer than we were. So what really happened is we spent extra time in writing and preproduction, trying to figure out how best to go at it. We made loads of demos that we might have put out as they were a few releases ago but we knew we needed to reach a higher mark with this one. I suppose it remains to be seen if we have or not. I think even based on drafting in our live engineer Ciarán Cullen to track the album for us last year is one of the best decisions we’ve ever made, not just because he’s a great engineer but it took the stress out of tracking for us. We got to play the whole album in the room together and really feel it out. Hopefully that’ll come across in the finished product.
David and Vinny would have the best production knowledge of any of us and if it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t have been afforded the opportunity of trying things as many times and different ways as we have. It would have been a disaster to walk in to a studio with the raw materials we had at the time and have a stranger try to cobble an album out of it. We needed to write and rewrite, to structure things better and really get a feel for everything. In the end we recorded the entire album live, all that part is long since done but it was a big call to make seeing as it’s the first thing we’ve recorded live since the first demo of ‘Jonah’ in 2009. We recorded the strings live too and now after working on the electronic elements and other bits and pieces we’re very close to getting the whole thing ready for the final mix.
Do you worry about how you fit into a scene? Do you have to ‘take part’, for example, to make progress?
No, not at all. That’s probably another strength of the Irish scene, that there’s no real hierarchy. Nobody is streets ahead of anyone else so everyone is more or less your peer (and if they think they’re streets ahead of you, seek other peers!) I don’t think we fit in sonically to a particular subset of Irish music but socially I always just get the feeling that we’re all in this together, not to say there’s a particularly strong sense of camaraderie all the time but anyone I’ve come across generally has to deal with the same stuff as you do and that’s as good common ground as any, and we’ve all met some people through music that will more than likely be around forever.
You should take part if your scene means something to you. If you’re worried about ‘progression’ as rising through some sort of ranks then get back to working on your music or at least examine why you want to do this in first place. You don’t need to do it and I hate to see bands doing things they otherwise wouldn’t to make an impression on somebody. Look at Meltybrains? as an example of a band that do whatever they want whenever they want and it’s starting to show some serious results. They’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but they could not care less and in all likelihood they’ll do better than most local bands this year, I hope they do for that reason alone. I get that there are channels and processes that people go through to get certain gigs and sign certain deals but it all comes down to your reason for making music. I don’t think it’s necessary, but I’m one person in one band, the rest of my band mightn’t even agree.
I don’t take part enough in a scene that I do care about and sometimes I feel shitty about it, I don’t like going to gigs and a lot of that is down to personal stuff. I don’t think anyone is going to begrudge me or anyone for not going to gigs though, it still blows me away a bit every time people bother to turn up to one of our shows, nobody owes that to us and they never will. In a live setting that’s one of the biggest clichés musicians get blamed for buying into, the ‘it means so much that you came out tonight’ thing but cliché or not, the lads can attest to the fact that it’s a really emotional thing for us, to see a room filled mostly with strangers standing there waiting for you to play, and it’s always terrifying, always, but it feels incredible.
Who are the best Irish acts right now, and the ones to look out for in the near future, in your view?
This is a hard one. Do I temper the bias towards my friends or not? The problem being lots of my friends are in really good bands. Okay, okay, I’ll only list people I don’t know. That way I’ll get in trouble with everyone equally.
I suppose it’d be unfair of my not to mention the group that made me pull my van over to the side of the road on Christmas Eve the year before last, Ensemble Ériu. Somebody was playing them on Lyric Fm and I was close to my house so I didn’t want to get out of the van before I heard who it was. They play this really gorgeous jazz/trad fusion and I think maybe the reason I like them so much is because as difficult as that sounds on paper it’s a real joy to experience live. They have an album online, get it, but go see them play.
The next lot are This Is How We Fly who I first heard playing with the Dublin Laptop Orchestra in Smock Alley and if there were ever a bunch of musicians to put you to shame it’s these. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a violinist play like Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh does. They’re playing Valentines Day in The Grand Social if you fancy taking yourself on a date. Again this is a group that fuse several cultures to sublime effect, Irish fiddle, with Polskas, jazz and sorry, I forgot to mention they have a percussive dancer in the band! Maybe the only band in Ireland with an audible dancer built in? Another sight to behold!
The last act I’ll mention are the Rusangano Family setup of mynameisjOhn & God Knows, a sample based hip hop group from Limerick. They have elements of grime in there too I guess, it’s all good. I’ve been meaning to check out Murli’s E.P. too, he’s part of the same crew. God Knows is a pretty commanding force on a stage, and his flows are probably more interesting than most in Ireland. mynameisjOhn and he seem like the perfect pairing, they seem musically built for each other. Actually I once added mynameisjOhn on Facebook because I confused him for someone else and I’d say he thinks I’m a massive weirdo. Hi man.
What are your plans for the coming year?
Our plans for the year are to finish this album, press it, tour it and keep touring it until our legs give out and we want to start writing again. It would be nice to play some seated gigs in non-bar venues, maybe something more like a theatre setting. It would also be great to play with as many musicians that we’ve had play on the album. Obviously that’s not realistic if we’re to play in any of the small/medium sized rooms in Dublin. I think we’ve had about 15 people play on the album so far including us, maybe more. It will be an absolute joy if we can pull off a few gigs with them all there.
I guess the overall plan is to keep doing it, keep meeting new people and keep playing music together, maybe to bigger audiences in different countries. Something we’ve talked about a lot is how touring is the perfect way to travel, together, probably broke but having fun.
State of the Nation is a blog project for 2015 focused on telling the story of the Irish music scene through interviews with some of its major players. Interviews are published weekly, and you can find a full index of all published to date here.