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.”
“We’ve always been on a tightrope between being a rock band that has to exist commercially, and a jazz band that can access this kind of funding. We improvise with that, too, it can definitely play into how you run your band.”
So where’s does that leave the band’s sound? Who they are is a subject, Ryan believes, that comes a lot from perspective, and might depend heavily on what you normally listen to, a fascinating effect he has come to recognise over the years.
“Quite often there’s a funny thing with us where if you play a jazz festival, people think you’re crossover rock stuff, and if you play a rock-type show, people think it’s jazz. I think it’s exciting to present it in a different way. We have a kind of Jekyll and Hyde thing, like a Trojan horse. We can bring a rock thing to people who are only used to listening to things sitting down, and then do the reverse. They’re both genres that are derived basically from breaking rules, and trying new things. That’s always been kind of the main thing for me. The sound thing comes secondary. That’s how I see it”