Ever-morphing Belfast six-piece Robocobra Quartet are one of those bands that are very hard to pin down: equally at home in jazz and punk quarters.
‘Living Isn’t Easy’, their first full-length record in four years, is typically exploratory, with a single ‘Wellness’ in which vocalist Chris Ryan reads verbatim a bizarre article about an influencer’s daily routine, is typical of the band’s leftfield exuberance.
I spoke to the band around the launch of the record, and found them in thoughtful form…
Hi lads, congrats on the new record. You did some interestingly specific things in the studio around creating a mood. Can you tell me how that worked in practice?
Ryan Burrowes: Thank you! We decided to record the album in a studio in rural Donegal, a cool looking modern studio set in a sort of idyllic rugged Irish landscape. The idea was to focus solely on the music and spend time together as a group of 6, which up until that point we have never really done.
The album was written and arranged very collaboratively compared to previous records and we wanted to maximise this when recording by forcing ourselves into the same location for a week, while also recording many of the tracks live. We decided on a strict ‘sound palette’ for this record, which allowed us to be as creative as possible within strict parameters. I think this has all contributed to our most direct sounding release thus far. We also had a great time as a collective.
The title of the album suggests a response to circumstance. How do the songs link in with the concept?
Chris W Ryan: The title is a play on the way lifestyle brands sell ‘easy living’ as something to aspire to. As if complacency is the goal or something? It seemed like a good title to group a collection of songs about our modern life of aspiration. Pretty much every song is loosely based around something we try to aspire to (or are told we should aspire to).
Did covid feed into your musical worlds at all?
Chris W Ryan: In a way we wouldn’t have been able to make such a focussed album without the pause on touring that Covid forced us into. As a band we tend to do a lot of small runs and fly-gigs which can make the brain a bit scattered and lose momentum when writing. But the break in schedules allowed us to bash around songs in the room for a whole year.
Ryan Burrowes: Covid definitely fed into our musical world for this album as the downtime also allowed us to work on new ideas in our own time separately in isolation. Once lockdowns opened up a bit we spent a period intensely arranging these ideas into songs and recording an entire demo version of the album basically, with many tracks that didn’t make the final cut.
Your themes are quite critical – rightly, I’d argue – of modern life and its challenges. What would a Robocobra Quartet-formed world look like?
Ryan Burrowes: I don’t think any of us would want the responsibility of creating a world, it would only be corrupted and go wrong anyway due to the complexity of humans (haha). I would only hope that a Robocobra based world could be kinder and more equal in many ways. We may not have the answers but we’re happy to ask questions, maybe someone listening to the record will come up with the ideas to sort it all out.
How do you feel your live show has developed in recent years?
Chris W Ryan: It’s pretty much always 4 people on stage but who those people are could change from night to night. I think we’ve always been about challenging rooms, contexts and people to try to make something unique and special on the night but I think these days we’re excited by challenging our own complacency too. For example, trying to incorporate some elements of ‘pop music’ alongside the improvisation. I want to feel like our shows are free spaces where anything can happen. So you can’t rule out a pop song happening…
Ryan Burrowes: Our live show has constantly evolved throughout the years and still changes depending on which formation of the band we have for a show or tour. I began by playing bass but I’m now playing samplers, keys and percussion. This has definitely expanded the sounds we’re capable of creating live with 4 people. It has definitely moved in a more electronic direction in general and expanded the soundscape a bit. We’re always happy to improvise with our live setup as we do while playing the songs live. You could see us multiple times and see a different lineup each time. We’ve even used two basses previously. Improvisation is key to our identity as a band in many ways.
How much improvisation goes on when you all get together – and does it grow or contract as an element of your music in front of an audience?
Chris W Ryan: It’s there in the rehearsal room and it’s there in the writing too (or rather, the space is left for it). I think improvisation is what keeps us interested in the music and what creates the connection between us and the audience too. I often think about how DJs will tailor their set according to the audience’s needs but the conductor of an orchestra has their back to the audience. I want to be able to strike a balance between the two when we perform.
Your press release references Brexit and the ‘unique mix’ of identities in Northern Ireland as being factors in your musical development. That has to be one of the more positive Brexit developments, if so…
Ryan Burrowes: I would say our unique mix of identities is more a statement of where Northern Ireland finds itself in 2022. We have Irish, British and European identities within the group and this is reflective of Belfast as a whole nowadays. We’re less concerned with the older binary ideas of identity that NI can have and more with celebrating the ability to choose and move forward. Brexit developments are something I certainly prefer to leave to our politicians to squabble about, they love it and we just get to live with the consequences. In terms of musical development we’re definitely hoping to show that Belfast is a lot more diverse and progressive than the simple historical political binary identity the city can be burdened with and which many politicians pander to, at our expense. There is a lot of interesting art and culture happening in Northern Ireland right now, most of it with something to say.
What are your hopes for the record and the summer that follows it?
Chris W Ryan: I’m just excited for the music to belong to other people and also to be able to go out and visit new places. It’s so cool that a couple MP3 files you create with your friends can earn you invitations to cities across the world.
Looking at your career so far, what is your ‘underappreciated gem’ at Robocobra Quartet, do you think?
Chris W Ryan: I’ve always liked our track ‘Album Of The Year’. It was our version of an old jazz piano-ballad; it always gives me a kind of wintery feeling. Maybe in another universe it’s their Auld Lang Syne…
Ryan Burrowes: Probably ‘Dirge For Self’ off the first record. I don’t know why but the Sax melodies remind me of Age Of Empires every time I hear it and that game is special.
Chris, what kind of strain was your voice under after a full day of recording only vocals?
Chris W Ryan: Haha, well the idea was for all of the album’s vocals to be recorded in one sitting order to have the character’s journey be married together. I liked the idea of my voice being a bit worn out by the end of the album and i’m no opera singer so the stakes were pretty low anyway — I just have to speak and shout my way through our songs and if they feel emotional then the job is done!
I know you’re always looking ahead as a band. Now this record is done, what’s next?
Chris W Ryan: We’re always writing. I can see things going in a different direction than before just because we’re always hunting for new sounds. But, one thing I’m trying to get better at is being present and enjoying the moment so for now we’re going to celebrate this album and play it live until we’ve absolutely squeezed every drop out of it!
Ryan Burrowes: Next record, we have lots of exciting musical ideas and plans for new material to work on but right now, I’m most looking forward to travelling and playing this record anywhere we can. We also have a lot of fun deconstructing our songs over time for live shows, so it will be interesting to see how different some of the live versions of songs are in future.