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Thumper: “The idea of every song is to be able to strip back to piano and a single voice and still give the meaning”

Down and dirty Dublin rockers Thumper are, by their own admission, flying further than they ever thought they would. Led by the charismatic Oisín Leahy, a frontman who started the band as a bedroom project before expanding it into a modern incarnation that includes two live drummers and a guitar setup that spends much of gigs in the crowd, they’ve become a touring rock juggernaut. Their aim, however, has always been to focus on quality as well as noise. 

“I started Thumper because I was having crazy writer’s block, but I also fancied myself as a kind of bard, like everything I did had to be a seminal masterpiece,” Leahy said, his tongue planted slightly in his cheek. “I wanted to be poetic and meaningful. But as we all know, the harder we aim for that kind of thing, the worse it becomes.”

“Thumper were a process of writing and recording really immediate, lo-fi songs,” he explains. “At the time that was received really well in the scene, but it was one mic recorded over the weekend. After a while it was becoming obvious that the music had sent the project in a certain direction, and live gigs came along, so I started filling the stage with my friends. Eventually the line up solidified. It was low stakes, but by the time the band got together I was ready for it to be high stakes.”

“The lo-fi thing was a really good tool as it enabled me to go ‘this doesn’t matter’, but by that point I was ready for it to matter,” Leahy says.

Refer to the spectacle of Thumper’s live show – it’s a boisterous, madly energetic experience that goes relentlessly hard – and Leahy is immediately keen to talk about the other side of what he does.

“Ultimately for us, the most important part is the songcraft,” he says. “At the beginning it was purely intense without the material to back it up. It was chaos, smashing guitars and so on, but I felt like it never left a lasting expression, as the material was just an excuse to do that.”

“At a certain point, the songs had to justify the show, not the other way around. The album is not a case of bottling the live show. The circle of what we’re aiming for is getting smaller and smaller, more and more refined,” Leahy explains. “That said, now that people are on board with what we sound like, we don’t really want to stay with that,” he laughs.

“Last time, we made an album for ourselves, it was like our therapy session. We just want to live up to what feels right in the moment.” Leahy then points to a Daniel Johnson tattoo on his arm. “The song comes ahead of the aesthetic,” he continues. “Anyone who’s a fan of [Daniel] Johnson’s music will get over the lo-fi production. We want to be able to go out with an acoustic guitar and do the same thing. That’s the goal of every single song we have, to be able to strip back to piano and a single voice and still give the meaning.”

“We’re working on the second album, and we’re definitely very excited to jump into the studio and work on that. It’s stuff we’ve written together, unlike the first album. We’re all friends making music, and that’s always a positive. [Debut album] ‘Delusions of Grandeur’ was very self indulgent, with a lot of punk emotion in it. All we wanted to do was be maximalist. The one we’re working on at the moment is basically a reaction to that.”

Árný Margrét: “When I write songs, they have to really mean something”

Rising Icelandic folk-pop star Árný Margrét is, quite simply, one of those unforgettable voices. Seemingly singing her soul, she brings the texture of her home in the Westfjords of Iceland, where she first intended to write simply for herself, and fuses it with her mellow guitar chords with poetic thoughts. Hers is a style of simple-meets-poignant songwriting that’s gone international through how gracefully it bares the young vocalist’s older-feeling soul.

For shining examples, take the closing track on the singer’s debut album ‘They Only Talk About The Weather’, entitled ‘Abandoned’, on which her voice briefly cracks as she sings of forgiveness, or the gentle low-key lullaby of ‘The World Is Between Us’, on which her vocal reaches yet new highs. This is a strange road for Árný, but a beautiful and unexpected one.

“It’s strange,” she laughs when we talk of her breakthrough. “I think my songs get a new life when you play them for people. I still try to be myself, like when I used to write these songs in my room. Where I come from is a small town isolated from everything. The weather is very dramatic and contrasting, sunny one day and snowy the next, and the mountains are in your face. It has a real effect on everyday life.”

“I try to write wherever I am, but some songs come together really slowly over a long period. I also write on the plane or in the car. The new EP is less about the weather, as I haven’t been home much. It’s more about myself and the things around me. My songs are literal and honest, but they can be understood in different ways, so it’s about interpretation.”

“‘Abandoned’ is last, with no instruments, just a single-take recording with guitar and vocal, and I give it everything. It’s very sad and vulnerable, and it’s a lot. I find that creepy to do on stage, so I’ve only done ‘Abandoned’ once or twice live, as I find it scary. But I’m really trying to do it more often.” [a few hours after our chat, Árný plays ‘Abandoned’ as part of her set, much to our surprise and delight].

Árný’s breakthrough story comes in part through an Icelandic music icon known simply as ‘Kiddy’, who also produced the album. “He’s around everything, and he knows everyone in the industry,” she says. “When I heard from him, I wasn’t really playing live at all. He saw me in a recording, so I went to his studio and played ten songs, just sat in a chair. I left all my lyrics behind in his studio, so he texted me to tell me to come back.”

“I came back to collect my stuff and did ten more songs, and by then he was into the idea of doing something. The EP and album came after that. It was Gregory Alan Isakov that got me going, though. I was 14 when I found his songs ‘Amsterdam’ and ‘Second Chances’, and I went from that to teaching myself his songs, lots of covers. It took learning his music over time to think maybe I could do something.”

“I think when I write songs, they have to really mean something and say something. They can’t be useless information about my day or whatever, so that’s how I try to write. When it comes out from the other end, it’s not about what I meant with the song anymore. It’s about listening to a story, in some way, but also about what it means to the listener. A conversation.” 

There’s a raw truth in Árný’s journey from isolation to the conversation she speaks of, but there’s also a simple beauty: this music works because it delivers a message from the heart with incredible vocal and poetic ability. The combination sends shivers.

Future Islands: “I love causing genre confusion, it’s part of my art”

The product of members from disparate musical backgrounds, hard-to-summarise Baltimore synth rockers Future Islands are psychedelic, poetic, entrancing and particularly known for their spellbinding live performances.

In frontman Samuel T Herring they have a man with his roots firmly embedded in hip-hop, but who performs in a style akin to a lyrically focused, soulful, funk rocker telling stories from the heart. 

“I love causing genre confusion. It’s part of my art,” Herring says. “Future Islands have been around nearly half my life now. In art, I think, having felt like I didn’t really fit in early in life, before I got into art and became more sure of myself, those things became part of me… if you see me one way, be sure I’m going to do something else.”

That’s filtered into both a live unpredictability, and recordings that follow some patterns, but not the ones you might expect.

“Those performances… Still to this day, people don’t know what to expect, and that’s the hope. To make people feel, to stir something up,” Herring says. “That confusion is what it’s about. I was a hip-hop head, Gerrit [keyboards] was a metal and punk kid, and William [bass] was into 80s synth music, so William won, he got to be in the band he wanted to be in,” Herring laughs.

“The stew of different genres and loves for different kinds of music did create something different for us, though, and I think that persists. We sound like us.”

“I’m a purist with hip-hop,” Herring continues in explaining why that side of his music doesn’t tend to transfer over into Future Islands. “I’ll sing on rap songs, but not in a Future Islands way. It’s more like Bill Withers as a hook. And I’ll never rap on a Future Islands song, though fans sometimes ask. They’re very different art forms to me, and I keep my hip-hop seperate.”

The songwriting process has also taken on a distinct method. “I don’t pull from a journal entry or a sketch anymore, I write to music,” Herring says. “The songs are personal to my life, and I don’t want to bring an agenda to the table. I want to hear what the guys feel from the music, and see what that pulls out of me. That makes for a more natural, organic song than trying to fit music to words, or words to music with an idea already in mind.”

“Letting the music lead you places can lead you to an unexpected feeling and an unexpected conclusion or theme. That means exploring different themes than we’ve done before, and that’s because the music went to new places that we hadn’t been to before, too. You ride the beat that you’re given, and it leads you to unexpected outcomes. It’s serendipity.”

“The new album is done,” Herring throws in, adding that a few tracks might appear as part of the forthcoming Dublin show. “We haven’t finalised a date for the album. We’re going on tour, then we’re going to take three or four months with it, then it’ll probably drop early next year. We’ll take our time with it and make sure it’s just right. It’s an intense album, classic Future Islands. Basically the album you could imagine Future Islands would write after the whole world goes into existential crisis. The trouble and strife were great for songwriting,” he concludes.

Susan O’Neill: “There’s nothing like winning over a heaving pub, inviting them to sing along”

Blending influences that range from her gospel singing upbringing to time spent bartending in the trad pubs of Ennis, as well as her own take on folk delivered with a truly mesmerising vocal, Susan O’Neill (also known as SON) is a rising star of the Irish music scene.

With much of her recent output focused on collaboration with Mick Flannery, the Clare singer has also been working towards her second record, a follow up to 2018’s ‘Found Myself Lost’, a release that frequently takes her to the US and Canada, as well as tours across Ireland.

Looking back, O’Neill can see her early influences shining through. “One thing that really stood out to me when I first did the gospel choir and my brass band was the feeling of communal sharing of sound. How powerful I could be,” she says. “I was very young in the band, around 12. I started to notice getting goosebumps and feeling the hair on the back of my neck stand up during certain moments of this song. The use of dynamics will allow users to swell into a moment that sounds like a type of bliss. I realised around that age, that music was a very profound thing. Something I had not yet words to describe and probably still don’t, but I can try.”

That sense of profound engagement is still something that O’Neill looks to practise, and it links back, partly, to that early time in Ennis.

“I always described Ennis as having a song in the air,” she says. “Music in the pubs, music in the streets. I worked in quite a few pubs and one in particular had a great trad scene happening. I would serve pints to those who frequented the bar. I became friendly with the musicians and sometimes I would jump out from behind the bar and collect glasses, and during this round-trip, was often asked by the resident musicians to share a song with the pub.”

“They would back me with their expert playing and wow, I really loved being asked. I began to learn different tunes, keeping them in the back pocket. There’s nothing like winning over a heaving pub, inviting them to sing along, and finishing a song with an army of voices joined in that moment. Like any scene anywhere, sometimes it’s what you make it.”

When it came to ‘In The Game’, a lockdown album produced with Mick Flannery, O’Neill tapped into a different aesthetic.

“Working with Mick, and putting out an album, was truly joyous,” she says. “It was a really cool idea to play characters and write for the characters. I found I could use this when it came to tapping into the emotion of delivering the songs to a live audience. It is also really unique to get to blend voices through songs that are very rich in their dialogue. Some of them are full-on arguments between the characters, there are intimate and vulnerable moments that occur within the story as well. All of which could be used to get to the core of a very universal theme. “

“We practised a lot in the initial days over zoom, and although it wasn’t ideal, it shows that you can really work with the tools that are available and do something cool with it.”

As for the future, that solo follow up record is not too far around the corner. “I’m working on a brand-new album right now. It’s nearly finished,” O’Neill says. “I’m really excited about it. I really want to zone in on what exactly my message is and why I want to say it. I have found what that is, and it has taken time to mature into it. I’m at a place now where I feel proud and excited about what I’m working on. I feel that it’s fresh and new and true to me.”

Just Mustard: “We’re happy to get any kind of reference to Portishead”

Moody, captivating and with a hint of the 90s Bristol scene that launched the likes of Massive Attack and Portishead upon the world, Dundalk mood-rockers Just Mustard are widely regarded as one of Ireland’s most compelling recent exports. Fronted by Katie Bell, an intriguing lyricist with a tendency to create records with thinly veiled and entrancing themes, the band recently announced a remarkable South American stadium support slot with The Cure.

Having edged from a local scene centred around Dundalk’s Spirit Store to that international acclaim and no little hype, the band are riding the crest of a wave. Guitarist David Noonan took time out of their busy schedule to tell us that the journey has been somewhat “surreal”.

“The call kind of came bit by bit, one show first and then more, which made it more exciting,” Noonan says of the South American shows, “I can’t really wrap my head around what it’ll be like. We usually play inside in the dark, so outside on a big stage in the sun is a bit different.”

“I get the Bristol sound comparison,” Noonan says. “We’re all really into Portishead, especially the first album, and I suppose a lot of the music we’re influenced by is in a similar vein. We’re happy to get any kind of reference to Portishead,” he laughs.

“Our progress has felt like a slow thing, the big shows are rare. I feel like our band exists in very much a ‘dark, smaller venue’ type of place, and we’ve done a lot of support tours in the last year or so. It’s hard to get a gauge on what we’re doing and where we’re at.”

“We properly started in around 2017, and I suppose because of Covid it doesn’t feel like we’ve been around that long. We toured the first album and then stopped for two years, so it’s been a weird road. The first album was recorded in our practise space, with the vocals done in different rooms of the house, bedrooms, bathrooms and so on. It was all like that apart from the drums. A lot of the acoustic stuff was done to place the album in a certain sound, but we’re a lot more direct live.”

The first two albums, for reasons that are difficult to put a finger on, are often associated with colours. “We felt the first album was red, and the second blue and connected to water, and I can’t really explain why that is,” Noonan says. “We’re working on new material now, but it doesn’t really have a colour or a theme that’s apparent to us just yet. I guess Katie’s lyrics are a big part of that.”

The strength of their massive second album ‘Heart Under’ is, perhaps, partly the product of being granted the kind of time that is usually difficult for a hyped band arriving on a major indie label, in their case by the pandemic.

“Covid had its positives for us as a band. Obviously talking creatively only, but it was our first record with Partisan, our first time working with a label on that scale,” Noonan explains. “For the first one, we had finished the record beforehand. It was quite a creative space, but also an uninspiring time. Speaking for myself, I get a lot of inspiration from going to see music live. I’m excited by that. So it was a weird thing to miss, not being able to play gigs or see gigs.”

“It was like coming up with things in a vacuum for ‘Heart Under’, and maybe that’s why we made the album we made. We were locked away for a long time, and put the songs together 5 or 6 days a week over July and August, not knowing when we’d be able to meet or record again.”

“We’re back writing music now, as much as we can. We’ll use the summer to get another album together, but it hasn’t fully taken form just yet. It’s nice to be able to work on that at soundchecks, something we haven’t had for a few years.”

Hothouse Flowers: “We dispensed with the notion of setlists a long time ago”

Fiachna Ó Braonáin and the Hothouse Flowers started out so young that it’s easy to forget they’re part of a mass of brilliant 80s bands, still flying along in front of audiences that, it seems, have grown to appreciate them ever more as the years have passed.

Breaking from a UK tour to talk to the Gazette, Ó Braonáin talks about his music with a passion that shines through: a heartfelt belief, it seems, that the band’s output now is as good as it has ever been, both live and on record.

“Every show is different. We dispensed with the notion of setlists a long time ago, so we fly by the seat of our pants, and take musical risks. It keeps it all very much alive,” Ó Braonáin says. “We know every song we’ve ever written, ready to go. At a certain point you rely on your collective musicality.”

“Look, there’s a lot of the same songs that get played most nights, the ones people want to hear, but then there’s a vast catalogue, and there’s always somebody shouting for something at the end of the night, but that’s a good situation to be in.”

“We don’t overtly bring our solo stuff back with us,” Ó Braonáin says of his recent departure, briefly, into his own private world, “but perhaps we do indirectly. These days we rely on our own energy, our own social media. I think the songs are as good as they were 35 years ago when we got the big early hits, but I find there’s a lot of affection amongst our fans for our newer stuff, too.”

“We’ve recently committed the records that we own to vinyl for the first time ever. Things have a funny half life these days, things can grow in time, and we’re enjoying playing songs from all the albums. We feel spoiled for choice.”

Hothouse Flowers are heading for Forever Young shortly, as part of a nostalgia-heavy line up, and Ó Braonáin sees it as a great experience, if a slightly odd fit.

“We had a formal break for about a year and a half in the mid-90s, and we’ve kept going since then under our own steam,” he says. “We’re constantly playing. Maybe we’re a bit different to some of  the bands that are coming back for events like Forever Young, because we’ve always been playing. I suppose you think back to the 80s, which was the most uncool era ever, and at the time we were looking back to the 60s.”

“I’ve huge affection for that era now. There’s obviously a cohort of people whose kids have all grown up who can get out and enjoy this stuff again. The festival is beautifully organised, and they’re great people. And you get to see people like Tim Wild and Heaven 17 again. They’re very warming occasions, and we tend to tap into our traditional roots at these events, which seems to connect.”

As for the future, songs are seeping into the soundchecks. “I’ve been recording the soundchecks to get the little bits of new songs,” he says, “and I’ve been writing on my days off. I get very little time for this stuff at home, so I’m busying myself on tour. There’s some amazing stuff going on in the Irish folk and trad world at the moment, and it’s great to be part of that, too. Since we started, it’s gone from the likes of Planxty to the torch being passed on to people like Lankum and Lisa O’Neil. I love what they are doing.”

The Specials: “I still entertain, but I can’t jump off speakers anymore!”

Coventry legends The Specials sit right at the heart of their own music scene. Performing 2Tone – a kind of second wave ska punk that was a fierce force for anti-racism in the UK in the 80s, in particular – a core member was Neville Staples, a ‘toasting’ lyricist whose style was a kind of precursor to modern day rap.

Ska, though, is its own unique thing, a bouncy, brassy, boisterous party style of music that’s gone on to occasionally infiltrate the mainstream and provide plenty of the most fun-loving live evenings on offer. Neville Staples returns to Ireland as part of Forever Young festival next month, and we caught up with him ahead of his appearance.

“It’s going to be a party,” Staples says. “I’m there at festivals singing, and I’m going to give them what they want. It’s my legacy and it’s The Specials’ legacy. It’ll be played my own way, my band’s way, and the band know how it goes, and add a little bit to it live. When I play live, I don’t do the short versions. I won’t just do the three or four minute version of ‘Ghost Town’, for example, once the audience are getting into it, I’ll keep going a bit more. I’ll give ‘Monkey Man’ a little extra, too. People love that one.”

It’s been a slow return for Staples, who suffered through the pandemic and has physical injuries that make live performing a little more difficult.

“The pandemic really screwed everything up, but I spent time redoing stuff, re-recording, going to the studio, creating a new EP that’s coming out soon… I’ve been doing various projects,” he says. “We haven’t finished yet, we’re catching up if anything. I’ll tell you what, it didn’t half mess up a lot of people. We had 100 shows booked, so what we had to do was revisit all those shows, and then on top of those we had some more added on.”

One of the men at the heart of The Specials, Terry Hall, also passed away recently. “We’ve lost a few people, like Terry [Hall] recently, because I’d been working with him for quite a while, it’s a big loss,” Staples says. “It does affect you, these people are your friends, people you’ve been working with forever.”

Staples spent years in the US, and heavily influenced the growth of ska there, in particular the rockier end of the spectrum, before returning home to Coventry, where his local football team launched a shirt in the band’s honour.

“We had our own take on ska, mixing it up with punk,” he says. “The kids now have got their own idea of it, and it’s different. They’re carrying the 2Tone, ska flag. A few years ago I brought from England the energy, the punk and the ska to California and worked with bands like Rancid and No Doubt. They do it faster over there.” 

“I played The Specials’ ska music to them, and gave it their energy. It’s hard to explain, but the Americans had their own take on it, which was fine by me. Most of them hadn’t seen The Specials, except on YouTube. I lived there for 8 or 9 years, and I brought that English Jamaican punk feel to America. But I didn’t try to change them, either.” The experience ended up being just another part of what’s a growing legacy.

“I’ve got older,” Staples laughs. “I still entertain, but I can’t jump off speakers anymore. I don’t run about like I used to, but that’s fine, because my band gives it the energy. I still have energy too, don’t get me wrong. My knee has got better over the years as I’ve learnt how to manage it. But it’s not 100%.”

Belters Only: “We’re not really aiming to be relevant. We want to leave a legacy”

Dublin is not renowned for its house music scene. Belters Only, however, made up of experienced DJs and producers Robbie G and Bissett, are fast becoming an exception. With their music hitting the hundreds of millions of internet streams, the Dublin duo have recently returned from headlining London superclub Ministry, and, just two years into their lifespan as a pairing, look set to absolutely fly.

“Ministry was mad,” Robbie G tells us. “I’d previously played Ministry as a solo act, closing a small room. That was a completely different experience to headlining, it was weird being the main act up there.”

“I’d been working around Bissett for a while, we were the only people, we felt like, making house music in Ireland. He had built a studio during Covid, and he invited me over. We decided to become one when we realised how in sync we were. We’d both been searching for that feeling, and we had to keep going. The rest is history.”

“Belters Only is two years old, but there’s 20 years of experience between us,” he continues. “We’ve been in the game ten years each DJing, playing nearly every venue in Dublin, and producing music. People might think it’s an overnight thing, but it’s absolutely not. A lot of hard work and experience is behind us.”

“We both bring our own skills to things, all our strengths work as one, and that’s what’s important, really. We’re making so much music, and it’s working, so the plan is to continue to do that.”

“We started a project with ‘2022 Only’ and ‘Irish Only’,” he recalls of the past year or so. “We’re writing for an album now, so that’s the focus, so for now we’re going to make all the music we can, before we go on tour and work on our external projects, things like ‘2022 Only’ and ‘Irish Only’. Once we’ve got our music in order, everything else will come.”

“A lot of dance acts and labels, they try to push for singles all the time, which is understandable, but for Belters Only as a band, there’s a story behind us. We’re not really aiming to be relevant, or to get hits. We want to leave a legacy, a mark on the scene, so we’re aiming straight for the top. The album is very important to us. An album is like a painting for a painter. A showcase, at the end of the day. We really believe in our music and believe in ourselves, and we want to showcase how good we are. Albums are a different kind of art compared to a single. This is the first album but it won’t be the last.”

The album is also about making a statement, and exploring their own identities. “We feel like we’re looked at as the scumbags,” Robbie says. “We have common accents, we wear tracksuits. It’s rare that people like myself get to where we are. We didn’t go to college. We self taught. There’s no money behind us. That’s our story.”

“The club scene is restrictive for everybody in our sector.” Robbie continues, looking at Dublin’s status with dance music. “It’s getting better, slowly. There’s more conversation about venues, warehouses, that kind of thing. I think if we get more venues and more support, it’ll start to take off. Now more than ever, we’re used to the lack of venues, but there are a lot of young people with the get up and go to go and try things after Covid.” 

“It would be very easy to just stop, but the spirit in Dublin and Ireland is brewing very nicely. I’m very excited to see what comes, Ireland is being taken a lot more seriously in terms of the dance scene.”