The Scratch: “our sound changed and became less suited to the street”

Dublin folk-punks The Scratch emerged from a slightly unusual backdrop: they set aside a successful heavy rock band, Red Enemy, and totally started again. The reasoning was simple and plays out in every aspect of what they do. They wanted to do something with less of a sense of standardised ‘ground rules’ around it, and focus on having fun.

Years later, the acoustic-led act are nothing if not fun, evoking a party vibe at their famed live shows, and rising to a level where, half a decade after starting out in their new form, they’re headlining vibrant shows at a boisterous Olympia Theatre.

The most recent album from the band, ‘Couldn’t Give A Rats’, came out shortly after covid hit. “We haven’t been able to play that album live,” guitarist Conor Dockery tells us, with obvious regret. “We recorded a live stream covering a lot of the record in 2021, because we felt it would be a while before we got to do it properly, and it turned out it was another year. It was a way of closing the book on the whole thing, really, a tip of the cap to it. It went down so well that we put it out on vinyl, too.”

“We’ve been writing for the last seven or eight months, so we’re talking about another album, and we have some other ideas floating around, too. It might be that we just put music out in whatever form it comes. But we’ve tons of new material.”

That’s a world away from the early days. “We didn’t really know what was going on when the band started,” Dockery recalls. “In those early days, we kind of saw busking as a way of getting out there. We did that for about two years, and it became one of my favourite things I ever did. It was always going to run its course.” 

“The shows got bigger and the sound changed and became less suited to the street, but it’s one of the purest forms of performing, and I’d recommend it to anyone. It can be humbling and rewarding, and we saw both sides of that. We like to get people involved and leave them feeling a bit different to an average gig, and a lot of that dates back to busking. It was a big thing.”

Lisa Canny: “the harp is an extremely versatile instrument”

Lisa Canny plays the harp, but not in the way you might expect. She used to be a traditional harpist, winning seven All Ireland titles in her teenage years. As her taste changed and she began composing, though, Canny changed genres, but not instruments. 

Now, as a modern pop performer, she still uses a harp, delving into realism like hip-hop along the way. Her sound would be unrecognisable to the more traditional side of the music, but the result is a truly unique sound, still based around the musician she grew up with. Based in London today, she’s exploring a very different musical world.

“The harp is an extremely versatile instrument,” she says. “Obviously it works beautifully for more ethereal, whimsical and romantic musical soundscapes, but start dampening, muting, bending and flicking the strings, slapping the soundboard and de-tuning on the spot and you have a whole new dynamic to play with.” 

“It also has such an incredible presence on stage and in a room, not just because of its size but also its curves, colouring, attitude and the history it carries in its existence. I named mine Jane. She has a really strong personality to me too! She’s elegant and sophisticated but also totally chaotic, sensitive and dramatic. Most instruments have personalities to me. Like a painter has colours and textures to play with, I lean into the individual character of instruments and their unique sounds to help me tell stories. Same goes for the banjo.  Mine’s called George and he is a big awkward dumbass but he’s great craic and a bit of a bird, so everyone loves him anyway!”

Dashoda: “Each song appears to me to be exploring a symptom or cause of self-sabotage”

Gavin MacDermott is better known, at least until now, as a producer, but his new solo project, Dashoda, sees him break out of the production realm and bare a little of his soul.

A deeply personal electronic project exploring themes like self-sabotage, and referencing the likes of The Blue Nile and Talking Heads, it’s one of the more unuusal and memorable pieces of music to come out of Dublin in recent months. I caught up with him to talk it all over ahead of the launch of the EP ‘Never Enough’.

First of all, tell me about ‘Never Enough’ and how it builds on ‘Sultan’?

Sultan is just one piece of a five part picture, four songs and the visuals which accompany them. The picture is only something I understood in retrospect to be a document about my experiences with self-sabotage. There were clues in the lyrics, and I can remember certain aspects of the process which might suggest this too, but I didn’t realise all of this until it was suggested to me by a friend and I had some distance between me and the EP. 

So, in a sense, the final two singles are the full reveal of the picture. Each song appears to me to be exploring a symptom or cause of self-sabotage: avoidance, self defeat, anxiety, procrastination. These are broad themes and I have no answers, but I do hope that whoever listens to it will project their own meaning on to them.

Musically, I would have taken a lot of inspiration from 80s bands I got into when I was 18 or 19, like Prefab Sprout and Japan. I just loved the sound of Juno synths, drum machines, and chorused guitars. I’ve never really shook any of that. Around the time I started making demos in Ableton in 2014 I had heard Benny Smiles’ music. He had a track out called Somehow Yours Do, which I loved. I was starting to learn more about other Irish artists making this kind of music and it started to feel possible for me then. 

Fast forward to 2020 and Ross Fortune (Benny Smiles) asked me to rework a new single he was about to release. I then asked him he be interested in doing some additional production and mixing on several tracks I had, and these tracks became “Never Enough”. 

How has your work with Jackie come about?

I’ve known Jackie for a few years and I was a fan of her music before we met. 

I had the chorus for Sultan since 2018 but I was never happy with the verse. I played it for Jackie and she vibed with it so we set to work on finishing the lyrics and arrangement structure. 

Are there more collaborations on the EP, or any you’d particularly like to put together?

Yes, my friend Jake Curran co-wrote ‘Fooling Around Again’ and ‘Roy Orbison’ with me and ‘Looking For You’ was a co-write with Richey McCourt. There is some additional production by Ross Fortune and he also mixed the EP. Each of these collaborators had a different approach which was fun. I think one of the reasons for collaboration was the pandemic. Lockdown was an isolating experience so it felt natural to have a project that involved other people to escape from that, whether working remotely or during the windows where we could meet up. 

Ror Conaty directed all the music videos and Mark O’Brien was also a creative consultant for the visuals. I see the EP as an audio/visual project, when I started to work with Ror and Mark the EP had been recorded and the visual project brought a lot more depth to it, for me anyway. 

I think my eyes have been opened to the friendship and camaraderie you can build with others through collaboration, so I will certainly seek out collaborators for my next project. 

Simple Minds: “we were encouraged to do the unexpected”

Simple Minds have been undergoing a marked renaissance in recent years. The slightly morose Scottish rockers, icons of a scene that flourished in the late 80s, have powered on since. Their last two or three albums, released throughout the 2010s, have been their most critically acclaimed since the 80s.

With a new record on the way later this year, though, Simple Minds have also taken the time for a proper ‘flashback’ as part of their postponed 40th anniversary touring schedule. Latest single ‘Act Of Love’ is a pre-record of the very first song they ever played live, reproduced in shiny new technicolour, but bringing with it that vibrant early energy. 

“It had always been on the agenda to revisit the early songs,” frontman Jim Kerr says. “It was our favourite for about the first year of our existence. By the time we got a record label, a lot of new songs had come on the horizon, and it just got overlooked. It was a great riff, if not a great song, and we felt we had to go back to it one day. It took 44 years, but last year, while working on what will be our new album, we broke away and did the re-record. We were mightily pleased with the way it turned out. It’s ‘point A’, where we started out.”

“‘Act Of Love’ is one of those ones where you don’t even need to know the song to enjoy it,” he continues. “What appeals to us is it has this really young energy, one that people our age probably shouldn’t have.”

Of course, Simple Minds have already survived through a lot. Now 44 years on from their early forays, Kerr has long relocated to Sicily. The band exists in a space where they continue to make art they’re hugely proud of. They’re determined that their continued presence on the live scene shouldn’t be a nostalgia trip, but are also immensely proud of what came before, a body of work featuring many diamonds, like UK number one ‘Belfast Child’, and the iconic ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’.

“‘Belfast Child’ is our anti-war song,” Kerr says when asked about his musical approach to recent political events. “I don’t want to play down what’s happened in the Ukraine, which is obviously awful, but do you need more than one anti-war song? The new album was actually written before all this stuff happened, anyway, so it’s not addressed. One size kind of fits all, in that area anyway, semantics about whether [The Troubles] were a war or not aside.”

Roe Byrne: “I was a total introvert before I started busking”

© Dan Butler Photography

Roe Byrne is a young singer songwriter already making waves, ashe prepares to headline his first ever show at Sound House this weekend. Having already racked up ove ra million views for his songs on Facebook as he finished school and headed off to study music, he’s been heacvily tipped as one to watch on the Irish music scene.

Ahead of that first ever headline show and the release of the first single of 2023, entitled ‘Set Me On Fire’, I caught up with Roe to talk over the merging of music and emotion, busking as a learning curve, and how much of his prolific back catalogue will ever see the light of day…

First of all, tell me about your obvious love for Dermot Kennedy…

Ah, where do I start! My music teacher in second year, Jessica Reilly, introduced me to his music and thought I would really like it… little did she know I would absolutely fall in love with his music the second I heard it.

The lyrics he writes and humbleness that comes from him is just so admirable. The way his music can teleport you anywhere is amazing. I have huge respect for him and I can’t wait to see what else he does this year!

Does your music draw on your own experiences and emotion in a similar way to Dermot’s?

I definitely write about my own experiences, but I take a lot of inspiration from what’s around me. Story’s that other people have told me, situations that friends of mine may be in and even just the people I meet on a random day busking, they all have a story to tell, it’s just getting that message across with a catchy melody that’s the hard part!

I try not to write about negative emotions, I feel people have enough negativity in their life and use music as an escape! So I try to pick the best parts of life and try to make a sense of either nostalgia or hope with it.

I understand you write new songs on an almost daily basis. What’s your back catalogue like at this stage, and do you feel being so prolific helps you develop?

I have so many songs now, but a lot of them I would find too personal to perform or release. Maybe someday when I feel comfortable being extremely vulnerable, I might release some songs that I wrote about my own struggles but as for now, I think playing in front of people and having them judge you as a stranger is a pretty vulnerable position to put yourself in, but I absolutely live for it.

Writing consistently definitely makes it easier, it’s the same as everything, the more you do lift weights, the easier it gets.

Aimée: “My main inspiration all comes from Sweden”

Dubliner Aimée’s latest single ‘Nobody Else’ is a positive, upbeat, poppy number, and a tribute to her boyfriend. It comes at a time of rejuvenation: Aimée’s career is on the rise, after signing for Universal and gathering a substantial live and online following.

She’s taking things slow, though, focusing on a return to live stages after years away, something that was never going to be easy, as well as a series of singles that are intended to stand alone, before she drives slowly towards an album. Her primary influence is in the current wave of Swedish pop, something she’s incorporated into her production process. But for now, it’s all about the shows.

“The worst part was the nerves, as it had just been so long,” she said of returning to the stage in recent months. “My nerves got the better of me to start with, but as soon as I stepped on stage it was like I was never off. It was great, such a good escape from life. I had so much fun, I think you could tell by everyone’s faces that it had been too long.”

The latest single ‘Nobody Else’ also required a reopening, as Aimée went out to the spiritual home of her music.

“With the single, I went to Sweden to finish it off and it was my first time meeting my producer in person, instead of virtually,” she said. “Finishing the song together was just the best. Swedish pop is my bread and butter, every producer, artist, anybody who is my main inspiration all come from Sweden, so it makes sense for me to go back to basics and go to what I see as the pop capital of the world.”

Such opportunities are linked to some degree, of course, to that sign up with behemoth label Universal.

“Universal have, from day one, treated me as the captain of my own ship,” Aimée told us. “I decided what I want to release, and I’m just so lucky that they’ve been so supportive. You hear horror stories about labels making artists make music they’re not passionate about. They back me 100%.”

Badhands: “I’ve always tried to make music that’s a little bit cinematic.”

Dan Fitzpatrick lives something of a musical double life. On the one hand, he’s a gravelly-vocalled, poetic, semi-solo artist who goes by the name of ‘Badhands’. On the other, he produces beautiful ethereal tunes designed to provide the backing track to documentaries, sounds that have appeared on the BBC, RTE, and American broadcaster PBS.

His 2022 album ‘Far Away’, as such, comes a full four years after his debut release ‘Predictable Boy’, and is vibrant yet sorrowful, with themes like isolation, but also lightheartedness and optimism. Between the two records came ‘Oceans’, a kind of environmental record that used the world’s great bodies of water as inspiration. Fitzpatrick is, in short, colourful, varied, and knows how to grasp a theme.

“I would say that ‘Far Away’ generally has a bigger sound than the first record, ‘Predictable Boy’,” Fitzpatrick says. “There were a few songs on the first album that were a little more sparse, solo efforts, compared to this record where everything features the whole band. The record also features a little more use of electronic instruments, as I was getting a bit more into synths while we were making it, though they’re mainly just used subtly and texturually on the album.” 

“The vocal sound is a little different too; I experimented a bit with double tracking vocals, possibly as I just had so much time at home to work on them. I was aiming to get them sounding a bit like the John Lennon Plastic Ono Band album.”

“I recorded a lot of the vocals in my bedroom during the full on lockdown early last year, and there were times when it was difficult to get into the studio to work with the band, which was frustrating,” he continues. “It was definitely a more sporadic way of operating given the circumstances.” 

“I just had to do what I could at home and get into the studio whenever the restrictions eased up. But a good bit of the work was also done before Covid hit, and that was much the same as the previous album, working with the same musicians: Chris Barry, Aoife Ruth, Tom Cosgrave and Ken Mooney.” 

Less Than Jake: “I always felt odd about being called a ska band”

Less Than Jake are in a rare musical position: almost undisputed kings of a musical niche. The long-standing band from Gainesville, Florida, sit at the head of a genre that arguably peaked in the late 90s, ska punk, and perform a vibrant mix of colourful, poppy punk music backed up by a horn section. It’s loud, descriptive, and while the band are still going as strong as ever, somewhat of its era. For many who grew up in the late 90s, the band are a true symbol of teenage rebellion.

“The spirit of the band is still the same, to get out and play a live show, that’s all we really wanted to do,” singer Chris DeMakes says on a video call, in which he’s surrounded by Less Than Jake’s incredible selection of records and merchandise, something of a calling card. “It’s got easier, though. You have to listen to your body, so staying out until 5 or 6 in the morning isn’t conducive to a good show.”

“We’ve been playing shows that are a little bit like a 30th anniversary, with songs from every album. But you have to please yourself and the audience, to keep it interesting for yourself. We don’t mind making a mistake on stage, it keeps it real, so we keep a rotation of a lot of songs on the setlist.”

“I always felt a little bit odd about being called a ska band,” DeMakes says of his sound. “I felt it was a little disrespectful towards bands like The Selecter and English Beat who were doing it ten or 15 years before we were even a band. We have elements of ska, but we’re not the forefathers of ska. We weren’t the first.”

“It’s important to us that we do things correctly, and that we don’t gouge people for our tickets or merchandise, that things are priced correctly. We try to stand by that. But we make a lot of merch” 

“I have one of everything the band ever put out, which looks pretty insane. There are albums on top of albums. At one point I had 700 or so different Less Than Jake shirts, and I took them all to a show in Gainesville and sold them. They took up multiple closets, and I thought I’d get them to fans. The clothing became too much. But I have all the albums, cups, belt buckles.”