Robocobra Quartet: “pretty much every song is loosely based on something we should aspire to”

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.

Oisin Mod: “I let the record be whatever it was going to be”

Oisin Mod‘s debut album Honeycomb was produced by Bill Ryder Jones, a team-up that happened for the simplest of reasons: the Moycullen native asked him.

He doesn’t seem particularly surprised by the natural connect that came about between the pair, either, producing a record that sounds unusually mature for a first effort, evoking a kind of fuzzy, coming of age buzz. I caught up with him briefly to talk over the first single (also called Honeycomb) and the record that will soon follow.

So give me the lowdown on Honeycomb in just a few lines – what’s it all about, and what inspired it?

That song has one eye pretending to look forward while the other is looking at something that’s making it feel a bit sick I think. It’s probably a love song.

Writing to Bill Ryder Jones in the hope he’d produce it must have felt optimistic at the time. How did you feel when he wrote back? 

I thought he’d understand where I was coming from to be honest. I was looking forward to working with him. 

What was it like to actually work with him?

He was very encouraging, which I appreciated. He’s a fan of music and songs. We understood one-another’s rhythms. It was enjoyable. He’s an inspiring person. 

The whole thing came together very fast, did that impact on the sound?

I’m not sure. It probably did in some ways and probably didn’t in others. I was happy to not worry too much about it and let it be whatever it was going to be. 

Tebi Rex: “we used to have to pretend we weren’t a hip-hop group to get a gig”

Hip-hop duo Tebi Rex’s new album ‘It’s Gonna Be Okay’ is the culmination of a long and complex road for Kildare natives Matt O’Baoill and Max Zanga, one that started in a deeply buried Irish scene that has transformed in the intervening years.

The pair, a strong part of healthy hip-hop collaboration Word Up Collective, have spent the early parts of this year putting the finishing touches to the record, and then bringing its pointed message to international audiences. Whilst still barred from gigs at home, they’ve starred virtually at Dutch newcomer festival Eurosonic and American industry giant SxSW.

“It’s mad to think how recently things were really underground,” Matt O’Baoill tells us of the early days of the band and the changes that followed. “We used to have to pretend we weren’t a hip-hop group to get a gig. And we’d go to slam poetry sessions with our guitar and say it was a gig.”

“I think there was a view that hip-hop was a US or UK idea, and that the Irish idea of music was a couple of white guys and a guitar, or a pretty girl lamenting something. We didn’t have many rappers, and the ones we did have were like MCs from Dublin talking about poverty, a lot of it quite grim and not very palatable to people outside of their scenario. Fast forward five, six, seven years and there’s hip-hop acts everywhere. It makes things a lot easier, and makes the scene a lot less threatening.”

The new album, out now, is divided into ‘chapters’ as opposed to songs, a nod to the storytelling side of the band.

“We’re kind of storytellers posing as musicians, ” O’Baoill says. “The last album was in ‘acts’, and this time it’s in chapters so we can have a lineage and a storyline going through it. We want people to see it as a story.”

Def Nettle: “The Smiths literally saved my life from fairly dreadful teenage years so working with Andy Rourke is beyond a dream”

Glen Brady is a former DJ and former member of indie act The Glass, a man who’s lived all over the world, eventually giving up a fairly hedonistic lifestyle for sober veganism and a new act, one he’s entitled ‘Def Nettle’.

Brady describes Def Nettle as ‘funk punk’, and in his lyrics, he explores his own stories and those of the people around him: wild stories and varied experiences; a deeply personal take, all things considered, on his own life experiences. In new single ‘War Machine’, Brady pairs up with former Smiths man Andy Rourke, and sets off on what promises to be an artistic odyssey. He took time out of what sounds like a frantically busy lifestyle to tell me all about it…

First of all, congrats on the new single. I understand characters you’ve met are at the heart of a lot of your music. How do you use them in your lyric writing, and are they aware of it?

This is true. Much of my writing is based around characters I’ve met in my life and on my travels. In terms of how I use them technically, there’s usually an emotional connection.  I might have some anger towards them, I might be writing about someone who has passed away. They have to have had some place in my heart. I have to have felt something deeply about them for a story to come out. Of course, this isn’t 100% conscious at first. Something they said to me or certain habits they have usually dictate something that I might find lyrically clever or useful and that’s usually the starting point. Once the characterization is up and running and I’m inspired to write about them I usually then dig deeper into who they are.

Do you think you have a tendency to meet odd people, or do you exaggerate a little when you write? 

I definitely have had a tendency to meet people who live outside what most people would consider ‘normal’ society. I’ve worked in music for over 25 years now in different capacities and I’ve been exposed to a lot of people in the arts, fashion, dance etc and a lot of us work odd hours and lead lifestyles slightly estranged from what we might consider the 9-5 mentality. I must say though, there’s a lot of weird characters in what we think of as normal society too, no? I think I’ve always felt a little bit of an outsider myself. I’ve never taken the direct route. I’m even unpredictable to myself a lot of the time. My wife is like that too so our marriage works in that respect. 

However I do NOT exaggerate when I write. If anything I tone things down sometimes so people don’t feel called out or embarrassed. I rarely write something so that the characters themselves would 100% know it’s them, though I’m making an exception of that just now on one song…he deserves a good bashing. We’ll see if I ever release it.

Most of the songs start being about one person but by the time I get to a third verse there are several characters that share similar traits being included in the story. I might be referring to the main protagonist as a ‘she’ but the characters could have been different sexes but share perhaps drug addiction or some other compulsion.

Shocks: “we all deserve at times to feel like we want a fresh start”

Northern Irish act Shocks are an edgy rock trio from Bangor, Northern Ireland, one that has built largely through the isolation of lockdown. The three-piece have gone big from the start, producing an EP entitled ‘Sayonara’ that is intended to both tell a story and introduce the band fully, after four preceding singles.

“The EP is entitled ‘Sayonara’ and I suppose you could call it a ‘concept’ EP,” guitarist Ryan Davison says. “There’s a theme that threads its way through each song and there is definitely an arc to the story.” 

“It came to be as a result of an old Marlon Brando movie of the same name that Andrew (Wilsdon), our singer, watched on a cold, wet and miserable night in January. The EP isn’t about the movie, but it birthed the idea around which all other ideas became anchored. It is an EP that tells a story of a man on a journey from rock bottom – his world falling apart around him – and he slowly picks himself up, manages to both deal with and distance himself from all that is weighing him down and take flight to pastures new.” 

“I think we all deserve at times to feel like we just want a fresh start, but as humans with emotional connections and commitments, naturally we have a lot of baggage to deal with first, and it simply has to be dealt with before you can really make that leap.”

“Something we focus on a lot is making sure the music represents us not only as a collective but as individuals. Andrew is largely left to his own devices when I share with him a melody, riff or chord progression for a new song to work out what he wants to say, what he thinks my riff is trying to say and what serves the song.” 

“We’re three long-time best friends, and because of this we know each other’s strengths and we have trust in each other to deliver in our own areas in that respect. That being said, however, we’re not dogmatic in our approach – any one of us can contribute towards the music, the lyrics or the general groove or flavour of the song.”

Elton John: “Billie Eilish has just astonished me.”

Flamboyant rock icon Elton John has been promising to slow down for years. At the same time, he shows no sign of actually doing it. Foregoing a moment of lockdown peace, Elton was forced to postpone his farewell tour – one he insists will be the end, but many suspect won’t be – and set about writing a record by Zoom instead.

On it, Elton explores a heap of his old hits with the assistance of a plethora of young superstars, as well as working with them on some of their tracks. The result – The Lockdown Session’ – is a record that he seems to feel is helping him to stay young and vibrant.

“I had no plans to make any music at all during lockdown,” Elton told the press at an event to celebrate the new record. “So, this really came together as an accident. It started in March 2020 when I met Charlie Puth at a restaurant in Los Angeles. I’d never met him before and he actually lived only four doors away from me in LA and he said, I’ve got a studio if you feel like coming up while you’re here and writing something. So, I did and it’s the track that appears on the record, ‘After All’, and that was fantastic. “

“And the next day I went next door to my music publisher’s house, who lives three doors away from me, and I worked on the Surfaces track via Zoom, the first thing I’d ever done via Zoom. They were in Texas and I played piano on some of that track. And so the first two things really were those two things. And I came back to England and then Damon Albarn asked me to play on ‘Gorillaz’, Rina Sawayama asked me to do a duet and play piano on ‘Chosen Family’.” 

Elton’s motivation to help other artists is well established, and part of the story behind the record, though he feels some of them don’t particularly need it, he’s just excited by the collaboration.

Glass Animals: “I tried to sell our biggest hit”

Glass Animals have had a convoluted and fascinatingly varied career so far, one that’s seen them genre hop, drawing on influences from indie to hip-hop, and progress their style from the deeply abstract to the pointedly personal.

Frontman Dave Bayley is open about the band’s journey, which feels like a learning curve combined with a growth in confidence of self-expression, a step up to addressing the emotional and the heartfelt.

“Some songs are so personal I find them hard to perform, like ‘Agnes’,” frontman Dave Bayley says. “I need to be emotionally ready for it, it’s very deep for me and quite dark. I’ve stopped playing it for now, until I feel ready.”

Bayley traces much of his style back to his childhood. “I got a radio when I was about 11, and listened to a lot of hip-hop,” he says. “My small town in Texas, where I lived at the time, had two radio stations, just hip-hop on one and country on the other. I loved the way hip-hop made me feel. I still love artists like Busta Rhymes and Timbaland.”

“I actually have all my sounds on my computer organised by those producers, in folders called ‘Timbaland style sounds’ or ‘Pharrell style sounds’, so they’re a huge influence on my production in particular. It helps me find things, it’s the way my brain works. It makes sense to me. In a similar way, I have all the Apps on my phone organised by colour. It’s just what works for me.”

In recent months, following the launch of the album ‘Dreamland’, single ‘Heatwave’, in particular, has been a remarkable journey, peaking on the UK charts last week at number five, almost a year after release, and reaching over a billion Spotify streams. “It blows me away, I feel very very lucky, I wish I could understand it!” Bayley says. “I’ve always had this philosophy that great songs grow. I remember when I first heard Florence and the Machine, and it took a year to be on the radio. It’s great to have a little taste of that.”

Garrett Laurie: “I’m obsessed with the use of samples artists like Mariah Carey used in the 90s”

Garrett Laurie, picture by Danny Mills

Belfast singer-songwriter Garrett Laurie emerged from lockdown having crafted a new music career, something that’s been an odd experience for them. With their new single. ‘Mississippi Jesus’, they address issues of queer identity and shame, merging religious iconography with personal examinations in a deeply personal piece of music.

“”Mississippi Jesus’ is about being queer & feeling guilty about everything,” they say. “Recorded in Start Together Studios and co-produced with Ryan McGroarty of Beauty Sleep, ‘Mississippi Jesus’ explores queer sexuality and feelings of guilt surrounding it through cinematic instrumentation and 90s style beats.”

I spoke to Garrett around the single’s release…

The mix of themes around religion and gender identity is an interesting one – did you combine them because of the contradictions?

Definitely- I think there is something beautiful about the dichotomy between iconic religious themes and imagery and the more recent movements being made toward looser gender expression. Pairing religious themes with romantic ones feels taboo just because it’s not something you see a lot. It’s a little eerie because it’s so open ended, and I wanted ‘Mississippi Jesus’ to reflect that.

How does the track link into your personal experiences?

I think that coming from a religious family, it has been the backdrop of my life up to this point. In the past two years or so I have tried to challenge some of the shame I think I subconsciously had for a long time as a queer person, navigating their identity in such a small city. By challenging that and the unofficial rules that come with it, I was surprised at how quickly my life began to make more sense- I felt a clearer sense of purpose. ‘Mississippi Jesus’ is about facing shame head on, while acknowledging the strange comforts of settling for being an altered version of yourself for other people.

How do you feel about the general status of queer identity in music at the moment – what are the core issues?

Honestly, I think it is exciting that a queer person can even have a successful music career at all nowadays. I used to think I would have to hide my sexuality while trying to break into the industry, and if I didn’t have some popular queer artists to refer to now, I would probably still think that. I think one real issue is that queer artists often seem to be reduced to a label, and a responsibility to be an articulate voice for an entire community. Being queer is not a job or a career move, so I wish people could identify us by more than that.