Ross Turner: “The NCH was a conduit that gave me a compass and a map”

Between 2014 and 2016, drummer and multi-instrumentalist Ross Turner was the artist in residence at the National Concert Hall. Turner was already in love with the building, a place he’d visited regularly all his life, and, during his time there, connected with its quieter corners. 

During that time, Turner also engaged with many of the musicians who passed through. Five years after that period ended, he finds himself releasing ‘In The Echo: Field Recordings From Earlsfort Terrace’, in which he reveals some of the subtle, atmospheric pieces of music he worked on at the time. The resulting record features some modern greats of the Irish music scene: Lisa Hannigan, Conor O’Brien (of Villagers), Paul Noonan (of Bell X1), Katie Kim and Lisa O’Neill, with a focus very much on collaboration, and exploring the NCH’s atmosphere.

“I was keen to utilise my time as creatively as possible whilst situated in the National Concert Hall and how I might document that time in a memorable way,” Turner explains. “I set about trying to involve the building, the architecture itself. The idea to record remotely or ‘field record’ was inspired by hearing music travel throughout the building each time I passed through it.” 

“The variety of sounds produced by orchestras, choirs and soloists rehearsing throughout the building travelled naturally due to the marbled hallways and stairwells. It was beautiful. Once I had the idea in my head that I should document that sounds and spaces I set about formulating a plan and who might be interested and interesting to have involved.”

“It was pretty tricky logistically. From approaching the artists to getting people in the same room took time and patience. Finding quieter moments to record around the building was a factor also. The building was a conduit which gave me a compass and a map in a way. I had expressed the intent of the album to the artists but it was a singular experience for them. As the recordings were made one by one, I could hear it take shape and offer much more than I had hoped for.”

The reality of the record, which fell through an initial intended release at the time of its recording, has a real sense of when and how it was recorded, something Turner was very happy to place at the forefront. 

AJ Wander: “music is an emotional crutch through tough times.”

Having grown up with music – the son of a pianist – AJ Wander was perhaps destined to develop from a household in South London surrounded by instrumentation, to a modern day pop artist.

Performing a kind of driving, emotionally-wraught pop that underwent a breakthrough in 2020, when the single ‘Time Out’ became by a distance his biggest hit, gathering in excess of four million Spotify plays. Post covid, AJ returns with new single ‘Take It All’. Around the launch, we talked about his career to date…

First of all, ‘Time Out’ has done really well – congrats. It’s obviously a hugely personal track. Have your feelings towards it evolved since you wrote it?

I feel pretty distant from the headspace I was in when I wrote the song. Having to accept that something beautiful has run its course is a pretty common place for humans to end up in. It’s a great feeling to know so many people have connected with the song because of this mutual experience.

Judging by the themes of the new single, you’re quite happy to put your emotional side out there. Is this how you connect with music?

Not exclusively, but music is an emotional crutch through tough times and it just so happens I relied on that crutch for the whilst writing the singles I’ve released up to now.

How did ‘When You Say I Love You’ come together, and what’s the story behind it?

I wrote ‘When You Say I love You’ with my mate Geth in Wales. WYSILY is about when someone falls for you too fast and you go along with it just because you don’t want to hurt them. Then finally realising that pretending to be in love isn’t a healthy solution…honesty is the best policy.

Is the contrast between an upbeat feel and some quite self-exploratory lyrics something of a calling card for you?

I think the contrast between sombre lyrical content and anthemic production is definitely something I’m unconsciously drawn towards. However, there’s lots of music on it’s way that’s far less self-explorative…

I understand there’s an EP on the way. What should we expect from it

There is indeed! This EP is going to be a bridge from the music I’ve been releasing up until now and what I will be releasing next. I’m stepping outside of my own head little.

Palps: “I have been worried that the album is so bleak there may not be anything positive to take away from it”

It’s not often I receive promo from a band that hooks me immediately on almost every level. Palps are just such a band. The Essex group only have a handful of singles out yet (the album is on the way), but have a firm concept: they address mental health through a combination of music and video, using characters that represent both people and the mental health issues themselves (the issues are played by a kind of band symbol, called ‘The Plague Doctor’).

Of course, I’d dismiss this kind of stuff off hand if it wasn’t also backed by quality music, but it is. The first single from the slow-release concept album (which will be entitled ‘Black Heart’) is a track called ‘AVA’, which comes with an evocative video and is really quite reminscent of a slightly edgier ‘Black Parade’-era My Chemical Romance.

The next single, entitled ‘Love, Always’ (and not yet launched publicly at the time of writing), is much more spacey and angular, and for me, firmly evoked singles from the pulsating My Vitriol. It all adds up to a seriously promising offering.

I caught up with them to talk over their concepts and find out what it’s all about…

Congrats on ‘Black Heart’, It sounds like it’s going to be pretty conceptual. Can you tell me about the ideas behind the chapters and the story?

Thank you very much! The process almost killed us, but we made it in the end. The whole concept of the album is how traumatic events and mental health issues can harden you as a person and sometimes cause you to hurt the people around you, even if you do not realise this at the time. In the videos, we follow the main character Matt as he tries to navigate through life and build relationships. However he is often held back by his mental health issues and past trauma, which is personified in this case by the Plague Doctor character. 

How did you come up with Matt, the Plague Doctor and his friends?

We decided that we wanted to make a short film before we actually recorded the album, but it took us a very long time to work out how we would make this work on screen and how we would tie all the videos together as a cohesive piece. 

I’d never written a script before and was completely out of my depth to be honest. I randomly saw the Bo Burnham special on Netflix ‘Inside’ and was so inspired by the concept. For those who haven’t seen it, it takes place in a single room and becomes increasingly cluttered as the effects of isolation during lockdown take effect on Bo. After watching this, everything just began to flow and all the characters came very naturally.

I knew that I wanted to have the room play a prominent role in the story and almost represent Matt’s mental state. Whilst not fully autobiographical, I have also taken inspiration from things that have happened in my life to form the events and characters.

The Plague Doctor has been our symbol as a band pretty much from the beginning and we try to incorporate him into everything we do as much as possible. We toyed with the idea of having him as a physical representation of mental health struggles in our last music video for Aliens and have tried to expand on this in the new album. 

Loud Motive: “We are a lot more driven right now to succeed, something just feels different”

Dublin and Kilkenny hip-hop act Loud Motive have been around the Irish scene for quite sometime: you can go back four years and find beautiful tracks put together with now-superstar Loah, and also uncover an early guise of the band that had five members, instead of their current three, and sounded distinctly different.

In recent years, they’ve been at their most creative, however, working with Danny Sabre (U2, Madonna), on new singles ‘Astronaut’, and putting together a vast collection of tunes over the course of the covid lockdown. For all the behind the scenes work, they’ve become a huge live act, too, with a focus on producing hip-hop in a more live and diverse way.

I caught up with them for a quick Q+A around the new single, as they gear up for a big summer…

Congrats on Astronauts, can you tell me a bit about the story behind the track?

We made Astronauts last year at Crossroads studios in Kilkenny. Astronauts is one of many tracks in our catalogue that we wrote on the spot with nothing pre-written. It was very organic, we were messing around with sounds trying to construct something in the studio. Once we started making the beat, something was telling us that this one was going to be special, so Marv was writing lyrics as the beat was coming along. The main topic behind it was perseverance through tough times and not giving up.

How do you craft your lyrics, in terms of process?

Marvell: I often switch up the approach depending on the track, the moment or how I’m feeling if I’m to be honest. Sometimes a feeling takes over when making music where you hear the beat and you’re inspired to write based on what’s on your mind and heart at that moment in time, on the spot. I’ve also pre-written something before inspired by a certain topic or event and then its about acknowledging or making the right beat that the lyrics sit well with.

You’ve been around a few years now. How does the post-covid Loud Motive compare to the earlier guises

We believe say we are a lot more focused now, and we’ve been working a lot harder on the music just to make sure what we release is what we envisioned. Obviously, the big thing was we went from being a five-piece to a three-piece group, but we adapted to the workload well and very quickly, because us three grew up together and have played music together for so long that we all know our strengths and refused to give up on LM.

Another thing is the catalogue has expanded tremendously because we used the covid time as a period to create. We are a lot more driven right now to succeed, something just feels different, timing is everything and this just feels like the right time.

Slyrydes: “even within the Galway scene, we have always been on the outside”

Galway punk act Slyrydes are one of the great leftfield success stories of the west coast’s ever-vibrant music scene. Sitting outside of the city’s usual niches, and happily ploughing their own furrow, the band have been building a reputation through relentless and pulsating gigs, and some key backing in the media.

Frontman Mark Raftery points to Paul McLoone as being key to the band coming to more national prominence – they were getting bigger and bigger shows in the run up to lockdown, and had been booked to play new rock festival Sunstroke.

“If Paul had not picked us up there is a very good chance we would have finished up ages ago,” he says. “It is a story of complete chance. We recorded our first single ‘Mental Health’ in November 2018 and then we sort of realised we had no idea what we were supposed to do with it, so Fuz suggested we approach people in Irish media.” 

“One of the people we were told who might be receptive to listening to new music was Kate Brennan Harding who at the time was working for the Paul McLoone Show. Kate heard it, liked it and passed it onto Paul. Within a couple of days we were getting regular national airplay and we got a McCloone session. When an Irish band starts getting that sort of exposure on Irish radio the entire way you are perceived by bookers/agents/venues changes and opens up all sorts of doors. Paul gave us the same level of support with all the singles that followed too. He is one of the good guys. It is a tragedy for independent Irish music that Paul’s show is no longer on national radio.”

Mental health, incidentally, is a core theme of Slyrydes music, and something they’re particularly keen on talking about.

“it has been the most important and most regularly ignored social issue in Ireland for at least two decades,” Raftery says “If, like me, you have had to deal with the HSE psychiatric services, you will know how ridiculously inefficient and under-funded they are, the “awareness campaigns” they insist on running are a total cop out.” 

Power Of Dreams: “It’s funny how things are quite cyclical”

When Power Of Dreams burst onto the scene with their debut record ‘Immigrants, Emigrants and Me’, they captured an early 90s zeitgeist, with young frontman Craig Walker briefly the voice of a generation of economically pressured Irish kids.

31 years later, Walker is still living away, though he’s now in Berlin instead of London, and together with original band members Ian Olney and Keith Walker, and his new writing partner Eric Alcock, Power Of Dreams’ new album ‘Auslander’ is a nod to his finest hour, and a return to the fray for Power Of Dreams 26 years after their last full-length album.

“It felt like the right time,” Walker explains. “The 30 year anniversary landed in the middle of last year, and we thought ‘what can we do, we can’t even play a gig’. We wanted to honour it, and originally the idea was to record an EP with new versions of the songs. I spoke to Eric Alcock, who I was working with on Craig Walker and The Cold, and I said I wanted to honour the album.”

“He said why don’t we do a new album, and I had the songs from working on various stuff over the years. A bunch of them I’d always thought would be perfect for Power Of Dreams, but I never thought it would be possible. But we did it.” 

“I recorded acoustically, sent to Eric, and he mocked up a basic track to send to the guys, then he produced it, via the boys in Arizona and London. We assembled it, and luckily it still sounded alright. Eric is from Canada and in his late 30s, and he’d never even heard of Power Of Dreams before this, but he was really into the old stuff when he heard it, and he did a great job.”

Sprints: “The breaks I’ve taken from music were the most difficult times of my life”

Poignant and political, embittered and abrasive, Sprints are a band right at the heart of Dublin’s ever-growing punk and post-punk scene, a gloriously stark evisceration of politics and exploration of the personal.

For frontwoman Karla Chubb, who’s been part of the Dublin music scene in various guises for years, the band represent a whole lot more than just the music: they’re a deep-dive into the issues that strike her, and a form of stark, loud therapy best performed on a stage. That outlook has unquestionably made lockdown a little difficult, though not so difficult it’s prevented the launch of several new singles as the band await a return.

Their penchant for mixing spoken word segments with their music gives Sprints a calm-meets-storm effect, a distinctive style all their own.

“Our music is made to be performed live and we write it as an emotional outlet, on stage is where we really let loose,” Chubb says. “It’s weird not to play. Live can also be a real trial space for music, you test it and see how the audience reacts, and it’s a gauge for whether you’re writing the right stuff. Without it, for me there’s a lot of imposter syndrome.”

The writing has continued throughout lockdown, though not in quite the same fashion as normal.

“I do write in quite a solitary way some of the time,” Chubb explains, “but we’ve become so much more collaborative in recent years. We can express what we’re feeling through music, chords and riffs. The trap I wanted to avoid was writing about lockdown, really. It’s an obvious topic, but not an interesting one, I’m just sitting in my bedroom working.”

Odd Numbers: “I could easily spend a couple of hours searching for old soul or jazz samples to flip”

Odd Numbers is the stage name of Odhran O’Brien, a Carlow man currently working hard in the sparkling North Dublin Irish hip-hop scene, where his debut album ‘The Golden Éire Tapes Vol. 1’ serves up a shiny collaboration with many of the scene’s stars.

O’Brien’s role is in laying down the beats, with the likes of Hazey Haze, Local Boy, Sea High and Wallfella offering the lyrical backdrop. The result is a little like a compilation, held together by Odd Numbers’ consistently memorable backdrop.

“The idea was born from my goal of working with as many artists as I could” Odd Numbers explains. “I love collaborating with other people, not only because I can tap into their fanbase and connections, but because they can bring a whole new energy and feeling to a project. It also challenges me to create styles and sounds that I wouldn’t normally consider so I’m inadvertently levelling up my production skills in the process.” 

“Everyone involved in the project are artists that I’ve held in high regard for their creative output. A number of them are friends that I’ve made through gigging, while others are just dominating the scene in their respective areas.”

“Aside from the features, I really owe it to the Arts Council for bringing this project to life. It’s been a tough time for everyone involved in the music industry recently but they’ve been monumental in supporting independent artists like myself. It fills me with pride knowing that they saw promise in a collection of underground rap tunes.”

O’Brien is particularly taken with the local hip-hop scene in Swords and other areas of Dublin, and hopes to work towards expanding what’s going on.