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.”

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. 

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.”

Eleanor McEvoy: “I honestly do not know how new bands and artists are managing”

Eleanor McEvoy’s long career at the core of the Irish music scene has seen her take on several roles: a popular performing and recording artist, sure, but also a spokeswoman, particularly as head of the Irish music industry body IMRO, where she fights for musician’s rights. That’s been particularly pervasive recently, but it’s not been everything, and neither has her weighty early career hit ‘Only A Woman’s Heart’.

“There have been many, many positives,” McEvoy says of her personal experience over the last couple of difficult years, despite her concern for the wider music industry. “I had been constantly touring over the last thirty years with very little rest or timeout. I’ve always had a very strong work ethic, but during the pandemic, I learned how utterly vital it is to have down time in your life.”

“For the first time ever, I had dedicated time to create, write and record. It’s given me great clarity of thought and it’s put me in a very good place mentally.” 

A personal output of the downtime has been McEvoy’s new single, entitled ‘South Anne Street’. “South Anne Street has long been a regular haunt of mine from the days of the Coffee Inn and many numerous, brilliant pubs all around that area,” she says. “One day, a couple of years ago, at the corner of South Anne Street coming towards Grafton Street, I bumped into an ex-boyfriend from thirty-ish years ago.” 

“It was both very weird and very wonderful. We decided to walk a few steps away to Harry Street, over to McDaid’s Pub (where we would have gone in the old days), where we spent a lovely afternoon and then went our separate ways. During lockdown, that encounter with my ex kept coming into my mind, hence the writing of the song.”

It’s way back in the early part of her career, though, where McEvoy felt she was able to establish herself, a scenario she feels is denied acts that have followed in her footsteps.

“The biggest change is the lack of income due to the shift to streaming and the ridiculous cost of rent and housing in Dublin,” she says. “When I started out, I lived in a bedsit in Rathmines. My rent was cheap and it allowed me to establish myself as a freelance musician, singer and songwriter. I honestly do not know how new bands and artists are managing to do it now. It’s a travesty, we risk losing so much great talent.”

Eddi Reader: “I did wonder if I’d ever be able to do this again”

Eddi Reader spent the latter parts of the 80s fronting London-based pop band Fairground Attraction, before the ‘Perfect’ act fell out and fell apart, a huge turning point in her life. Reader took some time to adjust. In fact, her return took quite some time to bed in, but when it came, it was in the form of a gorgeous folk act, one that’s had far more longevity and depth than her pop beginnings could ever have predicted.

Now, in her 60s and based firmly back in her native Glasgow – Scotland is a key part of her inspiration – Reader’s life has an entirely different gloss, one that feels more in her wheelhouse. In fact, she’s now touring in celebration of her career’s longevity, later than intended. “Everybody and their granny is fighting for the venues and shows, so I’m very lucky, the only casualty has been Tralee,” Reader laughs, as her Irish tour gets set to kick off next month, arriving in Dublin in June.

In fact, the forced down time of covid had Reader exploring her back catalogue, and prompted something of a re-evaluation of what came before. “I left things in the cupboard and didn’t bring them out for years,” she laughs. “On [new album] ‘Cavalier’, I had too many tracks. I’m such a creature of spontaneity that I don’t look back in that way so often with music.”

The aforementioned ‘Cavalier’ is a glance at Reader’s history and a rediscovery of work that dates back to earlier in her career – not quite the pop days, but these tracks certainly shine. As does Eddi, with the prospect of a return.

“It actually took a couple of the players that I perform with to remind me that while I wasn’t getting back into a studio anytime soon – I did wonder if I’d ever be able to do this again – and suddenly I had all these tracks that I’d just kind of forgotten about,” she says of the record. “The time passing has been better for them, too, as my critical ear has dropped away. I can hear myself almost like I’m another musician. Sometimes you need a bit of a distance to see the glint of the diamonds. I love this stuff now, I’m amazed that I put it away at all.”

“I’m a creative piece of flesh and blood,” she laughs. “Whatever I’ve been given on this earth, it’s been more artistic than academic. I’m not a mess academically, but poetry and literature and painting, people like Robert Burns and the way people write things down are something I’ve fallen into, and I love resurrecting ideas, and finding little bits of joy in life.”

Niamh Regan: “It’s pretty surreal, to sing a song you wrote in your bedroom on national television”

Galway’s Niamh Regan has been, unquestionably, one of the rising stars of the Irish music scene over the last couple of years. Considered by many to be a ‘surprise’ inclusion on the 2020 Choice Music Prize shortlist for her memorable debut album ‘Hemet’, she’s gone from strength to strength, delivering a delicate and poignant form of folk with clever, nuanced lyrics.

Since that debut, Regan did, eventually, manage to get out and tour the record, and appeared on one of those surreal versions of The Late Late Show that lacked the traditional audience, performing to both almost no one, and half the country, all at the same time. She’s back in 2022, both with a series of tour dates, and with a new EP entitled ‘In The Meantime’.

“The four songs on this EP were written during the first and second lockdown here in Ireland,” Regan explains. “I was listening, reading and watching a lot more so subconsciously that would have influenced the shape of the stories and themes in these songs.” 

“More consciously I was intentionally trying to capture the atmosphere and thoughts around me during lockdown, dealing primarily with an appreciation for everyday and ordinary acts of love, frustration, lack of control and I guess worry and joy in spots, too.”

The debut single from the EP is entitled ‘Winter in Eden’, and centres on a collaboration with Ciaran Lavery, a Northern Irish musician whose vocal approach to music is as subtle and enchanting as Niamh’s. 

“Ciaran is a dream to work with. He’s one of my favourite lyricists and I really admire his work ethic and music so it was a privilege to co-write ‘Winter in Eden’ with him,” Niamh says.

Work with Lavery, perhaps, is part of the new-found confidence that has flooded through Regan since her career-boosting Choice Prize nomination.

“The nomination helped my own self belief in my music which has made my musical life all that more colourful and fun,” she says, though the normal route to market for ‘Hemet’ unfolded slowly, with the tour finally coming much later than the record.