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Thought Brownie: “I plan to write at least four lines every day, for the rest of my days, dropping words like it’s hot”

Thought Brownie, a.k.a Hari Shenoy, is a naturalised Irishman from India, a man in his early 40s releasing what he himself describes as an unlikely rap album. It’s the consequence of some life changes: tackling autoimmune disease that came up during Covid, and finding the power of artistic persistance as he began writing four lines every day to create a larger whole, the product of which is the record ‘Man Of Subtance’.

Referencing everything from the history of his native India to the war in Ukraine to Studio Ghibli as influences, Thought Brownie’s diverse cultural explorations ooze out in his music, making for one of the more unusual, mesmerising and thought-provoking records I’ve heard covering music in Ireland, a startling display of imagination in the face of self doubt.

In what I believe is the first written interview with Thought Brownie about his album, he filled me on just what it’s all about, and how it came to be, asking the broader question: what do you want to do with the time you have left?

You have a background on my side of the music industry. What shifted you over to producing and releasing your own music?

I was a music journalist covering independent music, mainly rock and metal in India. I did that for five years from 2007 to 2012. It was a brilliant experience that gave me access to new artists and to learn why they did what they did. I enjoy writing in general and writing about music in particular.

In my 30s, I went all in on a corporate job. My life was all about running on the hedonic treadmill. I wanted early retirement, after which I said to myself that I will finally relax, resting on the laurels of jobs well done. That perpetual state of being in sprints caused stress, anxiety and burnout, because everything that gave me fulfilment was outside of me. I was chasing the approval of others to feel good about myself, prioritising elusive milestones over abundant moments and neglecting to stay in the present moment.

The pandemic didn’t help either. In January 2021, I got diagnosed with an autoimmune health condition that shifted my perspective. It made me aware of how nothing is promised. I know I can leave my life right now, and I must make sure I can live my life right now.

I felt like the best way I could come to terms with the physical, mental and emotional challenges I faced was to write my way out. What I wrote turned into verse and that gave me the idea to create something. It felt like the right answer to the question I keep asking myself each day – “Yo Hari, what will you do with the time you have left?”

Can you tell me a little of the story behind ‘Man Of Substance’?

The original name I wanted to assign for the album was “Cheaper than therapy”. Then I figured that having a nom de plume that sounds like “Pot Brownie” should give me licence to call it “Man of Substances”. I finally decided that “Man of Substance” sounded right to me in my head.

I began writing the album when Russia invaded Ukraine. I have been to Kyiv and loved the time I spent there. My Ukrainian friends made me feel welcome the way people from India make their international friends feel welcome. It hurt to see them hurting. War made me wonder why we, as a species, are so blatantly invested in acts of self-sabotage. Carl Sagan’s speech about the “Pale Blue Dot” felt more relevant than ever and I decided to adapt it into rap.

All other tracks began falling into place as I explored topics related to time, mental health, ambition, inner peace and growing up.

Before this, I was writing a musical on the history of India. I am so grateful and so inspired by what Lin Manuel Miranda did with Hamilton, that I decided to create an Indian version. What’s the worst that could have happened?

I was making progress there but I’ve since set that project aside for now. I need to understand my own story before I could do justice to telling the story of nearly 2 billion people.

King Kong Company: “we’re not a typical mainstream radio kinda band”

Photo by Colin Shanahan

King Kong Company are, by their own admission, focused on simply being the ultimate live band. The Waterford natives’ lively stage show features a member with a cardboard box over their head and the kind of riotous energy that draws back ever growing crowds. In fact, their return to Electric Picnic this summer was the stuff of legends.

It’s that secretive band member, known as simply ‘Boxhead’, who King Kong Company put forward to chat to the Gazette ahead of their forthcoming shows, and it’s a wild ride.

“Over the years we have worked hard to carve out a name for ourselves as a live act, best seen in our natural habitat on the festival circuit,” he tells us. “We’re not the typical mainstream radio play kinda band so we put our energy into what we love – a kick ass show, getting down and dirty with the headaballs.”

“The oddest place to play, hands down, was at the Aras. Asking Michael D Higgins if he was getting anythin’ off that will forever be a special memory. Sabina was loving it.”

“The people you see onstage really are only half the team responsible for a production,” he continues. “The whole King Kong Company family includes members in charge of PR, lights, sound, monitors, visuals, drivers, and lasers. Even down to the efforts of bubble boy Kev, our balloon thrower extraordinaire, everyone has their role and we share the common goal of putting on the best show we can.” 

“We may not always agree on artistic visions but any of this can be settled with a friendly headlock. We are united in the fantasy for years now about getting someone onstage in a gimp suit. It hasn’t happened yet. Sad face. But we did get our lampy onstage doing the chicken dance. Pretty close.”

This kind of shenanigans is, it has to be said, typical for King Kong Company, who’s primary aim seems to hover somewhere between making music and having the most outrageous fun possible. One time, for example, they made a beer that was infused with Tonic Wine, together with a local brewery, because why not.

Art Crimes Band: “lost love, wild nights, harsh days, romance and pain.”

Cork act Art Crimes Band are, it’s fair to say, atypical of the Irish music scene. A slow-building set up who’ve been on the live music scene for years, they draw influences from jazz and R&B, creating a complex six-piece fronted by the charmed vocals of Grace McMahon. The result is versatile, difficult to pin down, nodding to anything from Hall & Oates to John Legend alongside their jazzier influences. 2022 marks a comeback.

“It’s been amazing,” McMahon says of the return. “I didn’t realise how much I had missed performing live. The first gig back, I was full of nerves and worried if it would all go ok. I got on stage and the energy from the crowd was electric, and right at that moment all worries disappeared. It’s a feeling I will never forget.”

The band took a notable step forward after the lockdown by involving Abbey Road studios in their latest single, ‘Neon Skyline’, with one member of the band tracing some roots to the iconic London spot.

“After using different mastering engineers over the years we usually were not fully happy with the results,” Niall Dennehy says. “We loved the smooth warm sound from masters coming out of Abbey Road. My Uncle, who passed away about 20 years ago, worked as an engineer in Abbey Road in the 1950s when it was called EMI Studios. He taught me all the fundamentals of studio engineering growing up. So I think it’s fitting things come full circle and our tracks get an airing around the walls of Abbey Road.”

“‘Neon Skyline’ is the first track I wrote during Covid lockdowns, about three months in or so,” Stephen Kirby explains. “It is rough nights and long days, inspired by a trip to Vegas a few years ago. The chorus is about craving contact, positive or negative, just human interaction.” 

“The lyrics are put through the filter (for lack of a less modern term) of the story ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ by Jay Mcinerney. Neon Skyline is lyrically about lost love, wild nights, harsh days, romance and pain. Musically, it’s about blending solid and static patterns with fluidity and movement to create a complimentary sonic landscape for the story.”

CARRON: “we kind of blended all the genres together we like to listen to”

Two sisters making waves on the Irish music scene, Maebh and Mella Carron have recently been joined in their long-standing band, CARRON, by Maebh’s new husband Darragh McGrath. A family band in the true sense of the concept, then, the trio are fiercely creative, flicking between emotional harmonies over beautiful melodies, and a poppier sound they developed and expanded during the isolation of lockdown.

CARRON’s latest single ‘Lights Up’ draws on Nordic pop influences and is produced by now semi-regular collaborator Richey McCourt, who gives it a kind of ethereal sheen. It’s a bit of an aside, but a gorgeous one that reflects their increasingly varied style.

“There wasn’t any opportunity for us to get into the studio, although we were writing a lot of music during lockdown,” the band say of the period of what was, for many musicians, an odd and isolating time. “We decided to ask around and see if any producers wanted to do some remixes of our acoustic music. We were quite nervous about that, about what our fans would think. Richey McCourt was one of the producers who did one of the remixes, and it was really good, really fun.”

The collaboration led to the new single. “We decided to work with Richey again, his style is really that kind of pop thing we’ve been enjoying, and the whole experience gave us confidence that we’d keep our fanbase if we tried new things. We have another pop style single coming out before Christmas, but we’re also going to get back to that more organic sound, which is where our passion is.”

“We’ve kind of blended all the genres together we like to listen to with ‘Lights Out’. We love stuff like Florence and the Machine, Lorde, Lyra, Sigrid, Robyn… those were the inspirations, but we stay true to the harmonies and the drama that comes from our musical theatre background.”

Live, though, that dramatic side is toned down. “We do like to put on a show,” they say. “We like the idea that our songs flow into each other organically, and have these kinds of moments of high drama and others that are more acoustic and chilled out.”

“We’re going to look into talking a bit at shows about what the songs are and who we are as sisters, and why CARRON is the way it is,” they say. “There’s a lot of stories behind the songs. When we’re writing, this kind of writing is almost shy and ambiguous, and could be interpreted a lot of different ways. We’ve got more confident in our lyrics, I think, and things have slowly become less like that.”

“Some of the newer stuff is a bit more out there, we’ve let go and been truthful about what we’re trying to say. The biggest thing with CARRON was always that we would write about what we know, what we feel and what we experience. It allows us to connect with other people.”

“We feel your songs are a diary, essentially. You give out to people, you tell them about your feelings, and so on. It’s nice at times, though, that we know what each line means and we can look at each other and smile and know what we’re talking about, that one moment that’s just between us.”

“It’s a connection you don’t have with anyone else in the world, you look at each other and you know what’s coming next. It’s amazing.”

Katie Kim: “whatever’s next, a shift is needed”

Katie Kim’s new album, ‘Hour Of The Ox’, comes with a headline grabbing proviso in the small print: it’ll be the last under the name in which she’s forged her career. ‘Hour of the Ox’ is an intense and moody record, a limited edition of 500 copies that’ll come into the public realm via an intense vinyl pressing.

It’s taken a long time to come together, and the release is a landmark for an Irish slow-builder who has now reached her sixth studio record, leaving behind a trail of beautiful, pulsating work.

“Hour of the Ox is my forthcoming album; an album of songs and pieces I assembled mostly alone over a period of five years and then brought to my long time friend, bandmate and collaborator John ‘Spud’ Murphy,” Kim explains. “We then worked together closely, reshaping and reimagining a lot of what was initially written.”

“I feel my sound has evolved organically. It evolved while my curiosity evolved. It evolved musically as we introduced percussion and synthesised, layered forms were built. It’s difficult to describe how you evolve musically as it happens naturally and not intentionally.” 

“I do always feel a bit drained creatively after making an album as it involves a lot of work, a lot of listening, a lot of listening to myself! And when it’s over, the last thing I feel like is listening to the sound of my own voice. This record took seven years, due to two years of Covid and lockdowns.”

Kim feels the need, after this, to move on from her own name as the headline under which she releases her records, but finds it hard to define why. “It’s quite a personal and difficult thing to give reason to,” she says. “Also I never say never. I’ve been writing and performing as Katie Kim for nearly 15 years and I’m not abandoning her.” 

“I just feel whatever is next, a shift is needed. I’m not saying goodbye at all. I don’t think I would be able to function generally in life if I didn’t have writing or recording to turn to. I will always be writing in some capacity or another.”

Part of the last few years for Kim has been centred around a short stint in New York, one that was meant to be much longer, but was cut short by the decision to head home when the pandemic hit. 

“It was short lived,” she says. “I had a two year visa and only got to live there for five months, so it was good while it lasted. I had a great studio setup, I was getting to know people, before the pandemic happened and sent me home.” 

“But I do believe things are what they are. No point being regretful or down about it. I had a good time while I was there and have been back since.”

There’s been plenty of chance to re-engage with the Irish scene since her return, too.

“I’m excited to make videos with friends, visuals, art in any form” she says of her return. “Lockdown was quite a beautiful time for me creatively as I have to work a day job to make ends meet, so lockdown gave me freedom to focus solely on the creative.” 

“I lived in the Irish countryside, walked my grandad’s dog in the woods everyday, listened to Donal Dineen’s podcast and fell in love with music again.”

DOGPOND: “It’s a little musical journey of different styles and influences”

Born out of the ashes of cult Irish band The Hot Sprockets, a band that always felt like they absolutely lived their infectious brand of leftfield country folk-pop, Dogpond (stylised DOGPOND) are a welcome return from some of those musicians in a new form.

Still very early in their life, I took the chance to chat to Franky, former vocalist and harmonica player with the Sprockets, on what to expect from an act that are just one single into their lifespan, and the thoughts behind that debut ‘Kilnamanagh Blues’…

First of all, let’s address the obvious. How does DOGPOND link back to Hot Sprockets, in terms of sound, set up, and development?

Well DOGPOND consists of the three original members of the Hot Sprockets: Franky (myself), Tim, and Joe. After the Sprockets called it a day, us three boys continued on jamming as always on a weekly basis. We didn’t really have a plan or know where we were going to go next, but we knew that we wanted to keep playing and writing music together. So, naturally there are elements of the original sounds that exist in DOGPOND’s music.

Both myself and Tim had been writing songs at home that we both then shared in the jamroom, and because we both have our own unique style of songwriting, you can say there are some resemblances in the sound to that of the songs we wrote while in the Sprockets. In terms of developing the songs, it works the same as we always did it, one of us would write a song, share them in the jamroom and then take it from there. After a few months of jamming together we noticed the songs were really starting to take shape, and become its own thing.

The main difference in the set up is we’re now a four piece. In the Sprockets there were two electric guitars, and with DOGPOND there’s only Tim on electric guitar, so that made a big difference to the dynamics in the band. I’ve picked up acoustic guitar now, and write and play some of the songs on that, or else on the organ or mandolin. Joe does what he’s always done and busts out the tastiest of bass lines. We have our new drummer Ste (Ste-Rex), the guitarist from Punch Face Champion, he provides a new dynamic to the outfit. He’s an all round talented mutt and he definitely brings a new flavour to the songs and sound.

Like Hot Sprockets, you seem to have quite a distinctive artistic aesthetic. Does that feel like part of an identity to you?

That’s just who we are I guess. The clothes we wear or how we play is 100% authentic. We’re really just being ourselves and having the craic together. We don’t give it much thought, we’re just doing our thing.

In regards to DOGPOND’s artwork, I (Franky) do all the illustrations myself, and the rest of them give their thoughts on colour and composition etc. The ideas for single covers and gig posters are our own. We did put a lot of thought into how we want that to look. The lads decided early on that I should do all the artwork, so it would all be consistent and recognisable. So in that sense, we have our own distinctive artistic aesthetic that’s exclusive to us. When you see it, you’ll know it’s us, because it is us!

Ruth Mac: “Something about those empty streets stirred up this heavy sense of disconnect that I’d never felt in Dublin before”

Having left behidn her native Galway for Berlin, Ruth Mac has, like many who have departed these shores, found herself reminscing about what she’s left behind. Describing her sounds as ‘slacker rock’, the lyrically inventive sound behind debut album ‘Living Room’ saw Ruth support Hot Chip and tour her homes, new and old.

I spoke to her around the release of her new track ‘Home From Home’, a whistful look back at her former home Dublin, penned from a distance…

So, you step away from Dublin for Berlin and end up writing an ode to Dublin. How did that come about?

Yeah it is kinda funny when you put it like that, though it’s a song that could only have been written from the perspective of someone that has been away a while. At its core, the song describes my evolving relationship with a place that once felt like a home, rather than being solely about the city itself.

I’ve been watching Dublin change for 15 years now, so I can relate to your alienation. What in particular stood out to you when you were writing ‘Home From Home’?

Yes, it was definitely a feeling of alienation that sparked it. It was one particular trip during a lockdown. Most people I knew living in Dublin had scarpered, I think it was something about those empty streets that stirred up this heavy sense of disconnect that I’d never felt in Dublin before. I had been away for about three years at that point, maybe that’s enough time to start feeling like a stranger, not enough for it not to hurt? I was simultaneously thinking about the changes I’d felt on each trip home – probably similar pain points to the ones you have felt – and also coming to terms with the fact that I can’t expect it to stay the same and hold me the way it used to, you know? As much as I’ve been moving on with my life, so too has the city.

How has Berlin infused its way into your music?

Sonically, I actually don’t think the impact has been huge – yet to enter my techno fusion era – but of course my environment influences how I create and who I create with. Berlin introduced me to all my close collaborators who naturally impact my music. Berlin has also presented me with opportunities to explore new perspectives, topics and concepts in my lyrics, from the more obvious themes like home to observations on cultural quirks. Like why do Germans hold flowers upside down when they are carrying a bouquet around?!!? Show those flowers off! I had to write a song about that.

How does performing and writing in Berlin compare to being back home?

I honestly feel quite lucky that I get to do both, as well as be well positioned to play in other parts of Germany/Europe. It’s always special to come back to Ireland and play for the home crowd – the reception is warm and, yes, there’s always a bit more craic with the Irish crowd. Writing in Berlin has been great though. I share a special little studio space with three friends just outside the city. Having a dedicated space to write, demo, record in has been a game changer, and something that would be hard to come by (/afford) in Dublin

Coming back for something like Ireland Music Week feels like a chance to do the ‘industry’ thing a bit. How helpful are those kind of events in terms of getting the word out there?

Yeah, it’s a great opportunity to get the music out there and to start new conversations, as well as connect with other Irish artists. First Music Contact have built Ireland Music Week to be a really great event/opportunity.. and they have really worked hard to do it, fairplay. I had a lot of fun, though the self-inflicted pressure to meet people, pitch yourself, network, get the word out…. is intense! I slept for a week after that.

Conor Miley: “there’s a lot of hope, trying to take the lessons from heartbreak”

Formerly of the band ‘We Raise Bears’, Conor Miley‘s debut solo record ‘Thousand Yard Stare’ is a spectacularly personal record, one devoted to an unexpected road to fatherhood and a love of his son. Riddled with emotion, Miley’s album has deep highs and lows, and draws in a collection of his friends in attempting to summarise his feelings and experiences.

Miley himself confesses this might be something of a one time album, a product of circumstance. However those circumstances felt, the album is beautiful. Below, Conor tells me the stories behind it…

First of all, congratulations on Thousand Yard Stare. I understand it’s close to your heart. Can you tell me the story behind the record?

Thank you. The album came directly out of what was happening in my life at the time. My previous band, We Raise Bears, had ended and I was in a new relationship. This ended and I found out I was to be a father a month later. I won’t go into the specifics of what happened out of respect for my son’s mum but it was a very emotional time. I wrote the lyrics and the basic tunes over about a four or five month period. Lockdown then hit. I set up the house I was living in as a recording studio and went about recording and arranging the tunes in painstaking detail.

I moved in with my cousin and finished the job there. It’s an album directly about a breakup with someone you still loved but knew it couldn’t work. It was written at a time when I knew I was to be a father and recorded after he was born.

There’s a lot of hope in it, trying to take the lessons of heartbreak and all the pain that it brings and be appreciative of the result of it – a beautiful boy who has made everything worthwhile.

It must have been particularly difficult to create the record given parental responsibilities. How long has it taken and what were the main challenges?

From start to finish the record took the best part of 3 years. If lockdown hadn’t happened I’m not sure where I would have gotten the time to get it done. My son was a baby and living with his mum a good distance away. I didn’t see him for a couple of months and just recorded to keep me sane. I recorded when I could.

When I took paternity leave from my job as a teacher I hired a cottage near where he was. When I wasn’t spending time with him I just recorded.

The cost of producing an album was another challenge. I got some equipment and did it nearly entirely by myself mainly for this reason, but also the independence that it brings. I then wrote all the string and trumpet parts. The drums and strings were recorded in Monique Studios with Christian Best who does Mick Flannery’s stuff. I recorded the trumpets myself with Paul Kiernan, one of the guys from Booka Brass Band. I regard the parental responsibilities as my only important priority. Everything else is just stuff. Everything – gigs, recording, promotion – is fitted in around that.

Which tracks stand out to you as containing the core message of your music on this album?

There are many facets in the album. ‘Lost Honeybee’ would be the best representation of heartbreak and trying to make sense of it all after a breakup. ‘Thousand Yard Stare’, ‘Getaway’ and ‘In the Undertow’ would be quite introspective and about figuring out things in a time and space of turmoil. ‘Father’s Day’ would be quite an angry reflection on the role and place of single fathers in Ireland. It’s something I could speak at length about but the realization of the reality of the situation and being in the middle of it came out in that song.

At the end of it all there is a hopeful thread that comes out in songs like ‘Dreamer You’, ‘Slowly’, ‘I Return’, ‘From the Ashes’ and ‘Paean’ – that these things that happen to us are lessons and that there is a wealth of love and support out there if we choose to take it.

There are recordings of your son on the album. Did deciding to include those help conclude the message for you?

I wanted him on there in some physical way considering he influenced so much of it. I had the idea for introducing the final song with a conversation between the pair of us – he was 2 at the time. It didn’t really work so I swapped it with two recordings – one a voice mail his mum sent me when he was a baby and the other a recording I made on the sly while we were making lego boats and putting them in a basin.

I finished that song with a distant recording of us talking and me showing him the main piano figure of the tune. I thought it was a perfect way to end the album – an audio recording of us as I sing “It’s a paean to the story of our love” over it. It represented the album perfectly for me. That line was written for his mum and our son is the product of what we had – he is the paean in some metaphorical way!