Irish Music


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.

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.

The Crayon Set: “we want to keep evolving from one record to the next”

The Crayon Set’s new album ‘Downer Disco’ is the latest album that was recorded pre-covid to see a much delayed release, and will see the group expand on what they call their ‘hook-filled alt-pop’, a description perhaps as colourful and ambiguous – deliberately so – as the band’s name. They are, in short, morphing into something new. 

“There is definitely more of an electronic and 80s synth-pop influence on the album,” co-frontman Robert Baker tells me. “The idea behind the band name was that it would be diverse and that it would keep evolving from one record to the next so that is important to us.”

“I think this album had more of a groove to it and less layers and less harmonies everywhere – I think when we started off we were guilty of over-doing it, a decent song shouldn’t need 50 tracks! Our last album ‘Lost Languages’ was more folky and acoustic so I think this one will be more fun to play live.”

The album also introduces, or rather reintroduces, Kate Dineen, who brings a vocal swirling between the two into the mix, a permanent expansion after Dineen and the band worked together more temporarily earlier in the band’s lifespan.

“The way we work is probably pretty much the same [with Kate].” Baker explains. “I’ll usually bring in songs which we’ll work up in rehearsal and then hopefully improve on again when recording them with a good producer. But I do think we’re a better band as a result since Kate joined.” 

“On the last album I ended up doing most of the singing, after our original female singer moved on, and I think the band definitely works better with the mix of the two voices. Kate has also been playing more synths which is great in helping us get the new songs across live.”

Pretty Happy: “We wear the name ‘oddball’ proudly”

Photo: Nicholas O’Donnell

Cork post-punk act Pretty Happy are one of the musical success stories of covid times. Scoring International acclaim for their quirky single ‘Salami’, the theatre-influenced three-piece, who often dabble in spoken word elements in their music, have been grabbing airplay as far as afield as US’ mega-station KEXP, and look set to be one of 2021’s breakout acts.

In fact, the band, who released their EP ‘Sluggers Bridge’ this July, have been slightly bewildered about it all. “It’s me an Arran screaming about pork, of all things,” vocalist Abbey Blake joked to the Irish Examiner earlier this year.

“Ironically,” Blake told us recently, “Salami was the song we nearly didn’t record but then received the most attention for. It’s definitely given us more confidence to get a lot stranger in our song writing.”.

“The EP was recorded in Blackwater Studios in Fermoy back in September 2020. We had recorded the EP just before Arann and Andy moved to London. We hadn’t played live for some time, so the songs were quite new besides Salami. I think we were trying to capture our live energy in the studio so we recorded the songs live together, besides vocal and guitar overdubs. We were also trying to establish the theatrical Art Punk style we had begun to explore with these songs. Salami was the single that kicked off the EP.“

The EP is the product of a variety of approaches to writing, an almost scattergun type thing that sees Pretty Happy come out with inventive, imaginative music.

“I suppose we either start off with a riff or a sentence and we just keep building,” Blake says. “No one comes in with a finished song really. We’ll have a melody or a rhythm and someone will start to speak, sing or shout over it, starting off with a short phrase or word, and then we’ll develop the story from there. Or we’ll start with a word or sentence we think sounds odd or interesting and add music as we go.”

Wallis Bird: “I feel like a newborn in this now, because everything is different”

Photo: Jens Oellermann

A joyous force of nature, Berlin-based Wexford woman Wallis Bird is a musical soul-injection, producing sparkling odes to life and its many charms. Bird has been a loss to the Irish music scene, where in the mid-00s, her Temple Bar shows became regular haunts that shone sunshine on gig-goers’ weeks. With a long awaited return post-covid on the cards, she’s chomping at the bit to see her home crowd in the coming weeks, and keen on some collaborations.

“I’m nervous, I won’t lie,” she says. “I feel like a newborn in this now because everything is different. The usual “deadly buzz” wild audience is an understandably careful thing now. It will pass, as all things do, but it’s a play it by ear situation. Technically I’m prepped for every kind of buzz, so I’m gonna take it one song at a time.” 

“I hope to be involved in everyone’s session, that’s my aim. Collaboration shows like this [HIbernacle, in Galway in late September] are one in a million and it’s something I love best about being a musician – jumping into someone’s world and fleshing it out together.”

Bird’s German show returns have signalled the emotion that might be involved: “Some moments were like tearing our skin off with elation,” she recalls of recent shows. “Then  one song later swiftly clutching our skin back on again, people bawling their eyes out, it’s been real intense. I know that in a few years I’ll think “lord those were once in a lifetime shows”.

ZOiD: “I thought it would be cool to understand everything going on in the rhythms, harmonies and melodies of jazz so I could use all that in electronic dance music”

ZOiD is a bit of an exception to the norm in current Irish music circles. Combining jazz and techno, two scenes that the city’s not particularly known for these days, he produces beautiful tracks with a wide mix of guest vocalists, which he then somehow twists into a coherent whole. That in itself is quite an achievement.

He’s also prolific. Daniel Jacobson – his real name – traces his routes back to a specific Dublin scene of years ago, one centred around the label D1 Records. I caught up with him to discuss his latest release, ZONGS, due out shortly, and found a man with plenty to say about his colourful craft…

You seem to have been inspired in part by the Dublin inner city and also jazz influences, which from the outside looks like an unlikely combo. How did that come about?

Well… I got into techno and jazz simultaneously when I was 15 or 16. Me and my friends worked on the forecourt at a petrol station in Deansgrange and we’d spend all the money we earned on techno records. They’d be from Germany, the US, the UK, Japan, Netherlands… and occasionally we’d come across a record from Dublin, on a label called D1 Records.

It was exciting to know there were people not far away who were making this music on a par with other labels around the world! It inspired me to start producing music. I bought a synth and the first tape I made found it’s way to Eamonn Doyle who ran D1. He rang me up and I got to go and make tracks at their studio, play livesets at The Funnel, and later on release an album on D1 (ZOiD Vs Jazz Musicians of Ireland Vol 1).

In terms of getting into jazz, I loved the challenge of trying to play it because it was impossible. Also I thought it would be cool to understand everything going on in the rhythms, harmonies and melodies of jazz so I could use all that in electronic dance music. That was my reason for studying jazz full time for 4 years. It didn’t exactly work out…

Obviously the record is heavy on collaboration. How did that work in practise, and how did you keep it coherent as a whole?

In practice it was a whole bunch of emailing files back and forth over a couple of years. It was cool because nearly everyone has a basic mic they can use to record themselves, and i didn’t mind if the recordings weren’t very high fidelity. If they were a bit noisy or low quality, I thought it would add character.

Liam Grant and Les Keye who helped me with the mixes probably have other opinions… but anyway, there was a really big diversity of tracks and I was worried for a time that it wouldn’t be coherent enough… after a few months of working on the mixes with Liam though, it all started gelling and sounding like an album. I remember the first time I listened to it all the way through, while walking along the East Pier in Dun Laoghaire, I was so relieved – IT SOUNDED LIKE AN ALBUM!! It took ages to get it there.

Was it part of the plan to feature only female vocalists?

I picked vocalists I like and they just happened to all be female. There were a couple of tracks with male vocalists but they didn’t get finished in time (Danny G, if you’re reading this… let’s go haha!).

CheryM: “If guitar music was dead five years ago, it’s sure as hell not now”

Pop-punkers CheryM – pronounced Chair M – are a vibrant, fun-loving guitar band from Derry, one that documents life, love and frustrations, and accentuate their music with a real love of professional-looking, film-like videos. They jokingly call themselves the original Derry Girls.

“We literally write songs about our friends, we write songs about being in love, falling out of love, shitty experiences from school and how to overcome them, bullies, working shit jobs… we write about what inspires us and our experiences so far in this life so yeah I guess they’re all just from our perspective,” Richardson says of the band’s output so far.

The latest single, in fact, is a nod to a Netflix show the band particularly like, and hones in two particular characters.

“The idea behind ‘Listening To My Head’ was based around Betty and John Broderick from the Netflix series Dirty John season 2, as I became a bit obsessed with it over lockdown and soon decided Betty needed her own anthem,” Richardson says. 

“The story goes that Betty and Dan Broderick are a very wealthy family living in California. Betty has supported Dan the whole way through his law degree, financially supported him and basically been there for him when nobody else was. Dan then decides to have an affair, runs off with his secretary, takes all the family money, the kids and the house and leaves Betty with nothing. She then plots and succeeds in killing Dan and his mistress. ‘Listening to My Head’ is written from her perspective. And no we do not condone murder!”

With their witty, colourful approach, CheryM quickly drew the attention of cult UK label Alcopop Records, but they’re going to take their musical journey at their own pace, to ensure they’re well placed when it finally comes to a debut full-length release.