The old curse of the Irish is that we can never make it in life until we pack up for foreign shores. Whether it’s Wilde on the West End, Beckett in Paris or the millions of Irish diaspora around the globe, getting off the emerald isle seems to only sure fire way for us to succeed. This week, the Full Irish are happy to present two bands that have seemingly followed this maxim and set up camp abroad, both of whom are due to make homecoming shows in the near future. First up is The Chakras, the London via Dublin indie quintet, accompanied by You’re Only Massive, the Berlin-based Waterford electro-pop duo. In keeping with our trend of promoting the best in new Irish music, Maebh Cheasty of You’re Only Massive has been kind enough to offer up some of her choice tracks by Irish acts.
Richie McArdle of The Chakras speaks to Cormac Duffy about the limits of being a Dublin band, the appeal of album art, and the perennial popularity of Irish audiences.
The University Observer may have many readers, but this could be the first time we’ve ever ended up interviewing one. “I used to read your paper loads when I was in UCD” says Richie McArdle, guitarist for Dublin-born, London-based shoegazers The Chakras. “It got me through many a boring lecture in Theatre L.” As we speak to McArdle, he has just seen his group’s debut album, Build Me a Swan, hit Number Two in the iTunes alternative charts, and is looking forward to a series of homecoming gigs across Ireland. It’s certainly a long way from the Arts block.
Despite having attended school together in Dublin, as well as starting their life as a group here, the quintet left the city in the summer of 2010 to live in London. “We felt we’d done as much as we could in Dublin. And we were working quite close with our manager who is based over here, so it made sense to move.” The band quickly found themselves in a city far more alive than Dublin. “There’s just so many people over here, there’s always stuff going on.”
The band’s reasons for relocation are common complaints, referencing the frustrations of playing the same venues, with little chance of breaking out. “I suppose there are only so many times you can play those venues, especially in Dublin. We’d been all over the country as well. It was good, but we’d always wanted to go further abroad.” He points out the difficulty in continuing the upward trajectory of a band in Ireland. “All the Dublin bands have said the same. You can organise one gig and it can go really well and you have a full house, but then you have to keep the momentum.” McArdle refers to acts like Villagers and James Vincent McMorrow, who did not receive the attention they do now before they were picked up on internationally, with appearances on Later With Jools Holland, and in Villagers’ case, a record deal with Domino. “People don’t take you as seriously when you’re just based in Ireland for some reason” he laments.
Prior to the move to London, the band had already drafted their debut album. “We wrote the album in this haunted school house we used to rent out. I think it was down in Roscommon. It was a hundred-year-old school house, and was quite creepy with children’s stories about it and strange paintings on the wall.” The end result, Build Me a Swan has not only succeeded in garnering significant buzz, but is a distinct artistic achievement, seamlessly mixing all the shoegazing intimacy of a Creation Records release with the ambition and grandiosity of the likes of Arcade Fire.
Even if the album’s sound failed to the grab your attention, it bears a cover that would certainly catch your eye were you to stroll past it in a record shop. Depicting four naked women on a beach holding swans, it’s far from the usual band photo. Its striking nature is no surprise; it is in fact the work of one of the biggest names in graphic design, Storm Thorgerson, renowned for iconic covers like those of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Animals, Muse’s Absolution and Led Zeppelin’s In Through The Out Door.
“He got in touch with us and we went for coffee. He’s an absolutely amazing person, definitely one of the best people we’ve met so far.” McArdle recounts arriving early for the meeting at a coffee shop regularly frequented by Thorgerson, so much so that it even bore his artwork on the wall. The staff pointed them in the direction of “Storm’s Table”. “He’s obviously a very eccentric guy. He has one table he always sits at.”
Thorgerson was a fan of the Chakra’s music, and soon an agreement was in place between them. Getting to collaborate with a designer of such high regard was a boon for McArdle, who describes himself as the kind who still buys CDs and records to appreciate the artwork. “I guess we live in an age where the album has been reduced to this tiny little thumbnail print. We actually just got some vinyls done up of our album, it looks brilliant at that size.” When quizzed on why they opted for such an unusual cover, McArdle explains “The whole controversial thing was something as well. I suppose we thought back to that first Strokes album [Is This It] and the Spinal Tap reference. We thought we’d get a kick out of seeing it in HMV.”
With upcoming dates in Ireland, McArdle is enthusiastic to be returning our shores once more. But they’re returning with different priorities this time. “The plan was to get this record out. Now that it’s out, the goalposts are shifted. We just want people to hear it.” With this in mind, the quintet uses their performances in the ways that render them most memorable to the audience.
For a summer show in The Workman’s Club, they secretly placed some fellow musicians in the crowd. “We turned off the PA and it made for a more intimate atmosphere. We had some brass players and we put them in the crowd. People were flipping out. They had no idea where the sound was coming from!” They even found time for a quick tribute to The Fab Four’s legendary Abbey Road show. “We did a secretroof top show on Camden St, looking down on all these unsuspecting punters walking by.”
Above all else, McArdle is eagerly awaiting another experience with Irish crowds. “The Irish audiences are fantastic. You really notice it when you’ve played in front of Irish audience for years and then go abroad. They’re world famous, just because they’re always up for a good time.”
The Chakras tour Ireland in December, playing Whelan’s on Tuesday 6th. Tickets are priced at €12. Build Me a Swan is out now.
YOU’RE ONLY MASSIVE
Mixtapes, influences and tough Berlin winters are on the agenda as Cormac Duffy talks to You’re Only Massive’s Maebh Cheasty
Listening to You’re Only Massive’s debut album The Fourth Quarter, what is noticeable above all else is how the duo sound unlike any other Irish act working at the moment. Their sound is a collage of styles drawing heavily from dance and R&B, but also making space for sharp lyrics, an infectious sense of enthusiasm and even a solid dose of rapping from vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Meabh Cheasty, which makes up all for all the damage we as a nation inflicted on hip hop culture with Buffalo G.
The strong sense of purpose in the album’s conception seems to be rooted to a grand plan for the band. “You’re Only Massive was formed in 2007 out of a desire to offer something more feminine, more direct and aggressive and bolder to audiences and out of a very personal desire to create our own cultural space.” Cheasty explains. Since then, Cheasty, along with her proverbial partner in crime, David Murphy, relocated the band from its origins in Waterford to the haven of culture that is Berlin.
We ask Cheasty about the idea behind their inventive use of interpolated melodies of other songs, like the chorus of Kate Bush’s classic ‘Running up That Hill’ on ‘The Privilege’. “It really depends from song to song” Cheasty responds. “Like with ‘Thin Ice’, which contains elements of the Yoko Ono song (‘Walking on Thin Ice’), it’s such a fragile and beautiful track, it inspired me to make something more robust and optimistic. A song to get you through the tough Berlin winter.”
Talking of her experiences in Berlin, Cheasty is quick to mention winter as a low point. “The winters are very hard. Living in a foreign country, speaking a foreign language is not easy. But we moved here right after releasing our Dot Dash 12”, and we were pretty focused and determined. The main effect living in Berlin has had is that we still have the ability and means to make music. We haven’t given up and we won’t now”.
Up until the upcoming release of The Fourth Quarter, the duo restricted their releases to limited edition mixtapes such as Blood In, Blut Raus and I’ll be Right Over. Cheasty happily admits that she is a big fan of the medium. “Yes, I love cassettes! Even the ones from the eighties are still in such good condition. And it’s such a pleasure to listen the whole way through. I also love hip hop mixtapes, there is so much good stuff out there.” Depending on limited edition releases may seem a risky move for a rising band, but the need to generate buzz did not play into the band’s decision-making calculus. “We didn’t spend any time on promotion; we relied mostly on word of mouth. Hanin Elias of Atari Teenage Riot mentioned us on her radio show, but that was just coincidental.”
The mixtapes became the basis for the new album, allowing them to accumulate recordings over time. Their ‘in the moment’ approach to recording is something that Cheasty puts down as a vital factor. “Most of the material was collected over the recording of the four mixtapes. It was all so spontaneous and fresh. Instead of presenting ourselves in a pre-meditated way, it feels like everything was done at the spur of the moment.” Will this play into its reception by fans? “If people do like our record at all, I think it will be for this rawness and freshness.”
With a new album that shows off a wonderful diversity of styles and ideas, we ask where their influence is taken from? “My biggest musical influence is my bandmate, David Murphy” Cheasty says. “I was a big fan of his old band, Queen Kong, and he has basically mentored me through learning production skills.”
As a songwriter, Cheasty works with what she knows. “Lyrically, I have been writing since I was a child, so it’s something I am very comfortable with. I read a lot, but I prefer to take write lyrics based directly on my personal experiences. With the song ‘The Privilege’, I wanted to draw attention to the reality – some people are privileged and some aren’t. And we interact with each other all the time. It’s close combat. It’s me and you. Instead of waiting for some freedom that will never come, why not look each other in the eye and be honest?”
With lyrical themes like this, it’s easy to see why as a project, the band may have become more than a little political over time. “It’s true; we want to shake things up. We want to represent things as they really are, and make the clichés that plague us fall apart under their own weight.”
Before their Halloween night show in Dublin’s Project Arts Theatre, Cheasty gives us a sneak peek of what to expect from the live show. “There are two of us, we both sing, we both play synth. I rap a lot and I want you to hear the words. We play our songs very simply, but like rich electronic sounds, so the live sound is pretty banging. If the concert goes well I love to stage-dive!”
On the outset, the duo seems to be happy to work on projects far outside the casual fare. With Audiodetour, they created a soundtrack to a walking tour of Sligo, and they’re comfortable playing gigs in spaces usually reserved for art installations. Rumours have even sprung up that they consider themselves more of a performance art project than a band, something Cheasty has no time for. “We are a band, always have been and always will be. We write songs and play them live and record and release them. More importantly, we play in music venues with other bands. However it’s true that we do want to reach out beyond the confines of the traditional band. We want to do more than just entertain. But I think those ambitions can be contained within the idea of a ‘band’. Every band worth their salt wants this. Right guys?”
You’re Only Massive play Dublin’s Project Arts Centre on October 31st. The Fourth Quarter is out now.
Meabh Cheasty’s ‘Best in Irish’ playlist
‘So Brand New’ by Queen Kong
“Such a simply beautiful song with great vocals.” .
‘He Put Something in My Drink’ by The Retards
“Really minimal and understated. I wish I could write songs like this, that say so much with so few words.”
‘Chart Your Cycle’ by Party Weirdo
“This is just such a catchy track. They released it as a 7”, which I used to have … now I just have it in my head. Great live band too.”
‘The Sign’ by Kool Thing
“Another Berlin-based band, with Dubliner Julie Fogarty. I saw them live in Schwuz in Berlin last winter and it was such a surprising treat to hear her Dublin accent between songs. Strong ideas, good musicianship. Sure, what more could you want?”