John O’Connor: “We should all be out there showing our scene that it is important and that the music and art they make is worth everything, every single part of it”
Much loved Galway indie night A Modern Movement makes a most welcome and momentous return to upstairs in Seven on Saturday November 13th with a lineup including Bannered Mare, Nerves, Ash Red and New Ceremony. We caught up with organiser John O’Connor, long time local music aficionado and broadcaster, for a nice chat about everything from radio to the future of local live music.
Can you tell me a bit about your background and how you came to live in Galway?
Born in west London and lived there until I was 18. In the early 2000’s my parents moved back to Mayo and, after a few things went a bit wrong in London for me, I decided to visit them for a weekend… a month later I packed up my stuff and moved to the sunny town of Westport. I was completely blown away by the place – the vibe, the people, the atmosphere – it was more relaxed and chilled out than London. But, over time, I got a bit bored of that. I still love Westport, but it’s a sleepy town in winter with not much to do and I needed somewhere with a bit more, you know.
So, after a few nights out with my sister and her friends who were studying in Galway, I decided it was a nice middle ground. I moved down at the height of the Cuba &, Club 903 days so I think I got the best introduction to it back then. Weirdly, I was automatically comfortable in Galway. I kind of took to the ebbs and flows of the place quite easily and I don’t think I can say that about many other places I’ve lived.
You have been a staple of the Flirt Fm schedule for some years now… why were you drawn to radio as a medium and what do you like about it?
Radio is connective in a way no other medium really is. A little bit less than it used to be, with the rise of social media and the push for presenters to be personalities/ influencers off the air as well, but it used to be this mystical voice coming out of the box in the car, bringing music and chat at all hours. Radio shaped my music taste in a way no other medium ever could. With the touch of the dial I could tune into this person who had a completely different music taste than me and listen to something they loved, and the ability to do that amazed me.
Growing up the radio was always on in the house or the car. I grew up with presenters like Chris Evans, Jo Whiley, Jules Holland, Danny Baker, Mark Lamarr, Phil Jupitus and Simon Mayo on the radio waves and with stations like Capital Fm, Kiss Fm, Radio One, Rinse and Freeze Fm (two London pirate radio stations of the early 2000’s). So it was always there. And I remember the pirate stations being, and still being, a massive entry point for championing new music scenes. If a scene is starting to make it to national radio stations, then it’s been played by the Pirates for about a year before. The whole garage, grime and UK underground scene has been held up by Pirate radio and even now one of the top UK TV shows is about a Pirate station in Kurupt FM. It’s a culture.
Radio will always be around, it’s always on. Also, and I think every presenter is culpable of this, the slight cockiness of having a great playlist, that moment of playing a band no one else has yet, The Exclusive. It’s sort of exhilarating in a sense.
Over the years you have documented the Galway and Irish indie scene rather extensively and have interviewed quite the few artists and bands. Are there any that stand out as particularly interesting or, indeed, amusing interviews?
Twin Headed Wolf will always bring a smile to my face. They are a two piece, sisters from Lahinch in Co. Clare, who play this dreamy kind of fairy folk in which they use everyday items as instruments: a bucket, a saw, and so on. So, myself and Bryan Rabbitte were doing the Flirt Fm Sessions at the time, recording bands in the studio and putting it out on air with a song and interview.
We invite Twin Headed Wolf on. They come in on a Sunday morning, and proceed to wheel their bike into the studio. Now myself and Bryan thought, “oh they’re just storing it while they do the interview”. Then they brought it all the way into Studio 2, so we’re a bit confused. They then turn it so the handlebars are on the floor, and ask Bryan “So, how will you Mic this up, front tyre or back tyre…” Bryan’s face was a sight, all confused and flustered, I’m outside giggling to myself at the whole thing. Amazing. They used the crank to turn the wheel, and a drumstick to kind of make a makeshift metronome by tapping the spokes as the wheel spun. Hauntingly beautiful vocals over the top. Genius.
Or the day the 8 piece ska band Big Jelly came in and turned Studio 2 into an absolute sweat box of noisy joy.
It’s those kind of moments for me.
What’s the craic with your latest podcast, The Hometown Project?
The Hometown Project, was/is a small little podcast as a project for college, a proof of concept as such. I studied Digital Media Studies for my masters and used the podcast as a example to investigate the ever changing and intertwined world of podcasting and radio, and how the two forms are linked, and you know me, any reason to shoot the shit with local artists and dig into their processes and how it all came about for them. That was the spark that kicked it all off. I love hearing about that. So to do a small podcast project and chat with a few of my favourites from the local scene was always on the cards at some point. The masters just gave me the place to get it started.
I have mulled around the idea of doing it in seasons. Four episodes, a break, four more, and just putting it out when it feels right, you know. No rush, no fuss. Also, a few other people have asked me about it recently, and I’m nearing the finishing stages of my home office/ recording space, so it might come back again in some form in 2022.
Your indie night A Modern Movement took off with a bang in November 2019. What do you think was the secret to its immediate success? Do you think there was something missing in Galway at the time?
I don’t really think there was any secret to be honest. It started as simple as us, myself and Manolis, having a coffee tossing around line ups we thought would be fun together. Then from there it kind of spiralled as we both thought “Feck it, why not!” Once we got Seven as a venue, and the first night happened, we realised the fun in it all. You know yourself, getting a room and filling it with your noisy friends and turning things up nice and loud is and always will be a good idea.
There were two very specific things we did want to do. We wanted to go all night, as such, from 9 to 2, because there was no place in Galway that had bands playing until after midnight at the time. And we wanted it to be on a Saturday night as we know people who are massive music fans and would definitely come to more shows, but they have obligations during the week and couldn’t find shows on the weekend that were all night or to their taste without having to leave Galway.
So the simple principle is that shows that are attendable to all at a decent price and that go all night with some of the most talented Irish bands we can find. It’s just very lucky we know a lot of talented folks.
Even the best laid plans were rudely interrupted by COVID, but it looks like things are opening up again… any thoughts on how the pandemic has affected the local and Irish music scenes? How do you see things going over the next year or so?
I truly believe the next few years are going to be fantastic. I think during the pandemic there was this noticeable reliance on culture, music, art, video, to get us through and make the day to day struggle a little less… struggley, for lack of a better term. We’re already seeing the start of things, with the Free House shows put on by Jake Tiernan and the lads from Turnstiles in Aras Na Gael (they have been great for the scene). Great turnouts in crowd numbers and crowds who are really letting loose on the floor. It’s like a hunger in the youth to make up for the missing time. I love to see it. Kudos to the lads. I hope this finds seeping itself into all aspects of the scene.
Though, I’m also very sceptical that we are not out of the woods fully yet in terms of COVID, and that restrictions can and possibly will be tightened again at some point. So any gig booked is sort of tentative, because the rug could get pulled at any moment. I don’t think people are rushing to buy tickets until a few days before, or even on the day so it’s possible that new methods of promotion will have to be adopted. But we’ll see.
The current restriction on ticket sales (one hour before the event, online only) is kind of sticking in my paw a bit. It takes any spontaneity away from the potential audience – the “oh their playing up in… we’ll go yeah” 20 mins before a gig. I had a moment like this the night of The Murder Capital gig 3 years ago. I had never heard them until 30 mins before and decided on a whim to go and they’re now one of my favourite Irish acts. Taking this away, and returning to a mixed ticket system, door and online, will bring these moments back and bring back those audience members you might miss otherwise.
That ‘whim’ moment could introduce someone to their new favourite band.
A Modern Movement continues next week with another banging lineup – can you tell me a bit about the selection process for this particular one? Is there a reason you put these bands together? What should people expect on the night?
Firstly, we had to bring the Bannered Mare boys to headline this one. I’ve been friends with the boys in Bannered Mare, one time members of Race The Flux and Ka Tet and founders of Umbrella Records, since moving to Galway. In many ways knowing the lads has shaped a lot of my Galway journey and I’m super appreciative of them for that. So, for the first one back since lockdown, of course I had to invite my friends and to have them headline is a dream. Thankfully they agreed, and I promise you they are absolutely tearing at the bit to get on stage and do what they do best: make beautiful noise.
Next up is Nerves. Nerves have absolutely blown me away recently, and I’m so happy they agreed to the gig. I love their sound – it’s huge, it’s aggressive, and I think it’s exactly what some people are after since the pandemic. People are angry and need to let loose a little, and Nerves sound, for me, is the perfect avenue to let it all out. Their live show is something to be seen as well!
Ash Red – I wanted to bring in a band that I didn’t really know much of, a young band with few releases and Ash Red where that. They have a sound that is somewhere between Gang of Four and Joy Division, Their track Stupid Song really drew me to them so I got in touch with Richard over at Blowtorch Records and he put me in contact. I’m looking forward to seeing them.
And finally, New Ceremony. The brainchild of Conor Geoghegan, they are the newest act in Galway and have just finished recording their first EP with the help of Kyle Dee of Croghery Lodge studios. If you threw David Byrne, Can, RATM, Tom Waits and a few others into a melting pot you’d end up with something sounding like New Ceremony. It’s weird, it’s theatrical and after talking to Conor recently, you do not want to miss the final song of their set!
I think the process of this one was all very intuitive, the names just came out quite quickly of four bands Myself and Manolis thought would work well with each other and it happened that when I was talking to Joe from Bannered Mare we both mentioned a mutual love of what Nerves are doing right now, so automatically I had to chance the arm there. I think all four bands play in this post punk/post rock playground so it’s a little bit genre influenced but also, I think their sounds are distinct enough that every single band brings something completely different within the genre to the table. So it’s an interesting mix that will make for a full night of styles.
What to expect on the night… A show, something you haven’t seen in the last 18 months, four bands who are so overly hyped to be back on a stage that they will be giving everything and not leaving a damn thing out. It’s going to be something special.
What do you think makes for a healthy local music scene?
It’s a hard one to answer really, as a whole I think we have a ‘healthy’ scene in some respects. but I also think there is a lot of work to do.
Support is the first word that comes to mind. I think there are a lot of musicians in Galway who feel unsupported. For one reason or another they aren’t invited to the table. And I, personally, think the table is large enough for everyone. We should all be out there showing our scene that it is important and that the music and art they make is worth everything, every single part of it. Especially after the last 18 months or so. The realisation kicked into the national consciousness of how much we rely on the music, arts, and culture scenes to help us get through the day to day struggles, and using that importance to bring about a cohesive music and art scene I think is the first step.
But it doesn’t just end there, this needs to seep into as many other parts of the locality as it can. For example, Galway United now play local music at their half time, before and after a match. Superb, such a small thing but imagine now if they did that at the GAA games in Pearse as well. More people hearing the artists can only be a good thing. Maybe even have playlists of local acts playing in local coffee shops, merch for sale in local stores, if Zhivago or Golden Discs had a local acts section for merch and Gig posters. I was recently trying to put posters up to promote the shows, but the local places wouldn’t take any. It’s a small thing but if places aren’t willing to do the small steps, then how will the support be built?
I think it needs to be a conscious effort on all sides to truly achieve it, and that’s without getting into local radio station policies of ‘Irish’ music play amounts. It seems like an uphill battle, but it’s definitely worth the slog.
Would you have any advice for young people interested in getting involved in their local scene? In particular, how should someone get started on radio or putting on gigs?
If you want to get into radio, then it’s as simple as going to see Paula Healy at Flirt Fm. If you show an interest in radio then Paula Healy and Eoghan Holland will help you to no end, their support and drive for community radio is seriously unparalleled. Any hair brained scheme I’ve come up with in my time at Flirt Fm over the last ten years Paula has given the go ahead to, from Flirt Fm hosted nights up in Monroe’s to live broadcast days from IT music and Bell Book & Candle. The freedom they give you if you show an interest is incredible, and all the equipment is there on hand and they will be nothing but supportive from the second you enter the studio.
And, in regards to gigs: find a venue, find some bands, get an audience, and then make it up as you go along. It doesn’t have to be perfect – with those three ingredients you really can’t go wrong. It can be both the most fun thing ever and the most infuriating thing ever, but the fun will always come out on top.
Get out there and do it. Don’t wait for anyone!
A Modern Movement is back on Saturday November 13th. Doors at 8pm. Tickets must be purchased in advance and Vaccine Passports / COVID Checks will be required on the door.