Sunken Foal - It's The Instagram Thing

Written by 
    Sunken Foal - It's The Instagram Thing David Cleary

    "I tend to dream in very claustrophobic confined spaces, and I reckon that might be linked to how I like to fill up all the space in my tunes most of the time. Its something in my psyche I suppose." - Siobhan Kane talks with Duncan Murphy of Sunken Foal.

    Duncan "Dunk" Murphy has been one of the most consistently inventive musicians to have emerged out of Ireland in the last fifteen years, as part of Ambulance and Da Paramedics with Trevor O'Reilly, The Natural History Museum with Carol Keogh, and his solo work as Sunken Foal - his creative reach is deep and richly textured, evocative and intricate. From the Ambulance/Da Paramedics 2002 EP Whindie (Front End Synthetics) to their debut The Curse of Vale Do Lobo on Mike Paradinas' Planet-Mu, and his solo work Fermented Condiments (2008) and Fallen Arches (2009) - there is a commonality, not necessarily in terms of sound, but intelligence.

    There is such a subtle playfulness at work with all of Murphy's compositions, yet this playfulness is melded with serious conceits, the kind that pays homage to Autechre on 'Retract' on Fermented Condiments, and that takes in sloping guitar and mismatched beats on 'A Bear in the Hermitage' from Fallen Arches, a fragmentary quality equally felt on the shattered pianos of 'Foathing' - perhaps this quality can be felt in much of Murphy's work - the tension between harmony and discord, the more complex meaning behind the melody, the contrast - "an instant’s width of warmth disclosed" as Emily Dickinson wrote.

    Along with this warm tension, there is the sense of the organic, and natural emergence - not only in terms of Murphy folding live instrumentation into a more electronic landscape, but in the way things have come to pass. Back in 1998, he and O'Neill met Mike Paradinas of Planet-Mu, at Phunk City at the much-missed Funnel in Dublin, and gave him some of their work; a few years later, their EP and album were released on his label, and later still, much of Murphy's solo work. It's as if the blossoming of those seeds planted years ago continue to flourish, and as if in the spirit of that sense of renewal, and shifting of the seasons, Murphy has set up his own imprint Countersunk (, which last year released 'Richter Versions' (Sunken Foal's remixing of some of the Richter Collective's most interesting work), and 'The Small Hours' (a beautiful Natural History composition to commemorate the passing of Donal Dineen's brilliant Small Hours radio show); but one of his most ambitious projects to date is his latest release Friday Syndrome Vol. 1 that he describes as "more synth and sample based" than previous work, while still retaining "his unique sense of melody".

    There is another difference to previous work though - in that he has made the record free, but is encouraging people to buy one of the limited editions of the print of the sleeve artwork (and/or t-shirt) - lending a voice to the dialogue surrounding creativity and commerce, value and meaning. Murphy is finding interesting, inspiring ways to navigate the difficult landscape musicians and artists find themselves in, but while some things may have changed - the impulse to create remains the same, and though everyone needs money to live, you don't need it to feel - music is the teacher, and always will be. Siobhán Kane talks to the gifted Dunk Murphy.

    I want to ask about the present before going back to the past - your new project Friday Syndrome Vol. 1 has been some time in the making. Can you describe the inspiration and evolution of the project, and has the musical aspect taken on a different hue from how you first imagined it?
    I mentioned to some friends how I always tended to work best on Friday evenings after the working week had passed, when I should be thinking about relaxing - for some reason I focussed better at this time, so with some encouragement I decided to write a tune from scratch each Friday evening and send it out to a bunch of about five mates. It was a really good discipline because I couldn't take on any grand concepts or any deep nerdy programming due to the self-imposed time restraint. After collecting about 50 or 60 tracks over the space of a year, I went back to them in the spring and did a little finessing. It's been a long time coming I suppose, but there hasn't been as much work put into the tracks as previous releases.

    You are trying something really interesting, by making the music free - but encouraging people to buy the artwork you have designed - what has gone into the artwork? It seems that it is a comment in one sense about the value of things - that things do have an inherent value, no matter how mainstream society at present is somehow indicating that things don't - with visual art in many ways as a more obvious document of that fact.
    Just like a lot of music I make, the visual artwork was inspired by experimenting with the capabilities of software and machinery. I figured out how I could print 250 completely unique works at the same cost of a run of 250 copies. So from then it was a matter of balancing out a generative system that would give me a consistent aesthetic across the editions but with enough individuality of each print to make the project worthwhile. The free music / paid artwork is really just an experiment also. The music "business" is quite confusing at the moment so I wanted to see where people consider the value to be. Some people may think I'm viewing this release as more disposable by having it for free. I don't think I am, but I'll have a word with myself later on and find out.

    I have always felt with you that writing and producing are somehow kept quite distinct - it adds into the overall sound of your work - what are your thoughts, and do you think that your process has changed very differently over the last decade?
    It's funny how many times I come up with a new approach and then realise that it ties in to a train of thought I've been on for some years. I love the idea of timbre that is constantly shifting in a very small way. It keeps the music alive as you are listening to it. I hear a lot of music these days with lots of stagnant samples on repeat, and it sticks in my head in a kind of ugly way. So I always try and ensure that whatever sounds I'm using are shifting about. If you listen to a live drummer, they never hit the drum in exactly the same way twice, so I try and take a dynamic idea like that and apply it to something mechanical sounding. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that producing timbre to me is intrinsically linked to composing. I kinda feel that the authorship of your sounds on a record are as important as the authorship of your structures.

    Something I love about your work is your coalescing of live instrumentation, and electronic. When did you fall down the rabbit hole of making music exactly? Was it always something around you as a child? What are your favourite instruments to play? --and favourite instruments you have yet to play?
    I started recording any instruments lying around the house when I was seven or eight. I bullied all my mates into playing specific parts. The songs were hilarious. My brother was listening to lots of 80's indie stuff and there was always a healthy mix of instrumentation and mechanical stuff in it. Siouxsie & The Banshees were a huge deal to me when I was a kid, and I reckon they must have had quite an influence.

    I love playing the bass. I don't do it very regularly but its the most chilled out thing to do. My girlfriend Ann bought me a glockenspiel one Christmas, and I wrote a little ditty on it that day. I recorded it, slowed it down and made the tune 'Dialogue' from the album. The most enjoyable part was figuring out the bass line on my Harley Benton-piece-of-crap acoustic bass. It's kinda one of my favourite bits on the album. My Dad just bought a cornet for me in a car boot sale for €50 - I haven't tried it out yet, but expect some rancid howling parps in the future.

    When did the more technological world reveal itself to you, and which tools do you find most interesting? You always manage to retain a certain warmth to your compositions, but I suppose it goes back to that Björk thing - where some people complained at one point she was relying too much on the technological world, complaining that it lacked "soul", but she remarked "I find it so amazing when people tell me that electronic music has no soul. You can't blame the computer. If there's no soul in the music, it's because nobody put it there" - then of course she later went on to use the "human beatbox" Rahzel, which perhaps proved a different kind of point.
    When I was playing around with Casio keyboards when I was a kid, I started learning how to program beats in a very rudimentary way. It wasn't until I met Trev [O'Neill] from Ambulance that I was introduced to proper sequencing software in computers. I really couldn't say what tools interest me the most - it changes from day to day. I can get lost for hours with an old synth, an echo and a mixing desk.

    The evolution of soul very much includes the techno that came from Detroit in the late 80's/early 90's for me. I don't particularly find all that stuff cold and dark - its very warm to me. I find some of Whitney Houston's early singles very dark. I can't penetrate exactly what the people making it were feeling, or getting excited about, and it seems scary.

    How much do you think your work is marked by an obsession with the passing of time? Perhaps it is because I am ever more aware of it - I procrastinate a lot, but then somehow manage to do things in energetic bursts, almost like that house flying over the landscape in the Wizard of Oz - ultimately I end up in Oz, where there is more colour - but sometimes I feel like that can only be achieved from the previous grey procrastination - how about you?
    That's the Friday Syndrome - you just described it! I'd work all week on some convoluted compositional idea or making the perfect hi-hat from a tissue box and then I'd realise I'd nothing to show for it - so I'd go nuts on a Friday evening trying to get the feeling back that I was actually making something. In terms of the perception of time passing, I'm really into that. I love how we perceive something to be a rhythm if it occurs 120 per minute but if that same thing occurs 120 times per second we perceive it as a tone or a note. There's a grey area in there that's fascinating to play around with. The nutty Mr. Stockhausen messed about with this idea in his 'Kontakte' piece I think.

    With your recent work - what inspired it? Do you find that in periods of recording and writing that you tend to block out inspiration, and stop listening to other people's music? Or that the converse is true? And if it is true - then what were you listening to around this period?
    I don't think many of the more sloppy rhythmic tunes could have existed without Dilla's Donuts. It seems to have infected so many people. I don't think I'm inspired by what I'm listening to around the time of making the track, it is more of a mix of preferences seeping in over time. I know that when I make a tune and I can recognise something I've heard before in it that I'll probably try and change it. I didn't have a record player while I was making this stuff and my mp3 player died, so a lot of down time was spent watching films or socialising with my disco-obsessed mates. Its not my favourite genre of music but whatever is around you has to seep in I'm sure.

    I felt a strange flurry of nostalgia about some of your recent work - it seems caught in that wonderful space between the past and the future - not least the song 'Telecom Eireann Logo' - I did smile when I saw the song title. Perhaps it links back into that question of the passing of time. Do you feel you crave the past in some ways?
    No, I'm not one to think too romantically on the past. I tend to hover through life thinking I'm still 19 and everything's ahead of me - it's not of course!. 'Telecom Eireann Logo' is a little bit of a piss-take title. I was spending ages building this synth sound based on an odd harmonic series for a different project. When Friday came around I thought "shit I better make something". The chords progression that came out sounded like an old utopian 80's advertisement - and suspiciously like B.O.C.- so hence the title. I think it's a good thing when music has some sort of element anchoring it to the present. If you make a so-called "timeless" record, its probably something that has been tried and tested for years. The old / new thing that comes from my music might just be a coincidence - I'm usually just trying to find the right accompaniment to an idea. I have been sampling old films on records a bit more on this album, so you've immediately got a timbre associated with older technology.

    You went to see Low when they recently played here, and they are a band you hold dear. They take composition very seriously, and there is a very controlled structure that they adhere to, yet it contains a wild emotional landscape - does this kind of contrast inspire you?
    I suppose so. I always thought that as I got older I'd mature into appreciating improvised free form structure. But it hasn't happened so much yet. The Low compositions are simple enough, and you get to focus on that rich guitar tone. You could talk about Low being minimal but the sonic content is really rich. I'm not sure I try to inject much emotion into my music. I'm a little bit more interested in evoking landscapes, journeys, structure, action, non-action and that sort of thing. When things become too joyful or sad as a whole piece I'll usually try and steer them around a different corner.

    You did a Masters in Music Technology - what kind of creative space do you think that afforded you? Do you feel it was a turning point in your own work?
    I got to work with a proper recording studio in college - I stayed late most nights trying to figure out mic positions on guitars, and how the equipment worked. It was very much what you made of it. The acoustics class was something I wasn't very excited about, but I ended getting a lot out of. And I was really trying to get to grips with how all of these sound pressure waves interact and make this thing that we perceive as sound. A little understanding of harmonics has really helped me when it comes to making and mixing sounds.

    You have worked with so many different people, including the wonderful Carol Keogh - who is such a beautiful, interesting singer - will there be more Natural History Museum work with her do you think, and how would you describe the working process with her?
    Oh yeah there will be more - we've been saying this for 47 years now, but there is an album. We've written a few new songs this year and I'll put this stuff out on Countersunk if it kills me. Our working process tends to be like this - Carol calls over and we drink tea and talk about Dublin. Then we go into the studio and one of us will have something that we've already started. Then the other will play something that they've already started, invariably the two things start to work together, and we keep pushing it for a while and record the vocals. Then I start mixing it, run out of time and leave the tune sitting in a hard drive until the hard drive dies and the tune is lost forever.

    What have some of your happiest collaborations been? You seem to veer between a love of the solitary state and collaborative.
    I'm better working on my own that's for sure - but that's because I'm not the most dexterous of live musicians. I played a gig accompanying David Kitt last summer and noodled together a few guitar lines for it in preparation. They seemed to work pretty well and it was quite satisfying working in an area I hadn't done so much of. The most important thing to me when collaborating is getting on with the person you're spending all this precious time with. Like in an afternoon of recording, you're missing at least four episodes of Friends, so your partner in crime better be good fun.

    Something like Ambulance illustrates a different aspect to your world again - the surreal, slightly more abstract part, as opposed to something like Natural History Museum perhaps - what are some of your dream collaboration left to do?
    I have a lot of picky guitar pieces that I have written, and some day I'd love to record some more piano with Jurgen Simpson. He really "got" what I was trying to do and he has this brilliant style of playing which is really mechanical, while being completely flowing at the same time. I like how he would write out my whole composition on the stave first before any kind of improvisation. It wasn't really like lighting some incense, kicking off your shoes and letting the spirit of Avatar enter you - it was more honest and considered.

    There seems to be quite an exciting period at the moment with electronic music, and I have been thinking about the fact that many young people seem to be applying themselves to it, perhaps it's the shift in the accessibility towards technology - what do you think?
    It's so great to be able to hear more electronically programmed music about these days. There was quite a period there where all the incidental music I'd hear about the place was rock-orientated - its nice to mix things up a bit. But maybe its like when I was a kid and some years BMXs were in, the next few years skateboards were in, and every few years they'd swap around. I was going to make some crack about one foot on the pedal / one foot on the board…….. ugh.

    I do hate to generalise, but I see a kind of shift towards nostalgia again - even the new Gatekeeper album EXO has a nod back to the emergence of acid house, and Teengirl Fantasy's second record, soon to be released, is a throwback to early Detroit techno. A huge debt is owed to people like Juan Atkins, but there does seem to be a distinct division between those that helped to create the form and that came slightly later in the development, such as Theo Parrish - and those that are borrowing from the palette all the time.
    It's the Instagram thing - realising you can emulate a genre, or sound or image or character isn't the most creative thing in my mind, but I suppose it has its place. It can really turn me off music. But then I hear something like Martyn's album from last year [Ghost People], and the more I fight against its early 90's throw-back sound, the more I completely fall for it. Music as a commodity is being digested in such a different way. There's way more access and content, so perhaps the majority of people need to know in advance what they're getting into - so as a result there's less surprises.

    It's funny how when someone plays you music from a country/genre that you've never heard, the originators always seem to get the message through to you more succinctly than the pretenders, even if you have no frame of reference.

    That also brings me to thinking about a sense of place, for me, the greatest electronic music has always been somehow infused with a sense of place. What is your relationship to space, both in terms of your studio, and in terms of nature - how important is space to you and how far do you think it finds its way into your work?
    Not really. Once tunes are recorded and released, I start to forget when and how they were made. That's a really nice feeling. I read Ital Tek referred to this by saying that he was "no longer seeing the grid" when listening to some tunes that he had recorded a while back. I listened back to the first Ambulance EP for the first time in years the other day. I remembered Decal sitting behind us on the couch eating sandwiches while we were recording the master!

    In terms of evoking space with music, I like when it's very alien and abstract. I tend to dream in very claustrophobic confined spaces, and I reckon that might be linked to how I like to fill up all the space in my tunes most of the time. Its something in my psyche I suppose.

    Do you still have your studio by the sea? The sea for me is probably the most important part of nature somehow.
    Nope, I'm slap bang in the city centre. I'm sure there's a connection between the more electronic chunky action stuff on this new album and what I encounter every day. I'd love to be back by the sea though. The air is different and any large expanse like that is good for clear thought.

    I have always wondered about your relationship to traditional music as well and folk, for me your work has something of a sympathy with it - what does it mean to you?
    I've more of a background with classical than folk. There was no folk music played in our house when I grew up, and I certainly never developed much love for Irish folk. English folk had a bit more of an effect on me I think. The chords and melody sank in a little easier. It's more the sounds that instruments can make, and the kinds of little looping progressions I can make on them that interest me. I've been playing a bouzouki a bit of late but I'm not sure if I've been tuning it the way folk musicians might. If someone hands an instrument to me at a party and demands that I play, they wont get much back because I've never really been able to learn other peoples stuff like that. And I've forgotten how to play most of my own ditties too.

    This also brings to mind Ireland - home - a place that is a touchstone for imagination, something I don't think we can ever really get away from. In terms of creating music and performing here - how have you seen things change since times such as those spent at The Funnel, back in a time where anything seemed possible, though perhaps there is a sympathetic movement towards the DIY ethic again, and a sense of community instead.
    I don't know. I'm not too good on this. I think people will always make great music and people will always make terrible music. The scenes and communities will come and go but the resulting records will stay around. I suppose we make and listen to music to communicate with people. I tend to veer towards the recorded element rather than the live one. I remember thinking in the days of The Funnel that England and Germany were coming up with such amazing music, and wishing Ireland could do the same. What I didn't realise was that we were learning.

    You have released some work on Planet-Mu, in some ways the label itself has changed quite a bit even in the past couple of years - what are your thoughts?
    I think in the last two years Planet-Mu has done some of its finest work. The likes of Kuedo, The Host, and Machinedrum have really put some fantastic music out there. This new Konx-om-Pax seems really promising too. I'm trying not to think too heavily about labels. I'm trying to get into a mode of thinking that making and doing is the way forward. Whenever the big piracy conversation comes up and the point is made that artists are getting screwed, it makes me think how it's now the artist's responsibility to look into how their work is being delivered and maybe try to get more involved.

    This has been a huge undertaking of a project for you, and you have created your imprint - what plans do you have for it?
    There are two more volumes of Friday Syndrome that I want to get out there in the next few months. But the real biggy weighing heavy on my brain is the Natural History Museum stuff. I'd love to get that stuff out asap. I've no idea how we're going to present it at all, but hopefully it'll be a nice package and people will get what we're on about. I'd love to start doing vinyl - it'd be a big leap financially, and a big gamble too - it depends on how the finished tunes go.

    In terms of the live experience - it can always be quite a tricky thing to carry off - but that is another thing I love about it, is its temporal nature - each performance is unique - it all depends on the room, the audience, the atmosphere, the musicians has your relationship to the live experience changed as a performer?
    I know this sounds disrespectful, but I learned to realise that the audience aren't half as bothered about what is happening at the gig as I used to think they were. Playing live used to be a full on panic attack, with me thinking that people would be noticing every single thing I did. And through understanding that they don't, I think I've funnily been able to engage with audiences better over the last few years - and by letting the mistakes go by and accepting that it's not going to sound like a record has made it a bit more fun.

    I suppose I was thinking a lot about your shows with Rod Morris - and all that finger trigger performance - which is frightening, technical, brilliant, and inspiring - all at once - do you think there might be other collaborations with Rod?
    Yip. We were supposed to play together a couple of weeks ago but I didn't get my programming done in time. There are some shows coming up in September and "Magic Fingers" himself should be popping on stage. I'm playing live without any sequencers at the moment. I've chopped up all my tunes into tiny little snippet loops and I have to string them all back together. It's quite frantic and there isn't a second to take a swig from a beer.

    And you are such a fan of music - how do you feel about experiencing live music as an audience member?
    Usually not half as well as the person standing beside me! Listening to records at a party is kinda preferable for me - I know that's a bit sacrilegous in Ireland! Only some music really feels right for me to experience live. The great bands I love to see live always have an improvisational element - Autechre, Polar Bear, Sonic Youth, and the Boredoms are some of the live shows where I've really felt like being in the room at that particular time was vital to understanding what was going on. I'm not so into watching a performance as some of my mates are. But then you go and see Chic at the Electric Picnic and you want to live in the crowd forever.

    Lastly, because I always love asking people this question, for recommendations, more than anything - who are you listening to, reading, and what are you watching at present?
    I've been blaring the Traxman album on Mu in my car. It's right there in front of you. Amazing. When I call to my friends houses and they play music to me - that has always been and I hope, will always be the most inspiring thing. A year or two ago I came across Hamilton Bohannon and he's been killing me ever since. I haven't read much more than the back of a shampoo bottle in months, but he last novel I read was called The Sisters Brothers [Patrick deWitt], which wasn't the best but it was given to me, and I felt I had to finish it because I've got brain problems - I've been watching terrible vintage sci-fi movies online. There's a Mexican film from 1960 called Ship of Monsters, which is totally worth watching even without the subtitles.

    Sunken Foal's Friday Syndrome Vol.1 is out now on Countersunk.

    More in Music Reviews

    Dicks - Kill from the Heart/These People

    "If you're any kind of a punk you need Kill from the Heart in your collection" - MacDara on the recently reissued Dicks LPs Kill from the Heart & These People. Read More »
    Siobhán Kane

    Over the years Siobhán Kane has written for various publications on music and culture including The Irish Times, Thumped, The Quietus and The Event Guide. She occasionally contributes to radio,and amidst trying to write her doctorate and teaching, runs the collective Young Hearts Run Free, putting  music and literature events on in unusual spaces, raising money for the Simon Community in the process.


    Related items