Nay McArdle talks with Drunken Boat‘s Brian Walsh about the development of the band, the recording of Concrete Canyons and the occasional downsides to DIY.
One of those get-on-with-it bands who just make music with the minimum of fuss, Drunken Boat released a third album Concrete Canyons in October. It’s a loud collection of songs that acts as a sonic gallery of their experiments in combining rock and folk. After steady development of the Boat’s sound, the band have left the breakwater and are ready to sail out into the open sea.
“I’ve always been recording,” begins Brian Walsh, “my Dad had a big hi-fi in the sitting room that I used to muck around with for hours. You could change the recording level, tape from vinyl to cassette, record audio from the TV and EQ things. Later that developed into recording guitars and noise by hooking my walkman into it to give multiple tracks. I started playing guitar when I was 15 and that’s when I started to write songs. I didn’t have too much interest in learning other people’s songs, I just wanted to make up my own. Along with guitar, these days I play harmonica too and I have a charango which is like a South American mandolin that I mess with now and again. I used to play keyboard a bit too.
“I jammed with friends from school during the summer holidays as a teenager” he continues. “Then I think the first proper band I was in was with Alan Finnerty (now in Koalacord and Guilty Optics). That was a folk band with our friends Tom and Niall from Modern Skins. The band was called Hooker Bunny! Ridiculous but good fun…. we made a five-song EP in the studios in Temple Bar. Later Alan needed someone to play rhythm parts on a demo he was doing. That was great, real heavy and grungey. During college I got a 4-track and went under the name Howie Walshberg. I made about five demos over three or four years. The sound quality was usually poor! I cared much more about getting ideas down. “
The first Drunken Boat release came out in 2007 and was called ‘Cut The Engines, Raise The Sails’. At only eight songs and with Simon Brennan on synths alongside Brian’s acoustic guitar, was quite different from the later ‘Boat tunes.
“I think of it as an album but somehow it didn’t seem right to call it that. Its too long to be an EP and too short to be an album!” agrees Brian. “Actually now that I think about it I did an incredibly short EP called ‘In An Instant’. Each song was somewhere between 40 seconds and 2 minutes long – the idea being that each song was like a musical postcard. Must dig that out! That was August 2006 and the start of Drunken Boat.”
So how did Drunken Boat really develop to more than a project?
“I’d set up a myspace account and got the name ‘Drunken Boat’ from somewhere, not realising that it would ever turn in to what it is now. I’d met Simon Brennan through a mutual friend and he told me about a studio he’d set up on North Circular Road. He had some similar ideas to me that he wanted to try out. I brought in some guitar lines that I wasn’t sure what to do with and we slowly made them in to songs. Simon was part producer and 50% of the band at the time and did the electronic parts. We sat for hours going over what sounds we wanted to use. I’d always wanted to do something full of synths and love Brian Eno. When the opportunity to record something like that came along I jumped at the chance. It was painstaking but we got there. We did the whole thing start-to-finish over six months in 2007.”
By the time the second album ‘Plumb The Depths’ was released in 2009, Simon had departed while Dror Zur had joined on drums. The new sound was drastically different.
“It’s all about trying new things and experimenting for me.” Brian explains. “Me and Dror started playing with the idea of being a sort of heavy folk-y band that would try anything. You can hear that clearly on ‘Plumb the Depths’. Dror has a very rhythmic style that suits my guitar playing and he was willing to try anything. Some songs are way better suited to our style than others yet we kept pushing it out to see what we get in return, like playing really, really hard on ‘Unwelcome Guest’. It’s about getting out of your comfort zone. When Shane (Arrowsmith) came on board a year ago we decided to keep this idea going but play more familiar structures and to generally tighten up the band. I’ve known Shane since I was college and knew his old band Hermie in Tweed well. We needed a change, something to give the band an edge and Shane fit perfectly. Now that Simon (Dowling) is with us, I think we’re going to reel everything back in, I think we’ve found our sound. He’s a great musician and has that folk background that I think we are heading back towards with the new songs.
We’re looking at adding maybe one more instrument/person but its a bit too early to say the what and who yet. This build up was slow as the less people who are in the band the easier it is to make quick progress.
How does the songwriting process work for Drunken Boat, is it a collaborative effort or do you work on parts individually? ”I usually bring in either a fully formed song or just some chords that we might work around. As we get to know each other it becomes easier to collaborate. ‘Three Burials’ is one that I brought in that we didn’t change much. “Nowhere Else to Be” was one we jammed out.
How did you get on with Concrete Canyons? I believe you worked with the Irish producer Steve Fanagan on this, did it take long to record?
That album was recorded, mixed and mastered in about a week! Steve did an incredible job. We thought we were going to cause him to have breakdown with the requests we were making in that time. I’ve known him for a while and he is a pro! It was all recorded live in a practice space in Inchicore with each song just taking a couple of takes with almost no overdubs (except vocals). We wanted something like the Neil Young and Crazy Horse albums where it just sounds like you’re in the room with the band.
The thing with ‘Concrete Canyons’ and ‘Plumb the Depths’ is that they are documents. We want to capture what we’re doing at the time. We could have waited two years and picked the songs we like best from the two albums and put out one consistent album but we like to keep moving and be less precious. It’s good to keep things raw and on the edge.
As an intrinsically DIY band, Drunken Boat’s involvement with the Irish music scene is very much at a grassroots level, where it’s all about communicating with like-minded musicians, attending local gigs and supporting the labels and promoters who work alongside similar artists. While it’s a great vibe to experience right now, there are some subtle downsides, too. ”I love being part of such healthy and diverse scene. Its very exciting having so much new music out almost every week. Its success is down to the hard work of the bands and the labels I think. There are so many outlets now it’s easier to make connections and get your music out there. Ironically it can get lost in it all. Between the blogs, podcasts and websites it can still be hard to make your name and music stand out. As it’s easier to record and distribute music there is more of it too so it’s a bigger space. The same rules still apply as they did 20 years ago though. If you’re good then people will listen and you’ll get noticed.”
Ideally, how would you like to see 2011 develop? Are there any new directions or concepts you’d like to explore with Drunken Boat?
“I’d love to play some bigger venues and keep playing with bands I like. Also, something we all agree on is that we sound best when we play really loud! We had a great gig in the Roisin Dubh supporting Windings in October and came close to sounding like we do in practice. I’d really like to see that side of things develop. ”I think all the elements are there. We need to sort them out now. We have an idea of what the band should sound like and know what we need. It’s a matter of keeping focus and writing now! I think the experimental side has finished.”