With their Satellite People EP out this Friday, Nay McArdle talks with Gavin Cowley of Glimmermen.
I’ve always had this thing about derelict buildings and weird spaces that I want to record music in,” Gavin Cowley mentioned over a cup of coffee in Simon’s Place a few weeks ago. We were talking about the Methodist hall in Monasterevin where his band Glimmermen recorded the single Guide You in 2010. A year on from its release, Glimmermen had completed an EP of four songs titled Satellite People. “Since I was in my teens I’ve had this thing about re-energizing space. Even though there’s obviously nothing there – it’s just the walls – you’d have in mind things like community events that happened in these places. There’s this residual energy that you’d try to tap in to or make a record of. Just try and breathe new life into the space.
“I did something a few years ago when the Stella cinema was closed up. It was lying idle there for years and I just got this thing in my head that I had to go in there and record something. It took a very long time to get hold of the caretaker and all that to actually let me in for the day, but another friend of mine came in, we took photographs and recorded a song that we just kind of made up during the day in Cinema One. So that’s always been there.”
Looking around at the green tables of Simon’s I knew what he meant about residual energy. We often get a feel for a places without realising but sometimes the creative juices are instantly stimulated by a building’s unusual acoustic bounce and the scattering of light (or cold spots and bloodstains if you’re into that sort of thing). When it comes to musicians, those times almost always call for a song. The practice of setting up microphones to record in odd locations is fairly commonplace, especially amongst those with DIY persuasions like Gav. With a hand-printed Satellite People CD case on the table between us and ‘Glimmermen/Family Planning/Autumn Owls’ posters tacked to the walls, the upcoming gig is being promoted in the same tried-and-trusted way that served well when Glimmermen were all in different bands; bassist J. Bassetti with the formidable Jackbeast in the 90s, guitarist Gavin in the duo Boxes. Phil Murray played drums in The Holy Ghost Fathers and was heavily involved in promoting the underground Ballroom of Romance gigs. It’s far from Arts Council-funded social networking sites they were raised but when Guide You was released on Valentine’s Day 2011, it was as a free download from Bandcamp and a Breaking Tunes profile followed soon after.
“There seems to be a lot of pressure to be on these platforms, there have to be ten different ways that people can get to your band. Communication is not a bad thing – it never is – and it’s great there are these platforms DIYers can get on and do their own thing. That’s amazing. When we started, you put your poster together with cut-ups of photocopies and put them up on lampposts. When I began playing gigs in Dublin, in the Baggot Inn or old Fibber Magees, it was all on the blower, on the phone. In your flat, on the coinbox, ringing people – you had to wait by the phone to get a message back that a band that were able to play. No texting, nothing like that. For us, we’re only getting used to Facebook and Twitter and all of these things.”
“One of the first gigs Boxes did was in the Ballroom. I think I posted a CD to Allen (Blighe, Ballroom promoter and Spook/Hound) and that was that. It’s the way things happened years previous, you just made these connections. There was no email that wasn’t answered. It was just; ‘here’s our music, there you go’ and someone listened to it and said ‘that’s deadly, we’ll put you on next month’. It’s so nice when that happens. There’s no bullshit at all, it’s just let’s fucking do a gig. There’s no hierarchy or anything – just hire the place and put four bands on. And really, it gained a lot of momentum. It was something like 100 gigs in 100 months, it must have been astounding organisation for himself every month, that he’d be in touch with four bands and arrange a Ballroom of Romance gig every month for 100 months.”
The Ballroom’s swansong came in 2010 and just over a year later came the news that its regular venue the Lower Deck would close. Joined by Crawdaddy and Tripod along with An Realt Dearg in Cork, music venues in Ireland are becoming more limited.
Miles Davis and Stevie Wonder boomed out from his father’s music collection when Gavin was growing up in Offaly, Bob Dylan, Dead Kennedys and Fugazi following a short while later.
“There was always music in the house when I was growing up. I remember sitting with the headphones in the sitting room or whatever, flipping over the vinyl again and again and listening to these things. It wouldn’t always necessarily be rock music. I tend to do a lot of listening in the car these days when I’m going from one place to the next. I relate distances to what I listen to. And also, if it’s raining, you’re going to listen to Miles. If it’s sunny, you’re going to listen to Jonathan Richman or something. It’s never really titles or themes or, ‘I need to listen to this band now,’ it’s more of a feeling of the day or whatever.”
“When I started playing in bands, the people we would have looked at were bands like Fugazi, DIY people, people that were doing it for themselves and just, ‘fuck it, let’s make a band and let’s write our own songs and let’s try and put a gig on.’ There’s a certain feeling of empowerment from that. Like, ‘fuck you, I’m making this music’. This is what all the bands I’ve ever listened to have done. I never really see any reference to any band I’ve ever liked in mainstream things. You just have to trust that what you’re doing is hopefully good, and any kind of artistic endeavour is kind of selfish. You just have to do it.
“With rock music, people think it should be left to young people, and you have a couple of years and it’s like, hey, you tried, let’s move on and do something else. But I’ve never thought about it like that. It’s just something I always wanted to do. I’d be so happy if one or two people came up and said ‘I really liked that’. It wouldn’t really matter if 99% of the audience turned their back and headed off. I’d think, ‘wow, I connected with somebody and they got what I was trying to do’.”
With Satellite People Glimmermen have found a spot that suits them to explore a range of rock songwriting, subtly arranged around heavy-end riffs and offbeat melodies. Travellin’ Man is the a vehicle for Bassetti’s formidable upright bass to come into its own, having made lethal strides through the title track, an instant winner with its stamping, cajoling, rolling build-up. You can hear they’re rockers but for Glimmermen it’s a chance to burst into pop song.
“Certainly the plan is to play more. That’s the most fun part, the energy of playing. I always totally switch off when I’m playing. It’s like just doing something in the moment. It’s a real relief from everything else in my life, just being there and touching the fretboard and not being able to think of anything else. It’s really relaxing in a weird way.
“We have gigs, obviously the EP launch on March 2nd in Whelan’s Upstairs. That’s with Autumn Owls and Family Planning. Then we’re playing Dolan’s in Limerick, Tullamore and then Thomastown. We’d certainly hope to maybe try and pick up the odd small festival or even more gigs in the summer.
“We’ve all done a lot of noisy stuff in other bands. I think it’s kind of creeping in again. The first thing we came out with, Guide You, was kind of slow. We’re trying to write stuff that’s a little bit more poppy than previous bands but the rock element is definitely sneaking back in.
“For the new recordings, we went to Steve Shannon’s Experimental Audio in Dublin, a really nice space that was kind of perfect size for the band. From the experience in Monasterevin, we just wanted to do something a little more controlled. It’s grand just turning up in the morning somewhere and just building and recording, but it can be kind of fraught. Some things will work and some things will not work, and you come away with maybe half of what you’d thought you’d achieve, so we just wanted for these four songs to get something a bit more controlled. It’s a live performance on the EP. We recorded it as a band live – that’s how the tracks were laid down. That would always have been how I’d like to do it.
“With the previous band of mine, we went to Electrical Audio [Steve Albini’s studio] in Chicago, and recording there copper-fastened that ideal, that as a band you have to rehearse and rehearse to the point where you’re fucking, like – it’s like you’re training for a hurling match and you’ll play the songs and you won’t make a mistake. In the recording, it’s about capturing that moment, or that energy at that particular time. It mightn’t work six times, but that seventh time is the special one. I always listen back and say, ‘yeah, that was deadly. We did nail it for that particular moment in time.’ I think we did for this EP anyway.”
Lino-block hand-printed covers encapsulate the Satellite People CD and an image of a man sheltering beneath his hands is stamped on the sleeve with white paint. They’re Gavin’s handiwork and the lyrics within are his wordplay. He mentions paranoia and confusion as themes in the songs, and says he’s always thinking, always tuned in.
“The image on the front of the CD reflects how sometimes it feels like I’m overwhelmed by the amount of information and the amount of stuff in the ether all the time. Everything influences the way I write. It’s just something I might see or hear during the day that sets something off in my brain. I draw and paint as well. If I was to try and describe it visually…if you’re in art class and you’re asked to do a drawing of a room, you could draw what we see now, or you could become a mouse and draw it from a totally different perspective. That’s my sort of songwriting, the way I approach things. Decide that you’re light or something. Write from the perspective of that. You can get something real or connected to the human being by becoming something else, if that makes sense. Probably not!”
“We have a new photograph of the band where we’re jumping in it and I think that kind of ties into things as well. Back to the capturing energy thing, the recording was a live performance that was recorded, and the CD cover printing… they’re all unique in themselves because they all worked out differently. So when I lino-block printed this…each CD was different and that captured that particular roll with the ink. The photograph that we have is a photo of us jumping, and that obviously is a moment captured in time as well. The aesthetic of it is kind of tied in. ” Gavin tapped the CD on the table and it crackled lightly in response on this recorded transcript. I could hardly manage to remove the flimsy wrapper to inspect the EP when he gave it to me, and it made me think of the many hundreds of hours bands put into printing and packaging dozens and dozens of CDS. Human beings don’t perform tasks pointlessly and such detail and care only come when there’s a pervading zeal to create. For those who seek to capture brief moments of their best, busy gigs and albums are the outward signs of success, small square objects of empowerment. Recordings of sound but energy too, that might go on to re-energise minds as well as old halls and venues.
Glimmermen will release their Satellite People EP on Friday March 2nd & play Whelan’s with Autumn Owls & Family Planning that night.