Chris Jones talks DIY, writing and the legacy of the Richter Collective with Barry, Paul & John of Hands Up Who Wants To Die
Praise your deity of choice, Hands Up Who Wants To Die are back. Well over three years since the Dublin noise-rock crew released their debut album Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo, the band have been quiet through most of 2014. But they are now back on the road in preparation for the release of their second album, Vega In The Lyre, which will be launched at Block T in Dublin on September 27.
I met up with the band before their gig in Belfast earlier this summer, chatting to Barry, John and Paul in their van outside the appropriately ramshackle, no-nonsense Menagerie Bar off the Ormeau Road. As they would tell me before I got a chance to hear it (I have now), Vega In The Lyre goes deeper, darker and weirder than they have gone before, further solidifying their own sound while continuing to echo the noise-rock and post-punk heroes that have gone before. It also sounds absolutely monumental, something they put down to their work with producer and “fifth member” John ‘Spud’ Murphy.
The gig was part of a short Irish tour that the band were doing with their French friends Magneto, and the two bands were joined by local trio PigsAsPeople, whose bracing post-hardcore set the tone for the evening.
Magneto were excellent, playing pleasantly off-kilter, rhythmically slippery indie-rock that was heavily redolent of Fugazi’s The Argument. Clearly they have some way to go before actually matching those dizzy heights, but it was a spiky, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable performance from the Bordeaux/Rennes-based band.
By the time Hands Up Who Wants To Die came on, a small but expectant crowd had gathered in front of the stage, and they were not to be disappointed. As most Thumped readers are likely to know, when these four men perform live, they are a force of nature. Sole guitarist Paul Clynes has a seemingly unending supply of gritty, nasty riffs while drummer John Breslin and Matt Hedigan lock in with hard-hitting, neck-snapping grooves and one of the best sounding rhythm sections in Ireland.
Then there’s Barry Lennon, a man with the physical intensity of Damian Abrahams from Fucked Up, the audience-invading adventure of Les Savy Fav’s Tim Harrington and the charisma of Andrew WK. The Menagerie is a small place and he used the set to explore every inch of it, much to the bar staff’s bemusement, including the gents’ toilets (I dearly hope someone was having a piss at the time) and the outdoor smoking area, returning to bellow in the faces of the front row, and making one punter read from the setlist before every song. Even if you’ve seen him do it several times before, it’s still a preternaturally exciting, altogether unique spectacle. Lord knows what anyone completely new to the band must have thought.
Your first album came out at the start of 2011 and you haven’t gigged much for the last year or so. What have you been up to?
Barry Lennon (vocals): Finishing off our second record has taken a lot of time. Paul was living in France and people were doing other work-related projects. Getting the second album finished and pitching it to labels and getting it out by the end of the year is what we’ve been working on – and writing new material.
Paul Clynes (guitar): It took a long time to mix. We recorded it two years ago and it’s been mixed for six months to a year.
B: We spent a lot more time on it, as opposed to Buffalo where we were in Germany for a specific amount of time, so we had to get it done. We did this record in North Strand in Dublin with an amazing producer called John ‘Spud’ Murphy, so we had a lot more time to play around with it, and we took our time. Spud committed so much time and energy and really got involved in the record, nearly as a fifth member. That was a brilliant process for us.
John Breslin (drums): As long as it took, it felt important to get it right. Trying to get it out has been a bit of a stickler the last few months.
P: We were conscious of trying to vary the sound a bit more from the first album. We did that with the songs and also with the recording process. There’s a lot more variation of sounds. It’s less samey.
Did you have an initial discussion about what sound you wanted to end up with, or was it more gradual?
J: Not really a sound, but we had a process in mind, which was to work with John to do something that the five of us were happy with, rather than just going in, playing the songs, getting out and having them mixed.
B: Yeah, and I think there was an evolution in what we were doing. We wanted to play around with stuff and have more dynamics in our sound.
P: It’s probably less of a natural, live, ‘band in a room’ sound and produced to sound more nasty.
If you’re able to step back from it, then, how would you describe the record? “Nasty” is an interesting word to use because by most standards Buffalo is a pretty nasty sounding record.
J: Yeah, I think this sounds a lot harsher. There’s very brutal moments in it, and more delicate moments at the other end of the scale.
B: We were so embedded in it, more so than any record I’ve been involved in before – including Buffalo – so it was interesting to send it on to a few people and get their feedback. There were some interesting comments around that, everyone thought it was fuckin’ vicious and that it was really jumping out at them.
J: I guess the sound was dictated to a certain extent by John who was producing it – there are bits of music on it that he created from the recordings. His taste in music would be minimal stuff and very harsh audioscapes, so he brought a bit of that.
What is the appeal of harsh, brutal music for you?
J: For me, it’s playing it and the release that I get from pushing it to a pretty harsh sound -making your face scrunch up a little bit. Listening to Paul, Barry or Matt [Hedigan, bass] and responding to that.
P: It’s what moves me most at gigs.
Did you have any particular reference points for the record, musically?
B: I don’t know about specific stuff. There were definitely influences across bands we’ve played with over the last few years and bands we all like. And writing poetry and stories – stuff that’s detached from the communal stuff that we’re all engaged with musically.
Barry, do you contribute to the music as well as words and vocals?
B: A lot of the stuff is written collectively. People do bring definitive things to the table, but maybe I’d be like, ‘Maybe this bit should be quieter’ or ‘This bit should be louder’. But I guess that comes about naturally.
J: It starts with riffs that Matt or Paul write. They do acoustic sessions to develop them and then bring them to me and Barry. At a basic level, that’s how the songs come together. Riffs at the start! But nothing’s set in stone – everything is bendable.
Barry, you mentioned poetry and stories. How do those non-musical influences filter in to your lyrics?
B: Some of it is quite personal – ‘Burnt Yesterday’ is reflective of things that are going on. But I don’t always go below the surface and explain what they are about. I like them to be interpreted by people. But generally, things around and views on things as well as a mix of Edgar Allan Poe, Yeats and poets like that. It’s a mix of different things, there’s no definitive way. I write outside of the band as well so sometimes I bring in an idea and a song is based on that. Or words can write themselves around sounds. It’s not always the case that ‘this is going to be about’… whatever. Words can evolve meanings through the course of them being written or played. Sometimes I even interpret them differently.
J: There’s an element of playing with words, and it’s nice to see that when songs are being written, we’re taking ages on a riff and other vocalists might be a bit annoyed, Barry is sitting there writing in the room with us. The words can change once he hears the sounds.
B: I try to stay away with words for the sake of words – it has to have some logical bearing. It’s not a David Bowie exercise in picking words out of a hat! The song will have a meaning but I’ll play with different ways for it to sound – whispery or shouty, moulding into the music to be another instrument in the whole cacophony of the sound.
Barry and John, you’re involved with community television, which is a form of grass-roots, DIY art and aligns well with what you do as a band. How important is that approach to the way you conduct yourselves?
B: I think that all the tours we’ve done, we’ve tried to do it with a European band and do it DIY. There is that kind of community where we’re trying to build it, bringing over bands like Don Vito or Poino or Menfolk and we’re doing exchanges. It’s nice to go, ‘We like yous, do you like us? Let’s try and do something’. With the new record, we’re going to do a lot of the production end of it and get other labels to come in to the process so the record is available in different territories. But again, we’re doing a lot of the front-running, getting the artwork together, producing the product and having a lot of editorial [control] by default over how it looks and what it is aesthetically. But at the same time we’re linking in to these people that have the same perspective as us of how it should be done and keeping the independence and integrity around the band.
P: I don’t think a band that sounds like us has many options.
J: Yeah, it’s often born out of necessity and it’s something that comes naturally to us. I guess it’s just the way that we operate. We’re not always thinking that it has to be this way, but as Paul said there’s not many other options for a band like us. And it is about community building but again, that’s something that comes naturally. You get in touch with like-minded people in different countries and you try to build things that way. And again, it would be great if one label would be into releasing the record but it’s not necessarily what we’ve found, so splitting it is a natural progression from that if a few labels are into it. It’s DIY out of necessity but it is also the way we live.
B: There is that network there to support it as well, and it’s really nice to know that there are people doing this stuff who want to engage and go on a tour around Europe where we can arrive off a plane and use all their gear, and they can come over here and we can repay the favour.
You say it comes naturally to you, but not every band operates in the same way – do you have a manager, for example?
B: No, we do it all ourselves.
J: I don’t think a manager would deal with us or that we would deal with a manager very well!
So why is that independence so important?
P: It makes sense logically for one thing to avoid things like major labels and managers when you can just do it all yourself. And it’s inspiring when you see your favourite bands like The Ex and Fugazi – they started out doing that kind of thing. It’s just the way music should be, I think.
J: Yep, I agree. And as mealy-mouthed as it might sound, we have to compromise enough between the four of us and it means we don’t have to compromise much further. And you touched on the word art, and it is artistic expression. Not that we sit down every day thinking that we have to create more art or whatever, but at its basic level that’s how it should operate.
Having been a band for nearly six years, what changes have you noticed in being an independent, DIY band? Is it much the same for you now as it was then?
J: The changes we’ve seen as a band are changes that we’ve been part of. We’ve made more contacts since we’ve been a band, we’ve met more people who we trust and want to work with again. We’ve found a new producer that we want to work with. In the broader scale, I don’t think much as changed.
P: Before we started, MySpace and stuff had changed things a lot, because you could hear a band you would never [otherwise] get to hear from a different country and message them. It made things a lot easier.
J: Totally. Our first gig was in Berlin because Paul had lived there previously and a friend put on the gig. I guess that gave us a mindset from the start that we could easily just go abroad and do a few gigs. Paul got in touch with Gone Bald, a brilliant, legendary Netherlands band.
B: We played their anniversary.
J: Yeah, and similar with Don Vito and stuff.
B: I guess we took the front-running on those things, and over the years what’s been good is that within a network of noise bands you become known in that circle. We’ve had the luxury of going back to places we’ve played before. Over the years, what’s been beneficial is [just] existing – people know you and you get to link in to that network, make great contacts, meet amazing people and see amazing places. It’s a beautiful thing – once you’ve done that a few times you get people coming back to shows and arguing with you that you still have the same record out! But that’s cool. We’ve gone to Europe a lot and not just focused on Ireland. Ireland is a bit homogenised in what music is pushed out there and picked up on by blogs. There’s no real festivals for heavier music – all the big festivals are more consumable, whereas in Europe they’re more into heavier music. It’s worked in that sense.
J: I guess there’s more people and space for alternative music.
Is being based an Ireland a challenge? Would you be more successful if you were based elsewhere?
P: It would be easier as in less hassle – you can drive to so many places if you’re on the continent.
B: Yeah, financially easier and easier for touring and everything else.
J: The networks exist a bit stronger in France and Germany, and I’m sure there are even better networks for other types of music in other countries. So again, it is that network of people and places that would be easier to tap into if we were in mainland Europe. Being in Ireland, though, it’s still a cheap enough flight or ferry if you need to get there.
Are those networks stronger there because of sheer numbers – Ireland being a small country by comparison – or is there more to it than that?
B: In Europe, there’s a lot more of a noise scene. In Ireland, there aren’t as many bands, but there are other scenes. So by default, you might not be playing with bands in a similar genre. You might be playing with a punk band or a math-rock band. There’s more diversity in that sense. But there’s still a lot of community between the bands. You can have line-ups that are very strange in Ireland because there aren’t so many bands that sound the same.
J: Yeah, it means that people come together because of that DIY thing, rather than the type of music. Whereas, in France, DIY electronic people will have a killer bill full of really banging electronic music or you’ll have a bill full of hardcore, noise-rock bands. Again, it comes down to more people.
Barry, when I first met you were running Richter Collective with Mick Roe, and that was a real rallying point for musicians and music fans from various sub-genres within the whole of Ireland. How important was that time?
B: I thought it was amazing. On reflection, it was a mad time – you’d be nearly driving yourself mad with it because it wasn’t a job, but it was a job by default. You didn’t pay your rent out of it but you were working a job on top of it, and dreaming, eating and sleeping it on top of that as well. But I was really happy to put out such amazing music and work with such amazing people who are still friends and have a massive catalogue that lives on, and we supported bands who have been able to jump-start into other stuff. A lot of the bands are still releasing music. I’d hope that someone would take the reins and be mad enough to do something like that again. There are loads of collectives of people doing pockets of stuff. We became quite prolific at the time, but there are still masses of labels that are just as important and cater for loads of different types of stuff.
J: What Richter did was to get that DIY spirit but across different scenes, so it resulted in lots of different kinds of music.
Even though it was sonically diverse, it seemed to have some kind of unifying aesthetic.
B: I guess some of that might have come about because of Craig from BATS who did a lot of the artwork. We always tried to make sure that everything sounded and looked as good as it could, rather than cutting corners on recording or production values. We always wanted the product to look as slick as it could. Nothing was haphazard or thrown together. And another unifying thing was the whole decision process between me and Mick. I brought a lot of bands to the table, he brought a lot of bands to the table and I might have been like, ‘I don’t want to work with that band’ and vice versa, and we didn’t. The core belief was that we both had to believe in the band because it takes a lot of time to work with a band. Especially when you’re doing it out of passion – like playing in a band. Sometimes it’s the shitty work of putting stuff in envelopes and trying to get it distributed. Putting a lot of time in without getting the enjoyment of rocking out to people.
Two years on from Richter ending, what do you think its legacy is?
B: I hope people look at it the same way I looked at other labels before, ones that inspired me to set up the whole thing. If people take inspiration from it, that’s what I’d like out of it. Everyone can do it. There’s no point sitting around waiting for someone to do it for you. You have to go out there and do it yourself. And hopefully if someone looks on and thinks, ‘Jesus, we’re in a little town and there are five bands here, why don’t we start a label and start releasing stuff, or two of us go on tour and start building it?’. You have Popical Island and loads of other labels across Ireland that are doing that collective model and producing those communities. They have a space now. Or whether it’s electronica, you have hip-hop crews, a lot of scenes do it through naturally working together. Hopefully people take some inspiration from what we did and want to continue it. And I think it’s great to have that catalogue there of Irish music. The really sad thing is when you look back on bands that you saw and there’s only a scrappy recording. It’s nice to have that legacy – that archive copy, that document of a time and space to look back on.
J: On one hand it’s a really solid catalogue, and on the other hand each band that was in it brought a sense of that DIY thing.
Can you see yourself going back to do anything similar in future?
B: I don’t know, to do it properly the way I’d want to do it would be a lot of work. I’m doing the [club night and vinyl project] Seven Quarters stuff at the moment, I’m still working with Enemies and I have ideas for other projects. In the short term, I don’t know. I wouldn’t rule it out but to really invest the time and do it properly is a lotta, lotta work. You get other stuff that you’re doing in your own life and that takes up time as well. At the moment I’m concentrating on the band, community TV stuff, my general life and girlfriend!
J: That’s more manageable, isn’t it, than a whole big label?
Vega In The Lyre is released worldwide on September 25th.
See Hands Up Who Wants To Die live:
26th September: Cork Community Print Shop, Cork with Ten Past Seven
27th September: Block T, Dublin with Katie Kim, Turning Down Sex and DJ David Kelly
29th October: Red Kettle sessions, Waterford with USA Nails
31st October: Small Town America Studios, Derry with USA Nails