Part two of Ian Maleney’s interview with Allen Blighe of Spook Of The Thirteenth Lock.
While the lyrics obviously form a vital and personal part of The Brutal Here And Now, for Blighe, the instrumental side of things is just as important. Drawing on classic, seventies-style folk rock as well as more out-and-out traditional influences, the Spook sound is unlike any other. While the bands twin guitar line-up dictates the direction much of the time and Horslips comes up as a reference point, Blighe points to some other touchstones of Irish rock and trad as starting points for understanding the Spook. “I’d say if you’re talking in terms of that twin guitar, electric guitar sound, I suppose we’d be more fans of the Lizzy end of things,” he says. “When they did the Celtic rock thing… No one has really surpassed that specific benchmark of electric guitar with a traditional or Celtic influence. I suppose in terms of how we play and our own style, I’d say we are very much leaning towards Planxty. The layered vocal harmonies, folk instrumentation, a more traditional approach or informed, historical approach towards Irish folk music rather than rock with a slight folk flavour. Hopefully! I mean I guess that’s a relative idea but that’s hopefully the direction we’re going in. I think this album is very much more of that sort of thing.”
As we scout around for peers and potential contemporaries in the trad rock sound, the over-arching theme becomes one of stagnation from the classic rock element and innovation from the trad side. “Well, think about it, if you look at bands, rock bands, with an Irish folk influence, really there has been very little,” says Blighe. “Maybe certain bands with the odd influence but really since The Pogues there hasn’t been a really good, successful – in every sense – folk rock band. Maybe I’m being very harsh there. But I mean there are definitely a lot of Irish bands out there that have taken in different folk influences and I think more interestingly, there are a lot of trad bands who are embracing more diverse aspects into it. I guess that’s semantic but I think it is different.”
Instances of this traditional innovation range far and wide, with Blighe highlighting efforts that pull on all the different strands of Irish traditional music. “The Gloaming for example, that’s a great example,” he says. “Then related to that, obviously Hayes and Cahill and their take on that simple duo. I don’t know if you saw that great documentary on Triúir, it’s really cool. That’s Sean O’Riada’s son. He’s involved in the Sean O’Riada Folk Orchestra, he’s involved in taking on his fathers mantle in terms of presenting that occasionally for shows and tours.”
That recent Triúr documentary on RTÉ proved of particular interest. “I haven’t heard any recordings but that documentary is cool,” says Blighe. “It had them experimenting with sitars and lots of atmospherics and Caomhín O’Raghallaigh plays that Hardanger fiddle, the resonant Norwegian fiddle with resonant strings and it has a lovely, almost Indian quality because of the resonant strings. They’re going out and pulling all these different influences as a Irish traditional ensemble, maybe more traditional in that it’s less vocal music though that is present. It’s wonderful, really, really good stuff.”
One name crops up repeatedly. “You’ve got to mention Iarla O’Lionaird,” he says. “Donnacha has played in his backing band recently and he’s a great guy in his own right coming from that Sean Nós tradition and going off into an interesting, I guess more singer-songwriter kind of capacity but still retaining a lot of the atmosphere of the traditional past.”
The developing identity and form of this ancient music is one of the things about trad that most excites Blighe. “There’s lots happening and I think there’s at least a perceptional thing with Irish traditional music that it doesn’t change, that it’s this static thing or an exercise in heritage but it is a very dynamic and breathing thing,” he says. “There is a whole spectrum of aesthetics throughout that single genre. With all the traditional and folk albums that I have, sometimes you really get a sense of fashion. There’s regional and generational styles that time-stamp them and obviously the recording techniques of the albums but there are little nuances in the accompaniment and the production that really make you realise that it is developing. Although the melody might be the same things repeating, I kind of feel like it’s a meditation, it’s like a mantra. This tune that people keep playing and get obsessed with the nuances and the little differences in the way someone plays that triplet or whatever. Beside that continuation, there’s always that something, even the smallest, barest things evolving or changing over time. I’d say if you got a traditional player from even fifty or sixty years ago and dropped them into a session now, I’m sure they’d feel a least some sort of difference in it. Maybe it’s not quite Chinese whispers but it’s slow change over time.”
On a more personal level, Blighe has been deeply involved in the music scene in Dublin for over ten years, especially through organising the now legendary run of one hundred Ballroom Of Romance gigs in the sadly departed Lower Deck. This close contact with the ever-changing miasma of bands, promoters, labels and fans has allowed him to observe the slow shifts and changes that have occurred over those years. For Blighe, things change but not that much. “There’s a common thread running through and you’ll always see the slow evolution of styles and people come on,” he says. “It’s great when you see people with energy coming in. I think one thing I’ve realised is that the music scene really improves when there are people really selflessly out there giving it socks, putting on the bands they love, often at the loss of lots of time, energy and money.”
“Everything seems to have speeded up, though that’s a common complaint as you get older I guess,” he continues. “I suppose it always seems to dip and trough, as long as I can remember. I remember people last year talking about this golden age for Irish music. In my opinion, if you went back 150 years and dropped yourself in Dublin and started going around, there was always people making great music that reflected the time and what was going on around them. I guess it constantly evolves, there’s always something going on and it ebbs and flows.”
The recurring theme of small distinctions and gradual development only accentuates the kind of thoughtfulness and insight that someone like Blighe brings to the table. By taking the long view and appreciating the changes, it seems fair to say that he and the rest of Spook will carry on avoiding hype and will remain resistant to phrases like “golden age”. As ever though, Blighe defends the positive elements of such terminology and the industry that dreams it up. “The thing you got to take from that is that it’s just a simple media suggestion,” he says. “I guess at that time it felt like there was a convergence of bloggers and the more mainstream media who were all interested in Irish music at that time. There was a lot going on. It got people listening to a lot of Irish music at a time when they might not have otherwise done. So as Hugh from Large Mound said, it wasn’t a golden age of Irish music but a golden age for Irish music.”
Another small, but important, distinction.
You can stream The Brutal Here And Now right now via harmlessnoise.ie ahead of its release this Friday, 13th April. The Spook Of The Thirteenth Lock play a launch gig in Whelan’s that night, with Cian Nugent & Drunken Boat.