A few nights ago at a bar, someone asked me a reasonable but difficult question: what do I want to experience when listening to music? What do I look for in a band? I floundered briefly, rattling off some vague declaration about placing a “good song” above any technical music ability.
“What do you mean, a ‘good’ song?” my interviewer prodded (this person is a reporter by day). “You can’t just say, ‘good’ song; obviously you prefer a ‘good’ song – but what makes a good song to you?”
Touché. I stewed over the question momentarily, thinking of other forms of art I’m drawn to; imagining the display of fleshy imagery covering the wall above my home desk – a collection many houseguests find revolting. Boobs, hairless cats, cadaverous feet, Hans Bellmer’s doll. Nondescript, pink perversions.
I thought about my lifelong gravitation towards objects and subjects of disgust; the numerous occasions my parents would come home from work asking what I was watching.
“Confessions of a Serial Killer: Jeffrey Dahmer,” I would reply, munching a Cheeto. My dad still recommends movies to me by saying, “We just watched this really depressing, fucked up film – you’d love it!” without an ounce of sarcasm. We also have a game in which we text each other when famous people die. First to text wins.
I considered my fondness for bitter, astringent, and blazing flavors; my love of rare and raw meat; my affinity for unsettling (but funny!) books.
Looking back at my inquirer, I delivered the most succinct reply I could muster:
“I just want to be assaulted,” I said.
Sonically assaulted, of course…but what does that mean?
Last year, while still working as a panty designer for a big company called, let’s say, Veronica’s Privacy, I found myself in need of a date night…with me. I scrolled through concert listings in search of something unexpected. If there was one thing I was not in the mood for that evening, it was “good old fashioned rock n’ roll.” I did not want dream pop, nor chill wave, nor beach wave, nor dream wave. I craved something dour and unpleasant, like ya do.
Sifting through gigs by Sunflower Bean and Shark Muffin, I paused on a vaguely familiar name: Glenn Branca. Where had I heard it? Something about the name commanded respect. Though I was mystified as to why, an air of provocation and intrigue hung around those two words. I bought a ticket immediately.
Taking a seat at The Kitchen in Chelsea, I glanced around. The only other solo-goers were middle-aged men who looked like they used to be in bands. Silver hair. Black Sonic Youth t-shirts. Sensible, manly shoes. Leather belts. The low stage was set with a drum kit, a bass, and three guitars. When Branca and Co. sauntered onstage not a word was spoken before they crashed into a belligerent wall of sound. Fumbling for my complimentary earplugs (courtesy of the venue), I felt bathed in distortion – baptized in cacophony. Discomfort. A hail of splinters. Railroad ties and metal siding. It was all being hurled at us – and we loved it. Were my concert mates likeminded gluttons for punishment? Did they too adore unlistenable, violent music at all hours, even in the wee, small, pre-coffee hours? I left The Kitchen feeling like I’d been in a boxing match – no – like I’d gotten the shit beaten out of me by a biker. Boxing is too clean and dignified a sport for how I felt. And yet there was another sensation spread all over me like cream cheese on a bagel: elation. For lack of a less annoying word: transcendence.
There are entire message boards full of people who want to be tied up for fun. Fetishists get shoved into bags, closets, vacuum-sealed plastic. For many, there is pleasure in physical discomfort. Factions of the sex accouterment trade cater to such needs. So what about auditory discomfort? Where be the cottage industry for audio-de-philers? (see what I did there?) Where is the safe space if you’re looking to be cleansed by rage and mayhem and high decibel levels?
I’ve certainly found my fix in Branca and his No Wave ilk – John Zorn, Steve Reich, and John Cage, to name a few. Then there is Girl Band, the Irish foursome I’ve been admiring for the past year. The Dubliners are fresh on my mind as I just saw them live a few nights ago and felt intoxicated after their antagonizing set. Screaming? Odd time signatures? Squealing guitar? Weaponized bass? Yes, please. Makes me all warm and fuzzy inside just thinkin’ about it.
Two nights ago I was speaking with an artist friend of mine. A brilliant photographer, she also curates at the Museum of Sex, and has a keen eye for the odd and outcast. “I’m always looking for art that is standing on the ledge and about to step off of it,” she said, her head bobbing over a goblet of frozen margarita at Dallas BBQ. I nodded in agreement, nursing brain freeze and thinking about why I’m so enamored of grotesque and furious things. Her mention of the “ledge” intrigued me. Is that where the fascination lies? Perhaps music and art that seems “out of control” is in fact the most controlled, as it assures us we can still keep it together while staring at the messiest aspects of humanity.
Girl Band is a prime example of this, in fact. The group’s singer Dara Kiley suffered an intense psychotic episode in the lead up to their debut release, Holding Hands With Jamie. Understandably, much of that record’s lyrical content was inspired by the event. You don’t have to listen closely to realize that Girl Band’s music sounds like a psychotic breakdown – or at least what you would expect one to sound like. If you’re drunk enough, sleep deprived, or maybe just malnourished, giving Holding Hands With Jamie a spin can make you feel like you are going crazy – but you probably aren’t. And maybe that’s the amazing thing – that someone like Dara Kiley can survive psychosomatic hell and then channel his agony into an unconventionally beautiful record with the help of bandmates. Perhaps some artists stand on the ledge, so we don’t have to.
A friend recently mentioned something that’s never occurred to me before. He said that making music requires an enormous amount of restraint. That, whether it be at the songwriting or recording stages, holding back is of utmost importance.
Restraint. Patience. Modesty.
These may not be the first words that spring to mind while listening to the screeching sprawl that is Girl Band’s music. However, if you zoom in on their 2015 LP Holding Hands With Jamie, which was meticulously written and self-produced, you can hear the discipline. It is a methodical record; each stab of guitar and gurgle of bass strategically placed to maximize discomfort.
That same level of focus was evident at Baby’s All Right last week, where our own Emily Daly covered the group’s rapturous gig. The Irish foursome, comprised of guitarist Alan Duggan, vocalist Dara Kiley, drummer Adam Faulkner, and bassist/engineer Daniel Fox, were on point throughout, delivering a streamlined spike of rage in sound only.
At times, his feet obscured by heads in the crowd, Duggan looked as though he was kicking someone’s head to the curb. Snapping at the waist and convulsing slightly against his own instrument. Turns out, that’s just how he plays guitar.
But for all of their sonic violence, the guys in Girl Band are an amicable bunch. I sat down with Duggan and Fox before the show to chat about concept albums, Glenn Branca, and a winking dog.
Audiofemme: It seems like people have finally come to grips with your sound. Have the horrible comparisons to grunge you’ve faced in the past stopped yet?
Alan Duggan: Yeah it’s finally stopped.
Daniel Fox: Yeah, like Pearl Jam references and stuff…
Oh! I didn’t see a Pearl Jam reference! It was a Nirvana reference I think…
DF: Yeah, it was a Nirvana reference.
Which is worse? I think Pearl Jam.
DF: Of course, Pearl Jam! I really like Nirvana. I hate Pearl Jam.
What are you guys currently working on?
AD: We’re just writing new music. Pretty much.
DF: Got some songs, yeah. We’re not going to play any of it today, (laughs) but uh, yeah we’ve got loads.
I know you guys have said in the past that techno/electronic music has been more of an influence than people might assume. What electronic musicians have been listening to lately?
AD: At the moment I actually haven’t listened to much techno in a while. I’ve been listening to a lot of Tim Hecker for ambient electronic stuff. That new Factory Floor song sounds pretty cool. It’s called “Yah.” They’re really cool. They’re on DFA Records. They’re from London. I think. But yeah just really good techno, kind of early techno sound. I don’t think they still have a live drummer, but they had a live drummer and weird guitar sounds-all very stylized as far as the visual aspect…I don’t know. They’re just really, really good.
That’s an area of electronic music that the mainstream doesn’t always grasp: that there are sects of it that are outside of just trying to make people dance…something more orchestrated than just “four on the floor.”
DF: I’ve been listening to early electronic music people. The BBC had a lab where they were basically figuring out how to do it, called “The Radiophonic Workshop.” It was in the ‘50s. There was this woman Delia Derbyshire who wrote the theme for “Doctor Who.” So it’s all these weird like (makes space noises). A lot of those kind of people really set the tone for what ended up being electronic music. But there’s a lot that can be done with it as opposed to just dance music. It’s a whole sonic palette that people just associate with dancing, really. Which I always thought was weird.
Since you signed to Rough Trade and you started touring internationally, have things changed with your place in Dublin? Are you still accepted in the local music scene?
AD: Yeah, it’s always like a real warm welcome when we go back and play Dublin, you know what I mean? Ireland’s pretty supportive.
I know you guys produced this record, which sounds fantastic. Is there a dream producer you’d love to work with? Or do you think you’ll continue to do it yourselves?
DF: I like producing. I mean, it’d be cool to get peoples’ perspectives, but-
And you worked as an engineer, correct?
DF: Yeah. That’s what I do in my spare time. So yeah…sometimes working with a producer could be-especially for the first record, could probably be a hindrance really, to have to re-explain something…
It [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][the record] would be covered in horn sections…
DF: Yeah, like a string orchestra.
I find that it rare that bands truly collaborate as a group, but it seems like every little detail has gone through everyone’s hands at this point. How do you guys write songs together?
DF: Sit in a room and hammer it out for ages.
For you guys personally, what were some of your earliest urges to make music? What brought you to it?
AD: For myself, all of my brothers were in a band. All of my family has always been really into music, so when I was a kid I used to sit down and watch them play, when I was about four or five, and just be like, “oh, that’s really cool.” They were real bad. They were terrible. They used to rehearse in my sitting room and face like they were playing a gig, so they wouldn’t even face each other, it was like real funny if I think back to it.
DF: They did it in the front room?
AD: Yeah, in the sitting room. But they’d set the PA up and face it out that way.
Oh, they had a PA?
AD: Yeah, it’s actually the PA that we use.
DF: It’s survived a long time.
AD: Yeah, cuz that would have been like, early nineties. It’s crap as well.
DF: It’s really not a very good PA.
(to Daniel) And what about yourself?
DF: My dad was a musician, like played bass as well, and I was around music a lot as a kid.
What aspect of what you guys do brings you the most joy?
AD: For me, I don’t really think it’s one – because you know usually you could be touring and it’s really, really fun, and you really enjoy it but-
I was wondering if someone would say touring because I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone say that.
AD: Oh, I love it.
DF: Yeah it’s a lot of fun.
But it sounds like it’d be a lot of fun, or like, really awful. Correct me if I’m wrong…
DF: Depending on the people.
AD: Yeah, if you’re with people that don’t get along I’d imagine it’s hell, but we don’t fight, we’ve never raised a voice to one another, so we work, we just kind of function really well.
DF: They all have their different perks. It’s like a meal, you know they all have their different things that are good about them. You know, like, touring you get drunk for free a lot, but then when you’re writing it’s like, writing songs is something fun, and then in the studio it’s just, it’s fun as well, so…
We’re supposed to negate the Irish stereotype. Come on!
DF: Yeah, “get loadsa cans!”
That’s gonna be the header: “Get Drunk For Free.”
What kind of milestones, or, maybe it’s just kind of an in-the-moment thing for you guys, but do you have artistic milestones that you want to achieve, that you strive for?
AD: I mean, I just wanted to put out a record that I was really proud of.
Well you did that. You’re done!
DF: Double album
DF: I want the fifth record to be a double-
DF: Yeah a double concept record. I just want to rip off Rick Wakeman and do one about Excalibur.
Oh yeah, and then like, it will be a pop-up in the center?
DF: Oh yeah.
AD: That would be pretty cool actually…
Just an idea. Just throwing it out there. Your prog rock record, ha. I know I just condemned comparisons only a moment ago, but when I was listening to your guys’ stuff I was thinking: are you guys fans of Steve Reich or Glenn Branca?
AD: Yeah, big time.
Ok, I was thinking you must be.
AD: Yeah, hearing Steve Reich for the first time was a real kind of eye-opener, so that kind of just-
DF: “I can do one thing for ages…”
AD: Yeah, that whole No-Wave scene in New York.
Yeah, he’s incredible. I saw his orchestra live a few months ago and he’s a real…I mean he’s kind of like a Tom Waits, he’s just a weird guy-
AD: Did you meet him?
Oh, god no! No I was just there, I didn’t cover it, but…what a weird dude!
AD: Interesting! But yeah humor’s very important. I always think humor is a very strong way of conveying a maybe very meaningful thing.
DF: Especially since some of this stuff is quite dark. Like the music’s so bloody angry sounding anyway, so it kind of like, negates that a little bit so it’s not just like, “I hate you mom!” you know?
I think I was reading something about when you did the KEXP performance you were like, “this is our poppy song!” which I thought was hilarious.
AD: Yeah, heh.
I listen to it, and I’m someone who listens to music that some people might deem “difficult,” and I hear a lot of melodic things in it…but I understand some people might not feel that way (laughs).
AD: Especially if you’re rehearsing, and then you’re touring it, and then you’re recording it, which is what we were doing, when it came time to put it out, you really lose context of how-
DF: Aggressive it might be.
AD: Yeah, we were like, “oh, this is a radio smash!”
Top Of The Pops! Another thing I picked up from an interview with DIY Magazine, was something about how on “Umbongo” you threw around some car parts and someone threw a spoon…
DF: (to Alan) you threw the spoon.
I tried to hear it today and…
DF: (laughs) It’s in there!
I don’t want to disappoint you by saying I couldn’t hear it, but I was trying…
DF: It’s buried in the mix.
AD: It was actually just like, a slam-dunk from across the room.
DF: Yeah we played parts of like, big huge springs…
Have you guys ever thought of going even further to create specific sounds? Maybe even building your own instruments?
AD: Yeah, definitely. We really want to try getting in touch with this guy called Yuri Landman. He’s built guitars for Lee Renaldo and…
DF: He’s a Dutch guy.
AD: Yeah, we played a show with him in Amsterdam, about two years ago now I suppose…but he built all these insane instruments, and he’s obsessed with noise. It is something that I think all of us would be really keen on doing. Like, Adam’s drum kit is very creative. He’s got loads of different cymbals like, stacked up on one another…that kind of stuff.
DF: Yeah, pipe cleaners…
Like the fuzzy ones?
DF: No, no. Like, long springs (laughs).
Ohhh. Lastly, what do you both plan on doing, for leisure or work, when you return home?
DF: (to Alan) What are you going to do? Walk your dog?
AD: Yeah, probably walk the dog. I got a little puppy.
(gasps) what kind?!
AD: Uh, it’s a Collie cross. He’s quality. He can wink as well.
Really? On command?
AD: No, but soon though! Check it out…
It’s just a twitch…
AD: No, well, it is a twitch, but
DF: His dog is adorable.
AD: It is a twitch but it will soon not be a twitch.
What’s the dog’s name?
AD: Boomers. Check that out: (shows winking dog pic) What a wink!
Oh muh lord. He is just always winking though…
AD: No he just-
That’s a moment you caught?
He looks kinda badass when he does that.
AD: Yeah. This is him when he was just a little pup: (shows fluffy, adorable puppy pic)
AD: He’s really cool. But he’s gettin’ a snip soon.
(to Daniel) And what about yourself?
DF: Me? Ehh, I have to mix a record for a guy when I go home.
Nice. That’s fun.
DF: Yeah, it’ll be very fun, because I thought I’d have it finished ages ago, and uh I don’t! (laughs) So I’m going to finish it when I get home.
Holding Hands With Jamie by Girl Band is a beautiful mess, more musical noise than noisy music. Guitars squeal like pieces of metal screeching together in a car crash, the bass rolls up and down the fretboard wildly, and as well as some brief singing, vocals come in the form of screams, growls, shouts and intense monologues. There is structure, but it’s threatening to disintegrate at any moment. You’ll think you’ve identified a melody, only for it to come crashing down.
Whether singer Dara Kiely is remembering an encounter with a doctor who likes Abba on “The Last Riddler,” being honest about his vanity by drawling “I look crap with my top off” on “Pears For Lunch,” or vocalizing about something that isn’t quite intelligible but can be understood viscerally, every song on Holding Hands With Jamie is as riveting as it is challenging to listen to. However, the album’s standout track, possibly because of its weird, sad, disturbing and amazing video, is “Paul.” It starts with an ominous, surf-y bass line and relentlessly simple drums. Kiely seems to be talking himself in circles as the track builds and builds, until it can’t anymore and just explodes into the noise and feedback that’s been crackling in the background (As for the plot of the video, it’s better to just watch it than read about it).
If it sounds like the Irish rockers are on the verge of completely losing it at any moment, it’s on purpose. The album takes on an important context when you learn that it was inspired by the time leading up to a psychotic episode Kiely went through two years ago. Listening to Holding Hands With Jamie definitely feels like taking a break from reality, but Kiely remains in control the whole time. He’s admitted his inspiration for the album in interviews, so he’s obviously not ashamed of his past struggles, but he’s gone a step further by taking control of them, reframing them and sharing them on his own terms. The result can only be described as cathartic. And awesome. And noisy.
Holding Hands With Jamie is available now via Rough Trade; check out “Paul” below.
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