Rollerskate Skinny rides 'Horsedrawn Wishes'

March 7, 1996

Rock critics, always fumbling for adjectives and superlatives, have used every word in Roget's Thesaurus to describe Irish alternative-rock quartet Rollerskate Skinny.

Singer-guitarist Ken Griffin's current favourite is "Echo & the Bunnymen meets 'Pet Sounds'-era Beach Boys."

He prefers this new offering: controlled melodic chaos.

"That's fine, I like that," he said recently from Warner Bros.' offices in New York. "One of the things we wanted to do was something experimental that didn't conjure up images of people in white coats trying to force square pegs into round holes."

There's no chance of that with Rollerskate Skinny's expansive debut Warner album, "Horsedrawn Wishes." From the wall-of-sound track "Swingboat Yawning" to "Bell Jars Away," the Irish group creates static, elusive and often beautiful melodies with just the right amount of hook-sense - not unlike such contemporaries as the Trash Can Sinatras and Boo Radleys.

Their lush, far-reaching sound owes as much to Phil Spector as it does to Pink Floyd, hip-hop and Celtic music. But Griffin says even he and his band mates have a hard time putting a handle on it.

"You wouldn't believe the conversations we have with engineers," he said. "We produce our own music and work with engineers, and we're totally convinced that everything we say is working in a completely logical, practical way. We think that everybody else thinks this, and then an engineer after like three days will make blase comments like, 'This is really a crazy song,' and we all freak out, 'What are you talking about? What do you mean crazy?'

"One engineer said to me one day, it was the most depressing thing I ever heard, he said, 'You have to remember, for a lot of people Oasis are weird.' This wave of sadness hit me. I felt so sad about that. If people were given time to listen to this album, listen to it a few times in a row, it starts to make sense. I just hope people will give us a chance."

In its native Dublin, Rollerskate Skinny's second major-label album became legendary before it hit the streets. There were rumours that more than 160 instruments were used for one song.

"That's physically impossible," Griffin said. "I'm constantly amazed at how surprised people are when you try to do something different.

"We're just trying to write good music, you know. We're just trying to join the lineage of great bands. We want to be the 647th great band going back to 1956. We just want to keep making records." - The Long Story

How it came to this….the long and winding biography (Shake through Rollerskate Skinny to Favourite Sons) by Ken Griffin..

“I met Stephen Murray in the mid eighties, we were working in a Hardware store, I was in the Decor department and he was in DIY. We had a competition to see who could give away, for free, the most outrageous thing to a customer as compensation for our terrible service. I was very proud of myself as I watched my customer leave the store with 10 gallons of free pink paint, until I turned around and saw Stephen proudly helping an old man out the door with his free wheel barrow, I knew I had met a real character in Stephen Murray. We drank our 70 pounds a week wages in Bruxelles and The William Tell, we were always borrowing money by Sunday. All we wanted to do was make music, maybe even great music and never work again. The decision was made to leave our jobs, so that we would have nothing to ”fall back on”.

Stephen had a friend Ger Griffin (no relation) who played guitar like no one I had ever heard before or since. We began practicing 5 days a week in Temple Lane studios in Dublin. It was a very joyful time, a youthful good arrogance grew between us, we wanted to be outrageous, grandiose and undeniable, you had to think that way to be Irish and ambitious back then, everything was against you, nothing was with you, nothing but your imagination and bloody mindedness.

We played around Dublin at The Underground, The New Inn, The Baggot Inn, The White Horse. People really responded, local heroes Blue In Heaven and Into Paradise were incredibly encouraging. One night The Edge came to see us at The Baggot Inn, and talked to me for half an hour after the show, I told him I ”wasn’t ready yet to record an album” he laughed and said that ”we were more fucking ready than U2 ever were”, I kind of wish I had listened to him. We were called SHAKE at that time, and the energy of new friendship and love between the band was still there, we never captured that period in the studio. Somewhere along the way we picked up Jimi Shields on drums, which was to prove a fateful decision that would ultimately bring a lot of poison to the table.

In 1992 Beggars Banquet agreed to release a 10 inch record for us, I moved to London with 42 pounds in my pocket, the record was called NOVICE. NME named it one of the top ten singles of that year. Comedian Sean Hayes reviewed it saying, “as an alternative to listening to this, you could turn on all the Kitchen appliances in yr kitchen and listen to them” we were now called ROLLERSKATE SKINNY.

In 1984 my friend gave me a cassette tape of the Velvet Underground & Nico album. I lay in bed with a Walkman on and nothing has ever been the same since. In 1992 I was with Rollerskate Skinny in New York at the release party for The Velvet Undergrounds live reunion album, I was talking to Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker, I was 22, things were getting as weird as I had hoped they one day would. We played the cities CMJ festival, Matt Dillon was in the front row singing along, the New York Times called us the best of the 800 bands that played that week, YES this was something I could now really FUCK UP. Funny story from that party, we noticed that The members of The Velvet Underground were being strangely friendly and talkative to our one and only Stephen Murray, taking him even at one stage behind the VIP ropes to meet the Kurtz of Rock and Roll himself Lou Reed. Turns out they thought Stephen was The Edge, Stephen never let them think any differently hahaha.

We returned to London and recorded the TROPHY EP, got single of the week in NME and Melody maker. Bow Hitch Hiker (my original name for Rollerskate Skinny) was my favourite on there. We then went to the studio with the incredibly nice and gifted Guy Fixen to record our first album SHOULDER VOICES, it took a grueling 3 weeks, the band was starting to not like each other, splitting into camps, camps of one sometimes, it was tough in London. I remember getting single of the week in NME playing a triumphant show that night, and having to walk home and boil some rice and salt to eat, Rock and Roll.

We released the album, people seemed confused and unsure what to say about it, they liked it in The States, it got Album of the month in CMJ magazine and hit number one in the college radio charts for a few minutes. We got to go and do Lollapalooza in 1994 on the strength of it. We were all excited about touring with Nirvana, but then Kurt Cobain killed himself before the tour. Still, we got to see George Clinton play everyday at 4 in the afternoon, which was splendid, and I got to see two Tibetan Buddhist monks (who blessed the stage every day) drink their first ever coca cola and promptly spit it out on the ground in horror. After wards we toured with Pavement around the States. Sire Records signed us for our next album. Money came in, we finally could pay ourselves 150 pounds a week, I felt like the richest man in the world. Before we went back in the studio, it was decided to kick Jimi out. We thought we functioned much better without him, it was time to start Horsedrawn Wishes.

I stopped boozing, drank two pots of coffee a day and smoked a ton of hash, and fell in love (if anyone is interested in the recipe for making an album like Horsedrawn Wishes) oh and one slice of apple pie with whipped cream a day, prepared by militant lesbian vegans.

I was recording for a week, then flying to New York for a week, and then back for another weeks recording, it was intense and rewarding and ridiculously ambitious. Myself and Aidan Foley would just sit there night after night adding more and more tracks, I think Thirsty European had over 70 different actual parts on it. When I played that song to the record company, half way through, they asked if it was ”still the same song.” I sat there giggling because I knew they had just given a bunch of mad Irish guys a quarter of a million dollars to make a completely noncommercial record. The A&R guy said ” Ken you are either Brian Wilson or an asshole, I don’t know which” One day we were recording one song Ribbon Fat, and I dropped the microphone on the soundesk, it created a weird feedback that I noticed sounded pretty interesting and percussive, so I asked the brilliant Aidan Foley to take a one bar sample of it and loop it for a few minutes, this became the basis for another song SPEED TO MY SIDE. We released Horsedrawn Wishes in 1996, initially Irish Journalists loved it, the English were in the middle of the thick lad Brit Pop thing so they didn’t know what to make of it. Actually I met the bass player from Blur once and he rather proudly told me that he had personally thrown a copy of a Rollerskate Skinny album off of Blur's tour bus because Graham Coxon had been playing it so much, that really made my day. Years later the Irish Times would call Horsedrawn Wishes the 7th best Irish album of all time, that gave my Dad a proud moment, which alone was worth all the hard work.

Quick obligatory Bono story, he came into the studio we were recording Horsedrawn Wishes at, and heard the tape op making copies of our rough mixes, and asked for one. The next day our manager was summoned by their manager for a meeting. I have no idea what happened at that meeting, but somehow for some reason they gave us 5000 pounds to re mix one of the songs. Now why they did that I don’t know, because we were already signed, so I don’t know what they could have done with the mix. Anyway, we spent 2000 on remixing and split the other 3000 between us, thanks lads.

I wanted to move to New York, they didn’t, so Rollerskate Skinny ended, I was offered a small boat of cash from Warner Brother to sign my new band Kid Silver, but it would have required me breaking the Rollerskate Skinny contract, and mean that Ger and Stephen would be entitled to nothing, Couldn’t do it, and I don’t regret it, but man it was back to zero again.

Me, and the producer of Horsedrawn Wishes, Aidan Foley recorded Kid Silvers one and only album DEAD CITY SUNBEAMS in Dublin and New York, usual thing, great reviews, no sales (the singer from Rage Against the Machine? Zach? My friend met him and he said it was his favourite album, I don’t know how I feel about that name drop ha, I just found it very strange) things went dark, the album never got released in Europe. My friend owned a bar, he said ” hey Ken can you hop behind the bar for a couple of hours, the bartender hasn’t turned up” I did, a decade went by. The New York night took me and spat me out 10 years later. I had been married and divorced and had a beautiful son. I hadn’t released a record in 8 years.

Some guys came by the 3rd bar I had now worked in for years, Justin, Aj and Matt, they had known my earlier work, we got talking and decided to get together and play. I was very touched by their interest in me as an artist, we started playing and actually got signed after just 10 shows. It was all very exciting. But then as we went to record, it was obvious my marriage was disintegrating and I was losing my wife and son.. The record DOWN BESIDE YOUR BEAUTY is a brutal brutal affair, I lost my artistic voice and replaced it with a desperate cry, art seemed futile to me in the face of the loss of my young family. It’s not a record I can listen to, but some people have found merit in it.

4 years later, time had done it’s job somewhat, healed my soul a little, and I decided I wanted to try and be a songwriter, and to my amazement found that it wasn’t easy. Everything up to then was pure artistic expression with music just happening to be the form, but now I wanted to take the song form seriously. I was very excited by how terrible i was at it, because it gave me something to work on. I went to work, real work, everyday struggling with the form. So I feel my first real effort as a pure songwriter is this album THE GREAT DEAL OF LOVE recorded slowly over the last two years. In a weird way I feel it is the sister album to HORSEDRAWN WISHES. Enjoy.