Hot Press - November 10 1999:
"See No, Hear No, Speak No Evil"
Peter Murphy meets The Plague Monkeys, who have just released their second album, The Sunburn Index. Under discussion: Soundscapes, European film-makers and Alanis Morissette's lyrics.
"I TIRE of people asking why/As a prelude to judgement." These are daunting lines for any interviewer to consider, especially when you've just run them past the author. They occur one minute and 12 seconds into Rogue Gene on The Sunburn Index, the second album from The Plague Monkeys, one of the few remaining practitioners of an indigenous music that is neither dance-enhanced nor drive time drivel, but something a little more, to quote Cale and Reed, amorphous and proud.
Yaaaay! is vocalist Carol Kehoe's response to her own lyrics. Read into that
what you will.
That jumped out at me when she put it down as well, soundscaper Donal O'Mahony admits. A lot of times sitting in the rehearsal room you can't make out the lyrics, and then there it was in your face!
Nevertheless, some of the new album seems characterised by an underlying suspicion of language itself. Fair comment?
Maybe it's suspicion of cliches, Donal counters.
When it comes to explicitness, especially when I do write about things that are intensely personal, I can't really confront them all in language, so I suppose it s an obfuscation in a way, Carol considers. But it's an effective one, to find some sort of metaphor or analogy to deal with it. Maybe sometimes it's little codes or riddles that might point to one individual who'll know what it's about.
But does Carol ever feel like she's sacrificing emotional directness for the sake of her private life?
Yeah, she concedes. I think that's why we wrote Over ( For every second I was beneath you/For every second/The heat of your chest . . . Hell hath no fury/Like this ). That's pretty direct, I think. But you see, there s also that element . . . if I were an actor, say, I would have great difficulty doing a nude scene because I'd be afraid my mother would see it, y'know? I suppose it's kind of an innate shame that you really have to tackle head on, not just my mother, but the Freudian thing about having to kill your parents before you're really free at least metaphorically!
Lock them away somewhere where there's no print media! Donal quips, before addressing the question:
I don't know whether there is a fine line between something that s disgustingly explicit or something that s horribly vague. I mean, do you really want to hear another Alanis Morissette lyric ever again?
That, dear friends, is what you'd call a rhetorical question. And anyway, one of the Monkeys strengths is that they've always been sussed enough to let the music finish their sentences for them: it's the difference between Hollywood moralising and arthouse impressionism.
That's what people still look to European film-makers for, Carol opines. The 3 Colours . . . films. Not one of those films has a resolution really. There's a different kind of resolution - it could be a point of reference in a visual thing, colour.
Here, one is reminded of Samuel Beckett's famous (in)conclusion, I can't go on/I'll go on a life lesson The Plague Monkeys have long reconciled with rock n roll s necessarily illusory veneer. These players understand that the muse won't speak if you have a choke-hold on her throat, and you can't always expect music to fill your head and your belly. In this respect, Donal feels that his recent enrollment in a Multimedia Masters course in Trinity represents no cop-out in fact, it nourishes and is nourished by his work as a musician, engineer and producer, not to mention the score the band recently completed for Conor McPherson's forthcoming film Saltwater.
I don't think it works if you look to the music to be your salve, Carol reflects. I always wanted to have a dynamic life that s almost too busy, and music s part of it. It takes away that angst as well, that anxiety about getting somewhere. You can just focus on making the music. And for me, getting somewhere is the next album.
And damn the begrudgers! Donal concludes. There are begrudgers out there who say, You took The Job! I think people are a lot more inspired when they actually have a life. We're still in The Plague Monkeys, making music that we adore. What's your problem?!!
The Sunburn Index is out now on Crosstown Music.
Hot Press - April 29 1998:
A Plague On All Your Houses
Hi-tech slo-fi merchants The Plague Monkeys discuss science, vocal heroes, glockenspiel loops and The Day Of The Triffids with a suitably quizzical Peter Murphy.
THE ARTIST Guy Peellaert specialised in painting portraits of rock legends as semi-mythical figures: Leon Russell as Count Dracula, Bo Diddley as a gunslinger, Ian Anderson as a tramp. His best known work was probably Rock Dreams, published in 1973, with Nik Cohn providing the text. One imagines that if Peellaert were ever to turn his hand to The Plague Monkeys, he'd cast the Dublin quartet as a team of intrepid paranormal investigators.
Over the last two years, the Monkeys have been chasing all manner of musical ciphers. It's only natural, then, that their debut album Surface Tension should reverberate with the sounds of the beyond.
"It kind of reminds me of those spooky programmes that were out about 15 years ago," Monkeys drummer Thomas Haugh admits. "Like Sapphire And Steel, Blake's Seven, they all had this ominous feel to them."
"Day Of The Triffids!" guitarist Donal O'Mahony pipes up. "It was the cheapest programme ever made. They just had these big huge plastic flowers, four or five actors and this newly-built housing estate for a set, but because of that, there was this atmosphere."
"It was almost a serendipity thing," adds singer Carol Keogh. "By accident they found something that was even more disturbing than anything any hi-tech graphics could've done."
"And the kids really got it," Donal continues. "When I watched it as a kid with my parents, they saw the tacky element to it, but I was always freaked out."
"Doctor Who scared the shit out of me," Carol confesses. "I used to hide from Tom Baker's face when he came up!"
Perhaps that's the root of the Monkeys' phobias. Certainly, a song like 'Thirty Times Three' suggests some late-night existential panic attack, possibly brought on by too much late-night TV.
"That was the feeling I got off it as well," Donal agrees. "When I put down the music for it, even before I got it to Carol, I brought it downstairs and put it on the hi-fi, and my little sister was knocking around at the time, and I followed her around the room with the carving knife in my hand doing this in time with the music (imitates Psycho-style stabbing motion). It worked! And Tom added the glockenspiel loop and it doubled the effect."
"It's small, it's tiny, it's little, it's in front of your head, but it's really relentless," Carol elaborates. "There's something about it that's quite disturbing. You can't switch it off."
We're sitting in the bar of the Parliament Hotel, on a Thursday evening in April. The three Monkeys before me (bassist Barry Roden is elsewhere) exude the good-humoured confidence of a group who know that they've just made that rare commodity - a truly startling Irish debut album. (Mind you, bearing the imminent Perry Blake and Pelvis releases in mind, it looks like they'll soon have company.)
But what sets this band apart from so many of their contemporaries is an unfussy but emphatic refusal to do anything that doesn't suit them. Hence, these Monkeys have dodged all the usual major label courting rituals, overseen their own promo campaigns, collaborated closely with director Brian O'Malley on the videos, and helmed their own album, a collection of haunting but rhythmically sinewy songs.
Surface Tension delivers on all the early promise of last year's Navigator EP, spilling over with riches like the undulating 'Safe', the sublime 'White Feathers' or the star-crossed summer sonnet 'Bloomsday'. The latter is certainly a strong contender for the most heart-aching tune of the year.
"That's probably the only one that's in any way nostalgic," Carol reluctantly admits.
So what's the story behind her obvious discomfort at discussing the tune?
"Summer romance," she winces. "That's putting it in two words; it's as much as I'm going to say."
And fair enough too. The Plague Monkeys are the kind of band who are reluctant to spoil the listener's personal interpretation of their music with the gory details of their own private lives. But strangely enough, in contrast to the rather impressionistic, even pastoral nature of the music, Carol's lyrics often employ language that is quite analytical, almost scientific. Phrases like "glyphs and graphs", "a plain white topograph", "studying auroras", and words like "units", "limits" and "laws" suggest pragmatism over pantheism.
"I have an overriding theory that science is not really quantifiable at all," Carol muses. "In fact, it's incredibly creative and artistic. I'm inspired by the elegance of theories when I read about science, as I do quite a lot. Sometimes I find that the language used is, I wouldn't say emotive, but I suppose it conjures up impressions for me. There are a lot of new words, neologisms, if you like, and a lot of Latin words that hark back to arcane times, and they have meanings that maybe scientists haven't considered.
"Art and science only became divorced maybe a few hundred years ago," she continues, "and prior to that, art, science and religion were pretty much all of a piece, they were all a sort of hierarchy of creativity. If you're going to address music in any kind of creative way you have to be systematic in your thinking, otherwise you're really just throwing oil at a canvas and hoping it lands right. I mean, music is mathematics to a large degree, but you don't necessarily have to know the entire theory to understand that much."
"One of our philosophies is to allow the song to breathe," Donal expounds, "to allow the spaces between the notes to be heard."
Without detracting one iota from the other musicians' artfully constructed soundscapes, it must be said that Carol's voice is a remarkable instrument in itself. Does she consider it a gift?
"I suppose it's a gift in that it's a very ordinary gift," she concedes. "Some people can make closets, I can sing. I don't see it as being extraordinary."
How does she feel when her voice is compared to other people's?
"Bored. I don't take it seriously anymore, I kind of got affronted for the first few times it happened, and then it happened so often, I was compared to so many people."
"It's a girl thing, isn't it?" Donal argues.
"Well now, to be entirely honest, it happens much more to female singers than to male singers," Carol admits. "I don't know why. I've been compared to people who are well out of my range, never mind anything else. Joan Armatrading, Janis Joplin, I mean c'mon! Joni Mitchell, maybe I'll go with 'cos she's a great writer . . ."
"It's a very lazy thing to do," Donal says, "and it makes me feel lazy."
"Eventually, if I become known, or at least established in any way whatsoever, I'm gonna sound like me," Carol continues, "and then other people will unfortunately be charged with sounding like me, and it's pathetic, but there you go."
"What about during your performance in New York?" Thomas prompts.
"That was wonderful!" Carol guffaws. "We'd just played 'Star Country', and this blonde, jeans-with-turn-ups woman sitting in the front piped up: (adopts squeaky US accent) 'Is that the kinda star you like?' I thought I'd misheard her, I didn't know what she meant, so I said, 'Pardon me?' And she said, 'Do you like Mazzy Star?' And the relationship deteriorated from there. Actually, I was relatively polite, even though she completely missed the point."
"Nevertheless, I ravished her later!" Thomas grins evilly.
"Tom has a thing for big chunky turn-ups on the jeans," Donal confides.
And Carol, when she was at art college, had a thing for lighthouses, hence the dedication on the album sleeve: 'Last Watch' dedicated to the last light keepers, 24th March 1997.
"The last lighthouse to be automated in Ireland was the Baily Lighthouse in Howth," she explains. "That was in March '97. The song is more or less saying, regardless of how mechanised society has become, there's nothing that can transplant the human touch or soul."
This is a philosophy that informs the Plague Monkeys attitude to technology. While they readily admit that rhythm is a vital element of their sound, the band shy away from off-the-rack samples and flavour-of-the-month beats, preferring to improvise their own loops out of happy accidents, salvaged sounds, odd fragments.
And, just as the band express a love of low-budget TV penny dreadfuls, they also own up to a weakness for the retro sci-fi feel of string-driven things that go bump in the dark, antiques like theremin, Chamberlains, and mellotrons. Carol in particular, it seems, has a soft spot for moog synthesizers.
"The little modulator thing," she enthuses. "The little knob."
"Oh matron!" coos Donal in vintage Carry On Up The Oscillator style.
And with Ms. Keogh's pleas not to use that as a concluding remark still ringing in my ears, I leave this particular barrel of monkeys to their very fertile future. n
* The Plague Monkeys album Surface Tension is out now on Crosstown.
No Disco interview:
Interview with vocalist / guitarist Carol Keogh and Donal O' Mahony on No Disco in May 1997. Interview by Uaneen Fitzsimmons.
Carol: But initially it started from the heart and it started with the intuitive approach to the music. I know, as a lyric writer, I'm pretty much like that and I start out a stream of consciousness and then I have to structure it because I'm not happy enough with that, but some of it comes from some abstract place that I can't pin down, which is probably why we find it hard to pin the music down.
Donal: It's the lack of thought that goes into writing a song. On occasion, I've just played chords into the four track recorder or whatever and not knowing where the changes are coming, if there will be changes, and then immediately start putting down overdubs or whatever and it turned out to be a nightmare anyway trying to learn it again and play it live or whatever. But it's very random, it's very ad-hoch, there might not even be a change if it's built on one chord from a song.
Donal: Well, the song 'The Plague Monkeys' was originally just the percussion track off this tiny little keyboard...
Carol: ..and I had this kind of song in my head, so I just sang it over that. Donal did the rest to it.
Donal: ...and then I put all the guitars down over percussion and vocals and it's probably the most unusual way we've done it.
Carol: It's an incredibly obscure way to write a song.
Donal: If I was to actually try and emulate the guitarists that I admire or producers that I admire and put it into music, it would just be a mess and that's what happens with certain bands...
Carol: I think you take something from everything that you value, but it's not something which you can quantify.
Donal: You just can't fuse jazz and hip-hop and country ..unless you're Beck.
Carol: He manages it in his own way.
Donal: It's nearly impossible and its just not cool to listen to, it's not listenable. So you just have to find your own sound.
Donal: You can tell a lot from the way record companies approach you just purely on their attitude towards where they think you're going to go and it should be a case of us judging them and them judging us and that's always a good sign if someone just says "Just keep what you're doing, just don't listen to anything anybody is saying, keep listening to the music you like and keep making that music", and when you hear people saying "I can really hear brass coming in here..." or "I can really hear the bag-pipes solo here...", then you should back off a little bit.
Carol: ...then you should to try to be more drum 'n' bass.
Donal: ...yeah, fish 'n' chips. You let them talk, you let them dig their own hole, you can tell a lot by their attitude.
Carol: It's a very difficult thing and we're probably difficult because we know what we want from a record company and a lot of bands don't. It probably takes a certain process of trial and error and for us a certain amount of stubbornness as well.
Carol: Well, I think even the fact that we want to build a studio as opposed to being consigned studio time where somebody can walk in and vet your sound, that's not what we want. And that can be intimidating because there are no guarantees with it, they may not know how to market whatever it is you produce, and that is part of the record company's job to be fair, your records wouldn't get out there on the shelves or nobody would buy them if they weren't marketed. So we're not that cynical about it, but I can see why we might be a little bit difficult in some way.
Donal: Brian's visuals work with the music as opposed to against it and so many videos are undermined by visuals or images, that whoever is doing it, isn't listening to the music. So even if its a decent tune, it'll be undermined. So it's worked very well.
Donal: We're not the sort of band who would settle down to a four month residency in ..I won't name any pub (Whelan's - Ed.) ...but we're not going to do that.
Carol: I think you can overkill to a certain extent.
Donal: You can expect a few more videos certainly. Suits, suits and cars.
Today FM - September 1997:
Interview with vocalist / guitarist Carol Keogh on Today FM on September 14 1997. Interview by Paul Power. [ To be transcribed ]
The Event Guide - May 1998:
Interview with Carol Keogh, Donal O' Mahony and Barry Roden.
"Rhesus to be cheerful... one, two, three.."
Nod respectfully when you hear an Irish band that doesn't sound like every other Irish band. Solemnly bow your head when they deliver an album that doesn't sound like every other Irish album. But, in the case of the Plague Monkeys, kneel in protracted adulation when you experience their debut LP 'Surface Tension'. How many records do you own that can make you cry for the right reasons?
Recorded in a small studio in 18 days (albeit over a couple of months). 'Surface Tension' is a lush monument to understated excellence, and a throwback to a time when albums were all about moments (as opposed to one three-minute moment). More importantly, it's a lesson to us all on what can be done with a small budget and lots of imagination. Now three of its parents: Donal (guitars), Carol (vocals) and Barry (bass) huddle around my minute 'budget' tape machine and explain why less is more.
"In all honesty, the size of the studio doesn't matter. I've got fantastic results off 8 track," reveals Donal. "The bigger the studio, the more potential you have for completely losing the plot. Some of the songs on the album which you would consider lush - 'Dreaming In Hotels', for example - were done on 4 track".
Indeed the album is so seamless that it's impossible to for the uneducated ear (i.e. me) to discern what production values are in operation on which songs. "A lot of it," concludes Carol, "is down to how you produce the individual sounds. There is a compressed way of producing to make things 'radio-friendly', but if you want something to really occupy space you have to tweak the little sounds - the cymbals, taps. Having less space to work in a studio means you have to plan. You can't indulge yourself, because you won't then represent the band."
You begin to wonder how audiences react to a band with such an ascetic aesthetic and, considering 'Surface Tension' is an album best savoured in silence and solitude, what's it like sharing it with hundreds of not very close friends? "Initially we were very nervous about going out to play live, because we know what we do is very quiet. We thought we would either die a death or people would listen. Generally we have had respectful audiences but we find that people don't want to discover music live anymore."
Completely in agreement, I nod furiously (like the music, they're far too laid back to ask if it's a nervous tic), I stop when I realise that Barry, who's sitting beside me, is also nodding furiously. "I remember when I moved up to Dublin first, every weekend was just about going to see bands I had never seen. Some I liked, some I didn't, but that just doesn't happen anymore," he sighs. I play devil's advocate and suggest such inertia is something to do with people only wanting the obvious and turntables ruling the earth. "Definitely. You can play to 120 people in the Mean Fiddler and come 11:15 three hundred people will just rush in the door."
After a "solid month of good reviews" you feel that such apathy should soon be a thing of the past. The downside, however, has been constant references to ethereal chanteuses - perhaps due to Carol's fascination with the sea. Donal is philosophical. "I think that there's a lot of people out there who want you to be a certain kind of band. People want you to be something you're not because, maybe, their favourite band broke up ten years ago or haven't made a decent record in ages. But I think those comparisons say a lot more about those people's record collections than they do about ours."
What's On Where interview:
THE PLAGUE MONKEYS: MONKEY SHINES ::
The Plague Monkeys - or at least two of them (vocalist Carol and guitarist Donal) - are sitting in a hotel lounge discussing a song on their new album, The Sunburn Index. It’s a ridiculously happy-sounding 100 seconds called The Last Bus. Ridiculously happy until you hear the lyrics: it’s about repetition forming the backbone of peoples' lives and how you’ll always end up on that journey home. And it seems that life imitates art. "We did a gig a couple of nights ago," recalls Carol, "and I found myself hanging around the debris in George’s Street at 3am, looking for a way home and coming to the conclusion that I would never get stuck in that situation again."
The damning indictment of Dublin after dark soon tumbles into a discussion on our new-found economic prosperity (keep in mind this is meant to be an interview!) and then moves to this New Year’s Eve and how people, no matter what they do, will end up thinking that everyone, everywhere, had a better time than they did.
"Yes," sighs Donal. "That’s why I’m going up the Wicklow mountains in the nip and I’m not coming down for at least three days until I’ve found myself or at least something interesting."
This whole deranged, roundabout conversation does have a point however - namely that you can’t put the Plague Monkeys into a ready-made category. They make night-time music, you interview them in blazing sunlight, you’re here to talk about the album, you end up talking about Bruce Springsteen. And the mirth is completely at odds with the media’s image of twentysomethings mapping out starry configurations of pop music for people who listen alone. Yes, while the Plague Monkeys take their craft seriously, in person they are anything but. In anyone else’s hands, talking about an understated gem like The Sunburn Index would be the aural equivalent of the third miracle of Fatima backwards. Their approach on the other hand, is refreshingly uncomplicated.
"This is just another album," says Carol. Not just another album, but an album and there will be more of them. We’re bound to get people who will be apprehensive about approaching it if they liked the first one (their 1998 cry-yourself-to-sleep debut Surface Tension). But we have enough faith in our own ability to know that this something is just following on from something else."
The ideas on and execution of Surface Tension took many by surprise and they will find as much to wonder at on The Sunburn Index. It is a more complex work, heavily-percussive songs like Doppler Effect taking longer to glide in your mind and with a title inspired by relationships (and the idea that sometimes you get burned and sometimes you get tanned) , there’s far more to think about.
Carol: "We’ve tried to diversify the production a bit more, the songs are really quite raw, the vocals are not always floating like before and Donal has played around with the guitars. Yes, the lyrics now have a little more to do with real life - we’re trying to get a bit more real and bring more people into it. There’s nothing wrong about writing about the last bus."
"I hate to say it," says Donal apologetically, "but it’s is a journey. It’s up and down, it’s different moods and there’s different characters and different people. Surface Tension was a bit more straightforward. When I did the production on it I was constrained by time, but there was no such issue on this one. I hope people will hear things on the album that they didn’t hear previously. I mean, if you look at an album like Loveless from My Bloody Valentine, there’s tracks that, no matter how many times you’ve heard them, will jump out at you because you always hear something new in them. That’s what we’re searching for."
The search for something new has - naturally - taken them into uncharted territory of late with their soundtrack for the upcoming Conor McPherson film Saltwater.
"We really have been our own bosses up to now, with our own quality control system and the final say on what we put out," explains Donal. But scoring this film was a ‘money’ kind of relationship with a record company. You’re commissioned by these people to do something and you obviously have to do it the way they want. Yes, Conor asked us to do it and that’s a headstart and an honour because he’s a fan, but at the back of your mind it’s a job. We all grew up a lot doing it."
The fruits of this labour should appear sometime in the New Year (along with a mooted covers album), but the first release from the soundtrack could be in their own words a "kickin’, stompin’, huge dance song".
Carol takes up the story. "Originally it was just a piece for a scene which takes place in a night club but it became a song. People may wonder about us doing a dance tune, but it’s good to have to have those things to draw from. They’re just as viable influences as anything else and we shouldn’t be afraid to go near them because ‘oh, if we do that we’re in dance territory’. That’s nonsense."
"We’ll probably white label it", says Donal sending up the challenge with some jokey hip-hop gestures. Next time you’ll see me I'll have pants as big as the hotel foyer."
The Sunburn Index is out now on Crosstown music.
03/11 © WOW! 2001