Saturday, January 1, 2011

Interview with John Blek and the Rats

Taking their inspiration from the revelry of music and friends, the bitter end of the bottle, the bruising passage of life and all that comes with it, John Blek and the Rats are a fresh folk outfit from Cork whose melancholy is tempered by a penchant for a good ol’ hodown and a hollerin’. Currently set to release their third EP “A Long Way From Home”, they are embarking on an Irish tour which will take them to Whelan’s Upstairs 6th of January and Cyprus Avenue 8th January (amongst other places) as well as international dates in London and Berlin. Their EP will be available for sale at live shows in January, Plugd Records, and iTunes. The band consists of John (vocals, guitar, banjo), Niall (drums, harmonium), Luke (bass),  Aisling (vocal, mandolin, harmonium) and for the Christmas tour  Jack (electric guitar).  I spoke with John O’Connor and Aisling O’Riordan and here is what they had to say.

How did the band form, and where did the name come from?

John: The band name is a play on the name of the French artist Blek le Rat who was doing stencil graffiti in the 80s. I’ve been a fan of his for a few years now and when I was starting the band it was just me on my own so I didn’t want to pick a name that would limit progress. As it stands we gig a lot in Ireland and the UK together but due to the hindrances caused by circumstance we can’t do that all the time. The name allows me to go away and play solo shows while still adding to the momentum and progression of the entire outfit. Over Christmas we’ve played shows all around Ireland and in February we’re all going to London for 3 shows and then in late February I’m travelling to Berlin for a week of solo shows. The band name expresses our passion and respect for art as well as our want to keep pressing forward sew our seeds in new ears.
Aisling: The lads were playing for about a year and a half when I joined. I’ve been playing with them now for about seven months, it’s crazy how time flies when you’re…having an interesting time! I’m joking of course! The last seven months have been the craziest in my life but I wouldn’t swap them for anything. I’ll get a doing for saying that now. Like John said, the name is a play on the name of the French artist Blek le Rat who was doing Banksy style graffiti in the 80s, if you look on his Wikipedia page we’re listed as an external link!

How would you rate the current music industry in Ireland?

John: There’s definitely a lot happening in Ireland at the moment as regards good bands making good music. The likes of Squarehead in Dublin and The Altered Hours in Cork are producing sounds that you can’t help but be impressed by. As well independent labels like the Richter Collective ,which is run by my cousin, are doing great things for the credibility and work rate of the independent Irish music industry. There has been and is still a fundamental failing in many bands in Ireland. People don’t reach far enough, there is an abundance of hobbyists and not enough professionals. There are too many bands in this country to even begin to take note of half of them. Musicians need to stop being so lethargic and begin to aim higher. Villagers getting signed to Domino was a massive boost for the Irish scene and gave a lot of people a lot of hope. It’s time now for people to stop lazily dreaming and start being a bit more enterprising with their music. We have a new independently released EP coming out soon, we’re touring this country, the UK and parts of Europe as well as building up a list of supporters and contacts everywhere we go. There’s a lot of work in it but it’s so worthwhile.
Aisling; I think that there are some amazing bands on the Irish music scene at the moment. Bands like Squarehead, The Ghandis (who we get to play with in Dublin on Jan 6th) and The Ambience Affair are making great music without the help of major labels. There is a distinct lack of major label presence in Ireland, it was really great and rare to see a band like O Emperor get picked up by Universal Ireland. It’s also a big step that Villagers got signed by Domino in England. It seems that things are much more organised in Dublin with Indie labels like Any Other City and the Richter Collective who are helping out smaller bands with releasing EPs. This scene is very much disconnected from the Cork scene, here there are also some great bands but who have nothing to work towards! If there were more independent labels in Cork, bands would have something to achieve and would work to get better. I’m hoping, in the way that the Dublin scene has improved that the Cork scene will grow a lot more over the next few years. There isn't a lack of great music, just a lack of organisation.

Who would you consider to be your biggest musical influence?

John: Well it was my Father’s collection of tapes that got me started listening to music in the first place. We always had a lot of Harry Belafonte, Blood Sweat and Tears, Willie Nelson, Glen Campbell and Bob Dylan playing in the car, so I suppose that’s where it all sprung from in the first place. Folk music in general really satisfies me. There’s no need for finesse it’s as much (if not more) about the lyrics than it is about the music. Because of it’s lyrical content being so important it’s constantly evolving too and being updated. If we were to pick current acts that inspire us as a band we’d probably pick Arcade Fire, Sam Cooke, Emmy Lou Harris and Fionn Regan. As a band we have a pretty diverse taste in music.
Aisling; There are lots of people I’d consider influences; The Beatles were a band I grew up listening to along with Steely Daly and Stevie Wonder. I also love a lot of Motown bands like Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and The Supremes. For John Blek and the Rats I’m influenced a lot by Emmylou Harris. Grevious Angel, which she did with Gram Parsons, is one of my favourite albums. Bands that I love at the moment are Villagers, The Morning Benders and Beach House.

What were the first and last music albums you listened to?

John: First that I can remember was probably Willie Nelson either City of New Orleans or Always on my mind and the last is definitely Villagers Becoming a Jackal. Have had it in the car for the last month I’d say.
Aisling: The first album I remember having was a compilation of TV theme tunes from kids shows. My favorite on it was the theme song from Josie & the Pussycats but it also had the theme from Mr. Blobby… The album I’m listening to right now is Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest. Helicopter is one of my favorite songs of the year.

What song best describes your current state?
John: The meaning of the Ritual- Villagers
Aisling: Paper Bag – Fiona Apple

Is there a difference between what you wear on stage vs. street?

John: Not really. We wear what we wear normally on the street but we might formalise it a little more. I’m a big fan of a nice western shirt, Niall recently has taken to Dickie bows and ties, Aisling is now and forever shall be the owner of the biggest collection of vintage dresses I’ve ever seen and Luke is partial to wearing his Grandad’s trilby or a tasty pair of suspenders. We enjoy getting dressed up for shows it’s all part of the occasion and adds to the experience for ourselves and the audience. How you present yourself is important. A doctor wears a white coat, a mechanic wears overalls why wouldn’t a musician have his or her own uniform.
Aisling: there are definitely a few dresses that I keep for wearing at gigs but there isn’t much of a difference between my ‘street’ and ‘stage’ style. I’m very much inspired by the vintage clothes shop I work in Positively Vintage and the lovely girls I get to call my boss. I always get the boys clothes from there!

If you were given an unlimited costume budget, what would you dress the band in?
John: Unlimited you say?…. I’d dress every band member head to toe in the autumnal amber glow of 50euro notes.

Where’s the most unusual place we might find you?
John: Inside your head with our songs going around and around to the point of inducing near lunacy.
Aisling: Or the pub but that’s not that unusual for us!

You can also find them on;

Blau x

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