One of the few positive aspects to the last six months has been the melding of the creative arts and music with science, technology and opportunity. I’m not equipped to capture this in a mathematical formula but, were it not for the spaces and gaps opened by the lockdown, and the ready availability of personal devices, might the forthcoming Power of Dreams album, for instance, completed remotely at several locations across Europe, have ever been made? Might numerous performers of all hues, out of either necessity or a desperation to be heard, not have taken to their kitchens, basements and, in one especially memorable instance, the prison at Kilmainham, to deliver the forceful live performances that have provided soul food, re-assurance and succour in equal part since last March?
Might Denise Chaila, by a distance the country’s breakout performer of the year, not have so spectacularly bulleted herself to national sainthood so quickly? Might broadcasters not have turned so repeatedly to music programmes to plug the many holes that opened up across the radio and television schedules as the nation closed down?
This sort of stop-gapping and improvisation is far from ideal. It’s a familiar refrain for those of us invested in such matters but has there ever been a more critical period for the creative arts in this country? Yes, a central ‘stimulus package’ announced by the government last week as an emergency measure to aid the sector looks like a positive first step but, ultimately, it’s just that: a first step.
Irrespective of what supports are put into place to scaffold the creative space over the shorter or longer term, it consistently faces one fundamental difficulty: bean counters’ logic. Outside entirely of the obvious commercial and economic benefit that derives from live and recorded music, it’s impossible to measure the emotional and social value of art, and especially song. How does one, for example, put a figure on healing or comfort? On what line on a ledger might we find the cost of, God forbid, sheer joy?
Cork band, Emperor of Icecream, fit into this matrix somewhere. The medium-paced, four-piece indie outfit was together for barely five years during the early 1990s and, like many of their peers, were failed ultimately by factors outside their control. Mugged by bad timing, industry politics and the vagaries of popular culture, they found themselves caught between trapezes and ran out of rope. But in some of their more introspective moments over the last two decades, they’ve obviously done what all bands and musicians do: dipped into their own body of work, re-evaluated it and, with the benefit of time and space, seen different values in it. Something that’s reflected, perhaps, in the title of the band’s debut album, ‘No Sound Ever Dies’, released last month and compiled from recordings first put to bed back when we still used reel-to-reel machines in recording studios.
The ten-cut elpee has had a remarkable gestation and, I’m glad to report, a safe and healthy landing. Like an over-complex practice drill from a cone-addicted football coach, The Emperors have had to scramble all the way back to close a circle in order to move forward.
What passes for an Irish music industry had a far different pallor back in 1995. Emperor of Icecream were signed by a full-time scout, working for the local arm of a major international label and, for a while were watered and fed while they diligently went to work on a well-worm pathway. The band issued three fine EPs for a Sony-backed indie, Blow Records, located briefly to Perivale in London and worked initially with Adam Kviman, who’d produced the terrific debut album, ‘Lacquer’, by a mighty but largely under-regarded Stockholm band, Popsicle. They later recorded several cuts at Motorhead’s studio, over-seen by the late guitarist, Fast Eddie Clarke, three of which appear on ‘No Sound ..’ and lived to tell the tale. On a clear day, you could see where The Emperors, with their dreamy pop songs and serrated guitar toppings were possibly headed.
They emerged in the slipstream of both The Frank and Walters and The Sultans of Ping FC, and on the not unreasonable expectation that there was more gold to be panned on The Lee Valley after the twin explosions of ‘After All’ and ‘Where’s Me Jumper ?’. Their story made a fine plot point on a developing narrative even if, in reality, The Emperors had nothing at all in common with either of their predecessors except, perhaps, a postal code. Pulling them into what was a Cork scene that briefly boxed above its weight abroad was as lazy as it was inevitable.
Both The Franks and The Sultans – as we’ve long concluded here – combined classic rock and pop tropes with what were often crudely-drawn colloquialisms and local references. If The Franks, initially at least, were The Wedding Present performing ‘The Best of The Dixies’, The Sultans were The Cramps in Danny La Rue’s roll-on: thinking global, acting local.
The Emperors, by comparison, could have come from anywhere, and in the band’s body of work there is no concession at all to their hometown or how, if at all, their various backgrounds had any influence whatsoever on them. They were, instead, an unashamed guitar pop band who proudly took their cues from wherever they found them which, for the most part, was at a popular curio of the period called ‘the indie disco’.
If their lead singer, John ‘Haggis’ Hegarty, with his hands clasped behind his back, stalking, was The Emperors’ most marketable asset, it was the band’s guitarist, Graham Finn, who made the whole thing happen and gave them a dynamic edge. While they cut their teeth on a cluster of familiar indie staples – Ride’s ‘Leave Them All Behind’, ‘Soon’ by My Bloody Valentine, Lush’s ‘Superblast’, ‘Freak Scene’ by Dinosaur Jr. and so on – Graham was always one or two steps ahead of the curve. He was as restless with his music as he was in person and it was him – and the man who signed Emperor of Icecream to Sony Music, Olan McGowan – who opened my ears to a glut of quality dance and soul music.
Proving the point, Graham fetched up almost immediately post-Emperors as part of an excellent trip-hop and electronica collective, Bass Odyssey, and has spent the last fifteen years in New York where he now performs alongside Dubliner Ken Griffin in August Wells. In the spirit of bringing it all back home, Griffin’s first bands, Shake and Rollerskate Skinny, were also students of the guitar noise school, albeit at a far more intense level than The Emperors, whose influences sat on a far sunnier side of the teacher’s desk.
‘Here we go now’, Haggis optimistically sings on ‘William’, one of The Emperors’ earliest singles and the opening cut on ‘No Sound Ever Dies’. Looking back from a distance, his optimism was easy to understand: his band certainly had both the wind behind them and enough in their locker to make a decent racket. But after three EPs for Sony, their multi-national patrons went cold and plans for an album were shelved: the market had moved on, the band returned to Cork and, shortly afterwards, fell apart.
Decades later and timing is still an issue for The Emperors. The most potent Irish bands of the moment – Fontaines DC, Lankum and A Lazarus Soul – have little in common outwardly but, in the spirit of national commemoration and remembrance, all borrow from the impoverished Dublin working classes of O’Casey and Behan as they do from the punk rock spirit that coursed through London’s squatlands during the early 1980s. Their output is often defined by local accents so exaggerated that they skirt the inter-section between raw power and parody, where The Boomtown Rats meet Rats from Paths to Freedom. Against which The Emperors, with their lips curled and their soft London inflexions, couldn’t be further removed.
From early Oasis, Shed Seven, The Mock Turtles, The Charlatans and back via a slew of fine Irish bands like Sack, Power of Dreams and The Brilliant Trees, their influences are many and obvious. But it’s a warm, soft and fuzzy sound they make: nothing outrageous or overly radical, just a mild-tempered record on which the standouts, in time honoured tradition are the singles. ‘Lambent Eyes’ nods to The Bluetones’ ‘Are You Blue Or Are You Blind’, which itself thieved from Secret Affair’s terrific 1980 mod manifesto, ‘My World’, and ‘Everyone Looks So Fine’, which, on a silky guitar line and with a prominent bass thud bubbling away under, is the essence of the band’s career in four minutes.
And lest anyone forget how nimble they were with their instruments, both ‘It’s Alright to Show Yourself’ and ‘Grow As You Are’, the closer, remind us of how effective they could be once they hit their stride. Graham, as usual, shows off a frame of reference as wide as the Christy Ring Bridge but snuggled in there too, busy as you like behind the traps, an acquaintance with whom I go back many decades, the band’s drummer, Colum Young.
I spent many nights on the road with Colum, back when he served his time as Mick Finnegan’s unofficial apprentice on Cork’s live sound circuit and I was cadging lifts to shows all over the county in their van. I’d attempt to contribute to the work by lugging outboard gear and speakers into scaldy venues all over the deep South, but without as much as a miniature flash-light or an over-sized set of keys to hang from my belt loops, my career as a roadie was doomed before it started. Mick and Colum knew I couldn’t wrap a cable or multi-core to save my life but they indulged me politely and would discreetly un-do my amateur tangling without a word once my back was turned.
I’d first come across Colum while he was rattling the tins with BFG, the outfit that morphed eventually into Ruby Horse, and I wasn’t in the least bit surprised to read that he now bides his time playing jazz somewhere out there. He was living it and obsessing it as a gangly teenager, as hooked on his craft as those kids who sleep with their hurleys and are ear-marked to play for Cork from the minute they’re able to stand unaided. He was as passionate an advocate for new and emerging music as any and, when I heard that The Emperors were finally coming in to land with an album, I instinctively thought of him. I haven’t seen or spoken to Colum – or Mick, indeed – in a quarter of a century but I’m just delighted to know that he’s out there, still making the big noise.
Colum and the other Emperors – Haggis, Graham and the band’s lively bass player, Eddie Butt – won’t have appreciated the bigger picture back when life as a jobbing rock band with ambitions started to unravel for them. How could they have done? Even by the mid-90s they knew nothing and had only their dreams for company. In the broader story of popular music in Ireland, they’ll know now that they’re just another in a long line of footnotes but, more importantly, they’ll also know why that is. In finally assembling such a fine body of work and getting it out there – if only to themselves, their families, friends and supporters – they’ll have drawn to a close a significant chapter in their own story and, perhaps, have unwittingly started work on a sequel?
But they’ll know too that being comfortable in each other’s company, bonded by a common purpose, all those years later, is their greatest achievement. And perhaps all that really matters.