While it isn’t much fun for the reader, as an interviewer, it’s great when you hear brilliant stories that you know you cannot publish! However, even with some chat slipping into the Bermuda Triangle of interviews, there was still a lot to like as M(h)aol discussed cultural funding, greedy venues, eco-travelling for bands and giving a voice to those who need it most.
SNACK caught up with Róisín Nic Ghearailt (singer) and Constance Keane (drummer) who prove they balance political agenda with having fun.
You’re a long-distance band with members across Ireland and the UK. It’s easy to focus on the challenges of this setup, but are there any positives?
Róisín: Definitely, we’re more concise when we’re together, we don’t have time to think about different things. Also, it’s a massive pleasure when we’re together. Time management is better and we’ve been touring consistently for 14 months, so when tours are over, it’s not the worst thing in the world to have a separate life and get a break from things.
You seem to create deadlines and constraints when recording. Is that a deliberate act, or a natural reaction to your circumstances?
Constance: It started out as a natural reaction to our circumstances. When we started with the Gender Studies EP, we only had three days to do it. We went in with a rigid deadline, but also an open mind. We didn’t know what would happen in three days, but we know we had to come out with an EP. It’s a benefit for us to have that mix of a rigid deadline and an open mind.
Róisín: That’s a great line!
Constance: It pushes you in a certain way because you need to get things done, it makes you explore new options, sonically or with a song structure. So, it started as a thing we need to do for the album as it worked well for the EP. I have no idea what the album would sound like if we had months to work on it.
Róisín: Also, we all work, all of our schedules were intense. The option wasn’t there to take the time off because then you can’t pay rent or buy food. With the EP, going into it, I was on the phone to Connie every day having a nervous breakdown. I’m not a music person outside of the band, so I didn’t know what was going to happen and Connie was saying ‘it’s going to be fine, it’s going to be good.’ And then for the album, I was ‘okay, I can do what I can do.’ Because I don’t write music, I’m writing as though it’s a poem in my notes app and I can do those beforehand and I’m chilling now, I’ve done my homework! And then Connie was phoning me worrying.
Constance: I can’t do my homework beforehand; all the music is in the room. The EP was better received than what we thought it would be. It’s not like we were Grammy-nominated but it did well for an EP on a small label. That creates pressure, even if you don’t want it to.
Róisín: The album felt like a tricky second album rather than a debut album. People liked the EP for some reason, we had good reviews. Now we are doing something a little different.
Constance: Yeah, I had also booked the vinyl pressing.
Róisín: Connie is a fucking mad woman.
Constance: We don’t have the option for this to not happen, I’ve already paid the deposit, and I can’t afford to lose that, so we’re all on this chaotic train together! There was pressure, but a lot of that was applied by ourselves, that was on us!
Given the band is split across three countries, how much of an impact has Brexit had on your work as a band?
Róisín: For us, we’ve been lucky, we haven’t had any issues going back and forth. Some Irish bands have. If anything, we’re in a uniquely positive position right now because we can tour the UK and Europe without visas.
There’s also pre-Brexit legislation surrounding working visas, where the British Government have made it harder for people over 30 to get visas for other countries. People aged over 35 represent the biggest tax-paying bracket, so if you’re an English person trying to work in America, Canada, or Australia, usually the visa is capped at 30. As Irish people, we don’t have that issue. Ireland has made a lot of good immigration deals, so it’s easier for us to get visas to the US.
Culture Ireland is incredible for funding travel, such as for SXSW or Eurosonic [a four-day music showcase in the Netherlands]. I live in Bristol and many people have told me in the past year in England there is no better time to be an Irish band. Our country has some money and is putting a lot into funding, so we are in a uniquely positive position.
Constance: One thing badly affected by Brexit is the shipping of our records and merch. If we’re shipping from the UK to Ireland, the customs stuff is an issue, and that is new since Brexit. In terms of travelling and touring, we’re golden, it’s just the shipping that is awful. Also, please put on record Brexit is awful.
Róisín: 100% awful.
Constance: We’re less affected by it than others, but we’re fully against it.
Róisín: Also, there’s a UK General Election coming up [no later than 2025] and cultural funding is really important for political parties, so we need them to make cultural funding part of their campaign. We can only do what we do because of funding, say from the Arts Council of Ireland. We did a tour in Ireland and the diversity of class in bands supporting us is worlds away from what is happening in the UK.
Here in Bristol, a big thing which comes up is that it’s hard to be in a band if you don’t come from generational wealth. There’s no funding. Back in the 80s, it was different. In Ireland, if you had money, you could be a musician but Britain was so big about cultural funding. The landscape of music and art is changing because of the lack of cultural funding, and this is the hill I’ll die on. We wouldn’t be in this position to talk to you right now if we didn’t get the Arts Council funding. We owe it all to Culture Ireland.
Constance: You can see and feel it backstage at festivals. We were lucky to play a lot of festivals last year, and there’s something fishy going on with class and bands.
Róisín: It’s very ‘rah rah gap year’ in the UK. The success and diversity of the Irish music scene isn’t just because of funding, but it’s encouraged by the funding available. As a band going to SXSW, you get 600 euros automatically, you don’t have to apply for it, it’s automatic. That makes a huge difference to who can access these festivals, for want of a better phrase, to bring your career to a higher level.
Also, the higher up the ladder you climb, the better you are treated. We noticed a big difference in our treatment from the last tour to this tour. You need to hang around in the game for long enough for things to get good. At the start, people treat you badly, things are expensive and bands need money to get to the point where they can play in other countries or put out a vinyl.
For us, the culture funding makes a huge difference, and I’m not alone in this. The Guardian last year had an article based on Office for National Statistics data, saying the proportion of working-class actors, musicians and writers had shrunk by half since the 1970s.
In the next General Election, I’d love for Labour or the Greens to make a real campaign point about culture funding because we all consume music and culture. It’s such an important part of our everyday lives. Why wouldn’t you want to consume something that reflects the country and landscape you’re in rather than one portion of people?
I know there are so many demands on public funds these days, but it feels as though the cuts on art funding are going to cause massive problems down the line.
Róisín: Absolutely. There are loads of things public funding should be spent on, but how much is the Government spending on the army? If there is no money, I hope to God they aren’t spending money on that because what benefits the day-to-day person more?
It doesn’t need to be so much money, it is seed money that gets you going, and it makes a huge difference. I feel very strongly about it, and I have a friend who runs a promotion company in Bristol and I’m onto them saying can we do something here?
You have an environmental focus when arranging tours and travel, any advice for other bands who would like to do this?
Constance: Looking at European models in the booking is important. We’re playing a number of festivals across Europe this year where you get paid more if you take the train rather than fly in. Yes, there is an onus on bands, but there should be more onus on promoters to push an eco-agenda. There is only so much you can do in the UK as a low-scale band because finances are so tight, and train fares are so expensive. Not to be negative, there is only so much you can do touring the UK with low fees and six people in the touring party.
That’s why when there’s an opportunity, like a festival saying we’ll pay you x more to take the train, you take the train. There’s a lot promoters can do to encourage bands. Also, nationalise the railways.
Róisín: I try not to fly and I haven’t taken a domestic flight in some time. Long-haul flights yes, but overall, it takes a switching of mindset. With everything that goes on with delays and security, it’s often much of a muchness for some flights and train journeys.
Also, it has to be a band decision. If I say I’m going to take the train, that’s one-fifth of the emissions we’re not putting out, but it’s also asking the band to chip in if this process costs more. It’s called ‘slow travel’ and it requires a mindset to choose that option.
I 100% agree with Connie, ideally, this shouldn’t come down to the individual, as that is a capitalist way of dealing with a problem. The key to anything is personal change married with campaigning for political change. If there were subsidies for touring bands to take Eurostar or the ferry, that would help.
When we were in Europe, we took the ferry from Germany to Denmark, it was fantastic. It was so fast, but you can also see when a country has put money into public transport. If the Government isn’t doing that, you need to have personal change and a different mindset.
You’re not long off the back of an Irish tour, how did that go for you?
Constance: It was short, only four days, it was fine, a bit ‘blink and you miss it’. We got much better turnouts than I – the pessimist – was expecting. It was really nice. We got to play the album for the first time, which was special, as well as playing in our home country, I think as a band we felt supported because so many people turned out. We finished with a sold-out show in the Workman’s Club in Dublin, which was our biggest sold-out show, with 300 people.
Róisín: It was the easiest and nicest tour we’ve done. It wasn’t ideal getting the train everywhere as you are subject to the whims of the Gods, but it was really nice not to unload the van, set up the gear, pack down your gear etc.
Constance: Of course, there are financial repercussions in doing the eco thing, so that impacts working-class bands more.
Róisín: Another reason it was so nice is, as a band, was that I felt the people we wrote the album for came out to see us. Also, I haven’t lived in Ireland for so long, so it was interesting to see how much it changed. There was one special moment after Galway, the lights came up, we finished playing and they played Le Tigre over the sound system. There were many women, young women, dancing or hugging, and I know that moment from being at a gig when you don’t want it to end and you have that special feeling in your chest, and it was incredible we helped facilitate that moment.
You write songs for many reasons, including for yourselves, but if you recognise yourself in your audience, that must be a great feeling.
Constance: I think so, we try to. It’s surprisingly difficult to book shows for all ages, or over 14s. That is really important to me, to play gigs teenagers can go to, as that was my only social life as a teenager. I sat on my bed on Tumblr and went to shows. It’s frustrating in the UK and Ireland, it’s difficult to find venues that let you do that because of licencing laws.
Róisín: I had people messaging me asking ‘Could I use a fake ID?’ I’m not going to say use a fake ID, but do you think I used a fake ID to go see Marina and The Diamonds when I was 17? Yes, go for it!
Constance: I was not cool enough to even know where to get a fake ID.
Róisín: I had an older sister, she was bold. Also, an unfortunate thing about some venues that are open to all ages – especially in the UK, and I won’t name names – is they charge commission on selling your merch. Once again, it’s an economic factor when you’re trying to do the right thing. Some of the venues charge you 25% when selling merch, and that’s how bands make their money.
I’ve seen some bands – and this is okay if you are really engaged on social media – who manage to set up in a nearby pub and sell merch there without the venue taking a cut.
Constance: Dry Cleaning did that, it was so clever.
You said last year you were keen to encourage more diversity in your audience at shows. How, as a band, can you do that, and what would you like to see others in the industry do to support this?
Constance: Róisín is really good at sorting out support acts for our shows, and she manages to represent the diversity of each city we play in, and I think that’s a lovely thing. The band started because the whole genre is just white, straight, cis men and we wanted something different, and we’re trying to pass that along.
Do you feel you have a responsibility to shine a light on others?
Constance: I think everybody has that responsibility.
Róisín: We are all in this business together. You want it be better for everyone, not just yourself. If it’s better for others, it is also better for you. We always haggle with venues, even on the rider, and we have cheekiness. But we know some bands come in and they don’t have that cheekiness, they shouldn’t miss out. Your rider is part of your contract.
Constance: It’s part of the payment, it is coming out of our fee. We’re not asking for anything crazy, but we play with many bands in their early twenties and they might be hesitant to ask for stuff that was agreed by email whereas, we’re like ‘ach c’mon now, you know we asked for this, I can show you the email, just do what you said you were going to do, it’s not that hard’. I personally love a contract, and people need to deliver on it.
As the saying goes, a rising tide floats all boats.
Róisín: I like to say at shows ‘We’re not all liberated, until we’re all liberated’, and I really believe that. There has to be an intersectional patchwork approach to every part of life. It is not enough for women to get rights, but they’re conditional on race or gender, as that is a conditional right, it’s not a full granting.
We played a tour for Independent Venue Week, such a great lineup, the crew was amazing, but with that, there was only so much control we could have over the audience. So, there are things I can’t control, and you need to deal with the hand you’re dealt with at times.
The UK tour in May includes a Glasgow show, what should people expect?
Róisín: The live show is an all-inclusive and energetic experience. We do our best to make people feel comfortable and everyone should feel they deserve to be there, but we have an agenda so it’s good when people come who are open to that agenda. We’re a feminist punk band, and we want people to experience the music, move, dance and have a communal experience. It’s nice to see people dancing, it’s not for a certain type of person. When we played SXSW, we had a proper Texan girl, she could have been at a Beyonce or Taylor Swift concert, and she was living her life, it was amazing. We want there to be a transcendental element to a gig because there is something special about seeing a live band. That’s why we tour and play live.
Album opener ‘Asking For It’ is a great song, but obviously it has a vital message, how is the reaction to that when you play it live?
Constance: We don’t play it live a lot! I think that song is important enough that it exists, it doesn’t need to exist in a live setting every time we play.
Róisín: It takes so much out of all of us. It’s such an intense song, and rape culture affects everyone’s lives. Being on stage, there’s no space after it to sit down and have a quiet moment to get yourself back in your body, that’s intense. You need to be responsible to your audience, and yourself.
The circumstances have to be perfect for it to be worthwhile. If we’re trying to have a good time, on tour, it’s not responsible for us to play it as there isn’t the space to decompress.
You talked about the struggle of getting coverage and airplay for the song ‘Period Sex’. Is that more depressing or bemusing?
Constance: It proves the point as to why the song must exist, its frustrating. Its so frustrating for Zoe [Greenway] our bassist who spent so much time making a beautiful video and it was shadowbanned. We’re in 2023 and you still can’t openly talk about periods apparently, that doesn’t make any sense. It getting shadowbanned shone a light on the hypocrisy on this topic. It was really annoying, you’re making art to express yourself, and it’s nice for people to see it and hear it. If you put the effort in, you want people to experience it. For me personally, who put the least effort into the video, it showed me how important this band is.
The album ends with the line ‘if this song makes you uncomfortable you should ask yourself: why?’ Do you feel that is apt for the band as well?
Róisín: Yes, I would say so, for lots of different reasons. In any of the genre or identity boxes that we’re ticking, we’re not typical representatives of those groups, and a lot of the feedback we get is that they didn’t expect us to be fun. You can’t try to live an ethical and political life in the culture and society we live in without having a good sense of humour. It would be untenable.
Constance: You’d be a husk.
Róisín: You’d be a husk if you didn’t have a healthy sense of humour and the ability to find joy in things, whatever those things might be. You try and do the right thing, but it’s a constant act of balancing, and that’s supported by having fun when you can.
Connie, you’ve spoken about the importance of having a productive outlet for negativity, is that something that drives the band?
Constance: I don’t know, we’re five different people and we’re all in the band for different reasons. My take on art is for self-expression, and if you connect with others, great, but I do it to express myself. I can’t speak on behalf of the band, but for me, creating art is a good way to deal with things. I’d never suggest it as a replacement for therapy or medication, sometimes I hear people say music is their therapy and I’m like, I don’t know, it’s a form of therapy, but it shouldn’t replace professional help if that’s what you’d benefit from.
Róisín: For me, it’s more about making people feel less alone. I think, if it’s happened to me, it’s probably happened to others. So much of what we experience as women are horrible things that happen all the time, and we’re like, what will I do with that now?
Take our song ‘Bored of Men’. The seed of that was a high-profile court case that was awful and handled in such an terrible way. Also, this guy followed me and I was thinking ‘What am I going to do with that experience? Just have this now?’
So, we put that song out, almost like a cleansing. Hopefully by talking about it in a candid way, people will identify with it. The ‘great work of the patriarchy’ is that it makes things like this feel like a personal problem, that there’s something wrong with you and that’s why bad things happen. Rather than it happens because there is a system in place that is designed to, without sounding dramatic, categorically rid you of your sense of self and personhood. Through being open about those systems, we hopefully show this is not something just happening to me, it’s widespread, and I don’t need to take that on personally any more.
As an outsider, there’s a brilliant wave of Irish guitar bands right now, any reason for this, or just cyclical?
Constance: It’s fantastic, it’s amazing for us. When we were 19, it felt like there were hardly any bands you could play with in Dublin that had women in them. Now, it’s different, you have bands like Pixie Cut Rhythm Orchestra and HAWKE THE BAND who I think are fantastic and exciting. We’re not at the stage yet where we see the bands being praised internationally reflect us and the diversity the Irish guitar scene has, but I hope that will happen. I think a lot of it is down to societal changes in Ireland and because our cultural funding is so much better at the moment.
They are trialling a Guaranteed Basic Income scheme for the arts for the next three years, and that’s had a fantastic effect on morale in Ireland, we feel valued in a way we haven’t done in a long time. There’s still a lot of work to be done in the UK and talking to bands here…I thought it was bad in Ireland, but I shouldn’t be complaining at all.
Róisín: I think there have been some amazing breakthrough bands. People outside of Ireland know Pillow Queens and they’re doing well. However, in booking the Irish tour, there was a glut of queer, female-fronted bands who were doing incredible, experimental things. When there’s funding in place, people can try things because they don’t have to be commercial to get money. That’s not a reflection on bands in the UK, there are a lot of amazing acts here, but the conditions are unfavourable.
A band called I Dreamed I Dream supported us in Cork, and if you do one thing today, put that into YouTube, and then put Piquant Media, as they have a live session, and it is absolutely incredible. What I love about the new wave of Irish bands is they’re so rooted in Irish identity. Pillow Queens have a song called ‘Donaghmede’, and they sing in a strong Irish accent, it’s moving away from Bono singing in an American accent. What is interesting to me is the shift away from Americana and Britannia to pride in Irishness that wasn’t there before.
I think Sprints and Gurriers are amongst the most exciting bands in many years.
Róisín: Sprints are so fun. Karla [Chubb, singer] is amazing.
Constance: They’re doing so well in the UK as well. For Gurriers, we recorded our album in their rehearsal space. They’re very accommodating.
Róisín: We recorded it, we never paid them for that, we use their rehearsal space all the time.
Constance: Don’t say we never paid them; we can’t deal with that invoice at the moment.
Róisín: We don’t have that cash!
M(h)aol play The Hug & Pint on 20th May and the album Attachment Styles is out now.