Thursday, 26 June 2014

Interview with Earthship & New E.P. Proximity Effect

Earthship, 'The Great Wheel'

Who are they? Earthship were originally a five-piece jazz / funk outfit who have evolved into an electro-pop group while successfully retaining elements of their roots. The band are made up of vocalist Paula Higgins, bassist Karl Clews, keyboardist Mark Farrelly, guitarist Eoghan Judge and drummer Bart Kiely, all of whom hail from the West of our beautiful island. 

What's Happening? You couldn't pick a better time of year for the release of Earthship's debut E.P., Proximity Effect, which is going to be out on the 11th of July and any self-respecting DJ would be adding enormously to our summer by giving any of the four infectious tracks airplay. The band are also intensively touring the country in July playing 10 venues throughout the month taking in Cork, Clare, Galway, Kerry and Dublin (see dates below).

Karl kindly took a break from slappin' da bass to answer a few questions for me for which I'm very grateful, without further ado....!

Remy: It’s instantly apparent listening to the Proximity Effect’s title track, ‘The Great Wheel’, that you have a jazz-funk sound, which might be considered an alternative genre on the Irish music scene, do you think it will limit your potential fanbase, or are Irish music fans a lot more open-minded these days?

Karl: It’s funny that you say that our ‘jazz-funk sound’ is ‘instantly apparent’ … because we actually thought we’d done a good job of hiding it! Not good enough, obviously! It’s true that we started out as an instrumental jazz-funk-fusion band, but pretty quickly discovered that there was a limited market for that kind of music here in Ireland – not among the music fans, ironically, who have always enjoyed our live shows, instrumental or not, but among promoters and venue owners. The biggest obstacle for us on the Irish music scene has never been a lack of people who want to come and hear what we do – it’s been the reluctance of promoters and venue owners to book us because they’re convinced that their clientele won’t want to hear jazz, funk, fusion or anything that doesn’t have vocals. Our experience, however, has always been that, when they get the chance to hear something a bit different from the norm, Irish music fans are very open-minded. The problem is that those in charge of booking music are reluctant to take a chance on anything that isn’t necessarily the flavour of the month, and especially not on anything that smells of jazz – which appears to be something of a dirty word here in Ireland . So, with the Proximity Effect EP, we were trying for a more ‘pop’ sound – toning down the jazz-funk elements, bringing the vocals to the forefront, and sticking to a 4-minute pop format – as a means to open up more gigging opportunities, the idea being that maybe promoters wouldn’t spot straight away that we’re a jazz-funk band in disguise! The fact that you spotted it immediately suggests we didn’t quite accomplish that. Maybe a leopard can’t change his spots. Or the funk just can’t be contained.

Remy: Cited influences include Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Weather Report among others, were these artists that the band members in general would have grown up with from a very early age via parents (i.e. a record player at home), or was it in later youth that they were discovered?

Karl: No, none of us grew up in households where jazz and fusion were regularly played – do such households even exist??! We all found our own way into that music through more popular forms: for example, through 70s funk, disco and soul (Parliament, Earth Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder), 80s Britfunk (Level 42, Incognito, Light Of The World), and 90s acid-jazz (Jamiroquai, Brand New Heavies). This was the music we heard as kids, either on our parents’ record players or in the pop charts, and as you get into a particular artist and you become curious about where this music was coming from, you generally feel compelled to seek out their influences. And it just so happened that guys like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock are just a couple of the influences that all these artists we were hearing had in common.

Remy: The Irish music scene has expanded rapidly over the last decade, do you think that’s necessarily a good thing, or does it pose certain problems for new acts?

Karl: It’s not an issue that’s unique to Ireland. The number of people who classify themselves as musical artists has exploded globally, as a result of advances in recording software. It obviously used to be the case that to even get anywhere near making a professional quality, commercial recording, you had to prove yourself first – as a live performer and as a songwriter with potential commercial appeal – so that a label would pick you up and pay for you to go into a studio. The labels acted as a filter system, of sorts. Nowadays, anyone with a half-decent laptop can record a commercial release-quality track in a bedroom, and send it out to the world via YouTube. You don’t need to be able to play or sing in time or in tune, or even play an instrument at all. Samples and loops for any instrument are available freely all over the internet, and any timing or tuning issues can be fixed in the mix. You don’t even really need much knowledge of song-writing any more – countless hit songs from the last few years consist simply of the same three or four chords looped ad infinitum. I’m not saying this is a bad thing – tastes change over the years: it just means that to make something that can do well in the charts today, you no longer need the kind of knowledge of musical theory and song-writing chops that bands like Steely Dan or Toto had to make something that can do well in the charts today. Any herbert can, in theory, make a hit song. There’s no filter any more. There’s almost too much music out there, and the internet as a delivery system makes it a completely level playing field. So there’s a lot of good stuff out there, but there’s also a lot of rubbish. And no one has the time to sift through it all for the gems.

Remy: With a name like Earthship, the E.P. title Proximity Effect and samples on tracks with clear references to the great beyond, is there an undercurrent of astronomic and scientific wonder running through Earthship’s music?!

Karl: Well spotted. Yes, we’re all geeks at heart. Comic book nerds and science fiction fans. It’s something of a tradition in jazz-fusion circles – numerous 70's fusion bands, like Return To Forever, The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Sun Ra composed whole albums that were essentially intergalactic odysseys rendered in music. I don’t know, it’s a slightly tongue-in-cheek stance, but there is definitely a certain correlation between our finding wonder and delight in science and technology, and wanting to use that technology to convey a similar feeling to others, and between our fascination with the exploration of space, the unknown and possible futures, and a desire to explore in an artistic medium, to make sounds and create soundscapes that have never been heard before.

Remy: At times Paula’s vocals remind me a lot of Beth Gibbons from Portishead or Kelli Ali from Sneaker Pimps, both very successful acts from the 90’s, aside from the 70’s artists mentioned previously, are there any more contemporary artists that have influenced Earthship’s sound?

Karl: Well, we’ve already mentioned a few more influences from the 80's and 90's in an earlier answer. But as for current artists … something happened in the 90's, whether it was the Simon-Cowellization of pop music or some other sea change in the tastes of the music-buying public, or this breakdown in the filter system we’ve already talked about, I don’t know. But the kinds of artists making the kind of music we like stopped getting into the charts or onto mainstream radio. They’re still out there, but they’re underground. They’re quietly plugging away, making a living touring, but they’re never going to sell millions of albums. So we could mention some names, but they may not mean much to many of your readers. For the record, though, Snarky Puppy is a band we all admire, along with The Robert Glasper Experiment, for the way they’re pushing the boundaries of what we call jazz nowadays. In a more soulful style, Meshell Ndegeocello’s albums are always interesting and challenging, in a good way. And if you want sheer funk, there’s nobody doing it better today than Dumpstaphunk. At the other end of the scale, though, we’d admit to having a soft spot for Pharrell Williams and Daft Punk – they’re keeping the spirit of the funk alive in a way that is still appealing to a mass audience. So you’ll certainly hear echoes of all these artists in Earthship’s sound.

Remy: You have a pretty hectic summer touring schedule coming up where you’ll be criss-crossing the country playing local venues, are there any plans to play at any of the forthcoming music festivals such as Electric Picnic where you have previously performed?

Karl: To be honest, we’ve missed out on a lot of the festivals this year, simply because at the time when we should have been applying to them, we were locked in the studio, recording the new EP! It was an all-consuming business, and unfortunately, none of us thought to look up and check what time it was … We get very blinkered when we’re in the studio! But we’ll be at LightColourSound in Kilkenny, and the Dream Gathering Festival in Cork, and we’re hoping to be on the bill again at the Cork Jazz Festival this year – we’ve had a great response there the last three years.

Remy: Who is going to be in charge of making your tour bus playlist before you hit the road in July?

Karl: Tour bus? If only! No, we can’t afford a tour bus – we’ll be stuffing as many of us and as much equipment as we can into as few cars as possible. Whoever is still able to reach the car stereo by that stage is by default in charge of the playlist.

Remy: Is there an Irish act / musician past or present that you would particularly admire?

Karl: Honestly, it’s difficult, because there are so few Irish acts, past or present, that we can identify with. There are a few from the past that we can admit to admiring, but that is definitely ‘admire’ in the sense of ‘I can respect what he/she has achieved’, rather than ‘I like his/her music’. As Earthship’s bass player, my ears always prick up when I hear Thin Lizzy – Phil Lynott was a unique bass player with a very immediately identifiable sound and style on the instrument – too many players today, of any instrument, have a homogenous, ‘fits all sizes’ sound with no distinct personality. We have a certain admiration for Van Morrison, too, for the way he was able to bring a jazz sensibility into the mainstream for Irish audiences. But that doesn’t make playing Brown-Eyed Girl with various wedding bands every weekend any less painful for us! As for up-and-coming Irish acts that we’d recommend, there are some exciting artists coming out of Limerick at the moment, including GodKnows and Leading Armies. And we keep crossing paths with a band, originally from West Cork, now living in Dublin, called Mongoose, who are definitely destined for big things, in some form or another!

Remy: Do you still buy physical albums any more or, like a lot of people, is it mostly digital content, and when at home do you still prefer the actual act of putting on a CD or record or is digital just more practical?

Karl: It’s sad but true that the digital format has taken over. Each of us in the band grew up with CDs, and many of us spent our Saturdays as teenagers rifling through racks of vinyl in second-hand record shops. Those dog-eared cardboard sleeves, and the tiny CD booklets, were essential to our musical education, and it’s probably true to say that we wouldn’t be the musicians we are today if we hadn’t been able to find out, for example, that it was Doug Rauch who played bass on Santana’s ‘Caravanserai’ or Branford Marsalis who played sax on Sting’s ‘Dream Of The Blue Turtles’ just by reading the credits in the liner notes. There is a whole galaxy of musical discovery that is being phased out by digital downloads: the album as an artistic statement in itself is disappearing as fans now cherry-pick the hits from any given release, rather than downloading an album in its entirety. And more often than not, digital albums don’t come with liner notes at all: you have to turn to Google if you want to find out who played drums on such-and-such a One Direction track, if that information is even available. So, yes, I’ll still buy CDs when I can, but the selection available in most Irish record stores is woeful, so it’s more likely I’ll get them from somewhere like Amazon in any case. But even then, once I’ve read and digested the liner notes, I tend to rip the audio from the CD straight to iTunes and my iPod, and the CD will go into storage. Digital has its practicalities, and we wouldn’t be true geeks if we didn’t espouse those advantages, but, unfortunately, a little of the magic of buying and enjoying music has been lost along the way.

Remy: Some bands say they spend so much time in music venues that the last place they want to be in their free time is at a gig or a concert, do you feel the same way or do you still enjoy heading to see other bands / artists perform?

Karl: - Yes, it’s true, if you play music every evening, and listen to music most of the day, your ears are bound to get tired. Sometimes you just need a bit of quiet! But it’s important to show your support for fellow bands, to make an effort to go out and hear them play whenever you can. Many of our fans are musicians themselves, and we appreciate the effort they make to come and hear us play, so we have to return the compliment whenever we can.  We’re all in this together. And of course, being the music fans that we are, we still get excited when we get to hear our musical heroes. Obviously, we all have different ‘best concerts we’ve ever been to’, but personally, it was seeing the Neville Brothers at a jazz festival in Nancy, France, back in the 90's: three of the greatest soul voices on the planet in one band, a musical heritage that encompasses everything from doo-wop through funk to hip-hop, and the perfect setting, made it an unforgettable concert.

Remy: Coming from the West of Ireland, do you ever wish there was a West Coast / East Coast rivalry in Ireland like the old hip-hop one in the United States and you could get a bit of a buzz playing on rivals turf when you’re playing in Leinster, or are you happy with the way things are?!

Karl: In our experience, that rivalry exists, but not between the East Coast and West Coast, rather between Dublin and the rest of Ireland! There’s a very distinct Dublin music scene, and it can be hard for a band from outside of Dublin to be taken seriously there. There are a number of organisations in Dublin doing some great work in contemporary jazz and funk, running festivals and special events all year round, and some great venues that specialize in the kind of music we play and love, and Earthship has tried on numerous occasions to get involved, to no avail. Very few artists ever emerge from the blue, fully formed in isolation; every artist benefits from a scene, a sense of community, from gigging with and being associated with similar acts. There’s a cross-pollination of fans and influences and ideas, and pooled resources can achieve so much more than any individual artist in isolation. It’s not rivalry we’re looking for, it’s that sense of community, and it’s difficult to find or establish that in a country in which music promoters are so wary of the words ‘jazz’ and ‘funk’, and the very institutions that purport to exist to promote such music are on the other side of the country and, for whatever reason, seem reluctant to admit artists from outside of Dublin. But it’s still early days for us, we’ve lots of work to do, and we have our sights set on the European scene ultimately, so it’s not something we dwell on particularly. In any case, we’ve four Dublin dates lined up for the tour in July, so with a bit of luck we’ll open a few eyes and ears while we’re there.

Thanks again Karl and be sure to check Earthship out this summer and give them a bit of social media lovin'!

Earthship Tour Dates: 

Sunday 6 July                    Whelan’s, Dublin. 
Monday 7 July                   Crane Lane, Cork. 
Tuesday 8 July                  White Horse Sessions, Kenny’s Bar, Lahinch, 
Saturday 12 July                Dream Gathering Festival, Cork. 
Sunday 13 July                  Bello Bar, Dublin. 
Tuesday 15 July                 Sweeney’s, Dublin. 
Friday 18 July                    Kelly’s, Galway. 
Wednesday 23 July            Mercantile, Dublin. 
Thursday 24 July                Monroe’s Backstage, Galway. 
Friday 25 July                    Courtney’s, Killarney, Kerry. 
Sunday 17 August              The Roadside Tavern, Lisdoonvarna, Clare.

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