Monday, 13 May 2019

Tipp Classical 2019 - Therapy? Interview

Therapy - Tipp Classical - Féile - Remy Connolly - Interview

Ahead of their main-stage performance at the inaugural Tipp Classical Festival, which rebooted last year to huge success as Féile Classical in Semple Stadium, Thurles, Co. Tipperary (music fans of the same vintage as myself may recall the origins as The Day Trip to Tipp in the 1990's, where the Buckfast flowed like wine), REMY had the privilege of chatting to Michael McKeegan, founding member of Belfast alternative-rock icons Therapy?

In Irish Times journalist Tony Clayton-Lea's must-have book, 101 Irish Records You Must Hear Before You Die (2011, Liberties Press), referring to Therapy?'s 1994 sophomore album Troublegum, Clayton-Lea wrote; "From the cover to the music, an unsettling, provocative, desolate yet highly individual atmosphere abounds - it's metal, it's punk, innately melodic and lyrically incisive" He went on to note that Therapy? resisted pressure from their label to re-enact Nirvana, or become the European Metallica, and the band "stuck to their guns and clung to their hero worship of Hüsker Dü and Steve Albini".

Therapy - Troublegum - Remy Connolly - Interview

REMY: Things happened quite quickly for Therapy? from the beginning, following the release of your debut single 'Meat Abstract' in 1990, you had support slots with now cult acts such as Inspiral Carpets, Ride, Teenage Fanclub and Fugazi to name a few. Can you recall your ambitions at that time, i.e., was the subsequent success of shifting over 2 million album copies across the course of your career beyond your early expectations?

MICHAEL: Absolutely! We had no real game plan at the start other than we would hopefully do some gigs and the biggest ambition was to have a 7" single on the racks in our local record store (Caroline Records off Cornmarket). There was no real music scene or infrastructure at that time, the Good Vibes/Belfast punk scene had gone quiet and everyone in NI wanted to sound either like U2 or Guns N' Roses. For a band like us that had an 'outsider' musical approach we just did things ourselves, booking gigs and self-releasing.

REMY: Fans of Therapy? Will probably have a particularly misty-eyed nostalgia (I do!) for the 5 albums you released in the 1990’s, Nurse (1992), Troublegum (1994), and Infernal Love (1995) being a few examples. As a band were you able to fully enjoy that early success, or was it fraught with stress and over-bearing expectation?

Michael: In retrospect a lot of the stress came from ourselves in that we wanted things to be better...each album had to sound and look better and that was a period of great creative growth for us. If I listen to Baby Teeth and then Infernal Love, its a mad old leap in ability over those 5 short years. Of course we had a brilliant time, getting to travel the world and play our music to appreciate audiences was incredible and we met so many great folk along the way. I think when Troublegum became such a bit hit (unexpected by the record label it has to be said!) then we sort of fell under the scrutiny of the ‘big wigs’ at the label. And along with that came a lot of outside opinions on how to band should sound and look, that was hard to deflect when we were burnt out from all the touring.

REMY: In a peculiar way the chronology of Therapy? mirrors the beginning of a time of great hope in Northern Ireland in the lead up to the Good Friday Agreement, to the current day (your last album Cleave is just shy of 6 months old) plunged into the greatest uncertainty the Six Counties has faced in decades with Brexit. You've previously stated that the political landscape was never really to the forefront of your lyrics and song-writing, but do you think that on some level, the decades of upheaval for youth in Northern Ireland has led to such a level of despondency and disillusionment that it inevitably permeates the music of local artists, including yourselves?

Michael: Yes, looking back there are a lot of elements of the bands outlook and approach that could only come from an upbringing in NI. Obviously there's a lot of dark humour and a cynicism in there as well as a resilience and a "never give up" attitude, which has served us well over the years. I can't really speak for other bands and their experience but knowing quite a few of them personally I can see a similar mindset there.

REMY: Speaking of upheaval, drummer and vocalist Fyfe left the band in 1996, shortly after the experimental Infernal Love which you made with DJ David Holmes. Was it an easy decision to continue on with the band from that point, and what are your reflections on an album that some quarters viewed as a curve-ball?

Michael: As harsh as it might sound, it wasn't that big a surprise when Fyfe left, we all knew he hadn't been happy for a while and both myself and Andy felt we had a lot more to do / say with the band. Infernal Love at the time was a very divisive album when it was released but to this day we get tons of people saying they didn't ‘get it’ at the time but now a bit further down the line they absolutely love it. I think there were quite a few elements on there that took people by surprise (cellos/slower songs/ambient interludes) but i’m really glad we did it and by not making Troublegum Part 2 (which would have been dead easy and probably the right ‘career move’ to do) we gave ourselves a longevity and a wider creative palette to which we enjoy to this day. In all honesty I think most people were more put off by the image we adopted for the album, it was meant to be a bit of fun but a lot of people wanted us top to toe in black, not smiling, as opposed to red frilly shirts and stick on moustaches! You live and learn.

REMY: Your lyrics have always been both arresting and thought-provoking, and laced with dark humour. The first time I heard Nurse, opener 'Nausea' caught me disarmed with the unforgettable line; "Here I am motherfucker!". The opening verse of 'Gone' on the same album is also a major blow to the head; "I know about the scars on your arms, I know your baby wasn’t born, I know that your mum hates your dad, I know that it fucked up your head". Then on 'Trigger Inside' from Troublegum there's the timeless line that every young person must wince at because it’s true; "Here comes a girl with perfect teeth, I bet she won’t be smiling at me, I know how Jeffrey Dahmer feels, (lonely, lonely)". Are your lyrics reflective of imagined characters and scenarios, or do they stem from personal experience to a degree?

Michael: I’m not 100% the man to ask as Andy writes all the lyrics and rightly so as I think he’s written some incredible stuff over the years. From what I gather a lot of the initial ideas/concepts come from personal experiences and then they are framed using different characters (sometimes highly exaggerated/ hyper-real) to make the text come to life and become a bit more open to interpretation.

REMY: When you started out playing gigs, and I recall this myself from my teens, albums, EP's and singles were prohibitively expensive to record, and the avenues for recouping money were very limited unless a breakthrough happened with a label, maybe selling CD's at shows etc., with attendance at gigs mostly down to word of mouth. Today acts can record music at home in their bedroom to a pretty high standard with the right equipment, and advertise live shows and releases on social media for free, the downside of which is trying to stand out in an environment that is saturated. Do you think that overall bands have it easier getting noticed nowadays, or do the same difficulties ultimately apply regardless for independent musicians trying to break through?

Michael: Again, i’m only going from our experience and I think there now are quite a few different ways of getting your music heard right across the world. 

Of course what that means is there is tons of stuff to sift through to find that 'gold' so it can be a bit overwhelming for the listeners and confusing for the artist as to which route to take. Thankfully the playing field has levelled quite a bit so bands can make pro-sounding records cheaply and promote them in a way they feel comfortable with without having to rely on tradition label formats or distribution networks. I don't subscribe to the old mindset of there being 'taste makers' or 'gatekeepers', that's either like it yourself or you don’t. These days i’m much more likely to check out a band if someone recommends them to me personally as opposed to getting caught up in hype. The good thing now is I can get a listen straight away on my phone! 

Therapy - Tipp Classical - Féile - Remy Connolly - Interview Mass
Féile Festival in the early 1990's

REMY: Often with the passage of time bands such as yourselves who inspired people through grim and cutting observations mellow. When I listen to your latest album Cleave, thankfully that is something that doesn’t seem to have come to pass. Examples would be 'Kakistocracy', and the lines; "Is this the end of empathy? Turn away from the poor, pulling up the drawbridge, and bolting the door" – these lines instantly resonate with me in terms of the platform every single individual, regardless of their prejudices now have, empathy is becoming rarefied. 

We are numb to tragedy and misfortune, both of which seem to be becoming a form of warped entertainment, guilt easily addressed through sharing virtuous thoughts online instead of taking action. 'Dumbdown' also seems to allude to the 'State of the Nation', the glacial political inertia in Northern Ireland over the last 2 years. Is it fair to say that the focus on the individual’s malaise has expanded to a broader malaise in Therapy?’s song-writing with the passage of time?

Michael: Yes, I think we've broadened that out a bit. I mean it'd take a special kind of arrogance not to feel angry and disappointed with a lot of things that are going on in the world right now. We've always wanted our music to be inclusive and for everybody and being from NI and seeing the nonsense that's gone on here over the years I find it mind-boggling that in 2019 people want to become less-inclusive and build walls, either literally or figuratively.

REMY: Tipp Classical will take place in September, a throwback to the heady days of both Féile and The Trip to Tipp. Therapy? performed in 1992 and 1993 sharing the stage with the likes of David Byrne, Iggy Pop, and budding acts Manic Street Preachers & Spiritualized! What are your stand-out memories of those festivals, and who are you most looking forward to sharing the stage with in 2019?

Michael: Those shows were fantastic experiences, great line-ups and lots of madness on and offstage. The crowd made it of course, I think every band that played the shows were taken aback by the atmosphere, people going for it, drinking and rocking out despite the weather. We knew quite a few of the bands at the shows so backstage was a lot of fun, we’d known the Manics for a while and one surreal highlight was when Iggy Pop bounded up to our dressing room to say hello. He was shirtless and had that classic manic air about him...we exchanged small talk and the whole time inside my head i’m going "Fuck me its Iggy Pop, be cool, be cool, be cool, BE COOL!"

This year I'm looking forward to seeing The Frank & Walters, Sultans of Ping and Mundy. I also see there's a set of Thin Lizzy songs which I'm excited about as I'm a huge Lizzy fan, Live And Dangerous is as iconic an album as you’ll get.

REMY: Finally, who do you think are the most promising Northern Irish bands at the moment in your opinion?

Michael: Noisy rock types Duellists get my vote and on a more electronic tip the Arvo Party stuff is fantastic. Also Robyn G Shiels' new stuff is well worth checking out.

Therapy? will be playing the main stage at Tipp Classical which takes place over the weekend of 20th / 21st of September, tickets are available to purchase via Eventbrite at the following link

For further information and line-up updates head over to the Tipp Classical website here

Tipp Classical - Féile - Therapy - Interview - Thurles - Remy Connolly