Dublin based band the Knocking Shop are back playing sporadic gigs after 20 years. They had a place in an emerging independent scene in Dublin that wore guitars on heart. They have been described as a punk Leonard Cohen or the Fall wrestling with Go Betweens. They will be bringing their understated yet underestimated style to the Grand Social on November 3 when they will be playing with Mik Artistik. I sent the singer, Seamus Duggan, a few questions and results are as follows
1. How did it all come together?
It was 1992. I was 25, too old for rock music (or so I thought) and working in the Irish Film Centre. I had been managing Luggage and had really enjoyed watching songs come together and Barry would have been very encouraging of the possibility of me being in a band. Dave Connolly had been a friend since we were in primary school together and we had even toyed with writing songs many years before. Dave had gone on to play with The Sulphate Bambinos, who played mostly speeded up rockabilly / garage and I, having seen Dave’s immediate facility with the guitar, parked any dreams I had of being a guitar hero.
However, I was still a music obsessive and when the idea of forming a band started to come into focus I started trying to learn the bass. I soon passed the instrument onto another friend who had a similar facility for bass playing. Another friend and work colleague, John Healy, was a drummer and he knew Derek who wasn’t playing with anyone since the implosion of The Subterraneans. The first time the four of us were in a room together it just all seemed to come together. I think we wrote Schoolyard Star at that rehearsal. It felt like a band.
Rehearsals and more songs and gigs followed. In September 1993 we went into Sonic Studios and recorded and mixed fourteen tracks in seven hours (from which we culled Half-Orphan), mostly with Paddy Brady, also ex-Subterraneans, as a co-conspirator.
2. How did all fall apart?
It was more of a case of limping into the night. By 1997 we were on our third iteration of the band, and were called The Phantom Jets, with Eoin ‘Skins’ Hanna on drums and it felt like we were getting better and better. We had played a gig in The Attic on New Year’s Day, which we filled to overflow. Considering that the venue had rang me to ask if we wanted to cancel because nobody went to gigs on New Year’s Day it felt like things were building nicely. However the next gig we were set to play, I was hanging posters when I heard that The Attic had been knocked down. This was just a minor setback but it was getting harder to organize our lives around the band. Dave had a job in Derry and had to travel a long way for rehearsals and gigs. I had a daughter and was working full time. It was hard to see any money coming in and then one of the band’s partners got cancer and it seemed that we would just have to park the band. Life’s complications kept us in the garage for a long time.
3. Can I have a list of the bands that you’ve all been in
Me – The Knocking Shop
Derek Barter – The Subterraneans; The Knocking Shop
Dave Connolly – The Sulphate Bambinos; The Knocking Shop
Eoin Hanna – Lord John White; The Knocking Shop
4. So you are based in this little island and have a tape only release. Where does Record Collector fit into all this? How did the launch go last year? Was it your first time outside the country?
I had always felt quite proud of what the band produced, and of what we could have produced. We all remained friends, although living in different places etc. One day I saw an ad looking for people to submit demo recordings recorded between the mid-eighties and the mid-nineties. I sent off a link to the title song of our self-released album Half-Orphan and they got back on to me after a while enthused about the song and saying they wanted to put it on their compilation. Ian Shirley from Record Collector was very enthusiastic and when he listened to the DAT tape, which I had sent over, was saying he couldn’t believe we hadn’t been signed. Then he asked us to play the launch night and so I sent off three emails to see if anyone fancied reforming. All were enthusiastic and so we got together for a few rehearsals, managed to remember a few of our songs and headed off for our first gig abroad!
It was a great experience, with a hugely positive response from the audience. We also had enjoyed each other’s company (I think!) and felt that we should try to play in Dublin as well, as there might be a few people who would like to see it..
5. What gives you the buzz to feel that people want to listen to songs you wrote. Is it hard now to get gigs?
I guess that songs mean so much to me in my life, and although I know there are very few people for whom our songs are part of their lives I feel proud of them and that they stand up. And there are a few people for whom these songs have some meaning. I also have a sense that we were/are a lot better than we were given credit for. We were not really the best self-publicists, nor did we have any real sense of a ‘career’. We did it for love of music and writing songs. It gives me a buzz to watch the band, and I’m still a little bewildered that they are happy to let me on stage with them. It’s been strange, and pleasing, to have people in their twenties come up to me after gigs to say they enjoyed it.
As far as getting gigs now, the difficulty is all managing to get to Dublin for rehearsals and having time to play gigs. We have been very lucky to have been invited to play The Grand Social on a few occasions now, and our gig on November 3rd with Mik Artistik’s Ego Trip will be our fourth appearance there (I think..). The gig with Mik Artistik in January was great because they are a pretty special live experience.
6. Any idea what the difference is between the music scene in Dublin in 1993 and 2017?
Not really. I am about as far removed from the music scene as I could be, living in Portarlington and making the odd trip to Dublin, usually for rehearsals or gigs. I don’t really get to see much of the new breed.. Or even explore the venues. I miss it, but life gets in the way. Even in 1993, I’m not quite sure how much I knew about the ‘music scene’. There were a number of bands we hung out with/played with/watched, we would have been particularly close to Luggage and Female Hercules. There was great music being made but the public attention was elsewhere. None of us seemed to be the ‘next big thing’ although Luggage had their moment after doing a John Peel session. We didn’t make it to the National Stadium, or The SFX. We always had places to play, but there was no money in it and very little media attention of any sort. My awareness of what things are like now comes from the fact that I can go and see someone like Jim White play to fifty or sixty people in an intimate venue in Kilkenny. Gigging and releasing music has become very much a professional hobby for many who would seem to me to be in the ‘big league’ of independent artists. I would like to have got to that league once, if just to have had the opportunity to make more music and have the time to concentrate on it. Now, that money just isn’t there. On the other side technology has made it possible to create and distribute music without a big upfront investment. DIY music making is now more attainable than ever.
However, in 1993 you were able to find cheap accommodation and get by for long periods on very little money. That is a lot harder today and I sense that a lot of creativity is being squashed out of people by the necessity to work to pay their rent. It still feels important to me that people who want to create should have the space to do so. I feel that if I believe this for others I should really apply the same rules to myself. I guess you’ve got to find whatever space is available and try to inhabit it. That hasn’t changed.
7. Looking through the, minimal enough, amount of information on the net the word punk keeps coming up. A punk Leonard Cohen is an interesting comparison. What does punk rock mean to you?
I guess what punk means to me is the idea that the band and the audience are the same. It was an attempt to break down barriers. We certainly haven’t become separated from the audience by money or celebrity – maybe that makes us truly punk? It also valued self-expression rather than consumption and celebrity. In many ways it was a victim of it’s own success but the idea still inspires. You don’t have to be a classically trained singer to use your voice. It’s more important to want to say something. Or just want to make people listen..
Musically the punk / new wave era would be when I became aware of music and it still resonates with me more than any other era.
8. Half Orphan is about the death of your Mam when you were a young boy. Is it a cathartic experience writing such a song? How about playing it on stage? It must be very emotional?
It’s a strange one. On occasion it can feel like being mugged, the emotions just spring up from nowhere. Other times it’s just a song. The song seemed to write itself, as sometimes happens. One minute I was just singing whatever came into my mind over the music, the next minute I had a song.
9. Should lyrics in songs have sentiment to the singer?
For me I always seek out music that seems somehow emotionally connected to the performers. I think it is easier to make that connection if the lyrics connect to the singer in some way but there are other ways to connect with music. I admire lyricists who can create worlds that exaggerate and twist reality, like Nick Cave, Kate Bush or Tom Waits, but leave you feeling that there is a connection to their emotional world.
However I also like the unadorned and plain, and love writers like Ray Davies or Hank Williams who can write songs that seem almost mundane but contain the world too. I’m not really answering this question – I guess the sentiments have to feel real to me. When I’m singing a song, I have to feel a connection. Sometimes singing a song feels like time travel, as feelings and thoughts come back across the years with a startling clarity.
10. So it’s a cold winters night, you’re at home on your own and have 5 records to play before bedlam sets in -what would they be?
They would be different every day! But here goes. I have some time tonight and this is my planned listening. First I’ll pick a couple of current favourites:
I’ve been listening to a lot of Jackie Leven recently. He’s someone I only knew from a few songs on compilation albums but I’ve recently bought six or seven of his albums, which is only a start – there are a lot. He had a life which is crying out for a biography, from recording his debut album as a teenager circa 1970, fronting the great Scottish band Doll by Doll during the punk/new wave era. He then got mugged while recording his debut album, was strangled and lost his voice for a couple of years. He became a junkie but turned his life around and set up the charity CORE which uses holistic methods to help addicts recover. He then restarted his recording career after some encouragement from Princess Diana (I kid you not) and released somewhere upwards of twenty albums before his death in 2011. I regret never seeing him live. I tuned in to him too late. He is part Van Morrison, part Begbie; a Celtic Soul Brother who must be the only person to collaborate with both Ralph McTell and Pere Ubu’s David Thomas. My choice at the moment would be Fairy Tales for Hard Men, an exploration of toxic masculinity full of moving, mysterious, overblown and grittily realistic songs.
My most recent purchase only arrived today so I’m playing that. And it’s perfect for the moments before bedlam sets in as it’s an album based Milton’s Paradise Lost. No, it’s not a prog epic but The Argument, the last album from Grant Hart whose songs with Hüsker Dü shine bright in my personal constellation. His recent passing was a shock. What I’m hearing I like – echoes of Bowie’s Diamond Dogs (which started out as a musical version of Orwell’s 1984). Writers have to find different ways to tap into their creativity. Sometimes it will work, sometimes not. You can’t let the fear of failure cripple you.
Another album I’ve been listening to a lot recently is T-Rex’s Electric Warrior. It’s an album that plugs back into my four year old brain but also is still capable of surprising me today. I still like to get the odd dose of glam rock – it was one of the tributaries that fed into punk and it will forever be a reminder to me of a time when colours were as primary as school and music was simple, sing along joy.
Then I pick up Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music just to wonder at how close it comes to being perfect. It’s also, despite its musicianship, tenderness and fragility, as boundary smashing as any punk rock record. And, as I listen again, it’s an object lesson in how to find the heart of a song.
For the final album – Big Star’s Sister Lovers / Third – my Desert Island Disc. The box set, if only for the demo version of Kanga Roo – Like St Joan, which I find extraordinary and also because playing the whole box set will give me a little more time before the bedlam strikes… I got my first copy of this album in 1988, my interest inspired by The Stars of Heaven and must have listened to it almost daily for years. The demos show that the album really is a Chilton solo album in all but name, the peeled nerve beauty already all present and correct in the roughly recorded demos.
Not a very punk selection tonight but it would probably be very different tomorrow…
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