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This article was first published on CLUAS in Feb 2003

An Interview with Mumblin' Deaf Ro

CLUAS catches up with Mumblin' Deaf Ro who, er, neither mumbles nor is deaf...

Mumblin' Deaf RoOn the 19th December 2002, a friend and I ventured towards the Lower Deck in Rathmines for a "Ballroom Of Romance" night, a popular low-key gig we'd heard about. We knew that the night's headliners Boa Morte were going places and we both wanted to know why. Boa Morte were magnificent, we got more than we expected and left happy. What we did not expect was the quality of the first support act, a fresh-faced young man with an ironic stage name of "Mumblin' Deaf Ro". Husky and expressive vocals meant that mumbling was the last sound that reached these undeaf ears, and we had the pleasure of experiencing a short set that glistened with melodic guitar bliss and devout imaginative lyrics about jobs, falling in love and even a couple of fables about boxers and mental patients you'd expect to be told, not sung. We made it our business to get to know this man, as we both suspected that he was a real talent. Within a week, our suspicions were confirmed as we had the pleasure of hearing the upcoming record. It's disturbingly accomplished for a debut release.

The record entitled "Senor My Friend" (reviewed by Ollie O Leary here on is due for release on 21 February 2002. Ro agreed to meet me in the run-up to this as a lot of people will want to know the inspiration behind this so far little known talent. While I wait in earnest in the Joy of Coffee in Temple Bar, Mumblin' Deaf Ro's arrival is ironically amusing. Looking somewhat subdued after rushing from his shirt and tie job to do an interview in promotion of his debut album, it paints a picture strikingly similar to that in "The Hero Is A Graduate", a track on the new record that depicts the rigmarole of everyday working life as opposed to a different life we'd rather live instead. Unable to ignore the irony of this, I allow myself a silent chuckle before proceeding.

A historical question to start with: You've been in a number of bands over the last 10 years playing around Dublin, Rinty, Boxcar, The Critters and you were also known as Johnny Horsebox as a former solo act. How, if at all, did the experience of being with those bands inspire you to go solo while studying a new form of playing, as in the finger-picking pop that's prevalent on the new record?

Well the first thing is that it was in those bands that I started learning how to write songs. It was only 1993 that I started playing my first gigs with Rinty and I wrote my first song, sort of by accident, it was a guitar tune that had been hanging around for too long. So I decided to put my own lyrics to it and when I played it to the guys in the band, they were quite supportive of it and I got a lot of confidence from that. I got into a routine of writing songs and it is very much a habit-forming thing. So being in different bands and the opportunity of playing with different musicians over the years - sitting down with bass players and drummers and figuring out what we should be playing - helps to develop your own style.

So did these bands differ much from each other in styles then?

The first band I was in was very different in that the writing was much more shared. I prefer to write on my own, not write and collaborate. I'd write a song and bring it to a band and arrange the different instruments with the other musicians. Compared to some other bands where they may write their first ever 10 or 20 songs and play gigs, I was sort of popping my head out of the trenches after practicing them for a long time. I used a bit of time with my earlier bands to develop my own style of doing things, so I felt that I had outgrown my initial influence. I don't want to be critical of other bands, but sometimes when you see them, you can spot their influences straight away.

So did it take most of 10 years to outgrow these influences?

Well, I was ready to do this 5 years ago when I was in a band called Boxcar after leaving college. It was only then that I thought of getting a band together and actually recording something. Unfortunately with bands, they go for a couple of years and it's difficult to keep everyone together - people are working or they're travelling. The same thing happened to another band called The Critters 2 years ago, so I had no alternative but to go solo. My main collaborator Nigel Cosgrave (who plays on "Senor My Friend") wasn't interested in forming yet another band with a different set of musicians. Prior to that, for 2 years I got more interested in blues music and I developed a kind of finger picking style of playing, so when I finally did go solo I had a guitar style, which meant that I could play with a degree of independence. With finger-picking, your thumb can play a bass-line and fingers can play a melody, so rather than strum a couple of chords, you're in a position where you can have more variety in a song. You can support a set of 8 or 10 songs without sounding too repetitive.

The recording of "Senor My Friend": You're joining an ever-growing list of budding musicians who are spending less time, money and energy with studios, going to record companies and the like. For example, David Kitt recorded most of "The Big Romance" on an 8-track recorder pretty much in his own bedroom. Paul O'Reilly did something similar, even Vic Chestnutt recorded most of last year's "Left To His Own Devices" at home. Given that there are is an enormous amount of extra production and extra inputs available in a studio, whether you want them or not, do you feel that musicians like yourself are better off recording at home in so far as it allows more control over what you're going to record?

I've nothing against working in studios and the fact is that if I do another album next year, I might think of how to afford a studio. The main thing is having time in recording. I have recorded in studios before, but they're extremely pressurised situations. You can only afford a 12-hour session and your concentration and judgement can become flawed after a few hours of recording and I think the end product suffers. So you're in a situation where you can put all your money into going to a studio for a week and just record solidly for that week and whatever album you have after that is what you're left to live with. If you record at home, you have your own amateur expertise and you have as much time as you want to do the album until you're happy with it. You're not left with just one shot of getting it right. I feel that overall, I'd probably be able to produce a better quality album doing it at home even if I was using an amateur recording expertise, than if I had gone into a studio with an engineer I'd never met before, in a studio I'd never used before. Whatever album I was left with - 2 weeks and several thousand euros later - that would have been the finished product and I wouldn't have any flexibility with it. So I think that there's an awful lot to be said for home recording. Aside from releasing music, when you record at home it really makes make you go through your songs and makes you more creative in the editing of them. For example, obviously you can't hire a choir so you try to find alternative ways of getting the same effect, so it makes you think through your songs and work out different ways of doing them. Another example is drums. In a studio, you might have 7 or 8 drum mics. At home, you won't have that, so you have to listen to drums a lot more and work out for yourself the best ways of doing it. So if you go into a studio, the engineer will do all that and you won't have learned anything about that part of the sound recording process. Aside from whether you want to release anything, if you want to learn more about putting songs together, doing it yourself is as good a way as any and you learn from your mistakes. It can be slow though. So while I hadn't any ideological opposition to using studios, it's just that I felt my options were limited in terms of what I could afford in a studio, whereas I could spend a year doing the bones of it at home and do it to my satisfaction.

The album itself: The songs on the album are incredibly narrative for a debut release. There doesn't seem to be any particular subject matter that's constant. For example "The Hero is a Graduate" is a mix between the banality of everyday life in a boring job, always knowing you could do something better. "It never even entered my mind" is a portrayal of a broken heart, something most of us can relate to. On the other hand, "The ballad of Lonesome Ray James" is a fictional story about a boxer who meets his untimely death. "Every now and then she gets a moment" is about a mental patient who falls for his nurse. Very soul-searching in some songs, very story-telling in others, some artists take years or 3 or 4 albums before they can do that but you've intertwined it in one debut release. What's the inspiration for such a mixture of reality vs. fantasy, if that's an ok expression to use?

I suppose that a possible explanation is that the songs weren't written as a single body of work. I think for a lot of bands have to write an album within the space of a year or 2, so it might be difficult to find a different approach for the songs. Some of these songs are new, some of them are a couple of years old, I didn't write them as a block of work which may explain a bit of variety in there. You get different inspirations along the way. A lot of my ideas don't come from other lyricists or musicians. There are some writers I like and I like their way of telling a story and I think a general principle of good writing, whether its in songs or anything else, is that it should clarify something, it should be clear and not confused. Sometimes you hear songs that try to inflict poetic language on it to make it sound brainy or something. With some writers it's their ability to explain something simply that makes them good. I think that in good writing, people should only use an image as an alternative to the rigmarole of explaining something in detail. But some people tend to use imagery to embellish the telling of a story like "Your eyes are like the moon falling from the sky into the sea" and all that sort of stuff. And you really have to think through the image before you can work out what they're describing when in actual fact, it should be the other way round. A description should immediately clarify what the image is, so that's probably something I picked up. I'm not a heavy reader by any means, but I probably picked up stuff from reading various different writers or from films. Films demonstrate complicated situations quite simply and that's something I aspire to in writing and I would hope that the songs are clear and not obscure. In terms of the variety of subject matter, I think that I just tend to write each song on its own as a piece of work, one inspiration that doesn't necessarily follow onto the other. It's not like I would write a phase of break-up songs, although I don't write many love songs. It's a collection of songs really.

So does "Senor My Friend" feel more like a compilation album then?

It does, compilation is probably a good word for it. A lot of people write songs over the years and they just gather the best songs available to them. I mean it took me 27 years for me to write my first album. I hope it won't take that long to write my second one. Or maybe it will, at that rate I'll probably release 3 albums in my lifetime and I suppose that if I did 3 good albums I'd be happy. So I'll probably be 54 before the next one! I wouldn't be in a mad hurry to release an album for the sake of it.

Who are the biggest influences on your music?

It's kind of hard to identify who my influences are. When I started doing music, my influences were people like The Wedding Present, The Housemartins, The Smiths, I like Billy Bragg and people like that. But that's so long ago and I've listened to so many things in the meantime. One thing I will say is that the comparisons I've read about me are not really people that I would listen to that much. I think it's more to the point that I have a husky voice that I get compared to Nick Drake. The fact that you're acoustic and you're solo that people compare you to those sorts of artists. Musically, the finger picking guitar of people like Mississippi John Hurt, The Rev Gary Davis, Doc Watson, people like that who are kind of old acoustic blues players. Well they wouldn't call themselves blues; some of them would call themselves a rural type of blues. From a lyrical point view, I don't know really. There wouldn't be any particular lyricists I listen to.

I know it's an old clich? but do you believe lyrics come from the heart?

I think for a lot of people they do, but I always draw a distinction between?.well, put it this way, I wouldn't think that lyrics are necessarily good simply because they're from the heart and they're honest. It's possible to have a certain amount of imagination. Like in "Every Now And Then", I've never been in a mental home and I've never fallen in love with another patient in a mental home, but having said that, everyone's familiar with the experience of being in love with somebody, so you just use that setting. What it really is I suppose, rather then trying to say something to somebody like "my girlfriend's gone and left me and I'm so sad" and all that, that in itself to me isn't that powerful. Somehow, the listener is supposed to feel the same. Not just to listen to it and say well, it's probably honest and true and it probably actually happened. It's like a comparison between a novel and a diary. A diary is very heartfelt and honest but not necessarily that touching to read, because it's purely someone else expressing themselves. Whereas a novel is sort of voiced with a view to proving a particular point or representing a particular perspective. It's much easier to make your point when you tell it through a story, but of course as you said, it can be a mixture of reality and fantasy. When you're writing any sort of story, you're using your imagination but you have to use a bit of your own experience. Otherwise, how do you know if you're being accurate? If you listen to a song where the guy doesn't seem to know what he's talking about, it puts you off. That's why I try to stick to subjects where I can draw on something that's happened in my life, without necessarily retelling it verbatim.

So in that sense, how important to you is how the listener interprets or perceives the songs that you write?

Well it does matter to me how they listen to it. When you write something in a particular way and you put music to it, you have an effect in mind. You can try to put listeners into the shoes of the character in a song and hope that they can experience what the character's going through, and for the 4 minutes of the song they can go through it. But you're at the mercy of the listener. If they've listened to it and don't like it, that's fair enough, they've given it a chance.

You've been compared to a few artists already, Nick Drake, Captain Beefheart, Revelino and the like. Do you have any reaction to that?

I think it's the most natural thing in the world and I do it myself. And the first thing you say when you see a band play live, "Well they're like a cross between Oasis and Blur" and the like. That's how people talk about music and that's the way I talk about music. Also, the thing about music is that, and hopefully the thing will get played on the radio, so people will get the chance to hear it and make up their minds. It's not like as if I ran a restaurant, and someone said it's just like KFC and people wouldn't go near my restaurant to find out for themselves. With music, at least they can find out and make up their own minds. So it doesn't bother me, I don't think the comparisons are so wide off the mark anyway. But I'm not really a fan of some of those people you mentioned, I find Nick Drake a very overly serious sort of songwriter, a bit humourless. But I have no problems with the comparisons that have been put there, I'm curious in a way: I wonder who do other people think I sound like. But so far anyway, I wouldn't consider the comparisons to be influences, though I wouldn't be offended by a comparison.

Up and coming artists like Damian Rice and Boa Morte are earning a lot of recognition these days, and seem destined to make a mark in the UK and possibly the European market. Do you require that level of attention, or would you be content to generate a small cult following of people who know and will always follow your music, a dedicated fan-base?

I don't think it's possible to choose. What I'm trying to do is get it out as far as I can and try and get as many people as interested as possible. A difference with Damian Rice I suppose is that he used to be in reasonably successful band, it wasn't his first stab at it, he had some experience and he's been up and down, so I presume that helped him to get a CD out there and generate a fan-base. Boa Morte are on a label, Shoeshine Records, and I must say I don't mind seeing them getting a bit of luck, I like them. I'd much rather they get it than some less original band. The reality is I'm working in a day job in Dublin and I only have a limited amount of money and time to try and promote the album hopefully around Dublin by the Summer. Depending on how many brown boxes of CDs I have left, I might try and promote it outside of Dublin after that. Who knows what will come? Different opportunities, maybe? I do think that there is as yet an unidentified threshold, which if you break through it, you start getting support slots around the place with bigger bands. You might get invited to play a festival, or invited to go on tour. That threshold is way above my head at the moment, but I think it will be attainable after a year of the CD being available. I'm trying to promote it the best way I can, but I'm realistic. I'm starting from a very low base. For all the time I've spent playing music, I've never built up much of a following. That's part of the reason for recording the album; it's an opportunity for people to hear my music that wouldn't happen for me at a gig. So I think that in a year's time, if I was in a position to advertise a gig, I wouldn't have to tell my friends and still get a good crowd, a good number of albums sold, I'd consider that a success. But it's funny, a year ago, I hadn't even made up my mind that I was recording an album really, I was only messing about with songs here and there and here I am doing an interview now. So who knows? Hopefully it'll take off but if it doesn't, it won't deter me. I think I'd really regret it if I went on, got older and looked back and said I really should have done something like this when I had the chance.

It's probably fair to say that Ireland's music scene today is far more accessible than it was as little as 5 years ago. People didn't seem interested in lo-fi home produced recordings as in what you've done, and there certainly weren't opportunities there like there is now. It's become far more independent. With that in mind, are you optimistic venturing into Ireland's current music scene?

Yeah, I must say I've had a very pleasant experience in the music scene and I know that people criticise it or people get impatient about their bands getting noticed but I've found people to be, by and large, very supportive and very approachable. There have been a couple of big changes in the music scene in the last 5 years. The first of them is that more shops take CDs on sale or return, which means you can now make your CDs available in the shops. Secondly, obviously with the Internet now becoming so widely accessible, it's much easier to promote your music. And if you want to promote your CD, there are hundreds of people on a daily basis reading the various music message boards. So instead of going out and stapling posters up in cafes, you can simply post messages about your gig and a lot of people will see it. It's really developed the music grapevine in Dublin, so people with a curiosity in music find it easier to see what's available and check it out through various websites. So if you basically post up a message saying "Please come to my gig", people can check it through the website and they like an mp3 and go to inspect. Those things weren't there before. Particularly there were a few different bands who were a bit more progressed on the scene - that sort of started this whole thing of home production of CDs. I think they made a lot of the mistakes that people like myself are benefiting from what they learned, bands like Joan of Arse and those sorts of bands who would have put a lot of work into recording and releasing stuff independently. I suppose they did break a lot of ground for people who wanted to release stuff, because before that, it would have been very difficult to approach shops and get them to take your CD. Before that, you were basically relying on people like Dave Fanning and I know that those people are still supporting a lot of bands, but at the time that was your only option. Unless you had a bit of interest from a record label, you had difficulty getting a CD out. It's got to the stage now where it's possible to release stuff independently and for it to do quite well. Many people have had quite a bit of success in getting their CD released independently. And if your ambition in your lifetime is to release 3 albums, by far the best bet is to do it independently. Even if you're one of the freakishly small number of people who get signed to record labels, but very few of them get to release more than one album before they get dropped or after that they get tied up in contracts or disillusioned. I really wouldn't advise anyone to approach a big record company unless it was on a licensing basis. It's not necessary if your interest is producing CDs. If you want to do it professionally and build a career, then it would be very difficult to do it independently and make a living from it. There are all sorts of things you can do, for example there's Gig-smart, they help people put on gigs. works towards the recording and distribution side of things. I'm responsible for Thingsyouremissing distribution in Dublin, so if people want to put their stuff in the shops, they can approach me. All those things weren't there a few years ago. I've been a pretty lucky guy with all this and lucky to be doing this at a time when it's easier to do than it would have been a few years ago.

This is probably a premature question, but regardless of how "Senor My Friend does", do you have any plans for the future?

I think so, but at the moment I'm exhausted. I've been working on this in all my spare time for the last year or more. It's a bit like when you're doing exams at the end of the year in college and you can't really think ahead to next year's exams, you take the summer off and come back fresh. What I hope to do is between now and the Summer is to just promote it a bit, and throughout 2003 try and get as many copies of the CD away and use whatever chances that come up to help it along. Once "Senor My Friend" has run its course and it's been around for a while and I stop promoting it, I'll probably sit down around this time next year and think about recording another one. But it'll be slow so it could be a couple of years before releasing anything again.

Mumblin'Deaf Ro was interviewed by Jimmy Murphy

(bullet) Click here for a review of Mumblin' Deaf Ro's debut album 'Senor, my friend...'
(bullet) Download a free track by Mumblin' Deaf Ro from CLUAS' digital music section.