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This article was first published on CLUAS in June 2006

To Hell or to Connaught

A perspective on the music scene in the West of Ireland...

Connaught Music SceneDublin is mostly the sole scene referred to in Irish music. But fortunately, geography plays a part in diversity in music in Ireland. Here, Anna Murray relates a westside story.

Rugged scenery, vibrant culture, living traditions, a region leaking history and pride, honesty and openness - the West seems to have everything a musician could need for inspiration. Why, then, does it appear to be a musical black hole, the unproductive wasteland of Ireland's music scene?

The problem is not in fact a lack of talent, rather the lack of any discernable shreds of a live music scene in which this talent can thrive. Aside from the occasional Battle of the Bands (the capitals are important), usually low in budget, organisation and quality, the closest you can get to a gig at any given weekend is a teenage band, the faint strains of whose Radiohead covers are straining for attention over the floor of a noisy pub. Even at such a Battle of the Bands, even the most optimistic of audience have difficulty swallowing the bashed out Nirvana covers and the sight of long-haired, coolly-alternative bands playing Pixies and dismally failing to trash their guitars.

It's sickening, it's infuriating, but most of all it's commercially driven. There are of course bands with their own songs, their own style, but these are perpetually choked by the higher authority of money. Pubs have imposed their own originality ban, i.e. no covers = no booking = no money. With no community or even hireable venues, and so-called band-nights inevitably deteriorating into mere affairs with the ugly side of underage drinking, musicians are eternally frustrated by the lack of opportunities and support. There is absolutely no sense of a musical community in which to be a part.

The traditional side of things still thrives somewhere in the background, I'm told, upholding the ideals of kinship and cooperative spirit. However, it is a lamentable fact that the traditional world is becoming increasingly self-contained. Though we have a saving grace in Westport's Matt Molloy's, a veritable hotbed of talent and unparalleled performances, trad musicians are quickly making the scene elitist instead of revitalising it. They look smugly and self-importantly down on outsiders. Their attitude alone is enough to turn anyone away from tradition, just like the didacticism that ensures nobody is interested in keeping the Irish language alive anymore.

The combination of a music community that doesn't understand the word "community" and apathetic audiences leads either to mass emigration to the summer musical climes of the East or total disillusionment. The exception is of course Galway, where Roisin Dubh, the Black Box and student culture make it a separate entity, totally self-contained and flush in everything the rest of the west is without. Put simply, there are just no opportunities in that part of Connaught that is not the young population's mini-Dublin for any musician or band to develop: no venues, no interest?even we music journalists can't wait to get out! A case in point is perhaps electro-pop Autamata, whose founder and main man Ken McHugh's musical ideas were born in Mayo, but it took a move to the expanses of fertile Dublin to crystallise them.

Yet as I said there are faint glimmers of hope: Logic House, Horospex, Sherman M4, among others. Still we are far from establishing any kind of "West" sound. The absence of a musical community is not only frustrating; it also means the absence of influences, of any kind of window to anything new. This does not only refer to the lack of interaction between musicians themselves, but even to other acts coming into the region. The TF Royal in Castlebar is the single only venue in which you can hope to catch a half-decent show, and it has recently been gaining popularity since its renovation and refurbishment. However, it seems that this popularity is a result rather of improved PR, rather than an improvement in its quality as a venue. The biggest artist ever to grace its stage has probably been the Frames, while Turn have vowed never to return. Understandably, they won't book a band that they can't be guaranteed to bring a crowd, but the music fans of Connaught won't know those bands, even though household names they may be in the rest of the country, until they book them. Few people around here have ever heard the names Redneck Manifesto, 66e, Ch-1?

Therefore, bands in the west generally fall into two main groups:
a) Muse/Radiohead fans
b) Tool/Pearl Jam/Korn fans.
The former specialise in cerebral, well-structured songs, studiously avoiding cliché and dreaming of creating that one perfect album. The latter are a loud, emotional embodiment of the bitterness of stagnation, often welcoming cliché and never wanting more than a lot of heavy gigs.

"Small towns, small minds," is the unanimous opinion of Logic House, five 19-20 year old young males who have never let the relentless let-downs of playing here rob them of their plans. Logic House are lodged firmly in group (a), yet they never allow themselves to fall into the rut of dull, MTV2 mimics. Rather their music fluctuates pleasantly between the absorbingly thoughtful and expansive layering of sound, never once forgetting the effectiveness of some well-placed overdriven guitar.

"The people we play to in pubs only come there to drink or meet their friends: no-one is interested in what music may or may not be playing. And even if they are, everyone is so desperately trying to be the same that they won't accept anything new or remotely different." Tired of relentless letdowns, they don't crave fame or money, just a decent audience to play to.

This is a sentiment often echoed across the country, especially by those bands that fall under group b), of which there are many. These tend to be less stable, appearing for a week, then disappearing, only to reappear with a different line-up the next week. The closest we have come to a potentially successful output is Sherman M4, the absolute rulers of the heavy metal scene. Far from the black-clad Metallica imitators that plague the country, Sherman M4 are serious about what they do, and this gravity is manifested in their tight musical understanding and meticulous accuracy. Alas, where do they go from here? Since the only pub that allowed metal bands to play closed down, they no longer have an audience to which to play, or a venue in which to play to them.

Foxford's Horospex fall between the two groups, as dark an emotional as the latter, while as cerebral as the former. Unfortunately, they are no longer to be seen around the pubs of Mayo: rather their last gig took place at Eamonn Doran's in Dublin. Is this indicative of the deficiencies of their home-place, or the beginnings of their success? The focus is on the Dublin scene, success doesn't exist outside it.

Anna Murray

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