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Softly spoken off stage and complete lunatics on it, Kila have torn up the rulebook with their wantonly eclectic mix of styles. music, inner anger, revolutions and, er, women who cure warts are all discussed, as the band’s Colm O Snodaigh talks to Peter Murphy.
Peter Murphy, 17 Dec 2003
The story begins in a crammed late night lock-in in a Belfast city pub with a trad session in full whack. Your reporter had just blundered up the road from Patti Smith’s gig in the Conor Hall; Kila were fresh from their own show in a nearby venue. Spirits were high, drink was taken and I started running off at the mouth to band and handlers about Kila being stuck in a nu-trad ghetto, sidelined by the mainstream music press as some sort of lunatic fringe magnet for raggle taggle stragglers, lost Levellers fans and weirdy beardy bodhran warriors.
Kila, I ranted, are so much bigger than that.
The response: Why don’t you write something about it?
So there it was, put up to me.
Thankfully there’s plenty to work with. Luna Park, Kila’s sixth album, is one of the records of the year, a monster of a record that, given the right headwind, could do for indigenous Irish sounds what the Gypsy Kings did for flamenco, Los Lobos did for Tex-Mex, Ry Cooder did for Cuban music. I didn’t catch the live show until the Vicar St. launch, but it pretty much delivered everything I expected. On stage, the ensemble – Ronan, Colm, Eoin and Rossa O Snodaigh, violinist Dee Armstrong, Lance and Brian Hogan – give off the kind of primal sonic blast that can knock you backwards.
Mind you, I had a couple of cribs, particularly the back-projected visuals (clichéd shots of pastoral scenes and speeded-up people walking around O’Connell Street). And more peripherally, there’s no denying that the crunchy granola sub-section of Kila’s audience can get on the tits of any professional cynic. When an earnest young girl wanders up mid-show and asks if you want your face painted, the first impulse is to inquire if she’d like to see the business end of your revolver.
“There’s a lot of that, yeah,” Colm O Snodaigh laughs as we take tea in the Clarence. A soft-spoken, scholarly presence Colm is a writer of Irish language short stories who’ll talk Carver and Coltrane as readily as O’Carolan. Colm’s brother Rossa on the other hand, is a more voluble figure, with a glint in the eye that suggests one might not want to catch him on the wrong end of a hangover.
“There is the dog in a van and all that,” Rossa concedes, “but on the other side of it, they’re people with a specific appetite for life, and all I see is people with apathy at the moment. They (crusties) are probably the last continuing colour left. I mean, when we were growing up you had every fucking colour. And there’s no colour left anymore, it’s all the long black cloaks. You have people coming up with face painting and that, and eagerness is always uncool, but it’s only uncool because there’s a lot of people who are very cynical about it and don’t appreciate it. Some people are willing to give themselves over to the moment. And some people are like, ‘I’m actually experiencing another moment – do you mind?!!’”
That’s told me, then. And the man has a point. Style has become homogenous in the zero years. Yes, the mods and the scumpunks and the new romantics conformed to their own tribal doctrines, but now the counterculture has ceded to over-the-counter culture, what Rossa calls “The Nike tribe”.
Kila, like many bands, are interesting because of the contradictions in their make-up. They give off the energy of a political band, yet most of their lyrical content is as Gaeilge. They’re steeped in native culture but the dominant musical policy is multicultural, incorporating African, Afro-Caribbean, Eastern, Breton, Scandinavian, Spanish and Eastern European elements.
Lance’s grandparents and uncle were from a pop-showband lineage but ended up playing in a ceilidh combo as a result of Gael Linn commissions. Dee’s folks earned their stripes in the Royal Academy of Music. And the O’ Snodaigh family was staunchly pro-Irish while remaining open to other cultures.
“We were very lucky when we were growing up to have two spacer parents who decided when they got married to speak Irish to each other,” Colm explains, “and who embraced all things Irish but didn’t actually preclude things from all around the world. My mother’s an artist, so she has to embrace everything. My dad, being a historian, everything gets documented, not just his slant on history. And also he was a writer and started publishing books in Irish, and with literature you have to embrace other things, otherwise it’ll just become propaganda. I used to follow soccer with me da even though we played football and hurling and all that.”
Such cultural crossbreeding has produced an evolutionary freak. A hardy touring act with albums guaranteed gold status, Kila have found their audience without ever really penetrating the rock-folk crossover market that once sustained Horslips and Moving Hearts. I suspect this is mainly because they’ve ignored the gruesome fusion factor in favour of more rogue elements like trance and dub and even banghra.
“Irish music has been mixing and matching since its inception,” Rossa points out. “It’s only since Ireland became the 26 counties intending to be a full 32 county republic that it was fenced off. By all accounts most of the (traditional) rhythms we play are from abroad, all the dances came in, but we made our own things of them, the way English has come in but we have our own way of saying it. Even ceilidh bands had saxophones and drum kits and pianos – they’re all additions.”
So Irish music carries an innate mutant impulse?
“Oh yeah. If you’ve got imagination, why go against that and restrict yourself to a set colour? If you want to learn a specific craft, like a German, you’ll go, ‘I vant to play only ze real Irish music, ja?’ But it’s like being given an old Chevy. You’ve some people saying, ‘No, I want it to look the way it did in the 50s’ and other people are like, ‘Cool car, let’s paint it up!’ I read the other day about reggae, that where it came from was European ballroom music fused with African rhythms fused with R&B fused with another five different styles. They were creating something new from all these other styles.”
And also from their own limitations. The musicians were too baked to play something as frenetic as rockabilly, so they just slowed it down.
Colm: “Yeah – I’ll play another note in a minute!”
So what’s the deal with the similarities between the Cork accent and Jamaican patois?
“Damien Dempsey’s written a song about Montserrat,” Rossa says by way of illustration, “it’s Ireland’s unknown colony, because the Irish were brought over there as slaves and the Irish decided to have a revolution on Paddy’s Day and whupped ass and took over. But instead of making it an open society they subjugated the black slaves who were their friends. But it’s intermixed now. Anyway, there’s something about Damien Dempsey, that his mother heard him singing in an American accent and said, ‘Sing in yer own accent’ and he has ever since.”
The same could be said of Ronan O Snodaigh, Kila’s visual focal point. I’ve known Ronan for a while – we used to sit up drinking in my kitchen the odd night, playing music and generally setting the world to rights. Then, as suddenly as he’d arrived he’d take off again at some godforsaken hour, strapping his bodhran to his back and putting his accoutrements into a variety of pouches and pockets, hitting the road like Turlough O’Carolan or Horslips’ ‘Mad Pat’.
Either way, he’s a charismatic character, all gap-toothed grin, wire wool hair and hesitant but hypnotic speaking voice that in performance morphs into a strange sean-nós/Shaggy babble that calls to mind Mongolian khoomei, Islamic devotional calls, Andalusian blue notes, Louisiana field hollers and tribal war whoops.
So where and how did Ronan formulate his vocal style?
“I suppose I always wanted to sing,” he says, “and I started writing songs, I used to play a duet with Glen (Hansard) years ago for a bit. And he handed me a mic once during a gig to sing this song I’d been writing. I’ve been singing since a toddler, but the breakthrough came with that. I’d play with Mic (Christopher) or Glen or with anyone who was busking or any band who was gigging.
“But the way I brought it out, I went down to Kerry on me todd when I was 19, and I spent ages there, trying to wake up me voice, getting into the primal note thing. I spent ages down there, figuring singing out I suppose. And then when I came back I started doing demos and that kind of thing.”
So as Ronan’s role in Kila gradually expanded from percussionist to vocalist and focal point, how did that affect the dynamic of the group?
“I’d say maybe most of it is just natural with us,” he reckons, “we’re working behind each other. Colm’s singing more now, so I’d come in behind him. But as a fuckin’ temperamental tantrum head I’ve a lot to be grateful for, for people tolerating stuff over the years. If it wasn’t for the fact that we’re very close, maybe we wouldn’t have made it through all this. I’ve plenty of embarrassing moments, you know what I mean?”
This volatile streak is an aspect of Kila that seems to be frequently overlooked. Some of it is down to the packaging. For instance, I’d love to see those gentle cover art watercolours replaced by Ralph Steadman caricatures for true Psycho-Kila effect, or generic world music type song titles such as ‘Baroki’ jettisoned in favour of something a bit more Salvador Dali. Ronan should really be given a Stan Lee comic strip as a sort of Celtic Iggy perennially on the verge of warp-spasm. Like Glen Hansard – and to a lesser extent the late Mic Christopher – there’s a core of anger at the centre of his sound.
“Yeah, I’m fond of aggression,” he admits. “Anger’s a good juice. It’s probably not unleaded or anything, so it pollutes the internal organs, but if you use it to fuel yourself, it stops short. Anger’s a funny thing, it’s very interesting, let’s say if you’re playing to get a roll, if you get a whip-roll: dr-dr-dr-dr-ah, like in dance music, if you do that when you’re angry what happens is you lock and you’re last beat won’t be strong. Football was my big thing as a kid, I learnt a lot there, and if you go in with anger, you won’t come out as good in a tackle. You might achieve it, or you might throw the other person with the rush, but we all learn that if you’re methodical about things, if you come in with a real stylish thing, in anything, (it’s better).
“Music’s a great teacher,” he continues, “Anger management! Anger might get you out in front because you’re not gonna back down, so it might feel like it’s a strong thing, but sometimes I’d be embarrassed about all of that considering how lucky I am, how I should be grateful walkin’ around. We’re white, we’re in Ireland, we’ve got a bucket of options. If you were born in Serbia or one of them bombed up countries, if you were a Palestinian, you wouldn’t be sittin’ here talking about my big development of overcoming anger or whatever.”
Has he ever lost the head on stage?
“Oh, buckets of times. I was a bit of a prima donna y’know? I think you grow out of it somehow, blowin’ the top. I hope so; it’s fuck-all good. Although Colm talks about this interview he read with Neil Young, and he was talking about a wall you hit. I wouldn’t call it a wall, but I know what he means. I’d call it the bit where you break through something, it’s like gliding, and it can be pure noise what you’re doin’, it’s like lift off. And there’s moments where you lift off, it’s amazing, a beautiful place, y’know.”
And Kila’s rushes of sound have as much to do with The Velvets or Sun Ra or Lee Scratch Perry as they do The Bothy Band or Planxty. But if Morrison and Manzarek made the word shaman (or if you’ll indulge me some phonetic Hiberno-Jamacian, Sea, man) a dirty one in rock, it’s the only one that suggests itself as Ronan does his sonic witchdoctor Joujouka goat-god boogaloo all over the stage.
“A lot of people say that to me, Peter,” he responds. “I suppose I leaned a bit that way a good few years ago, but nowadays I have no delusions of grandeur.”
Fair enough. But in primitive cultures, the shaman was just like the parish priest or the shrink or the guy who came to fix the roof. Yes, he had to create the illusion of otherness so people would put their faith in him, but his function was far more practical than simply hanging around in a smoke shack or wandering the Siberian tundra waiting to be visited by hallucinatory visions.
“Yeah, y’see that’s the thing, people talk about the medicine man,” Ronan says. “Medicine man – vet, same thing, not the guy who gets wrecked and wears feathers in his head. You sort of grow out of those distinctions a bit. It’s more diversified here. In Irish culture everybody has a gift: somebody has a gift for healing coughs, somebody has a gift for healing nosebleeds, they have a prayer passed down, somebody else’ll have a gift for horses, or a spell.
“This is all active day to day stuff, and this is why I don’t like using any words like shaman. There’s vets that go around and play music to their animals. Even in Dublin, yer one who heals warts in the flats or whatever, you know what I mean? To tell you the truth, Peter, it was a good few years ago I cleaned out my head of anything to do with religions. I supposed I chased a few stray notions around and caught up with different people who I thought would be close to the source of things, and by the end of it I thought, ‘No, it’s all a crock of shite’.”
So what is Ronan’s current spiritual inclination?
“It’s really dodgy getting quoted, isn’t it?” he laughs. “I dream. I’m not a good dreamer. I’ve met people who are good dreamers, professionals, people who practice it, they’re good and they can fly and stay conscious and all the tricks. But sometimes I get dreams that give me serious information. That’s what I call it, maybe I just take them literally, but from my whole life dreams have been the big guiding thing.”
Well, a lot of people believe dream and memory are the mediums through which the dead survive in us.
“Yeah, it’s pretty amazing, it’s very personal. But me other thing is, I’m making a bit of a noise, and maybe it’s a bit of a dancey noise, and I get into that the way you’d get into digging or plastering or something. I get lost in it. We’re putting it on, and people get lost in it and we’re off.”
Luna Park is available on Kila Records. Kila play Vicar St. in Dublin on December 19