- 21 Jun 22
As tributes continue to pour in for Dennis Cahill, following news of his death aged 68, we're revisiting a classic interview with the renowned guitarist and his collaborator Martin Hayes – originally published in Hot Press in 2008, on the eve of the release of their acclaimed album Welcome Here Again.
Perhaps it’s not the wisest or most diplomatic way to kick off an interview with a pair of critically acclaimed traditional virtuosos, but when I meet fiddler Martin Hayes and guitarist Dennis Cahill upstairs in Galway’s Sheridan’s Wine Bar, I feel compelled to explain that, erm, most trad music makes my ears bleed.
“So you’re not a ‘tradhead’ then?’” asks Hayes, pushing a long strand of black curly hair back off his face. “I wouldn’t worry about it. We hardly are either. Ha, ha! I mean, I listen to everything and anything, really. I don’t spend my days listening to traditional music, necessarily. I listen to everything.”
Actually, I’d said it as a precursor to a compliment. Having listened to it repeatedly over the last few days, I can safely conclude that the duo’s recently released fifth album, Welcome Here Again, is undoubtedly a masterpiece of musicianship, whatever your tastes.
Recorded sporadically over the past couple of years at Hayes’ home studio in Connecticut, and featuring 18 jigs, reels and sublimely slow airs, if it’s trad, it’s trad of the transcendental variety. I’m not alone in this judgement. The New York Times calls them “a Celtic complement to Steve Reich’s quartets or Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain.”
In contrast to their previous albums, which tended to feature long extended tunes and interpretations, this new album is made up of far shorter and more intimate pieces. The longest track, a slow air entitled ‘The Dear Irish Boy’ comes in at just over five minutes. At just under 90-seconds, a reel called ‘Mulqueen’s’ is the shortest.
“There was no big plan to have an album with all these short pieces, it just happened that way,” Hayes shrugs. “I wasn’t going to put a piece that’s 27 minutes long or something like that on an album again. I had so many people saying to me, ‘Oh, we love that, but we can’t play it on the radio if it’s 27 minutes long.’ And, of course, the other tracks were all ten minutes long or something. But there was no big plan. We just recorded it in little bits and pieces.”
Cahill confirms their lack of musical masterplan.
“If we made the whole album again it would probably be completely different. Once the recording of an album is over, what we would do with the tunes has already changed. But you have to be content with taking a little snapshot somewhere and say, ‘Okay, that’s where we were at that stage.’”
Both men are in their mid-forties and have been performing together for more than two decades. Born in Ireland and now residing in Connecticut, Martin plays in the slow lyrical style of his native East County Clare (he still has the accent, too). A Chicago native of Kerry ancestry, Cahill is a master guitarist, as versed in classical, blues and rock as he is in traditional music.
They met in Chicago in the 1980s, where they formed a jazz/rock/fusion band called Midnight Court, in which they experimented with a variety of musical styles. However, they never cut a record (“Some would say that’s a good thing,” Hayes laughs). Their first collaboration was 1997’s The Lonesome Touch, an album which won plaudits for helping take traditional Irish music to a new dimension by exposing its inner meaning in an accessible way to listeners of classical, jazz and modern music.
Speaking of modern, seeing as this is their first album of the Noughties, I wonder if they’re net-savvy and keep up to date with the various new methods of music distribution?
“Oh yeah,” Hayes nods. “Like, the whole recording thing is changing. I mean, you walk into a record store and it’s smaller than it was the week before. Like, you walk into Barnes & Noble and the record section is decreasing – as the DVD section is increasing. But to tell you the truth, when they get done with the CDs it’ll be a relief for everyone. Because we’re only paying for warehousing and transport at this stage. Like most of the money is getting consumed in the big journey of moving this piece of plastic around the world. It’s ridiculous really.”
Cahill: “The only problem that I can see at the moment is that the download quality isn’t quite as good with all of these compressed files. But I’ve read about these new heavier downloads which will be of much better quality. So eventually you won’t be able to tell the difference.”
But equally people will be able to steal it much easier...
“Well, you know, the people who steal things have always stolen things,” he laughs. “Sure, it’s easier to download stuff than to record onto a cassette or something. But it’ll find its watermark. But the upside of that, too, is that people who steal your music tend to brag about it and play it to other people – so at least you get a little PR out of it.”
Hayes can see another bright side: “Really what’s gonna happen is it’s gonna force people back to performance and concerts. It’s gonna force people to have to play their music live. Even for us, we didn’t release a record in nine years – we’ve been just touring and playing from here to Timbuktu, and it hasn’t affected our lives one way or another. So I’m not in the least bit concerned personally what happens with the record business. I couldn’t care less.”
So are the records not especially important to you?
“Artistically they’re important because they make you move from A to B, like. You know you have an objective in that you’ve got a CD to make, so it makes you figure things out and move your music along. It’s an artistic document. So in that sense they’ll always be important. It’s a record of what you’ve been doing or what you’ve been trying to do. But financially, it’s hard to know how this whole thing will pan out.
“But one of the good things is that all kinds of underground music that one time would never have gotten a look-in is now getting a shot. Because of the digital world it’s no longer about shelf space in a store, and because of the various ways you can search and find music on the internet, it’s opening up a lot of possibilities for people finding very specific musical tastes. So on one hand the digital age is killing the industry and on the other it’s opening up all kinds of opportunities at all levels – for listeners, but also for musicians as well, who can tailor themselves more to a niche now. And on the live front it’s certainly improving things.”
Their touring set-up is uncomplicated – just the pair of them and their instruments. No roadies or sound crew required.
“Yeah, wherever we’re playing, we usually finish with a soundcheck in 15 minutes,” Hayes laughs. “There’s just two lines going out to the front-desk. We’re fairly under the radar – in and out with nobody even realising.”
Given the amount of time you spend together, how do you guys get on? Do you ever have storming rows in the studio or on the road?
“I think we both agree on when it works in the studio,” Cahill avers. “We’d both be listening to something and we’d know if it was a case of there being something not there.”
Hayes: “I’m a bit impatient and obsessive-compulsive. So I’m likely to go more nuts in the studio than Dennis is. I find the studio can be a very depressing place at times. I don’t always look forward to going in there. But by the same token, I just judge things by gut feeling, you know.
“And in terms of our own working relationship, basically we know each other very well. And somehow we’re fortunate enough to be able to tolerate each other's quirks. But you have to have a pretty close kind of friendship if you’re gonna fly around the world and hop in a rental car in Sydney and then do the same in California a week later. We hang out a lot, but we try to give each other as much space as possible, too.”
As jobbing musicians, they’ve lost count of the number of gigs they’ve played over the years. It’s a tough life on the road, but they wouldn’t swap it for anything.
“There are times when you get wiped out or depleted from it,” says Hayes. “Especially if you try to put a lot into a gig. You’re kind of motoring along on fumes at the end of a tour sometimes. But it’s amazing - what happens is you’ll always find energy for the gig when you’re playing, but the next day you’re even more wiped out. Then you get it together for the next gig, and the day afterwards you’re even more wiped out again. By the time you get home you’re on your hands and knees. You’re incapacitated for a week.”
Are you decadent on the road?
“We’re pretty boring,” Cahill laughs.
Hayes agrees wholeheartedly: “Oh Jasus! We’re like monks! Look at us here drinking water!”
It’s true - they are! Although we’re meeting in a wine bar, both musicians have declined Hot Press’s offer of a glass of chilled Riesling. Cahill rarely touches the stuff, and Hayes doesn’t drink at all anymore.
“I drank years ago, but I’d still be in the corner of a pub somewhere in Chicago if I hadn’t changed that habit,” he explains. “Believe it or not, when I’m out on the road, I’d probably be in bed watching cable television by 12 o’clock after a concert. I know it sounds awful boring, but I just want to get some sleep. I’ve had my wild years as well. I’ve had my out-every-night-until-all-hours kinda thing. But if you weren’t really into the music and into the gig and into playing the gig really well, life on the road would have to be a party – and it would eventually burn you to the bone. The only thing that keeps you going is the music itself.
“I heard Christy Moore one time saying that it was when he figured out that the high point of the night was the music and not what happened after the gig, that life kinda started to make sense on the road. Because if you make the music the highpoint of your night – and it always is – then you’re not so urgently in need of spending the rest of the night having a party somewhere and trying to max it out.”
Was it difficult to quit drinking?
“I hate to say it, but the way to quit drinking is just to stop. I probably wasn’t a clinical alcoholic or anything like that, but I was a heavy social drinker. Ha, ha! But I’d a great time and I wouldn’t change it for the world. But these days I just love the gigs.”
Cahill maintains that he’s been around the block enough times to be bored with the partying scene: “I’ve been at this for thirty-plus years and there’s a point where you get tired of that kinda stuff. And also, by example, you start seeing people around you who’re a little older than you and you see them going completely into the ground.
“When I was younger I remember trying to drink and play at the same time. I had a horrible experience so I never associated drinking with playing again. If I ever drank, it was after the gig. Some guys get slightly buzzed or they’ve had some kind of drug and they actually play a lot better. For some people that works. I’m not gonna make some big moral judgment. For some people it’s good, it relaxes them and makes them open. But it doesn’t work for everybody. Some people do it and they think they’re better than they are.”
They may not drink, but do they smoke? There’s quite a stoned quality to some of the slower airs on the new album...
Hayes: “Well, it’s more of a late night thing you’re picking up there. I like things live to hit me in the face, I think. And sometimes I like recorded music to be a different thing. I like to relax to music in a lot of ways, I like it to take me gently somewhere. So I end up making records that are more like that.
“You know, I do think about the mood and temperament and feel of the music. I don’t want to put you on some kind of see-saw with the record. There’s a certain vibe and a certain tone that it starts out on, and if I’m gonna move from it I’m gonna move gently. But I think this album kind of hovers in the one spot, more or less. It’s a choice, like. Because some albums are made up of huge variety and some albums are just one vibe. This one is fairly simplified and distilled. There may have been a certain point in my life when I was afraid to do something really simple.”
Do you think simple is better?
“Oh God, yeah. Cause I know how to throw the kitchen sink at it! It’s easier to make things complicated sounding than it is to pare it back. Much easier to put up a wall of defence with all these complexities. But when you start paring them away you come down to very fundamental decisions.”
Talk turns briefly to politics. They’re both Obama supporters (“It’s time for a real change”) and have even campaigned for him back home. Wondering do world events ever inspire their music, I ask if they’ve ever watched an item on the news and then written a tune in response?
Hayes: “No, I haven’t – and people are always trying to find direct connections between pieces of music and poetry or landscapes or news events or history or my own personal story or something like that. Or even the narrative of a movie or something. But it’s all a mystery really. I mean, you make a stab at these things, you hope that maybe things affect and influence you in some way. Certainly these things go in as idea, but they go into some big soup or mush of things. Stuff just comes out and it is what it is. It’s never really down to one thing.
“You know, as much as you make music, you also have to allow it to happen. There’s a tendency to always get your own way with this stuff and think that you have the capacity to figure and work it all out. And there is an actual flowing process with this – many times you just have to allow stuff to start spewing out and see what happens.”
Hayes and Cahill recently created the original score for Deirdre Lynch’s award-winning film, Photos To Send – a documentary following in the footsteps of Life magazine journalist Dorothea Lange’s famous visit to Ireland in 1954.
“We do a few things like that,” Hayes explains. “Little soundtracks, things for the Modern Dance Company in Seattle, small stuff. We’d like to do more soundtracks. We like movie music – it’s kind of reflective in many ways. It would suit us, but it’s a highly competitive business. I don’t really have the audacity to start knocking on doors in Hollywood or any of that kinda stuff. So I’d like to do it, but I’ve never really gone down that road.”
Well, at this stage of the game, what are your ambitions?
“My main ambition is to survive, go on playing and take what comes,” Hayes shrugs. “Whatever happens, we’ll go with it. I mean, I don’t sit around thinking about what’ll be the next big thing for me, and how am I gonna get to that. I don’t really think about it at all. I have faith in the idea of doing music really well and putting it out there and allowing things to happen instead of trying to force them.
“Things find their own level, people eventually hear it, there are quirky little fates of opportunities that come your way from time to time, and you have to be ready to accept those things and to roll with them. I mean, we could go for super-management, go down the main road and try and max it out, but...”
As they convincingly explain, they’re really not in it for the money.
“I make a middle-class income – maybe,” Hayes says. “I make a living like an average person going to work, like an accountant or something. We can afford to live in reasonably nice houses, but not ostentatious. We don’t have yachts and jets, we just have a car. Which is really perfect for me. It’s wonderful to be able to have a normal, decent lifestyle just from doing something that I love and care about. And if something happened that kicked it into something better or different, it would be great. But I count myself lucky as it is.”
So you’re not craving the cover of the Rolling Stone then?
“I never even thought about it until you just mentioned it. But the way I am is, if someone came along and gave me the cover of Rolling Stone, I’d go ‘great!’ And then I’d go off and do my next gig. Because if you’re not in that mental state you’re gonna be screwed.”
Cahill: “I’m not saying it’s good or bad, but the people who make the most money from this tend to be making rock or pop music. Stuff that sells in very large quantities. Jazz, classical and traditional just don’t sell in those quantities. Like, I think sales of an album like Kind Of Blue just hit the million mark recently. So that’s the reality of it. We’re not Britney Spears.”