- 06 Oct 21
Having joined forces as HousePlants, Bell X1’s Paul Noonan and electronic artist Daithí Ó Drónaí discuss the state of Irish music, and punching “through the fog of anxiety” during lockdown with their debut album, Dry Goods.
There are few better ways to welcome a dance album into the world than to share it with a joyously rowdy festival crowd on the weekend of its release. That’s true for any project, but particularly so for HousePlants’ Dry Goods – an album created during the darkness of lockdown, in an attempt to find a glimmer of collaborative magic and common understanding in the midst of global misery.
“We played It Takes A Village in Cork over the weekend, and I’m still recovering from that,” grins Daithí Ó Drónaí, one half of the supergroup duo. “That was the first proper gig that I’ve had that I was able to relax afterwards, and have a proper night out.”
And how did his partner-in-crime fare?
“Oh you know, I’m an old man!” Paul Noonan playfully asserts. “I let the young people go off into the night. And sure, good luck to them!
“No, I didn’t rock it like Daithí,” he concedes. “I had a ten-year-old’s birthday party to come home to – and didn’t want to feel like the worst piece of shit in the world. I’ve been there, having had nights out, and then having to do something wholesome the next day. It’s awful.”
Although both Paul and Daithí have had a busy few weeks – playing with Bell X1 and under his own mononym, respectively – giving Dry Goods its official live debut at It Takes A Village was particularly special, as it also happened to be the pair’s first gig together since restrictions were loosened on live events.
“It was this truly celebratory, back-in-the-room sort of vibe,” Paul nods. “We had both done a lot of the restricted shows over lockdown – with people basically having to stay away from each other, to a certain extent. This was the first time that it felt like it was a sea of people bouncing. That gave it a great sense of reality. Our vision for this was always that it’s natural home would be those kinds of environments.”
The duo first collaborated on ‘Take The Wheel’, a track from Daithí’s 2019 album L.O.S.S., which also featured Orla Gartland, Ailbhe Reddy, Sinéad White and more – and picked up a nomination for Album of the Year at the Choice Music Prize.
Over lockdown, that creative spark was reignited once again.
“Paul sent me a rough demo of ‘Companero’ – just to say hello during the lockdown,” Daithí recalls. “We started working on that for the fun of it, really. By the time it got to a certain level, we realised that it didn’t suit the Daithí stuff, and it didn’t suit the Paul stuff.
“That was the starting point to turn it into something that was more considered,” he continues. “Pretty quickly, HousePlants had its own sound. It has all these live acoustic drums, so it has a very distinct feel to it – and there’s a punky nature to the whole thing.”
After their first collaboration on ‘Take The Wheel’, Paul says he became increasingly intrigued by Daithí’s process.
“Dance music is not really something that I have made, and I’m not really part of that world,” he acknowledges. “It’s just a very different way of working. There isn’t the similar kind of chordal journey that a traditional ‘songy’ song – written on a guitar or piano – would have. So it’s a different approach. I was really intrigued to see what we would do, marrying those two worlds.”
Lockdown not only provided the backdrop to Dry Goods, but also inspired some of its subject matter too. The irresistibly tongue-in-cheek ‘What’s With All The Pine?’, for instance, easily takes the crown for the year’s finest ode to Zoom meetings – while remaining oddly uplifting.
“Most of this was done in lockdown, with me on my computer, and he on his, in our own recording spaces, firing stuff to each other,” Paul explains. “A lot of it was sort of unspoken. We had this manifesto – that it would be this defiant fucking punch through the fog of anxiety that was enveloping us all. While not wallowing in the moment. It is a lockdown record, but we didn’t want to mope. We wanted to do the opposite.
“‘What’s With All The Pine?’ is a jokey take on quite a serious thing,” he continues. “A lot of us had to turn to Zoom as a way of working. People were curating their backgrounds, and conveying a sense of togetherness – when it was actually a very stressful time, and still continues to be. You’re not particularly together, and your life is a bit frayed around the edges. And it gets kind of competitive as well – like, ‘Who has the most books behind them?’”
In addition to the lack of gigs, and the subsequent effect on livelihoods, the social impact of lockdown was particularly hard for many artists.
“When you’re a musician, your identity and your whole social world is built around going to gigs, and seeing people, and catching people on the festival route,” Daithí reflects. “There’s so many people who I know who work at gigs, who I’m just starting to see again now. So there was definitely a moment during lockdown, where we were reaching out to each other – as a form of being social in some way.”
As Paul notes, this sense of community has always been an integral part of Irish music.
“When Bell X1 were coming up, there was a really nice sense of people sharing gear, and sharing spaces,” he says.
“Those with the recording chops would come in and give you a hand, and set you up. There’s always been a strong sense of very practical, as well as emotional, support for each other here. Some people can imagine it being bitchy and competitive, but it really isn’t.”
As we gradually emerge from lockdown, that community is once again stepping out front and centre – and there’s a tangible thirst for the gigs and creative work they have to offer.
“A lot of the funded gigs really proved that we have promoters and people putting on gigs in this country who really know what they’re doing, and know how to put on something special,” Daithí points out. “With the Give Us The Night campaign, there’s also a push for that – organising these amazing, art-filled, beautiful presentations where we can put music on. We seem to be really valuing those kinds of nights right now, and I hope that continues.”
Daithí’s just as eager to enthuse about the diversity of the current scene in Ireland.
“There’s a huge wide range of sounds,” he remarks. “There was a time in Ireland when people really looked to the UK music scene, and the American music scene. There was an inclination to try and sound like that. But there seems to be a big push at the moment for an Irish scene that’s making its own way. It’s super exciting.”
As artists who occupy their own space within the wider legacy of Irish music, both members of HousePlants have also been inspired by recent efforts to reconnect to the country’s deeper musical roots.
“Everyone is part of the lineage in some shape or form,” Paul considers. “One of the really interesting things that’s happening now, is that younger artists are taking ownership of that link to traditional music – people like The Mary Wallopers, Junior Brother and Lankum. It’s a really interesting and strong continuation of that centuries-old tradition of making folk music from our distinct heritage and history. That’s a lovely thing to be around for.”
“I’m from a traditional Irish music background – my grandfather [Chris Droney] was quite a well-known traditional Irish musician,” adds Daithí. “When I was coming up, there was this sense that trying to take influence from traditional music often turned into this really disastrous ‘Cotton Eye Joe’ style of thing. You were one step away from becoming a horrendously cheesy, techno-trad session. Which was grim. But there seems to be a massive breakthrough at the moment.
“Suddenly, you can take these Irish things, and bring out the real beauty in everything,” he continues. “It’s the same even with Paul’s writing. He has a way of using an Irish phrase in a non-cheesy way, while adding layers of meaning onto it. One of the reasons I was drawn to Paul in general was because of that. Even our track, ‘No Stopping Me’, has this extra layer of Irishness over the top of it.”
When they’re not busy expanding the Irish music canon, the return of gigs is currently keeping both members of HousePlants on their toes: “If somebody told me that two bands is twice the work then I wouldn’t have done it in the first place!” Daithí laughs.
“Bell X1 has become a sort of hub, or mothership, from which all kinds of other things have sprung,” Paul notes. “We did five shows last week as the full five-piece band, and it was lovely to get together again. And we’ve got some new tunes on the go. Over lockdown, we were getting together occasionally, just to see each other – but it was great to have that slow time to dream up some new things.”
“I’m working on Daithí stuff at the moment – but the big push right now for HousePlants is to get this album on the road as much as we possibly can,” Daithí adds. “We honestly cannot wait until we can have a proper indoor, standing, full-capacity gig. As Paul was saying – to be a full-time musician, you have to have four or five things on the run at the same time. I’m working on The Beekeepers as well at the moment, which is an artist’s retreat in Clare. Lots of painting and gardening mixed in with the music for a while!”
Dry Goods is out now.