- 05 Feb 20
When members of Eighties Sligo rockers Those Nervous Animals got together with a former singer from kids’ TV show Bear in the Big Blue House and David Bowie’s ex- guitarist, the result was a match forged in a very far-fetched musical heaven.
The year 2016 was a dramatic one, spawning a plethora of think-pieces on whether it was one of the worst of recent times. Not only was it the origin point of the political instability on both sides of the Atlantic looming large over our lives now, we lost so many great musicians – most notably David Bowie.
Yet, it’s often argued bad times make great art. New Irish group Bedlam Suitcase prove the point. It’s telling the Sligo based band came together at an event honouring the Starman. As group member and former Those Nervous Animals guitarist Pádraig Meehan recounts at Hot Press HQ: “In 2013, I was involved in starting a club called the Steampunk Club, which was an arts and spoken word event that started in the village of Dromahair where I live, later spreading to other venues. In 2016, that group decided to commemorate Bowie.”
It’s here Meehan and drummer Tom Jamieson of Auto Da Fe met future bandmate Tara Baoth Mooney. A singer and autoharp player, a whole generation will know her as the voice and songwriter for Shadow in the Jim Henson show Bear in the Big Blue House. Speaking about the first time he heard Mooney, Meehan tells Hot Press: “Tara opened the show playing autoharp and singing ‘Memory of a Free Festival’. She blew everybody away. At the end of the night we were all thrilled. There was a great crowd. There was a buzz.”
Mooney then adds: “I said: ‘Let’s continue this in some way.’ For the next year, every Wednesday the three of us met. We used our iPhones to record what we were doing. But we really went for it, just creating. We didn’t even talk about starting a band. It was just: ‘Let’s go somewhere interesting and different’. We were intoxicated by the process. It was really fertile.”
As they went along, a body of work formed. Whittling 20 songs down to 11, resulting in their debut record The Fourth Wall. Released February 7 with an album launch at The Sugar Club the night before, the record is experimental, daring and exciting. Packed full of eclectic instruments, electronics, samples, multiple singers, spoken word poetry and social commentary, it blasts listeners with a wall of sound. For those disillusioned by how safe music has become, The Fourth Wall is an album that’s eminently re-listenable, urging people to return to find new elements and melodies not immediately recognised first time around.
Speaking of how the album’s sound reflects its lyrical themes, Meehan says: “We have a mix of machines and people. It’s very much to do with the 21st century, with the anxieties. We all know what’s out there and it’s not good. We are getting to a new phase now of being numb about it. But that period we were doing the record in 2016 and 2017, the lyric on ‘Hey Caligula’ – “Bring me the head of Radio News’ – you can imagine where that comes from.”
Discussing tracks, Mooney says: “‘Meet the Media’ is very much about how people construct identities on social media, ones that do not exist. ‘Mountain Shadow’, is looking at the absolute annihilation of a forest, which happened in the area we were living in Sligo about three or four years before this song was written. The album is tackling the stuff we see around us. Instead of being preachy with our songs, we’re just stating what’s going on.”
Regarding the album’s experimentation, Jamieson says: “Anything we’ve been involved with in the past, there was always compromises. There’s lots of angles to Pádraig’s songs and they were always getting rounded off. We made a conscious decision. Let’s do what we want to do.” Reiterating this, Meehan adds: “At a certain point in your life, you’re pleasing some invisible audience. That isn’t necessarily always down to bad people putting pressure on you. Sometimes you yourself can compromise in ways you don’t really need to.”
“It’s a difficult journey to find your way to the point where you’re finding an original voice. That’s a journey of shedding your peers, your fathers and mothers and all those voices in your head saying: ‘We want bums on seats.’ We’ve been involved in loads of other things and all of them we’re good in different ways. This was about trying to be truthful to ourselves and not in any way fashionable. We didn’t have a record company to please. We didn’t have a manager.”
To accomplish this mission, the band sought out Irish guitarist Gerry Leonard – acclaimed for his collaborations with Bowie – to produce and play on the record. “He wouldn’t have been a friend of mine. I had met him before though,” says Meehan. “He was in Hinterland. They were brilliant. I was in Those Nervous Animals. We would have been in Dublin in the ’80s and into the ’90s.”
“I met him at an IMRO thing in 2017. Tara, Tom and I had at this stage a CD, rough mixes but solid ideas. ‘Hey Caligula’, ‘Sea to Moon’ and ‘Meet the Media’ were on it. Gerry was the first person we gave it to. He liked it. We spoke and he agreed to get involved.”
Bedlam Suitcase are full of praise for their hands-on producer. “We did the song ‘Catfood Millionaire’. We had structured it. But we were unhappy with it. Gerry would offer various takes on how he would do it. We didn’t agree. I said eventually: ‘Just chop it up. Cut it into pieces and give it back to us.”
“By God he did,” Jamieson laughs. “We were Skyping with him. He sent it over and myself and Pádraig stood up and gave him a standing ovation. It was just wow.” Meehan adds: “He’s playing guitar with a drill or something on it. We don’t quite know how he gets those sounds.”
Thanks to Leonard’s contacts, The Fourth Wall also has a stacked line up of guest appearances including Grammy-winner Paul Bryan [Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello] on bass and The Waterboys’ Steve Wickham on violin for multiple tracks. As well as praising the ‘amazing community’ of people who worked on the largely self-funded record, Bedlam Suitcase also credit those who donated towards the completion of the album on crowdfunding website Fund It.
“It was our first time doing it. I’ll hold my hands up, I was a sceptic,” says Jamieson. “My worry was we didn’t really have a fan base. No one knew who we were. A few knew Pádraig from Those Nervous Animals, maybe might have known me a bit from the Auto Da Fe days. But as a band, no one knew who or what we were about.”
Meehan adds: “The way it works is you nominate a figure. You must reach that or else that money never comes out of those people’s accounts. On the website, there’s a little secret part - it isn’t so obvious - that’s the failed projects. That is the shipwreck yard of people’s dreams. That’s the anxiety.”
Yet, as Mooney predicted, Bedlam Suitcase reached their target goal, enabling them to pay for the mastering, cutting and pressing of the vinyl and the CD manufacture. “We’ve had amazing support,” says Mooney. “All of us would be very uncomfortable asking for anything but we’ve just had people silently be there and show up. It’s encouraging to know there are people waiting for the music and are excited about it.”
Speaking about his pride in The Fourth Wall, Meehan says: “We’ve tried to make something of the now. I don’t hear many songs about the topics we’ve touched on. I think we’ve done them with energy and some degree of freedom.” Reiterating this, Jamieson adds: “We’ve gone on a journey on the album from beginning to end. I think anyone who goes with us on that journey will be really rewarded.”
• Bedlam Suitcase launch The Fourth Wall and their new single ‘Mountain Shadow’ at The Sugar Club on February 6.