Road to Sŵn Festival // Silverbacks

Among the many things to grace this year’s Sŵn Festival, now not too far away with the weekend of October 18-20th looming ever closer, there is a sizable contingent of Irish bands. If the UK music scene has been enjoying a moment of particular grace lately, bands across the Irish Sea have been no less active, with names like Fontaines D.C. and The Murder Capital (the latter also slated to perform at Sŵn) likely to ring familiar to the ears of anyone with an interest in alternative rock, and many other up-and-coming artists adding their voices to an increasingly varied range of acts from Ireland. The Irish scene is also represented at this year’s festival by Just Mustard and The Claque – all in all, a presence that will not go unnoticed.

Silverbacks also hail from Dublin, and with Sŵn they are on their very first forage to Wales, bringing with them a peculiar mix of melody and noise that defies an exact definition – boisterous, cutting, upbeat and very hard to categorise as any genre in particular (though they agree that it is most definitely not post-punk). Their first album, produced by Girl Band’s Daniel Fox, is expected to be released soon and will certainly not go unnoticed, promising a polished version of tracks that are already live favourites and perhaps some other surprises as well. What is sure is that they will bring to the Cardiff stage an energetic, high-tension performance style replete with sharp vocals and loud guitars, drawing in equal memories from old rock glories and the mood of Dublin pubs.

My conversation with guitarist and vocalist Kilian O’Kelly and drummer Gary Wickham touched upon all this and then some more, including past festival oddities and the complexities of translating much-loved live tracks into a studio setting.

Chiara Strazzulla: Let’s start by talking a bit about Sŵn Festival. What are the things that are you looking forwards about playing?

Gary Wickham: We’re definitely looking forwards to that. I have a friend who is a music journalist who used to live in Wales for many years, and he’s always been talking about that festival as something that would be well worth playing, as they really put in the effort to showcase new bands and quality music. So for me, I’m excited to go over and see as many bands as I can. Looking at the line-up, I know there’s a big Irish contingent too – so seeing them, but also getting to see other bands, maybe Welsh bands that we haven’t seen or we haven’t heard of before.

Kilian O’Kelly: I’ve never been to Cardiff, so I’m looking forward to that, too.

CS: Speaking of Wales, what’s your experience of the Welsh music scene so far?

GW: Not really, this is the first time we come over and play a gig, the first time actually getting into Wales and playing some music. I suppose there are the obvious ones – Super Furry Animals, Manic Street Preachers – but we don’t have a huge knowledge, to be honest.

CS: Yes, it can seem like all the music scenes are somewhat isolated from each other at times. Though hopefully that’s starting to change now.

KO: Yes, I think that’s probably accurate. I feel like, even in Dublin, because the music scene is so large and there are so many aspects to it, maybe within certain genres of music people know each other, but they wouldn’t know anyone in the old country side of things, for instance. There always seems to be a slight separation even within cities. There’s a feeling that now things are starting to come together more, bands are helping each other out – it’s probably always been there but we’re seeing it now as we start to get a bit more in contact with all these other places.

CS: I’ve definitely been hearing that the general perception is that there is some kind of momentum building.

GW: Definitely. In a sense for us it’s a bit hard to tell because of the timeline. In this current incarnation of the band we’ve been going for roughly three years now, so in a sense we’ve dropped right into the middle of it. It feels, for us, like it may always have been happening, but definitely talking to other bands you get a sense that it wasn’t always happening this much. You know, people pushing in their own communities. For instance, in Ireland, there’s a great scene in Limerick, where bands just get together with different kinds of music, they put gigs together, they bring bands down… people trying to create communities and take it back, in a sense.

CS: There seems to be a lot of guitar bands coming out of Ireland recently, that are also being seen a lot more over in the UK. How does it look from your end?

KO: It might just be fortunate timing. When Girl Band came along they were the first in a sense, and people in Ireland who were also playing guitar music took a look and thought, maybe it is possible to do more than just play gigs on the island. Fontaines D.C. for instance have followed and gone up to Seattle, done a KEXP session. I’ve been using YouTube channels like KEXP to find new bands and when you see Irish bands up on there it feels like maybe this is something that’s possible for more bands coming out of Ireland too.

GW: With music it’s always very cyclical, sometimes things come around. For a long time in Dublin it was all based around electronic music, and if that happens for long enough there’s always going to be a counterpoint to that and guitar bands will start coming up around. That might happen again – if this guitar movement keeps going, and everyone gets into it, eventually it might swing the other way around and go back to the old days of the early 2000s, and people might start doing more electronic stuff. It was a little bit of a perfect storm, what’s happened in Ireland in the last few years.

CS: Let’s talk a bit about your music. One interesting thing about your sound is that it’s very hard to put it into any specific genre. How do you feel about that – are you trying to break the mould, or did it just happen?

GW: It’s not as much that we’re trying to break the mould or not be involved in a current, it would just be very strange for us if we did come up with something that doesn’t sound like what we’ve previously done, to decide to not do it because it would confuse people, or people wouldn’t be able to put a label on it. Kilian and Dan do the majority of the early writing and then bring it to all of us, we break it apart and everyone injects what they think they can take away or add. I think because everyone in the band is into such different music – Dan and Kilian are more into compositional stuff, I’m just a big old country fan.

KO: Peadar, the other guitarist, has his own electronic outfit, too. I don’t think we’re trying to break out of being in a genre, it’s just how it goes for us – it’s how the sounds come out. A lot of bands, when they get labeled, can get quite upset about it. You can also get artists trying to sound like someone, on the other hand. I suppose the big thing in Ireland at the moment is the post-punk stuff, where everyone is trying to get put into that bracket. Though after our first album comes out I don’t think we’ll have that problem anymore. Normally if someone asks, ‘what kind of music do you write?,’ I just say music for louder guitars.

CS: You’ve mentioned that you’re working on an album, which should come out soon. Can you tell us about that?

GW: Yes, we’re hoping to get it out as soon as possible. It’s actually pretty much done, there are some small mastering things and small things that we need to change, but overall we’re pretty happy with it as a first album. We’re excited about getting the ball rolling on that. We should have some more news over the summer about it. In festival season it feels more like everyone is shutting down on that front, because everyone is out playing festivals.

KO: For the longer festival sets that we have, if people are coming to the gig they’re pretty much going to hear the whole album, plus some of the older bits.

CS: How was the process of working on the album?

GW: Really good. We did that with Dan [Daniel Fox, of Girl Band] and everyone was a bit nervous and apprehensive of how we were going to do this – we had it live, how are we going to transfer it across, so we were a bit worried – but working with Dan was easy. I don’t think any of us was expecting it to go as smooth as it did. He was there to help when we needed it, to give us a push when we needed it and maybe make us reconsider certain things, but on the whole we went with how the sounds were live, and it’s pretty much how they are now on the record.

KO: I think there’s only two or three songs on the album that we hadn’t been playing for over a year, so we knew the songs pretty well going into the studio. That always makes things a little bit easier – and then the way we did it initially was just getting a thirty-minute set going, and then over the course of two years we picked a collection of songs that we thought worked pretty well together on an album. I suppose it’s that first album kind of things where songs have come from a two-year span.

GW: The guys are insanely prolific writers, always coming up with new songs, so it was great to be able to sort of put a book-end on this section and start to move on.

CS: Lastly, what’s one anecdote from a festival that has stuck in your memory?

GW: Last year we were playing at Electric Picnic, and we were doing the little bit of sound check before you go on stage, and I can see a lot of people really intently looking around the stage, a big crowd of people just staring – it turns out that there was an entire group of naked men and women just getting body painted by the side of the stage, and there I was thinking ‘people seem really interested, this is going to be a great gig!’ and it was just naked people getting painted. That’s where I started saying that our sets need more nudity.

KO: I don’t think I can top that.

CS: What’s going on for you for the rest of the summer?

GW: We’re playing KnockanStockan festival in a couple weeks – then we’ve got some more things that we’re going to announce soon.

Sŵn Festival will be held at various venues in Cardiff from 18/10/19 to 20/10/19. Find details and buy tickets on the Sŵn Festival website.

Photo Credit: Brid O’Donovan

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Chiara Strazzulla
Chiara was born in Sicily and lives in Cardiff, where she is a freelance journalist and teacher of Classics. She is an internationally published novelist and has collaborated with a variety of publications both in English and Italian. She has been a music lover her whole life, and her taste in music ranges from glam rock to punk by way of blues and country.

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