On listening to Burials, the debut album from Dublin/Meath trio the Ambience Affair, the most striking thing is the power of singer Jamie Clarke’s voice. Take the opening track ‘Weeds’: it constantly evolves, growing in stature to the point where Clarke spits out the chorus, “And I’ll wait in my bed,” with such ferocity that you expect him to be hoarse by the time the next song begins. So you can imagine my surprise on interviewing him.


Clarke speaks fast. Not so fast that you can’t keep up, but fast enough as to answer several questions that haven’t been asked in one long sentence. But there are also a lot of pauses, um’s, y’know’s and yeah’s. I expected Clarke to be shouting down the phone line like he does throughout Burials. But he doesn’t. Does it take confidence to sing so gung-ho, where everything is on the line? “I always liked singers who did that,” Clarke tells me. “I was – and still am – a big fan of Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes. And even Conor of Villagers. They sing, and they sing loud … [because they’re confident]. It’s a ballsy thing to do, I guess. But not to scream, not pointlessly. I hope that there’s a point to the way I try to sing. It’s not over angsty. I’d be worried that people might perceive it as, not emo, but over angsty. Conor Oberst does that sometimes, a little bit too much.

“[We want] a kind of restrained, harnessed anger, which I try and go to everytime I sing. I always found that [to be] the truest way of trying to say the lyrics, basically. I didn’t always used to sing in that way; I was a bit more singer-songwriter a long, long time ago. But for the past three or four years I’ve been a bit more true to myself, where I try and sing with as much conviction as the lyrics possess. The lyrics are very, very important to me, although there isn’t a whole pile of them. The only way I could justify writing lyrics like that is by singing in that way.”

Originally just Clarke, the Ambience Affair grew to include drummer Marc Gallagher and then, last October, bassist Yvonne Ryan. Clarke says it wasn’t difficult to cede control of the band. In fact, he was happy to do so. “I knew the songs needed something else. There were one or two songs that I had that we started to rewrite together and I was happy to let some of that go, really, because Mark was 50 per cent of the band – and he was from the moment he came in. And I knew that that’s the way it had to be. If he felt he was like a session drummer or doing it as a favour or something – he always had to be half of the band, because that’s the way he’d go into the songs: he’d go in as a 50 per cent songwriter. Therefore that would make him play better and write better.”

Clarke continues: “I remember going for a drink with him a couple of weeks after we started rehearsing and I said to him, ‘I want you to be irreplaceable.’ And that’s basically what he’s become.”

Clarke and Gallagher both work in the same music store in Dublin, the same place they met each other. It saved Clarke from having to advertise for a drummer, something he didn’t want to do anyway. After Gallagher came to see Clarke in one of many open mic spots, armed with only a guitar and a loop station, they jammed together and enjoyed it. An EP spawned in the form of Fragile Things in April 2009. It’s telling that three years on, ‘Fragile Things’ is still such a striking song. They played support slots around the country, recorded another EP a year later, Patterns, and repeated the cycle of touring. But something was missing. That something was Yvonne.

“I was playing bass on tracks and it didn’t sound good ‘cause I’m not a bassist,” Clarke confesses. “So she played on about four or five tracks… and made it sound much better. She came in at, I guess, a weird time for her where we had the whole album pretty much done but at a really good time because I was so ready to not do anything with the album for a little while. And so we started to write new songs and I got really excited because with this new person in the band it gave me more freedom to write and to not worry about certain aspects – I didn’t have to worry about bass for one thing. I could be a lot more freer and I didn’t have to cram so much in. So with the newer songs, which we’re going to play one or two of on the tour. It’s a lot more open; I wasn’t trying to compact the songs.”

Burials was recorded and ready to go in February, Clarke says, but the band wanted everything to be perfect. They knew exactly what they wanted with this, their debut album. They wanted to get the right artwork, videos ready and distribution sorted. They were also adamant they wanted to release Burials on record. “The vinyl thing was something that we wanted to do since we joined the band. We began to realise how difficult that actually is in terms of costings: it’s very, very expensive to do. We kind of had a bee in our bonnet about it, you know, it’s something that’s very important to us. From the start we always had quite tactile, handmade EPs and covers and artwork, and that stuff to us was as important as the product inside.”

Burials is a short, sharp burst of energy. It’s only just over the half-hour mark. But for nearly all of those 33 minutes you won’t be able to come up for breath. Think Arcade Fire covering Radiohead. Well, maybe not. That was one of Clarke’s “asshole things to do” – it’s a jokey reference, he swears. One of the ideas I put to him is that it stands out in the current Irish music scene simply because it’s an acoustic album that doesn’t try to span a myriad genres. It’s almost unique. He agrees, reluctantly. “A lot of bands wear their influences on their sleeves, I guess, and just try and reinterpret something, something that’s gone before, which is completely fine,” he adds hastily. “But I was really not interested in doing that. I wanted to write something that was as unique as I could write it and to start afresh. I was listening to music and I didn’t want to emulate it, I just wanted to take what I liked about it and transform it into something completely different. And that’s always what I wanted to be.”

You can’t talk about the Ambience Affair without mentioning the live show. You may have seen it on the album tour a few weeks ago. You’ll get another chance to see it when they support Lisa Hannigan next month. The grandiose nature of Burials is ratcheted up even more so for a show that when I saw it in Cyprus Avenue lasted nearly an hour. Clarke says they had worked on the show throughout the summer, trying to perfect it. The loop station is still by Clarke’s feet as it was in the early days. But the pounding of feet, the sweat and the screams sound – and smell – as fresh as ever. When ‘To Be Led’ feeds into ‘The Fallen’, as it does on the album, there’s almost a sense of euphoria, like you’re watching the band attempt it for the first time. Sadly, there was little more than a handful of people at the show, through no fault of the band (though they do address this in a blog post here).

One thing that sticks with you, and especially if you play guitar, is that never once does Clarke make a mistake with his trusty sidekick. The loop station is in perfect harmony with the singer and band throughout. Does he ever make mistakes with it? “It’s good craic, yeah. There are other ways of doing it, which are a bit more expensive – you can have foolproof… loops. In a way, yeah, it’s still really difficult but it’s the only way I know how to do things. And I guess we played some of the songs… on the tour five, six or seven hundred times at this stage. And it’s still interesting for me because I can still mess up – it’s all in the challenge. It doesn’t matter how many times you play the songs they’re still new in a way; you’re still trying to perfect it and chase the elusive dream, which is a perfect set, a perfect game with no mistakes. That keeps you going, keeps you fresh, keeps you energised for the next show. Unless you have a terrible gig where you make 20 or 50 mistakes. And then you think you’ve taken a step back. But, touch wood, that thankfully hasn’t happened in some time.”

Clarke is never more confident when he’s talking about how much he believes in the band. Despite that disappointed blog post, there was one thing Clarke said in the interview with me that is as striking now as it was a few weeks ago and still will be next year and probably the year after that too. “We want to blow people away as much as we can, and for it to be captivating, epic and everything I look for in a live performance,” Clarke says, with no sign of a quiver in his voice. “It’s all for that moment in time.”

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