The latest TPOE podcast is now live. It’s a 56-minute interview with Dublin-based artist Owensie, who has just released his third solo album Dramamine, via Out on a Limb. You can listen to and buy the album on Bandcamp. You can listen to the podcast with the Soundcloud player embedded below or subscribe on iTunes here and never miss a show. We’ve had lots of interesting chats and topics discussed so far, and interviews with people involved in the Irish music scene, like Patrick Freeman, Louise Bruton and Steve Ryan. After the jump are some (extensive) highlights from a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting talk with Michael Owens in a Dublin bar.
Owensie’s upcoming gigs:
November 27: Kinsale (House show, w/ Big Monster Love and At Last An Atlas)
November 28: Plugd Records (in-store acoustic), Cork (1.15pm)
December 19: Popical Island All-Dayer, Whelans (all day)
Highlights from the interview
Owensie: When the album was written and put together it was primarily to be a record. I was always conscious of the fact it was going to be released on record primarily. The last album was made on that basis as well. Obviously I learned a lot from the previous experience. But this was very much making two sides of a record… Lyrics are really important for me in songwriting. It’s something I spend a lot of time on, an increasing amount of time on with each album. I just think that, for me personally, if a song doesn’t have very good lyrics I’m probably not drawn to it. So when it comes to making/writing songs, I’d operate from the basis that if it doesn’t have a story or some kind of narrative or even enough lines or phrases – sometimes even just a simple word that will set off little explosions in a person’s imagination that will allow them to feel some kind of ownership with the feeling in the song – I don’t think there’s any point in it, personally. Personally I wouldn’t derive much pleasure from writing songs purely to make something sound as gorgeous as possible. That’s probably why it worked out better me working with Dec [Hynes] doing production on this album because he would be more interested in the overall sound production of things that I maybe wouldn’t pay enough attention to; I’d be thinking more about the words.
Did you come into the studio with the songs all finished, the lyrics all done? Or did you get ideas from the people who worked on the album?
What I originally set out to do was make a stripped-back solo album that was just going to be guitar and voice so I spent a lot of time at home trying to write the songs to be standalone things that I could go off and perform on my own. And once I started recording the songs I sort of realised that, for the purpose of making it sound like a real record, we need to add some minimal production to this to give it some real depth, otherwise it may as well be like a live album from a shed or something. So with that in mind I approached my friend Dek Hynes about doing production. When he took on that task he ran away with the album in terms of the amount of production and ideas that he had. I was quite nervous about that at first but the longer the process went on the more what he was doing started to sound really good, almost overwhelming at times but somewhere in the middle of making the album I decided to let go of the idea of it being a stripped back thing and then to bring it up to a bigger sounding album – while trying to retain a certain level of understatement and not being massive sounding.
What else has Dek worked on?
He’s recorded a lot of bands and helped out a lot of bands with sound and live performance. He’s worked with Sacred Animals previously – Darragh Nolan. He recorded No Spill Blood’s first EP. They’re just bigger names that people might recognise. But I mean he’s been working with and recording loads of bands in different ways for years and years and years; making demos or just helping out in the studio or just helping out with live [stuff]. I think he worked with Cloud Castle Lake too for a little while. He’s just one of those guys who’s always around doing stuff. He’s really really good. He can play anything and he’s got a really good ear. He’s the kind of person people will go to when they’re working on something just to run it past him for a second opinion or something like that because people trust his musical sensibilities.
You’ve talked previously about Citizens being a companion album to Aliens. Is Dramamine a completely separate album to them? Is it related at all?
I wanted this album to be a breakaway from the first two in some regard. I didn’t feel there was a trilogy to be made so I tried to set out with somewhat of a clean slate in making the record. But thematically I don’t know if I necessarily achieved that, maybe I’m just stuck in that way of writing.
Conor O’Brien (Villagers) plays drums on the album – how did that come about?
That was Dek – Dek would be mates with him and he bumped into him at a gig last Christmas, I think it was, and they were just chatting, cos Dek was working on the album at the time, they were just talking about it and Conor just offered to help out in any way he could. He said it to Dek and Dek said it to me and I was just kinda like, ‘Jeez, god, I dunno’. I wasn’t even sure if I’d ask him or not – I thought maybe he’d had a few drinks and was just being overly generous or something. But I sent him an email saying, in a no-pressure way, that I’d love to have ya, if you’d like to help out on the album in some way that’d be great. So we went out to his house in January of this year with some mics and stuff like that…
You didn’t know what he wanted to do or what you wanted to do?
Yeah like I gave him the songs – just the bare songs – and said have a listen and if you get any ideas we’ll come out and record. I thought we were just going out to record some backing vocals or something but he set up the drum kit and lots of stuff and we just spent the day in his living room messing around and recording. It was really good fun actually. … He can play anything – he’s a magician.
Is that the thing with the Dublin scene – everyone is connected and willing to help out?
Yeah that’s a very positive way of framing it and I think you’re right, yeah.
Is there a negative way of framing it?
I dunno. People often talk about Dublin being too small or people know each other too well or it’s too easy to know people – what’s the word, being too parochial or inward or too sceney or whatever – but I think you’re right. There’s a lot of crossover across the different pockets of different styles. People are often helping each other out in different ways, I think it’s really good.
Have you guested on anybody’s albums in recent years?
I did some collaborative stuff with Bantum on his last album, but that was mainly just vocals and stuff like that
You were on the song with Eimear O’Donovan, Roll…
… Part II, yeah. That was a couple of years ago now. I think that’s about the extent of my crossover. Well largely because I’m a parent and have a full-time job so I’m not the kind of person who’s available much to do music-related things.
So working a full-time job and being a dad – when do you get to play music or write lyrics, and record?
In terms of writing lyrics, that’s something I do at lunchtime. If I’m working on a song or a batch of songs I’ll just go to a coffee shop at lunchtime and spend most of that time writing. I’ll do things like practise singing in the car driving to work and then if it’s a case of recording, it’s literally a case of leave work on Friday, get on the motorway, go down to the studio, record all weekend, get back on Saturday night or Sunday and go to work on Monday. It’s pretty exhausting…
I’m intrigued by – not the way you force yourself to do it – but that you sit down on your lunch break to write lyrics. You think about what you want to write about.
Once I have an idea or a few ideas, it’s harder for me to switch off, it’s harder not to think about it than to think about it. A few years ago I tried to stop writing for a while and that just didn’t work out at all. Like I’ll wake up every morning with music ideas in my head. It’s something that I only realised more recently: like, I wake up every morning with these really bad pop melodies in my head and I filter them out [while] eating breakfast, then I’ll have ideas that I like, and that’s constantly going on in the background throughout the day, so…
Is that while you’re listening to other music as well?
Yeah, music and people and everything else. I wish I had more time to do it but…
Do you keep notebooks of ideas and stuff?
So you’re constantly writing, tonnes and tonnes of notes, and these nine songs that make up Dramamine come together…
I used to have one notebook and that would keep things relatively organised and once that finished you’d get another one, so you’d know where everything is, the notes for each song. But now it’s become memos on phones and draft emails and they’re kind of spread out a bit more. I’m actually in my 9-5 life I’m a very organised person but when it comes to songwriting it’s just this scraps of crap everywhere and everything’s a mess. Which I think for me is a healthy thing, to be disordered and disorganised in that way and not to be completely anally retentive about everything in life. But it’s exhausting at the same time, trying to be those two persons: the very organised, reliable person and then the sort of scatty creative type.
Do you want to talk a little bit about the lyrics of Dramamine?
Sure. I tried to be a little more autobiographical with this one.
That’s what I thought, but I wasn’t sure. I mean, have you been autobiographical on your other two albums?
Not particularly. I don’t think I was in a very conscious way. I think, ultimately, whatever your issues or problems are, they’ll come out in your lyrics. Other people might not necessarily get it but it’s always there, your subconscious is always projected out into everything you create in some way or other. But… You’ve got ‘I Don’t Mind’ there…
Yeah. Oh do you want to look at the lyrics?
No I know them. I learnt them off by heart [laughs]. Yeah the opening song, for me, was very autobiographical, just being slightly disappointed about approaching middle age as all your childhood dreams slowly diminish. You start to realise all the things you’re not going to be able to do or achieve or potentially not be able to do or achieve in a lifetime. That’s what that was about. I’m always writing about broader social and political things or more serious issues, so I find it hard to be that honest about that real kind of personal, selfish kind of subject matter. ‘Oh I’m just so disappointed about all the things I won’t get to do in my privileged first world life, y’know?
You’re coming to terms with it?
Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m pretty well-adjusted to that, but I guess it’s more about acknowledging that you might feel that way sometimes, and that’s OK.
You have done quite a lot with your life, like travelling and living in Brazil. You got to see the world?
I guess it’s the thing with parenthood as well, again, that real selfish thought of, ‘Now that I have all these responsibilities I can’t just run away anymore, I can’t just go off and go on wild adventures’.
Is that a selfish thing you’ve go to grapple with?
Yeah, I think it’s a selfish thought, but we all think selfish thoughts and it’s OK to think that way every once in a while.
Was it difficult to decide to put this all out in public.
Ahhh… not too much no. No, no, I think I’m comfortable enough in my own skin to just say yeah, it’s all right. I mean, if you’re releasing records you have to be comfortable.
We then continue to talk about Owensie’s musical journey, playing in the punk bands Puget Sounds and Terrordactyl, how he got into punk and its appeal, how he got into guitar, living in Leeds and what that taught him. And on 31 minutes: Is what Owensie is doing now what he would consider punk? “Yeah, for me it’s punk as fuck because it’s the most untypically sounding form of music but it still has the same message and I’m not performing that message to a load of punks at a punk gig. I’m performing it to the more general public, which I think is a better use of such messages [laughs].”
Here’s a little more from around the 37.30 mark
When did you move back to Dublin and were surprised that there were now more venues, more bands, more opportunities?
I probably started living in Dublin around the mid-noughties, like 2004 I think, and again, we were mainly just based in the punk scene, we didn’t really have any great concerns for anything outside of that at the time. I guess we were quite insular in that regard. But there was younger people, younger than us in the punk scene cos we’d stopped being teenagers and were in our early twenties. So it was very positive at that time because instead of monthly gigs there were weekly gigs and sometimes there might be two gigs in one week or something like that, and a lot more bands around. That tied in with… the punk scene had become a lot more politically active then as well and there was squatting going on and things like that. It started to feel bigger and stronger and it was a lot more intertwined with the Seomra Spraoi and Social Centre scene in Dublin at the time. It just felt like something that had grown into something a bit more sustainable and more positive.
What bands were around back then?
Loads of bands: in Dublin there was Easpa Measa, up in Belfast there were bands like the Dagda, and this was around the time that the Redneck Manifesto when they started out would’ve been playing the same kind of gigs as well, more just the DIY underground scene. Because Dublin, or even Ireland as a country, was still quite small, the mix of styles of bands was a bit more eclectic that you’d find in mainland Europe. I think that changed over time to be less so, but in Dublin at the time, you’d have a postrock band playing with a ska-punk band or a metal-punk band or something like that. It didn’t make sense but it was a lot more, I always found it a bit more entertaining.
On the idea of sound conforming – where does that idea come from?
I’m just speaking specifically about the punk scene. It just seemed to become very, very punk and less creative than it may have been before. But that said, I haven’t gotten to go to many punk gigs over the years, so I don’t have a great insight into the status quo of the scene at present. But there was a time there that it did seem to become all about hardcore and everything is raging, screaming guitars and big amps and not a whole lot happening on the margins of that in terms of more experimental bands within the punk scene. But as independent DIY music grew in Dublin as well, I think anyone in the punk scene who felt like doing something different probably gravitated away from punk into the general independent music scene in Dublin as that because bigger; there was no need to… I guess you had more places to play gigs, or to have promoters or people organising gigs who’d let your band play. It wasn’t just limited to that anymore.
Where did the idea of Owensie come from? First of all, is that a nickname, and what made you want to go out on your own?
Yeah it is [a nickname], everyone calls me that. And I couldn’t think of a name for the thing, but I just reached a point, I’d written a certain amount of songs where I thought, ‘I just have to start performing this’. Probably a stupid idea at the time but I guess I’d written that many songs that I felt I had to perform it even in a sense to get something off your chest. So I just asked people for a few gigs under my own name or my own nickname and once it started, I started getting more gigs and more gigs, and ultimately had an album and released that. I was just about to put it out, to upload it as a free download album, just myself saying ‘here’s my album, hope everyone likes it, have a download’. A week or two before I was about to do that, Out on a Limb got in touch, because I’d sent in demos a long time ago, I think they saw that I was about to do that soon, they got in touch saying actually we’d like to hear the album and possibly release it. So then once that happened it became more of a big deal than I perhaps originally set out for it to be.
And you were OK going along with that?
Yeah it was fine, because at the time it was exciting, it was like you’re about to upload/put your album on the internet and then someone comes along and says actually we’d like to release it on CD and we’ll promote it for you. For that to happen to anyone I think, even on a very, very small scale is always great, that someone is going to help you out in that way. So once that happened it became more of a big deal and then I just spiralled it from there [laughs] but I didn’t get to change my name.
So coming back to Dramamine, it’s the third album you’ve released under your own name and with OOAL. we talked about it being a more empathetic album – I’m thinking about the last two tracks on the album. It sounds kind of depressing, like you’ve been beaten down by life. Is it just a case of you being like, Oh man, society is just fucked…
It’s just Dublin, I guess Ireland over the last five or six years, or longer. Just despairing at the place to some extent. I mean so many people have left, and that’s something that’s becoming apparent now in terms of how the music scene outside of Dublin has diminished a bit. There’s not really, there’s not those kind of people around in places like Galway, Limerick and Cork putting on small independent gigs in the way that there used to be before. As an independent DIY artist it’s a lot harder to actually make a tour around Ireland in a way that it wasn’t before. And I’m sure that’s largely to do with the fact so many young people are gone. So for those of us who have had to stick around, I think it’s OK to acknowledge every once in a while that, ‘Jesus, Dublin is fucked, y’know?’ It’s a great place in a lot of ways but I just think that, not just for me but for a lot of people, there is a quiet sense of despair at the place sometimes. It’s kind of a tragedy in all of the bad things that have happened over the years since the economy collapsed and how that’s impacted on so many people’s lives.
From 51 minutes: How do you want people to feel coming out of listening to the nine songs that make up Dramamine? Because it’s gorgeous musically but the subject matter is so dark that it can get you down. Is that what you were going for in the overall sound and do you want people to be upbeat coming out of it or to be ‘oh fuck…’?
I think with this kind of music it’s dealing with specific emotions, darker emotions that everyone has and feels, and that it’s OK to have and to feel. The best I hope for in people listening to this album is that they feel consoled or would be able to relate those feelings when they’re feeling them to the record, but they can also let them go and feel happy. I’m not trying to make people feel depressed, but this is maybe something you can listen to when you are feeling that way and you might find some degree of hope from it.
And finally, discussing the launch gig in Dublin on Friday, November 13.
It went really well. It was in a place called A4 Sounds just off Dorset Street. It was the first time that they’d had a gig in this art space so it was really fun in that we brought in a PA system – well, I should say Dek did, he set it up because he knows how to do all those things. While we were kind of building the stage and the sound, they were building the venue and they were hanging curtains, they were hanging fabrics from the ceiling, they were hanging lights to give it the atmosphere of a venue, laying out chairs, cleaning – so it felt like we were really building the gig from nothing, from a black canvas. Even that whole collective process of building a gig before performing a gig was great. The people were so nice there and the actual performance itself went really well. We sold out the gig, it was great, there was lots of people there. Dek had also made really nice visuals, it was one hour of the sea, basically, of waves, so I think that helped people get into the zone of being able to zone out a bit and not focus on anything in particular. I think people really came away with a sense of, I dunno, I think there was some degree of emotional connection with the performance, but at the same time, during the performance people started to get notifications on their phone about what was happening in France so there was a strange… not that it was articulated in any way but I did sense a strange feeling in the last maybe five or ten minutes of the performance. And as soon as we finished I snuck out the back door because there’s a pub just next door, I wanted to sneak out before I had to talk to anyone and to try and sit at the bar and maybe have a quiet pint before going back. So I snuck out the back door without anyone seeing and ran into the pub and went up to the bar, ordered a pint, looked up at the TV and could see what had just happened at the Eagles of Death Metal concert. So it was quite a surreal moment to just have finished the performance, the first performance of the album, and to see that people were being killed and shot.