On the latest episode of the Point of Everything podcast (Soundcloud/iTunes), I talked to the Bonk frontman Phil Christie. They’re been around for a while – all the pictures below are from a gig they played at the Kino in Cork (which has lost its Frank and Walters fan but gained a blue phoenix, if you’re passing) with the Altered Hours in December 2016 – all taken by Brid O’Donovan (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram). You can listen to the podcast or read a slightly edited version of the chat below. They’ve just released their debut album, The Bonk Seems To Be A Verb, which I really like. They played a couple shows last week and are back on the road this October bank-holiday weekend.

The Bonk tour dates:
October 26: The Sky and The Ground, Wexford (w/FIXITY) 8pm
October 27: Bello Bar, Dublin (w/FIXITY) 8pm
October 28: Rogue Gallery, Waterford (w/FIXITY) 8pm
October 29: The Roundy, Cork (w/FIXITY) 10pm

You moved to Dublin like four years ago. I always associate O Emperor, which you’re also in, as ‘from Waterford, based in Cork’ band. I thought you lived in Cork still.
I think in my mind I will move back to Cork. In my mind it’s probably a temporary thing as well so temporary exile rather than a permanent situation. I’ve been up in Dublin for about four years, still very much a lot of people who I’d play music with would be down in Cork but there’s two of us in the Bonk based in Dublin, so we’re usually coming from two directions to get to any of these gigs.

Does that make life more complicated just trying to get a release together and practise?
Absolutely, yeah. It also makes things simpler, in a way, in that there are no practices. I think the time we most get to play and get into musical situations are usually recording sessions, and then whatever comes out of those. We have little rehearsals here and there before a run of gigs but we haven’t really been a band that has put too much time into rehearsals. I guess part of that is the fact we’ve all played together in lots of different formations so we’re pretty used to slotting into one another – it’s just important that we remind ourselves of what we’re doing.

Lots of people will be familiar with the names involved with making the album, such as Dan Walsh and Emil Nerstrand from Fixity.
A lot of people schedule their recording sessions around when Emil is in Cork, over from Sweden. One of the sessions we did last summer, actually, Emil was around so we drafted him in and he ended up on some of the recordings, which was great. There’s a good bit of cross-pollination going on, like with Dan as well, I’ve known Dan for a long time, played with him in different things. I guess in the last couple years we’ve had more of a chance to help out with each other’s stuff. I was doing some shows with Fixity in June and I’ll be playing with them for these gigs as well.

Oh really?
Yeah, it’s nice to just get busy, get to work, so we’re enjoying that.

Improvised music – easier to practise?
With both groups (Fixity and the Bonk) there’s an approach where there’s certain structures that are agreed and then there’s a lot of freedom and responsibility to just play around in those structures. That’s a common feature of both – I think with both bands as well, there are some pieces that are more structured than others. A lot of it is just choices on the night or at the gig, which is cool. It kinda reflects the way that I learned to play – I’ve always been more at home with improvising. It often sounded hard to do things the same way twice, just because it’s always been a playful approach. If you fall into the mindset where improvisation is seen as copping out maybe a little bit, you’re not polishing details – it can be a lot more difficult actually to find your way when nobody’s telling you what to do. You have to answer to yourself alone – it’s kind of an interesting experience.

the bonk kino1

I’ve seen Fixity a couple of times – it does seem like you glance at each other and like ‘oh, the song’s about to end’
Yeah, yeah, yeah, that can happen. It’s a funny thing, it just works out different ways at different gigs – whole sections can take off differently, dynamically, especially when everybody is improvising. In both bands I think most of the musicians are at home with that. It’s a different way of approaching them.

Do you think there’s a happy medium between the both, of being too rehearsed or too improvised.
Depending on what you’re trying to do there’s definitely varying degrees of how much you want to structure things. I think we have that built in to what we do. The stuff that I’ve been writing is locked down by rhythms mostly and so the rhythms keep the framework, then melodically and harmonically there’s some shifts and different things like that. Like with anything else the more you do something, some structures set. Even some of the recordings that were made, they were the first goes that we had at a tune, then when that’s recorded it gains some kind of validity as an original version, you kind of tend to revolve around the structures that evolved naturally.

On the album’s Bandcamp page, you refer to them as ‘loose minimal song forms’ – do you think of them as these things that have come together rather than ‘songs’?
Yeah they seem, to me, a little bit, there’s a lot of repetition involved and lots of loops and then overlapping loops, especially with rhythms, there’s a lot of layering of meters and things like that. It doesn’t seem quite so linear as a usual song structure might be imagined. Also lyrically it’s based more around minimalism – the lyrics are more like chants that are used as loops and layers to fit in with the rest of it. It doesn’t seem like a going from a to b kind of song, you’re kind of trapped in one moment and getting deeper into that one moment for a period of time until it comes to an end. It’s kind of unusual for me so I’m only feeling myself around it as well. That’s why it’s enjoyable.

The lyrics are so buried in the mix. You’ve got to really listen to the able.
Ha, yeah, make it hard for people. The way the vocal is treated is as more of a texture. The sound of a vocal as an instrument is interesting to me. I guess those elements distinguish it from traditions song forms in some way. Although I think form in itself is being explored in so many different ways by so many different people and now it’s difficult to find a standard any more.

Like how things used to be done?
Well just structuring of musical pieces or songs or whatever you want to call them. There’s so much musical culture to draw from these days that there’s lots of different approaches that can be taken to that. It’s not like it’s a completely novel approach but it definitely would diverge from older song ideas… Each piece seems self-contained in some ways. It’s taking one idea and spinning it out and exploring the idea. They do have lots of things in common, especially rhythmically and in terms of the instrumentation, like organs and horns and lots of percussion, that ties it in together.

the bonk kino

Influences on the album
The problem I’ve always had with writing is that my interests and tastes are fairly diverse and I found it difficult to find a formula or a way of writing that would be able to include lots of different approaches. The starting point for this was looking at swing and swung rhythms – a lot of the music that I would’ve listened to would be influenced by older blues and the feel of swing vs straight rhythms. That was the starting point rather than any particular genre or artist. I was interested in trying to play around with the in-between places between swung and straight rhythms. In that effort, I did start looking into people like Graham Bond, who’s an organ player from the 60s, the Graham Bond Organisation. That was one early thing that interested me. It’s such a broad idea that I was able to incorporate lots of different influences, which was the aim, really, to find a line of inquiry that could take in lots of different things. I don’t like the idea of being limited by influences or genres or stuff like that – but being able to play around with them appeals to me. That idea was the centre thing rather than any particular kind of music.

1960s – are you constantly discovering new acts and sounds from the 60s? Is there something about the decade that keeps drawing you back in?
The way I find it tends to work is that you come back to things and start appreciating things on different levels. Say, the garage thing in the 60s is something that I would’ve been listening to for a long time but the penny kind of dropped with me with the nuances of the grooves that are used in some of those records. Also then, yeah discovering new stuff, always finding new things is essential to keeping the ideas going. Actually a lot of the influences weren’t rooted in the 60s either, but it’s an amalgamation of things. Graham Bond was just one that sprang to mind – I remember that as an early thing that I latched on to. I dunno, I guess I’m not self-consciously trying to go back to the 60s but it might end up happening, I’m not sure. … There’s a good book by Richie Unterberger, he goes up from the 50s to the late 1980s. There’s always that thread running parallel to popular music and probably informing each new generation. It is interesting to see in those periodds of time there are parallel scenes going on that don’t really maybe get attention until years later, until the broader historical movement can be seen from a difference.

How did the Bonk start?
I spent a summer, maybe three years ago, getting the first songs together. I rented a space up here in Dublin, I was going in, just demoing things, and I ended up with a batch that I was finally happy to start recording. It was really just a recording project for a long time before we started playing gigs. It was just getting in contact with some of the lads. Phil O’Gorman is a cousin of mind, I play with him regularly; my brother Jim, we’ve been messing around with different things. I guess it was just assembling whoever was around for it enough to have a go at these new ideas. That was really it. It was a small incremental process of let’s get these recordings done and see what happens.

Do you remember what you were hoping to achieve, maybe in terms of sound?
I suppose it goes back to that swing thing. I remember I was listening to a lot of African music and African music from the late 60s and 70s, and I really wanted to record stuff that was ambient, recorded minimally, with minimum mic setups in a nice room and also messily – I very much wanted no pressure and no fuss approach to the recording, to just capture stuff rather than try to sculpt products. I just wanted to go in with these ideas and capture whatever happened. It was a pretty modest aim, really, but it worked out ok.

the bonk kino 2

How did the first set of shows go last week. You were in Drogheda, Derry and Omagh.
Really good, yeah. The label we released the record with is called thirtythree-45 – the guy who runs that, Brian Hegarty is his name, is based up in Drogheda and we started up there – it was great craic, a really nice show, got to hang out a little bit more with him cos in the months leading up to it I’d been kind of hectic so it was nice to just have the craic and a little bit of a celebration. Then we were up North last week, in Bennigans, with a band called Comrade Hat, who I’d highly recommend, one of our favourite bands around at the moment. Then we were in Omagh, a friend of ours, Mark McCausland, runs a record shop, himself and his mate, in Omagh. We’ve been there a couple of times and it’s always good craic, good music community there. Too much craic, too much fun.

Is the name of the record store Top of the Town, is that the venue you played?
That’s the venue and the record store is called Boneyard Records. Off the main street in Omagh, it’s really good, good for an afternoon of rifling through stuff.

It’s rare enough to see Omagh included on Irish tours. It’s good that there are these places, slightly out of the way that have a good record store and a good music community. You’ve just got to find them.
Yeah, I really like that, actually. I like playing small gigs and actually meeting people afterwards and hanging out. Sometimes when the gigs are a bit bigger, in Dublin maybe, there’s so much to do that everyone’s scattered straight away afterwards, but it’s nice to do a gig in one pub that’s a good spot in a town and everyone goes and has a chat – I like that about those kind of gigs.

I was talking to BrĂ­an Ye Vagabonds a few weeks ago and he mentioned the alternative title to The Bonk Seems to be a Verb.
Ha, I think there were 50 alternative titles but I’m very curious to see what the one he remembered is.

Still Doing The Music.
Oh yeah, of course. That’s still the number one contender for the next album.

That’s just the question everybody is asked in a band?
Exactly. ‘Are ye still doing the music?’ We thought we’d just pre-empt the question this time. It’s nicely inane, which is right up our alley.

Now I’m interested though – what other titles were swirling around.
I can’t remember them all but one of them is ‘It would hurt the town to hear it’. That’s one that springs to mind. A lot of them are rip-offs of quotes we recycle in our daily lives. I’ll have to make a list and make sure I remember them for when the time comes around, the annoying titling stage.

The title of the album is funny as well though, The Bonk Seems To Be A Verb.
That was just a twist on a quote that I’d read by a guy I like, R Buckminster Fuller, he’s an inventor. His quote was ‘I seem to be a verb’ and I thought that was really good and I thought it summed things up quite nicely in the way the thing operates and the fluid nature of what we’re doing. I noted that one down and it went on the pile. We recorded lots of stuff but the songs that were ready to sit together on the first record, it seems as if that was appropriate for those ones.