Keeping it chongo
Grand Pocket Orchestra’s second album is heavy but it’s pop. LAUREN MURPHYreports
‘WHAT IS ‘chongo pop’?” Paddy Hanna furrows his brow and sits back in his chair, mulling the question over. You’d like to think that he’s going to tell you that the phrase, used to describe Grand Pocket Orchestra’s sound, is inspired by some deep philosophical concept. The reality is a lot less mystifying. Chongo pop, it would appear, is not a state of mind.
“A mate of mine had a term for the instrumental metal band he was in called ‘heavy chongo’,” Hanna explains. “So I basically blatantly stole it and christened our sound chongo pop, because I thought it fitted with what we were making: it’s heavy, but it’s pop.” Heavy, but pop is one way of describing the Dublin four-piece’s music.
Other descriptions have included “Fisher Price pop” and “Pavement meets Liza Minnelli” (their own facetious analysis, later amended to “Coldplay meets GG Allin”). In any case, Grand Pocket Orchestra are . . . well, a little odd. Sitting in Dublin’s comfy Library Bar, Hanna and his bandmates Mark Chester and Bobby Aherne look nondescript. Put them on a stage, however, and it’s a different story.
Since their formation in 2007, when frontman and songwriter Hanna met bassist Bronwyn Murphy-White online and poached Chester from another band, Grand Pocket Orchestra have been the custard pie flung gleefully in the solemn face of the Irish music scene. Their 2010 debut, The Ice Cream, was packed with slapdash tunes that rarely broke the two-minute mark. Their live show often involves playing dress-up, children’s instruments and a lot of jumping around. This is a band that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
“I think if you jump around really frantically, people won’t realise how weird-looking you are,” deadpans the droll Hanna. “We try not to force it, but yeah – it’s definitely more enjoyable to just have a laugh on stage, and not be too serious about it.” Chester nods in agreement. “At that point, we were playing with loads of different strange instruments, too, so we were constantly having to run and play a keyboard over there, run back to the other side of the stage to play something else . . . it was just a constant state of panic, basically. We’ve considered using samplers and stuff, but . . . well, that wouldn’t be as fun.” Incorporating that madcap exuberance into their music may come naturally, but the downside is that it’s easy to be dismissed as a novelty act, rather than one to be taken seriously.
“It’s definitely not our intention to be ‘wacky’,” says Hanna. “But the truth of the matter is that when we made [the first] album, we were just absolute drunken messers, and that’s why it sounds like that; it basically reflects who we were at the time. The fact that that album was even released is a miracle to me. And besides, we really wanted it to be as messy as possible, because we’re messy people – why try to sound too structured when you can’t even put your pants on properly?” Things have changed for album number two. Ronald and Sylma(named after Chester’s grandparents) condenses their abundant imagination into more ordered songs, although they haven’t lost their sense of wild abandon, either. Campingis a rollicking lo-fi indie-pop gem, Five Pairs of Fingersupholds their rattle-jangle-clank tradition in the finest manner possible, and Association Press Dinnerhas a distinct whiff of Adam and the Ants about it. Their newfound motivation is down to swapping alcohol for cups of tea, demo-ing their material before recording it, and finding a new place to lay down the tracks, rather than the bedroom of a holiday home in Cork that was the scene of their slapdash debut album sessions.
“We did try to focus everything properly, but the old kind of messiness would creep up, occasionally,” admits Hanna. “We tried a few different ideas. I found a few old microphones at a car boot sale in Germany, which is why there’s a weird buzz on some of the songs.” Lyrically, he claims to have taken a different approach, too – not that his bandmates have noticed.
“Is there a concept? I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe it’s about people. It’s a bit more reflective, maybe. I try to tell stories, but I’m kind of creepy that way – the stories are mumbled and a bit hard to understand, maybe.”
“Even I can only pick out the disgusting bits – the odd reference to ‘sodomy’,” adds Chester with a laugh. Or ‘skullf*ck’, I think, was another one. I think we might have the lyrics in the sleeve of this album to give people a chance to figure out what the hell he’s saying.”
Besides honing their songwriting, there’s also the small matter of concentrating their attention. Each member plays in at least one other band, including Ginnels (Chester), We Are Losers (Murphy-White) and No Monster Club (Aherne and Hanna). Although the only member of the band with a full-time job is Aherne (a “professional storyteller” who works in the National Leprechaun Museum, as Hanna gleefully reveals), focusing their creativity solely on Grand Pocket Orchestra must prove taxing at times. Not so, according to the singer, who says that releasing the album on the buzzing Popical Island label is also helping on the organisational front.
“First time round, we did everything ourselves, which was nightmarish, sweaty work,” grimaces Hanna. “If it’s left up to me, it takes a month of confused emails to book a gig. But the Popicals are helping us with this and it’s made a massive difference. They definitely held our hair while we puked.”
As for the future, and perhaps moving further afield, breaking other markets? It’s a possibility, but until then, the GPO carnival continues apace. “We’re figuring things out a bit better this time,” says Chester with a smile and a relaxed shrug. “Basically, when it comes to making music it’s about just desperately trying not to do the most obvious thing.”
Ronald and Sylmais released on Popical Island on February 24. Grand Pocket Orchestra play Whelan’s, Dublin on the same night
Since its foundation in 2010, self-described “bockety pop collective” Popical Island has become one of the Irish music scene’s creative bedrocks. Their plans for 2012 include a third (and final) edition in their popular compilation series; album releases by Mumblin’ Deaf Ro (called Dictionary Crimes), Pantone247, Ginnels and Lie Ins; and continuing their monthly Popicalia club night right through the year. Squarehead undertake a short North American tour next month, while Tieranniesaur play UK dates next month, including a St Patrick’s Day gig in London with Grand Pocket Orchestra and Land Lovers. Popicalisland.tumblr.com