Tokyo takeover for Wicklow rockers Enemies
Is it really easy when you’re big in Japan? Lewis Jackson of Wicklow alt-rockers Enemies, who play Knockanstockan in Co Wicklow this weekend, talks about the making of the quartet’s new album and being famous in the Far East
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow. Of course, Lewis Jackson and his friends weren’t really thinking about that when they were playing their local scout den as teenagers; they certainly weren’t imagining that they would one day be playing sold-out gigs in Japan, where screaming fans followed them around on tour. “We got to know them, and every night, they still couldn’t speak to us; they were crying, screaming and it was just so weird,” the guitarist laughs. “It was quite awkward, actually, because you’re like, ‘You do realise that we’re absolutely no one, right?’”
Far from the mean streets of Tokyo, the Enemies story began in the mid-noughties in the sleepy Co Wicklow village of Rathcoole, where Jackson, bassist Mark O’Brien, guitarist Eoin Whitfield and drummer Oisin Trench came together in the midst of a hardcore scene that had unexpectedly sprung up in the area.
“At the time, Kilcoole had quite a big DIY scene,” explains Jackson when we meet on a sunny day in Dublin city centre. “The three of us played in bands and played all the same shows, so we knew each other from that small circle. At the time, Eoin had a side project from his other band called New Man Eoin, or NME – so that’s where the band name Enemies came from. We basically just bullied Eoin into starting it as a full project.”
After forming in 2007, Enemies wasted no time in gigging extensively. Their brand of strident instrumental rock struck a chord with Japanese record label Machu Picchu Industries, who released their debut EP, Alpha Waves, and later their full-length debut, We’ve Been Talking in Japan. Since then, they have toured the country several times and will return for a full Asian tour, including gigs in Taipei and Hong Kong, later this year.
Jackson claims that the whole process of networking has been surprisingly organic.
“It’s a weird one, because it’s a really friendship-based thing,” he explains. “Most of the time, it’s not just down to business. It’s super DIY – we’re not making thousands on the tours, but we can scrape by and have fun doing it. Because the music we play is quite niche, you end up meeting a lot of people that are involved in it quite easily, and it’s incredible how that works, right across the world; you end up meeting so many people and they’re all into the same bands, and stuff. It’s really cool to have that network of people.”
Enemies have enjoyed success closer to home, too. Both We’ve Been Talking and their new album, Embark, Embrace, scored a hit with fans of creative melodies and powerhouse chords. Still, their taste of international success doesn’t mean the band have become industry-driven.
“We just want to have more fun with it than make it into a job,” he says. “I don’t think this will ever be anything that we want to make a living from – simply because we don’t really have the time to put into it. We set aside our jobs this year and thought ‘OK, let’s take the opportunities we’ve always been offered, but could never accept’. It’s definitely more of a passion project than a career. I think that makes it more fun to do, too – because you don’t have the element of ‘Right, we need to make money from this because we’re broke’.”
Enemies: Indian Summer
For all of their casual approach to the music biz, the band’s hand was somewhat forced after their label, Richter Collective, closed its doors last year. Having worked with Richter himself, Jackson was perfectly primed to undertake the daunting experience of founding his own label with bandmate Mark O’Brien to release Embark, Embrace.
“There was definitely a transition period where we were a little bit worried about what we were gonna do, how we were gonna fund this record, how we were gonna put it out,” he says. “We were afraid that if we released it, it would just go completely under the radar because it wasn’t on Richter, but both Mick [Roe] and Barry [Lennon, co-founders of Richter Collective], were actually quite heavily involved with the release of this record. They gave us so much advice and helped out on pretty much every level.”
The label shake-up went hand-in-hand with a shake-up of the band’s style. Embark, Embrace is a bigger, brighter-sounding record than its predecessor, perhaps related to the fact that the recording process itself was entirely different this time around; the tracks were recorded live after producer James Eager insisted on capturing the band’s energy differently, and Jackson says that they’ll never work any other way from here on in. The writing process was different, too. Previously an instrumental band, with Embark, Embrace Enemies incorporate lyrics into some of their songs – with several guest performers singing them, including sisterly duo Heathers (on Nighthawks), Conor Adams of The Cast of Cheers (on Executive Cut) and Oisin Murphy of Croupier (on North West).
“We knew we wanted vocals and we knew that Mark and Eoin would sing on some tracks, but we also wanted to get some other people in,” Jackson explains. “We didn’t want it to be this cheap thing where we got famous people from big bands in, just to push the record – it was simply down to getting people in that we really liked and we thought were experienced enough. Every person we worked with came into the studio for a day, they’d work on little melodies that they had, and we all sifted it into something that we liked. We ended up getting a much better result that way; it was more of a collaborative effort, rather than them just coming in with the finished product.”
The resultant album is one of the year’s best Irish releases – an intricate, well-rounded record that bounces, ducks and dives in all the right places and holds the listener’s attention throughout. It should also mean that constant comparisons to acts such as former labelmates The Redneck Manifesto and And So I Watch You From Afar are now redundant.
“It’s a funny thing within the band – the minute we hear that someone’s going to review the album, we have a bet about who we’ll be compared with,” laughs Jackson. “But yeah – luckily, with this album it seems that those comparisons have faded a bit.”
In any case, local comparisons are irrelevant when you’re forging your own path in foreign territories. The rest of this year looks extremely busy for Enemies with UK and east coast US tours to follow their Asian odyssey, and next year’s schedule is filling up fast, too.
“I don’t know where we see things going after these tours, but we just want to go to places we haven’t been to before,” says Jackson with a smile and a shrug. “We got offered Australia next year, so that’s the next one – and we’ve been offered a west coast American tour for next year, too, so we’re really hoping to do both of them.
“I don’t think there’s ever going to be a situation where we’re happy sitting at home in Ireland and just playing the circuit over and over again – that’d drive us insane. It’s so easy; you can do an Irish tour in a few days now. We don’t even really mind when you end up playing to three people in the middle of nowhere in England, or whatever. It can be hard, yeah, but we like the challenge of making it work, I think.”
Who’s rockin’ at Knockanstockan?
There’s no better way to gauge the temperature of the independent Irish music scene than at a festival like Knockanstockan. The Co Wicklow event has been a champion of both established acts and newcomers to the scene since its foundation and growth from the Primal Jelly Social Club night in Dublin.
As always, there is an eclectic bunch of bands and musicians on offer at this weekend’s festival, more than 100 in all. The more interesting acts include Aussie-born Liza Flume (right), who has already supported the likes of John Grant and whose acoustic folk is given a new spin with the use of a loop pedal, creating layers of harmonies and melodies.
In fact, there’s lots to choose from if folk is your thing: check out the brilliant Mossy Nolan and Mumblin’ Deaf Ro for some pastoral tunes with a quirky edge. Elsewhere, the rock contingent will be sated with strident instrumental six-piece Overhead, the Albatross (below) – because, let’s face it, any band with a song titled Liam Neeson are on the right track – while Raglans will add a little pop and a tonne of pep to your step with their upbeat indie tunes, including the eminently hummable recent single, Natives. That’s not to mention the arts aspect of the festival; we’re exhausted just thinking about it. Knock ’n’roll, campers.