How Music Works: 'We just need longer hours. Can we have a referendum on this please?'

In How Music Works, Niall Byrne talks to those who make a living in the Irish music industry. This week, Cian Ó Cíobháin talks about his long and varied career as a DJ

Fiddle with the radio dial any weeknight after 10pm and between the FM frequencies 93 to 95, you will find the national broadcaster transmitting the best in underground electronic music, the newest in global avant garde, an Italo disco classic or a collage-style experimental arrangement from an Irish producer known to a handful. All presented as Gaeilge.

For 16 years, Cian Ó Cíobháin has presented his show An Taobh Tuathail five nights a week on Radio Na Gaeltachta (the first six years were rotated with other presenters and was on for seven nights a week) playing music from the fringes: the outliers of scenes, the good, the mad and the lively.

A Kerry native, Cian Ó Cíobháin's father worked in the RnaG newsroom and the connection between reality and radio was forged at an early age. “Seeing my father walk out the door in the mornings, then hearing his voice coming out of the wireless in the kitchen intermittently throughout the day,  It seemed like magic to me,” remembers Ó Cíobháin.

Hearing the likes of Boney M, theme songs from The Pink Panther and The Deer Hunter song, cemented his interest in radio broadcasting, and as a late-night broadcaster, Ó Cíobháin enthuses about "the very personal relationship between the DJ and the listener".


No English allowed
"It seems especially intimate on late-night radio," Cian says. "It's no longer just a one-way conversation either.  The listener makes his or her voice heard via Twitter and email."

When Cian first submitted a proposal to RnaG for a show after some work experience with the station, it had a policy, since relaxed, of not broadcasting any songs in English and it helped shape the show, with Cian incorporating instrumental music from the likes of Tortoise, Mogwai, Susumu Yokota and Metro Area on his shows.

Though the music played on the alternative show (the title means 'The Other Side' in Irish) has changed over the years from trip-hop released on Ninja Tune and Mo'Wax to labels on the cross-section between clubland and experimental electronic music such as Pan and Lobster Theremin. Anything from techno,hip-hop beats and folk to house, funk, bass music, disco and beyond.

“At the very least, I have to be excited and enthused by it,” Ó Cíobháin says of his music selection. “When it comes to instrumental electronic music, I seek records that have a bit character or personality.  The record must have some kind of hook, be dynamic and I especially love records that deviate somewhat from established templates.”

Across 110th Street
Cian's also known as a club DJ, as one-half of the Galway club 110th Street with Cyril Briscoe, which started just before An Taobh Tuathail 17 years ago after a grounding DJing at school discos on the Dingle Peninsula.

In Galway, encouraged by DJs such as Darragh Purcell and Aran McMahon, Ó Cíobháin and Briscoe started 110th Street with a music policy of funk, soul and disco. Like the radio show, it morphed over the years, taking in electro-clash, electro-house, minimal techno, UK bass and house music.

“Our music policy has been driven by several ‘Road-to-Damascus’ conversions on dancefloors elsewhere in Europe, but also by an undying curiosity to try something new and shake things up,” says Ó Cíobháin.

“That said, everything we’ve ever done has always been driven by a desire to create a great communal party: to get as many people as possible dancing, from those right in front of you, all the way over to the bar staff.”

The change is music played was a brave and potentially dangerous decision for both men.

“Audiences would be initially confused, then angry, by any changes in our music policy and would make no bones in telling you about it, even refusing to come along for a while or, in some cases, never returning again,” says Ó Cíobháin.  “People just seemed to be particularly passionate/sensitive about the identity of their favourite club nights over a decade ago.”

The west is alive
These days, the club night is "on a bit of a break" - though there is a party planned for July 25th in The Blue Note in Galway.  The city has had a "seismic change of mood" which Ó Cíobháin largely attributes to the nightclub Electric, which has allowed new club nights such as Bap to the Future, Alice, Epoch, Get Deeper, Tome and Basement Project develop alongside established DJs like the Disconauts, Graham Dolan, DJ Ferg, the Shake! DJs and others.

Even his old stomping ground has become a fine place for a club night.

“Some of the best nights I’ve had playing out in the last year have been down in Tigh Uí Chatháin in Ballyferriter and Dick Mac’s in Dingle. Things have changed since I was a teenager in Kerry. The south-west’s awake!”

Like many club DJs, Cian sees the benefit in longer opening hours for clubs, suggesting a 5am closing time at weekends would be a good compromise or “we'd never get any work done”.

“We have all the ingredients we need to make Ireland a tourist destination for young people: great DJs, passionate clubbers and plenty of venues,” says Ó Cíobháin. “We just need longer hours to make it work.  Can we have a referendum on this please?”

Now available for weddings
Ó Cíobháin has made another brave and possibly dangerous decision recently – to offer his services as a wedding DJ, albeit one with a left-of-centre music policy that aims to please.

"I particularly get enthused at seeing age demographics you normally don't see at clubs  - be it younger kids dancing to Cannonball by The Breeders, or pensioners wigging out to I Feel Love by Donna Summer."

Cian says DJing weddings has been a great challenge for himself as a DJ.

“It’s important to win over the trust of the older people present at first,” says Ó Cíobháin.  “I always try and cater for them at the start of the evening.  Then, gradually, start testing the boundaries a little bit.  I avoid all the tired old Irish wedding standards, but I’ll see how they might react to a Beck or a Beastie Boys tune.

"If they're feeling that, it's usually only a matter of time before everybody's on board for My Girls by Animal Collective or The Man With The Red Face by Laurent Garnier or Cattle & Cane by The Go-Betweens.

"I've been a fan of pop music all my life, from Bruce Springsteen to Beyoncé, my interest in music extends far beyond the underground stuff that I play on the radio, so it's a chance for me to share all shades of my musical interests with an audience, from the popular to the more leftfield stuff. And, were it not for weddings, I may never have heard Taylor Swift's Shake It Off. Tune!"