This island home
No band is an island, it has been said, but a whole bunch of bands makes a Popical Island, a heart-shaped place collectively governed by a web of indie-pop-loving Irish soulmates. Two of its many castaways, Ruan van Vliet and Michael Stevens, tell LEAGUES O’TOOLEabout the rapid evolution of their musical spiritual home
SINCE THE dawn of time, or thereabouts, musicians have been compounding their creative energies and piggybanking their business nous as a means of taking control of their careers and avoiding the demoralising experience of petitioning the music industry for support. The problem with the mainstream music industry is that, predominantly, it seeks quick, profitable hits and has little patience with the personal human experience of actually making music. The bottom line is that the formal music industry was never, and will never be, equipped to deal with the amount of wonderful music this world has to offer.
Just as well, so, that the industry disseminated into a mess of semi-professional chaos many years ago, spawning subsequent concepts such as “do it yourself”, “punk rock”, “indie” (no one knows what that means any more), not to mention a million and one mind-boggling genres that we all pretend to understand until we reach a certain age where one day we wake up screaming ‘I CAN’T TAKE IT ANY MORE’.
For the most part, genres and scenes are not meant to be taken seriously. They are simply tags to identify what an artist or a record label happens to be doing at a certain point in time. The best ones are just silly made-up names – such as Wham City! in Baltimore, a colourful explosion of underground music, theatre and visual art made by people who’ve freed themselves from the anxieties of the decrepit economic society that surrounds them.
Then there’s the Fence Collective in Scotland, a sort of lonely-hearts support group for downbeat songwriters, born in the unlikely location of a rainy fishing village in “the kingdom of Fife”.
Guaranteed, wherever there are humans making music in this world, there is some sort of intangible concept attached to what they do. Like politics or religion, music is a lifestyle that seeks some sort of kindred identity.
Someone once said: “No band is an island.” But a whole bunch of bands makes a Popical Island, a heart-shaped place collectively governed by a web of indie-pop-loving soulmates based in Dublin yet reaching out to all of Ireland. Ruan van Vliet and Michael Stevens are just two of the many Popical Islandcastaways. They both play in more bands than they can remember off the top of their heads. They are gentle souls who’d rather talk enthusiastically about their friends than boast of taking over the world. They twitch and ponder nervously rather than blow rock-star smoke in your face.
Popical Islandhas been brewing for a while now, yet very much announced itself last month with the release of the Popical Islandcompilation, a 15-track treasure chest of indie-pop and folk songs that will prove to be one of the most significant Irish releases of this year.
Popical Island, to all intents and purposes, is a collective that includes Land Lovers, Lie Ins, Groom, So Cow and Yeh Deadlies among a steadily escalating number of bands and musicians dedicated to helping each other sustain some sort of independent music scene. Not to be confused with the 1990s phenomenon of Britpop wannabes hatching plans to pitch scene concepts to the NMEover pints in Camden boozers, Popical Islandis about capturing, and in some way formalising, what was already an organically evolving movement.
“It kind of already seemed like it was happening before we even did anything, because we’d been playing a lot of gigs with Yeh Deadlies and Land Lovers, and their side-projects and our side-projects had all been playing together,” says Ruan van Vliet, member of Lie Ins, Groom, Squarehead and author of the hilarious Nick Thinks . . . blog.
“Ruan e-mailed me and said, ‘what do you think about this idea?’ ” adds Michael Stevens, songwriter with Groom and Lie Ins. “I’d kind of been thinking about it already. I’d been thinking how awful it was that some collectives from around town had evaporated. You go on the internet and see pictures of punk gigs from the middle of nowhere and there’d be huge crowds going wild. Or like the psychobilly scene – you go to their gigs and feel like you’ve entered a new world.”
Popical Islandis clearly a fun project to do, people sharing an experience, enjoying this creative period of their lives together. But does it truly have any functional benefit for the musicians involved?
“It’s benefited us all on a personal level. For instance, Annie and Padraig from Tieranniesaur have been working on those songs for a year and a half. It was only when Popical Islandformed that it gave them the kick up the arse to finish the tracks and get a live band together,” says van Vliet.
“Sharing resources, combing mailing lists, practice space – it all helps get people out to gigs,” says Stevens. “It gives people a context. People are swamped with loads and loads of music nowadays and they don’t know how to filter it.”
The two guys are keen to point out that rather than being central figures, they are merely representing the collective at large. When the full collective comes together an incredible energy appears to take hold. The guys are still buzzing from the fantastic response to a recent Popical Islandall-day extravaganza where 14 bands played from 3pm into the early hours. Van Vliet himself took part in a record-breaking seven different sets that night.
“My shoulders were a little sore the next day, it was a lot of drumming!” he says.
The compilation itself is a delight. It opens with a statement of intent, a razorblade pop cut from Tuam boy wonder So Cow, and before you know it your head is spinning with the brilliant strum-along wit of Lie Ins, the delicious hooks and goosebump melodies of Squarehead, the spluttering electro-pop of I Heart the Monster Hero, the wispy melancholy of Capital Trid and Pantone247’s elegant bliss-rock. As on all the best compilations, you’re almost guaranteed to discover something you’ve never heard before. If you don’t fall in love with at least two of these songs then you clearly have no pop heart. The question now is whether Popical Islandbecomes a full-time record label.
“We’ve actually been talking about that recently because the compilation is out now and we have to move forward in some sense,” says van Vliet. “At the moment everyone is sharing the attention because we’re all on the compilation, but what if we wanted to, say, release a seven-inch and how do we choose who gets picked first from the collective?”
“If it’s a case that someone gets preferential treatment, well, that’s tricky,” agrees Stevens. “That and money!”
So how does a band actually get to Popical Island? “We said once before that if we had to think about whether a band was Popical Islandor not for more than a few seconds then it was wrong. It has to be a natural thing,” says van Vliet.
“Also this is something for people who want to help each other as opposed to people who want to see what’s in it for them,” adds Stevens.
“The main thing that determines whether something is Popical Islandis the music. It shouldn’t be because they’re well known or because they’re friends of friends, it should just simply be the music. It’s ‘pop music’, but I suppose that could mean anything. Anything kind of slightly shambolic and scruffy appeals to us!” Whatever the Popical Islanders collectively decide to do in the future, whether it is releasing records or putting together tours and mini-festivals, you can be sure it will be done with loving care.
“These are some of my favourite bands in the world, and nobody knows about them,” says Van Vliet. We’ve already gained a bit of exposure, so I guess the plan has kind of worked!” says Stevens.