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Babel composer Roger Doyle: ‘Part of me is still the cigarette-smoking, sleeping-till-1pm teenager’

The ‘godfather of Irish electronica’ has reissued his magnum opus for its 25th anniversary. It’s a highlight of a career seeded when he asked his parents for a piano

Ahead of his time: Roger Doyle in the late 1990s, when he was working on Babel

As an eight-year-old growing up in the north Co Dublin town of Malahide, Roger Doyle would sneak into his neighbours’ house to play their piano. “I was the outlier in my family. No one else played music,” he says. “After a while I asked my parents if they’d buy a piano for me, and if I could have piano lessons. Normally it’s the parents who push the lessons on the child,” he says. “So from the age of nine those brain pathways were being formed, like riding a bike.”

Now, as he approaches his 75th birthday, it’s safe to say that the pioneering composer, whose lengthy career in composition and electronic music has included operas, soundtracks, experimental albums and countless collaborations, has come a long way since those stolen moments at a borrowed piano.

The idea of pursuing a career in music was completely alien to his parents in the late 1960s, he says, even after he won a place at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. “My father just wanted me to get a job; I had really long hair and I refused to get it cut,” he says, grinning. “I was that 18-year-old sitting around the house and playing drums in a band at the weekend. And then I won a scholarship, and then I won another one. It was at that point that I began to realise, ‘Yes. I will be a composer. I can be a composer. I can do this.’ It was fantastic.” He nods. “Go and do the thing that’s going to save your life – because there was nothing else.”

Those scholarships in the UK and the Netherlands set Doyle on the path to becoming the godfather of Irish electronica, as he is regularly referred to. The title is not mere hyperbole: Doyle was the first Irish musician to explore, experiment and push the boundaries of electronic music in the 1970s. Still, despite his pioneering achievements in music, Doyle is far from a household name. And although he has garnered many other accolades, including being made a Saoi by Aosdána, he takes a moment to contemplate whether the lack of wider public acknowledgment of his work has ever bothered him.


“I suppose you’re never well-known enough,” he says with a shrug. “But I keep bouncing back, and I keep appearing above the parapet every so often. I haven’t disappeared. Can I say that that’s enough for me? Maybe not quite. But to keep coming back and playing more concerts than I ever did before… and I’ve had 35 albums out. So I’m not complaining, really.”

Roger Doyle: 'There’s an awful lot of music being presented as 21st century, but it’s really 1980s synthpop...'

He laughs as he recalls a review that he received from a well-known Irish music magazine at the beginning of his career. “They said, ‘God help the future of music if Mr Doyle has anything to do with it.’ It was nasty, but I still smile at it now. I’m so thrilled with the music I make that it wipes out anything else. I don’t know if that’s ego or not, but on behalf of the music, I’m thrilled that I became a composer. And I’m quite good at it.” He pauses, suddenly serious. “Can you say that? For my sins, I’m a composer.”

One chapter of Doyle’s storied career continues to dog him. In the mid-1980s, Operating Theatre, the avant-garde music and theatre group he formed with the actor, singer and performer Olwen Fouéré, signed to the U2-owned Mother Records and released a double-A-side single, Queen of No Heart/Spring Is Coming with a Strawberry in the Mouth. The release flopped, but Doyle has made peace with what could have been.

Olwen Fouéré: ‘I didn’t feel Irish. There’s a great advantage to being an outsider’Opens in new window ]

“I have no residual stress about things that happened in the past,” he says, shrugging. “The fact that they never promoted it, that really got to me at the time. In fact, I got ill – I got shingles from the stress and the disappointment. But I don’t want to focus too much on that, because I got over it, and other terrible things happened which I also don’t feel destroyed by,” he says. Certainly, though, he got a taste of major success. “We had these fantastic singles – and, wow, did they miss an opportunity to promote those, because they were so of their time. Especially Spring Is Coming. Have you heard the two versions? It’s still fresh.”

The other version he refers to is a recent cover of the song by Caroline Polachek, which has potentially opened up Doyle’s back catalogue to a new audience. It is timely, then, that he recently released a 25th-anniversary vinyl edition of his magnum opus, Babel, an expansive project modelled on the notion of a modern Tower of Babel, which took almost 10 years to complete and clocks in at six hours in total. (The vinyl release is edited to a comparatively succinct 80 minutes, although it includes a download code for the full-length version.)

Doyle first began to think about making Babel in the early 1980s, while Operating Theatre was still a going concern. “It was a long gestation,” he says. “I began it by working on one of the best pieces in it, called The Room of Rhetoric. I was already seven minutes into it and I thought, ‘Wow, this says everything. There’s science fiction; there’s creaky floorboards; there’s a squeaky door; and you’re actually in this dream room, an impossible virtual reality; you’re in this scary room, and there’s a machine trying to talk to you.’”

The hugely ambitious song cycle, released as a five-CD set in 1999, was ahead of its time in many respects. I point out how a quote on Doyle’s Bandcamp bio – “Likes to work on large projects and to collaborate with others” – rather undersells him; Babel saw him work with almost 50 collaborators. Despite the decade of his life it required to create, Doyle never felt as if he’d bitten off more than he could chew. “No, no – I wanted to bite more and more,” he says, grinning. “I did plan it to be a double album over five years, but it ended up as five albums over 10 years. I remember distinctly walking along the road in Sandymount, thinking, ‘Jesus. It’s five albums now. Well, we might as well.’”

The Curious Works of Roger Doyle: A quiet giant of Irish musicOpens in new window ]

He is not ruling out another revival of Operating Theatre, who last worked together in 2008. “I won’t say no, because every time we work together there’s fireworks,” he says. “Olwen was on my Finnegans Wake album, and it’s just genius what she does – it’s perfect. And she’s in Babel quite a lot. In fact, you could say that Babel is one of the reasons that Operating Theatre stopped being active, because I pretty much began Babel in 1988 and it just took up all my time.”

Having taught on the music media and technology courses at Trinity College Dublin and Maynooth University, Doyle is well placed to assess the state of electronic music. He loved lecturing, he says, and learned as much from his students as they gained from him.

“But I think it’s very important that musicians realise what century we’re in – because there’s an awful lot of music being presented as 21st century, but it’s really 1980s synthpop,” he says. One of the few contemporary pop artists whose work excited him was the late Scottish musician and producer Sophie, who died in 2021. “And there’s a lot of experimental music that sounds just like the electro-acoustic Montreal scene of 1990. So I feel as though there’s a certain perspective being missed. Look what happened between 1900 and 1924, musically: the molecules of music were rearranged.

“So now I’m always on the lookout whenever I’m listening to other people’s music: where’s the 21st century? I still don’t hear it. I don’t know if that sounds harsh or not, but it’s certainly something I look out for in my own music [as well as] other people’s. ‘Yeah, that’s interesting, you use technology… but it’s so 20th century!’ I really need to hear the 21st century in young people’s work. Or anyone’s work.”

Doyle is as ambitious as ever; he still writes music every day. Having indulged his love of James Joyce in his Finnegans Wake albums in recent years, both of his new records have been similarly influenced by Joyce – perhaps another Irishman who was underappreciated in his time. Shylit Beaconings is an album of 21 pieces of music, “and each of them is named after a phrase in Finnegans Wake – these beautiful, strange poetic names that only half make sense.” Another new album, In the Dreemplace, was also inspired by Joyce and by his childhood hero Debussy, and is also available on his Bandcamp page.

With the ideas continuing to come thick and fast, Doyle is clearly not ready to hand over his mantle just yet.

A multitude of Roger Doyles but only one composerOpens in new window ]

“The thing about me is that I’m so proud of everything.” He pauses, perhaps recalling all that he has done over the past five decades or so. “I say to myself, ‘There’s no reduction in quality,’ and I feel like Shylit Beaconings is as good as Babel. Of course, others can tell me, ‘Roger, that’s a load of shite – you’re completely misleading yourself here,’” he says, laughing. “And, of course, at the time [it was released] I thought ‘Okay, now I can die happy: I’ve done Babel.’

“But I’ve done 20 albums since Babel – 20 albums in 24 years! And I’m a lazy f**ker: I don’t have a work ethic! It’s out of my character. It’s taken over my life.” He smiles, shaking his head in wonderment. “Part of me is still the cigarette-smoking, sleeping-till-1pm teenager. So that’s why I say music saved my life. Because if I hadn’t found that, it’s just terrifying to think of what might have happened.”

Roger Doyle launches the 25th-anniversary reissue of Babel with a live performance at the Complex, Dublin 7, on Thursday, June 20th