A Lazarus Soul’s Brian Brannigan: ‘I don’t know if the world is darker now. But it feels like dark times’

The Dublin post-punk band’s leader on the malign influence of smartphones, his disappointment in Nick Cave and his horror at anti-immigration protests in Finglas

A Lazarus Soul: 'Being on social media can be quite depressing sometimes. When I talk to people in person, people are less angry, more tolerant'

In times of trouble, Brian Brannigan opens his front door, takes a breath and walks. Close to his home in north Kildare lies the moon-surface sprawl of the Bog of Allen – a flat expanse that, when the light filters through the clouds and a breeze rises at your back, can give the impression of stretching into forever. “It’s like a meditation for me. I walk a lot,” says Brannigan, lead singer and songwriter with Dublin post-punk band A Lazarus Soul. “I write the lyrics then. I find it therapeutic. It focuses the mind.”

There is a lot to meditate about. A Lazarus Soul’s stunning new album, No Flowers Grow in Cement Gardens, paints a vivid picture of a country that doesn’t know itself any more. The first track, Black Maria – named for an old-style police van – is a warning, framed by angular guitars and doomy drums, about the rise of the surveillance state in Ireland and elsewhere – whether in real life or on social media. “Tasered/ Restrained by the blue blazers,” sings Brannigan – drawing a nightmare portrait of totalitarianism that lands somewhere between Joy Division’s Dead Souls and an Irish remake of George Orwell’s 1984.

“It’s strange times we’re living through. We’re on our phones all the time. It’s very hard to escape when we have our phones to our faces 24-7. I don’t know if the world is darker now,” he nods. “But it feels like dark times. There’s no filter. We used to watch the news and turn it off. Now it’s on our phones 24 hours a day.”

No Flowers Grow in Cement Gardens – named after a song by his favourite band, The Fall – is often bleak, but there is more to it than just indie-dude anxiety. Dystopian sentiments are set alongside a nostalgia for an older, simpler Ireland – a place you can still find if you know where to look. A case in point is The Dealers, a Valentine to the traders on Moore Street in Dublin that draws on beloved memories from his childhood.


“I used to go into town with my ma, God rest her. I’m the youngest of nine. We used to get the fruit off the dealers for the week,” he says. “There was a butcher’s on the corner – twins, I think. I’d get the meat for the family and carry it home. I used to love going in and hearing their stories. The real, pure Dublin accent I love. I wanted to capture that. They’re trying to build a big shopping mall there and run the dealers out. It [Moore Street] has great historical and culture value. We should strive to preserve that.”

He draws on an altogether different personal experience on the bruising GIM – an acronym for “Garda Information Message”, an official written warning issued by Gardaí to let people know of a threat to their life. While he is cautious about going into too much detail, the lyrics paint a striking picture. “They’re gonna send another Garda Information Message to ya,” he snarls. “Another junk punk owns a gun / Another rude boy on the run.”

“Someone knocked up to my house in a bulletproof vest. They had been issued a GIM. He was caught up in something,” he says. “It was a circumstance thing. Thankfully it resolved itself without anybody getting hurt – and I got song out of it.”

There is a lot of anger in the country. It’s easy to punch downwards

Brannigan grew up in Finglas, historically one of Dublin’s largest working-class suburbs. Now living outside Maynooth and the father of a 15-year-old adopted daughter from Ethiopia, he is naturally horrified to see Finglas targeted by racist protests in recent months.

“It makes me incredibly sad,” he says. “Growing up in those communities, knowing how accepting they are, how close knit – coming from not having anything, grouping together to help each other.”

He feels people are being taken advantage of. “There is a lot of anger in the country. It’s easy to punch downwards. They are great communities. Some people are being duped. A small, very loud cohort is making a lot of noise.”

He adds that he and his family have not experienced racism going about their day-to-day life in Kildare, where he has a day job in the freight business. “A lot of it is on social media. If you talk to people in person, you get a different story. Being on social media can be quite depressing sometimes. When I talk to people in person, people are less angry, more tolerant. But it [racism] needs to be called out; it’s a dangerous way to be going. We’ve been very lucky not to experience that. We’re very mindful that it exists.”

Kildare was worlds away from Finglas, and he initially struggled to fit in when he and his wife relocated 20 years ago. It was through his daughter, Aztier, that he connected with the community. “My father died the month we adopted her and my mother nine months later. I’d become an orphan and adopted her at the same time. She was into horse riding – I met a lot of people through her. The baldy fellah with the beard with the black child – it stands out in Maynooth. It made me feel at home.”

A Lazarus Soul has been a vehicle for Brannigan’s yearning, passionate songwriting since 2001. The band is a Franco-Irish affair: Brannigan and Anton Hegarty are based in Ireland, while Joe Chester and Julie Bienvenu live in Rennes, where No Flowers Grow In Cement Gardens was recorded.

The darkness that flows through his work is an expression of the challenges he has had to overcome in life. Brannigan’s mother gave him the nickname “Lazarus” after she was told he wouldn’t survive birth. In childhood he was diagnosed with spina bifida and underwent major surgery – only to develop cancer in his teens.

He has been a fixture on the Dublin indie scene since the 1990s when he fronted Sub Assembly – one of a golden generation of bands that included Sunbear, Mexican Pets and The Wormholes. Brannigan is also long enough in the tooth to have become disillusioned with heroes such as Morrissey, who has turned into a professional crank, and Nick Cave, whom he has criticised for performing in Israel while not speaking out about Palestine.

He feels the internet has raised the ante for Morrissey. There was a time when all he had to do was wave a union flag to trigger people. The competition is tougher nowadays – hence his increased outrageousness. “With the likes of Morrissey, he was always going against the grain. And the same way with John Lydon. Now everybody’s doing on a daily basis what they were doing with The Sex Pistols and the Smiths.”

In your 20s, life is usually at the highest point. People who are 20 today think the city is the best it’ll ever be. They’ll be moaning in 20 years

Nick Cave is different in that he isn’t actively seeking controversy. “I have a strange relationship with Nick Cave. I was obsessed with him growing up. Henry’s Dream [Cave’s 1992 masterpiece], in particular, and some of the earlier albums were huge influences on my music. I always try and make records like Henry’s Dream,” says Brannigan.

But if Cave is a long-time hero, it frustrates Brannigan that the Australian singer does not use his platform to talk about Palestine. It’s a fraught issue, with Cave having described “the cultural boycott of Israel” as “cowardly and shameful” in 2018.

“It’s not so much playing over there. Even if someone is playing Israel, I think people should have empathy for what’s happened – for the civilians in Palestine, regardless of what your politics are. I don’t understand people that don’t call out that out – even if you’re pro Israel. People can see journalists being killed, hospitals being blown up. It’s breaking every human rights fight. It’s one of the darkest things that have ever happened in our lifetime. And I don’t understand how, even if you are [pro-Israel] ... how you do not call it out, what’s happening to women and children.”

For all the angst, No Flowers Grow in Cement Gardens can be enjoyed as a heady serving of old-school indie rock that harks back to Brannigan’s 1990s origins. He speaks warmly of the Dublin scene of 30 years ago. He doesn’t want to mythologise it, however – or suggest it was a hallowed period that can never be replicated. He was young back then. Of course, everything felt bright and new.

“In your 20s, life is usually at the highest point,” he says. “People who are 20 today think the city is the best it’ll ever be. They’ll be moaning in 20 years. It’s a cyclical thing. I’m sure there’s amazing scenes going on. They’re all underground, that we don’t know about. That’s the way it should be. There are still amazing places to go to in Dublin.”

No Flowers Grow In Cement Gardens is out now