Cork Sound Festival pushes all the right buttons

A new mini-festival in Cork aims to showcase the diversity of live electronic music in Ireland, and challenge the restrictive choices for Ireland’s party people

Conor Ruane is an aquatic ecologist by day, and a promoter of adventurous musical events by night. When not surveying marine wildlife, Ruane leads the team behind Cork Sound Fair, an ambitious two-night event taking place in Cork on March 23rd and 24th, incorporating live bands, electronic music and audio-visual installations across two historic venues – St Peter's Church and Cork City Gaol.

Before moving to Cork in 2016, Ruane had been involved in a collective in Dublin called Baby, Red & Wolf. Along with two friends, Ruane organised a number of late-night dance parties in small, under-the-radar places around the city. Beginning in 2014, the aim was to break out of the limited and prescriptive circuit usually available for electronic music in Dublin. They hoped to bring in different kinds of DJs, and to run different kinds of parties.

“We’d done the club-night thing for a while, but people were like, there’s lots of these club nights – the whole thing was saturated,” says Ruane. “We would always go to Twisted Pepper for gigs and we’d be like, this is great, but we want a bit more.”

After running a couple of shows in a Temple Bar basement, the collective secured a space of their own, hidden away by the railway lines on the north side of the city. They told their friends about it, installed a cheap PA system, and invited local artists to come and spruce the place up visually. For a brief time, they had the freedom to put on the kinds of events they’d long been looking for; a place for people to gather without the pressures of high-stakes club promotion, restrictive opening hours and expensive drinks.


‘Barbed wire’

“We did a lot of our own parties then because we were like, this is just a cool space for our friends to come down and party until six in the morning,” says Ruane. “We knew we weren’t going to get disturbed. There was a big massive metal gate outside with barbed wire, so people we didn’t want to come in didn’t come in, and we didn’t get any hassle from the guards. It was amazing to see the amount of people who were so willing to give to something because they were like, this is something that needs to happen in the city.”

One of the connections Ruane made in the now-shuttered DIY space was with Steven Harrington, a Cork-based promoter who is now the production manager for Cork Sound Fair. Though Cork Sound Fair is a very different kind of event to those all-night parties in Dublin, Ruane says they share a desire to promote cutting-edge music and challenge accepted notions of how events are supposed to be run. With space at a premium in both cities, and with comically outdated licensing laws holding people back, he says there's a real need to seek out different ways of going out at night.

“As restrictive as it is in Dublin, it’s 10 times more so in Cork,” he says. “The licensing laws down here are really bad. We struggled to get late licenses for the after-parties for Cork Sound Fair. At Quarter Block Party [a three-day music and arts festival which took place on Cork’s North and South Main Street in Febuary] I don’t think there was a late night at all through that weekend. It’s totally draconian down here. I think people are trying to change it up as much as possible and give people more of an option of stuff to go to.”

Eight centuries

The Fair’s two venues are an attraction in themselves. St Peter’s dates back almost eight centuries, and has hosted a number of impressive events in recent years, including some elements of the Quarter Block Party. The Gaol was a 19th-century prison before becoming home to Cork’s first radio station, 6CK, in 1927. It is now a museum. Ruane reckons these kinds of spaces are more plentiful, and more accessible, in Cork than their equivalent in Dublin.

“St Peter’s, if it was in Dublin, it probably would have been turned into a restaurant 10 years ago, and the Gaol would probably be turned into a hotel or something,” he says. “But that’s just the way it has gone down here. There’s loads more potential, if the council can get on board. If you get the train into the city, there’s an old derelict mills on your left as you’re coming into the city. There’s actually already a DIY space started down there, Dali & Gala, but there’s a huge amount of more industrial units left close to the city, more than there would be in Dublin.”

The whole idea of this weekend is about inspiring new music and showcasing what Ireland's been doing recently as well

Cork Sound Fair's lineup features the peerless London musician Beatrice Dillon, making her Irish debut, along with a diverse list of boundary-pushing acts from around the country. It's an impressive act of curation, reflecting the strength and vitality of Irish music on the weirder end of the spectrum, and when it was announced, garnered enough support to provoke a successful crowdfunding campaign over the last few months.

Experimental energy

Ruane is confident that people are looking for a different kind of musical experience right now. Perhaps they’ve been to gigs and festivals all over the world, and they want to see some of that experimental energy at home. Perhaps they’re just tired of the same old music in the same old venues. Either way, he is hoping they’ll find what they’re looking for at Cork Sound Fair.

“The whole idea of this weekend is about inspiring new music and showcasing what Ireland’s been doing recently as well,” he says. “There’s a lot of people in Cork who are into bands and live music, but might not necessarily like a DJ or electronic music per se. I’m trying to merge live music and electronic music – and something a bit weird – to bring people out of the woodwork and go, ‘Hey, this is very similar to what I like, but it’s different.’”

“From the time were doing the Baby, Red & Wolf thing, we hated the status quo, usual stuff. I think it is a key focus and drive for me with the festival, that people do experience new things. If people don’t like it, they don’t like it. I’ve never really done anything to please people. It’s more been about putting stuff out there and seeing how it goes.”