Ireland’s best music often tiptoes in from the margins. And there is surely nowhere further from the zeitgeist than along the Limerick-Tipperary border, where The Altered Hours’ founding members Elaine Howley and Cathal MacGabhann grew up. There, away from the bright lights and the clamour of the crowd, they were shaped by the isolation. And by the understanding that art was something you had to make for yourself. Because who else is going to make it for you?
“Something in our spirit has a bit of an edge of wildness about it. We come from such rural places,” says MacGabhann, the son of a visual artist and a Suzuki-method violin teacher. “It had an effect. You have to stretch your imagination quite a bit when you come from rural parts. We didn’t really have any idea about the industry or how to get a gig or what it meant to conventionally be a band. That has stuck with us in some ways and kept it unique.”
As anyone who grew up in the countryside can testify, all that bucolic calm carries a double edge. Where there is quiet there is frustration and boredom, where there is nature, there is an understanding life can be cruel and feral. And lurking in the background is that unique Irish rural-Gothic quality – hard to define but immediately recognisable if you came of age with it.
It's Bossanova-era Pixies infused with the uneasy spirit of Flann O'Brien, The Third Policeman, soundtracked by Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit
All these contrasting sensibilities are poured into the surging psychedelic pop of The Altered Hours. And after the charming frontal assault of their 2016 official studio debut, In Heat Not Sorry, that protean tumult is whipped up to fresh heights on their gorgeously melodramatic second album, Convertible.
The feeling is of music careening forward, perpetually on the brink of collapse. Howley coos in the fashion of an artisanal banshee, MacGabhann croons like a Whelan’s troubadour in the midst of a fever dream from which he cannot awake. All round guitars shudder and howl. It’s Bossanova-era Pixies infused with the uneasy spirit of Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman, soundtracked by Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit.
There is, above all else, a rattling forward thrust to their writing. It’s a quality they share with their friends and touring partners, Fontaines DC, whom they are supporting across the UK through October. “They have an amazing directness,” Howley says, describing Fontaines. “Their music is unadorned yet has depth at the same time. They’re hopeful. They focus on romanticism and grit. And that resonates.”
The Altered Hours are resonating with more and more people too. Dense and dreamy, with hints of shoe-gaze and even of stoner metal, their repertoire throbs with an escapist pulse. It has propelled them towards a spot on Spotify’s Alternative Éire playlist, alongside Orla Gartland and Inhaler. And it has whetted appetites for Convertible.
Their growing popularity seems to come as a pleasant surprise to MacGabhann and Howley, whose careers have taken them from their roots in rural and small-town Munster (he’s from the vicinity of Lough Gur, near Kilmallock, she’s from Tipperary Town) to their present base in Cork city.
They are a prime example of not being influenced by others and creating work that makes sense to them before bringing it to the world
“We didn’t see ourselves as a band that could play a big stage,” says MacGabhann.
They recall being strong-armed slightly into headlining Cork’s Pavilion (famous for hosting Kanye West in 2009 and since shuttered) by promoter Joe Kelly. He saw something in The Altered Hours. And he worked hard to make them see it too.
“He put us upstairs at the Pavilion a couple of times, taking a chance on us in a way,” says MacGabhann. “He said, ‘look if we put the lights all crazy...’ We got a way more exciting reaction at those gigs than we could have imagined. For us, it triggered something. Maybe we could make something bigger.”
“The thing about The Altered Hours from their early days to now was they always ploughed their own musical furrow,” says Kelly. “They are a prime example of not being influenced by others and creating work that makes sense to them before bringing it to the world.”
“They strike me as a rock and roll band that could have played a [classic New York new-wave venue] CBGBs back in the day,” says Joey Edwards of Dundalk-based Pizza Pizza Records, with whom The Altered Hours recently signed. “They are a genuinely very important Irish rock band.It’s a running joke with myself and [fellow Pizza Pizza luminaries] Just Mustard now since The Altered Hours signed, we are finally working with Ireland’s premier shoe-gaze band.”
None of this was on anyone’s bucket list when MacGabhann and Howley moved to Cork to study at UCC. Having met in the Limerick branch of HMV as teenagers, they were a romantic couple long before they started writing together (and remain so to this day). The Altered Hours, in fact, began as a bit of a lark.
In 2009, with the property market crashing, they and some friends took advantage of the cheap rents to move into a cottage at Hag’s Head in Clare. There, near the Cliffs of Moher and the tourists with their click-clacking cameras, they jammed for hours. And out of that incoherent din emerged the bones of The Altered Hours.
The project didn’t yet have a name and their playing possessed a folkier quality. But they could tell they were on to something. And when they went back to Cork they decided the band – or whatever it was – had legs.
People who don't necessarily sell loads of records need to have a place to make music and art. And not to be measured by that [commercial] outcome
Hag’s Head was obviously a few years ago: their story is one of gradual process rather than overnight arrival. One early adventure took them to Berlin, where they recorded in a studio owned by Anton Newcombe, eccentric leader of The Brian Jonestown Massacre.
“He’s full of energy,” says MacGabhann. “There’s no one like him. He fought all his life for his band and what he does. It oozes out of him.”
Newcombe’s effervescent psychedelia is clearly an influence. Elsewhere on Convertible, they sound like rural Munster’s answers to Jason Pierce’s Spacemen 3 (who, coming from Rugby in Warwickshire, likewise hails from off the beaten path). And there are moments when it seems they are going to morph into a Golden Vale Sisters of Mercy. In its totality, the effect is thrilling and ethereal – these are songs to lose yourself in but which also somehow light the way.
With that Fontaines tour under way and a standalone Irish tour, including a Dublin Grand Social date upcoming, they are understandably optimistic about the immediate future. And yet they see shadows on the horizon of Irish rock, too. Early on in their lifespan, The Altered Hours rehearsed at the old communist bloc tax office on Sullivan’s Quay in Cork. They and their friends, Trumpets of Jericho, were given the use of the building by developers BAM, ahead of its eventual demolition.
As rents rise, however, those all-important spaces where artists can experiment and get a sense of themselves are disappearing. It’s the theme of their recent single, Radiant Wound, the chorus of which declares, “City I love... City I hate...”
“People who don’t necessarily sell loads of records need to have a place to make music and art,” says Howley. “And not to be measured by that [commercial] outcome. Those spaces really need to be supported now.”
But while there are always clouds on the horizon, for MacGabhann and Howley that gloom is interwoven with sunshine. Convertible is a gripping listen – a calling card from a group who have injected into the well-worn tropes of psychedelic rock a doomed Irish romanticism. After years of paying their dues, The Altered Hours' time may have come at last.
Convertible by The Altered Hours is released October 22nd on Pizza Pizza Records. The Altered Hours Irish tour includes dates at Cyprus Avenue, Cork on October 29th and Grand Social Dublin on November 26th