The Meltybrains? way: masks, madness and mistakes
The members of Meltybrains? might be classically trained musicians, but their music is indefinable, their fans look like cult members and their live shows are bewildering
Ben Bix (bass and vocals), Donnacha O’Malley (synth and vocals), Tadhg Byrne (violin), Micheál Quinn (drums) and Brian Dillon (synth/electronics) of Meltybrains? at the Pepper Canister church in Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson
‘Play a wrong note for the sake of it. And then what if we all played wrong notes at the same time? Would that make a good thing? No, it probably wouldn’t. But let’s do it anyway.”
Tadhg Byrne from Meltybrains? is explaining the band’s attitude during their genesis. For the last four years, Meltybrains? have engaged in a succession of experiments. They played 40 gigs in a year just to see if they could play live under various conditions. They went on tour in the US in January 2014 by themselves just to see if they could go on tour with each other. Then they stopped gigging. Then they played a sold-out bring-your-own-booze show in a church. And recently they headed off to South By Southwest to impress the swarm in Austin, Texas.
Then there’s the music itself, of course, difficult to categorise (unless “experimental electronic post-rock” leaves you any wiser; it probably won’t). And there’s the band’s image: all five members are usually styled in white and wear paint-splattered masks, something their fans replicate at gigs, creating a cultish, unsettling audience. Byrne, Brian Dillon, Ben “Bix” McKenna, Donnacha O’Malley and Micheál Quinn are all classically trained musicians. The question mark at the end of their band name is well placed. Introducing: Meltybrains? WTF?
When we meet, the band and their sound engineer and visual collaborators (the incredibly talented Slipdraft) are discussing how their forthcoming gig in the Pepper Canister church in Dublin will work. Music video director Bob Gallagher is delayed by last-minute work on the latest Girl Band video. The concert is about to sell out, with five tickets being held back.
“That’s a bit underwhelming, that the last few tickets are being held,” someone says, disgruntled that they can’t announce it’s sold out.
“I dunno, I’m pretty overwhelmed,” counters McKenna, drinking pomegranate-flavoured Aloe King juice.
“I’m suitably whelmed,” says Dillon.
This is a Meltybrains? meeting, one of many. Notebooks and pens are removed from pockets and bags. Then Byrne arrives to say the gig has actually sold out. Set phasers to whelmed. Coffees are ordered. They’re discussing a sign for the gig that says “Fuck Meltybrains”, but the ecclesiastic setting is complicating that aesthetic choice. “It’s a fucking church,” someone says. “That has to be in your minds.” It is decided that “Feck Meltybrains” might be a more ecumenically acceptable choice.
Lighting is discussed. “Leave the strobe to the last two songs,” McKenna says. Someone suggests a visual element for the sixth song on the set list: “Some kind of giant face or mask.” Conversations drift along about staging: “Let’s go absolutely insane, then black out for 45 seconds, and then we’re gone.” This, Byrne thinks, would be a “magician finish”.
At the gig itself, audience members are given a brochure about the band and the show; it is reminiscent of a match programme. The first song ends up having an unintended 18-minute introduction due to a technical fault; the audience doesn’t notice, digesting it instead as a pensive, elongated and meditative exercise in musical tantra. A submarine sonar sound intermittently pings. Eventually, the gig springs to life. In the dome of the altar above the band, projections make painted angels glow to life, strobes flash, reverb echoes around the church, perspex erected around the drum kit preserves a crisp sound. The whole thing is a triumph of atmosphere, brilliantly executed and slightly bizarre.
A week later, a planned rehearsal near Celbridge is cancelled as Dillon is delirious with the flu. (“Brian is a wizard,” says O’Malley of his bandmate’s musical prowess.) In the Central Hotel in Dublin, the band reflect on the start of the gig. They almost thought the show was about to fall apart. “In our minds we were going to have to stop the song and say, ‘Something has gone seriously wrong here. We can’t use our vocals. If you could come back another Friday . . . ’ ” says O’Malley, “That’s what we were all thinking, and then it finally turned on and we thought, We can start the gig. Luckily nobody copped on.”
A few days later, they support Tuneyards at Vicar Street and bring a birthday cake on stage for Merrill Garbus.
“Basically, Meltybrains? is a compromise of five different ideas,” McKenna says.
“We have more meetings than we do practice. We sit down and talk about everything,” says Quinn.
They met while studying classical music in Maynooth. They got together to enter a song competition, trashed the stage, and the organisers ended up taking prize money from the winners to give them a made-up third-place award.
“At the beginning it was just absolute unfiltered madness. We’re going to do this because we want to and we don’t care,” says Byrne.
Quinn adds: “If someone said, ‘That doesn’t sound good’, it was like, ‘So?’ ”
This singular approach – making music that pleases them first and foremost – has slowly caught on, which amuses the band almost to the point of disbelief.
The band talk about small gigs with intense passion. One downstairs in Sweeney’s in Dublin, where a handful of people show up, is described as “amazing”. A party back in their house after a gig in Maynooth was brilliant. A show at the club night Junior Spesh was when they thought things couldn’t get any better. “Even if we do a show where there’s technical malfunctions, even those gigs I still have a feeling that’s incredible because we’re doing exactly what we want to do,” says Byrne.
The US was a wake-up call in how not to tour, criss-crossing states on flights. O’Malley remembers one show. “One of the gigs in Nashville was in a dive bar, basically a Portakabin where you could still smoke indoors, and there was a dog in the audience and two locals.” The sound engineer got so drunk with Meltybrains? the night before that he never turned up. “Even that was so much fun,” says Quinn.
Talk turns to SXSW and the next show, and the next gigs. One thing’s for sure: they’ll have a good time playing them.