This Ain’t No Disco: 'Nothing on a stage. We want things to be real'
Donal Dineen’s superb new web series has no presenter – and no fear of music
“It is a very considered process, putting these songs together,” says Donal Dineen when talking about his new web series This Ain’t No Disco. “We could have done it very blandly; just make some separate videos, knock them together and put a talking presenter in between them. I did that for No Disco but that seems a world apart from this.”
That RTÉ show, which he fronted for much of the 1990s, formed a cultural bedrock for the generation of Irish musicians and music fans it served. But Dineen paints an image of his presenting style that’s something akin to a startled hen.
“I was a little embarrassed by my performance there, especially early on,” he says. “My lack of ability or suitability; the state of me, more generally. I felt so afraid doing it at first, I was afraid of the cameraman, afraid of the soundman. Awful.”
The new programme abandons a lot of the earlier show’s familiar tropes. Released entirely online in segments of 45 minutes to an hour, This Ain’t No Disco lives up to the title’s premise. For one thing, it eschews a presenter altogether, with Dineen as more of a chaperone or occasional moderator.
Instead, the show’s different sections come together naturally, with each beautifully shot performance or conversation melding naturally together via documentary-style transitions. All performances are shot in real locations, and directed with the kind of thoughtful, stripped-back aesthetic that’s worlds away from the shiny floors and bright lamps of studio television.
“I wouldn’t like anything portrayed in a way that’s too affected,” says the show’s co-creator, Myles O’Reilly. “Nothing on a stage or perfectly lit. We want things to be real. Liam Ó Maonlaí always says the best music is heard around the fireplace and one of the big governing ideas we had for the show was that feeling of the fireplace; of being at the kitchen table.”
Kitchen tables, fireplaces, the banks of Lough Corrib, a white van parked by the docks: all become stages in the show’s run, and all are shot with the same artful naturalism. These locations also lend This Ain’t No Disco some opportunities for spontaneous moments that couldn’t happen in-studio.
“We had an embarrassment of riches with some of the things that happened,” recalls O’Reilly, “like when Lisa O’Neill is performing on the docks and the old man approaches her.” The scene in question, from episode three, sees a dogwalker approach the singer and quiz her about her work and career. When she idly asks the perambulating pensioner if he’s enjoying life, she’s somewhat surprised when he blithely replies, “not really”, only to be interrupted before the audience get to the bottom of his worries.
“We had another moment in the first episode where someone borrows Donal’s scooter and we thought he was going to run away with it.” In the end, it was returned, although surely any director worth their salt would be partly hoping that very outcome came to pass? “Absolutely I was,” says O’Reilly, “the more real the better.”
Of their partnership, Dineen says: “When I’d got a bit of budget together, Myles was the first person I thought of. It’s an unusual arrangement, in that we’re both sort of co-directing, but the roles are very delineated and that makes it work.”
“I learned a lot from covering some of Donal’s gigs over five or six years,” O’Reilly says, “and from how he worked. I noticed he was a bit of a mad genius. He won’t do a DJ gig if he doesn’t do his own visuals, and he makes all those at home. He made it look so simple, how to complement music visually. It was remarkable to see him work.”
“I’m the art director for the show which makes it sound like I’ve got a lovely house in Miami, but just means I come up with the concepts for the videos and then execute the visuals and so on,” says Dineen. “We don’t use any post-production graphics or anything like that. We take what we shoot and use it in an interesting way, we don’t put it through filters after; we do it in our heads beforehand.”
According to O’Reilly, this isn’t about aesthetic snobbery. “It’s so much easier to communicate music if you’re not distracting your audience with visuals like that, so we don’t bother with big visual effects.”
The series, now on its third episode, has already featured performances from the likes of Radie Peat of Lankum (formerly Lynched), Sunken Foal, Rusangano Family, Lisa O’Neill, Villagers and RSAG (Rarely Seen Above Ground). There have also been spoken-word sequences from Stephen James Smith and Emmet Kirwan, as well as collaborations and discussions between those artists. The range and quality of the fare on offer also gives lie to the idea that Irish music is stagnant or derivative.
“I strongly believe that we are living in a golden age of music in Ireland,” enthuses Dineen in the title quote which opens episode three. “There is a new generation of people making sounds that are widening our horizons inexorably. I salute them. They should be lauded, not ignored.”
“I’d agree,” says O’Reilly. “Irish music has always been great but I haven’t seen a community this strong in some time. Of course, if you listened to Irish radio you might not realise there are many Irish bands at all. The few you do hear are this same, bland generic rock with the same sound, the same tempo even. It’s quite depressing.”
“I never met a radio controller who liked music, and that’s a fact,” asserts Dineen. “Never, not once. And that’s why it’s the way it is. I can understand some of the reasons things are the way they are, but we should be creating communities from what we’ve got, all over Ireland today.”
For This Ain’t No Disco, that means being in it for the long haul. “It’s been a mad time in terms of paying the rent and doing this at the same time,” confirms Dineen, “but there’s only a certain amount of time in your life where you have that romance period. The last time I felt this creatively free was when I was doing my final year photography project and that was the best thing I’ve done in my life, probably. I was totally in it and up for it then, and This Ain’t No Disco has become another of those things where we just think all the time; let’s make this better”.