World music with a dash of Relish
The multi-cultural band Relish have devised their own brand of Karma for their new album, writes Tony Clayton-Lea.
There was a time when you could easily sniff an Irish rock band out: the shirty looks, the tin-shed production, the reverse logic, the shameful, cochlea-crunching need to sound as much as possible like U2 or variants thereof. Now, of course, we have Irish-based bands with little or no indigenous presence. Many, from Tyco Brahe to Jape, use a pan-European sonic template mixed with a natural inclination towards song craft.
Into the multi-cultural melting pot comes Relish, a Northern Irish trio that is no stranger to diversity. When the band released its début album Wildflowers a couple of years back, many commented on the plain facts of skin colour, religion and music influences. Ken and Carl Papenfus, brothers of mixed parentage (Irish/South African), one religion; Darren Campbell, Irish-looking to his orange-hair roots, another religion. Music influences? Take your pick and let your preconceptions do the thinking.
And yet, and yet. It's two years later, and the band has just released its second album, Karma Calling. On it, the three Northerners have brushed aside many of the perceptions and misconceptions that people have been taunting them with. If nothing else, it's a progression from the largely pleasant but unfocused début, which the band claim was something of an anti-climax.
"It's always hard to know if you've developed or digressed," reasons lead singer and lyric writer Ken Papenfus, "but we think we've developed. Definitely, we're in a different place to where we were some years ago."
Touring the backside out of Wildflowers might have been good for the record, but it proved a debilitating experience for the three members. Too many days and nights in tour buses travelling across the length and breadth of the UK stretched into a longer, more exciting (but just as tiring) jaunt to Japan.
Plans to reclaim their own space and time in Northern Ireland had to be placed on the back burner when the "Japanese scenario" (as Ken describes it) came about. In a combination of personal delight and industry-speak, Ken says it was, in one respect, a fantastic opportunity to visit virgin territory, "but the downside was that we were going out and flogging the same horse".
When Japan was given a good thrashing, Relish collectively breathed a sigh of relief: "We took a few months out and did things we'd never done before and things we should have done - getting back to family and real life. You always think you're keeping a tab on real life when you're doing band stuff, but it's not real life at all. Taking walks, appreciating your family and friends - appreciating us."
Following this recuperative period, the band came back stronger, wiser and the owners of a more astute outlook. The new album was written while at home, which further strengthened the roots that bind the band together. The Papenfus brothers, in particular, felt that their own roots needed to be one of the primary focal points. With Wildflowers, the brothers felt they couldn't avoid the perceptions of what it meant to be coloured and Irish.
Karma Calling addressed this. "We looked at the family unit in a different way this time," Ken explains. "Despite our family roots, we realised that we represent Ireland as much as Africa. But then, we reckoned that, instead of defining ourselves as people, we should just celebrate what and who we are, celebrate our differences. It's OK to exist the way we do and not be a part of anything in particular. In terms of tapping into the South African thing, we asked our mum to speak some words in Xhosa - a circular greeting, a celebration, which connects into the title of the new album."
Ken similarly addresses the criticisms of musical influences. "Yes, we refer to black roots and mixed race - which means we have as much an affiliation with white as black - but our music comes from rock and soul. In certain areas of the media, it always seems to be the soul flavour that's represented, but roots music, world music, taps into the soul of the person. Look at Blur and Radiohead - their new albums are by no means 'white' records."
What about the accusations that Relish music is little more than Lenny Kravitz cast-offs? "As brilliant and innovative as Lenny Kravitz is," says Ken, and who is to tell whether he has a sack full of salty cynicism resting on his back, "we always felt our music went a little bit deeper than that. Certainly, he comes from a retro place, but it's more pastiche as opposed to the blood and guts of what the music is. We were always into the father rather than the son, and going back to Jimi Hendrix would be more important to us."
And the sense of Irishness? It's there, clearly, but not too obviously. Relish won't be getting out the bodhráns and going all sean-nós on us too soon yet. "I'm Irish in the way my thoughts run together, my humour and the way I view the world. When it comes to music, Relish is able to transcend geographical boundaries. Music allowed all three of us to go to different places. It has been our ticket around the world. When people hear what we play you can't really get a lineage or stamp on it, particularly from the Irish source."
It was the same, argues Ken, with another Northern Irish man called Van Morrison. "What fed his soul was black music, rhythm & blues, jazz. It wasn't a question of colour, fashion and so on. It was just what made him tick."
Karma Calling (EMI/Lime) is currently on release.
Relish perform at The Forum, Waterford (Friday, June 6th); The Stables, Mullingar (Saturday/Sunday, June 7th/8th); Birr Theatre & Arts Centre, Co Offaly (Thursday, June 12th); Holborn Street, Sligo (Saturday, June 14th)