Haunted by the many ghosts of musical heroes past
The Spooks of the Thirteenth Lock boast a sound shaped by a pleasing variety of Irish musical legends, writes Tony Clayton-Lea
NOW HERE'S a surprise - an Irish band that isn't afraid to wear its indigenous influences on its sleeve.
Not only that, but an Irish band thoroughly willing to steer away from cliches and the usual commercial conceits that come from wanting everything right here, right now.
From their name onwards, Dublin band The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock aren't your usual bunch of wannabe Irish rockers.
They are, for starters, named after a poem about a haunted canal lock; the music on their eponymous debut album is similarly infused with ghosts (Virgin Prunes), spirits (My Bloody Valentine) and other spectral presences (post-rock, psych-folk and no-nonsense, heads-down trad).
The brainchild of Sligo's Allen Blighe, The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock lie somewhere between unhinged, untethered and downright liberated.
A former Trinity College graduate in electronic and computer engineering, thirtysomething, soft-spoken Blighe might be better known to Irish rock hipsters as the man behind Ballroom of Romance, a reasonably regular if low-key music promotions company that stages gigs at Dublin's Portobello venue, the Lower Deck. Theirs is the kind of grass-roots promotion, where making money isn't necessarily the first bullet-point item on the agenda.
"It's a monthly thing," explains Blighe, "and the ritual of it is addictive."
From such a modest aesthetic comes Blighe's new band, which was formed two years ago following the demise of his previous band, Holy Ghost Fathers (and yes, we're detecting an eerie theme here). The raison d'être behind The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock was in seeking an expressive outlet for Blighe's new-found passion for traditional Irish music. Factor in his love of Nirvana, My Bloody Valentine and Lift to Experience, and you might just find yourself with a fresh new fresh musical hybrid.
So from grunge to trad . . . what gives?
"It's only in the past three to four years that I've become interested in Irish folk, trying to dig up as much obscure and interesting stuff as possible. About three years ago I went to see Mozaik , which was a great gig; it was my first time seeing an amazing Irish folk band, and was very much, in my opinion, an epiphany. This would have been at the end of Holy Ghost Fathers, and I wound up writing songs on my own. Then I started a band based around them; people whose style of playing I was a fan of."
What started off as a solo project has now evolved into something of a dynamic act - fellow Spook members include guitarist Donnchadh Hoey and drummer Brian O'Higgins, both formerly members of Steerage, and nifty producer and multi-instrumentalist Enda Bates adds his tuppence worth.
What makes The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock such an intriguing prospect is the way in which the music and lyrics interlock. Blighe's lyrical themes of national identity and struggle and a nagging sense of sociocultural discontinuity weave their way through the music like a stitch your grandmother used to make.
"I'm fascinated by Irish history," he says, "there are so many sides to it.
"A central theme is certainly one of struggle, although some of the stories that I might have in my life are also put into perspective."
And the music, the fusion of folk idioms with post-rock, prog-rock and psych-rock? Where the blinkin' hell did that come from?
"If you listen to a lot of good Irish trad tunes, a lot of the time you'll discern an underlying droning note. In the sound of the uilleann pipe, there's a real low end, a depth of tone, and that reminds me a lot of the more experimental and unusual loud guitar rock that I can think of. It seemed a very obvious fusion, despite the presence of My Bloody Valentine.
"Also, the way a lot of the tunes for the record evolved was around a banjo, which gave a distinctly trad feel to them. Whenever I sit down to write songs, I think about unusual time signatures and unusual rhythms. I also pay a lot of attention to signatures in Irish folk, because they are quite unique and different. I found that when I placed that kind of music alongside a post-rock pedigree, it immediately gelled."
Where does the album fit in? Does The Spook of the Thirteenth Lockfit in?
"I suppose it shouldn't really matter, but it does go against the grain of most of what is going on. In the local music scene that I'd be familiar with - and even the more commercial, fashionable circles - I'd see a lot of trends out there, some of which are quite good. Not copying our contemporaries was uppermost in our minds, and the album does seem to confuse people, which is a good thing. Some of the reactions we have received have been mad."
A strange band name, and music that is thrilling, if unusual, and not definably commercial - it's probably a good thing that Blighe has a full-time job (he works as a communications engineer with Vodafone).
"I reckon so, although, weirdly enough, the interest that the band have had with the record could well lead to something good."
If it doesn't?
"I'd be just as happy to break even with the album which, if we do, will motivate us to make another one. We've all been in other bands and around the block by this stage, and we know the score, so we're happy with what we're doing.
"Already my expectations with the album have been superseded, so anything else is a bonus."
The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock is on release through Transduction Records