When they think of Ireland, your average American thinks of Guinness, leprechauns, the IRA, Bono, and, lastly, if they’re particularly enlightened, of Oscar Wilde and James Joyce. Very few of us think of Dublin as an amazing music city. No matter. It is. My favorite slice of the music that Ireland has to offer is offered by a few record labels: Any Other City, Indiecater, and the one I’ll be focusing on for this article: Popical Island. If I’m being completely accurate, Popical Island isn’t as much a record label as it is a collective of independent artists. This is reflected both in the diversity of sounds coming from Popical Island as well as their business model (or lack thereof). What binds the bands of Popical Island is their dedication to the craft of song writing, a DIY approach to making and promoting their music, and that distinctly Irish way of looking at the world: relentlessly, and simultaneously, good-natured and pessimistic. Here’s just a few of my favorite tracks by Popical Island bands.
First off, my personal favorite Popical band, Mumblin’ Deaf Ro. His songs are acoustic fingerpicked guitar, with minimal drum and bass accompaniment. His lyrics delve into the routine, laughter, and pain experienced by a family man who, on one end of the familial spectrum, is dealing with young children, and on the other the death of a parent. “Cade Calf Call” is as gorgeous as it is heartbreaking.
Tieranniesaur is super accomplished, super danceable pop. My sense is that she is one of the most popular bands on Popical Island.
Ginnels is garagey, experimental, insanely-catchy jangly lo-fi guitar pop. Since 2011, they’ve recorded two normal length records and one double album. Here’s “Gangs Of Witches”.
Dott is one of the few non-Dublin Popical bands that I am aware of, hailing from Galway on the west coast of Ireland. They make super-catchy garagey pop with female vocals. The chorus alone on “Let’s Do It” makes it an instant classic in my opinion.
Big Monster Love makes amazing, touching, hilarious pop music with some of the cleverest lyrics I’ve heard in ages. Everything that’s lovable and thought-provoking about their music is typified in the track “Free Gaff Forever.”
Speaking of Big Monster Love, the folks in Popical Island did a tribute compilation to the music of Big Monster Love, creating, as far as I can tell, the only tribute album for a non-famous, currently active band. It’s a genius idea, and one that I hope will be emulated elsewhere in the world.
Skelocrats are makers of fuzzy, poppy earworms, and two members of the band are among the founders of Popical Island. This is one of my favorite videos of last year.
An interview with the folks behind the joyous genius of Popical Island follows. You know you’re interviewing an Irish label when not one, but two, of the interviewees are named “Padraig.”
1. Why did you guys decide to start Popical Island?
Padraig C: Prior to there being a Popical Island, we often showed up at each other’s gigs or indeed played on the same bills together. There was a mutual interest in what everyone was doing, and we hit it off as a group for the most part. None of our bands were ‘making waves’, however. Ruan and Mike had the bright idea that if we engaged in some sort of formalised collaborative effort, we could simultaneously do a lot of enjoyable and creative stuff and attract the attention of the people of Dublin, the city where dreams come true, and maybe even beyond. So it was agreed that this was a good thing to do, and I think there was more thought put into what Popical Island would actually be after the fact. It was discussed at length.
2. The imagery of the name Popical Island, and the PI logo, is in stark contrast to the Irish landscape and climate. Was that on purpose? Or was “Popical Island” simply too great of a name to pass up?
Mike S: It was pretty much a spur-of-the-moment thing. One of the guys, Fiachra (fine Irish name for a fine Irish fellow) came up with a list of names, all puns on the word “pop”. It was just a jokey thing but we figured, why not pick one. We narrowed it down to three, then to two, then flipped a virtual coin – really, there are web sites for everything – and that won out. The design just grew from Ruan’s imagination. Ruan actually thinks in cartoons. The skull is kind of cool. But you’d have to ask….if there’s a dinghy on the island, surely the marooned unfortunate could have escaped on that?
3. You are currently a collective rather than a traditional label. How would you characterize the difference in your approach versus a label’s, and have you ever considered making the transition to being a label?
Padraig O’R: This was hotly debated at one time. Ultimately I think we felt that a label may have implied a traditional power structure, a profiteer, a cigar smoking dude such as we didn’t and don’t actually have in our ranks. We wanted it to be democratic. A lot of what we do or are enabled to do relies on good will so I think it would be silly to have a situation where one or a couple of us could be congratulated for what is an honest to god collective endeavour. The bands deserve the lion’s share of the credit for the music and it’s a pleasure to be able to promote music you love and work with bands whose music and company you enjoy.
There have been examples of failed Irish labels by people who had their shit together and worked really hard. I suppose when you formalise things to the point that you’re a fully fledged business there is the risk of insolvency and closing up shop. Another point is that a collective is much cooler.
Mike S: There are certainly a lot of activities we’ve carried out that might be the same as what a small, grassroots indie label would do and we’ve been confused for a label from time to time. Promoting records,occasionally releasing them (that is, putting the money into pressing them: though for the very most part bands do this themselves), putting on launch gigs, trudging through the rain to record shops to update stock, manning stalls, and lots of other graft of this kind are label-ish and we’ve done all of these things at one point or another. But we’ve operated as a collective in the sense that each band will finance, work on and coordinate their own releases, decisions about the Island’s activities are made in a collective way, and realistically there’s no such thing as budgeting or any other businesslike activity like that in Popical Island. A label would be likely to involve one person a couple of people funneling finance (often from their own pocket) towards the releases of an act they want to put out. A collective, by contrast, channels effort and good vibes for the collective benefit of all. And that’s the important distinction: you have everybody pitching in and helping each other out. to be a label would devalue each person’s effort. It’s really something we’re proud of, and despite the odd barney (or maybe because of them!) it has worked pretty well so far.
4. What three Popical Island accomplishments are you most proud of?
Mike S: That’s easy – Popical Saturdays 1, 2 and 3, and the compilations we released on those days. Lots of great tunes; lots of coming together at each other’s houses and making fun stuff like CD covers, tape stickers, badge packs and spin art machines; and immense fun on the days themselves with a whole bunch of different bands
5. Although you are called Popical Island, the music you release is quite diverse, ranging from gentle folk to noisepop. What do you look for when deciding whether something is right for Popical Island?
Padraig C: I think it seems diverse to somebody immersed in songs, particularly short songs with things like choruses and rhyming couplets. To an outsider, say someone more familiar with ambient music or stoner rock, it probably all seems like an interchangable pop mush. That’s the impression I get anyway. But you’re right, any notion of stylistic homogeneity doesn’t really bear close inspection. It’s a long way from Tieranniesaur to Mumblin’ Deaf Ro, for example. The number one criterium we have when deciding if something is right for Popical Island is ‘are you a member of the collective?’. If so, then you’re right for PI. Of course, we’ve had all sorts on the compilations. Some have been immediately agreed on, they’re obviously suited to what we do: So Cow, The #1s, Feed the Bears. Some were particular favourites of one or other member of PI, and the rest of us gave it the nod. In terms of releasing albums by other people, we try not to make a habit of it and really only do it when there’s an outstanding reason for doing so. Big Monster Love and Mumblin’ Deaf Ro were friends of PI who were sitting on really brilliant pieces of work. We were excited enough to give them a hand in releasing their records.
You know what? I think at times we’ve been a little confused about what we’re supposed to represent. People (media people who are actually saying positive things) ascribe a particular sound to PI, a surfy sound, in the vein of Wavves or Best Coast, and I don’t know why they do it. I suspect that they don’t really pay attention. Sure we’ve made some music that might fit into that paradigm, but we’ve made a lot more music that doesn’t. We don’t have something that’s easy to brand, but nonetheless we’ve done it and that’s the bargain we’ve made for the riches we enjoy today.
Padraig O’R: It’s hard to say what we look for as it’s mostly an instinctive process. We don’t have a check list or a stated set of requirements.
There does tend to be a certain amount of local colour in what we do, be that in the lyrical content or the accents of the singers or whatnot. If you think of Tieranniesaur or Big Monster Love, Mumblin Deaf Ro or Groom, Land Lovers or No Monster Club (who named an album “Dublin”), you can kind of see that the music is rooted here, for better or for worse.
We’re not all delighted to be described as lo-fi, but I think there’s a certain aesthetic that defines the bands. This is kind of an interesting one to consider as it’s not solely a reflection of budget and it’s not defined by limitations. It’s a conscious choice. It seems there is an impulse to sound a little grotty or an aversion to overly pristine sounds.
I would say that there’s a common attitude at work too. I don’t think anyone involved with Popical Island has ever dreamed of filling stadia with pee soaked pre-teens and snorting coke off a hookers arse. I could be wrong there of course.
6. How would you characterize the indie scene in Dublin and throughout Ireland right now?
Padraig C: As is the case anywhere, there are loads of different little scenes that inevitably cross-pollinate in some way. That’s the way of things. Some good music is made. Lots of bad music is made. There are just about enough people who go to gigs in Ireland to give you hope that a fair amount might come to see your band. There is just about enough of a national media to give you delusions of grandeur based on very little. There’s not really a music industry as such that caters for the independent or esoteric, rather disembodied parts of one. It’s definitely possible to have a good time making music in Ireland, depending on your idea of a good time.
Mike S: I would say that the best music is, for the most part, being made by independents or rather – and let’s call this out – people who don’t have any pretensions of making a cent off music, as opposed to those who do, but still don’t make it. This is possibly because whatever a person is obliged to do generally inspires tedium and whatever a person is not obliged to do inspires alacrity. But who are we to say?
7. As you know, Plunderphonics is a tribute album released by Popical for Big Monster Love, a Dublin songwriter that makes amazing music, but that hasn’t risen to the level of notoriety normally associated with tribute albums. I thought that was such a great idea. How did that come about? What was Mr. Big Monster Love’s reaction?
Padraig O’R (speaking in the third person due to the way the answers were compiled): There are several strands to this and the long answer may not be that interesting but here goes. Bobby from No Monster Club was the brains behind the compilation. He asked some people including Padraig from Tieranniesaur who in turn asked a few others based on his knowledge of people Big Monster Love was into or people who were into him. Tieranniesaur had been playing an unrecorded Big Monster Love song live so they lied to him and said they were recording it for Popical comp number three. He came over to the practice space and did it in a couple of hours. That’s how we fooled him into being on his own tribute record. Some of the songs like “Stars and Birds” or “What an Idiot I Am” date back to an older band called Strangleberries which had Big Monster Love, Padraig, and a guy called Paul O’Reilly. Paul didn’t end up recording a song for the comp but he almost blew the cover one drunken night before it was finished. Crisis averted, we invited Big Monster Love to Bobby’s house and just had the comp playing casually at the party when he walked in. Big Monster Love was pretty shocked. The main thing I remember him saying was “Well, it’s better than that fucking Smiths tribute album anyway.”
8. If Popical Island were a GAA sport, would it be hurling, camogie, Gaelic football, handball or rounders? Or are different bands different sports? Or is this question too gimmicky to even answer?
Padraig C: Hi, it’s a member of Popical Island’s Sport Subgroup here. Without wishing to alienate the GAA membership who may also enjoy our music, the Subgroup is more football (soccer) focused, nonetheless retaining a keen eye on our national games. Hurling is of course a sport that we Irish can hold up proudly as an exciting, skilful and distinctively indigenous pursuit (apart from in its cannibalized scoring system, borrowed competition structure, imitative playing gear, etc). It is also very strange to apprehend to the outsider, with North Americans often resorting to describing it as a mixture of lacrosse and hockey. As such it is the Groom of Gaelic sports, an ugly fantastical, cobbled-together thing that initially provokes horror but gradually reveals a charm and a beauty all its own.
If you take the beauty and the charm away from hurling, also withholding the sticks and the helmets, but providing a bigger ball, you get Gaelic football. There is no band on Popical Island that corresponds to Gaelic football.
Handball is of course a variant of games played the world over where a ball is bashed against a wall. I’m not sure of the relationship between Irish handball and, say, Basque Pelota but it’s interesting to think that people in different countries informed by their own particular surroundings and cultures end up doing basically the same things sometimes. It’s very much like that way Popical Island started up and then coincidentally 3 years later a nail boutique called Tropical Popical opened, also in Dublin, but they probably came up with the name on a different email thread to the one where we came up with ours.
As for rounders, you can’t look beyond Squarehead. Their sun-kissed early output was like the first day of the school holidays, where a long game of rounders was only interrupted by someone’s mam bringing out orange cordial and biscuits. Eerily, their subsequent move into ever more aggressive workouts parallels the coming of the June to August rains when rounders becomes a fraught battle where winners are separated from losers, and afterwards you need a mug of Bovril to wrap your blue hands around.
9. Last question: Popical Island is rad. Don’t even try to be modest about it. Tell me, in two or three sentences, exactly what makes it so rad. In your answer, please use as much 80s slang (Irish or American) as you can.
After consulting the 1980s in America, it appears that we’re rad because we always get to third base and whoever doesn’t think so can bite me. Also, the dudes are total Clydesdales and the chicks aren’t Joanies. Some collectives are just a bunch of tinkerbilly herbs, they make me want to ralph. Fuck that, when we’re scrapin’ on a Saturday night it’s totally righteous. Where’s the beef?!?!