Scaling the heights of the Irish festival scene in a manner akin to their namesake, King Kong Company have became a cult sensation all their own, on their way to headlining the Opera House this Sunday night. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks with bandleader (and Irish Music Industry Podcast host) Mark Graham.
King Kong Company: Ready to set Cork Jazz Festival alight.

Scaling the heights of the Irish festival scene in a manner akin to their namesake, King Kong Company have became a cult sensation all their own, on their way to headlining the Opera House this Sunday night. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks with bandleader (and Irish Music Industry Podcast host) Mark Graham.

In the past few years, Waterford-originating electronic band King Kong Company have been everywhere on Ireland’s festival circuit, from the staunchly independent circles of Irish DIY weekenders, to playing to over ten-thousand people at Electric Picnic, at the height of the festival’s schedule clashes, to boot. Meanwhile, the band’s rep as a night-closing crowd-pleaser has taken them as far as the UK, where appearances at independent festivals up and down the country, including a trip to the hallowed fields of Glastonbury. It’s after this year’s festival excursion that we find the band’s talismanic leader Mark Graham over the phone, getting ready the night before the band’s annual winter venue tour kicks off in Dublin, keeping the momentum up and bringing a little bit of that atmosphere to events around the country, like they’re preparing to do this Sunday for Jazz Weekend.

It’s a time of change in the festival scene, by and large: turnover is happening, and one set of festivals has reached its five-year shelf-life, while another wave sets about negotiating the waters of sustainability in a market many argue is peaking. Graham talks about the realities of the festival circuit in Ireland, and what the future holds, but finds optimism in a renewed interest. “Where in the name of god is everyone getting the money from? Because there’s a lot of people at these festivals. They’re still selling tickets, but they can’t all survive. You have to think with the amount of them that some of them will have to drop off. And it’s not just festivals: ‘cause you’ve the Marquee series, and now there’s another one started this year in (REDACTED) Park. Besides people being asked to shell out for festivals, there’s now these summer gigs. They can’t all survive. I’m amazed, though: I have friends in a lot of great bands, and they’re on tour. And the gigs are selling out, like. There’s a lot of people going to a lot of gigs! Fair play.”

King Kong Company have rightly been lauded as the heroes of many a late night at the country’s weekenders, developing and maintaining a following along the way, but as the band has developed into a heavyweight attraction in its own right, Graham discusses the 'festival band' tag, and what it means for them nowadays. “I love it. I certainly wouldn’t change it. Our two nights in Dublin are sold out, the Opera House is on its way to being sold out, two nights sold out in Galway, sold out in Limerick. The fact that we’re associated with festivals, and having a good time… that’s what we are. And we love going to festivals. Play Body and Soul, stay there all weekend. Play Electric Picnic, we’re there all weekend. Really happy if we’re associated with that. We’ve been (doing this) for seven years, and what got us some momentum was playing on the Body and Soul stage at Electric Picnic, on Sunday evening at 8 o’clock, seven years ago. The place was packed, and we were blown away. To come back and headline it this year was f**kin’ amazing. If that’s what it means to be a ‘festival band’, we’ll take that every day of the week.”

The band has made a point of continuing the camaraderie that their late-night sessions and main-stage appearances have inspired in gig-goers, creating a creative and engaged online fan community, and taking the initiative with everything from printable monkey-mask templates to make up and wear to gigs, to comments threads for fans to buy and sell last-minute tickets to sold-out shows. Graham outlines the importance of keeping that buzz going around the band. “It’s just a case of being sound. When it comes to the tickets: you’d be gutted if you know there was someone who couldn’t get in, especially if there’s people that can’t use theirs. We’ve been learning as we go along, and we wouldn’t treat anyone the way we wouldn’t want to be treated, going to a gig ourselves. We talk about a burden that we have for the people that put hands in pockets and come to our gigs, and that’s a real thing. We’ve fallen down on that, and we talk about it. And if it does happen, you can’t let it happen twice. That isn’t a community anymore, then, because we’re not looking out for each other, and we should be.”

Away from the live arena, another major success of Graham’s in recent times has been the launch of the Irish Music Industry Podcast, available via all the usual apps and services. Speaking with all manner of professionals and practitioners within the trade in Ireland, with the aim of demystifying the industry for people, the pod has come in for critical and listener acclaim. “I’m surprised by how well that went, because that’s an extension of my job, teaching music students in WIT. We did sell out the Olympia, but we lost money on it, and music students aren’t told that kind of stuff. And there’s things that other bands tell me, that aren’t being told in classrooms to people that hope to make their living from music. And I couldn’t help but feel I was falling down in creating a very full and frank picture of what it is to make a living in the music industry, in whatever guise that is. Not just playing, but what does it take to be an agent, or a sound engineer?”

Podcasts in general have been on the rise again in recent years, with American broadcaster NPR pioneering the episodic format in the medium with crime drama Serial, opening the doors to mainstream and niche programming of all sorts. Closer to home, Rubberbandit Blindboy Boatclub is now averaging nearly 1.5 million weekly listeners, and the medium is enjoying unprecedented popularity as an alternative to radio and other linear broadcast formats. Graham is optimistic about its future. “It’s growing exponentially, but there’s a lot of comparisons there with blogs, and how there’s a lot of them, and there’ll be more, so maybe there’ll be a saturation of them, but man, Irish people love hearing other people talk, and really respond well to radio, and the uptake of podcasts. I was chatting to someone, and they couldn’t get their head around the fact that Electric Picnic has the Mindfield area. “People talk and do readings.” “What, at a festival?” He couldn’t quite grasp that. But you go to these spoken-word areas, and they’re packed!”

Having sold the venue out in 2017, King Kong Company return to the Opera House on Sunday night, to cap off the venue’s Jazz Weekend onslaught of pop programming and backroom jazz. Graham talks about heading back to the Opera House, and their experiences with the venue. “Love the Opera House. One of our first gigs way back was a gig at the Metropole, with a band called Audiolab. We got thrown out and we had nowhere to stay, and we ended up in the Leisureplex for the night. And we were walking up the quay, and one of the lads pointed it out, saying ‘someday, we’re going to play in there’, but we never even imagined that we would. The last gig sold out, and this one is about to. It’s amazing. There was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek Tweet sent out by the Jazz, referring to ‘jazz legends King Kong Company’, and I don’t know why we’re playing the Jazz, but we’re delighted.”

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