Ballincollig musicians are driving toward a debut album

Having launched their new single at Cyprus Avenue, and sold out major venues around the city, Ballincollig roots/folk 11-piece The White Horse Guitar Club are ready for the next step. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks to guitarist/White Horse proprietor Joe Carey to find out more.
Ballincollig musicians are driving toward a debut album
The White Horse Guitar Club.

AS White Horse venue man and former Jodavino vocalist Joe Carey answers the phone, the background noise of a busy room quickly fades away as he moves to have a chat.

The White Horse venue in Ballincollig, opened as a stage for local music in 2010, is tonight playing host to the first gathering of the White Horse Gospel Choir, attracting a hundred or so prospective members and keeping venue staff on their toes.

It’s the kind of project that the venue has prospered in hosting, however: in 2012, a similar callout led to eleven or so musicians coming together over some gospel and roots music standards, going from an awkward jam upstairs, to playing in a circle in the corner of the downstairs pub, to a full transition to performance and touring.

The band’s most recent excursion in this vein took them upstairs on Caroline Street in the city centre, to the newly-renovated Cyprus Avenue, to launch new single ‘Drivin’ My Life Away’, taken from their upcoming long-player, due midsummer next year. As a venue owner himself, Carey is effusive in his praise for the gigging complex, now running three stages with the addition of 50-cap Winthrop Avenue to its offering.

“It’s an amazing thing, and what a story of patience, perseverance and commitment, by the likes of Ger and Eoin in Cyprus, to have done what they did. They’ve been at it for so long, as this driving force of live music in Cork city, and they’ve never wavered. They’ve done the opposite, and put their money where their mouth is, and created, literally, a European-standard venue in terms of stage, the sound, the lights… the band room is incredible, incredible hospitality, it really is cutting-edge. They deserve every success.”

The topic of recording and producing an album can often lead to a discussion of the creative process that varies almost exclusively by people and their workflows, the preferences they have for working spaces, etc. It’ll come as no surprise, then, that discussing the same process for an 11-piece outfit (plus guests) is a completely different kettle of fish, as Carey gives the rundown on their ongoing studio experience.

“We never seem to take the easy route, do we? From the get-go, we’ve landed on the number 11 and been an 11-piece from day one. There’s challenges in every sense, in terms of getting on stages, though that’s less of a problem now that we’re playing bigger venues.

The White Horse Guitar Club
The White Horse Guitar Club

“The process has been amazing. We’re working with Christian Best (Monique Studios), who would have done all of Mick Flannery’s albums, as well as a slew of others’, Jack O’Rourke, Marlene Enright, etc. He’s an amazing guy to work with, and a joy to sit and watch work. We’ve been able to do it in an organic way, lay down the basics of the song with acoustics and then layer, add voices as needed, and keep it as close to live as possible. One take.

“We hope to have the full thing done by midsummer next year for September release. These things don’t move as fast as you’d like in some ways, but you’ve 11 guys, in 11 jobs, with 11 families, and you’ve to juggle all those things with the pursuit of music.”

It’s all a far cry from the humble beginnings alluded to earlier in this piece, and as the building reverberates with voices getting used to each other’s close proximity, Carey recalls how the band overcame their own initial awkwardness, and how The White Horse got a house band that struck on a mixture of gospel, blues, and a Welsh men’s choir.

“If one could conceive of it, and plan it, you’d be considered smarter than we are! It started off without any real plan, or blueprint. The venue is something I own, and we would have music there, so we had lots of artists through the doors and lots of music enthusiasts would become regulars at the venue.

“It just came almost naturally in conversation that we should get together and play guitar upstairs on the venue’s off-nights, so that came to a simple call-out, to those interested in playing guitar in a group, or in a circle, come along. Eleven guys showed up, and we sat around looking at each other, played some old-school roots songs, and fast-forward a few months later, we’d developed 10 of those, and we started playing those downstairs in the corner. It very naturally evolved into a performance group as opposed to a private meetup. Similarly, it evolved into a club, with fixed members, when we realised we couldn’t chop and change people, because the sound had established itself. We liken ourselves to a GAA team: you need to put in the practice in the dark winter months, if you want to be good in the championships!”

It’s hard not to look at the band’s ascent in recent years and associate it with its namesake venue, having itself experienced an uptick, becoming possibly the only suburban folk outpost in the city area to host a regular folk club and play host to touring artists from at home and abroad. As both the venue and the band burgeoned, so too did the relationships around each, and how the two intersect.

“I came from music before I got the pub, so music was the first and most natural thing for me to do. If I’m being honest, upstairs became a bit of a refuge in the early days, while trying to figure everything out downstairs with food and drink. Upstairs was something I knew, I understood, and was able to bring my experience to bear on. I also very luckily became friends with a lot of musicians while playing, and it was a lot of those guys, the Mundies, the Damien Dempseys of the world: they became the early adopters, who gave it the seal of approval.

“My friend Christy Leahy was very influential in bringing trad here, and we set up the Ballincollig Winter Music Festival 10 years ago. We’ve had Altan, Alex Finn’s Dé Danann, Frankie Gavin’s Dé Danann, Lúnasa, Martin Hayes… the trad world was great to us. We felt that there was an audience for live music in a suburb. You don’t often see venues in suburbs, but there’s more than 20,000 people within a few miles of Ballincollig, you’d think there’d be a few hundred people interested in seeing national and international-class music. Thankfully that was the case.”

The gospel choir downstairs is heading out the door, so it’s a good time to leave Carey off to greet people and chat after their first sessions. Before he does, there’s the little matter of the venue’s Ballincollig Winter Music Festival, its immediate future, as well as more info on that upcoming long-player of the band’s.

“The guitar club will continue walking blissfully into the unknown, with no plan beyond recording the album and playing it. We love playing, practicing and exploring that wonderful songbook of roots, Americana, bluegrass and that. We’ll see where that goes, without being too prescriptive or planned, and first and foremost, enjoying it.

“In terms of venue: we’ll keep pushing ourselves, make sure the artist gets the gig they deserve, and that the crowd have no obstructions in seeing the artist be the best that they can be.”

The White Horse Guitar Club’s ‘Drivin’ My Life Away’ is available now across all digital platforms.

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