The era of lockdown projects continues as former Bulkhead frontman Liam O’Callaghan returns from self-imposed exile in a new band alongside Emperor of Ice Cream’s Eddie Butt. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks to O’Callaghan about reprising his creative processes, and starting from scratch in a changed music business.

Arctic Lights are a new indie/rock band from Cork, Ireland, formed by Liam O'Callaghan (Bulkhead) and Edward Butt (Emperor of Ice Cream). 

The domino effect of lockdown creativity has been in evidence over the past few months, as one greater turn of circumstance has led to reaction, reflection, and changes in creative process for many on Cork’s music scene.

In this parish, we’ve spoken to musicians that have adapted to lockdown in different ways, from new projects and solo work to dusting off old tracks and giving them a new lease of life in a changing world.

Liam O’Callaghan’s story falls between these two posts — at one time a much-fancied songwriting proposition at the front of Cork industrial-pop unit Bulkhead, his disenchantment with the then-established music industry model caused him to take a hiatus that would go on to last over 15 years.

A lot happened in the interim, and it was in keeping things going at home that lockdown brought O’Callaghan the spark to get started with new project Arctic Lights.

“It was a strange one, how it started. During the first lockdown, my son and daughter were being homeschooled, and one of my son Reuben’s teachers said it might be a good idea to teach the lads some music. So, I picked up the guitar, which I hadn’t done in about 14 years. “Unfortunately, Reuben didn’t take to it, but once it was out, I started playing around, and hit a good vein of creativity, and the ideas kept flowing out.

“I was talking to Eddie (Butt, Emperor of Ice Cream bassist), we’d be in touch, and he’d mentioned their album coming out. I said ‘that’s mad, ‘cause I’ve just picked the guitar back up and I’ve a few ideas’. He said, ‘why don’t you send me one?’, because he’d just got his home set-up together for the Emperors album.

“He loved it, and suggested sending ideas back and forth. I do more of the mixing, but he’s very involved in the whole process, arrangement and production values. We bring different skillsets to the table, which makes for a great partnership, y’know?”

While staying true to the pop aspect of O’Callaghan’s previous creative life, Arctic Lights veers into the realms of indie-friendly, nearly shoegazey territory in places, especially in the dream-pop whimsy of new single ‘King of America’.

Liam O’Callaghan is happy with his new project, Arctic Lights.
Liam O’Callaghan is happy with his new project, Arctic Lights.

The direction of the project is something of a left-turn by O’Callaghan’s own admission, but the result of going into the process without any preconceived notions of what happens.

“We never decided on a genre to get involved in. We came up with songs and put them down. We found songs developed that way. Eddie’s background would be more toward indie than mine, but it’s just evolved organically. It’s not intentional to have any particular sound.

“Back in the day, I would have been using more loops and there wasn’t so much of a live drums feel to it, and once you bring in that sound the industrial feel goes out, but there’s time for all that stuff to come back in again!”

Debut extended-player Tabula Rasa emerged from those early ideas, and was largely borne of O’Callaghan’s initial ideas being teased out by collaboration and perspectives supplied by Butt.

O’Callaghan talks about that songwriting process in a little further detail, and settling on a direction for the EP.

“What we decided on was that, with all my ideas, that it’d be one-way traffic for a little bit, sending stuff on to Eddie, and he’d put down basslines. With some of this stuff we’re working on, he’s coming up with basslines and sending them on to me. It’s evolving. With lockdown, it’s not possible to meet often, and the vibe is different when getting basslines via WeTransfer.

“The early versions of these songs were mine, sent to Eddie for basslines, we’d have a chat about it, maybe pull it apart a bit, bring it back together again slightly differently. We’re using a virtual drummer, which I’ll work away on and layer on top of, chord progressions on that. Eddie will work on it, and then the vocals will go down last. Then the real fun begins.”

I feel sorry for lads in bands now, without going into a rehearsal studio with four people, it’s hard to do anything at present

Much like Butt’s other project, returning shoegaze outfit Emperor of Ice Cream’s long-shelved debut album No Sound Ever Dies, the tracking, mixing, and mastering of this EP has been done remotely, with O’Callaghan returning to another long-lost passion in doing much of the heavy lifting with its post-production process.

“Back in the day, I would have been well into recording, so would have had an idea of the set-up and what to do, but after 15 years of being in mothballs, my equipment was dated, so we upgraded our system and got Logic Pro X, a software system I hadn’t used before. To be honest, once you get your head around it, it gives you a huge amount of scope we wouldn’t have had before.

“I feel sorry for lads in bands now, without going into a rehearsal studio with four people, it’s hard to do anything at present, whereas we have the wherewithal to transfer files, take ’em down, adjust mixes. It makes it easier for us to work together, helps us take our minds off what’s going on right now.”

Leadoff single ‘King of America’ is a fairly light-hearted critique of the state of that nation, riffing on Americana, cultural imperialism, personality cults, and the fractiousness that underlies its society at present. Interesting timing considering this week’s events.

“It’s very tongue-in-cheek, a humourous look at American capitalism — there’s so many slang words for money out there, so I got as many of those together and put them into a song. It’s not looking down at anything or anybody, it’s humourous and I think that comes across in the video.”

Eddie Butt: linking up with Liam O''Callaghan in Arctic Lights.
Eddie Butt: linking up with Liam O''Callaghan in Arctic Lights.

Of course, as we’ve discussed, getting the project ‘out there’ is a much different business in the current day and age than it was in the late nineties. Consumption has changed utterly, while existing balances of power have been skewed in different ways. O’Callaghan discusses the ups and downs of getting back to the grind in 2021.

“It’s awe-inspiring. The landscape hasn’t changed — it’s another planet. It’s a double-edged sword where bands have the ability to have more control over what they want to do. Twenty years ago, it was a big deal, recording and PR cost a fortune and there was so much know-how involved. We’re doing all this independently, but the flipside is, there’s very little money.

“My hat goes off to anyone trying to make a living full-time in music. The other double-edged sword is that everyone has access to everything, which is fantastic, but sales have gone through the floor. You have to have as many money-making things you can as a musician, and at the end of the day, not everyone does this for financial reward, either, so much as the love of it.”

The light of the end of the Covid-19 tunnel might be within our sight, if not quite within reach. With that in mind, the future of the Arctic Lights project looks quite busy by O’Callaghan’s estimations: more studio output is enroute, while the inevitable post-Covid shift back to live action has already been a point of order for the project.

“We’re currently working on the second EP. We’ve set ourselves the goal, now that we’re in control of our own destiny. The plan at the moment is three EPs this year, if possible. We’re in the process of another four songs. Our love for music is the force behind it, and we’ll put music out there, and if people love it, that’s fantastic, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. We have to be true to ourselves.

“At the moment, due to the crisis, live is something we don’t dwell on too long, but as things improve, we’ll explore it. There’s a few musicians that we really respect that we think might be on board, but you can’t get people tied in until we know the lay of the land. But it sounds like things could be very exciting.”

Arctic Lights’ Tabula Rasa EP is available for download and adding to your Bandcamp collection: https://arctic releases. Find the band on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter: @ArcticLightsC.

More in this section

Sponsored Content

Add to your home screen - easy access to Cork news, views, sport and more