The enduring presence of alternative music on Leeside, from the current wave of genre-defying young musos making the best of lockdown, all the way back to the glory days of pre-Britpop indie outfits being jet-setted to London on developmental deals, has its beginnings in the early-eighties post-punk scene that revolved around gigs at the Arcadia Ballroom on Lower Glanmire Road.
In recent years, the legacy of bands like Nun Attax, Mean Features and a pre-success Micro-Disney (before Cathal Coughlan and company lost the hyphen in a later incarnation) has been amply celebrated and marked with exhibitions, reunion gigs and retrospectives in local media, while their indirect influence can be seen and felt to this day, openly acknowledged by bands like Pretty Happy.
It’d be easy for Ricky Dineen of Nun Attax and Liam Heffernan of Mean Features to rest on their local laurels, which makes the existence of their current project Big Boy Foolish all the more important - unsatisfied with nostalgia, the pair have spent the last number of years cultivating a body of idiosyncratic, drum machine-propelled tunes that sit somewhere to the left of the current wave of genre revivalism.
‘Nunzerkat’, their most recent outing, has already spent time atop the iTunes Music Store’s rock category in Ireland, and done well on indie service Bandcamp, which has given Dineen cause for celebration in strange times.
“The feedback on Bandcamp is instant, which is great. I don’t know why we weren’t doing it all along. It was a different way to release, and the feedback has been positive. No-one’s going to say ‘it’s sh*t’ to us anyway (laughs).
“The reaction is really good, and we’re delighted to be getting responses from these online radio shows - one show in Australia there had us in their top ten this week. These kind of things gladden the heart.”
Adds Heffernan: “It has been great - I just got a text from a buddy of mine in London, who says it reminds him of (experimental rockers) Primus!”
‘Nunzerkat’ is the ‘fourth in a trilogy’ of singles from Big Boy Foolish, cementing their status as a current concern.
Though the band has been active in a live capacity for a number of years now, the duo’s arrival in the present day has been a slow, iterative process, with Dineen and Heffernan sending each other ideas remotely and gradually writing and arranging tunes, long before the pandemic made a necessity of distributed teamwork. Heffernan talks about the events leading up to the pause forced on live music by the crisis.
“It’s sad, because there was a bit of momentum. Last year, we were preparing to gig in Dublin, before the plug was pulled on that, and we didn’t gig again until (last week). But this is the way we’ve been working since long before the pandemic - we’ve been recording and sending each other ideas since 2012. We were starting to write things then.”
“Some bits of songs, I’ll happen to find snippets of those recorded on my computer going back years, different variations,” says Dineen.
“You can see how the songs have developed. And with the pandemic, there was only one thing to do, just keep going, and intensify with that. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, we maybe wouldn’t be putting out singles, but it turned out a good idea in the end.”
Lockdown, of course, has served to sharpen the focus of creative heads on the virtues of working remotely, and while that particular shift is no great upheaval to Big Boy Foolish, it’s also given the duo time and scope to explore the current scene, engage with peers and discover new favourites of their own.
“We’ve been writing more,” says Heffernan, “and focusing more on that. It’s a DIY situation, we don’t have a big machine behind us, so nothing gets past QC unless we both sign off on it. We’ve a good relationship that way. Even since the release two weeks ago, we’re still sending each other stuff. It hasn’t stopped.”
“I have been listening to a lot more music by way of being at home a lot,” adds Dineen.
“Maybe that has maybe influenced the guitar pieces I have come up with. Since the lockdown, I’ve been discovering new bands, because I was never really finding out about new music. But with Twitter, we’ve been getting to know other bands as well.
“There’s comparisons made to Sons of Southern Ulster, who I’ve never heard of before. I started listening to the Dutch band The Ex, I started listening to them a couple of weeks ago. Through these online shows we’re on in the UK, I’ve discovered a Brighton band called Squid. Off-the-wall stuff. And obviously, the likes of Idles, it’s mad to think their kind of craziness was around in the eighties, but it was, and they’ve managed to bottle it in the right way!”
Last Friday also saw the band’s return to Covid-compliant gigging action, as part of Ballincollig venue The White Horse’s Songlines streaming series.
Going from the mindset of playing for a live audience and feeding off their energy, to playing to cameras and effectively working on a streaming set, was an adjustment in some ways, but familiar in others, says Heffernan. “For me, it was just like a gig in fairness, the nerves were just as palpable.”
“I felt the same - we were playing to a bunch of these (live-streaming) professionals, it made me slightly more nervous,” Dineen says. “Liam would be more used to cameras than I would! It was great, they made it great for us out there, a great experience.”
The duo have each been around the Cork scene as we recognise it today since its outset in the Arc’s heyday.
Having seen things come and go, and done a bit of that in their own right, they’ve witnessed first-hand the long-term effects of overarching events on the arts and music in Cork.
They’re uniquely positioned, then, to provide perspective on the Covid crisis, and the job of work that lies ahead in rebuilding the local scene in its wake.
“Like we were saying earlier, it seems to have brought a lot of bands together, corresponding on Twitter, making plans for after all this,” says Dineen. “We’ve been around for years, but we’ve been out of the scene, but we’ve been chatting with Stanton’s Grave, since we played together, talking to them, One Morning in August from Waterford.
“I think it’ll be good once we get up and running again, because everyone’s mad to play gigs. I think it’s going to be great.”
“It’s like finding out who your friends really are,” chimes in Heffernan.
As much as their efforts are rooted in the present day, and as much as they’ve made of a music business that’s undergone several bouts of massive change in their lifetimes, some aspects of the duo’s legacy will always accompany them closely.
Among these are the cult success of the much-celebrated Kaught at the Kampus, a split 12” featuring Nun Attax and Mean Features among others, recorded at the Arc as part of the legendary Downtown Kampus series of gigs promoted by UCC Live Music Society in late 1980, ahead of its release the following year.
Talk of a reissue on the fortieth anniversary of its release persists, alongside word of unreleased and hitherto unheard-of bonus material, as hinted at by original label Reekus Records. Dineen talks about the project.
“I think it’s going ahead alright. I’m not aware of anything else that came from the Kaught at the Kampus night, let’s put it that way. Now, (label boss Elvera Butler) might surprise me as well, but I was only talking to her last week, and she was saying it was in the pipeline, and definitely happening.”
With the future still very much up in the air for everyone in Leeside music, Dineen and Heffernan are forging ahead, and having spent years putting a solid foundation under Big Boy Foolish, are keen to get to work on the next chapter of their ongoing story.
“We’re working away in the background on tracks that we’re trying to park, with a view to an album,” muses Dineen. “We’re still talking about it, an album with versions of the singles redone. That’s kind-of a plan, but if I know Big Boy Foolish, plans change. We have to agree on everything.”
“We haven’t had many disagreements, to be honest: there’s a good working relationship there, and the pandemic has given us the safety of not giving each other a clatter,” laughs Heffernan.
‘Nunzerkat’ is available across streaming services now, and for download and adding to your Bandcamp collection at https://bigboyfoolish.bandcamp.com. Find Big Boy Foolish on Facebook.