Cork's Fish Go Deep own This Bit of Earth

Heaven is a place on earth for Greg Dowling and Shane Johnson as they emerge from lockdown with some locked grooves. The pair enjoy a staff outing to discuss their new album with Don O’Mahony
Cork's Fish Go Deep own This Bit of Earth

Fish Go Deep may be their operational name but as far as anyone in Cork is concerned, it’s “Greg and Shane”. That’s the way it’s been these past 30-odd years for Greg Dowling and Shane Johnson. Greg and Shane. Indivisible.

Yet, when I meet the duo outside the café at Fitzgerald Park, finding them leaning on a railing enjoying some sweet iced concoctions, it’s a rare face-to-face meeting for the pair, who have just released their third album, This Bit of Earth. It’s apparent they are observing the rules of social distancing.

“This is our first staff outing in a while,” quips Dowling, the senior partner.

For a duo that might be more used to being side by side in cramped DJ booths, this is something of a novelty.

It really is a measure of how much things have changed. When we met to chat on the occasion of their last album, Draw the Line, back in June 2012, we were sitting comfortably around a table in the bar of the Pavilion. Now, thanks to the pandemic, gathering closely around a table with people seems as distant a thing as that great long-lost bar and venue. Instead we find ourselves convening outdoors, perched down, equidistant, on logs. This bit of earth will have to do for now.

“It seems like centuries ago,” acknowledges Dowling. “In terms of in all sorts of ways.”

And yet, while it’s nine years since their last studio album, which arrived eight years after their acclaimed debut, Lil’ Hand, it’s my sense that when it comes to dance acts, if you’re not really putting out that many albums, curious parties are less inclined to be badgering you about when the next album will be out.

I think it was really just down to us finding the time and having the inclination to do the album

"It’s almost a surprise, I think,” notes Johnson. “When we announced it a few weeks back it was like, ‘Oh wow. You’re doing an album — go for it!’

“So yeah, there’s no pressure, really. I think it was really just down to us finding the time and having the inclination to do the album. Because it’s so different to our usual way of working on a bunch of tracks to be a piece.”

Was it a surprise to you?

“It wasn’t really,” Dowling responds. “I suppose when you’re making a house track or something and then something would crop up during the track and you’d kinda go, ‘That’s interesting’, and you’d put it in the folder and go, ‘Let’s go back to that now’. Because it mightn’t necessarily be in the vibe of what you are doing, but when you’re jamming away you’d come up with an idea and you’d go, ‘Oh, that’s something interesting.”

Work for this album, he reckons, began in 2019. From then they found themselves gathering stuff that, while sounding interesting, wasn’t quite fitting in with their other output.

Fish Go Deep: Work for the new album began in 2019.
Fish Go Deep: Work for the new album began in 2019.

Johnson agrees: “We’d definitely have things from over the years, little snippets that were almost offcuts of house tracks we were doing where you’d say ‘That could be interesting’, or ‘This particular sound could be interesting in a different context’. So doing an album that’s not strictly for the dancefloor gives you a chance just to bring out all those elements and focus on those more.”

Dowling maintains this trait, of producing music different to their usual brand of deep house, has been with them from the beginning, citing the more trip-hoppy ‘The Jazz’ for New Jersey’s i! Records in 2003. And where Lil’ Hand was more smooth and soulful, Draw the Line was more abrupt and abrasive. This Bit of Earth is something else altogether. It’s an album of mixed tones and textures: Jazzy, dubby, and very loose. In some moments, it’s moody and focused; in others, wistful and wonderfully weightless. The ideas were forming alright in 2019, but the arrival of the pandemic allowed them to coalesce in a different way.

If you’re doing two or three gigs at the weekend or you’re doing your club night, it actually can eat into the whole week

“It’s interesting,” Dowling considers. “Maybe because we weren’t running gigs at the weekend, we weren’t building up to going somewhere. You know that takes up a lot of headspace, the actual getting ready to go. If you’re doing two or three gigs at the weekend or you’re doing your club night, it actually can eat into the whole week.”

Johnson agrees that lockdown conversely influenced the mood. “Some of the production choices might have just been that little more dancefloor focussed,” he ventures.

“I think being away from that definitely shaped the sound of the record.”

It’s interesting that Dowling speaks about headspace. This Bit of Earth is a headspace record. It’s hard to think of this being made, or indeed making as much sense, at any other time.

In 1960, Dinah Washington sang intensely of “This Bitter Earth”, but for Fish Go Deep, the sample becomes “This Bit of Earth”.

It was their designer, John Foley of Bite!, who is responsible for the intriguing, whimsical, and quietly ornate album artwork, who described it to them as a mondegreen, which is a mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase in a way that gives it a new meaning.

Johnson certainly enjoys the phenomenon. “There’s a history of that in house music,” he notes.

“European house music in particular, where Italians who sampled something get it wrong. So there’s a little nod to that. But it was more appropriate as a name, I think, than ‘This Bitter Earth’ because that’s pretty depressing.”

 Fish Go Deep are Greg Dowling and Shane Johnson.
Fish Go Deep are Greg Dowling and Shane Johnson.

“And I suppose it’s our bit of earth,” adds Dowling.

It’s a sanctuary for all, a safe haven in stormy times.

And as we’re in the sanctuary of Fitzgerald Park, we’re reminded of a project in which Greg and Shane are involved for the Cork Midsummer Festival. It’s an interactive audio tour scripted by acclaimed Corkophile writer Lisa McInerney and soundtracked by the boys, which takes audiences on an intimate journey from the adjacent Shaky Bridge across town to the Red Abbey.

“It’s full on,” promises Dowling.

So, four-to-the-floor then, I ask?

“It starts with four-to-the-floor and that disappears into the distance,” Dowling enthuses, and with that they both laugh.

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