“Yeah, it's bonkers. Everything just feels so hamstrung, y'know, it's... it's really difficult, like. We were already at over 50%, so it's kind of tricky. With everything that happened two weeks ago, when they started telling people not to go out, and not to book things, then, I think all the gigs started to slow down, even the ones that were selling well.
“So it kind-of put a stop to the gallop, which was unfortunate. You're in no man's land, you can't promote something wholeheartedly, to even your mailing list, because you don't want to force people into buying something that probably will get pulled.”
As your writer and his editor were last week discussing what was coming up for the following month or so - and how this parish might cover the Christmas season of gigs - the Government released another set of Covid-19-related restrictions, closing up nightclubs completely and necessitating live venues to operate at 50% capacity, among other measures.
The following week has been a flurry of cancellations, split shifts for well-sold gigs, and doubts over gig attendances in the wake of people being asked to stay away from large indoor gatherings, following being asked to by a government who subsequently have done nothing to address the actual factors behind recent rises in case numbers.
Indeed, as your writer is limbering up to file this piece, Joe Philpott and his bandmates in Rubyhorse have had to reschedule their Friday December 17 gig at Northside sonic temple Live at St. Luke’s to Friday March 4.
The government’s treatment of the live music sector has been stop-start, to put it politely, and a sense of confusion and dejection haven’t been uncommon. Philpott talks about how it’s been to find out the fate of his band’s booked gigs at the same time as the rest of us.
“Everybody had a bit of positivity about them, when we were all booking these shows, we thought we were driving forward.
“There was that really cool support that was given to venues like the Live Music Collective, doing shows with smaller capacity, but that was funded, so the pressure wasn't on the venue to have bums on seats to cover costs. There's kind of a lovely freedom in that in some respects.
“We were all warming up, then, for things to get back to business as usual, and then hit by this sucker punch, where shows had gone on sale at full capacity. And in recent days, we've bee told that that isn't a possibility. So we're just letting people… y’know, as Ozzy Osbourne said, we’re like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking competition, like, where do you stand?”
That the last twenty or so months have been brutal for live music in Ireland is a titanic understatement - it was the first sector to close at the outset of the crisis in March of 2020, and it’ll no doubt be the last thing to be able to reopen fully.
What many thought would be a short, sharp shock has become a full existential crisis for music in Ireland - which sets the tone for interesting times, reckons Philpott.
“It's been a nightmare for people, and if I just pull myself out of it in terms of my Rubyhorse perspective - venue owners, nightlife people, it's been an absolute horror show. And I know a few people who've been really, really, personally and mentally and familially, hurt by this. There is no comeback now for a lot of them. A lot of people have left the industry.
“When this thing gets back up and running again, there's a lot of very good crew people, for example, who pivoted during all of this and who have, y'know, kind-of rediscovered their lives too. A lot of people realised that even working in the entertainment industry wasn't suiting them, and they didn't even know that until they stopped.
“So without any proper momentum, with a step back from things, they've gone and either moved into other careers, or left the country. We're going to be left with an industry that's on its knees, really, and it'll take an awful lot of rebuilding.”
There’s been a lot of this unease and frustration with varying degrees of measures in the past twenty months, but you get the feeling that this time around it’s different.
Live venues and artists have been playing it smart, and doing everything asked of them to balance public health and safety with slowly making things work in the circumstances, and are still singled out for closures every time the government parties need to reassure their more conservative voter bases that they’re keeping on top of the ongoing crisis.
Something has to change, feels Philpott - starting with progressing on the gains made by shifts in music consumer habits back toward paying for music after a protracted struggle with piracy and adjusting to new models.
“The advantage of being an artist or being a creative person, as you always have to think outside the box, so you're on the front foot there. So I think what has to happen is, more of an awareness of how you can, as a consumer, support an artist. I had a conversation recently with a couple of friends of mine, and they had no idea.
“Rubyhorse has got played, I dunno know how many times on Spotify, we put out a song and there was like, 200,000 streams of it in the first week. In fairness, it was with George Harrison, but sure we didn't get a penny for any of that, like, and if we do it will be a pittance.
“If you're a consumer of music, for example, and use Spotify, like I do, go buy the artist's album in physical format; go on their website, see if they have a shop, buy a T-shirt. A lot of people now listen to vinyl, tapes are, in certain genres, being used, because they have all the download codes, they're actually quite artsy, and a lot of people are collecting tapes now, and actually putting them on shelves, especially in the ambient music scene.
“If there's a show on locally, you know, go support it. Engage directly with the artists, because I think if you get a Twitter message from someone saying, "I love your music, where can I buy it?" Generally speaking the artist is going to facilitate that, even if they don't have a very present online store. There's not one band that I know that doesn't have 3000 copies of a CD under under some bed somewhere, you know?”
To say nothing of another pillar of the Irish music business that seemingly will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into 2022 - commercial radio, which, while more than happy to accept awards for specialist shows put on at quiet times of the week, doesn’t seem to want to hear about the reality of having to expose its audience to a variety of new artists at peak times before it can get familiar with their music.
“I think radio stations in Ireland should be obliged by law to play an artist every 15 minutes, throughout the hour, from Ireland. Because of the shift in technology, and the accessibility of recording at the level of people can now record at; the quality of stuff that people are producing, and the talent in all genres. Y'know, they're all worthy.
“If they were given a shot on kind of mainstream radio, not just the national stations, not just RTÉ, because it does support things pretty well.... it should be just mandatory that Irish music is played enough for people to actually grow to like it, because what'll happen then, as a result of that, people will become familiar with the songs, when the artists are playing in town, they'll be able to fill the venues and the industry will just grow out of it.”
The conversation shifts to less fraught territory when focus shifts to Rubyhorse’s return in recent years, following reunion gigs and occasional new singles. During lockdown, the band have been working on a new album, conceptualised as a means of re-establishing themselves, creating a second act for a long-running and well-regarded Leeside alternative band.
“Here's the beauty of this, and the diamond in the dirt: we've come up with some very, very, very powerful, strong material that we're so excited about. There's no way we would have been able to have the time to put that together, or to focus on it if it weren't for the lockdown.
“We got back together with a view to playing a couple of shows for the craic. We'd knocked out a song every two or three months, to get a bit of a buzz seeing it out there in the virtual world. But we got really tired of that, because we thought, it means nothing to us or to anyone, it's just random, dotted shows, with no purpose, we're throwing out these songs to what? We don't even know who's buying them, or who's listening, because we're not even really connected with people.
“We're gonna change that, we want to put a piece of work together, that's a standalone project... like, I'm watching the Beatles thing (the Get Back documentary) at the moment. Just the way they did that (write 'Let It Be'), y'know, people have forgotten that it's quite a simple thing. You go into a room with good tunes, you set up the room well, and that's it.
“We want to put together a collection of songs, and we want to have an album, the way The Waterboys' 'Fisherman's Blues' came about, or the Pogues' 'Rum, Sodomy and the Lash', or even to certain degree, the headspace U2 were in when they recorded 'The Joshua Tree', y'know, where you're actually locating to a place, and you're focusing on making something cohesive over a period of time. When it comes out, it has its own personality, and you can almost hear and smell the room.
As we’ve seen in these pages on numerous occasions in the past 20 months, through the experiences of artists across the genre line, recording and production is quite another science in the current circumstances for artists.
But with a new, singular focus, Philpott and crew are confident in themselves, and the music they’re making.
“The songs are already written, and because of the St. Luke's gig, we were rehearsing a lot of them in a live format. They came alive, the way we used to be. The disadvantages of the last thing we were doing, was we were recording remotely.
“For example, Dec would write the song, he put down a guide guitar, and a vocal, Dave would sing over that, I play on it, then, it was constructed in a very artificial way.
“This band was born out of a garage, the best thing we can do is play in a garage, and create that interaction between the the actual musicians themselves, so that the sound of the record is born out of the performance of the production side of it, or the post-production side of it.
“The finesse of the record, the mixing and the mastering, that's secondary, it's not the other way around.”
Keep an eye on uticket.ie and Live at St. Luke’s on social media for more information on Rubyhorse’s newly-rescheduled gig at the venue on Friday March 4, 2022.