“It's the iconic venue in Cork, obviously. I mean, we all went there as kids to the pantomime, and the various different things, y'know. I'd never thought we'd play there.”
Speaking on the phone from Sweden, The Sultans of Ping drummer Morty McCarthy waxes nostalgic, when asked how he’s feeling about the idea of playing the grande dame of the city’s music venues. “And I remember, I think '84 was the first time I actually saw a live band in the Opera House, there was a series of gigs on Tuesday night, where there was probably fifty people in the audience.
“But I thought this was amazing, Cork bands on stage at the Opera House, because, for me, the Opera House was Johnny Cash and the Jazz Festival. And, y'know, back when I was a kid growing up, it just seemed kind of too far away for a Cork rock act to be playing. But the Opera House has done a great job in the last number of years. They're putting on a lot of rock shows now, so we're really honoured.”
Next weekend, The Sultans of Ping are set to play a double-header of gigs at the Cork Opera House, to mark the 30th anniversary of debut LP ‘Casual Sex in the Cineplex’, released just over a year after the success of leadoff single ‘Where’s Me Jumper?’, a titanic stomp of a song whose dry yet whimsical humour and eminently yell-along refrain landed its writers in the mainstream consciousness in the pre-Britpop moment.
Loaded with power-pop bijoux throughout, including singles like ‘U Talk 2 Much’ and ‘Michiko’, the album will form much of the band’s set list for both Friday and Saturday night, and following an increasingly rare UK sojourn last year, the band are in gear for their homecoming engagement, packed into their rehearsal space to deal with the unusual nature that comes with a booking of this grandeur.
“Birmingham was crucial for us, to just give us the confidence that yeah, we you know, we can pull off the Opera House, we're still a good live act, we still remember the songs - there's obviously a bit more work, because you have to learn some new songs that we haven't played, maybe for a number of years. But it's a good challenge, and I'm looking forward to it.”
‘Casual Sex…’ has itself rightly been the subject of critical reappraisal from different quarters over the years, as the milestone anniversaries have passed and the amber of public memory encases it further.
But for McCarthy, the record belongs to Cork city, and the generation of gig-goers that carried them aloft as they extended their reach into Dublin and the UK initially, enroute to major-label deals and full-time touring.
“I think the whole thing, y'know, is that Cork is the actually crucial thing in the band getting anywhere, even recording anything full-stop, because the first time I saw the band, I actually wasn't in the band, it was 1989 in the Phoenix bar. It was their first ever show in the city, but they already had a following, I think they had upward of 200 people at the show - people from their school, their friends... from that moment, the Cork crowd actually carried the band forward.
“When I joined, I wouldn't say we were great players. I mean, Niall (O'Flaherty) was a star from the start. We did our shows, we always had a big audience there, which attracted newer people. Then, when we did our first show in Limerick, the Cork crowd travelled up there. We then subsequently did a show in Dublin with the Golden Horde, which was the first show, 1990, I think over 200 people from Cork went up, the same in London, '91, huge Cork crowd, up to 100 people travelling over for the show. So, y'know, they were the crucial twelfth man.”
The album has been remembered, reissued (on CD in 2003, and on digital download service Bandcamp in 2021), and it stands to the memory of those gig-goers and the band's wider fanbase, that the record is remembered and held in high esteem all these years later - McCarthy reflects on the album's extended life, and that of the Sultans, in turn.
“History is a funny thing. You get certain acts, they release an album, it's really popular for a year and then you never hear of them again. You get other acts, they release an album, it does nothing and then twenty years later, people go back to it. Big Star's a perfect example, I think they sold four thousand albums when they were going, and then when they split up, they sold about four million.
“So I think we were very lucky - the album, at the time, was very popular, he got a great response. I think the internet has been really good to us, y'know, the people share music, and we're just remembered in a nice way - it's outside of our control, but time has been kind to us.”
Much of that goodwill, for casual fans, lies in the storm of success that surrounded the release of Where’s Me Jumper as a leadoff single the previous year - from pubs and nightclubs, to an impromptu excuse for the cast of kids’ telly institution to have an impromptu dance in studio between cartoons, the band’s koan to losing your geansaí in Spiders night club still occupies a place in the brains and hearts of many, especially among Corkonians.
“In a way, I don't think it's the band's song anymore. It became a song of the people, even back then in '92. Y’know, I hear it at weddings, ukulele bands covering it, everybody knows it, from nine to ninety, in Ireland, in particular. I know it's a cliche, but we've all been to the disco and lost our jumper, so it's kind-of a universal thing. It's very nice for us. I mean, it can be a bit bewildering at times, where it turns up, but look, it's good fun. It was a song written in good fun, and people take it for what it is, in good fun. We're delighted.”
The band’s story will be covered from a few angles next week, ahead of the big gigs - aside from ‘Casual Sex…’ being reprised as Dan Hegarty’s Album of the Week on 2FM’s ‘The Alternative’ (11pm Sunday to Thursday), celebrated music historian and journalist Paul McDermott, renowned for his trilogy of Cork post-punk oral histories, has turned his focus to the band and its heyday for ‘Dancing in the Disco: The Story of the Sultans of Ping’, premiering on RTÉ’s digital alternative station 2XM, Monday February 6 at 6pm.
“We know Paul a long time. I know Paul going not far off forty years. He's always been a very passionate music fan, very articulate. He went off and studied in Dublin to become a music journalist. And for me, there was only one guy who could do justice on the documentary, just because we had such a long history together.
“So I think about four years ago, he approached me and said, 'look, y'know, maybe we should think about doing this'. Obviously, the pandemic happened, but he kept working away during the pandemic, checking facts and figures with me, and interviewing various people. I've heard the finished product... we're thrilled. It's a very, very good documentary on the band, it does tell our story accurately, I would say.”
The band will be sharing the stage with a number of great fellow Corkonians on both legs of their home fixture, including young bands that openly bear the influence of the Sultans in terms of that Leeside idiosyncracy, like Pretty Happy and the Love Buzz, as well as returning veterans A Cow in the Water and alt-rockers First Class & Coach. McCarthy muses on a local scene that he still keeps tabs on.
“I've heard, I would say, the majority of Cork bands, I've listened to them online, I've checked them out. There's a lot of good bands in Cork at the moment. I don't know if we're an influence. The one thing I would say that ties all Cork bands together, from Nun Attax to Cypress Mine! to today, I would say individuality, people just doing their own thing. I don't think there's a Cork sound, and never has been a Cork sound. The new bands that I hear, I don't hear any Sultans in it, I just hear a band, just doing their own thing, which I think is fantastic.
“I think that's the one thing with Cork - second cities are very interesting. Capital cities, y'know, they're very more international, but the second cities are always just doing their own thing, and it's great to see bands continue to do their own thing and get international recognition. We've seen Pretty Happy out supporting Kim Gordon in Europe last summer, for example. So we're thrilled, y'know, we've always had Cork band supporting us, even in the UK, so thrilled to give the opportunity, to old and new.”
The Sultans of Ping play the Cork Opera House on Emmet Place on Friday February 10, with The Love Buzz and First Class & Coach in support; and Saturday February 11 with support from Pretty Happy and A Cow in the Water. Remaining tickets available at corkoperahouse.ie and the venue’s box office.
Stream and download ‘Casual Sex in the Cineplex’ on The Sultans’ Bandcamp: https://thesultansofping.bandcamp.com/album/casual-sex-in-the-cineplex-lp
‘Dancing in the Disco: The Story of the Sultans of Ping’ premieres on RTÉ 2XM on Monday February 6 at 6pm - listen live on 2xm.rte.ie, RTÉ Radio Player on iOS and Android, Saorview 206, Virgin Media 944, and on your smart-speaker device.