In Conversation | Participant on balance and the Content EP

Once of Heritage Centre and Floor Staff, Dublin-based musician Stephen Tiernan has come into his own since going solo and adopting his Participant mantle. A purveyor of challenging, thoughtful soundscapes, Tiernan has followed up last year’s Bit Slow  EP with an even more impressive turn; the Content EP. Aptly titled, it catches an artist turning promise into nuanced material to be proud of. Lead single ‘A Change’ earned positive mentions from Villagers and Jape, while the four tracks as a whole coalesce into one hypnotic body of work.

Of course, not everyone is going to be convinced. After all, when Participant took part in our guitar music roundtable some months ago, one gentlemen was moved to comment that those on the panel were, in fact, “5 talentless nobodies pretending to know a thing or two about music. Absolute helmets”. Everyone’s a critic, eh…

First things first. Would you consider yourself a talentless nobody who pretends to know about music?

Stephen Tiernan: Some days of the week, definitely. There’s a lot of wisdom and a lot of fallacy in the comments section of websites and I sometimes find it hard to differentiate between the two. That person may have stumbled upon something there.


Have you ever gotten involved in below-the-line commenting?

Years ago. I’m from Swords, which is where most of the Goldenplec crew are from. Goldenplec started out as a message board when we were all about 13 or 14 and I definitely got banned from there a few times just for being a troll, just arguments about music. When you’re a teenager, you think being absurd and surreal is hilarious but then you look back and it’s crap. I generally try to avoid any commenting or flame wars.

It’s a young person’s game. Or, if you’re not young, you’re probably a real dickhead.

I like having debates, especially about music and film. Comment sections really aren’t a great place to do that.

Yeah. You look up a pop music video and scroll down and it’s a blood feud over religion or something.

It’s a really interesting part of the world, YouTube especially. I’ve just turned 28 and I feel like I’m too old for a massive chunk of YouTube. There are people who have millions of views and make loads of money off it and I know nothing about them. It’s insane. It’s a whole other realm that I know nothing about.

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Do you find that really overwhelming? It’s not so much just being older, well I guess it is, but it feels like a genuine disconnect from an entire generation.

I think so, yeah. I have two younger brothers and there’s quite a distance between all of us. One is 19 and the other is 10 so I get this interesting perspective where my 19-year-old brother is always on his phone and sending videos to his mates while my 10-year-old brother, though not at that stage, goes on YouTube and looks up Minecraft videos and WWE and things like that. “I’ll just Google this video of Stone Cold Steve Austin”. That’s crazy. You’re 10!

You’re good value on Twitter. It’s better when someone shows personality rather than just tour dates. HEALTH are hilarious, for instance.

I really like Geoff Barrow.

I unfollowed him recently. Guy’s a hero but too much of a curmudgeon, plus he hates The Weeknd.

I don’t really like the new Weeknd stuff. House of Balloons is a great record.

The Weeknd is an interesting case study in that he went from this mysterious project to being totally up front about wanting to be the biggest pop star in the world. As a musician, do you respect that amount of declared transparency?

With Participant, I’ve found that I want to be as honest as I can as much of the time as I can because I think that’s really important for the project. Participant isn’t a persona. Sometimes people have that and honesty might not be the best thing, you want some intrigue. The Weeknd wants to be a big massive star and he’s being honest about it. His stuff has always had hooks and he’s really got that down now so that’s cool if that’s what you want to do, really. I have respect for anyone who is honest about what they want to do and where they want to go. If someone says, ‘I just want to write songs to make money’, that’s cool with me.

Most people who write music and put themselves out there – most people, not everyone, there’s definitely exceptions, it is considered. You write in a certain style and you can always go in another direction so it’s really hard to say whether something is genuine or not. It’s all manufactured to an extent. Most people who play onstage – again, not everyone – might go, ‘Oh, I’m going to wear a black shirt onstage’, so they’ve thought about it and that’s a consideration. Tiny decisions add up. It’s really hard to say, ‘Nah, I just do it’.

“I just am.”

There are people like that and that’s deadly because those people always stand out. Finding the balance between what you want to do and considering what you should do or even why you were doing something to get to who you want to be… that’s really tough. That’s what I’ve been struggling with.

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How’s your balance?

It’s really tough at the minute because part of me just wants to write songs and put them out for free and not care and if people really love it then people really love it. At the same time, like a lot of people who write music, I would love to have it as my full time job. That balance is really hard to strike. It’s not that I’m going to compromise what I do and start writing pop hits but it does make you wonder about certain aspects. I’m trying to write and be myself as much as possible but there are times when you may feel [conflic[conflicted]em>Content, it was five tracks and then it was four. There was that one song I wasn’t sure would fit thematically and that was a month of, ‘Do I put it on the EP? Do I not put it on the EP? Do I have it as a bonus track?’… a month of wrecking my head and in the end I left it out completely.

Musicians should make ruthless decisions, though.

 I do find that, doing this on my own, I’m always trying to pare it back and go with my gut feeling. At least then if it is a failure then you followed your gut. That’s rewarding in itself and hopefully it’s rewarding for other people, too.

I know asking about the name of an act is quite lame but Participant is an interesting moniker. It could mean a session musician, but this is a project that clearly addles you and it’s your baby.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had that feeling, whether it comes from a friend or a family member or a partner, where they give you this feeling that you’re like a supporting role in their life. It’s as if someone else has demonstrated that they’re the centre of attention, that they’re the focus and you’re just taking part. I liked the idea of using that as an identity. It’s maybe a bit too long of a name, but that’s the main idea, that you’re a supporting character in someone else’s dream and helping someone else achieve their goals and not your own. I wanted to take that name and own it.

Do you feel like you have?

I’m really happy that I took the name. I sat on it for years. I had the Twitter and email handles for about three years before I did my first acoustic show. I have admiration for anyone who makes music and goes under any sort of name because it’s so difficult to choose a name that isn’t crap. I’m not saying Participant is the best name ever but it’s not a terrible name. It’s tough to come up with this handle that sums up what you do and who you are and why you do it all in this one bite-size thing. On Twitter, you’ve got 140 characters. With a band name, you’ve got, what? A couple of words?

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The first EP was five songs that all pretty much came from the same place. They were about very similar issues and I wanted to continue exploring those issues with this new set of songs. Then again, to an extent, it wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice because the way I write is to just go with an idea. I did try and make a conscious effort to not repeat all the old ideas. I’m in a very different place in my life than I was when I wrote the first EP. These are younger songs and they reflect where I’m at with my life, hence the title. I’m a lot happier doing what I am now than I was when I wrote the first EP because I’ve managed to get the project off the ground and I’m enjoying it and I’m in a relationship…

Does that factor in?

For sure.

She’s the first person to hear new material, kinda thing?

A little bit, yeah. That was something to factor in. If you write a song that’s even absolute gobbledygook, someone close to you is maybe going to infer and think… ‘Is that about me?’. It could be nothing. You could be deliberately writing a purely abstract song but people can’t help but look for meaning in it. This was the first time I’ve written a collection of songs where if you were to go through a checklist of ‘What do you have going on in your life?’, well, I’ve got a band and I’m with someone and I’m living in a cool gaff, so that’s brilliant. There’s that whole idea about your art being a struggle so I wanted to try and put a positive spin on it, and maybe a bittersweetness, and see what came out. There’s a lot of emotion in the tracks.

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Yeah, for sure. Some people might interpret parts of it as being sad but it might not actually be. I feel that there’s hope in the songs, at least a hint of it. I’m not a tortured soul…

Were you, at any point? You mentioned that the first EP was a tougher experience.

Kinda. Writing it was a tough experience in a way because it was off the back of Heritage Centre and I’d been playing music with that band for years. I missed playing and wanted to try and do something. I was down in the dumps because the band wasn’t together and other parts of your life impact on it. Something I was thinking about recently was thinking about what my mam thinks about what I do. Until recently, I probably wouldn’t put a swear word in a song because my mam would be annoyed that I swore in a song. That’s absurd! I don’t know any other musicians who would think that way. You these great characters doing interviews and writing interesting songs and they obviously don’t give a shit what their parents think but that’s something that mattered to me for a while.

You’ve found a way to overcome that?  

I’ve been trying to shake off those restrictions. If you’re worried about what your mam or best mate thinks, you’re probably going to compromise what you’re doing. Content is the first time I’ve felt comfortable saying what I want to say. It’s also the first time in a number of years when I’ve been really, really happy with what I’m doing and where I am. It’s still a bit miserable, but I can’t help that. That’s the angle I’m coming from.

Grab the Content EP for the price of a pint on Bandcamp. Participant plays support to Overhead, The Albatross at The Workman’s Club, Dublin on Saturday December 12.