When the announcement of the 2007 Choice Music Prize for Best Irish Album came over the loud speaker many were left bemused. A troop of misfits took to the stage to claim their award. Super Extra Bonus Party had won.
They were fast becoming a name recognised as one of the most exciting live acts on home soil. Their blend of genres from indie to electronica to South American Hip-Hop, set them apart in the Irish music scene. The only problem was they weren’t playing “the game” and many critics were not amused.
I sat down with Fatsy (Stephen Fahey), Gav (Gavin Elsted) and Steve (Stephen Conlan) of the six-man wrecking crew to talk about the backlash from the Choice Prize win, I try to pin down the Super Extra Bonus Party sound and we chat about their return and new single ‘Switzerland’ out now.
Fatsy: We arrived out of nowhere, were shortlisted for that prize and nominated as one of the best ten albums of that year and subsequently won the thing. It was so against the grain of how things usually are done; the build up and more traditional trajectory of a single EP, two years of gigging, establishing yourself as a band and lead up to an album.
When we won the prize, people and critics in particular were forced instantly to evaluate it and give an opinion on it purely based on what they knew about us, which was very little, and so some people in the media made some very negative judgements and very personal judgements about the band at that time.
Steve: It was kind of a posion chalice in many ways; it was brilliant, we had this massive opportunity and recognition that we hadn’t expected but prior to that we were on this upward trajectory just an underground success that we were enjoying and were gradually building and then we suddenly won the prize and that pushed onto us a situation we weren’t prepared for.
Fatsy: In terms of our mindset now, it has had a very positive impact and influence in the way we approach making music and what we expect it to attach or what we expected to achieve because the worst thing that can happen to any sort of artistic output is muted response or indifference.
Muted response is one way to put the reaction to their follow up album Night Horses. A superior album to their debut, Night Horses was a genre smorgasbord highlighting the talents the young Kildare men wielded. It highlighted a growth within the band, a maturity that may have been lacking in their inaugural release but it never received the recognition it deserved in 2009, and it still doesn’t today. The coverage in the media for the album was not negative, it was just lacking. Gav elaborated on the situation.
Gav: The straight forward reasoning behind that is we were still a band that didn’t have a clue what we were doing. We had no idea of the machinations of the music industry, the promotional aspect; how you build a release, how you build an act all that kind of thing. As soon as we finished Night Horses there was a spirit in the camp that we wanted to go out and play shows again, play the new songs and go this ‘this record is way better than the first one. We think it is. You will see it is too’ and I think that feeds back to how we responded [to the Choice Prize backlash].
Reviews are so subjective, it’s one critic’s take on something where as a person would judge the music based on their own experience, so if we go directly to that point without going through the PR rigmarole and doing a single beforehand and taking 6 months to put out an album when it is literally just sitting there and it could be out in two months and we can be out touring two weeks after that… Now that totally worked to our detriment.
There wasn’t a lot of reviews for Night Horses because we simply did not have time to send it to people because we were so gung-ho on getting the record out, booking a tour. Just full throttle; we were six headless chickens.
Fatsy: For the first album the only thing we could control are the songs that we put out so literally our only involvement in our output and process of us being in a band is the record or the live show. We had no control over being nominated for a prize or winning a prize. That’s other people making decisions that are completely outside our control or awareness even. The same can be said for winning the prize. In a strange way, the responsibility of that seemed to be put on our shoulders, as our responsibility, especially from people who were critical. It was very much focused on, how or why has this group of people received this prize without actually acknowledging it has absolutely nothing got to do with the band and in a similar way, the lack of attention for a second album which is, in our opinion anyway, lightyears ahead, that fact that it received less attention still rests on a lot of people who work in media, they made the choice not to so. We can’t really explain that or account for that.
The Choice Prize interrupted the natural progression of the band but our association with it is nothing but positive because we understand the value of it and it is one of the proudest moments of my life. It was validation, which everyone seeks in their lives, no matter who you are.
Throughout their first two records Super Extra Bonus Party have utilised collaboration to get the best out of their tracks. Working with Nina Hynes, Kill City Defectors, MayKay, Heathers, Captain Moonlight, their Brazilian talisman Rodrigo Teles and many more. But can this level of collaboration cause problems? Is there a “Super Extra Bonus Party sound”, a signature and does the collaboration hinder this?
Gav: Not in the slightest. That is the single most freeing thing about being in this band and I feel every single person in the band would say it. If we want to make a song that sounds like something off a Portishead record I will, if we want to make a tropicália song we will, if we want to make a hip-hop tune we will and we will put it on the same record and we will stand behind it because you talk about a “Super Extra Bonus Party Sound” – without the six of us, Rod included, so seven technically, without those core members there is no Bonus Party Sound. I can’t play the guitar like Steve can, I can’t play the bass like Fatsy can, I can’t drums like Gary can and I can’t produce electronics like the way Mike and Co can so without the 6 of us there is no point.
I think it is an extremely freeing thing because I’ve made music after being in Bonus Party, both in the band with Steve and Gary (WE ARE LOSERS) and on my own (ADULTROCK) and especially in the case of Losers we limited ourselves to a specific genre and beyond maybe the first 4/5 songs it was absolutely excruciating. Couldn’t do it, it was annoying and then I started making electronic music after a while the same thing – “I don’t want to do this any more” so I think just having the freedom to create without having to go “you’re an indie band so you need to have an open high-hat there..” but instead throw everything at it and say “that works, that doesn’t, let’s try and form something”. I mean we have tonnes of demos, we’re going to be attempting to make a record next year and it’s really exciting because you literally can do whatever you want. There’re no rules. As long as we think it’s good, who cares!
Fatsy: It is not a contrived thing or a well thought out plan it’s no more than a reflection of our interactions with each other as people really while it’s our similarities and history and our friendship that keep the thing together but it’s actually our difference in how we hear sound and how we approach as Gav said play our instruments or producing that’s what creates the sound and the music, that to me is the Bonus Party sound.
It’s six people interacting with each other, compromising, pushing one another, disagreeing with one another, fighting with one another, getting so pissed off with the other person that you won’t talk to them for a couple of days or whatever, it’s not easy.
If there’s something that does coin or characterise the Bonus Party sound, it’s half imperfection with all the disagreement and the conversation, agreeing and disagreeing, I still think there is a signature sound – I don’t know where it comes from I don’t think it would come from six other individuals. It is very much based on six people with a friendship and that’s it, that’s the sound. Agreeing, disagreeing, telling each other to fuck off, telling one another you’re great, that’s it. And it comes out in all these different genres because that’s how we grew up listening to music. We don’t know any other way really.
The new single from Super Extra Bonus Party is out now and for the first time they are putting their own voices to lead the track. But why now?
Gav: Because we weren’t brave enough. I had a serious inferiority complex in terms of singing. Myself and Fatsy started working on ‘Switzerland’ one day and I wanted to try a vocal on it, so I did and sent it to everyone. The response was positive. It was the biggest sigh of relief I think i’ve ever had in my life. I’m also very confident in the song, I wouldn’t sing over it if I didn’t think that I was adding something that could take a song like that and kind of maybe push it on a bit more because all the elements are there.
We are planning collaborations and there will be a couple down the line but for things things like when we’d like a female vocal on a track; we’ve tried it, it doesn’t work, lets try x person. That’s the only collaboration I can see – Rod (Rodrigo Teles) possibly, I don’t know. Sky is the limit. Circling back to your original question, why now? Why not. We’ve been out for 7 years we can’t just throw out the same old stuff, we have to put our own stamp on what we are doing so what better way that to sing our own words in our own voices.
Their single ‘Switzerland’ is released on 045 Recordings, a Newbridge, Co. Kildare based record label set up by Gav, Rob Smyth (Mix & Fairbanks) and Peadar Kearney (Phare). It may have been a bit of an obvious decision but their reasoning behind it is rooted in the band.
Gav: I bullied them into it – I just shouted at them and eventually wore them down. No, it makes sense because I am a control freak I basically don’t want to go pointing fingers if something goes wrong with how we put out the single. Also we’re incredibly proud of where we come from and because 045 is essentially Newbridge artists for the time being, and we want to put a focus on that, what better way to tie in coming back than on a label that celebrates the music that comes from Newbridge.
We are doing this because we want to make music, because we want to play shows and because we want to have fun. We’re not doing it to kowtow to anybody else. Why would we put ourselves under the pressure of having someone else coming in going “you have to do it this way or you won’t get X, Y & Z”, when we can just play music and have fun.
Steve: We always did things in-house that’s just how we always wanted to do it, we were always most comfortable doing it that way.
Fatsy: It’s also based on the very human experience that together is better. The sense of community and togetherness and people is so important. The essence of life is that shared experience, so while it is very important to us and it’s our passion and our creative output it’s still an extremely important part that we involve as many people as we can.
It might seem a bit tribalistic to people. Some people might have the impression we are so rooted in the middle of Kildare that we don’t think of anything else but its quite the opposite, we just happen to be from here. We are gathering as many people together as we can so everyone can enjoy and succeed and push all of their creative endeavours together. We are all stronger together, it’s more enjoyable with more people.
Steve: That’s something we missed while we were on the hiatus, we definitely missed the community and the collaboration. That stuff is really important to us so it’s not that we are completely insular but for whatever reason have never been comfortable right in the middle of the main stream but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been involved. Anytime we’ve put a show on we’ve always tried to give any other bands playing support a leg up and really enjoyed interacting with these other people. We’re looking forward to getting back into that.
So with the band back together what’s next for the Newbridge six-man tag team champions?
Fatsy: Well…we’re definitely playing one gig [laughter]
Gav: I think we can go on the record, we are playing here (Brú House Newbridge) on New Years Eve, so we are doing the home town show and then in the first maybe 2/3 months of 2018 we’ll be looking to do a few shows around the country – might have a new single out by then, might not. We are gunning towards an album. That’s what we want to do.
It will be an interesting experience to see how we get it done because we essentially lived together for the first two records and Sean Corcoran who recorded both, helped in the production of both, basically the 8th member, was living with us as well which made things way easier. Now, half of us are still up in Dublin, half of us in Kildare, Sean is in demand at the moment too. It’s a matter of finding that window of time to just get in, get the songs recorded and just make the best possible album that we can
Fatsy: It’s very exciting because we can see the progression from the first two albums to where we are now -having gone through the mutations and progression we needed to go through for however many years the music that we are making now is, I won’t say superior, but it is more potent. It has a level of concentration to it and refinement that I don’t think we were able to bring to the previous stuff which is very exciting because it means we have far better music and we have to find a way to interpret that and perform it live but also produce an album that for us, first and foremost, reflects the progression of the last 7 years.
It’s gonna show improvement not only musically from an instrumentation point of view, from a production point of view, from a idealistic point of view, but it’s going to show progression on a human level that I think is going to make a very interesting, engaging and enjoyable record. It’s really just going to reflect us as people. I’m reluctant to use the word validation again but I like using that word and for me personally there is a lot of validation and pleasure taken in the music that I know we have and are going to produce. It’s very exciting, it’s unique, it’s challenging some times, it’s frustrating but ultimately it’s music only Super Extra Bonus Party can make. And that’s why it’s vital that it comes out now. It’s time to bang like fuck now!
Band photography from Brid O’Donovan Photography