There’s a brilliant ’90s yakuza movie called Sonatine that follows a group of slick-as-hell gangsters that flee to the seaside after a double-cross wipes out a bunch of the crew. Laying low with no electronics to keep them entertained, the group pass the time by playing strange games on the beach, pranking each other ridiculously, and staging their own bizarre performance pieces.
Five-piece electronic band Meltybrains? recently moved into a beachfront house in Clogherhead, County Louth. I imagine how they spend their days is probably a lot like that flick. When I arrive to meet the band outside their rehearsal space at Volt Studios on Dublin’s Ossory Road, I catch them inventing a new game: flinging chocolate digestives at an emergency phonebox on the nearby train tracks.
It neatly leads into one of the questions I wanted to ask: Why does the band, who make some of the most bitterly beautiful electronic music in Ireland right now, have the reputation for being as mad as a jukebox full of badgers?
“I think that answers itself really,” says synth player Brian Dillon, still laughing at the sport he just co-invented.
“I like to think we’re quite in touch with a childhood view of the world. Why wouldn’t you throw your biscuits at the railway track?” says Micheál Quinn, the group’s drummer. “We create an atmosphere where that’s allowed, and then that just gets out of hand. And that’s why the reputation has existed.”
Picking through Meltybrains?’s body of work exposes some clues. The video for their single “The Vine” co-stars a number of pineapples that talk via cut-out speech bubbles. They’ve released a twisted 11-minute version of the Irish national anthem “Amhrán na bhFiann”. And on stage, the group dress in all-white, topped off with freaky Michael Myers-esque masks. It’s an aesthetic some their fans copy at gigs. “When people wear them in the audience, people have said before, you lose your inhabitations a bit,” says Dillon.
“Then the people who are there on drugs – because we’ve heard a few people are showing up to our shows on drugs which is not alright – they have a great time looking at all the masks,” adds Quinn.
I speak to Meltybrains? (the question mark is obligatory) at their rehearsal space, which doubles as a kind of trophy room filled with old posters and other keepsakes, and a museum for wild psychedelic artwork that would trip out the same drug takers that may or may not show up to the band’s shows.
I’m told Quinn will be the primary spokesperson since “my brain is operating very well today”, but the answers come scattered from all over the place. It’s not always easy to decipher real insights through the layers and layers of in-jokes, stories and other gags coming from Quinn, Dillon, Donnacha O’Malley (vocals) and Ben McKenna (bass). Tadhg Byrne (strings) also sits in, but he seems like the quiet one.
“We started renting a room here five years ago. In that time I’ve lived in nine houses now. This is practically my home,” says Dillon. “It’s better than a lot of the places I’ve lived in”.
Despite the room looking like a kaleidoscope of candy-painted colours, it is here that Meltybrains? forged their destitute sound. This is music constructed in the coldest section of the electronica canon – all auto-tuned vocals, thumping drums, twinkling keys, grinding synthesizers and lots of dead space. The propulsive “Donegal”, for example, is like a light speed journey to the outreaches of the galaxy. “Lincoln” sounds like an android’s fever dream.
On their latest single “Know My Name”, the band construct a glistening sci-fi city of synthesized highways and electronic skyscripers. There’s a dark, artificial beauty to their world. That is, until a booming percussion rips you from their utopia, dragging you over to the bad side of town. “We were trying to write a James Blake/grime tune. I guess that’s the result of that,” says McKenna.
The song features on the band’s new five-track EP Kiss Yourself, due for release November 18. Work on the project began when Meltybrains?’ management asked them to produce some new demoes that could be shopped around to different labels. The band ended up producing 40 songs in two months. Five of those records make up this new release, which they’ll drop independently.
“We’ve a tendency to go on tangents and to lack direction,” admits Dillon, “but as soon as someone tells us to do something, we find our focus and go into overdrive.”
“The EP is, I think, our favourite collection of music that we’ve done so far,” beams McKenna. “In ways it reminds us of an early EP or two that we had years and years ago. It has a certain theme, but it’s also pretty crazy and goes a lot of different places as well.”
“I think it’s a good demonstration of where we’re at,” says O’Malley. “It’s a bit all over the place. There’s quite a dark atmosphere that goes through, but there’s also turmoil and confusion.”
“This one, I feel, tapped back into the idea that we’re doing it for ourselves, first and foremost,” adds Micheál. “I think it relates back to the older stuff because we tap back into [the mentality] of ‘this is ours and if other people like it, deadly’.”
For Meltybrains?, music is embedded in their DNA. McKenna’s mum was a touring song and dance performer. Dillon’s dad writes country music for a local radio station in Tipperary. What the band do is pretty much the antithesis of those styles, but according to Dillon, father and son are “slowly bridging the gap” and appreciating what each other do.
“We’re very lucky as a band to all have parents who are quite behind what we are doing,” says Micheál. “Whether they like it or not, I don’t know. My parents seem to like it, but everyone’s parents are quite encouraging. We’re very lucky in that sense. Growing up playing instruments and then going off and making this supposedly crazy music, they seem quite happy that we’re going what we want.”
Concrete-cold electronica and horror movie masks is probably not what the mums and dads foresaw. The band formed five years ago in Maynooth University, meeting in the classical music course they were all studying. Their first gigs were in local bars O’Neills and Caulfields, but they got barred from the latter for stealing a 10-meter-long mat from the entranceway. Seeing as Dillon was well known to the pub’s owner from his Sunday visits for a carvery lunch, he was the one who took the licks.
“He rang and said, ‘So Brian, thanks for stealing my mat. Can you bring it back?’” says Dillon, remembering the awkward phone conversation. “Then he barred me!”
Their time at Maynooth, as summarised by McKenna, “was a healthy dose of lectures, parties; mostly parties.”
That background in classical music has become part of the Meltybrains? narrative. The group that went from playing Bach and Schubert to music influenced by talkbox pioneers Zapp and London-based label Hyperdub is a fun arc to point to. But does their formal training impact their sound?
“It has to have made a stamp. Whether we actively sit around and use what we learned, I don’t know,” says Quinn. “Since we were all about five or six we were training in music, so it’s in there somewhere.”
“What does affect our approach is the formal education we had in it,” says Dillon. “We take, in some ways, a very academic way of writing music. Even though it is spontaneous, at the same time it’s like, ‘Oh I might put a B-flat major 7 diminished over the triplet you were doing on bar 52’. It’s very useful, I find.”
Quinn adds, “I think even if none of us ever grew up playing music I think we would have ended up playing music anyway. Because it’s class.”
“So you would have all had instruments in your hands from really young?”
“Yeah,” the band say in unison.
“And some musical ones as well,” adds O’Malley.
Out meet-up happens during a gap in the band’s touring schedule. They will have played shows across Ireland, Iceland and the UK when the tour finishes up at The Academy on Abbey Street on Friday 25th November. For the group, the night will be a celebration – of the EP and their recent momentum. The stage is, for now, the centre of the Meltybrains? plan of action.
“At the moment what drives us is we want to play gigs everywhere,” asserts McKenna. “We want to play lots of them to new people.”
Next up, Meltybrains? hope, will be a series of shows in a very far away country, depending on if they can secure the funding. There’s also mixtape they intend to drop next year that will compile unused music from the period that birthed Kiss Yourself. Not in the pipeline right now, though, is a debut album. No rush, say the group.
“There’s nothing pressing us to do it. The vibe seems to be when the album wants to be written and done, the album will be written and done,” says Quinn. “The fear would be though that we’re going too long as a band without making the album and then it’ll grow into this monumental, ‘We have to write the first Meltybrains? album’. I think there might be a bit of that.”
“We’ve a fuck-load of music, but it isn’t an album,” he adds.
Instead, the band will probably retreat to the beach, spend their days working on new music and doing whatever the hell else it is they do out there. And when the mood strikes, maybe the full-length record will come. On the possibility, Byrne finally pipes up.
“We’re only going to make the album when it makes sense for us, i.e. taxes.”
Meltybrains?’s Know My Name EP is out now and they play The Academy on Friday 25th November.
Words: Dean Van Nguyen
Photos: Patrick Dyar