Anxiety and ambiguity pervade the music of Paddy Hanna and also Paddy Hanna himself. Throughout the course of our chat, he studiously avoids eye contact and makes several references to feeling ill-at-ease, alienated and terrified in various situations. But at the same time, like his songs, his chatter is full of wry observations and humour, and an awareness of the tropes of his artform. He even picked the Central Hotel’s Library Bar to meet up, given its reputation as the classic interview spot, and, of course, as we sit down, MayKay is across the room talking a fellow hack through Fight Like Apes’ long-awaited comeback.
As a part of the Popical Island collective, he’s made a clutch of albums fronting Grand Pocket Orchestra, described by themselves as ‘art pop messers’ and by this esteemed publication as ‘Dublin’s foremost toy pop micro symphony’. But since early last year, with the release of the excellent Leafy Stiletto – which got our top shout for the Choice Prize earlier this yet, though unfortunately it went unrecognised and failed to make the eventual shortlist – Paddy’s solo career has been the focus of his work.
‘With Grand Pocket Orchestra, it was all about anarchy, it was all about not giving a toss about what microphones you were going to use, not giving a toss about how you were going to rehearse. For one song we’d just take some microphones and go to someone’s gaff and just go bash-bash-bash and there’s your song. For Leafy Stiletto, I was determined to prove, at least to myself, that I could make a record that was coherent and structured. I guess when they made records in the ’70s before people could afford demoing equipment, they had to learn and rehearse ad nauseum and then of course they’d record in the studio and be up to their gills in cocaine but they still knew the songs inside out. Bands in the ’70s have that groove to them, and I guess I wanted to get that groove. So that’s what we did, we rehearsed ad nauseum and did it all live – except for the vocals – and drank beer as we did it. We know it inside out. I think for the most part we got that ‘loosey-goosey-but-clearly-they-know-what-they-do-sey’ vibe.’
Like most Dublin musicians, Hanna’s career has been necessarily DIY, but with the release of his new single Austria last month on Trout Records, and just back from a whistlestop tour of the UK, there’s a sense that Hanna is building going to be able to build something that will get the attention it deserves, despite how awkward it might make him feel.
‘To me a studio is a completely alien place. I don’t know where I’ll put my hands when I’m in a studio. I’m afraid I’ll knock something over, or someone will think, “Who’s this asshole and how did he get into my fancy pants studio?”’
‘It’s the fear isn’t it? The idea that you’re stepping up in some small way is terrifying. Especially since everything I’ve ever done in my close to ten years of making music has been through finding gear, assembling it in a way that both produces and records music… I have been, for better or worse, a DIY guy. Would I live and die by the DIY sword? I think it’s just the way it’s had to be, and by virtue of that I’ve been considered a DIY folk. Like in the Holy Grail you know when they couldn’t afford horses so they used coconuts and made a joke of it… not that I’m saying we’re a joke, mind you.’ [Laughs]
I ask him if the change to Trout is symbolic, and what difference it’s had to have some kind of support: ‘Well if I paraphrase Morrissey, “Trout Blood, Popical Heart”! Popical Island is a collective more so than a label, so I’m very much part of both, both in my musical development and where I am now. The music is still very Popical, it’s still two and half minute pop songs, but it’s a little bit more polished now, so it’s a little bit more Trout-y.’
‘Conor who runs the label [Trout], and who’s also in Spies, is a very savvy dude. He does it all himself, and is a very business-minded chap, whereas folks like myself aren’t remotely business-minded. He’s the hand that grabs scruff of your ear and says, “Right young man, you’re going to put out a record!” As someone who’s insecure at the best of times, it’s good to have someone like that around.
Hanna is, he hopes, at the start of new album cycle of which Austria and its B-side Camaraderie are the first flushes, and for which he has already assembled a bunch of material ahead of another single release this autumn on Trout. But at the same time, the fiscal realities of being a musician in Ireland are stark: ‘It’s all about economics – finding the time and resources to put out a record.’ Austria itself is has a feel of being a step along the road from Leafy Stiletto. That record captured warmth, familiarity and immediacy – you could almost sense the kitchens and living rooms it was recorded in – as well as Hanna’s trademark bleak humour, whereas Austria, and its accompanying video, seem painted on a bigger canvas. At one point, he points out that people have made regular comparisons to Richard Hawley (‘I know him but I’m not a scholar’), and it feels apt.
Of the brilliant Austria, with its inscrutable imagery, crooned delivery and lolloping, martial drums, Hanna is typically bashful: ‘It’s probably the most straightforward song I think I’ve ever written. My girlfriend, she came in one day wearing a dress, and she had just put her hair in curls, and with the combination of the dress and hair she looked like an old-fashioned person. She also had mentioned that she wanted to go to Austria in wintertime, she thought it would be really romantic. Like, in a town like Solden, we could find a log cabin. The combination of that romantic notion, with her period dress got me thinking as I played the guitar. And I started singing in that voice, it felt to me almost like the mid-way song of a tragic musical, like “We’re gonna make it someday!” You know the outcome of the musical isn’t necessarily positive, but for this flickering moment you think, they might just make it. So that’s why it has a bittersweet tinge to it in terms of the vocal delivery. I wanted you to think, like, this guy – he’s not singing with the greatest deal of confidence – is he honest? Does he really mean what he’s going to say? Or is he trying to reassure someone. It’s part of the journey of the song, we don’t really know.’
This kind of warped theatricality is echoed in the video by Second Frame. ‘I wanted the main portion of it to be me standing with a guitar gyrating in faux-sexuality. We talked about it back and forth, and they came up with adding this tech-noir, Terminator element, this very red, like a Winding Refn movie, where this mysterious man was sat there smoking cigarettes and drinking rice wine and watching me perform. And again it has this ambiguity: why is he watching this guy? Why is this guy performing in this nightclub.’
‘My own interpretation, from watching it, is that it’s as close a representation of the perpetual hell that being a solo musician often can be. You know sometimes you play a show and it feels like you’re dancing to one person in a sleazy nightclub, like you’ve as much dignity as a truck-stop stripper. That’s what it feels like to me. You might interpret it otherwise. Ambiguity is often a very good thing. For me, some of my favourite artists are those who don’t answer questions, like William Friedkin – none of his movies ever answers questions. You trust the audience to make their own conclusions.’
But despite that feeling of growth and progression, the folks around Hanna have remained pretty constant. On Austria, as on Leafy Stiletto and much of GPO’s records, he has been surrounded by Popical Island stalwarts Bobby Aherne (on bass, main gig: No Monster Club), Mark Chester (producer, guitarist, main gig: Ginnels) and Enda Canavan (on drums). In a fashion typical of the Popical Island collective they’re pretty much all in each other’s bands, where each of them has honed their ability to write songs, craft records and push their limits.
‘Bobby is more anarchic than I’ll ever be. It’s more like you unlearn being around that guy! Mark is a real asset in terms of helping me write song, in terms of the producer, he’s the one that pushes the buttons and, for the most part, does the “maybe we should extend this chorus” or “maybe we should add extra bar in here” part. I would say that as a producer and as a colleague, if you want to call it that, he’s the most important asset I’ve personally had as a songwriter. He’ll also bust my chops as much as anyone else, but when it comes to working he’s quite professional. Especially when you have that insecurity thing of being like, “this isn’t work, why should I treat it like work, I’m not getting paid!”
Have things changed even since the success – albeit it primarily critical rather than commercial – of Leafy Stiletto, I ask: ‘Sure, it’s improved, the confidence level has gone up, but the insecurities are still there. But I don’t want to ever lose them, because the second you lose them, you become a Las Vegas entertainer.’ Hanna announces lines like this so deadpan you have to remind yourself that it’s bitten through with black humour. ‘You need to be in constant terror, at least for my money,’ he winks, ‘I think terror is a good thing… it keeps you on your toes.’
But that confidence, hidden well as it may be, is definitely taking hold, and encouraged by those around him. ‘It’s about not being afraid to present a song to somebody. Or not being afraid to work on a song for a while and not chuck it out the window and be like, “Well this is obviously crap!” A trust in one’s abilities, in spite of certain nagging voices that might say otherwise. For years, anxiety was a terrible dark quilt that encased me, but now I’ve grabbed it and tamed it and put a chain around its neck and made it my ally… like the dragons in Games of Thrones.’
Austria is out now on Trout Records and from paddyhanna.bandcamp.com. Paddy Hanna plays Bello Bar on Saturday 13th June.
Mark Chester on Paddy:
We’ve a pretty unique working method between us to be honest. Paddy is simultaneously very specific and incredibly vague about what the finished song should end up like, often using what may seem at first to be very strange comparisons to make a point. For example, when we were mixing the first (incredibly loud, fast and cheap-sounding) Grand Pocket Orchestra album, he kept bringing up Lambchop’s sedate piano-led album Is A Woman as a reference point. This ended up making sense, although I can’t explain how. He is also defiantly technologically inept, and his demos are demos in the truest sense of the word, usually recorded into his phone or ancient 4-track.
I’m not at all sure where his songs come from, although occasionally I’ll recognise a snippet of conversation from years ago, or in one case a relaxed drunken evening between the two of us, re-tooled into what seemed like a delightful romantic date. All these things along with his combination of absolute honesty and social awkwardness are the reasons I enjoy working with him and why I rate his songwriting so highly.
Bobby Aherne on Paddy:
The first time I ever saw Paddy was in the POD venue in 2007, skat-singing and orally assaulting a harmonica whilst flailing about like a nutjob (search for ‘Grand Pocket Orchestra Bang’ on YouTube). It was inspiring for me to learn that he was also from the otherwise boring, leafy suburb of Castleknock, albeit the posh part. A couple of years later, he phoned me – on St. Paddy’s Day, fittingly – to invite me to join his aforementioned orchestra, who were by then my favourite Irish band. We’ve since taught each other a lot, but we’ve learnt nothing. Although he no longer moves like he’s playing the skiing game on Nintendo Wii, he still writes damn good songs – as well as blasting a mean harmonica, in a considerably more relaxed manner. Some people call him Ol’ Padge, but to me, he will always be The Window Pest.
Words: Ian Lamont
Images: Dorje de Burgh, Second Frame Films