One of Cork’s most talked about musical exports in recent years, The Altered Hours, have been together for almost six years. Their unique blend of lo-fi, psychedelia-tinged post-punk has slowly developed over that time, and now they’re getting ready to tour Ireland and the UK over the coming months, in promotion of their first full-length release. Ahead of their Dublin gig at the Workman’s Club, the group’s frontman, Cathal MacGabhann, spoke with Totally Dublin about the band’s origins and the evolution of their sound.
“We started out in roughly 2009 or 2010,” MacGabhann begins, “but not really with any goal or plan. It was just a couple of us living in a cottage in Clare on the Cliffs of Moher. We lived there like hippies for a summer, just fucking around. We just started writing songs, and when we moved back to Cork City in 2010 we did a gig, met a few people from around the city, and started doing more of our own shows around Cork. The drive of starting the band was very basic, just really to see what it was like to play a gig and hopefully get a set-list together, without knowing anything about recording or anything like that.”
The band’s new album, In Heat Not Sorry, sees a push towards a more raw and immediate aesthetic for the group. And while tracks such as the album’s opener Who’s Saving Who, still retain some of the swirling vocal harmonies and trippy guitar effects of earlier songs like Sweet Jelly Roll or Daydream Parade, the majority of the album is a further transformation of a sound that has been growing since the group’s inception.
MacGabhann looks back to their early days when they were based in Clare. “When we started it was entirely folk orientated. It was all acoustic guitars, we had a violin player, very much influenced by the Incredible String Band and psychedelic folk of the ’60s. But when we moved back to the city, I think that influenced us to get heavier. And maybe just getting a bit older, and a bit more disappointed with the world, our sound started to develop into more of an angular, more aggressive thing for some reason. The line-up has changed quite a few times. We had two guitar players before, and we had a different bass player and we used to have a violin player and a keyboard player. We used to be a seven-piece and it all changed when we went down to a five-piece. Maybe whoever was left was interested in more of an aggressive route, and I suppose that’s the development of our sound really. But it’s been slow, we’ve actually been a band for nearly six years and we’re only just releasing our first album.”
“I’d like to do more acoustic stuff, or maybe do an acoustic tour someday, but right now we’re on too much of a buzz with what we’re doing that I don’t see any change from that now. We definitely hope to try and do loads of stuff, not just become one thing. I guess that’s the hope for a lot of people. It’s hard to achieve that, but that’s the goal.”
Although it’s their first album proper, The Altered Hours have built up an impressive back catalogue of releases, from passing singles, to lo-fi home-studio releases. MacGabhann recalls their first release, The Downstream EP.
“That was our first release as The Altered Hours. That was when we moved back to the city. We actually did a recording session of it with someone else and we didn’t like it, so I bought a few mics and we did it ourselves. I just had a feeling that, even though it would be worse quality, it would come across better as an introduction to what we were doing. Really it was just trying to get something out and make it sound OK. We had no idea what we were doing, which was kind of fun. We recorded nine or ten tracks for that and put out six of them. It was like the typical calling card for a band. We thought we might get some shows with it, or someone might hear it and like it. We actually printed up about 200 CDs ourselves and just gave them to people and tried to book shows with them, just a way of getting gigs. But I still like it.”
And sure enough, The Downstream EP had the desired effect and the gigs started to roll in. It was at one of these gigs that a chance meeting would help to shape their sound on future releases. “We were playing the launch of that EP and someone saw us in the Pavilion and thought, ‘wow, they really sound like The Brian Jonestown Massacre’ and he came up to us and said, ‘I actually know Anton Newcombe, you should try and hook up with him over in Berlin to record.’ So it went from recording with three SM58 mics to suddenly being in Berlin. We didn’t know what it would be like. We did Sweet Jelly Roll, which came out about a year and a half after that, and that came out on vinyl. It was so different! It went from, ‘Let’s print up 200 CDs and hope we get a gig outside of Cork some day’, to *[a situation where]* regardless of the music we made, the fact that everyone heard that we were *[in Berlin]* allowed us to get some gigs. That isn’t necessarily a great thing but that’s just what happens, especially in Ireland – people are saying, ‘Oh, they were in Berlin!’”
“We actually recorded a whole album there but we decided not to release it because we didn’t like it all, so it ended up as just the 10” EP, basically a single with two tracks on the other side, on Anton Newcombe’s label *[A Recordings]*. That gave us a load of opportunities. There was no PR for it, but it was just that people had heard that this small band was doing that out of nowhere. It was probably our best song at the time, and it was right at the beginning of when psychedelic rock started to become popular. It was right at that moment. If we had released it five years earlier nobody would have even listened to it. That gave us the opportunity to play abroad at Liverpool Psych Fest and a couple of other little tours we did in the UK and Europe.”
With their first professionally recorded EP released, The Altered Hours pushed on and released another single shortly afterwards. “We decided we’d just keep going and we recorded a 7 inch in our own studio at home called Dig Early. We were trying to do that in-between deciding how we would record our full album, something we just thought we’d throw out there to it keep going. It was less of a single, and more of a groove with no chorus element, and we liked that after Sweet Jelly Roll. It was enjoyable for us just record a groove and put that out, and then people will get that we’re not just trying to blow everyone away with a big song. And I think that worked. Even people who were into electronic music enjoyed that, I think, because it was influenced by the Chemical Brothers and shit like that.”
After a run of releases it came time for The Altered Hours to finally look at completing a full length album, something that did not come quite as easily for the group. “We spent ages recording the album cause we didn’t really know what we were doing. I’ve always been really afraid of albums because I like *[the format]* so much – I felt very under-qualified to actually record an album when I was listening to something like Love’s Forever Changes. You can change people’s worlds with an album, you know? We didn’t want to release an album that was ‘just a bunch of songs’. Even when we were recording it, I was a little bit afraid of that. I was trying to think about Arthur Lee and people like that, and thinking, ‘What the fuck were they doing?’ I believed in all the songs separately, so when we recorded this album In Heat Not Sorry, we were treating each song like a world, rather than part of an album, and then near the end of the session we asked ourselves, ‘Is it an album?’ And we thought, ‘if you cut that song, and take that song out, and move this around, then it is an album.’ So that was the thought process and now we’re here trying to release it.”
For In Heat Not Sorry, The Altered Hours again made their way to Berlin, but this time they decided to try a different approach. “It was recorded by Fabien *[Leseure]*, Anton’s producer, but it wasn’t recorded in Anton’s studio. We went to a bigger studio for the drums. He had worked with a few bands, like The KVB and The Blue Angel Lounge in this other studio called the Funkhaus. It’s an incredible studio – Rammstein were recording there around the time we were there, which was weird. There was this amazing drum sound. You could hear it straight away, you don’t even have to try, it just sounds good. We did that for three weeks straight with Fabien. We decided not to do many overdubs and Fabien’s obsessed with this live sound… *[so]* this album is actually more sparse. Fabien would ask when a new sound comes in, ‘There’s just the five of you, so who plays that part?’ We had ideas for maybe another guitar part, but he’d just say ‘no’. That was interesting, but we decided if we’re working with him to try it his way and risk it – make it minimal and see if it comes off for us or if it’s just going to come across empty. There’s kind of a fine line.”
Just one listen to In Heat Not Sorry and the live dynamic is evident. As MacGabhann explains, they managed to adhere to Leseure’s live-recording ethos and stripped-down aesthetic and it’s an approach that is sure to reflect well at their gigs. “Yeah, I guess that’s the thing. If people enjoy *[the album]* then they’ll enjoy the show as well, and it might even come across heavier live, because you can always give it more. It’s the first record we made that feels like it was actually a band that made it, and not just a couple of people projecting their personalities onto it. It’s just like: this is the band, this isn’t even tricking you. That’s stupid in a way, because there were so many options to please the ear, and I know how to add some synths, or harmonies or make it more psychedelic, or more like ear-candy – and I love listening to that kind of music, everybody does – but we just decided to try *this* for some reason. And I’m proud of it, but also a little bit anxious, because I know we could have made it a little more like ‘MSG’ of music, but we decided not to do that, we made it more like health food! Maybe it’s more interesting to pare it down and see what we are as a band, and maybe we can grow from that. Hopefully… that’s how we see it.
The Altered Hours release their debut album In Heat Not Sorry on the Friday 29th January through Art For Blind and Penske Recordings. As part of their Irish tour they play the Workman’s Club on Saturday 20th February.
Words: Dave Desmond
Photos: Izabela Szcutkowska, Magdalena Switek