The Bonk is a free-wheeling music project led by songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and former O Emperor member Philip Christie.
The Bonk’s Phillip Christie cuts a contented figure in the cosy confines of his North Inner City studio. Flanked by vintage equipment likely inscrutable to the uninitiated, spools of reel to reel magnetic tape, stacked instruments and coiled cables imbue the space itself with a sense of controlled chaos that neatly mirrors the sound of Christie’s rightly acclaimed troupe of fellow travellers in jazz-informed psychedelic improvisation. Having first garnered more widespread recognition as a member of the now dissolved cult Cork outfit O Emperor, in recent years Christie has been ploughing a more eclectic, improvisation led, positively Beefheartian musical furrow as the songwriter and bandleader behind The Bonk.
This embrace of a more openly experimental approach is by no means something entirely new to Christie, though. As he says himself, from first fooling around with a guitar or piano at a young age, “It was just the way I learned.” He continues, “I kind of learned music myself and it was never part of my learning to kind of just play things exactly the same way over and over again. When I started playing, it wasn’t a self conscious thing. At that time, I was very young and I always learned by going, ‘Okay, that’s what that is. How would it work If I changed one element?’ I always ended up playing in that way. Which was kind of helpful in some situations, but not helpful in loads of other situations. Like, if you wanted to be called into a studio, and people just want you to do one thing. I’d be like, ‘Yeah, well, I can do something like that.’”
Comprised of a coterie of Christie’s like-minded longtime friends and collaborators, The Bonk are a live outfit to rival all comers. Their amorphous, exploratory live shows (coming to a town near you, thanks to their admirably extensive list of upcoming Irish tour dates) are singularly groovy happenings, this much is true. But to highlight their ‘in the flesh’ prowess at the expense of The Bonk on wax would be misguided to say the very least. When discussing the process of assembling their long gestating follow up to 2017’s The Bonk Seems to be a Verb, Christie’s passion for the qualities specific to recorded music and the process of making records is always at the fore of the conversation.
“I love the sound of records as well,” he says, not to put too fine a point on it. “I’m really interested in fidelity.” Christie expands, “The idea that high fidelity is the optimal thing is something that I was kind of like, ‘Well, I love the sound of these records, and you can barely hear the drum.’ [Knowing that] just opened up those questions and that was also part of what was interesting. [Recording] became much more like, ‘Okay, well, what will it sound like if we just have one overhead on the drums, and we’re okay with the bleed from this into this mic?’ It’s not as if the idea was really clear in how it was gonna turn out. It was kind of an experiment. I think that’s what I liked about recording; the experiment part of it. You know, seeing what happens if you do this? What happens if you do it again?”
In this approach, Christie’s output stands in stark contrast to the ideas of cult of personality and divine auteurship that characterises so many enthusiasts’ relationships to their favourite artists, most pointedly singers and songwriters like Christie himself. “Yeah, I guess it’s funny. I forget that people relate [to music] that way so often,” he reflects. For him it seems, the process of making a record like his latest offering, Greater Than, Or Equal To The Bonk is a lot more in the vein of let’s see where we can arrive together than let’s all try and replicate how I imagined this would sound in my head. “I think it’s definitely a mixture of both,” Christie explains. “You learn along the way that there’s a translation that happens and you kind of have to get used to that. And I like getting used to that. But, at the same time, there is something to being the bandleader, The Gaffer, as we say,” laughs Christie. “It’s an interesting position to be put in. To know that I have to be the one to say that it should be this and not that. Sometimes it’s really uncomfortable.”
As rewarding and revelatory as Christie finds the process of shaping the versions of these songs found on record, to him the structures established in the studio ultimately allow the live Bonk experience to be so, well, alive. “I find it funny sometimes when people see the live gig and go, ‘Oh, it’s just so mad’. And, you know, it’s freewheeling as if you’re just kind of up there messing. Sometimes I like the idea of people kind of sitting with the structures of the songs [on record] because that part of it might wash over you more in the live setting or it might not be as distinct. Then for us, it’s lovely to know that structure and wander around when playing live. It’s always nice to be able to play them differently, as well. I enjoy that part of what the whole thing is about as well. The fact that the compositions are like, never fixed. It’s something that goes back to jazz recordings, I suppose. You can have a tune and hear it played in a particular way on one record. Then, two years later, it’s on another record, but played by different people, but it’s reworked. The idea of an original or canonical version of the thing is complicated in a way that I like, you know?”
Hearing Christie lay out his approach to record making, ensconced in the cluttered surrounds of his musical laboratory, the materiality of the experimentation at the core of what he and his bandmates do is brought into sharp relief. Experimental music is now enough of a recognised genre to justify the capitalisation found at the beginning of this sentence. Which, frankly, leaves the classification feeling like something of a misnomer. If you are trying to make a record that sounds like “Experimental Music” are you really experimenting anymore?
Ultimately for Christie, a man self-confessedly befuddled by the process of trying to put the appropriate tags at the bottom of a Bandcamp release, splitting hairs over generic classification brings little satisfaction. “This is the whole thing with the proliferation of genres.” Christie goes on, “It makes the words meaningless…I don’t think the music is “experimental” in the ways that I think of some other music is “experimental”. Like, pop music has been around long enough that it can just kind of be pop music as well, you know what I mean? I think people need to be given more credit. Just be like…this is this.”
Greater Than Or Equal To The Bonk is out now via thirty-three45.
Words: Danny Wilson