Pretty Happy, the Cork-based three piece Art-Punk band, discuss community spirit and getting out of their comfort zone.
“It feels like everything only happened yesterday and at the same time it’s been the longest year of our lives,” says Arran Blake of Pretty Happy’s hectic 2022. The bassist and co-vocalist of the Cork-based art-punk trio sits in a row with drummer Andy Killian in the middle of a Blake sandwich completed by Arran’s sister Abbey (guitar and vocals) contained within the Zoom window. Behind them is a wall decorated with family photos; Abbey making her communion, the Blakes meeting Ardal O’Hanlon.
Biology aside, there’s a familial closeness amongst the band, one that undoubtedly helped them through a busy 2022. It was a year which saw them touring extensively, opening for Kim Gordon and Pavement, recording their debut EP Echo Boy with John ‘Spud’ Murphy (Lankum, black midi, caroline), as well as making Leeside Creatures, a documentary detailing Cork’s rich punk scene across the 1970s and ‘80s. Polymaths of the arts, this broad arsenal of creative prowess has served Pretty Happy well in their formative period as a band.
“When we were starting off and had to describe what we are, we’d be like, ‘Well, we play music and we do little theatre bits, oh and we’re also filmmakers’. People were receptive to that but wondered what that actually looked like when put into practice,” Arran describes. “I suppose, we’re still trying to find out what we are. That was what we were doing with the documentary, in a way. Every single thing we’ve done this year hasn’t been within our comfort zone. It’s terrifying and stressful, but we’ve all enjoyed turning the next corner with everything and thinking, ‘We’re new to this but we can do it.’” Concluding on this sentiment, Abbey adds, “It’s getting that excitement from making art that drives us. It’s scary initially but so rewarding to see what you can actually do. It’s important to have that excitement with the work you do.”
That excitement was abundantly felt throughout the making of Leeside Creatures. Today, Pretty Happy are one of the most original and exhilarating live acts. Incorporating visceral instrumentation and impassioned performances – along with a brilliant touch of theatre – there’s a timelessness to the art they create. In this regard, they’re one of many Cork-based acts ensuring that the tradition of its DIY punk sensibilities and inherent inclination to remain true to their individualism whilst retaining a sense of inclusiveness endures.
Retracing this fertile period of Cork’s cultural tapestry not only strengthened their appreciation for the past but made them feel part of its present and future, as Abbey describes. “Feeling part of something was incredible because of the impact those bands had on us. It was all we talked about as we made it and we all came away from the project with a newfound grá for all the music and characters involved. Also, talking to Ricky Dineen and hearing him say similar stuff to how I feel about the city now made me think about how this city will continue to be important to people for generations to come. Whatever we do, there’s going to be new bands cropping up and having this reaction to the city and that’s an amazing thing. To feel part of something and also feel like we’re flying the flag is a very special privilege.”
Throughout our conversation, someone within the band will further drive a train of thought started by someone else, so in-tune they are with one another. Arran continues, “There are central figures such as Finbarr Donnelly, Mick Lynch, and Cathal Coughlan; these people left a huge impact and are still a huge part of our community. This community spirit is the beating heart of the scene Pretty Happy is presenting to fresh ears. There’s also a great sense of pride of coming from a place with an assured sense of itself whilst remaining humble in the process. “I think it’s been our mission to say, ‘Did you know this music was being created back in the ‘70s and ‘80s and not only that, but it was being made in our town?’” Arran exclaims. “When you see this tradition that you’re sort of picking up the mantle to, you lose your mind with excitement and that’s become a big part of when we tour abroad,” in that moment Abbey echoes her brother, “We have an identity.”
That sense of identity has been extremely freeing to the group when playing outside of Ireland. Moreover, Andy describes how being from a small town has helped forge connections with audiences abroad. “When we’re touring there’s no pressure on us to have to be anything. We’re just from Cork! When we were in Cardigan in Wales, there were people who really loved our music; I feel like a big part of it is because people really resonate with bands from smaller towns, especially when that’s been their experience, too.”
The live element to Pretty Happy is, perhaps, the most essential way to experience their music, especially to those new to the band. Working with revered Dublin-based producer John ‘Spud’ Murphy, they’ve found a perfect partner to capture the ferocity of their live sound in a recording, as is evidenced on their tremendous debut EP, Echo Boy. “It’s a weird relationship between live and studio music. Both influence each other,” says Arran. “A big thing is knowing how to get that live energy into a recording, which was interesting to figure out with Spud. On the reverse, we had so many different layers across Echo Boy. Spud really helped us enhance our live sound with loads of different methods and then was incredible at knowing how to recreate certain sounds we were making in the studio for our live set.”
Furthermore, finding their feet in the studio environment and having the opportunity to hear themselves for the first time, as Andy reveals. “Initially, I found it difficult to hear Echo Boy after we finished recording it. I suppose it was because I couldn’t compare it to the sound I imagined in my head, which was that we’re kind of like a punk band and we can sound weird. Sonically, I think I was expecting the same sounds of hardcore punk bands but I got slightly freaked out when it didn’t sound like that or anything I’d ever heard. I was like, ‘Wait, is this what we sound like?’ It was kind of like the first moment that I had really heard what our music sounded like. It was really special.”
Building a strong working relationship with Spud has been crucial for Pretty Happy’s artistic development. When speaking about his influence in the recent months in the studio, the trio become illuminated. “He’s become such an important mentor to us all,” says Andy. Arran continues, “Spud is a sonic genius. I think 50% of what makes a great producer is someone who makes you comfortable and someone you can trust and be vulnerable around.”
Being afforded the space to feel vulnerable was essential during the recording sessions, particularly when Abbey was doing vocals for its impactful closer, Conn Boxing; a song which explicitly examines rape culture and how, in a closed community, the perpetrator is protected while the victim is isolated. A stand-out moment in their set, Abbey’s performance is physically and emotionally demanding.
Speaking about her relationship with the song, its impact and importance to her, she reveals, “It was tougher to perform at the beginning when I wasn’t as used to doing it. It still makes my knees knock when I’m about to do it. I think it’s important to go there with the emotion to give the song justice. I’ve gotten to a point where I can feed off the energy of the crowd when I perform it, though. I’ve started to look members of the crowd in the eyes which adds a new layer of intensity for me. As I said, it’s really tough to perform but it’s important to do stuff like that. We saw Pussy Riot in Limerick recently and I wanted to cry throughout their set because they’re so brave on stage. If I could give even a tenth of the emotion and bravery they showed on stage I’d be delighted. People need to be brave on stage and make people listen to what they have to say.”
Echo Boy is out now via Foggy Notions. Pretty Happy will open for Sultans of Ping on February 11, 2023 in Cork Opera House.