Interview: Simple Kid

23 Oct

Publication: Trinity News
Date Published: October 2006
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When it comes to competition in the business world, the music industry is about as fierce as it gets. Billions of potential listeners, from kids in search of the latest Teletubbies soundtrack to the stalwarts of Daniel O’Donnell’s octogenarian fanbase, representing only one thing to industry executives –an infinite amount of unexploited potential earnings. Therefore, it makes perfect business sense that the music industry should constantly reinvent and revolutionise its production process and standards in an attempt to hoover up every last crumb. Unfortunately, this often necessitates the sacrificing of a ‘backward’ or ‘disposable’ element which music fans hold near and dear. First on the list to go was vinyl, so beloved of fans, collectors and aficionados alike. But, like ‘Star Wars’, that issue is so 1970s. Now it’s ‘loudness wars’ that we’re interested in, as sound engineers jack up the volume of master recordings, gleefully mangling the original work into a processed, noisy shadow of its former self.

At a time like this, when musical integrity is yet again shamelessly sacrificed to commercialism, it is reassuring to see that some people have not lost sight of the bigger picture. Step forward, Ciarán McFeely, a twenty-something native of County Cork who, under the moniker Simple Kid, is single-handedly on a mission to restore our faith in music. After walking out on his first band ‘The Young Offenders’ with a one-finger salute to the ‘processed’ music industry, McFeely broke onto the Irish music radar in 2003 with his debut solo offering SK1. Good reviews followed, with the Corkman’s quirky brand of lo-fi electronic alt rock leading to inevitable comparisons to Beck, his songwriting skills flatteringly compared to Dylan. Eager to build on this positive reaction, Simple Kid hit the road, selling out countless smaller clubs and venues around Ireland and Britain, soaking up the atmosphere on the festival circuit, before attempting to crack the American market with his Kinksian tales of love, drugs and working-class zeroes …

Fast forward three years to the offices of countless newspapers, music magazines and websites dotted throughout the globe. The word is out – Simple Kid is back. Interviews are lined up, reviews are prepared … there’s only one problem – nobody has any idea what McFeely has been doing for the last three years. When details of what is now referred to as ‘The Great Hibernation’ emerge, it would seem that the truth is undoubtedly stranger than fiction: working in a video shop, filling his days watching Weird Science and Werner Herzog movies, his music equipment gathering dust in a locked storage room. “It was a weird, really braindead two years. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, but it was really relaxing. I just kinda wondered about lots of things, but not really thinking too hard about them. So it was completely spazzing out basically for a few years.” A few years, which admittedly could have become forever; it was only when McFeely’s duplicity caught up with him that that his hermetical existence was brought to an abrupt end. Over a few pints one evening, he casually mentioned to his manager that he’d been working on some songs during his time off. A few days later, the phone rang – his manager, eager to document whatever musical acorns McFeely had squirreled away, had booked him some studio time. And with hardly a second to catch his breath, the career of Simple Kid was relaunched, just like that.

The resulting collection, simply titled SK2, is one of the better efforts to emerge from a male solo artist (McFeely hates the term ‘singer-songwriter’) this year. Sonically, the album sees McFeely stick to what he knows best; the crackled din of opener ‘lil’ King Kong’, interspersed with swirling guitar and canine barks, will undoubtedly leave many an unsuspecting listener scrabbling frantically at cables and connections in an attempt to improve the distorted racket emanating from their speakers. Eager to avoid the creative rut that has beset many a man-with-guitar in the past, McFeely varies this lo-fi approach very effectively throughout the album. At the louder end of the spectrum is ‘Mommy‘n’Daddy’, a pulsating bluesy lament which may well have been lifted from Jack White’s trashcan. McFeely does have his quieter moments as well though, as evidenced by the desolate soundscape of ‘Old Domestic Cat’, provoking voyeuristic images of the songster alone in his bedroom, not even bothering to stop the cassette when he’s done or edit out the lyrics he’s messed up.

In truth, it is McFeely’s novel approach to recording that makes him stand out from the masses. As with SK1, the majority of the album was recorded initially onto old C-60 tapes by McFeely in his bedroom; anything that was recorded in a studio environment was later fed back through the cassette player to give it the distorted, crackling sound that has become Simple Kid’s trademark. Not only does it give the music of Simple Kid a rather unique sound, McFeely also feels that this unconventional technique actually plays to his strengths as an artist. “I don’t have a particularly resonant voice or anything, so with this cassette tape, my voice sounds as good as it will. It just sounds quite nice and rough or whatever. I’m just really comfortable on that eight-track.” At the same time though, even he will not deny that there is a nostalgic element which colours his rationale. “Everybody knows that tape sounds better, though cassette-tape doesn’t really sound that good. Recording into a computer, you’re looking at a screen and all this information. And I just like with the eight-track, you can’t see anything and you’re just using your ears. With these old machines, you turn it on and the lights come on and the tape is running. It’s just a really nice thing … it’s almost enough in itself to get you recording!”

Interested to see how all of this might translate to a stage show, I popped along to see Simple Kid on the Dublin leg of his whistle-stop nationwide tour. Armed only with his trusty laptop (containing all of the beats and backing tracks for his set), a projector and an armful of guitar pedals, McFeely wowed a packed-to-capacity crowd who, much to his modest surprise, didn’t seem too unfamiliar with his music. “It’s quite freaky really. People have obviously been listening while I was busy doing nothing – burning CDs and giving them to their friends or whatever. There’s a lot more singing and stuff going on … sometimes you don’t really have to be there, they’re just happy to sing.” Encouraging as this reception must be, McFeely claims he was slightly taken aback by it at the tour’s beginning. “The Irish audience are kinda loud. It’s a good thing when you’re prepared for it, but it caught me off-guard the first time. I had this set with more quiet songs, and there were people heckling, and I was like ‘shit, this is a rowdy crowd’. So, I’ve kinda sorted that out, and last night was the first night that I’ve finally got it together.”

As our conversation wears on, it becomes apparent that it is these quieter songs which provide McFeely with an outlet to express and explore more personal themes. As he explains to me in typically uncomplicated fashion, “the first album has more characters and is literally about working. On this one, there’s a bit of relationship nonsense in there. It’s a bit more downbeat, I think.” Effectively, what that means is a back seat for the idiosyncratic personalities and witty cynicism which featured so prominently on SK1, with a more personal element drafted in to fill the void. Reminiscent of a Bewilderbeast-era Damon Gough, ‘You’ illustrates the heartache of unreciprocated love, characterised by a simple desire to be there for one you care about. Meanwhile, ‘Love’s An Enigma (pt II) is much more forceful in its criticisms, berating a lover who’s ‘about as real as fake tan’ for the hurt she has caused, carelessly ‘skipping on souls like stepping stones’.

With lyrics like that, it appears that ‘The Great Hibernation’ may have been a lot less fun than it initially sounded. McFeely is reluctant however to attribute his inspiration to specific events or periods. “It’s really hard to know where your ideas come from. You’re terrified to think about that kind of stuff, you just pray for songs to come instead of analysing where they come from. The time you spend thinking about it is almost time that should go into writing a song; they’re kinda similar things.”

He does however provide me with an insight into the inspiration behind crowd-pleasing single, “The Ballad of Elton John”, a bitter satire which proves that McFeely’s keen eye for social criticism is as sharp as ever. “It’s one of the most braindead songs I’ve probably ever written in some ways. The first lyric goes ‘I switch on the TV and see all the celebrity wankers’. I did literally wake up hungover and turn on the TV, and there was some fucking Celebrity Colostomy Bag on. It was just exactly as I saw it. And then later on the Elton John thing came in, because I’m a huge fan of his earlier stuff. I just used him as a classic example of the dangers of celebrity”. As I struggle to retroactively process what exactly a colostomy bag is, our conversation falters; I almost wish I hadn’t asked …

With critical praise being heaped on the album, and the vociferous reception of his Irish fanbase bound to be replicated elsewhere, surely McFeely is here to stay this time around? “I’ll probably do a little bit of hibernation soon. Actually, I’ll probably do a fair bit, a couple of years, and then we’ll see after that”. And after that, if he decides to confine the career of Simple Kid to the annals of history? “Well, when we were sixteen, my friends all wanted to be rockstars, me included … and I still quite fancy being a rockstar. But I’ve got lots of friends who do different things, really interesting things. So I’m aware that there are lots of other things in life that are amazing to do. It’s weird though – it is such fun making music that the only time I’ll get up off my ass and do something else is when I finally realise that I cannot do this any longer, that no one’s interested”. On that basis and on the strength of his latest offering, it would appear that we may not have heard the last from Simple Kid. I wouldn’t hold my breath though …

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