Clann ZÃº is one of the most unique bands around. They formed in Melbourne in 1999, mixing various elements of punk, rock, folk, electronic and classical into their own indescribable, incomparable sound. The melodies are dark and moving, with sounds ranging from soft and quiet to huge and dramatic. Declan de Barra offers up his heart and soul in the music, putting everything he has into every one of his songs. His lyrics deal with deeply personal/sorrowful moments, to highly political songs about oppression and resistance.
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(Interview by Mike Molnar)
Below is an interview with Declan de Barra (Vocals, BodhrÃ¡n) and Russell Fawcus (Electric Violin, Keyboards); both responded separately to my questions. They discussed life growing up in Europe, the state of Clann ZÃº, some of the politics behind their songs, and lots lots more. This is by far my favorite interview I have ever had the pleasure of doing. I hope you enjoy it.
Also, I recently received an update on the band from vocalist Declan de Barra:
"At the moment we are on break waiting for one of our members to recover from illness. We should be back on the road mid 2005. We will be touring Europe and then hopefully the states. The record is doing great and itâs flying in places like Germany etc. At the moment I am recording a solo album to be released mid 2005, it is a sparse and dark affair with cello, guitar and minimal drums. It is fairly different to Clann Zu in that I am enjoying verses and choruses again which are rarely found on Black Coats and Bandages. 2006 will hopefully see us back in the studio god knows where (Europe where I'm living or Australia with the lads).Â Benjamin and Liam are still working away with their other music project MYDISCO! Apart from that we are still on the lookout for a good drummer to work with (as always)."
Could you please start by introducing yourself?
R: Russell (Fawcus)
D: Declan de Barra
How would you describe your bands and your overall sound to someone who wasnât familiar with you?
R: Drums, Bass, Guitar, Keyboards, Violin and Vocals creating a dark soundscape of quiet and loud melody and noise. It is rock based
D: Dark and moving beautiful music. Dramatic.
Can you give a brief description of how the band all got together?
R: Ben and Declan were working together in another band called Non Intentional Lifeform in Melbourne, before Declan moved to Ireland, with our old bass player Nathan. From what I can gather, the songs started to change and Ben wanted a violinist in the band, so they advertised, I saw the poster went and played with them and they called me back that night to see if wanted to do it. I also was friends with the old drummer, so I dragged him along to the next jam.
D: Me and Benjamin were playing in another band called non intentional Lifeform on Roadrunner Records in Australia. We were writing a new from of music on the side and this quickly took over and became Clann ZÃº. We auditioned for a violinist and found Russell. Last year Liam, Benjaminâs brother, joined us on bass. As of yet we do not have a permanent drummer.
What made you decide to start Clann ZÃº rather than continuing with Non-International Lifeform? It is a pretty dramatic change from hard rock to the dramatic music of Clann ZÃº.
D: Well, we wanted to create something original, with a dramatic soundtrack quality to it. Something unique in the mediocre world of rock at the time.
What was it like growing up in places like Ireland and Australia?
R: I was born in England and lived there for the first few years of my life - don't remember them that well. But it was good for the mostÂ part growing up in Oz. Growing up is growing up, so imagine doing thatÂ in a place that is not too heavily populated, hot, far away from everywhere else that you learn about when your young, and is surrounded by lots of coastline and strange animals. P.S. Australia is all about Melbourne…
D: I can only speak for Ireland really as I moved to Australia when I was 18. Ireland was very bleak at the time; the north of the country was on fire and at war. The British government was trying to crush the IRA and the Republicans and Nationalists. Bombings, British army murdering civilians, guerilla war etc. On top of this the south of the country was virtually run by the Catholic Church, which was fundamentalist and untouchable; corrupt and sexually deviant and outside the law. To top it off there was no work, the economy was dead and the only hope was to emigrate illegally to America or Australia like everyone else.Â The streets were violent where I grew up, and you had to know how to fight. Overall very, very bleak and hard. Australia was like a paradise when I got there. Until I started to realize it was a racist state.
When you decided to move back to Ireland in 2002, was it purely for the band or were there other reasons?
R: My only reasons were to get out of Australia and be closer to Europe so we could try and play to more people. Unfortunately it wasn't that much easier to tour Europe on our own back in Ireland. Especially for the three miserable months we lived in Galway, we ended up living in Dublin and playing a bunch of shows around Ireland, working to support ourselves in one of the most expensive places in Europe and playing one show in London.
D: It was purely for the band, to give it a shot in Europe where we thought the audience might be more appreciative and we might be able to get some support, which eventually happened, although it took starving, freezing, and losing two original members in the process. A lot of artists like Dirty Three, Nick Cave Dead Can Dance, etc. had to do the same. After a while Benjamin decided he wanted to live in Australia permanently. Russell then decided he wanted to go too. So now we operate from two different continents with me in Dublin and the lads in Melbourne. I fly over when we write and record and then we meet up in whatever continent we are touring in.
When listening to you guys it is pretty hard to pick out any steady influences. What are some of your influences?
R: We all have really different influences. I grew up studying and listening mostly to Bach, Beethoven, Kreisler, Tchaikovsky,Â Mendelssohn, Mozart and other kinds of classical music. The first thing a listened to that wasn't classical music was Jimi Hendrix (I think I listened with my mouth wide open). I remember being interested in lots of different stuff when I was growing up, and I still am. Most of the stuff that I listen to is by Bartok, Shostakovich, Ravel, John Coltrane, Mile Davis, Thelonius Monk, Ornette Coleman, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, Dirty 3, Radiohead, Sonic Youth, Crescent, Pj Harvey, some of the constellation bands from MontrÃ©al, Sigur Ros, Mum, older classic stuff and other stuff, so I guess that musthave some influence on me?
D: My influences are very varied from classical to grind, hardcore punk experimental noise to world music. Personally it changes day to day. Today I listened to Oum Kolshoum, Tindersticks and Kila. Our influences don't really come out in our music; we all have really different tastes anyway.
For you personally, what kinds of musical backgrounds did you have when you started Clann ZÃº?
R: I grew up playing classical music, and at the time I joined Clann ZÃº I was studying for a degree in classical music (violin) at the Victorian College of the Arts.
D: I had played in metal bands, rock bands and punk bands. In Ireland I just sang by myself while growing up, there is a big singing tradition.Â I grew up listening to Motown records and rebel music. Russell had a classical musical upbringing. The rest of us are musical mongrels.
When you guys started Clann ZÃº did you have an idea of the sound that you wanted the band to be like?
R: I didn't personally, but I think the other guys wanted to add violin to songs they were writing at the time that were far removed from NIL. We have never sat in a room and talked about music that we are going to write, we have always just jammed stuff out and ended up with stuff that we have ended up recording and stuff that we have forgotten about or erased from our memories
D: Well we had an idea that we wanted it to be dramatic, we were creating these long instrumental pieces with weird vocals that had a soundtrack quality. We knew that we wanted to add either cello or violin to the mix to add to the drama. In the beginning there was a lot of folk music and electronic influences too.
Orchestration and instrumentation are a major part of Clann ZÃº. What specific instruments do you guys use?
R: Drum Kit (type depending on drummer at the time), 1970's Fender JazzÂ Bass with vintage ampeg SVT head and fridge, 1967 FenderÂ Jaguar/Rickenbacker with 70's HIWatt 50 watt head and soldano box andÂ pedals, shitty violin with pickup through a 1965 Vox AC30, EMU SamplerÂ with inadequate piano sample, Roland Juno 106, Declanâs voice.
D: We have refined it down to the core of violin, guitar, bass, vocals, keyboards and piano. No real electronics any more, we want to be able to reproduce and interpret it live without too much fuss.
What is a BodhrÃ¡n, appearing on Rua?
D: BodhrÃ¡n is an Irish frame drum that can be played with a stick or hand. It is similar to the Moroccan frame drum. We didn't use it on the last record as the folk element had disappeared from the mix.
How did you decide to bring a violinist into the band, and how did this come about?
D: It was a sound we were looking for before hand, me and Benjamin wanted a violinist in the band and we put adverts up all over Melbourne. We auditioned lots of people and decided on Russell. The sound was not directed from us. His playing best suited the Clann ZÃº sound. So we were all on the same page musically.
How did you guys get involved with the G7 Welcoming Committee? What has it been like being a part of that label?
R: We sent them a copy of Rua and they liked it enough to sign us based on that. There are no words to describe how good they are too us.Â Imagine sending a lot of money to a band you have never met to record an album (BCAB) that you are not going to hear until it is completed and the money is spent. They are excellent people who give a shit about all things important. Especially Lorna and Derek who have worked very hard for us xxx.
D: Our Belgian manager of the time, Cri, got in contact with them and sent them a copy of Rua.
G7 is a label with a strong political position. Do you feel that it is your responsibility as a musician to educate people about your political views through your music, or are politics something that you leave separate from the band?
R: I think that we all believe in similar things. I think some of us live our lives according to what we believe more than we spread the word through music. Declan is the only one of us with that opportunity since he is the lyricist, and he takes advantage of that to share his views, especially on the new record.
D: I don't see it as my duty. I just happen to write lyrics about what is important to me what fills me with joy or fills me with rage. The extremities of emotions are usually at the fore when I write lyrics. A lot of the time these are political events.
Looking back on your first album, Rua, what do you think about it? Do you ever listen to it?
R: Never listen to it.
D: I generally don't listen to records I have sung on. I do like Rua though. It is a snapshot of where we were at that time, Iâm also proud of it because we did it ourselves with no help or funding. I like the Traditional melodies that show up here and there, the bodhrÃ¡n etc.
Personally, Words for Snow is one of my favorite Clann ZÃº songs. What is the inspiration/meaning behind that song?
D: It is like a lot of the songs I write about, an emigrant song. It is about the desperation and loneliness that goes with moving countries and leaving your loved ones behind. The madness that is associated with isolation. It is one of my favorite Clann ZÃº songs to sing.
When you started writing Black Coats and Bandages did you have anything you wanted to do differently from when you wrote Rua? Was the approach to writing the album different at all?
R: We didn't want to spend a year recording bits and pieces in a shitty digital recording system (Pro Tools) and end up with something that we weren't happy with, and was not possible to recreate live. We were very definite that it would be recorded in a studio to a 24 track 2" tape machine and would be an accurate interpretation of what the band was capable of both musically and in terms of orchestration. There was definitely an element of the band that wanted to write more musically complex songs that would be more removed from traditional ideas of what songs are. We also had two new members (two of the most amazing musicians we have ever played with) at the time we recorded the album so it was always going to be very different. At the same time and canÂ hear some glimpses of BCAB in about two songs on Rua, so it seems like we were also starting to solidify our ideas into something that wasÂ more cohesive as a collection of musical ideas.
D: It was completely different; we had been apart for 5 months or so. So when we met up we had to establish a musical dialogue again. We were all at different points. Some of it, One Bedroom Apartment, You'll Have to Swim, and part of So Complicated was the Fall were written in Dublin. The rest we banged out in Melbourne. The recording process was to be a snap freeze picture, with very fast recording as live as possible to analog. Some tracks proved impossible to record live the whole way through due to the use of piano and violin changes and noise separation. Overall it was a very difficult to record and we nearly killed each other at times but we are very happy with the result and it was well worth the challenge.
How do you feel Black Coats and Bandages compares with Rua?
R: I don't think they do. I think they are so different in some ways that they could be two different bands. I guess they are what they are.
D: They are very different altogether, both different periods of time and members. If we recorded Black Coats a month later it would probably sound very different. Each album we do is just a documentation of where we are musically at that time. The recording of Black Coats is far superior on a technical level and I think the musicianship is better overall. Each one is valid and both have their strengths and weaknesses.
What does the album title, Black Coats and Bandages, refer to?
D: It is a line from the first song. It refers to a funeral procession and the surreal air that surrounds it. I think it sets the tone for the record very well.
The song One Bedroom Apartment is in narrative form, which I donât think you have used too much in the past. Why did this style fit for this particular song?
D: I often write mini narratives, even if they are in first person the lyrics usually shadow a vague narrative or progression. The narrative form best suited me for this song as it was too close to me and I wanted some separation for the listener and for me to be able to sing it without collapsing in a mess each time. If I did it in first person it would be too immediate and a lot of the impact would be lost in a strange way. The narrative paints a stronger picture in this case.
Is that song about personal experiences or was it just a story you wrote?
D: Yes itâs based on where I was in Galway when we first moved over, my fiancÃ©e of 5 years left me and I was destroyed. The song was a feeble attempt to doggy paddle through a sea of depression at the time.
From both albums, what one song do you feel is the best representation of what Clann ZÃº is all about?
R: Nothing off Rua is an accurate representation of what Clann ZÃº is now.Â BCAB has about three songs that could fit that mould: There will be No Morning Copy/So complicated was the fall/From an Unholy Height.
D: From Rua, Words for Snow, from BCAB it would be One Bedroom Apartment.
Iâm extremely curious about how you guys write your songs. Can you please describe Clann ZÃºâs song writing process?
R: We sit in a room, and when one of us plays a riff that we all like, we improvise other ideas around it, then structure it, then Dec writes/chooses lyrics.
D: It is a group process, there are no individual songwriters. It is a reaction from one player to another and so on. Itâs very organic.Â Sometimes a song can be written in an hour, other times it can be over 2 years.
Your lyrics are extremely unique. Can you describe some of the subject matter and some of the inspirations behind your lyrics?
D: I write only about what is at the forefront of my mind at the time of writing. I don't try to write a political song or a personal song, but these are usually at the forefront of my mind. I write about whatever moves me, pisses me off to the point of incredulous rage, to joy. If I am writing about a political or social situation that is important to me, I often redraft and redraft until it is condensed to the essence and works as a piece. That comes from wanting to respect the people involved. It is my duty to do the best I can and honor and respect their situation and cause. With the personal stuff it is usually written in one go with a few changes here and there. I can write what I want and only answers to me.
How do you feel about touring? What is your approach to doing live shows?
R: Touring is the most rewarding, exciting and enjoyable experience that we have had. It is the most important thing that we do. Live shows are where you lay it all on the line, it is totally different from writing or recording, cause you don't have any second chances. If you can't cut it, it is obvious, especially to the other guys in the band, and it all comes down to preparation.
D: Live shows are everything. They are the essence of Clann ZÃº. Live shows are honest and raw. You see peopleâs eyes. You play your heart out and you are left in a sweaty ball by the end. Itâs exhilarating. I want to be able to play 300 days a year. Personally my motto is to play the same 100% whether we are playing to 2 people or 2000.
Your last big tour was a Canadian one. What was that like?
R: Awesome, it was the most fun we've ever had as a band. Canada is an incredible place full of incredible people.
D: Amazing, the people we met and the information we gathered was fantastic. I learnt a lot about the oppression of and resistance movements of the aboriginal people, the Oka crisis and the native youth movement etc. Very inspiring and encouraging. The shows were great, the landscapes amazing, we drove over 220,000 kms. We all lost a lot of weight.
I really love the video for Five Thousand More. Where do you get the ideas for your animations?
D: When I hear the music when we jam I usually see little movies in me head. These are what I base the lyrics on. So the animations are a third interpretation of the song. It is a visual appendix.
Any plans for a video for a song off of Black Coats and Bandages?
R: Not at the moment.
Declan, what is happening with your solo project? Do you have anything recorded (anywhere where we can check it out?)
D: I have half the album finished, while in Australia recording Black Coats and Bandages I recorded in the same studio. Russell was engineering there so I got him to engineer it and we mixed it there. It had nice analog gear and microphones. I dropped one of the songs from the session for a demo version I did in Ireland as it had a better feel. Benjamin plays on one track. Russell plays piano on two others. I am utilizing musicians from Ireland mainly, although there will be some guests from Canada and Croatia playing too. It is self funded so it is being recorded in bits and pieces with whatever I can beg, borrow, or steal. It should be ready by January for mastering. I will have some time in between Clann ZÃº tours so I am doing a tour of Europe in May and I hope to get to Canada and the states late 2005 depending on distribution. Overall it will be very sparse, vocals, guitar, cello and drums or percussion for most. Some are just voice and guitar or bodhrÃ¡n or shruti box (Indian drone instrument). Some are just voice.
What are your plans for the future of Clann ZÃº?
R: Tour Europe
D: To hopefully keep recording when we can and to tour as much as is humanly possible.
Any final comments or plugs?
R: Listen to My Disco, it is three dudes with awesome ideas who really give a shit about playing music the best they can and doing it there own way. Also listen out for The Orphan Girl which is going to brush off the cobwebs and lurch back into scratchy, glitchy action in the next couple of months.
D: Yeah check out http://www.blackspotsneaker.org, and www.nosweat.com. You can buy clothes and Converse style shoes that are made under humane conditions with unionized labor and proper wages etc. Fuck lining the pockets of Nike.
Thanks again for doing this for me. I wish you guys all the best in the future.
R: Thanks a lot for the taking the time to write these educated questions and for the kind words.
D: Nay bother, tâwas a pleasure. Thanks a million for your support!