Interview with R.S.A.G
It's a rare thing that a truly unique artist appears on the Irish music scene, but if anyone should meet the requirement surely it's Jeremy Hickey, better known as Rarely Seen Above Ground. It can't be easy to hold an audience as a solo drummer, but Hickey does so with ease and gusto, powered on by his combination of elaborate and intricate rhythms and innovative pre-recorded instrumentation. I chatted to Jeremy about the process of making his Choice Music Prize nominated debut album, Organic Sampler, and how he feels about being a role model for young drummers
When did you first start playing the drums, were they the first thing you learnt to play, or what was it about drumming that they became your main instrument?
I started playing the drums when I was about nine or ten, just hitting things at home, paint tins or whatever, and setting up a sort of makeshift kit. So my parents saw what I was doing and bought me a drum kit. From there I was banging away upstairs for years, annoying the neighbours, so it just developed from there.
It's a real physical thing, and it's fun as well. Drums are more primal than picking up a guitar or whatever else, so that's why I was drawn to it. It wasn't that it was easy for me. I worked quite hard, practising a lot. I didn't know it at the time but it was a good basis. Drums are the basis of what you build a whole sound around anyway. If your rhythm is good then picking up anything is going to be a lot easier.
Before you started playing as Rarely Seen Above Ground you played with a band called Blue Ghost. What prompted you to leave the band and head down the solo road?
A lot of people ask me that, and the thing was that I was a solo artist before that. In 96 and 97 I had done a demo with a friend of mine, like an EP. The instruments were similar but it was a bit more experimental then. At the time I was listening to DJ Shadow and Daft Punk, so it was a kind of a mixture of all that. DJ Shadow's very first album had old punk samples and the drums were very, very raw, so it wasn't hard to actually get that sound so it was excellent. We were inspired by Daft Punk, for example, you'd had a bass guitar and a wah-wah pedal, and if you choke on the wah-wah pedal and you slowly, slowly bring it down it actually gives you that kind of sound that Daft Punk used to have on that first album. It was stuff like that that was kind of interesting that way.
In Blue Ghost, we all had our roles. Davey Holland played a lot of keyboards and guitar, and I was taking care of bass, drums and whatever else. So it was a project that I enjoyed because I got a chance to develop more as a bass player as well.
Do you ever miss having a band to jam with?
No, not really, because I actually jam with the lads every Sunday in Kilkenny, and we do a load of covers. We've been doing that for the last ten or twelve years, whenever I can play. Really, then, when I'm doing my own thing, I'm doing my own thing.
You played all the instruments and produced Organic Sampler yourself. Tell us a little about the process of writing and recording the album.
I moved house to a little bit out of Kilkenny with a friend of mine. It was a four bedroom bungalow and there was only two of us, so we both had a bedroom and a spare room each, so I basically turned my room into a studio. It was quite small now, but I actually produced both the main album and the bonus disc. I did the bonus disc first and then the actual album. It was really good in the house because the gear was always set up so it was a constant thing where I could come into record whenever I wanted to. There were a lot of late night recordings so it was actually a lot of fun. It was maybe two years in all that it took to do the album.
Were you surprised then by the massively positive response you got from critics across the board?
Of course, the only thing on my mind was to get the album finished and get it out there. I didn't think about reviews or anything like that, so when people were talking about it in a positive way it was great.
Did you find that the Choice Music Prize nomination open up a lot of opportunities for you?
Yeah, definitely. The whole Choice thing was really good. The amount of exposure that all ten bands got from it – you'd have to pay a lot of money to get that. The Choice Award in general is a great thing for Irish music and Irish bands.
You've got some great visuals done by Paul Mahon that go along with your live performance. Where did the idea for that come from and what do you think it adds to the show?
We both actually worked on the live show. The whole idea was to keep it simple, to compliment the music more than anything else. That's really why it's black and white silhouettes, because you don't want intense colours and over exaggerated shapes and lights. If you see any of those old films, old French or German films, they're all in black and white, they're all really simple. There's a reason why they got away with being silent, because a lot of them dealt with shadows that were cast, and it's very, very interesting, so that's basically where the idea came from.
You have a lot of classic artists listed as influences -Talking Heads, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Stones. Is that the kind of music you grew up with?
My dad played bass and he sang as well, so that was always there and there was always really, really good music. My dad was into a lot of Beatles, Stones, then my mother would listen to heavier stuff like Rory Gallagher and that kind of stuff. There was always music in the house so I was big into it anyway.
You teach drums in schools now too. Would you consider yourself a good role model for young musicians as someone who shows there can be more to drumming than just being the time keeper in the background?
They're actually more good role models for me, I think, in the way that they've grounded me in a lot of ways. Hopefully I would be a good influence on them, hopefully anyway. I would hope that I'd be able to be a positive influence for kids that would hope to get involved in something like that.
So what's next for R.S.A.G?
I'm starting the Irish tour on the 20th of this month. I'm working on a new album, I don't know when it's coming out, but I'm hoping to have it out this year anyway. I'm doing a couple of festivals over the in UK, one in Croatia and I'll probably go back over to Paris as well. After the tour I've got a couple of things in the pipeline, but just as many gigs and festivals over the summer as I can.
R.S.A.G. embarks on a national Irish tour on April 20th, visit venues in Dublin, Maynooth, Dundalk, Belfast, Galway, Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Sligo. Highly Recommeneded! See our gigs listings for more details.
Story by EI Team | 09:00 | Friday 10th April 2009 | Music
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