Robocobra Quartet Interview: “The space is filled by improvising.”

Robocobra Quartet

Robocobra Quartet’s new album Plays Hard To Get is out now.

Combining unusual and unexpected aspects of jazz and punk, Northern Ireland’s Robocobra Quartet are a singular endeavour. Anchored by bass lines taken from the post-hardcore Fugazi playbook, they pepper this with a selection of brass and strings and near spoken word vocals that meld together into something somehow immediate and yet exploratory.

They’ve just released their second album titled Plays Hard To Get. We spoke to drummer/vocalist Chris Ryan about how they replicate their sound live, combining the serious and the playful in music, and the Harrison Ford starring horror flick What Lies Beneath.

Overblown: Your new album ‘Plays Hard To Get’ benefited from funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. How did that influence the writing and recording of the album?

Chris Ryan: Ostensibly we’re a punk band but because we can sneak in under the ‘jazz/experimental’ banner we’ve been able to get some decent public funding for things. ACNI are very hands-off creatively; it’s kind of like having a record label who are happy to pay for an album but give you 100% creative control.

The only restriction was the record needed to be done within a year of receiving funding. That was a great restriction, to be honest – especially for a self-produced record. These kinds of albums sometimes have a tendency to be endless, never-ending projects.

Overblown: A number of tracks on the album include a string quartet. Will their contributions be difficult to replicate in the live setting?

Chris Ryan: We tend to do a lot of re-orchestration/re-arrangement live so that the songs don’t sound like ‘album tracks minus additional production’ but are instead different & just interesting or unique in of themselves. Bands can fall into the “but how will we do it live?!” trap which I think is not worth infecting yourself with. With us, the space is filled by improvising more live and using electronics/effects.

Overblown: I always enjoy your playful song titles. One song on the new album references the film What Lies Beneath. What happened when you watched that movie when you were 12?

Chris Ryan: It’s important to have a bit of levity in amongst the heavier lyrical topics or intense music so why not have some dumb song titles! That song was about an experience when I was a child staying at a friend’s house (at age 8, not age 12, I later realised after Google-ing the release date of the film) his Dad put on What Lies Beneath and in hindsight it was verrrry irresponsible of him because I had nightmares about drowning for quite a while after.

The “these days crabs pick our bones clean / it’s a quiet life, I can’t complain” lyric came from a picture book I was obsessed with as a child about famous prison breaks – people escaping East Berlin, Alcatraz, Pretoria Prison etc. One of the ending lines was about the fate of some Alcatraz prisoners who escaped by boat – they were never found again and there was a line in the book about how they could either be sipping a cocktail on a beach on an island somewhere or perhaps they drowned only metres away from the prison shore, their bones picked clean by crabs.

Overblown: Your lyrics can also be quite idiosyncratic and abstract. For instance, ‘Try Hard’ includes a reference to the football team 1860 Munich. Are you a fan of that team?

Chris Ryan: The lyrics are actually very real and literal usually, but maybe they only make sense to me? I don’t know anything about football – that lyric came about after I saw someone performing solo at a festival and he was quite bad. I later looked up his biography and read that he had once had a short stint playing for 1860 Munich before breaking his ankle, cutting his football career short. Maybe he was a lot better at football than music.

It made me think about people trying for greatness and failing and how random it all is “hell hath no fury like a scorned hopeful” – you could be a world class surgeon but one dog bites your hand and you could be done! I guess a lot of the lyrics are little micro-stories – that song (and the track Ah) references the staff in this Nepalese restaurant in Belfast who I think just really give a fuck about what they do and that always gets my mind racing.

Overblown: For me, there is a distinct stream of consciousness aspect to the lyrics. Is that the intention or am I way off?

Chris Ryan: There is a little bit of free-association that happens where I’ll start writing something and then I’ll be reminded of different things that are connected to it. But it’s not quite stream of consciousness because there is a lot of purpose and intention with all the lyrics. For example, You’ll Wade was written about the people in my life who have flirted with suicide and there’s a sadness to it but there’s also a positivity “we’ll find a kinder use for that unused noose / for that knotted lasso” and kind of ruminates from there.

Overblown: Your last album, Music for all Occasions, was nominated for the Northern Ireland Music Prize. What impact does that kind of recognition have on you? Does it add pressure?

Chris Ryan: It’s nice! But of course it doesn’t affect what we do day-to-day – the work still needs to get done regardless of how it gets received.

Overblown: Your music has been described as “Fugazi meets Mingus”. I think that’s rather apt! Do you enjoy that description?

Chris Ryan: We traipse between the jazz and punk thing quite a bit – both in the music but also how we operate and fit into the world. In a sense, we act like a DIY band by self-recording and self-releasing and in another sense we’ve got a booking agent, interchanging line-up and do jazz festivals etc. which is certifiably NOT PUNK.

Overblown: Where does Robocobra Quartet go from here?

Chris Ryan: We’re not likely to step back into the studio for a while. We’ve got a bunch of EU dates over the second half of the year so it’s likely we’ll see 2018 out with a fair bit of touring.

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