In July of 2007, the first of two Analog Festivals took place in Grand Canal Square – a Grand Canal Square yet to have a Daniel Libeskind designed theatre shaping it no less – which featured free concerts from Cinematic Orchestra, Congotronics and a performance of Glenn Branca’s Symphony No. 13: Hallucination City. This work by the New York downtown avant garde no-wave legend boasted a 100-strong orchestra of guitarists (realistically, there were about 60 performing there) that were all locally sourced from Dublin and around Dublin, and trained in two crash-course practice sessions in The Factory on Barrow Street in the days before.
The performers arrived with the electric guitars strung in extremely unusual fashion (for those interested, in three sets of unison notes, depending on what part you were playing) as the masses of group emails in the weeks leading up to the practice and performance had specified. And after much plugging and tweaking and ruffling of scores on stands, the amassed orchestra hit its first notes. ‘You remember that from the Branca orchestra, the first time everybody played together, the hairs literally stuck up on the back my neck,’ explains Enda Bates one of the guitarists of The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock, the Irish band who themselves have put together a guitar orchestra for the purposes of performing a new 50-minute long work entitled Lockout based around the events of the 1913 Lockout, the industrial dispute over workers’ rights to unionise and protect themselves from exploitation.
The core members of the Spook of the Thirteenth Lock (Allen Blighe on vocals, banjo and guitar, Enda Bates on guitar, Ro Hayes on bass, Brian O’Higgins on Drums and Liam Caffrey on guitar) will have their ranks swelled by 13 extra guitarists when they take the stage in Hangar on Andrews Lane on Saturday 21st November to perform the premiere of Lockout. The makeshift army is drawn mainly from the connections that Dublin music veterans will make, particularly as stalwarts of Portobello’s Ballroom of Romance Club, at which Allen’s former band Holy Ghost Fathers featured regularly. ‘We have a few people from Large Mound, like Mark Jordan who used to play with Si Schroeder, and Collin Morris who plays with Miriam Ingram, and Hugh McCabe who used to do that blog, Traces of the Real, full of long exposure photos. When you’re on the scene for a while you know so many guitarists!’ explains Allen. Enda continues, ‘That and through Music and Media Technologies course [where Enda also teaches], I have to say that I mined that quite a bit. A lot of guitarists come through that course and they would have some experience with scores and notation. There’s people who’ve played in other guitar orchestras, like Marc Balbirnie who played in Maynooth Guitar Orchestra. The logistics are complicated, but it’s worth it.’
‘I think we’d been thinking about doing this since the Branca thing, but seriously now for the last two or three years,’ says Allen Blighe, the singer, lyricist and guitarist at the heart of Spook. ‘I think the cut-off point was June 2013, when we had really finished pushing our last album [2012’s The Brutal Here And Now], we thought it’s time to do something new. We had the first movement ready for the open rehearsal we had in 2014 and then we were thinking, how do we push it on? How to do we broaden it out? Because we really felt like we were on to something worth pursuing. And we’ve been hard at it since then, whilst juggling everything else… all sorts of real life stuff going on.’
‘It just kind of dovetailed, the political anniversary and the idea of the guitar orchestra,’ explains Enda. ‘Talking about this industrial strife and workers, and then this idea of getting a big ensemble seemed like a natural fit in that regard.’ ‘Collective action, big groups, you know?’ says Allen.
‘We had two open rehearsals with the full ensemble. Actually the first was a 14 piece arrangement, which we then decided to expand, and also we wanted to address the gender balance a bit, as it was 14 dudes,’ says Enda. ‘Not very socialist! The second rehearsal was much closer to the finished product,’ explains Allen.
Spook’s two previous albums, their self-titled debut and The Brutal Here and Now had developed from an initial blend of Thin Lizzy style twin-lead guitars, and the folkier stuff that touched on traditional music and ballads, though they stressed that they are coming the music from a background in alternative rock rather than trad, inspired as much by droning soundscapes of My Bloody Valentine, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Texan weirdists Lift To Experience. Lockout however is their biggest work yet and a departure from the structure and processes of their first two records. The work is roughly 50 minutes long, and came together over huge combined effort of arrangement, research and logistics between, with plans to record the work at the end of the year after its debut public performance.
Enda explains the process of its creation in terms of the musical arrangement: ‘We improvised a lot of material, jammed out stuff as a band. In the past we would have kept working that into a song collectively, whereas here we had a narrative, and we wanted to tell the story chronologically. We had this structure that we had mapped out with historical beats that we wanted to cover all the way through. Then it was question of mapping the pieces we had to different areas, writing to new bits for different parts, and then a circular process of myself and Allen working independently and then bringing them together and then playing them as a band and feeding it back around like that… it needed more of an offline way of doing it, rather than improvising everything out.’
Combining the fiddly nature of the melodies of traditional music with the realities of a guitar orchestra was one of the challenges that they faced. ‘Broadly speaking there’s five groups of guitars, there’s four groups within the orchestra, and then there’s the melody guitars which is us from the core band, and Mark Jordan and we handle the fiddly, complex, fast, melodic stuff, because we’re rehearsing it a bit more. The orchestra is the harmonic background to that, so that allows you to get the fast detail in one group, and the slower moving harmonic texture behind that.’
‘Some of the things musically that we were musically interested in were playing with consonance and dissonance. So for example, the orchestra guitars are all tuned to this open C tuning, it’s CGCGCC, a lot of unison, which is a real trad thing too, keeping the major-minor thing out of it. We’ve always found that one of the really cool things about traditional Irish melody lines, is that there’s all sorts of ways that you can harmonise, even if in Irish traditional music, it’s one way a lot of the time. It also allows you to play with dissonance in an unusual way. We’ve always done that, but maybe relying on distortion pedals, whereas in this, every guitar has a clean tone, there are no effects pedals, but you can do very interesting things with dissonance then. Particularly during the “Bloody Sunday” section of the piece – the first Bloody Sunday was in 1913 – it gets very dissonant then, using cluster chords layered up among different guitars. There’s also sections where we’ve left it somewhat open, where the guitarists can finger pick their own pattern, but when you layer that up over 16 guitars, you get these rolling waves. The start of the fourth movement, “The Mighty Wave”, that section is very much based around that.’
Aside from the musical bombast that the orchestra brings, of course, The Lockout also tells a poIitically complex moment in Ireland’s history. I ask Allen, as the lyricist, how he approaches a piece of history like the 1913 Lockout. ‘A lot of reading! But there’s one reference in particular, which is Padraig Yeates’ great Lockout: Dublin 1913 book which is part of an overall quadrilogy of books he did about the “Decade of Centenaries”. He recently released the Civil War one. It’s quite a tome, it’s very detailed and it gives a lot of inspiration. It’s the first one of the books he did. He’s a great guy and it’s very interesting to get a socialist history of Dublin, taking into account the conditions, and really setting the scene for everything that kicked off. It really gives a sense of the political complexities of the time. It’s a very interesting time because, because you have this Independence movement but you also have this well-established middle and upper class of a nationalist bent, and who are very much eyeing up the change as a repositioning of power, rather than any sort real change for the average people or the working people of the country. It’s a great book. There’s a few other references, there’s this actor, Ger O’Leary, who does these speeches from Larkin – well, more improvisations from the character of Larkin – and we reference one of his speeches in it. But mostly Padraig Yeates.’
Although the band have touched history previously in songs like The Hare, the opening track from their self-titled 2008 debut album, this time the process was different. ‘This time around, it’s much more focused and the idea expanded to a much greater degree than in just one story or one song. I mean, we did touch on the life of Roger Casement in The Hare, and 1798 and other historical touchpoints, but this time around it was much more focussed and took a lot more concentration to do that. A lot of it was working with direct quotes, taking different ideas to tell the story while trying to be as faithful as possible. I think the interesting thing about this is that it gives you the opportunity to tell a story from a lot of a different voices; so, for example, Jim Larkin himself, William Martin Murphy, the policemen, one of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, even individual rioters or union guys. It was a big story to tell, potentially, from a lot of voices, that gives a lot of freedom for doing different styles. There’s a lot of melodic singing there, there’s also a lot of spoken, or shouted, or intoned voices. There’s a lot of opportunity for experimentation than on the previous records.’
With 2016 just around the corner and anniversary-overload that it entails, how do you feel about the representation of of the anniversary, as things that have happened rather than something that we have learned from? ‘With any of these anniversaries, different political parts of the country will feel ownership,’ says Blighe, ‘and it’s very much one for the socialists and the Labour party, and they organised quite a nice day for the 1913 centenary celebrations. You have to view this as something led by Labour, and Labour as a member of the current coalition are pushing certain austerity policies. So it’s a difficult one, because when you look at the level of poverty in the country, and the austerity policies being driven down, is it fair? How do you contrast today with back then, where you have the influence of a business class too. The influence of Denis O’Brien versus the influence of William Martin Murphy, the like of that. There are a lot of common dimensions between Ireland right now and back then. There is a sense that conditions are deteriorating and that there isn’t a real recovery there. So it’s quite poignant to look at 1913 as being a genuine struggle between the left and right, where at least at a superficial level, the right won. While there were a lot of victories subsequent to 1913 by the labour movement, there really is a sense that things are turning back right now.’
‘It’s also interesting to see just how much focus there is on 1916,’ says Enda. ‘I mean, there wasn’t that much about 1913, and I think that’s quite revealing. I think 1916 is, perhaps, a bit safer to commemorate – because it’s a little bit harder to draw parallels with today and our current situation – than perhaps the Lockout, and the industrial strife between right and left is very relevant for today, and maybe a little bit uncomfortably so for certain people. You look at zero-hour contracts, and the blacklisting that was going on in the UK until recently.’
‘Even Jobsbridge, Gateway, all these exploitational labour policies,’ says Allen. ‘I think it’s fair to say that 1916, the War of Independence, these are aspirational things about a new nation state, whereas 1913, or the Civil War, are really struggles about what kind of state that is. And now that we’re in that state, it’s why the 1913 and Civil War anniversaries are so important.’
The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock & Electric Guitar Orchestra will perform the debut performance of Lockout at Hangar, Andrew’s Lane Theatre on Saturday 21st November, with tickets costings €15/€12 from www.tickets.ie. and the performance beginning at 8pm.
Words: Ian Lamont
Photos: Killian Broderick
 If you hadn’t already guessed it, I played in the orchestra that performed Branca’s piece myself.