Thirty-five years ago, John Stanley walked into Alto Studios in Milltown. Stano was 21, and it was his first time in a studio. Like most punks, he couldn’t really play an instrument, and didn’t really care.
His first band, The Threat, had just split up, despite the taste of punk on their tongues with the release of the song “High Cost of Living” and a rumours of a deal with London’s Rough Trade label. Guitarist and vocalist Maurice Foley had left to join the Hare Krishnas.
Punk opened up the possibility of the studio, says Stano, over a cup of tea and a slice of apple cake in his sitting room in his house in East Wall.
On the walls either side of his fireplace are two of his own paintings. They’re oils, the type of paintings that look as if they could be digitally rendered microscopic details of bacteria in rustic reds and phosphorescent greens.
The first time he was in the studio, he says he was like a child, laughing as he asked what might happen if he were to stick this into this, and that through that. “The whole attitude of punk was be yourself, be original and I took that literally,” says Stano.
The results of that session were recorded and became “Room”, the first track on what would become Content to Write In I Dine Weathercraft. Like many of the label Scoff’s releases back then, it fell into relative obscurity for a few generations. Until now.
The team at the sub-label Allchival, which has over the past year focused on extracting forgotten threads of Irish musical history through reissues, has re-released Content.
On a Mission
Allchival is an offshoot of Dublin’s All City Records, run by Olan O’Brien, and based on Crow Street. It “just made sense to separate it from the day-to-day stuff of the label which is new music,” O’Brien says.
Its aim is to focus on Irish releases from the 1960s onward. Its first release was Quare Groove, a compilation album consisting of Irish “groove” music that occasionally peeked its head from the various undergrounds of rock, soul and post-punk happening in the country at the time.
That first release “ended up taking a ridiculous amount of man hours”, O’Brien said by email. It took two years of emails, phone calls and meetings with others involved: John Byrne, Jeremy Murphy and Colm Kenefick.
But along the way, O’Brien unearthed more records to re-release. One of those was Content, which pulls in a different direction to Quare Groove.
There was nothing else really like it, says O’Brien. It was notable in its “Irishness”, “or maybe more pointedly its Dublin-ness”.
Its string of collaborators, which includes one of Ireland’s most-lauded composers, Roger Doyle; the Detroit bassist Jerome Rimson; the producer Binttii; and the mysterious Michael O’Shea, who will be getting his own release on Allchival in the near future.
Content, says O’Brien, seemed like an obvious step to follow on from Quare Groove.
Content veers into territories of poetry, new-age instrumentalism and electronic experimentation and collaboration. It’s held together by Stano’s post-punk ethos.
“We didn’t know anything about a studio,” says Stano. Or much about musical tools either.
That first time in Alto Studios, he remembers pointing to an unfamiliar device and asking the engineer what it was. “He said, ‘Oh that’s a metronome. You put the metronome on to get a time,’” says Stano.
“I came from punk rock,” says Stano. “Previous to that I was 14, 15, in school and I was writing down just ideas and poems, I didn’t really know what I was doing.”
Stano’s musical background was in tape recorders. He had two of them, and would tape himself doing mundane things, or having conversations – or record music he overheard.
He would bring those recorded sounds back to his family home in Artane, where he still has his personal studio. There, he would mix them with BBC sound-effects albums, “bouncing from one tape recorder to another and making these collages of sound, these walls of sound”, he says.
In Stano’s first foray into the studio, he stuck to this idea of a collage of sound. He fed the steady tick of his recent acquaintance, the metronome, into a microphone. He put it through a delay. It became the backing track to his first single, “Room”.
“I plugged in my synth and started messing around with all these noises,” says Stano. His career has been built on this kind of experimentation, with 14 records to his name so far, plus paintings and performance art.
Stano rounded up others to join him in working on the album that would become Content. One was Michael O’Shea.
They hadn’t know each other long. Stano was walking past Trinity College one day. “I heard this music drifting along the wind, and I followed it up the road,” he says.
O’Shea was playing in a doorway. “I was completely mesmerised by him. So I just waited until he finished and just went over to him, spoke to him and told him I was doing an album.”
The now deceased O’Shea brought along an instrument of his own creation, which he called Mo Cara, meaning “my friend” in Irish. “He had a lot of effects on it and guitar pedals,” says Stano.
They were setting up in the basement of Robert Emmet’s house in Milltown. “It was a big, massive. I think it was a basketball court at the time but the reverb in it was just stunning,” says Stano.
Once O’Shea started playing, they decided to pull off all O’Shea’s added effects from the instrument, a “hybrid of a zelochord, a hammered dulcimer, and a sitar”. They let the instrument amplify itself through the acoustics in the room.
Stano says he feared that if he didn’t record snippets of music, they would “disappear into the ether”.
For Allchival’s O’Brien, the post-punk period remains among the most interesting of post-war UK music. It came from a bunch of different independent labels, making experimental albums such as Content possible.
“There was lots of bands around at the time influenced by punk but they all had their own strand,” says Stano. Pockets of people doing their own thing.
In Ireland, it wasn’t really a group, as such. There were bands such as The Virgin Prunes. U2 was always in the shadows.
Stano’s fourth album was signed by U2’s label Mother Records. But the experience left a slightly sour taste in Stano’s mouth. He felt it eroded his idiosyncratic approach to making music.
For O’Brien, it’s important not to over-fetishize older music, and the scene. Enthusiasts today don’t have to take the same risks to approve of a sound that at its time was trailblazing.
“It’s less risky to approve,” says O’Brien, and new music “definitely suffers in comparison to the weight of what came before it.”
Stano says that when O’Brien approached him about a re-release of Content, he wondered who would be interested in the album.
“In my own head I had moved on so far,” he said. “But then in hindsight, where the album has been remastered and people get to listen again, I realised this didn’t sound like anything then and it doesn’t sound like anything now.”
For Stano, album number 15 is underway, as is a long-term project, In Between Silence, a collaboration with a growing number of people from writer Roddy Doyle to poet Paula Meehan, who tell a tale from their life that he complements with music.
For Allchival, there are a couple more releases already lined up. One is a compilation called Buntús Rince, focusing on Irish rock, jazz and weird folk, says O’Brien.
[UPDATE: This article was updated on 15 November at 15.30, to note that Binttii was a producer on “Room”.]