The Cult of Stano

Dean Van Nguyen

Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth, race relations and Dublin.

You don’t very often hear the word “cult” thrown around to describe musicians. “Independent”, yes. “Maverick”, sometimes. But “cult” invokes its own distinct sentiment.

Even within a tightly knit Dublin music scene so quick to glorify its innovators, Stano feels like a man apart. Next year sees the 40th anniversary of this former punk’s first solo single, the haunting and ornate “Room”. He’s spent the decades since buried about seven levels below the underground, attracting intense support from a small, dedicated following while achieving precisely zero mainstream traction. A cult hero if ever there was one.

This is music that reflects the coldest and most desperate vision of pre-Celtic Tiger Dublin. You could broadly call it “post-punk” as Stano emerged alongside a group of Irish artists who retained punk’s DIY aesthetic but turned their back on the clichés. But it’s something unique, something more exploratory. It’s the feeling of standing out in the cold – songs that move with a grim, industrial beauty. His cassette tapes should have come packaged in the pockets of thick black overcoats.

Thing is, for an artist who operated in an era when a lot of Dublin’s underground music was released on tiny runs and has become ultra rare, Stano’s work is incredibly well-preserved. You can hear most of his albums on Spotify. He’s got a professional website outlining his career. And in collaboration with Allchival, the reissues wing of local label All City, some of his key work has recently been reissued. Last year saw the release of Anthology, a lovingly compiled collection of some of Stano’s best moments recorded between 1982 and 1994 that serves as a starting point for anyone seeking to get involved in this unique sect.

Born in 1960, John Denver Stanley went from being educated by the Christian Brothers, to spending five months in the army, to becoming a full punk visible in the Dublin scene. The Artane native joined band The Threat in the late ’70s and was nominally the synth player despite, y’know, having no idea how to play the thing.

Stano as a solo artist was as unlikely as it proved to be inspired. After the dissolution of The Threat, he still couldn’t play an instrument and instead became obsessed with recording techniques. He’d tape sounds from everyday sources and came to see the studio itself as an instrument. Stano developed a superhuman ability to manipulate audio, often using a revolving door of musicians to create sounds that he could fillet and splice into patterns that made sense to him. Still, listening to a Stano album, you get the sense there’s something bubbling under the surface of his compositions, a unifying purpose.

Debut album Content To Write In I Dine Weathercraft came out in 1983 and established the Stano blueprint: heavy collaboration, an emphasis on improvisation, poetry, wild genre-bending. Chairs were yeeted from one side of the studio to another to generate the kind of sounds that appealed to the creator’s strange proclivities. No sonic borders were fabricated to pen him in.

Encapsulating this gung-ho approach to music-making is the story of Stano’s brief collaborative relationship with Michael O’Shea. Paths crossed by chance as Stano’s ear was unexpectedly caught by O’Shea when he heard the respected experimental musician playing by Trinity College. Sessions for his debut album were underway at Alto Studios in Milltown, so following his instincts, Stano invited the stranger who reminded him of a Hare Krishna to the studio to see what spells might be cast.

The pair jumped on a bus to Milltown the next day. O’Shea jammed for a couple of hours on a sitar-like instrument that he himself had invented, enjoyed a couple sandwiches and a cup of tea, and that was that. Stano never saw him again. (O’Shea sadly died in 1991. Some of his music has been reissued by Allchival.)

If this all sounds very avante garde, that’s not what Stano’s records are like to listen to. His arrangements are an exercise in both focus and verve. Stano’s early work features synth lines hypnotic in their repetitiveness, like staring into a snowglobe. These are songs with texture, grit and plenty of tight turns. Listen to a track like “Emma Wild” and it’s easy to picture Stano navigating his way around a grim factory floor.

An eccentric approach to music-making can see an artist run a stylistic spectrum and Stano’s early records are far from one-note. “Majestic of Majesty”, from the 1987 album Daphne Will Be Born Again and featured on Anthology, matches what sounds like pan flutes, string instruments, and percussion that sounds diesel-powered. Content To Write In I Dine Weathercraft includes some isolated piano pieces, such as the emotional “Young Calatic Child” and “Fox”, a Russian waltz featuring Stano’s heavily accented spoken-word performance.

Stano’s music isn’t totally beyond comparison. You can detect the era’s canonical post-punk and indie music in some of the guitar lines. There’s the gothic touch of bands like Joy Division. The dinky-like pop and click drum machines reflected how the technology was being used in early hip-hop at the time. I love “Dream and The Little Girl Lost”, a little midi funk tune that predicted 16-bit video game orchestration.

His singing voice drinks from the same well as Lou Reed and David Byrne. It’s got that unorthodox, sardonic quality, but with a more warbling tone, like an escaped imp sprung from Hell’s gate to warn us of impending misery. Doused in very 1980s echo effects, it can take close examination to pick up all of Stano’s writing, much of which could be reasonably described as abstract. But it adds to an atmosphere that’s as thick as a coat of varnish.

Given his obscurity, it’s hard to say what young Stano might have influenced, but the cold steel walls of “Melting Grey” remind me of Girl Band.

Anthology leaves off in the mid-1990s, by which point Stano had released five LPs and was entering an album-making hiatus as a new interest in painting dominated his artistic impulses. But _Anthology _only encapsulates half the story. A rush of creativity has seen him record a batch of new records since 2010, adding new sides to his daring discography.

There’s been the post-hardcore stylings of bands like Fugazi and Duster (“Chapelizod”), and vibrant techno reminiscent of Moby before he started using a sampler (“Tokyo”). In 2016, Stano put out In Between Silence, Where We Really Exist as part of the International Literary Festival Dublin, which features storytelling from writers including Anne Enright and Joseph O’Connor over the musician’s compositions.

The project was a nice fit for Stano – musically unorthodox and completely off of mainstream. A broader embrace will always elude him, but that’s okay. It’s better to be a cult hero than to be a phony. His followers are dedicated. To them, Stano can rule over his micro-kingdom for as long as he likes.

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Dean Van Nguyen: Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth, race relations and Dublin.

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