Interference is one of those “if you know you know” Irish bands of the 1990s. Poised for massive success the group never quite hit the way their fans and contemporaries thought they would. But after many years of hype, Interference’s self-titled debut album was released just as the band was running out of steam.
Years of rehearsing and polishing songs took a toll on the bandmates. In particular, lead singer Fergus O’Farrell, who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at eight years of age, had to step away from the spotlight just as it seemed ready to shine down.
The golden-voiced O’Farrell was down but not out. He remained the only member of the group to perform and write consistently under the Interference name. In 2016, he was putting the finishing touches on Interference’s long-awaited second album, The Sweet Spot.
Filmmaker Michael McCormack spent 10 years following O’Farrell’s career. The resulting documentary, Breaking Out, is a celebration of his musical life and legacy.
The film opens on something wholly unexpected. The camera looks up from a low angle on the night sky, and staring down through the shrubs that line a roadside ditch is a famous face. It’s west Cork’s own Jeremy Irons addressing the camera with words of encouragement: “For Christ sake man. Don’t give up now. You’ve got an album to finish!”
McCormack’s light touch here complements our initial brushes with O’Farrell himself.
When O’Farrell first introduces himself to camera, he puts on a high-pitched lamby-lamb voice. When we see an older O’Farrell in unhappier circumstances, in bed with a breathing tube, he mugs to the camera and messes around with his wife.
O’Farrell always seems to have the defiant attitude of a man who laughs at death. “I’m half-joking,” he assures the camera crew after talking up his impending demise, quickly adding “but I do feel terrible”.
Moving to O’Farrell’s home studio, we see The Frames eagerly setting up equipment. Glen Hansard, The Frames’ frontman, is a fan of O’Farrell, as well as a collaborator and friend. Hansard holds Interference as a major musical influence. The impact of O’Farrell’s songwriting on Hansard’s own life is such that he feels duty bound to help bring O’Farrell’s next batch of songs into the world.
McCormack knows that the process of creation has the potential to be more dramatic than any twist or turn from Interference’s past. This is to say, that while the history of the band told through talking heads and archive footage is diverting enough, it follows a fairly orthodox music-documentary formula.
There are some notable highlights: McCormack’s reconstruction of early performances play like period-appropriate camcorder videos. There’s a lot of reminiscing about Interference’s home and practice space in the old Winstanley shoe factory in the Liberties. That factory hosted many other movers and shakers of the Irish music scene at the time, forging Interference’s close association with the Hothouse Flowers and Maria Doyle Kennedy.
But as interesting as Interference’s early successes and failures are, the more recent struggle for O’Farrell to create in the face of extreme odds makes for more remarkable viewing. Footage from a television appearance later in his career shows O’Farrell using a belt tied to his wheelchair as a way to push more air out of his lungs. Here is a voice that must be heard no matter what.
Now, as O’Farrell’s condition takes away more of his lung capacity and reduces his once renowned singing ability, the fate of the album hangs in the balance. In Breaking Out’s standout sequence, we cut from an earlier performance of Interference’s “Sail On” to O’Farrell attempting to hit the same note in his home studio.
He struggles to sing the lyrics as before.
Moments later, mad innovation, a length of hose is fitted with reeds and Hansard literally supplies the necessary air for each line of the song. Blowing into the hose when O’Farrell gives him the nod. The recording is saved thanks to this unusual duet. In that moment, an entire friendship illustrated so beautifully and simply.
Similarly, McCormack captures O’Farrell’s homelife in intimate and touching detail. The interactions between O’Farrell and his wife Meng Li are often funny, always heartwarming. As with everything else in Breaking Out, these scenes show us a life well-lived, to the very end.
Fergus O’Farrell was undoubtedly a major talent. Michael McCormack shows this to us in his filmmaking not just through footage of performances that speak for themselves but in the effect O’Farrell’s presence and talent had on those around him.
Towards the end of Breaking Out there’s a scene where O’Farrell’s friends and family gather to honour his memory with a song. But as loud and boisterous as their singing may be, these hundred or so people crammed into a tiny room can’t match the power and impact of one of O’Farrell’s lesser performances, let alone his best.
Breaking Out is in cinemas now.