In the Heart of the City, a Drummer Plays the Streets

The clocks are coming up on 9pm on Saturday. Across the city, pubs are swarmed by Leinster and Toulouse rugby jerseys.

As drummer Jason McNamara travels into the north inner city, he sees a near-full moon in the dusky sky south of the Liffey.

There is a note of excitement in his voice on the phone. His crowds are often on the wilder side at this point in the lunar cycle, he says.

McNamara lugs the unassembled pieces of his marine-blue drum kit down a staircase from a studio on Abbey Street Lower.

Once outside, he stacks each individual item on a platform trolley. Then, he loads up the trolley with bags holding his cymbals and other percussion instruments.

Tonight, he is headed for O’Connell Street. The area is lively as he wheels the set-up over the Luas tracks, turning towards the heart of the city.

A man in a puffy red jacket approaches to ask McNamara for directions at the crossing by the William Smith-O’Brien monument.

Noticing the kit, he then asks McNamara, “Will ye play that Phil Collins tune? I’ll give ye a few bob.”

“I can but I’ll just be playing some drums,” says McNamara. Not “In the Air Tonight” though, he adds once the man has disappeared.

He selects a spot by the Schuh shoe shop and lays out a floor mat to keep his bass drum from sliding away.

He unpacks bongos, copper tubes, a cow bell, a tambourine, a micro-snare drum, and a stainless-steel pot– that one purchased from a charity-shop days prior – and a stack of cassettes.

The tapes were bought from online buy-and-sell markets, he says. “From people getting rid of their old cassette collections from the 90s, 80s or sometimes older.”

The tapes are spray-painted yellow, red and pink. They are splattered in acrylic paints, light blue, orange and blood red, with the scent still fresh.

The stack consists of three of his most recent albums, which are taken from a discography of roughly 18 releases. Included in this body of work are EPs, compilations and sound collages, some recorded in studios, others live on streets across Europe, Asia and North America.

The latest, Tomorrow is not a Monday, is a disorienting and hazy psychedelic album The 15 tracks diverge from his more percussive body of work. Here, the music is largely driven by acoustic guitar, atmospheric effects and McNamara’s soft vocals.

“I’m always working on something,” he says.

“There were two albums I was supposed to put out before Tomorrow is not a Monday,” he says. “But for whatever reason I was just drawn to this project.”


McNamara fixes the bongos on top of his bass drum and screws each cymbal onto its stand. Warming up, he strikes each drum and cymbal once.

“Alright, let’s see what happens here,” he says.

He beats the surface of the snare drum with the stick in his right hand, pressing his left hand down on the skin to change the pitch. He hammers the bongos in bursts, like a machine gun.

It seems freeform.

Until he stomps repeatedly on a pedal, and the two hi-hat cymbals open and close and the disparate motifs unite and the street is filled with a frantic Latin-infused jazzy groove, the kind of sound that could have been laid over a chase sequence from a paranoid 70s New York thriller.

A crowd gathers. McNamara cuts the tempo by half. He gets into a zone, before interrupting this rhythm with a spontaneous fill, which then quickly evolves into a brand new track.

He flits between genres, from samba to hip-hop to drum ‘n’ bass, stretching out ideas on a whim or a reaction from the crowd.

People stop to stare and dance. First, one drunk man in his thirties. Then, about five young women and a handful of tourists. As a few abandon all inhibitions, more pluck up the courage to join in.

Without skipping a beat, McNamara throws a cooking pot onto the snare. He drops a tambourine on the hi-hat stand, then casts it on the floor, swapping it out for a pipe.

From time to time, he stops to shout.

When any spectator drops money into the bag in front of his rig, for a split second he changes the beat, as if signalling a thank you.

“You have a third eye,” says a woman in a pink coat. “Namaste!”


McNamara began as a street performer around 2010.

He played solo, with his band Halcyon Daze, a psychedelic rock trio, and busked with groups such as Captain Magic Wonderland.

McNamara says he has always preferred playing on the street, rather than in indoors venues and traditional gigs.

There’s so much more freedom, he says. “You’re not being told what time to be onstage and offstage.”

On the street, he can treat anything as an instrument too, he says. “That’s a big thing for me.”

In his records too, the cacophony of cities is part of the mix.

On his album, Psychedrumia, he combines abrasive psychedelia with the noises from cities he performed in between 2014 and 2017, including Taipei, Brighton and Kassel.

There are field recordings of traffic, a man shouting in Seattle, Russian folk songs and train announcers in Taiwan.

Jason McNamara and Acid Granny on O'Connell Street. Photo by Michael Lanigan.

On O’Connell Street, the momentum builds and McNamara strips down to only his trousers.

He plays his drumsticks against the footpath and the walls behind him. He matches his beat to the clanging of a passing Luas.

McNamara’s playing style is intensely interactive, says Sam Burton, the lead vocalist of the electronic post-punk group, I Am The Main Character, of which McNamara is a member.

“He’ll play against Garda cars driving past, buses, shutters,” Burton says. “He tries to respond in real time to the way people walk down the street or the way someone might react to his drumming.”

Whether it’s rumbling buses or the staccato beeps of green men, it all feeds into his sessions, until they evolve into a realisation of the city’s rhythm.

It is largely subconscious, McNamara says. “The obvious ones are the car horn, squeaky brakes or glass smashing.”

“I’ll be mid-improvisation and lock into the sound of seagulls or roadworks and try playing in time with whatever they’re doing,” he says.


At close to midnight, a Lidl shopping trolley approaches from O’Connell Bridge.

This second trolley is stocked with keyboards, toy instruments, a car battery, amplifiers and a folded-out ironing board, decorated with cardboard potatoes and hosting drum machines and effects pedals.

McNamara stands up on his drum stool as he spots the incoming cart, which is being pushed by three members of Acid Granny.

Acid Granny have become frequent collaborators with McNamara since the day they all crossed paths on O’Connell Bridge.

Says McNamara: “I was walking from the south side and they were walking from the north side, and I had my cart of drums and they had their trolley.”

“We just kinda looked at each other and started playing,” he says, “and there was something there.”

McNamara edited and directed several of the group’s videos. But his musical contribution is best captured on their debut mixtape Just Be Hoors.

As McNamara and the Acid Granny trio begin their spontaneous set with a raucous horror-soundtrack-inspired jam, the crowd grows from 20 to 40.

Robbie Reilly of Acid Granny likens McNamara to a wind-up toy whenever they perform together and the battery on their trolley runs out of energy.

Once the power dies, he says, the group can reboot their set-up for a few brief moments, feeding him noise that he then runs with.

“We’d give him ten seconds of energy from the trolley,” Reilly says, “and then he just goes on forever. He’s like a defibrillator.”

Acid Granny sing “You’re a toddler” and “Give us fifty quid”, playing ring-a-rosy with their cart in the middle of the crowd.

McNamara’s focused but maniacal drumming sifts through their barrage of absurdist tunes, steering them across genres, from funk and country-western to post-punk and jungle.

Half the crowd is dancing. A friend of the group loudly heaps praise on McNamara. “He’s the sickest cunt of all time, quote me on that,” she says.

A man in his 60s rips off his Chicago Bulls jacket, writhes on the floor and demands that the people around help him to do several handstands, indifferent to the dozens of coins spilling from his pocket.

It is 3.30am when the performance lets up. The crowd has barely shrunk. The now-quartet conclude on a song with the lyrics, “Ye should all be in bed. Fair play, bye bye.”

On the street, there isn’t the separation of a stage or distance from the crowd of a traditional venue, says McNamara.

“Plus, you’re not playing to one demographic,” he says. “You’re exposed to everyone. Kids, families, older people, homeless people. You get to play for everyone.”

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Michael Lanigan: Michael Lanigan is a Dublin-based freelance journalist. His work appears in Vice, Totally Dublin, TheJournal.ie and the Business Post.

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