Above: Enda Starr running the controls for the weekly Firehouse show on Radio Na Life 106.4 FM. Find out when to lock in over here.
Rashers Tierney caught up with Paul from the legendary Firehouse Skank to hear about hauling the first proper sound system to Ireland in the early 1990s, friends pissing in the wrong place at a rammers gig and that all essential UK link up. Mick T-woc gives us the lowdown on his own recent involvement with the crew and how they got into pushing wax.
Paul, what, in your opinion, makes a sound system so different to the standard, sort of small PA setup most folk might be used to?
Total immersion in a sound that brings everything out in the music the way it was meant to be.
So, what then got you into the whole sound system world?
Paul: I loved loads of different kinds of music (still do). When I first started djing at parties and club sessions like the Anarchy Night Cafe I played across the board punk, dub, funk, hip hop, krautrock and psychedelia but soon realised that reggae and dub was what I enjoyed playing in a club environment.
Having been quite into reggae for years, it was when I went to a Shaka dance in London at the start of the 90’s that I realised what it was meant to sound like. I was going to gigs and clubs all the time but that experience really got hold of me. I started travelling to London on a regular basis to catch sound system dances and buy records.
I found it strange that there was nothing even remotely like this going on in Dublin at the time. I used to go to a lot of punk gigs organised by the Hope collective and they really spread a message that anyone could organise gigs – there was no need to be at the mercy of the established venues and promoters. Some friends (some now dons of the Irish animation boom) had an animation group going and asked me to DJ for a fundraiser in 1993. I did a couple of reggae nights for them and loved it so I kept it going. It became a weekly thing and took years to really build up good regular crowds.
We started using in-house PAs – then graduated to hiring a rig and while it sounded pretty good it wasn’t quite the full immersive experience. So there being no internet and nobody in Ireland with a sound system whose brains I could pick, I got talking to all the people I had met in London in the sound system world to try to get my head around the fundamentals.
It took a year or more of lots of talking, looking for non-standard speaker parts, persuading people of my bona fides so that they would help with building custom speakers and amps for an Irish sound system. This was before the proliferation of sound systems across Europe so it was unusual for someone outside England to be building a sound system.
Friends like Zion Train, Conscious Sounds and Roots Ting were very helpful in giving advice and linking me with other specialists like Jah Tubbys and a man called Mr Dub who was building speakers in a lockup in Southend. Russ Disciples was a great font of wisdom too – he really gave a lot of time to help get me on the right track.
How hard is it to run a sound system in Ireland? Like does it take much work?
Paul: Building the sound took a lot of work and persistence but Firehouse Skank was firing well and we knew that the sound system was going to take it to another level so we knew it was worth the effort and the expense.
The biggest problem with maintaining it, apart from storage, transport and lugging it up and down stairs, is finding places to run it. Most venues just don’t suit.
We always want to run a session that we would want to go to even if we weren’t doing it ourselves and we want things to be set up in certain ways so the options narrow down pretty quickly. Then there is always some expense on top of venue hire – to maintain the sound system and pay for transport so it can be a struggle to make sure things work out.
How did you figure out the electronics and engineering aspects?
Paul: Originally a lot of talking and help from people like I mentioned above. Then Enda Starr got involved and he had a background in music engineering so he was a great help. Tuathal is our main man for maintaining the sound these days and he is always tweaking the kit and getting new ingredients to nice it all up. I don’t know where he got the knowledge really – maybe he was just born with it.
Okay, so any funny sound system stories?
Paul: I drove to London with a VW Golf and a horse trailer to pick up a load of speaker boxes from Mr Dub. He didn’t quite realise that there was an end point to our frequent long-winded, in-depth telephone conversations about crossover frequencies, the benefits of a full range rather than a “weight and treble” system, flare angles, the benefits of trapezoid boxes, the things to figure out to allow maximum flexibility in configuring the setup to suit different halls, etc.
I think he thought we would just keep on discussing the finer details forever. When I showed up with the car and trailer he was quite taken aback. I had to impress on him that the ferry home was booked and I wasn’t going to be able to come back in a few weeks.
I ended up meeting him at a lay-by on the M25 where, quite miraculously, he actually showed up with the finished boxes, paint still tacky and all. The car struggled across England and was really tested when I met Neil Perch of Zion Train on the road to Fishguard in Wales to get some amps that he had picked up from Jah Tubbys for me a few days before. Somehow the car survived the trip and the first sound system on the Island was born.
I organised the first proper sound system session in Ireland in 1994 with Channel One. They came with a big crew and a big van loaded with enormous speakers and gigantic amps. we had an amazing turnout – a full house of about 750 people in a venue called the Furnace off Aston Quay and we had to turn hundreds more away!
My best friend needed to take a leak when the session was really firing. The hall was jammed so he figured he would try a door at the back of the hall and find his way to some secret toilet. He opened a door, hit some switches to get the light on and the full lights came on all over the hall.
The crowd started voicing their disapproval and Mikey Dread held the next tune, asking what was going on. My friend got a fright and sneaked off quietly. Security were running about for what seemed like quite a while before someone found the open door to the control room and sorted it out.
I could give you a few stories about times driving around the country bringing the likes of the Bush Chemists to sessions in Cork and Galway (with Revelation and Rootical) with my brother Niall driving a VW Polo and the back full of sound men, equipment and vinyl.
There was much amusement at the lack of motorways back then and every time we’d manage to pass a tractor there would be whoops of celebration and laughter. More of that next time….
What’s your favourite sound system song?
Paul: It depends on the vibe really. Late at night, when everything is firing nicely, the lights are low and there’s a good crowd in the hall everything in the box can sound great.
I really love the out of the way, downbeat but nicely produced stuff like Nick Manasseh’s productions. But of course our favourite right now is Lariman’s Kase Je Je on TNT Records. The test press sounded fantastic when I played it a few weeks ago.
We’re all looking forward to the launch party this Friday.
And what about you Mick? How’d you end up hooking up with the lads?
Mick: I linked up with Firehouse Skank along with Tuathal a few years back, having been a regular attendee at the early Parnell Mooney dances, a crucial part of my musical upbringing as a kid just moved to Dublin city, getting involved with the original Irish sound was big for me.
I’d produced some dub/reggae releases for All City records with Afrikan Simba and Brother Culture but when it came to the first track I produced for Aminah Dastan, who is a regular vocalist on the sound, it made more sense to put it out it ourselves.
Where’s the name TNT come from actually? I’d imagine the explosive or something? Who takes care of the production side?
Mick: We took the name TNT which comes from Teach na Tine, the name of our weekly radio show on Dublin’s Irish language station Raidio na Life, and put out our 1st 7″ – Hiding in Plain sight.
Dan Taliras takes care of production on our 2nd 7″ – Lariman’s Kase Jeje. Dan has such a nice groove in his productions, and this one in particular really sounds built for Firehouse Skank.
Putting out a record never loses it’s excitement, they capture a musical moment in time , a little snapshot of this obscure Irish roots reggae scene, flying around the world on to turntables everywhere, passing through many hands and ears for years to come.
Firehouse Skank celebrates the launch of their second 7″ vinyl release on their TNT imprint this coming Friday, September 29th in the Teacher’s club Dublin. You can pre-order the record here. They’ll also be making an appearance with a host of other folk at the Irish Sound System Gathering on October 20th & 21st at the Leisureland Galway.