Above: When two become one! A link up between the Rise Up and Subversion Sound Systems. Photo credit: Off-Beat Photography.
Rashers Tierney surveys the Irish sound system scene ahead of a big tribal gathering in Galway. He takes in eight different crews and leaves the technically baffling chat of hogs, tops and tweeters out of the loop, to instead rewind through their history and what drives them to build their own custom rigs.
If you’ve ever been around anyone that gets their rocks off by piling friends into shitty little venues and serving up sonic treats of underground dancefloor nonsense, there’s a few guaranteed conversations.
For one there’s a total dearth of even shitty little venues across the country to put stuff on in. And even if you are lucky enough to get a back room to set your decks up and bring people in for the night, 9 times out of 10 you are going to be confronted with an absolute pox of an in-house sound system or none at all.
Your options are simple. You either make do, or do something about it – that’s what most of these folks did.
Above: The two boys from Revelation sound. Photo: Tom Beary.
Revelation Sound System is ran by Benji and Jeremiah who hold down a yearly residency at Electric Picnic’s Trenchtown area. Regular slots in local pirates and clubs around Cork City in the late 1990s led to weekly a session in Sir Henry’s.
The pair attended dances ran by Jah Shaka and Abashanti in the UK. Leading them to only one conclusion:
“We knew this was for us.”
They play early roots classics to bang up to date weapons. Giants like Jah Shaka, Iration Steppas, Channel One, Mungos HiFi, Bush Chemists, and Mr. Williamz and local lad done good, Cian Finn, have played their system. And they always have their own wax releases in the pipe.
So what exactly is a sound system I ask them. That might sound like a bit of a Ronseal question, doing exactly what it says on the tin with a rake of speakers leading to the amplification of records but the answer is a tad more complex.
“A sound system has much more emphasis on different frequencies and delivers music that can be felt as well as heard, he tells me. Custom built sound systems all carry their own colour and unique tones, which makes attending these dances all the more exciting for the listener and dancer.”
Sol Barnes from the Mindscape crew down in Scariff shares a similar experience. Representing the latest incarnation of a collective that has been on the go since the early 2000s, they play it all from hardtek to dub, bringing an attitude that insures local DJs don’t take a back seat to big names.
Like many of the others Sol nerded it up on a website called speakerplans.com, an online beacon for this homebrewing audiophile scene. He eventually graduated from Music, Technology and Production at the Limerick Institute of Technology in 2011.
“I found it very hard, it is generally quite difficult to find venues where alternative non commercialised music is accepted and the scene tends to be very small which makes organising events costly,” he told me before going onto accredit the island’s eco-system of smaller festivals for finally giving the sound systems a place to ply their wares.
Sol built his system with his wife and both are keen on integrating music and artistic decor. At their events this takes on a sci-fi menace.
Dublin’s RubaDub HiFi are relatively fresh on the scene and have ran several dances in the Teachers Club and Wigwam. They say that being a sound system extends beyond just showing up with a stack of speakers and setting up in the corner of the room.
“Sound systems have aims and ideas which go far beyond that. Whether they are political, musical or religious depends on the soundmen themselves and that’s what makes each sound system so personal.”
Of the two lads, Iaral was inspired by stumbling upon a must see slice of UK cinema from 1980 called Babylon about sound system crews in London battling it out with each other (and the National Front) when he was 15.
His compadre Charlie says it was hearing Revelation Sound at Electric Picnic that opened his ears. Like others the poor quality of in house speakers and being forced to borrow gear off friends pushed them into the custom game.
“Reggae music has prominent bass and treble which we believe has to be heard on a proper sound designed for that purpose,” he tells me.
“We never made a formal decision that we were going to build a sound until we realised we’d already started the process!”
“To be honest it was initially very difficult to sustain interest in what we were doing as it’s totally different to the typical music scene in Dublin. Also the in-house speakers usually wouldn’t do the tunes justice. Between ups and downs we’ve organised dozens of dances and enjoyed all of them. Since we’ve been running the sound we’ve been able to build up a lot more momentum and all in all to increase the quality of our gigs. Recently we’ve found a lot of new faces coming to the dance and we’ve been doing our best to make sure that everyone who passes the gate will reach the dance again and again.” The pair again cite a culture of sharing designs online too and give props to some other known folk heroes of the scene.
“Steve Audio Terrorist and Ranking Rez from Worries Outernational have been really helpful as well along the way.”
Asked to share a funny story they tell me how they brought the rig to a festival recently, and were given an unknown lineup to contend with. Until the end that is.
“One of the lads though came up to play at midnight on the last night,” they tell me. “First he asked us how to use the CDJs and then after a quick lesson started belting out Scatman! It wasn’t quite what we had in mind when we built the Sound but we had a laugh!”
Above: Jason Rootical at the controls. Photo: Tom Beary.
The Rootical Sound System out of Galway had its public outing back in 2001 and ratcheted up legendary appearances at the revered Mantua Festival. Chief operator Jason told me:
“I was collecting and selecting Reggae music for a good few years before I made the move to build my own system,” chief operator Jason tells me. “When London based Channel One crew carried their Soundsystem out to Ireland to play sessions in both Dublin and Galway, the seed was sown then and I aspired to building my own sound system from that point.”
Like many others we chatted to, Jason agrees that a standard PA just doesn’t have the weight this music needs.
“A properly tuned sound system can be heard and felt in a way that a standard PA cannot,” he tells me. “Basically it comes down to pushing certain frequencies to allow the music to be felt throughout the body. Soundsystem becomes the all absorbing feature of the space rather than just a PA in the background.”
Support for the scene can be fairly inconsistent Jason says. “It’s a small Island with no culture for this kind of thing so as to be expected,” he says. “Like anything it has its ups and downs. It can be hard work carrying so much gear from one end of the country to the other. Nothing compact about this set up”
World Bass Culture first landed on the scene in Waterford in 2007. Like others I spoke to, they share friends across the systems and an interest in the complexities of audio. They play a mixed bag and tell me about their first outing.
“We were worried at our sound system launch being held at the ‘listed’ beautiful Central Arts Hall in Waterford,” they tell me.
Dust and bits of plaster started falling on the dance floor, leading to worries that they would be shut down and banished.
“Luckily though the directors at Central Arts were cool as cats and after the initial rafter blaster start the building soon settled.”
RiseUp is based out of Cork city and was pulled together on the back of a club night of the same name. The likes of Objekt, Mala and Dbridge have played since 2010. Head honcho Jonezy has been into reggae since he was a kid but researching how to put a system together only began in earnest in 2012. By 2014 he was cutting speaker boxes out of Scandinavian birch ply with the help of his chippy dad. It wasn’t too long before it was shaking the old Kino cinema to its foundations.
“I wasn’t impressed with the sound in most of the venues in Cork,” Jonesy tells me. “I started bringing in sound systems like the 5lowershop rig when the venue’s wasn’t upto the task. This made me want to build my own speakers so I could customise it to sound exactly how I like it.”
According to Jonesy it takes time to pull it all together, but things can then quickly fall into place.
“My rig was only finished 18 months ago,” he says. “But it’s been steadily growing since then. It’s out at various gigs a couple of times a month and I’ve already got a few bookings for next year.”
Is it hard work? I ask him. “It’s fairly rough on the back at times,” he says “but once you get used to the logistics of moving it around it becomes a bit easier.”
The SubVersion SoundSystem in Galway all came together when Cormac Welfare figured it was time to up his game and get his own rig for the increasing spate of gigs he was organising. Crux and Will Junglist then joined in along the way.
“You need to be committed to carry a Sound to every gig or around the country,” Welfare tells me. “Its physical work which can be very tiring, especially after a long weekend of partying. You get to understand the equipment over time – how it works best for the music you play and the vibe you’re trying to create. You add bits and piece over the years, some work and some don’t!”
Financially it has its costs too. “Most sounds I know of put on gigs, hope they’ll make a few quid and try build their sound that way,” Welfare tells me. “The equipment involved is invariably pretty pricey so it can take time and patience, but again if you believe in the music you’ll stick at it.” Any downsides Welfare says are offset by hilarious trips in the van, with weird and wonderful interactions across the country. One that sticks in Cormac’s head is catching a few hours sleep on the floor of the old church the night before Sundown Gathering 2013.
“All rigs were set up and we had had a few beers at the end of the day,” he says. “I woke up freezing cold at about 6am and I looked up, half asleep, to see what seemed like some towering, black dalek looking down at me. It was in fact the Firehouse Skank soundsystem”
Above: Enda Starr supervising the system. Photo: Tom Beary.
The Firehouse Skank Soundsystem from Dublin is considered the granddaddy of the scene and gets the credit for bringing sound system culture to Ireland in the early 1990s. Paul is its founder and started out DJing at parties in lost old haunts like the Anarchy Night Cafe.
“I loved loads of different kinds of music, still do!” Paul tells me. “ 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.”
He was so struck by a Jah Shaka dance in London right at the start of the 1990s, that regular trips back and forth to buy records and catch more followed.
“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,” he tells me.
Some friends he now credits with being “dons of the Irish animation boom” asked him to DJ at a fundraiser. It grew into a weekly thing and took years to build a crowd.
“While it sounded pretty good it wasn’t quite the full immersive experience,” Paul recalls as his quest began. “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.”
Names like Zion Train, Conscious Sounds and Roots Ting gave him a dig out and linked him up with specialists like Jah Tubby and Russ Disciples.
The hard work eventually paid off and it put Firehouse on a whole other level. Maintenance and lugging might be the next tes but the real challenge then became finding somewhere to run the system
“Most venues just don’t suit,” says Paul. “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.”
Once he got involved, Enda Starr’s music engineering background took up the technical slack. “He was a great help,” says Paul. “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.”
Paul tells me about picking up the first Firehouse Skank boxes back in the day. It involved an odyssey across the motorways of England and Wales in an old VW Gold dragging a horse trailer behind to pick up speakers from a lad called Mr Dub.
“He didn’t quite realise that there was an end point to our frequent long-winded, in-depth telephone conversations,” Paul recalls. “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.”
Eventually he met him on a lay-by on the M25 where he showed up with the finished speakers, still tacky with paint. The car eventually made it across England and thanks to Neil Perch of Zion Train was lumbered up with 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.”
Back in 1994 Paul organised the first proper sound system session in Ireland 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!”
Then Paul’s best friend decides he needs to take a piss. “The hall was jammed,” he recounts. “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 shouting disapproval so Mikey Dread put a stall on the tunes to find out what’s going on. Paul’s mate scarpers. He recalls that “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.”
He talks about driving a cramped van of UK sound system heads around Ireland
“There was much amusement at the lack of motorways back then,” he thinks back. “Every time we’d manage to pass a tractor there would be whoops of celebration and laughter.”
The Irish Soundsystem Gathering takes place on October 20th & 21st in Galway’s Leisureland. The bass music systems clash on the Friday night and the roots guys go against each other on the Saturday. Full details here. Thanks to Welfare for the hookups with the systems operators.