Black Bank Folk is the musical brainchild of Dubliners John Colbert and James Sheeran. Walkin' Tom questioned both about their recording debut Rising, a concept album about the Easter Rising of 1916.
Walkin' Tom: How did Black Bank Folk get together?
John Colbert: Myself and James grew up around the corner from each other and used to play at parties and family gatherings. Around 8 years ago we started to gig together professionally in pubs around Dublin. We discovered that our voices worked well together and that we are influenced by similar things musically so we formed Black Bank Folk five years ago and set about writing our debut album Rising.
Do you like to tell me something about your musical background and biography!?
John: I started playing music at 13 and professionally from the age of 19 with various bands and as a session musician with Irish singers Jack L, Paddy Casey, Jerry Fish and Damien Dempsey. Over 20 years in the industry has taken me all over the world and given me the chance to work with some of the best musicians and producers like Michael Beinhorn (Soundgarden, Red Hot Chilli Peppers), Mike Hedges (Manic Street Preachers, The Cure) and John Fryer (Nine Inch Nails, Cocteau Twins).
James (Jim) Sheeran: Before Black Bank Folk my musical C.V. mostly comprised of listening to others! Its been a real pleasure to get to play with some of the country’s best musicians and people I admire through the band. It’s been a great couple of years.
How would you describe the music and sound of Black Bank Folk?
John: Our music is broadly under the term Irish Folk, but there are elements of traditional Irish, Indie, Rock, Americana and Country blended throughout the album. Our influences vary from Irish bands like The Dubliners and the Pogues to American bands like Midlake, The Band and traditional American Folk like Dylan and Gutherie and finally to some of the British indie music from the 90's and onwards like The Stone Roses and Mogwai. Our musical philosophy is to try to blend these elements into a new sound for modern Irish folk music.
By the way, is there any meaning in the band's name?
John: There's an area on the Dublin coast, just down the road from where we grew up called Black Banks. We’ve always liked the name and in the shadow of a recession it seemed quite apt as well.
Your debut album has been released in 2016 and is themed around Dublin's Easter Rising of 1916. How come?
John: Both of us have a keen interest in Irish history and from a personal perspective, especially in the 1916 Rising. My grand uncle Con Colbert was executed for his part in the Rising and his story has always fascinated me. We wanted to mark the centenary in our own way, so we set about writing a concept album about the Rising. We wanted to highlight some of the lesser known stories and look at the emotions of the participants regardless of what side they fight on.
Please tell us a little bit more about your ancestor, Con Colbert!
John: Con Colbert got involved in the revolutionary movement early on and held the rank of captain during the 1916 Rising. His post held out well during the fighting and they were surprised to hear about the surrender order. He was an extremely religious man and wrote to his sister from his jail cell on the night before his execution, saying that he was 'one of the lucky ones' as he knew when he was going to die so would try to die well. He was executed by firing squad on the 8th May 1916 aged 27.
One hundred years later, what does 1916 still mean to you?
John: 1916 was always a source of great pride for me and still is. Only in the last few years have we really got to know a lot of the stories of the ordinary men and women involved in the fighting and that helped to inspire our album. 100 years on we can look at the 1916 Rising as the first step in the birth of modern Ireland.
All songs have been written by you two, except a collaboration with Damien Dempsey and Grace O'Malley, respectively. What are the songs about in particular?
Jim: The material bridges the general and the specific from the Rising. We tried to look at the revolution from all angles and investigate various factions involved, whether they be The Nationalists, The British, Women involved or The citizens of Dublin. Certain stories are based around specific people:
Whereas with other songs on the album we were more concerned with capturing a general feeling or the emotions prevalent in the accounts we read from the people who were there:
Didn't you fancy to record one of the many traditional ballads about the Easter Rising?
John: We have a few traditional songs in our live set, 'The Foggy Dew', 'The Rocky Road To Dublin' and 'School Days Over', and we had half a plan to record an EP last Christmas with 'Raglan Road' and a lovely song about Con Colbert called 'The Green Hills Round Athea', but it didn’t happen unfortunately. There may be a traditional song on the next album, but we haven’t fully decided yet.
I suppose there is an audience in Ireland for your songs!?
Jim: We have been blown away with the response to the album. We have had contact from all over the world, possibly due to the album being on Aer Lingus international flights, that we were not expecting. We were very conscious that we didn’t want 'Rising' to be a political album written from just one perspective and I think that this lack of bias and the fact that the songs are as much based around the emotions of the time as the actual events allows people to connect to the material whether they have a keen interest in the history or not. Its is not easy for people to understand war but we can all relate to emotions of love, loss, disappointment, victory and defeat.
So is there any chance to see you in continental Europe?
Jim: We would love to get over to Europe this year and are in talks at the moment but there is nothing definite yet. We will announce any developments on our website, facebook and twitter as they happen. Furthermore, we’ve been working away on the bones of some new material that we are pretty happy with. Its going to be exciting to see how that develops over the next few months with an eye on a new release towards the end of the year.
Photo Credits: (1), (3) Black Bank Folk, (2) Con Colbert, (4) Ireland 2016: A Year for Everyone (unknown/website).