Benny McCarthy tells Seán Laffey that discovering the musical connections between Ireland and Newfoundland has been one of his best musical experiences to date.
Where's the Business Going Benny?
Seán Laffey met Benny McCarthy ... Benny gives us his perspective on the current state of the traditional music business.
Benny is best-known as the box player with the band Danú, he's been with them for 22 years now and in that time not only has he played tunes, but he's done a huge amount of the management of the band, from recording to touring, he has built up an unparalleled degree of knowledge. Danú isn't his only musical project; he has his own recording studio and is a member of The Tin Sandwich Band, Rattle the Boards and The Raw Bar Collective. He says such diversity is needed if you are going to make it as a full time professional musician.
"When Danú formed 22 years ago we were really at the tail end of the old music industry, there were still record labels (we signed to Shanachie), and those labels took care of an awful lot; from recording to manufacture to distribution and PR. Album advances got the band into good studios with great sound engineers and producers. Albums were selling at concerts and stores everywhere and we were touring a lot. We went flat out for about a dozen years. Then in 2006 we kind of stepped back from it, rationalized our touring, the lads were starting families, they were taking on outside responsibilities and the music world was changing."
Doesn't touring put bread and butter on the table? Benny agrees, with a few caveats. "Travel is tougher these days, travel is tedious and expensive, there is heightened security and bagagge charges." [...]
Merchandise was always a way to supplement a band's income, has this been affected at all recently. "Yes, we are selling fewer CDs now than we did 10 years ago, it's partly because of the recession, but also because of new technology, fewer people have CD players and modern cars are trending towards smart phones connected by blue tooth, so they don't have CD players anymore. But, and here's the conundrum, you need a new album to get a new tour, it tells your fans and the general public that they will be seeing a new show, and going into a recording studio hones your skills and makes you think about your performance."
Benny is sure that developing the live show experience is where music has to focus. "Putting a ton of money into a commercial album is now becoming economically not viable with the decrease in sale of music as a physical product, people nowadays are getting access of music for free or via low annual subscription stream sites. A CD these days is more a business card to get gigs or a souvenir to get the act to sign after the show, compared to a time where it was your sole music source until you purchased another album. There was a time when many of us were album collectors and having a shelve of albums took pride of place in our homes, most of the young people these days under the age of 20 years old probably have never bought a CD and their complete collection is stored on a phone type device! The product of music been the model of the recording industry for the past 120 years from wax cylinder recordings all the way up to compact discs. Playing live is what we do and you can't substitute that with anything else, it is our trump card." [...]
Yes the industry is changing, the paperwork is tedious, merchandise less profitable, but when it crystallises down to its essence, making music, then as Benny says "there's no better job in the world and despite what I've said Cordeen will be out on CD!"
Benny McCarthy with 25 years of professional music under his belt is a mover and shaker in the groups Danú, The Raw Bar Collective, Rattle the Boards and the Tin Sandwich Band. They all strive for something pure drop, authentic, grounded. His latest venture Cordeen explores the musical links between Newfoundland and Ireland, a connection that began for Benny a dozen or more years ago and 6000 miles from Dungarvan.
"Back in the early 2000's Danú were on tour in Canada. The further west we went, the more people started asking us if we were from Ireland or Newfoundland," Benny tells me and adds, "when we reached Winnipeg I met the box player Frank Maher. He greeted me with 'well boy where you from?' Maher is now in his late 80's, at one time he played with the Newfoundland banding Figgy Duff. It was Frank who introduced me to Newfoundland music."
Frank and Benny kept in touch, regularly sharing their love of accordion music. Far from isolated Benny found that Frank had a depp knowledge of the box music of Ireland. Talking to other Newfoundland box players Benny discovered they had a fondness for 'the Dude', as they called Dennis Doody and his Sliabh Luachra music. "Billy Sutton had the Timmy Connors accordion album as soon as it hit the shops in Killarney." He explains, "You'd be taken how Irish St. John's is." Benny says, "It has the longest street of pubs in any North American town, and there's O'Brien's Music shop, in Water Street, established in 1939."
In 2014 Florian Fürst of the Pure Irish Drops tour in Germany was looking for something different. Conor Moriarty suggested an all accordion idea and Florian combined it with the Irish and Newfoundland connection. "We toured with myself, Conor Moriarty from Ireland and Graham Wells from Newfoundland. We thoroughly enjoyed it and thought there might be something more in this."
Indeed there was. Last summer Newfoundlanders Graham Wells and Billy Sutton visited Benny in Waterford, and for two weeks they put down tracks on what would become the Cordeen album. "Things were very relaxed. There was no pressure on us to rush out an album, and with Billy being a recording engineer, he could take away the raw tracks and work them up in Newfoundland over the ensuing twelve months, so what we have now is an album we all love and one that has this wonderful sonic space."
The sound from the four boxes is something very special. Benny explains that Billy Sutton is a multi-instrumentalist/producer and he brought rhythm and backing ideas to the arrangement of their tune sets and songs. "We don't sit down and write out the parts. We approach arranging from a much more organic perspective."
"You can hear this on the track Eleanor Plunkett which employs the basses on the accordions. It is a track that builds steadily, so it is never a case of heads down all playing at the same time, a few simple but subtle arrangements." There is a clip on YouTube of the lads playing Herb Reid's and an Irish Polka. Benny says he first heard Herb Reid's on the car stereo as he was driving the lads out for a day on Waterford's Copper coast. "It's a really infectious tune and we teamed it up with a polka that we heard from a young box player, Ademar O'Connor."
There are songs too, with a funny story of an unfortunate ugly dog Relligan's Pup and Tickle Cove Pond from Graham Wells. The style is as Irish as you could get.
The tune is Tatter Jack Walsh and for Benny the song sums up the beautiful spirit of Newfoundland. "It's about a winter accident, when logs were being hauled across the frozen pond. There's the resilience and the poverty, the integrity, ingenuity and community. It is all brought together in a ballad we could all learn from today as it was when it was composed over a 100 years ago."
Cordeen will do a short tour in Ireland this June. Benny says this will give you a flavour of the music and songs of the group. Later there will be a TV documentary on the project. Benny is genuinely enthusiastic about Cordeen, ending with, "It is a special musical venture with lads who I clicked with instantly. We all share the same musical language. We might be 3000 miles apart, but it was like making music with friends I went to school with."
First published @ Irish Music Magazine #258 and #262, 2017 (www.irishmusicmagazine.com).
Photo Credits: (1) (by The Mollis); (by Walkin' Tom); (unknown/website).