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30th Nov 2019

“I am not a celebrity” – A conversation with Blindboy Boatclub

Dave Hanratty

Blindboy interview

Less a ritual, more a rapid-fire manoeuvre.

In a matter of seconds, the bag is retrieved from a jacket pocket, applied and synched in, no real ceremony.

You likely get used to it. Blindboy Boatclub is used to explaining the reasons for donning his signature supermarket-friendly veil, too.

It’s a privacy thing, enhanced by suffering through and eventually overcoming a fear of crowds and public spaces. What’s more, it affords a certain unique status in the whimsical realm that is Irish pop culture.

You could file the proud Limerick son under artist, satirist, podcaster, musician, comedian, author and maybe one or two other banners.

Just don’t call him a celebrity.

“Cringey as fuck,” he nods when this scribe suggests that Ireland shouldn’t have famous people. And yet, one could make the argument…

“I have notoriety,” he notes before the cellophane contorts slightly and an “Awh, jesus christ…” emerges from within.

“I mean, look – if you’re a Colin Farrell or if you’re a Cillian Murphy or a Danny from The Script, then you’re a celebrity,” he gestures.

“Then you can go to London and be bothered, right? I can wear this bag in London and one or two people will know who I am, therefore I am not a celebrity.

“There’s a story about Russell Brand. Before he became huge, when he was just the lad who was big in the UK – because Russell loves fame, you know? – he went to Los Angeles and he walked along the road and he couldn’t fucking handle that nobody knew who he was, couldn’t deal with it. He had to go to Santa Monica where all the Brits are and he just stood there so people would know who he was.

“Being a celebrity in Ireland is cringey as fuck,” he reiterates.

“It’s one of the reasons I have the bag on. I’m Marty Whelan level of fame. You could be inside a Euroshop in Dublin and you see Marty Whelan and there’s people going over saying, ‘How you getting on, Marty?’ and he’s there looking for a good deal on deodorants. That’s not celebrity. The bag prevents me from having to deal with that.”

Gospel according to Blindboy, his personality doesn’t suit such a lifestyle.

The psyche is a restless one. Tell the man that his new book – Boulevard Wren and Other Stories, presently the best-selling fiction tome in the country – is really rather dark and the instant reaction is to thank you.

The individual tales may not be connected in a narrative sense, but almost all are doused in dusky gloom. This is an extended universe in which the River Boyne slicks past murderous doomed cannibals, lost men congregate weekly in an unnamed bid for survival and black holes and revelations are couched in vivid bee stings.

The lead story, Boulevard Wren, filters vintage Wes Craven horror The Hills Have Eyes through the social commentary sci-fi prism of Black Mirror. Dream-harvesting goon Wren, ostensibly a side character who leaves a nasty impression, is given the contradictory grace of the book’s moniker mostly because Blindboy liked the sound of it.

Decay informs. Monsters claim their share. It’s tricky to leaf through the thing and not wonder if the author is doing okay. He gets that a lot. A background in psychology acts as something of a shield.

“I take it back to David Lynch,” he begins.

“Someone was saying to David Lynch about Mulholland Drive – which is a tough watch and a crazy film – they were saying, can you explain it? David Lynch just said you need to stop looking at my films as if they are films and treat them more as a dream that you had.

“We all have fucked up dreams. Really crazy dreams. You wake up the next morning and you simply say to yourself – ‘That was a mad dream’. David Lynch is going – ‘That was a mad film, view them as dreams’. I delve into my unconscious. I accept the fact that as a human being… it goes back to Freud; as humans we all have this intense darkness and viciousness and capacity for violence. Freud was talking about the Holocaust and he was wondering how do so many humans do something so bad, and what we can’t do is decide that there are bad people and there are good people.

“When it comes to atrocities and when it comes to something like the Syrian civil war, there are not necessarily ‘bad’ people. There are normal people who were fruit and veg sellers last week and have been put into a situation where the other becomes dehumanised. Once that other becomes dehumanised, the true darkness of humanity comes out and therefore acts of brutality happen.

“All of us have to explore the reality and potentiality of vicious darkness within all of us so I try and get that out through the book. ’I’m gonna make this character very dark and very fucked up’. There’s a satire there, too, obviously.”

With that he references Wind Milker; an especially freakish interpretation of John B. Keane’s The Field. In truth, he’s more successful when it comes to grounding humanity in familiar trenches.

Gruyére in the Desmond, for instance, deals with a group of middle-aged salt of the earth men gathering in a pub to fight off their demons. They drop their guard, picking labels off the bottles before them. Funeral suits are eventually donned. The cycle subtracts.

“What I’ve realised recently is that I have a very low key trauma from the recession, from living through it,” offers Blindboy.

“I stayed in Ireland during the recession. 2007 to 2012, especially in Limerick which is a really fucking poor city – we had a little bit of prosperity but then as soon as Dell closed, the whole place fell to bits. You were seeing so much misery. I saw so many of my friends leaving, other friends dying by suicide and people losing jobs and streets becoming really empty in the daytime.

“Just having to continually walk through it every day, I had to see something and turn away. I had to see a homeless person. I had to see a cash for gold shop. I had to see this and simply turn away to get on with my life. What I realise now, 10 years on, I’d actually internalised these things as little pains that I wasn’t aware of.”

With the aforementioned pub siege account, the focus is on forgotten souls north of 50 who have run out of moves. Men left with nothing when routine labour dried up. Though Blindboy will later state that he’s happy with about 80% of the book and wishes he had more time to accentuate the rest, Gruyére in the Desmond only needed a couple of hours. It was real enough.

“It was also at the same time that craft beer started becoming a thing in Limerick but it’s like they’d missed it,” he continues, one foot still in the past.

“They’d planned on craft beer being huge but then the recession happened so you were left with these IPA taps and no young people left to drink from them. It was before men’s sheds and there was one or two pubs in particular where you’d see these old lads together where instead of Guinness and Harp, now they’re drinking this IPA and that became not just a drink but a topic of conversation. You found small groups of lads coming together. It was also around the time that Netflix started to become a thing.

“They would organise to meet in the pub, say to the barman, ‘What’s on the tap next week?’, come in, have the new beer, talk about it and then talk about whatever came on Netflix. It was like a men’s shed situation, creating a support group without calling it that by name. It was their way of surviving. There would have been suicide with them, their children would have been dealing with suicide, they would have lost their families to emigration and they’re dealing with this pain through craft beer and Netflix, finding a way of doing it.”

“Ultimately, the darkness behind it is they were a generation who were utterly failed by Irish society and failed by the education system. They received no vocabulary around their emotions whatsoever. In that story, it all happens as a first-person internal monologue. Internally, the character has an idea about what’s going on. Internally, he knows we’re talking about depression, anxiety, existential dread. He can see it but as soon as any character opens their mouth it’s slagging and homophobia and slagging ma’s.”

He takes a beat.

“That’s a thing with Irish men. The craic is brilliant, right? It’s a fantastic part of Irish culture but Irish men can sometimes use the craic as this strange little bandage whereby if a group of men are together in a pub, lads of any age, as soon as one person gets a little bit too real, as soon as they decide to speak about a vulnerability or a pain, instead of sitting with it in the group, what happens is that one person makes a joke or a slag and everyone laughs.”

It diffuses it.

“It diffuses it. But, ultimately, nothing is spoken about. It reminds me of when I was training to be a psychotherapist – one of the first lessons you learn is about tissues in the counselling room and why tissues shouldn’t be a thing in a counselling room.

“Tissues are never of any use. The purpose that tissues serve is if someone in front of you starts crying you reach for the tissues not to help that person but because their tears and emotions are too real. The tissues come in as a way to diffuse that, so it’s actually quite a selfish thing.

“We were trained – ‘No, no, no, don’t reach for the tissues’ – healing happens when you comfortably sit with the pain in non-judgement.

“Craic is almost like the tissues of Irish lads.”

You wonder about ego with Blindboy.

He subscribes to an “internal locus of evaluation” that affords positive and negative feedback with the same amount of consequence. He has followers who look to him as an educated voice of reason. He also has people who think he’s a dickhead that pontificates while hiding beyond a mask.

On the night he was informed by his publishers that Boulevard Wren topped the charts for a second consecutive week, he was in his back garden, pouring boiling hot water over the tyre of his bike in a bid to remove dog excrement.

Can’t have light without dark, after all.

Rubber Bandits, always game for a skewered laugh, has shifted to such a degree that the project feels effectively dead in its two-man guise.

The official Twitter account is essentially a house of Blindboy’s thoughts and prayers, regularly engaging in relentless promotion – his podcast has garnered a large audience and plays live to packed houses on the regular – platforming causes, issues and entertainment that he deems of value and dabbling in surrealistic flights of fancy when the mood strikes.

He accepts that he used to create out of spite – a notion that may well apply to a litany of Irish artists in 2019 as cultural spaces increasingly erode amidst a governmental system that shows little interest in supporting their work – but it’s not really like that anymore. He reflects on Rubber Bandits swapping out Ireland for the UK at the start of the decade in a bid to achieve some kind of tangible respect and success. They got at least one of those, he reckons.

“Having done that, now I kind of think it’s all bullshit. I’m too long in the fucking game now to be doing things out of spite. I just want to do things that’ll make me happy and if other people like them, that’s a bonus.

“I didn’t grow up with a lot of fucking money. I didn’t have any economic privilege. But I am also very aware that I had a lot of environmental privilege. I was very privileged to grow up in a house where I’d a huge amount of love and support. Art was respected in my house. Learning was respected in my house. When I was a kid, even though my ma was packing shelves in Dunnes, my da worked in a fucking airport – there wasn’t a huge amount of money – but everything that stands to me today; my love of knowledge, my confidence to write a book – that comes from support I got from my family at an early age.

“I bring that on board as well. Look at the privilege you had but also look at the disadvantages. I’ve got friends in Limerick who grew up much worse off than me who are incredibly fucking talented people and because they didn’t grow up in a house where… they might have grown up around addiction, they might have grown up around violence, they might have grown up in a house where the parents didn’t value creativity at all. These are intensely talented adults who just don’t have it within themselves to take it to the next level. They just don’t. And it’s heartbreaking.

“I see it all around. When are you gonna do that mix tape? When are you gonna write that story? They’re always talking about it because they didn’t get that voice of encouragement at a young enough age. I always bring that on board when it comes to myself. Hold on a second, I had a huge amount of privilege in that respect, to grow up in the house that I did.

“If I wrote a little song when I was three or four years of age and I did a painting; I had a mother and a father and brothers and sisters who were able to say to me, ‘That’s brilliant, fair play to you’. When it comes to me talking about my internal locus of evaluation, that’s rooted in that early childhood experience. I can truly believe that I have worth because I grew up in an environment where I was allowed to have worth.”

Emotional needs were met.

“Yeah. Some people’s emotional needs aren’t met. It’s one thing, too, because people can get very harsh on people – let’s say somebody grew up incredibly wealthy. They could have grown up with a huge amount of economic privilege but their parents didn’t give a fuck about ‘em. They had no emotional privilege.

“They were told, ‘Go and get a job as an accountant, fuck you’. ‘But what if I want to listen to Jimi Hendrix?’ ‘Who the fuck is he?’ You know? But you get a fuckin’ Mercedes on your birthday. Privilege comes in many forms.”

The clock ticks down.

Time for one last yarn.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” he starts, matter-of-fact.

“I think in about five years time people are going to look at me with my bag and it’ll make a lot more sense. Surveillance technology in China at the moment, right? If you walk around China, all of the cameras have artificial intelligence and they recognise everyone’s face from a database, okay? They’ve started to suggest introducing this into the tube system in London.

“Facial recognition artificial intelligence cameras are going to become a part of all of our lives within the next 10 years. Another rising trend is people are starting to sell jewellery online, specifically designed to confuse facial recognition cameras. In China, you can’t do that. In China, because it’s totalitarian communism, if you decide to cover your face – you’re fucked. You’re a criminal.

“In western society, when facial recognition cameras come in, I do think we will have the level of freedom where we can choose to cover our faces if we want. I think in 10 years time there will be people walking down the road wearing… It’s the balaclava thing – if you walk into the army shop and you buy a balaclava, you can’t wear that walking down the road. It looks too sinister.

“However, there are balaclavas that are kind of funny looking and you will see people wearing them if they’re cycling on the road. That’s going to become normal. People are going to want to be wearing them walking to work because there are 20 cameras memorising their face. They might want to go, ‘No, my facial data is mine’ and it will be legal to do so.”

Another short story penned, the mask goes back in the pocket, blink and you’ll miss it.

Imagery by Garry Carroll

Boulevard Wren and Other Stories by Blindboy Boatclub (Gill Books, €19.99) is available in all good bookshops and online.

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