"We wanted to be unapologetically ourselves" - The Scratch in conversation
One of the most exciting breakout Irish acts of the moment open up on viral fame, box drum decorum and why they'll always be 'still at the music'...
Box drum etiquette - or lack thereof - is, admittedly, a niche enough area.
Nonetheless, it is a very important concern. If, like this writer, you've ever found yourself sprawled out in a festival campsite trying desperately to find temporary solace only for some clown to happen along with a box drum - acoustic guitar heroes are bad enough, this is next-level hell - you'll understand the need for some decorum.
"You know, if you feel strongly about it, you should probably write an article about it."
Challenge, via Daniel 'Lango' Lang, cajón maestro for Dublin folk-punks The Scratch, graciously accepted.
"I’m extremely interested in box drum etiquette, if it exists," considers Conor 'Dock' Dockery, Scratch guitar player. "We should have signs up at festivals."
Lang, for his part, seems kind of puzzled by the idea. He's quite adept with a box drum, you see. Many who dabble without the necessary skill level, however, are not.
"I think it’s a misconception that anyone can play a cajón," he nods, coming around.
"That could be pretty annoying if some chap gets up and starts hacking around on a cajón and you’re there trying to have a tin with your mate outside your tent. That would understandably piss you off.
"Maybe take a few lessons before you start bashing around on one, try and get to grips with it a bit. And maybe don’t do it if you’re out of it, you know what I mean?"
Dockery adds an exclamation point:
"Or if you’re a fucking guitar player that has literally never played drums before… it’s not going to sound good."
It's all fairly jovial. If you've caught The Scratch in full flight, chances are you've found yourself right there with them. Having risen out of the ashes of skilful metal outfit Red Enemy, The Scratch initially began life as something of a curiosity.
You may have stumbled upon them at a party, in the back of a pub, or, as with what brought viral attention their way, going hell for leather outside a bus station with Donegal's Rory Gallagher International Guitar Festival as a backdrop. They make a strong first impression, serving up a raucous fusion of folk, punk, metal and traditional Irish stylings, all with a knowing, lived-in charm.
Take a song like 'Punisher', so named for the well-meaning but blissfully unaware soul you bump into on a night out who claims, chest-out, to have done it all in life. Come hell or high water, he's going to tell you all about it.
Clip via The Scratch
Simply put, it's a belter, the details so vividly accurate you pray you somehow didn't inspire it yourself. 'Punisher' is also a good distillation of what the band are about; original and dextrous musicality combined with a potent strain of uniquely Irish caustic wit. If it feels authentic, that's because Lang is quick to jot down quotes and turns of phrase he hears about the place, working them into music down the road.
Picking up the pieces post-Red Enemy, Lang, Dockery and bandmates Jordan 'Jordo' O'Leary and Pete 'Petes' Keogh never intended for this new venture to be a full-time thing. A few years on, they're selling out capital city venues like The Button Factory and The Academy - the latter in just four days - but the beginnings were as humble as it gets.
"We’d barely gigged and hadn’t released anything apart from a video made in our kitchen," recalls Dockery.
"It was by no means a solid band with any sort of plans. We were just busking a lot at the time, that was the only thing that we really wanted to do. We went to the Rory Gallagher festival, we didn’t even have a slot at it, we were just like, ‘Let’s go down and busk in the town or whatever’.
"It was the first set we did of the whole weekend - I guess we’ll just go here, set up in front of the bus station and see what happens. After that weekend, only a day or two later I went onto Facebook and I saw that some guy named 'Pedro Loaded' shared a video of us playing a tune we had called ‘Vico Road’ and it was up at around 100,000 views. I was like, ah, whatever.
"Then it went up by a couple of hundred thousand every evening after that. It was just a weird thing and the first time anyone outside of our friend circle had seen what we were trying to do. The big takeaway was that it was incredibly motivating. It was like, ‘We think this is cool and now we’re experiencing a kind of a viral video thing’, none of us had ever experienced that before. That kickstarted everything."
Your pals at JOE picked up the video, helping it close in on a million views.
"It went even crazier then," says Dockery. "Whelan’s got onto us and offered us a free show in the main room. At this point we were like… this doesn’t make any sense."
And yet it feels perfectly reflective of a rebirth that has swept the nation.
Though Lang and Dockery politely balk at the suggestion that The Scratch constitute a traditional Irish outfit, they're just as quick to acknowledge the impact that the likes of The Gloaming and Lankum have had in recent years.
Lang: "The biggest thing I think we’ve all noticed is how broad the market is. It’s everyone from teenagers to people in their 50s and 60s buying tickets and coming to the gig, which is class. That’s another thing we didn’t expect; just how accepting it is from all age groups.
"I would wager that the likes of Lankum and The Mary Wallopers are experiencing the same thing. There’s something about it, it’s just resonating with the Irish community. It’s not pigeonholed into a certain age bracket which most music is."
Dockery: "We didn’t see it coming, either. We just wanted to be unapologetically ourselves, 100%, with The Scratch. That goes down to the lyrics, what we do and say onstage, anything. We spent so many years trying to do one real specific thing and kind of losing a sense of who we are in terms of the music. That was literally the only thing we wanted to do.
"I can only say that it has to be a coincidence that you’ve got Junior Brother, The Mary Wallopers, Lankum, us. I’m sure there are other bands and artists around experiencing some sort of success. I think it has to be a coincidence but I do think that level of honesty rooted in where they’re from, probably down through history that’s always been popular when the right artist comes around."
Lang: "Let’s not forget that Lankum have been around for a long while, same with Junior Brother. For some reason, now it has taken on a resurgence in popularity. The Gloaming were definitely the first Irish band [of this style] that caught my attention. First of all, it’s quite an unconventional line-up as far as traditional music goes.
"Their attitude and the reason for the formation of that group plus the renditions of the songs that they’re doing; that opened my eyes towards checking out what’s going on in our own country a lot more. They’re another band that really breached the walls of a target market. People of all ages find themselves listening to The Gloaming. I feel like it started something. It definitely opened my eyes, anyway."
Dockery: "We were all listening to a lot of The Gloaming even before The Scratch started and a lot of Damien Dempsey, Glen Hansard, Planxty, The Dubliners, the classics or whatever. We all, for the most part, were discovering these bands and artists for the first time or just realising how good they were and how good they are.
"It’s probably just a little bit too soon to say what it ‘is’ but I think about it a lot, too. How many times have you seen, even in the last couple of years with hip-hop in Ireland and any sort of new movement or collection of artists that experience success in a region - that’s always interested me as well.
"Something is happening, I just don’t know what and I don’t know why but it's fucking great especially because it’s in Ireland. Only Lankum can do what Lankum do. No-one else could do that and it’s because they’re Irish and they’re pulling from their history and their culture. That’s super exciting."
Perhaps just as enjoyable on a personal level; a surge in popularity and selling out shows makes those gut-wrenching 'Are you still at the music?' questions that happen along when grafting away for most of your adult life a little bit easier to deal with.
"I used to dread it," nods Lang.
"I play music full time outside of The Scratch, anyway, to make a living and that’s been the way for a long time now but I dread it. ‘Oh, you’re still at the music, is it? And what is the band? Red Enemy?’ Whereas now it’s like, ‘Jesus, I saw The Scratch on the Pat Kenny Show the other day...’.
"They’re asking specific questions about the band that they now know of because they’re kind of following it now. It’s different. They’re not only just aware of the fact that I’m ‘doing the music’, they’re aware of the band I’m doing the music in. They’re interested in what we’re up to, which is nice. Ah, you actually know what’s going on!
"I think the reason why we did it, why The Scratch happened and why we’ve been doing it for the last 15 or 16 years is we just can’t help but do it," he continues.
"We all have a genuine love for music and creating music. That’s never going to change and it certainly hasn’t since The Scratch has started and how it’s been received. If nobody gave a rat’s about it we’d still be doing it.
"I know that sounds very cliché to say but we’re all around 30 and we’re still just trying to write music and trying to hang out and create. No matter the outcome, we’ll always have no choice but to do that."
The Whole Buzz is out now on Spotify and Apple Music
The Scratch play The Academy, Dublin on Friday 10 April and the returning Sunstroke Festival in Punchestown, Meath on Sunday 14 June