A Way Of Escaping: Stephen Shannon on Strands’ ‘Inner Spaces’

Stephen Shannon is a musician, composer, and producer who grew up in Wicklow and is based in Dublin, where he built and runs his studio Experimental Audio. He has had a somewhat stellar career in recording and producing music since he started out in the early Nineties, when the organisers of the Dublin indie club Dazed asked him to be their live sound engineer. (Stephen told me, “They asked ‘Can you do this?’, and I said ‘No’, but they had nobody else to do it, so that was where I started”.)

Shannon’s list of production credits includes Chequerboard’s The Unfolding, Barry McCormack’s The Tilt of the Earth, and Slow Moving Clouds’ magisterial Os. In the last five years he has moved more into music for film and TV; I won’t list his credits like IMDB but I will say I’m a fan of the soundtrack to The Lodgers, on which he continued a fruitful collaboration with Slow Moving Clouds’ Kevin Murphy. Shannon might be best known as half of Mount Alaska, along with Cillian McDonnell. Mount Alaska’s Coordinates EP came out this year and ‘The Subterranean Heart’, from 2019’s album Wave Atlas: Season One, featured on the soundtrack of Lenny Abrahamson’s Normal People.

Shannon also records as a solo artist as Strands and it was because of brand new Strands music that I was keen to talk to him now. Strands’ only previous album came out over ten years ago and I had assumed that this musical identity had been shelved until a new album called Inner Spaces popped up on Bandcamp on October 1st. Inner Spaces’ nine songs of rich, textured, emotional electronica, inspired by the memory of long walks in Wicklow and a locked-down longing for open spaces, have since soundtracked my own less ambitious rambles across Dublin 8. I’ve been playing Inner Spaces too on the evening drive to Kildare, sometimes detouring past the West Wicklow mountains, closer to the scenes of the songs, to add some crepuscular poetry to the spin home. I haven’t yet walked up Kippure listening to ‘Kippure’, but it’s on the list.

NC: Stephen, the new record came as a lovely surprise. I wasn’t expecting it, then found it on Twitter and Bandcamp, and soon I was listening to it a lot. Is this maybe your third release as Strands?

SS: About ten years ago, I released an album and two EPs. The EPs were a collaboration with some other musicians I admire: Chequerboard (John Lambert) and Thomas Haugh, who was making music under the name of Húlk at the time. They’re two old friends now. So maybe the second proper release.

Then how this new album came about is that around December, January of this year, I suddenly just hit upon something, I was just incredibly prolific. I just started making so much music. I got a new Mount Alaska album finished as well, at least all the composition. I finished about sixty pieces of music in the space of about six weeks.

So I was making music non-stop and I really wanted to release some of it. But I didn’t want to just throw it onto Bandcamp under a different name or under a pseudonym, so I decided just to dig up that old name again—Strands. Then a little label called Remote Town came on board, and they’re based in Wicklow and all my songs are about walking in Wicklow, so I just thought it was perfect.

Did the lockdown suit you in some way in terms of creativity?

I enjoyed some aspects of the lockdown. My wife and I get along really well so we didn’t mind getting locked up together. She’s creative as well, she’s a writer (Sinéad Gleeson). When I wasn’t making music, we were jamming together, we’d have a couple of drinks and it just happened very organically that we just started creating things.

We’ve done a couple of creative pieces together. We just finished doing a piece for an exhibition in the Rua Red gallery: there’s a giant textile map that Alice Maher and Rachel Fallon created, and they invited us to come up with an accompanying audio piece. So Sinéad wrote the words for it and I did all the music and soundscapes and sound design for it. And that was really enjoyable.

And so this whole lockdown for me was just about creating things, when there’s nothing else to do. The Strands album came from that as well because during the lockdowns, you weren’t allowed more than five kilometres from your house. And I’ve always been a hill-walker. So I’d go up to Massey’s Wood or Cruagh Wood or Hellfire at the very nearest, and go walking there for three or four hours and just put on headphones and listen to music. And I just couldn’t do that. So if you look at the album sleeve, it’s a photograph of the sky. In lockdown, the only clear space I could see was when I looked up at the sky, and whatever was in my imagination. So I just made music and titled the songs after all the places I’d love to walk. It was a way of escaping.

Remember when before it was five kilometres it was two kilometres.

Well, I live in Crumlin—total suburbia. You can walk five kilometres in any direction and you won’t get to an open space. But I was still trying to go for long walks, just so I could have a bit of peace and quiet. Like if you go to Ballymount Industrial Estate there’s loads of fields and commons there. So it feels like you’re in a little bit of an open space, it’s nice. So I do have a real hunger for that kind of thing. 

It’s a bit of a contradiction, because when I was a kid, I used to love going for really long walks over hills and mountains and by the sea. I grew up in a little village in Wicklow. But what I always did was I compiled tapes of music and listened to things really really loud, so I’d be walking in this cute, peaceful, beautiful place and listening to Billy Idol (laughs).

As I got older, I suppose I carry that with me and if I really like a song, I’ll get it even more if I’m sitting by a lake or walking in a forest or something. So I do still listen to a lot of music when I go for walks. It is about peace, but it’s more about solitude, I suppose.

You mentioned to me the other day that you liked Wormhole back in the day.

Yeah—I love Wormhole!

So we must have been getting into bands around the same time, early to mid 90s?

The path I’m on now, my career, I was just starting out then. I ended up doing live sound for Wormhole at least once because I used to be the sound engineer in a club called Dazed. It was an indie club on O’Connell St, a quarter of a century ago now. I used to do live sound there and there were indie bands there every week. The likes of Sunbear, In Motion. I would have done live sound for all those bands. And that was the first time I had the controls, manipulating sound.

I was just given a shot at it by the guys who ran the club. They asked “Can you do this?”, and I said “No“, but they had nobody else to do it, so that was where I started. That’s where my journey of putting sounds together started. So I remember that time and it was a very exciting time, and I was a big Wormhole fan. I thought they were amazing live. Really big energy. Some great bands from that era, amazing bands. I was a big fan of this band called The Idiots. They were a big drone rock band. They did two hour jams on stage. They were amazing.

Funny you mention them. I don’t do a lot of interviews but I did one with Brian Brannigan two years ago and he mentioned Brian Mooney of the Idiots as one of his favourite songwriters of all time. Then of course Brian Mooney started releasing stuff as The Next New Low and he’s releasing new music now every month.

And it’s really good. It’s great. Yeah, I love Brian Mooney’s stuff. He’s a lovely guy as well, I’ve known him from back then more or less. There was another guy in that band called Jimmy Eadie, and he produced and recorded Jape’s album The Monkeys in the Zoo Have More Fun Than Me. He produced ‘Floating’. I really admire Jimmy as well. He’s working full time in Trinity now, teaching sound design. That’s his job. But for a long time he was, I would say, the best engineer / producer in the country.

I’m keen to talk about the new record but could you just talk a bit about the journey and turning points from being an indie sound engineer in Dazed to now?

I think there are a couple of turning points for me, that made me a little bit atypical, I suppose. I was playing in a couple of bands, I ended up in a punk band called Paranoid Visions, who became Striknien DC. And I think I grew tired of the Dublin scene and I emigrated for a few years. I went to Sweden and I ended up playing in a couple of bands in Gothenburg. And those bands had access to recording equipment, analogue equipment. Reel to reel recordings and mixing desk and some decent equipment.

That was where I really learned my craft, because I ended up recording a lot of local bands in Gothenburg. And for free, because I was just so excited and so into it. So I really learned how to record and mix and work with music while I was there. Then I came back here and I just got myself a basic setup, just an eight-track machine and a couple of microphones and ended up recording a couple of indie bands here. I just slowly started breaking into the Irish scene and recording and mixing bands, and ended up eking out a career for myself just from recording and mixing. And from that I built a studio. 

My intention when I built the studio was: I just want to be able to record bands forever. I just love recording and mixing and producing. But in the last five or six years, even after the first Strands album, I just felt the itch that I wanted to not do that as much. I guess it’d become a bit repetitive for me. And I grew into making soundtracks for TV and documentaries and I really enjoyed that because I guess I realised that I’m more of a musician than I am a producer or an engineer or a studio engineer. 

So with that I was using all my skills—I was playing guitar and piano and making sound but I was also mixing what I did and recording it, so it felt like a perfect combination of all the skills I’d gained over the years, and I just really enjoyed it. Just before you called me there, I have a deadline and I was working on a piece of music and it’s so engaging, I just love it, you know?  And I think what I really love to do is just to work with sound, and the Strands album is part of that and working with soundtracks is a part of that. And of course when I worked more with bands, that was a core part. But somehow I managed to eke out a career for myself along the way, and I do make a living from it and I love it. My golden rule, you should always have a job where you don’t feel like you’re working (laughs). And I do have that, luckily, you know.

So the Inner Spaces album was recorded during the pandemic in your studio from where you are talking to me now. Each song is titled for a different place in Wicklowthe mountains and the sea. Can you talk me through the origin of the album?

Well, the core of the record is basically me imagining walking in those places. How I feel on the way, how I feel when I’m there. And just the experience of being there.

For example, there’s a track called ‘Seefin’. In County Wicklow, not too far from Kippure, there’s this place called Seefin. It’s an old tomb—apparently over 5000 years old. And the tomb was empty when they excavated it, nobody knows who made it, what kind of people they were, or anything about it. When I’m there, every time I’ve been there, there’s never anyone there. But it’s totally breathtaking. 

It’s a big mound, but it has a sealed door. And it is an amazing place to be. I think it’s made all the more exciting for me because I’ve only ever been there alone. So in many ways it only exists in my mind, if you know what I mean. So I literally thought about the approach to Seefin tomb and made a piece of music. And then if you listen to the track, there’s a transition point where, in my mind, I’m there, and there’s a shift in the music.

Then there’s a track called ‘Silver Strands’. And that’s a play on the name Silver Strand, which is a beach in Wicklow. But it was also a place I used to go to a lot in the late 90s, because there were loads of parties there, techno parties where everyone danced and took drugs and had a good time. When I go there now, that’s totally burned into my memory. So that music is about the memory of a place. If you were standing at a place and you’re alone but something significant happened there, somehow you might hear echoes of the sound that was going on. That place was bustling and there were hundreds of people there all dancing, and all these people have grown up now and they’ve got families. But it’s that same space, and there’s that question: does that place hold any of that memory?

I suppose it’s taking little journeys in my own imagination and having a fixed theme or a place or a journey to help in the composition and the construction of a song. So you’re working on the arrangement, but it’s always something you return to as a stepping stone on the way, you know: you think of a place you’d love to go and you imagine being there. And then if you reach a lull in the song, in some ways that’s significant as well.

For example there’s a track called ‘Sugarloaf’, which is the most obvious one. That is literally about the walk to the peak of Sugarloaf, and I have this habit, when I get to peaks of hills or mountains, I just do a panoramic shot with my camera. And of course because I shot little videos when I got there, I did accidentally, or maybe not so accidentally, record the sound of the wind up there. And I use that sound in the song.

I was wondering about the other locally collected sounds that ended up in the songs. I’m not sure if I would call them found sounds, that’s probably not the right phrase, but, like—there are bird sounds on the song ‘Tay’, isn’t that right?

Yeah, there are. I did record that but I can’t remember where I recorded it. I have a little recorder I carry with me; I love recording the ocean for example. 

You know Strandhill in Sligo? There’s a beautiful beach along there, but further in towards Sligo town the beach gets very rocky and when the waves go back out the water sizzles through the stones, and it’s the most beautiful sound. And the one day my wife and I were there, I didn’t have my handheld recorder. But I was standing there listening to the sound of the water just sizzling through the stones—just so beautiful.

But you know, there’s been a couple of times, in Leitrim— a relative has a little house and we go and stay there sometimes —where I used to go on really late night walks to record night sounds. And it’s so quiet, where our house is, that there’s no sound of traffic or anything. So I was walking through a field with a torch and a handheld. And I had it turned up loud and I had headphones on and a fox howled. I think that’s where the mythology of Banshees came from, that fox’s howl. It was so loud. And I had the sound turned up so loud in my headphones, that I completely terrified myself. I was shook.

I’m sitting there kind of wondering what it must be like to pay attention to the world the way you do: you must have a slightly different way of experiencing the world in the sense that it sounds like your ears are more attuned to what’s going on than most ears. I’m sure we’re all walking past interesting sounds every day that we miss and you don’t.

Well, I know that I’m far more focused on sound than I am sight. The guy who I make music with in Mount Alaska, Cillian, he’s a really old friend, and I love what we do, but he generally looks after the visual aesthetic of the band, as well as working on the music with me. I don’t think about that, or track titles, till the end of the process. This Strands album is an exception but I generally work with what I hear as my focus.

That’s probably one of the reasons we’re having this conversation, because I’m fascinated with how a non-auditory experience ends up as sound and it’s so strange and magical to me. It makes me think of synesthesia. You have a particular experience in, say, Kippure, and there’s a musical rendering that captures that experience in sound. I’m fascinated how that musical capture comes about.

Well, I think if you asked anybody to do their musical version of Kippure, every single one of them would be different. Somebody else would come back and it would just be a one-note drone. For me, places like that have such significance because, for example, Kippure, I made a commitment to myself when I hit 40 to walk up Kippure every year on my birthday. I just set myself this challenge to walk to the top of Kippure. It’s about a seven kilometre walk to the top and it’s uphill all the way. So it’s not an easy walk. It’s fine.

And so I have this emotional attachment to Kippure as a challenge. And when I listen to the music of ‘Kippure’ now, it has that kind of resonance as a challenge. If you listen to the song, there are stages to the journey. There’s a final approach where it’s a lull, and then the happiness of reaching the top. So for everyone it will be different but for me, it’s a propulsive, tough-sounding thing.

There’s a lot of motion in the songs; I didn’t at all want to do something pastoral, you know, a sunny meadow on a beautiful day. I wanted to do my version of the place.

You’ve said about two songs now, ‘Kippure’ and ‘Silver Strands’, that they’re each a representation of the place, but they’re also representations of associations that you have with the place.

It’s definitely me in that place. It isn’t a song about Kippure, it’s about me and Kippure. It’s my experience of it, it’s my attachment to it. And then of course it was me missing it, because I couldn’t be there. I couldn’t be there on my birthday this year. I couldn’t go there. So it’s about me and those places.

Luggala is another one that has some non-musical recorded sound in it. Is that a train?

No, it’s the sound of a piece of metal, like a bell. It’s a piece of metal and it’s blowing in the wind, and it’s knocking off something. So it’s making a sound. ‘Luggala’ is a really small mountain; it’s a steep hill more than a mountain. And again, it’s a place I go to where I’m nearly always alone when I get there. So I was imagining a place during lockdown where I was nearly always alone when I went there. I was certain in my mind that there was nobody there at all. So I was literally trying to make a piece of music imagining what a place would sound like if there was nobody there at all. I was trying to put music to that, the music of a place that’s been abandoned or been left for whatever reason. Pandemic being the main reason for us, but just imagining a space making a sound with no-one there. But it’s also a place I love. You can see a view of Lough Tay from a much higher place and if you look down It’s totally breathtaking. You rarely see something so beautiful.

I want to ask you about ‘Lobawn’ as well. It’s funny that ‘Silver Strands’ has those techno party associations. When I heard ‘Lobawn’—of all of the places on the album I’d never heard of Lobawn beforewhen I heard the track not knowing the place I thought, well this has got to be somewhere that Stephen was at a rave because it really goes off.

Ha! No. It’s just that it’s a really hard walk. I was trying to get across how tough it is. You’re totally breathless, you have to stop for a few breaks and it’s a big peak. There’s no climbing involved, but it’s a tough walk. So it’s just about the joy of getting there. It’s a celebration. It’s beautiful and it’s just—it’s a total win to get to the top of Lobawn.

What it was, was that about three, four minutes in, there’s that build, and then it kicks in—the way that if you were standing in a field at a party in your twenties, when that came in you’d be giving it loads.

I’ve experienced that of course. I mean, there’s more than a little influence from that time in my life as well, going to those parties. I DJ’d at those parties as well and I was very much part of that scene. It’s part of who I am. And so when I make music completely freely, with no influence of any kind—I literally tried to leave everything at the door and make the record myself. I didn’t play the songs for anybody while I was making them, I just made it. And then I got the label support and put it out. So it was a surprise to almost everyone who knew me. I just wanted it to be very personal. And I suppose that’s the way it came out. So that part of who I am and my past came to the fore a little bit.

I’m always interested in the records and musicians that were important to people early on or important now. Who’s pivotal or influential or who do you really love?

There’s a few. Did you ever hear of a guy called Rival Consoles? 

Yes. I like him a lot.

His second last album was from 2018—Persona—and it’s probably the best album I’ve heard in the last 10 years. He’s totally amazing. What I did with the Strands album, I suppose it’s the more artistic approach to electronica and beat-driven music. A bit more abstract, still propulsive. So that Rival Consoles record was a real touchstone for me. 

And then there’s loads of stuff I listen to when I’m working with Mount Alaska as well. (Opens Spotify). It says here the last two albums I listened to were Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and Sufjan Stevens (laughs). There’s an artist called Lorenzo Senni, he’s Italian, he made an album called Canone Infinito—he’s amazing. Julianna Barwick, Niklas Paschberg, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Ben Lukas Boysen. Of course Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Another guy I love is Max Cooper. He’s from Northern Ireland and he’s made some beautiful, beautiful music. He makes quite propulsive beat-driven music as well as abstract gentle music. The thing I love about him most is if you spend a bit of time listening to him, especially on headphones, his attention to detail, I’ve never heard anything like it. Just tiny little moments and fragments happening bar to bar; totally beautiful. Every time I listen to it, it just brings new things. So that’s an influence as well, his approach to music.

And then some of the classics. I always go back to Steve Reich. I love repetition in music. So I find Steve Reich relaxing to listen to—the longer the better, and the more repetitive the better. And there’s so many things I listen to all the time. I love Boards of Canada, just keep on going back to Music Has the Right to Children. So dark and beautiful.

Have you ever heard of that Nigerian guy William Onyeabor? Like Fela Kuti but poppier. He was brilliant. There’s a song of his called ‘When The Going Is Smooth and Good’, and if you listen to that, and then listen to my track ‘Lobawn’, you’ll hear there’s a big influence. It’s almost a tribute to him. It’s like a William Onyeabor hats off.

I’m just thinking what it must be like to release music like this. You talked about how solitary a process this was: making music by yourself about trips you mostly take on your own. Music from your memory and imagination. So it’s something very personal, completely yours, then suddenly it’s out there in the world, and you don’t have that much control over it or how people respond to it.

Yeah, I’ve experienced that before—that short period just before you release something. It’s a scary time! It’s a strange thing. You’re about to relinquish all control of it; it’s going to be gone and, love it or hate it, it’s gone. It’s out of your control. It is kind of scary. But once it’s out there, it actually feels really good. It’s gone now; it’s available for anybody who wants to listen to it or not listen to it. It is quite panicky leading up to it, but I feel really positive about it once it’s gone.

Inner Spaces is available on Bandcamp at https://remotetown.bandcamp.com/album/strands-inner-spaces. Mount Alaska play the Pepper Canister on November 15th with Slow Moving Clouds https://selectivememory.ie/mount-alaska-st-patricks-festival/. “The Map” / “We Are The Map” by Alice Maher and Rachel Fallon with text and sound by Sinéad Gleeson and Stephen Shannon, is at Rua Red Gallery in Tallaght until 29 January 2022 http://www.ruared.ie/gallery/exhibition/we-are-the-map.

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