IIa. Domestic Minimalism is an archive of 21 essential songs from the I Want Too Much era of A House. The band recorded these in Dublin’s Sun Studios before departing for Inishbofin in late autumn 1989 to record the album in the Doonmore Hotel. The Sun Studios collection lived until recently on a lost cassette in Fergal Bunbury’s garage. Domestic Minimalism lasts under an hour. No song outstays its welcome.
Domestic Minimalism contains versions of eight songs that A House put on I Want Too Much. Though I know these well, as you do a thousand listens later, they still sound new. A core function of Domestic Minimalism is to remind us that how we hear and respond to songs that inhabit us never stops changing. Dialogues evolve over decades. There are memories associated with albums of a lifetime but the music is not nostalgia. AHOUSEISDEAD but their songs are not.
The remaining 13 songs on Domestic Minimalism are not on I Want Too Much. ‘Why Must We Argue’ was on side B of the CD single of ‘I Think I’m Going Mad’ but none of the remaining dozen were released until now. As such, another thing Domestic Minimalism does is to expand what we’ve heard from A House.
I Want Too Much, along with every A House album, gives generously to the listener, but there can only be so much shared on any album. The Sydney singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin, talking about her masterpiece Crushing, once told me how “bizarre” it was to be snapshot-portrayed and defined by her songs: “I write something privately. I record it semi-privately. And then you go and perform that version of yourself repeatedly for like a year and a half. It’s very strange. I love it, but it’s strange.”
This quote came back to me after Fergal Bunbury recently said much the same thing: there’s far more to any band than everything they’ve released. Even a decade-long wide range of recordings conveys just a fraction of their experiences, emotions, and opinions. For an act to release the unreleased lets us know them better.
If we needed a third reason to immerse ourselves in Domestic Minimalism it might be that the title directs us to a different way of hearing A House: ‘Marry Me’, ‘Now That I’m Sick’, and their contemporaries being called minimalist.
This would not have occurred to me. Not least because the review that directed me to A House, Lorraine Freeney’s Hot Press double six for I Am The Greatest, used “baroque” to describe ‘When I First Saw You’. That made sense and if I recall one thing from Inter Cert Music, it’s that baroque means Bach, who was not much of a minimalist.
Terry Riley, Philip Glass, LaMonte Young, and Steve Reich are credited as musical minimalism innovators, while a 2023 book On Minimalism provides a list of artists from multiple genres. Kraftwerk, The Velvets, Donna Summer, John Coltrane, Lubomyr Melnyk, Arthur Russell and Floating Points & Pharaoh Sanders are among them.
Eamonn Quinn, of Louth Contemporary Music Society, who Riley and Glass have collaborated with, helped me understand minimalism by giving me a digestible definition: “Minimalism is characterised by repetition, pulsating rhythms, and overlapping phrases”.
Another helpful thing that I’ve read about minimalism, and I’ve experienced in listening to Glassworks by Philip Glass, is that minimalism at its best provides hypnotic repetition.
Domestic Minimalism does this all the time.
There are patterns in Domestic Minimalism. Songs open with spartan arrangements. ‘Now That I’m Sick’ was central to I Want Too Much and is equally so here. Its intro is a recurrent, jarring, discordant single note, A flat. Fergal Bunbury has told me “my perfect guitar part would have one note, repeated, forever”, and you can hear that here, while in ‘Why Must We Argue’, the opening notes extend to two.
In parallel, Dave Couse emphasises the lyrical subjects of songs through vocal repetition. He opens “Now that I’m sick” with those words and follows this dire state with many others — now that I’m timid, stupid, hungry, poor, angry — until he ends where he started: sick, sick, sick.
In ‘I Never Had Any Medals’, which opens the album, there’s a metallic melodic riff and choruses in which Dave Couse sings “never” twelve times in a row: “I never never never never never never never never never never never never had any, had any medals”. In ‘I Hope That You Fail’, the chorus seethingly states the song title, then, as Couse crescendos, his voice restates a single word: “I hope that you fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail”.
Even in songs two and a half minutes long, single highly selected words can be repeated such that they become a meditative mantra. And this from Dave Couse, a lyricist who does not lack verbosity.
On Domestic Minimalism, superb songs we haven’t heard, that could have comprised a Protest Songs alongside the Steve McQueen of I Want Too Much, include ‘Small Pieces of Me’ (“With your fair hands / And your big mouth / Rip my heart out”) and ‘You Break Me Up’, a song that would, guitar-wise, be nicely covered by The Wedding Present.
There’s ‘I Can Hardly Stand’, which opens with another isolated guitar note, a solitary G this time, and flies through a diatribe: “It doesn’t matter who you are / Where you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve got / In fact probably the less you’ve got / The more likely you GET HIT”. ‘Never Saw Johnny’ is a marked contrast, a bleak poignant portrait: “Coping with this life / Rewards Johnny an early grave / Ooh I never saw Johnny.”
As the album ends with ‘Marry Me’, we’re back to minimalism that even I can recognise. Dave Couse describes his adoration of the subject of the song (“You’ve cheekbones designed by an architect / And a figure of porcelain / Ready to crumble in my hands”), then he and Fergal Bunbury sing “Marry me” in the final chorus about sixty times. Each time I hear ‘Marry Me’ and tap my foot to try and count the recitations I end up in a trance. I guess I have personal experience now of hypnotic repetition.
So when I started immersing myself into Domestic Minimalism, I found the idea that these songs are minimalist opuses absorbing. I’m always wondering why I fell for a particular set of songs. Maybe this explained my lifelong love for I Want Too Much. On Miminalism quotes Michael Paradinas, μ-Ziq, about hearing Philip Glass for the first time when he was 16: “I thought, what the fuck is this? It’s brilliant, and it hasn’t changed for 12 minutes.” I heard I Want Too Much at 17 and this rings a bell.
Still, I have concluded that I appreciate the songs on Domestic Minimalism not just because of their technique. Not a surprise, I suppose. There is renowned minimalist music I find unaffecting. I go back to Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians every so often to try to connect but no luck so far. It does very little for me though it’s an acclaimed archetype of this genre. Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh once told me that a group of gifted musicians playing a Steve Reich piece sounded “nearly more humans as robots rather than humans as animals”, and I think I know what he meant. I’ve never been drawn to dispassionate technical brilliance. It’s a gap in my music appreciation I can’t do much about. That would be the post-punk in me.
But of course The Ramones had minimalism too. The Buzzcocks’ ‘Boredom’ has a two-note solo and the song is a CPR. Bands like these pretended they didn’t know how to play. They let on they were unaware of the majesty of their sound but in simplifying their arrangements to the fewest chords they could, they cut to the cardiac chase.
I keep thinking of that Kraftwerk title Minimum-Maximum. When I’m listening to musically minimal songs, I want the emotional maximum they also provide. Minimalists like The Velvets, The Ramones, John Coltrane, Kraftwerk, Lubomyr Melnyk and A House are magicians as much as scientists because they find exactly the right notes in the right order and they play them over and again: that’s how they move you.
I want songs that strengthen, sustain and guide me, still as I head for 50. I want songs that make me cry, sigh, beam, and dream. I want shivers up my spine. I love minimalist music only when, like A House’s oeuvre, it is vulnerable, brave and beautiful. With extra points for funny.
I need songs that I can treasure and I need the time spent with them to be as well spent as the time spent doing anything else on earth. That’s a lot to ask, too much maybe, but it’s not when A House is around. Some songs do all of this nourishing necessary work. 21 of them are here.