A music blog from Ireland.
From early shoots in Temple Bar, Estel celebrate a career spanning a decade in 2009. Not quite a Kurt vs Courtney, Sid & Nancy or Peter and Jordan courtship, the union of musicians under the Estel canopy boasts its own tale laced with euphoria, arguments and sinister tattooed visions, as rife with birth and divorce as any marriage.
“I got the vibe that they would probably kill for you once you befriended them, which was rather exciting,” confessed Fringilla Montifringilla/Party Weirdo drummer Emily when asked of her impression of first sharing a stage with Estel. “There was a distinct solidarity vibe from them as Irish underground musicians. I was already aware they had about a million albums but I was intrigued by the magical evil-genius, swamp-girl, kill-your-Ma horrors they composed. Estel are unbelievably prolific, it’s shockin’.”
If you haven’t already heard, the Estel band are an alternative rock outfit with five albums, almost-four EPs, several singles and DVDs under their belt with more soon to come. They’ve played live in Europe and their press cuttings span the globe. Comparisons have been made likening their sound to Goblin, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and even Grandaddy. Aspersions have been cast that they’re “art fags” and “not hardcore enough”. Generalisations have been made and paid for.
Over scrambled eggs in the Fairview Grill, drummer Andrew Bushe begins our interview with an informal introduction to his fellow bandmembers. Another is already in attendance: Sarah Sheil is eating peanuts and naming the Rat Pack paintings on the walls. Along with the booths and jukebox and kitsch ice-cream menu, Bushie’s horn-rimmed spectacles and her own leather jacket, we agree they suit the place quite well. What about the others?
“Tommy is a fantastic engineer who records our albums as well as many other bands’ work. Bassist Andy is currently in the beginnings of a degree in psychology and also plays some fine guitar, while Aonghus has a couple of degrees including one in ethno-musicology. Sarah is a full-time artist and musician who plays a mean banjo and accordian. I’m a qualified cameraman and chef but I work as a drum teacher and collect weird movies and records.” Not a drinker, Bushie’s sobriety also provides a yang to the band’s ying.
“We have huge, varied music collections but nearly all agree on Butthole Surfers, Throbbing Gristle, Black Flag, Killing Joke, Goblin, Queen, Hawkwind, Frank Zappa, Phillip Glass, Ennio Morriconne, Burzum, Mayhem, Sonic Youth, Minutemen. After that, having very different tastes means we constantly turn each other on to stuff that we otherwise wouldn’t hear.
“None of us are too pushed about political interests but it’s safe to say we’d all fall to the left of the fence. This does not however, instantly allege us with PC bleeding heart crybabies! Basically none of us go out of our way to behave in a manner that would cause offence to an intelligent human. For guilty pleasures, it’s safe to say we’ve all enjoyed Flash Gordon by Queen.”
Currently a quintet, members Andrew Bushe (drums), Sarah Sheil (keys), Steven Anderson (bass), Tommy O’Sullivan (guitar) and Aonghus McAvoy (synths/guitar) recently toured a five-track Untitled 1 EP across the country. This latest in a long line of releases is especially precious. Recorded under an auspicious jamming haze, the EP is a collaboration featuring the bass notes of Minutemen’s Mike Watt and renowned Stooges saxophone player Steve Mackay – the very same who lent wind to Zu’s jazz metal, the man whom Rolling Stone claimed died in 1970. As friends rather than idols, Untitled 1 is tight and shrill, a dark dance across a canvas, one which now hangs proudly in the Estel gallery. As a truly independent band, theirs is career built from scratch, for the elusive ‘right reasons’.
We couldn’t find a drummer and convinced ourselves we didn’t need one. Those gigs proved us wrong…
Beginning in 1999, Estel saw Sarah, her guitarist sister Ashley and bassist Grainne Donohue find their feet with Saturday afternoon shows. “Estel’s first two gigs were just Ashley, Grainne and myself as we couldn’t find a drummer and convinced ourselves we didn’t need one,” begins keyboardist Sarah. “Those gigs proved us wrong…we were terrible! Bushie must have seen some potential because he offered to play drums. We decided to take him up on it as being atrociously out-of-time wasn’t really working for us.”
Atrocious maybe but independent from the start and not in a Riot Grrl reactionary way. Preferring the pragmatic approach, the three women had set about compiling their music into a set list. Men always dominated Irish music but Feminism was just an Estel fact of life…until the appearance of ex-Waltons drummer Andrew Bushe at one of the Doran’s gigs.
“I don’t know how I feel about Doran’s to tell the truth,” muses Andrew, “I played many of my first gigs there so have fond memories of the place but for us it always seems like a difficult venue to pull a crowd into.”
Probably because of the free-house policy. “Basically, every Saturday in Doran’s new bands were welcome to put their name down in the afternoon and wait for their turn to play for no money, just experience.” says Sarah.”Back then myself and Ashley were on a post-rock buzz which prompted us to be mainly instrumental but Ashley could sing so there were some vocals. Coupled with the fact that my keyboard at the time was a piece of shit, I would be extremely nervous on-stage and forget my parts, so most of those gigs are best forgotten!”
“It’s a bit weird to be held accountable for shit that you did ten years ago as a band, for a gig that someone saw you play in 1999. We were really just trying to learn to play well and that resulted in us coming up with some weird stuff. People always remember you as the last time they saw you, which can be a problem for us considering we’ve evolved a lot.”
Did they realise even then, that Estel would still be truckin’ together, ten years on?
“Yep, I always knew I’d be a lifer!” quips Sarah, luckily perhaps, as most of Estel’s album art adorns her body in tattoo ink.
“I’d like to say yes, but the truth is that we’ve just continued to enjoy playing together.” Bushie says. “Eventually we passed the ten year mark.”
It’s clear that Estel flourished thanks to the hands-on approach of managing all aspects of band-life under the mantle of Little Plastic Tapes, from courting interest from other record labels and distributors, sourcing gigs and promotion, arranging tours, rehearsal space and recording time to art & design and merchandise, DIY at its purest. The uncompromising nature of doing it themselves appeals to musicians who equate success as artistic fidelity instead of wealth. For Estel, a healthy archive of stationary and photographs from past efforts is proof of success.
“We wanted to be in control of what we were doing/creating so that naturally led us to the idea of self-sufficiency. To this day it remains the cornerstone of our work ethic. We still make everything by hand.” Bushie says, producing an old prototype flyer for photocopying, squares of text and images stuck to the paper like a ransom note. “I think a visual aesthetic is very important to an artist in any medium. Whether it’s orange Impulse spines, Raymond Pettibon drawing for Black Flag/SST, Crass‘ collage work or Sarah painting our album sleeves, it’s a clue as to what’s inside the package. It’s how people recognise your work amongst other artists’. Bands like us don’t advertise in magazines…our merch and artwork is our advertising.”
Sarah agrees. “Sometimes merch is the only way you can make money. We’ve always used my art for album covers and so on, that’s quite important as I feel the art visually represents the music very well. They’ve grown together and complement each other ”
From the first 4-track cassette in November 1999 to the latest black-eyed baby EP cover, Sarah’s art chronicled the band’s evolution. Her early work is tentative, cheery on the One Deep Breath EP and childish on album debut Angelpie, I Think I Ate Your Face. It’s not unreasonable to suggest Angelpie marked the end of Estel’s childhood: Ashley left shortly after its release. Produced by Stephen Shannon who later won critical acclaim for his own band Halfset, it was his first time working with the band. Steve reflects on those early days:
“I had just returned to Ireland from a few years’ travelling and had a really basic recording set-up (an eight-track and two cheap mics) in the basement of my flat in Cabra. I’d met Andy (Bushe) in college and he told me about his band, Estel, who needed to record an album. I have fond memories of the few days it took to complete it. They were really into the DIY thing, happy to improvise and experiment. We converted one of the bedrooms into a live room for drums and placed the amps in the kitchen and on the stairs…I got evicted shortly afterwards for being noisy! Sarah’s sister Ashley sang on a lot of the songs and and her voice adds to the lo-fi charm of the record.”
Critics agreed. Angelpie, I Think I Ate Your Face was described by the Irish Times as “full of neat touches and sublime rackets” and by Hot Press as “virtually faultless”. Paul Fogarty of the Event Guide had this to say: “After releasing one of the very best singles of the year in the form of One Deep Breath, Angelpie takes them a step further – an album brimming with confidence, packed with ideas, one which excites and emotes in equal measures and stands up to repeated listens effortlessly.”
By all accounts, a very successful debut for an experimental rock band, giving their off-the-wall determinism an encouraging push. Though stylistically estranged, the confusion around Estel’s not quite post-rock debut in 2000 seemed akin to those of And So I Watch You From Afar and Adebisi Shank today, not quite Punk, not quite Math Rock, definitely Irish.
The line-up swelled in 2001 to admit Michael Sheil on guitar for one song, Regardez-Moi, released as a split 7″ with Joan of Arse on Road Records’ Relish label (the other song Starting Fights At Taxi Ranks was recorded by Steve Albini, which didn’t do Joan of Arse any harm at all). Releases like this have been the lynchpins of the band’s discography. CD collectors don’t burn with the same zeal as vinyl hoarders and albums on iTunes lack the romance of a rare 7″ single or bootleg DVD. Credit where it’s due, you have to admire the consistent creativity that goes into regular releases in various media, the ambition and involvement in keeping things fresh, For DIY bands, there are no safe choices, every financial endeavor is a risk and so in recent years sporadic CD-format albums and EPs have become the music scene’s stable currency. Green Lights‘ Colin Boylan recently spoke to Drop-d of his annoyance at Irish bands’ sparse habits, and one can only wonder how much difference it would make if all independent bands took a leaf from Estel’s book and competed by way of once-off releases, touring new material to maintain interest and fund more full-length albums.
“With regards to releasing albums I think that it’s important to put out the stuff you write so the listener can piece together the evolution of the band’s style and ideas. Too many great bands break up having never released a single CDr, why? If you have ten songs that you deem worthy put them out there!”
Such ideals propelled Estel to continue releasing, no matter how stern the scene appeared, and no doubt, each record brought its own lessons. With a decade’s experience, what observations have the band made of the DIY scene? Ideally, what should happen next?
“One of the main things I’ve noticed is a change of opinions.” says Bushie. “There used to be very honest peer-to-peer criticism [at least with my friends] and we really paid attention to each others’ opinions. Now, it seems more bands look to the audience for approval and get really bummed out if they don’t play to big crowds or if they don’t sell X amount of CDs. The truth of the matter is, you should be fucking honoured if a single person will leave their house, travel and then hand you money they earned to see you on a stage. The same goes for selling albums. Audience numbers + units sold does not = quality of art.”
“A lot of people exist out there, good folks who put gigs on all around the country with no financial gain for themselves,” Sarah counters, “but it seems to me that in the last couple of years the scenes have become truly segregated. People want to go to gigs where they’re guaranted all the bands will sound and look the same, nice and safe.”
“If I could see two things happen,” Bushie continues, “they’d be firstly, to see more labels like Out On A Limb, Richter Collective, Stitchy Press and so on releasing more, so that Punk bands wouldn’t have to look outside of Ireland to get records released on a bigger scale. There are always bands out there making amazing music in the Punk ethic…by “Punk”, I refer to independent, underground music, not GBH and the exploited. These bands can be amazing, beautiful, fucked-up and challenging to the listener. These are the bands that you won’t hear about unless you go looking for them.
“On the other hand, there are bands who lack common sense to resist playing shitty showcase gigs in order to turn up on inane ‘118 Irish Bands To Look Out For‘ lists. I think that they may have missed the fucking point.”
“Secondly, if kids in small towns didn’t have to leave for bigger cities once they reach 18 or 19, if there was a way to consolidate the many school/punk/indie/alternative/goth/metal bands that exist in every corner of Ireland that would result in a much bigger network for ALL Irish bands. Imagine being able to book an Irish tour that lasted for more than five gigs without losing money! Sweeet.”
Estel’s first heartbreak came when founding guitarist Ashley Sheil returned to native Roscommon in 2001. The crack was patched by the recruitment of Jamie Farrell on bass, with Grainne shifting to guitar. Over the next year they reassembled as a foursome – naturally, the music changed. True Stories/My Raymond Is Contagious was the first release under this new line-up, a 7″ funded by Ivan Pawle, a friend who joined the band in live sets as a synths player. Gelling into a new form, Estel gigged frantically, embarking on a very satisfactory UK tour with Bilge Pump.
At this point of 2003, instrumental music was in full-bloom. While The Jimmy Cake and Redneck Manifesto (with The Waltons’ Matty Bolger) set their own high standards, young men in Cork and Wicklow emerged as Rest and God Is An Astronaut. Also produced by Steve Shannon (though in a ’serious’ studio), 2003’s A Guide In Time of Great Danger marked a new point of change, charging into second-album territory with little trace of Angelpie’s successful whimsy. The symmetric line-up pounded out, invigorated by art, combining elements of Krautrock and New Wave for a brasher, progressive sound. Although her strength had always been inventive bass, Grainne’s transition to guitar struck a new line in the sand, its delivery more pronounced than Ashley’s previous offerings, growling with the vigour of early Sonic Youth, adeptly vying with Sarah’s rich keyboards. Rough edges knocked off, the “weird stuff” that resulted in Estel’s music was essentially Irish but clearly marked them out amongst their fellows. Guest collaborations on the album included Hugh Holmes (also of The Waltons) and one Adrian Crowley, who’d become acquainted with Bushie on the gigs scene. On recording with Estel, he remembers the details vividly:
“As I walked into the common room of the studio the rest of the band were playing pool and sitting around. There was this terrifying screaming coming from the studio monitors. I looked in shock at the others and someone said ‘oh that’s the other guest vocalist, he’ll be finished in a minute’.
“I remember the exact date: March 15th 2003 – my son had just been born four days earlier. I’d just played two gigs, really I shouldn’t have been anywhere but home that week. I’d travelled back from Belfast totally exhausted and all my nerves were shot. I had my book of lyrics containing some words for the song which I’d written a few days before – at night in the maternity hospital waiting room. Bushie introduced me to the engineer (Stephen Shannon!) and I tentatively started whispering my words into the microphone. A few minutes later I came out of the vocal booth, disheveled and spent. Everyone was standing there, just smiling.”
Crowley’s single vocal take became the prepossessing, poignant Electric Eels. A Guide In Time of Great Danger garnered itself a new dossier of reviews and no doubt, an array of new faces at numerous gigs. Though all seemed well for Estel, behind the scenes a rift had formed and deepened. Tensions mounted, arguments erupted over associates, ethics and style. Despite the album’s resounding success, the line-up was not working and eventually in January 2004 Grainne Donohue and Jamie Farrell decided to leave and start up on their own, marking the biggest turning point for the band to date.
“People drift apart, musically and personally, it happens….” reflects Sarah. “Previous members of Estel took a different path; I think both parties have benefited and are happier for it.”
“We’ve only ever parted on bad terms once.” Bushie interjects. “Considering we’ve had a lot of line-ups I reckon that’s pretty good going. We grew apart, someone was asked to leave. We didn’t think it was such a big deal at the time, they didn’t seem to like the direction the band was taking anyway. When this happened, someone else left too. To this day, I regret that stuff caused such hurt feelings.”
“So yeah, we had a few capers down the years but no casualties yet. When you’ve been around for as long as us, you’re bound to have line-up changes. You just have to be honest and not be a prick about it.” finalises Sarah.
Grainne and Jamie’s new offshoot, wildly different, was named Cap Pas Cap. Away they went, expanding the No/New Wave sound that began with AGITOGD, resulting in the dainty and deep Not Not Is Fine EP in 2006. Jamie’s work with Peter Symes in the promotions company Skinny Wolves really took off and booking obscure art-rocking bands before anyone else had heard of them eventually led to the successful expansion into their own record label, recently resulting in a split offering from bright Indie favourites Telepathe and Effi Brieste.
Down to nuts and bolts, where did that leave Estel? Fed up of being compartmentalised as post-rock and aware of the pitch and roll of popularity tides, Sarah and Bushie rejected the attention of the media and set about rebuilding the band. Enter Stephen Anderson on bass and guitarist Tommy O’Sullivan of the Blood Red Dolls, a sound engineer who’d recorded Estel’s previous incarnation, although the songs were never released. For any band, this new era would be tumultuous and uncertain but if anything, it seemed to inject a new lease of life into the unit. Once again a four-piece but with the balance now weighing firmly in the male favour, Estella had got their groove back.
This became clear on the arrival of album #3, My Dreams Are Like Rabbits, They Built A Tunnel, Fell On To The Pavement And Died, its nefarious title perhaps a band in-joke at the hyperbolic names apparent in the post-rock genre they so keenly sought distance from. While zines and sites picked up on Estel’s latest, this album did not scoop the rave reviews from Irish press as their predecessors had. Keeping the media at arm’s length had proved to be a double-edged sword.
My Dreams Are Like Rabbits became a truly definitive record in the band’s history, a corporeal representation of their furious determination to evolve and expand on all that had gone before. As with all their goals, they were successful: when ‘Rabbits emerged, it showed yet another mutation of the band’s sound, dark and proggy, the vocal tracks this time coarse and courtesy of Bushie and Tommy on I Am But A Vessel. Three of the songs (Running With Scissors, Instrumental in the Killing and Stab You At A Later Date) had been written with Grainne and Jamie but fit neatly into the new package. Tommy’s engineer capabilities came to the fore, resulting in Estel at their most fully-realised sound so far. Local engineers and producers have always played an important role in the production of their music:
“There’s a mindset that if people don’t like your band, you better pay some bozo in Butthole, Montana, thousands of euros to make you sound like another band that the kids already dig,” argues Bushie. “This causes two main problems: regional scenes lose what made them special in the first place – unique sounds specific to that area. The underground music takes another step towards it all sounding the same.
“Second and most importantly, the money that goes towards paying these people and on flights etc. could well be spent recording with local engineers and putting out more local albums. We have incredible engineers working in the Punk arena in Dublin, give them your money! Eventually people will want to come here based on the quality of the work that was made in Ireland. Does it really matter if people in London don’t like your stuff? It’s still fairly tough to get bookings other than stuff we go out and get ourselves. Surely we should worry about having a good touring network and audience in every county in Ireland before we worry about elsewhere?”
In this respect, it seemed keeping the music press at arm’s length had its drawbacks. At their productive zenith, powering on fourth album, The Bones of Something, the band found the network they needed to promote their music in Ireland had shrunk, not because of a tail-off in quality or inflated ego, simply because cultivating a public image as a currency was not part of the band ethic.
“When we started there were a lot of fanzines around to do interviews with, the bigger magazines had people writing for them that were quite open to interesting music and would do their best to cover unusual records. This has changed quite a bit, for us anyhow. For example, with the Watt/Mackay/Estel CD, we didn’t get reviews in any of the big magazines despite sending out the copies. Surely that record is an important artifact for Irish underground music? It’s far more difficult to get written about these days, not because we’ve been pricks but because we haven’t sucked cock. It’s almost like a punishment for not kissing ass for ten years. ”
Normally, papers and magazines certainly might be interested in such a collaboration – Watt and Mackay had never recorded before despite playing with the same band, albeit at different times – namely The Stooges, who headlined Electric Picnic in 2006, just hours before the Estel session. However, those who wrote about post-rock in the early 2000s moved on to pastures new and the current field of music criticism is a different shade of green, minus the bitter sap of past rejection. So if it’s not personal, is it safe to suggest Estel no longer garner attention because they’re simply not cool?
“We’re not looking for outward acceptance. We need music to work and please us first and foremost.” Bushie is ambivalent. “With the Internet it’s become easier to take personal jabs at people that you generally wouldn’t take in person. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that a person is entitled to any opinion but you get people like Nialler9 making comments of “indulgent pants”…why go on the net just to slag someone’s work off? After ten years, a lot of people respect us and enjoy our art. On the other hand the country is full of kids that have never heard us. Now the scene has become so genre-orientated they may never be exposed to our music, which is a bit shit really because I think it’s taken this long to really blossom as a band.”
Sarah seems to operate very much in the here and now, united with the structure of Andy, Aonghus, Bushie and Tommy, focused on music yet to come. Popular opinion is irrelevant “When we first started, we quickly became flavour of the month but I was a bit lost…we weren’t making the type of music I wanted to be making. With the line up we have now, finally we’re writing and performing the heavier, more atmospheric music I always had in mind. We have always tried to involve interesting people and friends with a guest vocal or laying down some guitar or synth tracks to keep it challenging but in the last two years we have met and recorded with some great musicians I consider very important in the development of Estel, musically and personally.”
“At the beginning the band was very tight as a unit, on and off stage. As time progressed and line-ups changed…we lost the rapport that we once had with each other as people. It took us a while to get that back.” Bushie is matter-of-fact. “I think that at the start we had the same motivation that we have now – to put out good records and to make the best art that we can without compromising ourselves. We get up on stage to try to purge ourselves, reach another state through music. There are moments when it synchronises…you forget the other guys, the audience, and most importantly, yourself as an individual.”
We get up on stage to reach another state through music…when it synchronises…you forget the other guys, the audience, and most importantly, yourself as an individual.
We as humans learn who we are by what we like, and by shaping art, give it the power to shape us into individuals. Estel make Art. Huff and puff if you like or agree to disagree: the fact is, they think, make and do without demand. Art is attainable perfection. Ideal societies are confined to daydreams and fiction, the notion of paradise is foreign as an island in the sea. With art however, in the right medium, people can create their own ideal and refine it. The beauty resides in its subtlety, the profoundly intimate experience of its interpretation. Some look at it, some create it, some act it…whether by word or body, brush or beat, we look to art for answers to our own credulous imagination. The enduring impression of this band, from the paint strokes, drum rolls, guitar-squalls and paper prints, is an evolving excercise of imagining aloud.
Nostalgia will evoke definite recollection, though as of yet, they are undefined. Nonetheless, the band whose name means ‘hope‘ in Tolkien’s Elvish made their own reality. There is a place named Estel in the music realm of Ireland’s culture, populated with records, faces and performances. The terrain is rough and ploughed with furrows but true to nature, Estel play ever hopefully on, never stopping for applause between songs.