'Bloody Sunday and Brexit replaced with cartels and Trump' - Derry musicians Ryan Vail and Eoin O'Callaghan on international resonance of Border album
Derry musicians Ryan Vail and Eoin O'Callaghan wrote a song about DUP leader Arlene Foster that has evolved into a project that soundtracks the Border. Lee Henry meets the duo as they prepare to tour the show globally
In early 2018, with Brexit negotiations under way and talk of a border poll drowned out by calls for and against the backstop, Northern Irish comedian Patrick Kielty sat down for an interview with DUP leader Arlene Foster. Kielty, whose father was murdered by the Ulster Freedom Fighters in 1988, was filming the documentary My Dad, the Peace Deal and Me for BBC One. He asked Foster what she would do in the event of a United Ireland. Her response: "I would probably have to move."
For Derry-based musicians Ryan Vail and Eoin O'Callaghan, it felt like a kick in the teeth. Not quite part of Lyra McKee's Good Friday Agreement generation - both in their mid-30s, Vail and O'Callaghan are old enough to have experienced, as the late journalist described it, the "horrors of war" - nevertheless, as progressives, they had long since embraced their dual national identity and, according to O'Callaghan, "finally felt comfortable referring to ourselves as Northern Irish without cringing".
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"Yet here was our top politician," O'Callaghan continues, "someone who is supposed to represent all the people of Northern Ireland, whose skewed sense of patriotism meant that she was unwilling to accept the democratic wishes of the majority and instead leave the fields, the streets, the people she's known all her life behind for the sake of calling herself British and British only. We had come so far, so much hard work had been done by so many. Foster's world view really shocked us."
Both successful solo artists in their own right - Vail a respected electronic composer and producer whose remixing smarts are very much in demand; O'Callaghan a multi-instrumentalist most recognisable for his Best Boy Grip singer-songwriter persona and, more recently, as leader of Elma Orkestra - the duo responded to Foster's "divisive" declaration in the only way they knew how: by creating new work.
The song 'Arlene', with its propulsive Thom Yorkesque beats, keys and strings, became the uplifting finale of their first collaborative project, Borders, a sumptuous eight-track sonic and visual rumination on geography, place, identity, community and Brexit.
Released in June, the album combines O'Callaghan and Vail's compositional and production skills on a suite of songs that, as Vail has it, "soundtrack the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland in the wake of the Brexit referendum".
"We're not afraid to call it what it is," says Vail, "which is a concept album. I'm not sure why other artists and people in the media are so averse to that term; I guess it has something to do with the self indulgence of the 1970s. But for us, even the visual aspect of Borders, which Eoin shot and edited himself, complements that central idea. There are GPS coordinates built into the video projections and we include footage of the Foyle River, Grianán Fort and other border landmarks that mean something to us."
O'Callaghan was born in Dublin but raised in Derry and today lives near Vail in the leafy Culmore area of the city; road signs switch from miles to kilometres just a few minutes from their respective homes. The Border has always been an abstract non-entity for them - a "man-made concept that has no bearing, really, on who we are or how we've lived," says O'Callaghan - until, Vail adds, the Brexit vote brought the invisible frontier into stark relief.
"In a practical sense, as artists who tour for a living, we've noticed that fuel and flights are becoming more expensive," Vail continues. "But, more importantly for us, you can see that Brexit is having a negative impact on people's sense of community. Some feel validated to break off into tribes again. 'Arrival', the opening track of the album, is all about welcoming people with open arms. It celebrates difference. But it's also about interpretation. When we performed the live show in Belfast and Dublin, there were lots of tears. People remain uncertain about the future."
That swelling of emotion was in part down to spoken word poet Stephen James Smith, who features on the song 'My Island', spontaneously making reference to Lyra McKee in the days after the 29-year-old was murdered by dissident Republicans in Derry's Creggan estate. "It was quite an emotional time in the North," says Vail. "Particularly for journalists and writers who felt they had lost one of their own. We were happy for Stephen to pay tribute."
Borders was always conceived as an open-ended project, a fluid, flexible work of art that would evolve with the political situation and to reflect the environment in which it is performed. Both Vail and O'Callaghan view the album and accompanying visuals through a global lens and are collaborating with artists from other conflict areas as they prepare to tour the show globally.
In September, the pair travel to Mexico - the world's second deadliest combat zone after Syria thanks to ongoing gang warfare - for two concerts in Guadalajara; the spectre of Trump's border wall will no doubt influence how local artists react to the music. The following month, they're off to Berlin for the 30th anniversary of the unification of East and West Germany. The possibility of performing in Palestine and South Korea is also being muted.
"I've been to Mexico a few times and I've seen what life is really like for people there," says O'Callaghan. "I've watched men, women and children climb on top of trains heading to the border, where they are willing to take their chances against Trump's thugs in the hopes that they'll secure a better future. I've seen kids juggling for food at traffic lights. Horrendous scenes that put our own troubles into perspective.
"When I told people there about Borders, they instantly understood it. Same story, different cast. Bloody Sunday and Brexit replaced with the cartels and Trump. If you take a song like 'Droves', for me that was a response to [the then UKIP leader] Nigel Farage's Breaking Point posters, referring to Syrian migrants as vermin queuing up to steal our jobs and threaten our way of life. But artists in other countries will have their own border stories to tell. Some negative, some positive."
If all this comes across as a tad preachy, Vail and O'Callaghan are quick to emphasis that Borders "is not about ramming politics down people's throats". It's why they choose not to feature lyrics on most of the tracks. "There's lots of space," says Vail. "Lots of melody and rhythm. It's music that people can dance to." Irish audiences can experience the full audio-visual Borders spectacle when it comes to Electric Picnic next month.
"Do we think music has the power to change the world?" O'Callaghan repeats. "It's difficult to get people living in their echo chambers to compromise and change, as we've seen with the likes of Arlene Foster. But I saw [English punk band] Idles play Glastonbury this year - big burly lads screaming pro-choice and pro-equality songs - and the crowd screaming them back, and it was inspiring. A new generation of artists are using music to challenge and educate again. More power to them."
'Borders' by Elma Orkestra and Ryan Vail is out now