'I'm not a creator. I'm a curator of 21st century music' – Cian Ó Ciobháin, host of eclectic radio show ‘An Taobh Tuathail’
For 20 years, 'An Taobh Tuathail' has been the most exciting, eclectic show on radio. Host Cian Ó Ciobháin speaks to Darragh McManus
Driving at night, says Cian Ó Ciobháin, is "a great way to listen to music. It's dark, you're on your own, looking for company, and hearing great tunes, from someone who sounds like a fellow voyager - you're totally locked in. You almost feel you're in a David Lynch film or something."
It's an appropriate analogy, on two levels: reflecting the sort of dreamlike "road movie" ambience frequently conjured up by his Raidió na Gaeltachta show An Taobh Tuathail, and the remarkable journey which presenter and programme have taken over two decades.
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This week marks the 20th anniversary of An Taobh Tuathail (it translates as The Other Side; devotees affectionately refer to it as ATT). Monday to Friday, 10pm to midnight, year after year: the then-24-year-old Cian couldn't have imagined it in 1999.
At that age, he jokes, you don't even think about what's going happen when you're 30, never mind another decade and more later. "Although I did want the show to have longevity," he says. "That sense was always there. How long can I keep doing this thing that I'm so passionate about?"
Two decades makes ATT possibly the longest-running music show on Irish radio - Late Date was the only potential rival either of us could suggest. It's been nominated for multiple awards, has fans listening online around the world, and delivered nine spin-off compilation albums (Cian is considering a 10th for 2019).
It's made more remarkable by the fact that ATT is so determinedly avant-garde. It's a thrilling, ever-surprising mixture of (mostly) new tunes, spanning the spectrum from spaced-out electronica to thumping dance to weird folk music to obscure indie… the playlist is close to impossible to categorise, which of course adds to its charm.
Even the host isn't fully sure how to define the music he plays; he hums and thinks hard before finally settling on this: "I suppose a very broad term would be 'underground'. Stuff that's not really played on the mainstream. That term used to mean indie rock, but I cover mostly electronic, left-field…"
He pauses. "Outsider music, you could say. A lot of artists send me material who don't get played on radio, even in their own countries. It's funny, you have someone making music in Berlin who can't get it on their local radio, and here I am in Connemara playing it."
The fact that ATT goes out as Gaeilge makes its enduring success even more noteworthy, though Cian is quick to point out that neither listeners nor artists have an issue with the language. He's received "maybe three emails over the years" asking him to present in English.
"I don't talk too much anyway," he says. "I'm always aware that most listeners don't speak Irish. But it doesn't put them off at all. In fact, I get messages from people who turned their backs on Irish, but listening to ATT every night, they've decided to relearn it. I love hearing that. And it's good to have Irish going out in a natural environment, no agendas. As for foreign artists, they don't find it weird being played by someone speaking Irish: they're just delighted to have it aired!"
Cian grew up as Gaeilge in West Kerry, and radio was in his blood from the jump: his father worked in RnaG, and the likes of Dave Fanning were on "all the time, every night. We discovered a lot of new music through him".
With his eclectic taste and enthusiasm for genre-bending and discovering the new, Cian is probably closer to a gaeilgeoir John Peel than the new Fanning. And the legendary UK broadcaster was an influence "but in a roundabout way: he was always on my radar, but I couldn't hear his shows in Kerry. We just knew there was this guy, over in the UK, an interesting DJ.
"I don't think I ever actually heard a Peel show until the internet came along, but after that, I read all the books about him, and listened to a lot of his shows online. So the spirit of John Peel, for want of a better term, has influenced me. I loved that he was constantly looking for new music and didn't let age come in the way. And I admired how he was around for so long - flavours and fashions came and went, but Peel was always there."
Throughout his teens Cian made sporadic appearances on RnaG, and got involved with the radio society and on-campus station while studying Arts and Communications in NUIG. Post-college gigs on the Irish-language station eventually led to filling evening hours with "an alternative-dash-world music show".
Two decades on, it's still here, with broadly the same structure as ever - Mondays and Tuesdays are laid-back, with more clubbing stuff added as the weekend comes into view - though Cian admits to being "looser" these days in assembling each night's playlist.
The show has run gigs and club nights around the country, and has built up a devoted fan base here and abroad. Listener communication used to be "by email and even letter"; nowadays it's tweets, DMs, messages on Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp.
"I like that it's two-way," Cian says. "People aren't just listening to the show, they're feeding back what they're listening to themselves. I get recommendations all the time from listeners. There's a guy who sends me world music tips from his trip through Africa."
There's a real bond between presenter and listeners, you feel, a sense of belonging to some (almost) secret society, where rare and wonderful things wait to be experienced.
"Well, there's a trust between DJ and listeners that can only build up over time," Cian says. "You get a reputation and then they'll trust your choices - and trust you if you go off on another tangent, which I love doing: it's nice to be surprised. Someone told me recently they came upon the show while driving from Dublin to Sligo, and that's exactly how I envisage finding new listeners. Just fiddling with the dial, 'What the hell is this?' I love finding listeners like that."
Last summer found a celebrity listener: Gruff Rhys (of Super Furry Animals) named ATT as his favourite radio show in the world; he'd discovered it by accident, driving around the coast of north-west Wales. "For a while," Cian laughs, "he didn't know what it was!"
The anniversary has been marked this week by a theme of "new music": Cian received over 60 previously unaired tunes from artists he knows or admires. He sounds genuinely moved by their generosity, saying: "They went to the trouble of creating something, mastering it and sending it to me. That's almost awe-inspiring to me, because I'm not a creator, I'm more of a curator." Last night's show was a live gig from Galway's iconic Róisín Dubh.
It feels a little strange, he adds, to think in terms of ATT being 20. "It's almost an epoch, isn't it?" Cian says. "The show is like a history of early 21st century music. And now I'm thinking, can I get to another 20 years? That would bring me to retirement!"