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Progressive Rock Interviews

Zombie Picnic

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Jim Griffin of Zombie Picnic from 2016
MSJ:

Can you catch the readers up on the history of your involvement in music – both individually and as a band?

I began playing music in college (a late bloomer!), first piano then acoustic guitar. I was nearly twenty before I even picked up an electric guitar!  I formed my first band in university. We were called “Earthface” and we had some success in Ireland, being offered a recording contract by the same label in our hometown of Limerick that had initially signed The Cranberries a year or two previously. We turned it down, and to this day I still don’t know why.

I first met the guys in Zombie Picnic way back in 2004 when a mutual friend formed a new band with Dave and Brendan (from Zombie Picnic) and another friend; Nick Bromfield (who did the artwork for our new album A Suburb of Earth – which we think is pretty great – thanks Nick!)

That first band was called “The Fewer, The Better,” and I’m ashamed to say that a year later we had to part ways with the mutual friend who brought us all together (typical band story!) but we stayed as The Fewer, The Better for many years playing our own brand of Irish Rock. We had some amazing gigs and tours with the likes of Bernie Tormé (from the band Gillan and Ozzy’s touring band after Randy Rhoads  died) who then produced our second album and Scottish heavyweights Biffy Clyro amongst many other great Irish and international acts until we finished that band in 2011.

Probably the highlight of that time for me was when we toured Ireland with New York singer Chris Barron (lead singer with the Spin Doctors). Chris stayed in my home and we used to eat porridge in the mornings with my wife and young daughter Dharma (named after the great guitarist from BÓC). We’d swap road stories over breakfast (Chris’ were better than mine!), and he always said how “porridge” sounded so much better than “oatmeal,” (a small culture gap that made us laugh) and he’d tell the story often at our gigs in the evenings where I’d play “Two Princes” with him on acoustic guitars – good times. Thanks Chris! 

We then formed Zombie Picnic in late 2012 early 2013 with the express intention of playing music that stretched us as musicians and took us out of our comfort zones – no power chords or three-chord tricks were allowed, and we all committed to buying new gear to explore more complex sounds. We chose to be instrumental to allow the musical structures to be freer and more jazz-influenced in places.  We always intended to use sounds and spoken word pieces, (à la Pink Floyd) but my singing days were to be put on ice for a while. (I didn’t mind!)  Our new bass player was to be Brian Fitzgerald, a friend who had been a major fan of “The Fewer, The Better.” We always like to treat our bands and fans like a big, loud, disgracefully behaved Irish family. It’s just more fun that way! Zombie Picnic took its time, writing a large amount of material and playing gigs around Ireland to try out different structures. We were in no hurry, and this band was to be run on our terms. We were older and no longer chasing dreams of “pop stardom.” We’d seen behind the scenes a bit and we said “no thanks.”

During this time, around early 2015, I also released a solo album on an English label called “Reverb Worship”  titled “The Ranger and The Cleric” (because I started to miss singing and playing the acoustic guitar!). It was a single 42 minute wyrd-folk song cycle inspired by the work of H.P Lovecraft, Gary Gygax and Carl Sagan, and doing this opened up new fanbases and friends in the UK and Europe that I think really inspired Zombie Picnic to “get our arse in gear” and begin recording the album we knew we wanted to make! (That solo album can be found here, I really had a good time making it: https://therangerandthecleric.bandcamp.com/)

Zombie Picnic began recording this debut album in 2015 when the material and themes had settled into something that made sense (to us anyway!) We intend to begin recording the second album this summer. All the material is there. It will have different themes and ideas driving it, but this debut has been so well-received worldwide (we were very proud to get onto the Burning Shed roster in the UK that distributes such prog heroes of ours as Steven Wilson, Big Big Train, Pineapple Thief and many others) that we have high hopes for our second album!

MSJ: If you weren't involved in music what do you think you'd be doing?

I have to admit that I still hold down a lecturing job in my hometown of Limerick. I love this job, and it keeps me in touch with younger students who often come to my gigs and share music with me. I’d miss it terribly if I stopped and, happily, like all teaching jobs it has great benefits in terms of making time available over the summer for gigging and recording.

MSJ: How did the name of the group originate?

Brendan has to take the blame here! Because the music is instrumental when we were writing it we got into the habit of giving all the pieces funny food-related titles just to tell them apart (we often practice in the early evening so we miss dinner and I guess we’re always hungry!). Brendan usually comes up with the names (he must be the hungriest), and one piece was called “Zombie Picnic.”  When our first gig came along we needed a name, and that was it! (I wanted to call the band “Stoneman,” but the lads wisely talked me out of it). Some of the tracks on the new album had very different names when we were writing them! With names: “Aural Pudding,” “Toxic Gingerale” and even the awfully titled “Incontinental Breakfast,” you can see why we changed them for the album.

MSJ: Who would you see as your musical influences?

This, I think, is part of our strength. I am a 70s kid – Blue Óyster Cult (heck we named my first daughter after Buck Dharma!), Rush, Floyd, Tull. All of that, and then the more recent prog resurgence with Spock’s Beard, Dream Theater, Opeth, Porcupine Tree and Polish band Riverside (and many others, of course). But the rest of the lads have varied tastes (different age groups in a band is a good thing). Dave loves prog like Transatlantic and Neal Morse, as well but also jazz and experimental music like Wilco and Nels Cline. Brendan and Brian are the young kids in the band, so they love newer bands like Mogwai, Queens of the Stone Age, Battles, PJ Harvey and such like. Brian was also a real metal-head in his teens so, he brings Metallica, Slayer and Mastodon vibes into the mix with his bass-lines (which is really great for the kind of heavy-ass rhythm section that myself and Dave love to play over).

MSJ: What's ahead for you?

Ah the old treadmill of touring and recording I suppose (we love it really). We really want to get over to the UK and US where there is a bigger prog rock niche and more dedicated prog events (in Ireland we have to set them up ourselves to attract the underground prog fans!). We have got a lot of new fans in the UK through Burning Shed and Reverb Worship, and we hope to find US fans through sites like the awesome Music Street Journal and build some fans over there that would make a small trip over viable. We have recently been featured on RST Radio in Brazil and have made some new fans over there thanks to a DJ named “Carlos Vaz Ferreira” and the Rock Underground Magazine there. The Internet may have some drawbacks in terms of illegal downloading, but we think they are outweighed by the links and fans that can be found, especially in niche music areas like prog and instrumental/experimental music.

MSJ: I know many artists hate to have their music pigeonholed or labelled, but how would you describe your music?

We don’t mind it too much because it really does help to find those niche fans across the world and it helps them find us. When we look at our web stats (yes we’re that boring sometimes!) the tags that people use to discover us tend to be “progressive rock/prog rock”, “post-rock” (which was a term I was unfamiliar with until last year, but actually suits us really well, when you look at other bands who use this tag), “Instrumental” and “experimental.”

MSJ: Are there musicians with whom you would like to play with in the future?

I dream of playing with Neal Morse because we don’t use keyboards in Zombie Picnic and I’d love to try it in the band once in a live setting. Who better to do it than Neal Morse? (well, maybe Rick Wakeman but I think he’d scare us too much!). We also don’t have a singer, and it would be fun to have a guest singer from a different background – maybe Sinead O’Connor or PJ Harvey. Because we’re influenced by art outside music very often it would be great to do a 60s-style happening with artists and poets, maybe we can coax Banksy out of hiding!

MSJ: Do you think that illegal downloading or streaming of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians?

On the financial side it’s a bit of a hindrance, but I would think mostly for established bands who would expect to sell in larger quantities online and so the lost revenue may be significant. For us the benefits of a globalised market far outweigh the costs. When we’re establishing a new fan-base in distant countries that we cannot tour in yet, there is no better way to gather awareness than through blogs, eZines, social media and Internet radio. Even use of illegal downloads has more value to us in establishing our name and music than it has problems in terms of loss of money. We would need to spend the difference (or more) on advertising to get that exposure to begin with. In truth, many people who download illegally or use Spotify or low-pay streaming services wouldn’t buy the music anyway. However, if they find us through these media they might just come to our gig or support us on Bandcamp or Facebook in other ways. But if we become the next “big-thing” (if there is such a thing in the world of prog) ask me again in ten years, and I may have a different, more Metallica-like response.

MSJ: In a related question, how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them or posting them online?

I love it. How can it be seen as anything other than a compliment? I look forward to days when our fans do this in large numbers. I would love to have had some fans record our earliest gigs for posterity. I can understand how some bands preparing for a live album release could have a problem with a specific show being bootlegged. And catching a tired or bad performance by your band on youtube can hurt, but in my experience a reasonable, explained request to remove such footage, even from torrents, is usually respected.

MSJ: If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch nemesis and why?

We like to keep things friendly in Zombie Picnic but as arch enemies of super heroes tend to have doctorates (according to Sheldon Cooper in “The Big Bang Theory,” anyway),  I think it would have to be Brian May, wouldn’t it? He’s a doctor of astrophysics, I believe. Also he’s English, and we’re Irish so that old chestnut fits as well (not that we really feel like that any more!) Only joking, Brian!

MSJ: If you were to put together your ultimate band (a band you'd like to hear or catch live), who would be in it and why?

It would have to be a prog supergroup. With the best keyboardist and singer (Neal Morse), drummer (Mike Portnoy), a great prog guitarist (like Roine Stolt) and a classic prog bassist (maybe Pete Trewavas) – and luckily that band exists! Transatlantic are the ultimate “constructed” band for me, and myself and Dave were lucky enough to see them on their Whirld Tour in London a few years ago (later released as a live DVD and album). That gig inspired me to be a better musician, or at least to try harder!

MSJ: If you were in charge of assembling a music festival and wanted it to be the ultimate one from your point of view who would be playing?

For me, I would truly love to run a festival for all those amazing unsigned or do-it-yourself prog bands out there. There should be a “Cruise to the Edge” for those guys – more a “Cruise back from the Edge of Extinction” for struggling bands like us! Bands like The Fierce and The Dead (UK), Arcpelago (Brazil) Klaus Morlock (US/UK), Quorum (Russia) and so many more.  Wouldn’t that be something? Where everywhere you turned you’d discover a new band.  Everyone I know who enjoys festivals always tells me this is the best part, finding new bands. I agree with this. I went to Rambling Man Fair in the UK last year just to see BÓC, Dream Theater, Camel and Ian Anderson, (all established acts, of course) but what I remember the most are the bands I discovered – Riverside, Pineapple Thief, Blues Pills. I think a festival with all undiscovered or new bands would be amazing and I do think people would go.

MSJ: What was the last CD you bought and/or what have you been listening to lately?

Last night I bought an album through Bandcamp by US proggers Temple of Switches.” I’ve been listening to a lot of international prog bands lately as I do PR for our album around the world. It’s a process that leads me to other bands, and I love that. It’s a great album and you should review it, too, Gary!

MSJ: Have you read any good books lately?

Much of our new album was inspired by the work of Arthur C Clarke, and so I’ve been re-reading much of his work, especially the Rama series - which we quote from in our songs “The Cylindrical Sea” and “The Rama Committee.“ (not surprisingly!) Also I am reading the entire series of “Culture” novels by the late lamented Ian M Banks. I adore these books as they are so expansive, imaginative and (even though they are sci-fi) they are the best kind of sci-fi – the kind that ultimately makes us reflect upon our own society and values - amazing books!

MSJ: What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?

That was by an Irish artist (and friend of ours) Pierce Turner, who lives and works in New York but comes home to his native Ireland every summer for some gigs. This was a gig in a lovely Unitarian Church on Stephen’s Green in Dublin (I love gigs in unusual venues). He had a small band supported by a huge pipe organ! He has a new album called “Love Can’t Always be Articulate” and he is as much a poet as a musician. Your readers would do well to check him out, and he often gigs in Joe’s Pub in New York. I have played guitar for Pierce at some of his gigs in Limerick, and he recorded backing vocals for us on a song called “Lady of the Valley” in our previous band. He is a really great Irish songwriter in the classic sense.

MSJ: Do you have a musical “guilty pleasure?”

Well, I am a 70s kid, as I say, so I have always nurtured a secret love of disco music and some of the 80s bands that my older brothers hated I rather liked (Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Matt Bianco). Saying so at the time would have had me ridiculed by my siblings, but in recent years I’ve come to terms with liking a bit of old pop music. Mind you, the guilt Is still there – we do guilt well in Ireland!

MSJ: What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?

Turning up to record the basic tracks for this A Suburb of Earth album in a lovely studio in Tipperary, (GAF Studios run by Joe Gallagher – great guy) spending a good two hours setting up and getting the drum sound perfect, then plugging in, playing one note and having my amp explode! We only had two days to do the tracks, and I lost half of the first day driving back to Limerick to find another amp. The album should have had another three tracks on it!

MSJ: If you could sit down to dinner with any three people, living or dead, for food and conversation, with whom would you be dining?

Oscar Wilde, Quentin Crisp and Gore Vidal – the acerbic humour would be off-the-scale and nobody would be hitting on my wife!

MSJ: What would be on the menu?
Oh all the food would be bitter, bitter, bitter! 
MSJ: Are there any closing thoughts you would like to get out there?

To anyone who has read all of this, I can only say, “thank you and I hope I didn’t offend anyone!”  My parting words of little wisdom would be to go out there and find new bands and throw them a few bucks for their album. When someone buys a CD or a download from our Bandcamp page, (and Bandcamp is a great place to discover and sell new music) it makes our day. Yes, the money helps, but it is so gratifying to know that prog fans all around the world are listening. It makes us go on. Without it there can be no music. Be good to your bands, and they’ll be good to you!

Saol fada agus breac-shláinte chugat!
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2016  Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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