Starving Artists: A Q&A With The Guggenheim Grotto

“I can’t really explain to a cop when he pulls me over that I was writing a song while driving, you know?

Ireland’s dark folk duo The Guggenheim Grotto (Mick Lynch and Kevin May) just finished a couple of 5-week residencies, at the Bowery Electric in New York City’s Lower East Side and at Philadelphia’s Tin Angel. Before they headed out on the road again on a similar jaunt out West, Mick Lynch and Kevin May sat down with American Songwriter and used their Irish charm and wit to discuss the life of the traveling music nomad, their devotion to the craft, and their new album, The Universe is Laughing.

So how do you think the fact that you played these residencies during the release of your new record helped your American following?

K: I find that with a residency, there’s more than just that once chance that the press and people will come to see you. There’s the chance they will come back again and again. We did a residency last year at Living Room and I felt that really helped our New York following.

So how did you build your following in Ireland?

K: Well Ireland’s very tiny.

How about the rest of Europe?

M: We’ve actually never toured in Europe. We’re pretty much straight off the boat from Ireland to New York. Originally, we came over first for South by Southwest. It actually all started after we released our album in 2005 and we were just trying to get radio play over here, so we came to SXSW and then played a couple shows in Los Angeles to put our toe in the water and see what happens. Through all that we met UFO, our record label and promotions people, and then they helped put us out on tour.

So would you say you’ve been touring nonstop since then?

M: Only when we’re in America.

Being on the road so much then, do you guys write on the road?

M: No, we find it really tough, we’re just focused on working and really exhausted from driving the van around the country.

I think the musicians who write on the road are the ones who get to ride around in a big tour bus and don’t have to worry about doing all the driving.

M: I mean, I can’t really explain to a cop when he pulls me over that I was writing a song while driving, you know?

And you’ve developed such a big following in the U.S., what is it about your songs that Americans are drawn to? I’ve often noticed that the music that tends to get big over in Europe is more dance-oriented.

M: I think Kevin’s best to answer this because he writes all the lyrics.

K: Well I’ve always really liked Leonard Cohen, not just his voice but also the words he writes in his songs. And we both come from a very classic background in terms of music that we both like—the Beatles, Pink Floyd—just really classic styles of songs, you know, “Wish you Were Here” and stuff like that. And so that’s what we’ve been emulating in order to try to find our own sound. To me I think the most important thing has always been the lyrics.

M: I think music can be very diverse in terms of sound and we don’t ever have plans for how are songs are constructed or what tune it needs to be in, we just go with it and let it come together.

Do you generally start with the lyrics?

M: No, not necessarily, I mean, Kevin can speak for himself when he writes alone, but sometimes we write together so it depends. I don’t write the lyrics at all, I don’t consider myself a lyricist, and I’ve never really tried. But in regards to ideas for songs like in “Fee Da Da Dee” or the “Spiegel Song,” I would have had pretty much the chords; melody and structure of the song and then Kevin gave it the words. I probably had scrap lyrics on some tape recorder somewhere but I just give these ideas to Kev and he puts lyrics on them, and I think that’s when we write best together.

K: And when I write a song on my own, maybe sometimes the music and the lyrics happen at the same time.

M: And when you asked us about what draws Americans to our music, I think it’s because we are so diverse—and when I say diverse I don’t mean we are doing Euro-disco pop or whatever, I mean we have elements of different styles. But I think what people latch onto the most are the lyrics because they’ve not really any real musical style to latch onto. I think that’s where people find the common thread, is in our lyrics.

You’ve received a lot of comparison to Simon & Garfunkel, probably because there’s two of you and you tend to sound more acoustic and toned down, but I think after watching you the past few weeks here I don’t think that’s the most appropriate comparison at all. You’re a lot poppier than that.

K: I think it’s a lazy comparison. It’s almost a wishing well for people—I mean, who wouldn’t like a modern contemporary Simon & Garfunkel? But it’s a bit lazy, it’s two guys. Until we started playing with a band, it was just two guys and a guitar and yeah, it probably sounded like a folk song. But as soon as you put other instruments around it, people start to see that it’s more than just folk music.

M: I think it’s also that we don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves to be the next Simon & Garfunkel; we want to be known for live shows, we want to incorporate electric guitars.

Are you trying to be the next anybody?

M: We’re just trying to write and do justice to what we write.

So aside from Leonard Cohen, who else influences your writing?

M: When I come up with musical ideas, I tend to capture a mood. I’ll have a nice melody and if it sounds like a sad one, maybe I’ll try to capture a certain mood that it’s my head. I can’t really explain it. I was a classically trained musician, I played viola, so I probably have a classical mindset when it comes to writing. I also listened to the Beatles and the Stones, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, so it’s all kind of seeped through.

Are either of you listening to any newer artists right now?

M: It’s kind of weird, I’m actually not up to date on that whole world. I find the only time I really get to listen to music, I’m in the car driving to another state and I tend to listen classic vinyl stuff—the hits you know, like ‘60s and ‘70s. And when we feel more eclectic, Kev’s usually the DJ.

K: Well it’s weird now, because everybody has so much music on their iPods. Stuff will even come up on my iPod and I don’t even know who it is that I’m listening to. But the stuff that I love beyond Leonard Cohen and even Rufus Wainwright is probably Radiohead. As a band, they’re pretty awesome. I also love playing Air I the car, I just love their recordings.

M: I love their textures too.

K: I also like a guy called Richard Hawley. I like what he’s doing, it’s simpler. He’s not necessarily an amazing lyricist either, but he’s got a voice and a vibe. But to be honest with you, about our music, I think our eclectic nature is just our search for a particular sound and a unique voice. I think that our last album was close to that and our latest album, The Universe is Laughing, is even closer again.

Yeah, you can definitely hear and detect this sort of search for higher art and meaning in your songwriting. I find your songs quite mystical.

K: Yes, I have also found that with the lyrics, but I also find that for our arrangements; we have searched a lot and are still trying to find our sound vocabulary—we are still searching for that.

M: I think that the term “dark folk”, really applies to us. We like that.

When you’re trying to create this “mood”, is it just for the listener to your record, or are you ever trying to create a certain ambiance when you’re performing the song live on stage?

M: Yeah I think we do. For instance “Fee Da Da Dee” was never a folk song, but it works as a folk song.

K: We write the songs, record the songs as a two-piece, but now we are using this new rhythm section, which is really not really traditionally how it’s done. Usually people get together and play songs and get used to them and then record them.

M: For “Fee Da Da Dee, we went and did it in the studio before we hit the road and then songs would just take on a life of their own once you’ve found them live because there’s just a different element. In the studio you have access to every type of instrument. The likes of “Wisdom” for instance would have violas, glockenspiel, and marimbas.

Do you invite other musicians to come to the studio to play these?

M: No we figure it out on our own, we do everything ourselves.

So then you’re the composer, and Kevin’s the lyricist?

K: That’s just one interpretation, but not really.

M: Well when Kev writes on his own, he will pretty much do all the writing for the musical parts too.

You write piano parts?

K: Yeah I do.

M: There are a couple of songs that are all Kevin and then quite a few that are both of us, so it’s a healthy balance. For instance, “Wisdom,” was a co-write. Then for singing we will decide whose voice fits the song better.

Is it usually a very smooth and organic process, or do you ever disagree on writing?

M: In the actual writing I don’t butt heads as such, but it’s more in the arrangements in the studio that we might disagree. Like if a melody, or a little note on the marimba isn’t right, we might argue.

K: But after that last album Happy The Man, I was this close to leaving the band because a bass line I wanted wasn’t being played. [laughs]

So whose baseline won in the end?

M: Mine!

So then Kevin, why did you finally cave?

M: At the time there was also our old drummer in the equation, so Kevin just got outvoted.

K: I just decided I really didn’t care anymore!

Do you think for the next album you might record with a full band?

K: Well yeah we would love to but it’s also a lot of it is sort of a financial thing. For our other albums we did on our own clock with our own recording equipment in Ireland– we did it all ourselves. When you have a band situation however, where no one’s really looking to get paid, it’s more of a collective understanding.

AS: How long have you two been playing music together?

K: We both started playing with this other band about eleven years ago and when that came to an end we decided to start writing and recording together.

Was it a match from the get go then?

M: Personally I think the secret of our longevity is that we’ve spent the last few years driving ourselves all around the states and had some pretty tough gigs, some great gigs, and financially on the road sometimes you can struggle, but I think the secret for us is that we really just believe in what we are doing. If I didn’t believe in what Kev was doing, I wouldn’t be writing with him and vice versa. I think that’s the secret of it.

K: Well it’s not much of a secret anymore, now is it?

Yeah I guess the secret is out. So when are you headed back into the studio then?

K: As soon as possible.

Do you usually do all of your recordings in Ireland?

M: The most recent album was done in Boston and then the one before that in Dublin.

K: The last album we actually went on tour in the midst of recording, so we brought all of our gear with us and finished recording on the road. We had a friend in Baltimore that offered her great big house to record in there and my cousin in Boston did the same for us, recorded in his house out in the woods. It was really nice; while everybody had gone to sleep and it was real quiet we did “The Universe is Laughing” on ukulele.

And what about “Wisdom”, where did that come from? Did you know that would be a single?

M: It actually started out as an old idea, it was the viola that started it and then it took off from there. Kevin’s idea was the “la la la” bit, so I suppose he’s responsible for the poppiness of it. I was actually playing an old Russian piece—that’s where that very Eastern sound came from.

K: I actually wrote those lyrics twice, which happens sometimes with lyrics. Like we recorded them and everything and then I got up the next day and thought they were just terrible. Sometimes I will write six versions of a song before I’m happy with it.

So would you say you ever try to write singles when you write or are you just writing songs?

M: Whatever comes out, I don’t think we will ever want to be known as being “poppy.”

K: I think it should be a four-letter word—“pop”. [laughs] Although I’ve really nothing against pop. When I say pop, I mean more like stadium pop, or super pop. Not that we won’t reach mainstream either; I think it’s definitely in us and it’s not like we’d be tarnished from it or anything.

M: I think the reason that people reach out to our lyrics is maybe just all those years of Irish ballads. Every song of ours has just this slight tinge of melancholy, which has always been a very Irish thing and I think that’s what people are drawn to.

AS: It gives people hope?

M: Yeah definitely. Sometimes I think that we are Buddhists of the folk world.

Maybe we should call you the Guggenheim Gurus then.