'No Fiat 500 techno!': why electronic music in Cork is popping off | Dance music | The Guardian Skip to main contentSkip to navigation

'No Fiat 500 techno!': why electronic music in Cork is popping off

Ollie McMorrow aka Doubt.
Ollie McMorrow … AKA Doubt.
Ollie McMorrow … AKA Doubt.

A crop of hyper-imaginative producers like Lighght, Ellll and those on the Flood label all emanate from Ireland’s ‘rebel city’ – but can it hold on to them?

“Messy in the best possible way,” says Cork producer Doubt of the epiphanic experience he had in 2015 at a warehouse rave in Manor House, north London. “It was really relaxed vibes. Security – although I didn’t see many – were sound, and there were heavy bangers all night. I’d never really experienced anything like that in Ireland.”

He was in London because of English producer NKC, one of the originators of the club sound known as hard drum, then just a Soundcloud tag. Doubt (real name Ollie McMorrow) and compatriots Tension (Dylan O’Mahony) and Syn (Reneé Griffin) set up their own label, Flood, a year after their hard drum rendezvous in London. After learning, experimenting and dawdling with friends in Cork, all it took was NKC’s raucous parties to dissolve their collective inhibition.

Flood and a web of other producers in their 20s from the small Irish south-coast city – Numbertheory, Lighght, Ellll and Superfície – are now making names for themselves in European club music circles, with syncopated mutations of percussion-driven electronic music. Although they’re not all easily grouped together, the common denominator is a primal drum-laden sound where rhythms tumble at breakneck speed. The music gives many of these young artists a sense of purpose and identity – even if many of them are leaving Ireland for a fresh start, amid the sanitising of youth culture as developers lay waste to alternative venues, and a raging housing crisis, with skyrocketing homelessness and the emergence of Dublin as one of the world’s most expensive cities to live in.

Cork has broken new ground in Irish music before. In the 1980s, it was the unlikely home to a lively reggae scene, the cello-brandishing post-punk outfit Five Go Down to the Sea, and Microdisney, the county’s answer to Fleetwood Mac. But it was the nightclub Sir Henry’s, founded in the late 70s, that opened many in the county to club music, especially house. “Sir Henry’s was ground zero,” says Cork house music pioneer Shane Johnson, who co-founded a night there called Sweat that attracted international stars such as Kerri Chandler, Cajmere and Derrick May. “Not just for the club scene, but for the local rock scene before it.”

Building on its legacy, Jimmy Horgan, who runs local record store Plugd alongside Albert Twomey, has been a linchpin of nonconforming music in Cork, regularly hosting the new breed of producers upstairs in the store’s live space, a venue called the Roundy. “The man takes a genuine interest in every type of music that’s made and played in the city,” producer James O’Connell, 25, who records as Numbertheory, tells me. “He’s truly for the culture.”

Jimmy Horgan.
‘Blown away’ … Plugd owner Jimmy Horgan. Photograph: Jimmy Horgan

Originally from Dublin, Horgan is self-effacing in his appraisal of the city’s vibrant percussive music scene: to him, it’s the artists’ unrelenting creativity that has made it all possible. “Probably the first hint I got of this sound was when Superfície – then going under the name Sexworker – dropped in a few demos of his tracks, maybe back in 2013 or 2014,” Horgan remembers. “Me and my colleague were blown away.”

Congregations of these young artists, usually in homes or apartments, are where parts of this Cork drum scene were born. McMorrow, whose father and grandfather were both drummers, says: “Percussion has always been a big part of my life.” And at 14, O’Mahony came to adore artists such as Burial and labels like Warp and Hyperdub, and decided he could do it, too, pirating production software, messing around with the functions, and spending the last two years at school attempting to make something “remotely decent”.

While attending the same college course, O’Mahony met Griffin, who had been recording as Syn, and would hang at her place after class. She introduced them all, including O’Connell, to a selection of new, eardrum-bursting sounds from labels such as Her Records, Fade to Mind, and Astral Plane. Superfície, a Brazilian-Irish producer now based in Berlin, showed them kuduro, baile funk and batucada, while strains of percussive music championed by labels such as Príncipe and Naafi, broadened their horizons further. Lighght, AKA Eamon Ivri, only found out about Flood – “a real inspiration” – via Soundcloud, randomly and belatedly, before he ever met them, despite their proximity and similar interests.

Flood’s first release, a playful nine-track compilation, came out in 2017, a year after they formed. They decided that they needed a studio for “properly hashing out ideas and blaring tracks as loud as possible” and found a small, secluded warehouse space in an industrial estate overlooking Cork’s docklands. The duality in their music, between the organic and the mechanical, can in part be traced back to this point. “There was a stark contrast between the industrial, grey and decaying warehouses and the beautiful view out on to Cork harbour,” says Doubt.

Ellll, Berlin-based techno alchemist Ellen King, says the internet and local hubs may not have been the only reasons why Cork emerged as a breeding ground for unconventional club music. “Cork has been a very house-focused city, and although I’ve never connected with that, percussive music coming out of the city in the last few years feels like a response to that attitude.”

‘Cork has been a very house-focused city’ ... Ellll.
‘Cork has been a very house-focused city’ ... Berlin-based Ellll. Photograph: Cáit Fahey

From the first seconds you press play on a Flood single, or a hypnotic Ellll release, or a stormlike rave loosie from Lighght, you hear contradiction and tumult. Percussion-wise, they pull from sounds from across the globe. Listen to the drums and you might think of Latin America or Africa. But sometimes local motifs creep in: Numbertheory included a sample of sean nós, an Irish tradition of haunting, melismatic singing; Syn’s track Coy included a sample of the bodhrán, an Irish drum made with goatskin; Lighght’s excellent 2019 album, Gore-Tex in the Club, Balenciaga Amongst the Shrubs, makes use of the harp. Irishness is there, even if it’s just lurking.

Cork is known fondly as “the rebel county”, the result of its long history of violent resistance and stubborn agitation, mostly in opposition to British rule. A caricature of Cork people in Irish culture – perma-vexed and dangerously parochial, made famous abroad by firebrand footballer Roy Keane and pop culture phenomena such as the TV show Young Offenders – seemingly contains some truth. “It’s a cliche, but the whole rebel aesthetic that Cork has adopted really shapes the city. You see murals of Che Guevara, references to the Palestinian cause,” says O’Connell, whose pummelling drums are often accompanied by sludgy heavy-metal motifs.

Most of these artists don’t identify with Cork’s pathological self-mythologising, though. “I didn’t enjoy much of my youth, and spent a lot of my time as a teenager in local drinking spots,” says Syn, 25, whose mother has worked as a club DJ. “I remember begrudging Cork from a young age because of the lack of activities for youth in the city beyond getting fucked up.”

Numbertheory … AKA producer James O’Connell. Photograph: Numbertheory

DIY hustling was the only way forward in a tourism-oriented country where, every couple of months, a hotel seems to replace a vital nightlife hub. The eventual members of Flood threw many of their own parties because, as they see it, commercialised venues prioritise footfall and double-vodka receipts over the sensory experience. Today, Syn helps run a queer night called CXNT in the Roundy, where throbbing, untrendy styles like hardgroove, gabber and donk pass as the norm. As O’Connell puts it: “The big clubs just want to hear EDM and boring, Heineken-sponsored, white-bread, Fiat 500 techno.”

Despite their own inventiveness, and the support of Plugd and other venues, such as Kino and the Village Hall, producers are forced to look elsewhere for opportunities. The sounds being created in Cork have been championed by artists and DJs in the capital, at Dublin Digital Radio – a haven for Ireland’s weirdest sounds, where McMorrow still hosts a monthly show called Hush – as well as exciting collectives such as Club Comfort.

Many talented producers and creatives have, at least semi-permanently, gone overseas. Qualified mathematician O’Connell left recently for Beijing, while King and Superfïcie have both moved to Berlin. As it happens, McMorrow is busy preparing himself for a move to Glasgow when we speak, a common journey for Irish creatives in recent years. Rents are lower there, conditions for nightlife culture are less suffocating, and young people are, in his view, treated better in Scotland than in his home country.

“Unless you’re planning on forking out over half your basic income every month, you probably won’t be able to find a place to live in Cork,” he laments. “I would love nothing more than to be able to stay in Cork, and do what I love here, but right now it’s just not feasible.”

Financial barriers have not halted the momentum of these artists, however. “Whether it’s a warehouse party with 30 drunk people crammed into a dark, dingy room listening to industrial remixes of Princess Superstar, or watching the Roundy get turned into a topless sweatbox,” O’Mahony says of his enduring memories of the community-based micro-scene, “it’s the things that were done for, and by, people like us that stand out.”

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