Under The Street Light - Claudio Mercante & Darren Flynn (Mongrel State)
Under The Street Light with Dave McMahon returns after a short break and this time I have Claudio and Darren from international, Dublin based blues band, Mongrel State.
When did you first realise that you wanted to be a musician?
Darren - I kinda did everything backwards – I started playing, then fell in love with music, and then discovered it. Originally I started to learn guitar as I thought it would be a good way to meet girls. So I guess the first time where I thought “Oh, this is pretty cool!” was when Cathy Burnsides, a girl I had a crush on, said to me “Oh wow! You really CAN play!”
So then I thought I should set about it properly, and I came across a real, real old book on guitar in the Sligo public library – it had literally been there since the sixties! – it had pictures in it of The Cream, and The Band and Skip James – and it had a quote in it from Stevie Winwood – “In the end, everything goes back to the blues”.
So that was where I had to start, evidently. One Saturday I got on a bus in Sligo (we are talking waaay pre-internet here, when you actually had to WORK to get your music!), went to Dublin, into the Virgin Megastore on Aston Quay, into their blues section, and bought a rake of CDs and tapes. When I eventually got back to Sligo and managed to put one of them on the stereo, the very first thing I heard was Smokestack Lightening. And that was it, I was a goner.
In the sonic civil war that was raging in Summerhill College at the time between Grunge and Heavy Metal, I was my own enclave. The only 16-year-old blues geek in Sligo.
Claudio - I was 15 when I played with my first band. At the time I didn’t know if I was gonna ever try to be a professional musician, but I knew I would play music for the rest of my life!
Who did you listen to when you were growing up?
Darren - My younger sister was far more cool than me, far earlier. I remember listening to Appetite for Destruction through her wall (she being so considerate as to ensure she played it loud enough so I could hear it perfectly) and thinking that it was pretty good, but it was a shame about all those bloody guitar solos. Earlier than that I have a recollection (one of my earliest memories, in fact) of Grace Jones’ Pull Up to the Bumper on TOTP, and my Da telling me “listen to that bass!” And The Road To Nowhere, with that mad image of the box swiveling round David Byrne’s head.
Really though, my active listening and pursuit of music started when I got those first blues CDs. I became voracious, and listened to them obsessively. I used to put my headphones on and leave them on repeat all night. Countless nights I was awoken at some godforsaken hour by some old bluesman wailing in my ear!
Then one night, I’m not sure how it happened, but when I awoke it was late night radio playing, and not the CD. I was woken up by Depeche Mode’s Enjoy the Silence. And THAT was a transformative experience, I can tell you! I was transfixed, not knowing if I was waking or dreaming, but frozen by the beauty of what was going around in my head. I don’t think I breathed for the whole length of the song. And then when it was over, the DJ didn’t give the name of the song or the band, and I drifted back off to sleep. The next day it was like some weird dream-song that I’d had.
And I didn’t hear the song for years again. I was a blues geek and didn’t listen to the radio. The next time I heard it was when my first serious girlfriend played it for me. I took it as some sort of portent. The feeling of that experience though stayed with me. I realized that I wanted to be able to create something so arresting. I’d fallen in love with music.
Claudio - I was a hungry listener, always looking for new music and, over my teenage years I got passionate about a lot of different stuff. My first big passion was the whole Seattle scene, I was in love with the low profile attitude, the sounds and the vibes of bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. From there I went backwards and discovered the roots of all that, which, at the end of the day, is blues. As a guitarist, I got massively influenced by blues masters like B.B.King and Albert King, later on by all the rock blues bands I could put my hands on, along with Southern Rock such as Lynyrd Skynyrd and Allman Brothers Band.
Hailing from four different countries, how did you guys all meet?
Claudio - Darren and I met 6 years ago when I joined his rock blues band called Rollin’ and Tumblin’. When the band fell apart, my side project Moo became our new band, which took off when we met Sebastian, from Argentina but had been living in Dublin for a good while already. We clicked pretty immediately and we played a lot around the country as three piece until we went to play in Spain and we met a crazy guy called Guille from Cadiz, in the deep South. We had to bring him back to Dublin with us!
When and where did you play your first gig?
Darren - My very first paid gig was in the Crosskeys Inn on Thomas St at the age of 19, playing lead guitar with a guy called Tommo Moran. It was an audition, and I got the gig ‘cos I did the duckwalk!
Claudio - The first gig ever with the four of us was in Madrid, two years ago. Guille wasn’t even in the band yet but he came all the way from Cadiz, in the South, to have a jam with us in this packed place in the city centre. What a night!
What has been your favourite venue to play?
Darren - Too many to mention!
What has been your worst concert experience?
Darren - Too many to mention as well! One that comes to mind was with my first band, supporting The Four of Us in UCD bar. When I was there, the UCD bar was a horrible place, shaped like a barn but with less civilized occupants. They had shutters running through the middle of it so that during the day they could keep half of it closed till they needed more space. Well, we started our set, and I thought to myself that actually there was a pretty decent little crowd there. Then, half way through the set the bar staff opened up the shutters and the whole crowd pretty much ran the whole way down to the back wall, as far away from us as they could go. Literally voting with their feet!
What was your favourite concert that you went to see?
Claudio - Santana, 5th July 1996, in Rome. It was my first trip to Rome and my first big concert: at the time Carlos Santana was my biggest inspiration and I enjoyed every single note I heard that summer night.
Darren - I’ll do better than that and tell you my top three favorite concerts ever!
1. Saul Williams – Le Circlaire, Angers, France
2. Hector Bizerk the first time they played Sweeney’s
3. The Cujo Family in the Harbour bar in Bray, a couple of months back.
I had no idea who Saul Williams was before I went. I had friends/bandmates who were going and insisted I had to go along. I had no idea what to expect. I even embarrassed myself by confusing him with the support act. What there was, when they eventually came on stage, was two men. Saul, rapping and reciting beat poetry, and his compadre on beatbox. That was IT! Yet, for two hours I stood rooted to the spot, listening to words of such beauty and eloquence, delivered with such passion and power, that it would be impossible to describe. That transfixing I felt the night I heard Enjoy the Silence, I felt that whole night too. It was a reaffirmation to me of what I wanted to do. And a mocking – considering how far I still had to travel.
It’s a feeling I get every time I get to hear Hector Bizerk. Audrey, their drummer, and Louie, their MC, can transmit that transfixing power too.
How much do other musicians influence your music?
Darren - A lot! But more in retrospect, where you realize it after, than in the actual process of creation. The exception being in songwriting, where I’ll consciously try to emulate some facet of a song that I really like. For example, a while back I heard Gavin Glass do a version of a Gene Clark song There’s a Train Leaves Here this Morning, and it’s safe to say I’m now obsessed with writing a train song! I’ve written, like, three already, and they’re all shit! But I’ll get one, eventually.
Claudio - A lot! Every musician who gives me an emotion influences me, and that’s one of thing about music that I love the most, being in constant evolution.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Claudio - No one in particular, I think our highlight is right now. Mongrel State is in a great form. We have recorded an album that we love, we are good friends, we have fun every time we rehearse and we are confident that we can play a good show on any stage we are given!
Work has just finished on a new album, do you have a release date?
Claudio - 30th January – Album launch in Whelan’s
Who has caught your attention on the Irish music scene recently?
Darren - The Cujos are still Fucking Amazing, to my ears. The first time I ever saw them was when they waltzed away with the King Kong Club competition a few years back. Then, I thought they were really, really good. They had banjo, and fiddle, and mandolin. They sounded like a slightly pop cross between The Band and The Pogues. And the looked great on stage too.
The last time I saw them was a few months back in Bray. Totally pared back. Bizouki, guitar, bass and drums. On paper, a poor comparison to their previous incarnations. But nothing about rock n’ roll works on paper. Without any of the extraneous instrumentation the full force of their songwriting comes to the fore, there’s no dolling-up of their delivery. Just four full-grown men looking you in the eye and telling it like it is. And they are god-damn-rock-solid-tight. They took my head off that nght.
Claudio - I was at The Mighty Stef album launch in Whelan’s and I really loved them. Great songs, kickass band and a powerful voice as deep as Mark Lanegan’s. KINGSTON are a young band from Kilkenny that I really like, I’m sure they’ll do great in the next years.
Who do you currently listen to?
Darren - Today I listened to: Jorge Ben (this funky Brazilian guy a mate of mine told me about), a bit of LemonJelly, and some Johnny Cash
What are your top 5 albums of all time and why?
Darren - Very tough question! Not my definitive top 5, but lets say a representative one:
Songs from a Room – Leonard Cohen. The only album of his I can listen through the whole way.
The Bends – Radiohead. I loved them when they were still trying hard not to copy The Pixies, instead of trying hard not to copy Autechre.
Songs our Daddy Taught Us – The Everly Brothers. 1 guitar and 2 of the most beautiful voices ever to grace this Earth singing 11 of the darkest, most bittersweet folk songs ever written.
Saul Williams – Saul Williams. Subsequent stuff to this hasn’t really grabbed me, but there’s no dicking around on this debut album.
A toss up between Exile on Main St and Sticky Fingers. Cliché, but what are you gonna do? Cliches become clichés for a reason, I guess.
Claudio - Very difficult question!
Dark Side of the moon ( Pink Floyd) – the concept and the music, together, make it a wonderful visionary journey. It’s what I would give an alien to explain the meaning of the word “music album”
Vs (Pearl Jam) – Raw, angry, poetic and political. I grew up singing along and playing air guitar before I learned how to play
Sticky Fingers ( Rolling Stones) – Simply a collection of great songs played by the best rock’n’roll band!
Santana 3 ( Santana) – Incredible music journey by the best Santana’s line up ever
OK Computer (Radiohead) – a modern masterpiece
Whats the best advice you have been given in your career?
Darren - Practice, and practice your scales and practice with a metronome (boring, but I’m constantly reminded of how true it is!).
Claudio - Play and jam with as many musician as you can!