The plaza at Dublin’s Portobello Harbour is awash with skaters and pigeons. By the Grand Canal, people relax at the end of their day. “This spot is just so iconic,” says Julia Louise Knifefist, a 22-year-old experimental dance artist.
For more than a decade, the plaza was used for skateboarding. Annually, it hosted an independent music festival and, on occasion, it was used as a flea market. “Pre-COVID, it was such a hub,” says Knifefist, before lamenting how much of what is here will soon be erased to accommodate an upmarket “lifestyle” hotel, one of 60 currently in the city’s pipeline. “Now, it’s no longer going to exist.”
Knifefist moved to Dublin from Philadelphia in late 2018 to study music production at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology. His background was in indie bands, but by the time he arrived in Dublin he’d shifted towards noise-inspired dance – “harsh”, but “concise”. Quickly, his guttural rapping and reverb-saturated 808 beats carved a niche in the city’s underground. However, finding venues proved tricky. Not only was Dublin surrendering its public amenities to private developers, it was also allowing smaller cultural spaces to vanish.
“Tourism is the main breadwinner,” says Knifefist. “The investment in culture is only a vehicle for that international interest. But what about art that isn’t profitable for tourism?”
Of the handful of small venues receptive towards independent, experimental and off-centre artists, many were burdened by outdated late-night licence laws and crippling business rates. The cultivation of an eclectic local scene was risky, and the safer choice was to book big name performers who could draw crowds.
“We were reaching peak saturation point, with club nights bringing in big artists from the UK and Europe to sell tickets,” says Simon Mulcahy, a Dublin-based DJ, producer and filmmaker who performs under the name Toké O’Drift. “I didn’t want to be dancing to some guy I stream on Spotify. I wanted to dance to someone I know or could potentially collaborate with.”
“Anything a bit left-field didn’t really have anywhere to exist,” adds Roo Honeychild, a DJ and co-founder of Club Comfort, a club night and collective born in response to what she calls a “dark, barren time in the Dublin nightlife.”
In May of 2018, this sense of decline was compounded when a warehouse venue called Hangar was demolished and replaced with a hotel. In January of 2019, Tivoli Theatre, which hosted the District 8 club, was also torn down to make room for an aparthotel. But the heaviest blow came in April of this year, with the closure of the alternative cultural space Jigsaw. It was “the beating heart of the city”, says Honeychild. “There was no space that had been so universally used by people in Dublin’s music and arts community, and where migrant labour activists and tenant unions could organise.”
The response to each loss, however, was never defeatist. After the successful marriage equality and abortion referenda in recent years, increasing numbers of Irish youth had become more political and were adamant to keep that momentum alive. In late 2018, activists protested the housing crisis by occupying long-vacant properties under the banner of Take Back The City, and in a bid to salvage the nighttime economy, a dormant voluntary organisation, Give Us The Night, was revived.
Concurrent to this social awakening, the city’s music began to veer more left-of-centre. Dublin saw a rise in experimental dance and electronic acts, whose often-frenzied styles articulated this anger and frustration. Defined less by a singular sound than by a DIY ethos, they drew on a slew of genres, including footwork, Jersey Club, gabber and acid house, with the propulsive force being the urge to collaborate and thrive off each other’s respective idiosyncrasies.
Out of the lack of physical spaces and local support emerged an ecology of collectives, set up to function both as labels and events organisers. “I’ve tried to throw parties on my own, but the economics of running them in Dublin favours a two or three people group,” says Honeychild.
“I wanted to start DJing, but it didn’t feel very accessible to me. I would have been too scared to approach anyone,” says Aoife Keane, 25, a DJ under the name Sohotsospicy and co-founder of the Thrust Collective. “It was nice to start off in our little collective and find other people who had similar tastes and the same ideologies.”
“We were trying to get the more weirdo acts booked into clubs,” says Rory Sweeney, a producer and filmmaker in the Bitten Twice collective, formed with Julia Louise Knifefist and producer Fomorian Vein. Their aim was to “break a kind of musical hegemony in Ireland… a lofty fucking goal”.
Bitten Twice was conceived weeks prior to the first national lockdown, which naturally hindered their plans, but they adapted – streaming live sets via Twitch and releasing Bitten Twice Vol. 1, a manic 17-track compilation of digital hardcore, gabber and breakcore, featuring artists within their online orbit. “We wanted this very futuristic, left-field sound, with loads of big footwork influences,” says Sweeney.
Knifefist and Sweeney then appeared on Chancers, Vol. 1, a playful and starkly contrasting compilation of colourful, sweaty Jersey Club-inspired tracks released on City Imp, a label co-founded by Roo Honeychild. Described as “rave anthems for the TikTok generation”, Chancers was built on a foundation of nostalgic memes, with contributors sampling Enya, Gaeilge lessons from late-90s educational TV shows and endearingly tacky club anthems spun regularly at teenage discos.
“It was, ‘Who is going to not take this seriously?’” says Toké O’Drift, who opens the album with his track “OHFCKIT”, a bouncy remix of a viral video in which an Irish family chases a bat around their house. “It’s reflective of this meeting point of Irish colloquialism with changes in new media,” says Honeychild.
Of the few positives to emerge from the year under lockdown was this spirit of increased collaboration, says Toké O’Drift, whose recent debut LP, Sploosh, acts as living proof: “I wanted to get people who I really liked on songs that they wouldn’t do normally, like grime or very optimistic boppy summer anthems. Strike up a contrast and re-appropriate voices into a new context.”
At the heart of this ecology, says Toké O’Drift, is Dublin Digital Radio – a 24-hour online station, founded in 2016 and originally based out of Jigsaw. Following in the footsteps of not-for-profit community stations such as NTS and Subcity Radio, the listener-funded DDR boasts 175 residents and offers a wide range of alternative programming, from explorations of archival folk to hauntological soundscapes reflective of present-day Dublin.
“DDR is the linchpin,” says Honeychild. “It’s been so crucial in having this broader piece of infrastructure, which allows smaller collectives to band together, co-ordinate and intersect.”
“When I got involved with DDR, I’d literally never DJ’d before in my life,” says Eric FitzGerald, AKA Qwasi, an ambient electronic artist and co-owner of the independent label Bad Soup, which released Toké O’Drift’s debut album. “It taught me a lot about the inclusivity of the Irish scene, because they just want to hear what you do and show you what they’re doing.”
According to label co-founder Adam Smyth, Bad Soup followed the same principles. “It was just a vehicle for other people to get involved in and release their weird shit through,” he says. “There’s a real resurgence of DIY attitudes across the board because there’s nothing else to do,” adds FitzGerald. “I’m convinced there’s going to be a second wave of punk – not music, the attitude.”
His go-to example is Acid Granny, a band of buskers in their twenties who perform out of a shopping trolley packed with Casio keyboards, toy instruments and effects pedals – all powered by a car battery. “Their attitude towards this is just: go out and fucking pick a street and play a tune,” says Fitzgerald.
Formed in 2018, Acid Granny consists of anywhere between two and five members. Their oeuvre is a sprawl of glitchy, improvised freeform dance, chaotic psychedelic digital jazz, live polyrhythmic drumming and surrealist lyrics about Irish life and culture. “Mad sounds,” they say simply, requesting that they be referred to only as “a random assortment of grannies”.
Though they weren’t driven to the trolley as a direct result of the city’s vanishing nightlife, as far as they are concerned, shopping carts are one of the solutions. When the clubs became inaccessible, artists formed collectives. When they couldn’t get distribution, they set up their own labels. When venues closed entirely, they took to streaming. And if all else fails, there’s always a trolley lying around somewhere.
“We don’t have any venues,” says one of the “grannies”. “We don’t have any squares. Like, I just want to see more people, more people on wheels.”
Posting up at various corners around the city at all hours, Acid Granny typically pick the principal shopping areas, but generally favour a “no man’s land” on O’Connell’s Bridge because “complaints come from shops and apartments”. Occasionally they’ve lent the trolley to protesters, including a year-long strike action by the former employees of Debenhams and a late-night Extinction Rebellion action, during which climate activists chained themselves to the gates of Irish parliamentary buildings.
When busking was banned under the lockdown restrictions in December of 2020, Acid Granny took to streaming and recording via chat rooms. “It was a break from the fucking absolute misery,” they say. “We ended up being able to have little sessions of writing with people from all over Ireland.”
From these sessions came “a 12-minute album of pure glory” titled Songs For The Radio, Vol. 1; a series of “radio shows” in honour of St. Patrick’s Day, featuring a cast of 23 performers and actors; and a mockumentary about an actual branch of Lidl in Dublin that was built over an 11th Century Viking ruin. “They decided to put it in plexiglass, so you can see the ruins beneath your feet while you’re shopping,” one of the “grannies” laughs.
Now that COVID restrictions are lifted, one of their plans is to add a “rickshaw-based” mobile kiosk to their set-up as a means of roping artists into their nomadic collective.
“We’ll get all the other class heads we can find to come down to the trolley and play their sets,” they say. “If we could get more people, more acts to try playing on the streets, and get them kinda hooked, well then we’d have a fucking savage buzz.”
Toké O’Drift’s album ‘Sploosh’ (Bad Soup) and City Imp’s compilation ‘Chancers’ are both available now on Bandcamp. Acid Granny’s ‘Songs For The Radio, Volume 1’ (Bad Soup) will be released on the 28th of June.