Shane Johnson was part of dance music group Fish Go Deep whose debut album spawned a UK chart hit. He recalls the creation of that landmark record.
How we started
Greg Dowling started playing records in Sir Henry’s, on South Main Street, Cork in the autumn of 1988.
He named the Thursday night party ‘Sweat Dance’ and, on opening the doors for the first time, was amazed, delighted and secretly scared witless when the club filled to capacity within an hour.
The music was a mix of funk, hip-hop, rock, disco and the thrilling new sound of Chicago house. Over the next six months Sweat continued to draw the crowds, prompting club manager, Sean O’Neill, to ask him if he would take over on Saturdays as well.
That’s where I came in. I had known Greg for a couple of years through my older brother Billy, and had played with him a few times at his previous residency in Redz.
He knew that my DJ partner, Morgan Hurley, and I were building a decent record collection and invited us to join him on Saturday nights, where we would focus more on this emerging house sound.
Morgan moved to London shortly after but my partnership with Greg stuck and we became part of something very special happening in Sir Henry’s throughout the next decade.
Towards the middle of the 1990s we started to pick up some studio gear a keyboard here, a drum machine there. Before long, and without really planning it out, we had the beginnings of a studio.
So we made some music. At first the results were terrible.
Neither of us knew what we were doing and YouTube tutorials were 15 years into the future. But we were nothing if not persistent and DJ hours left us with plenty of time on our hands, so the music slowly improved.
Our first release came out on Red Records in 1994 under the name Fishgotech. The Fish bit came from the name of the record stall we ran in Cork’s English Market and “tech” referred to the techno vibe we were aiming for on the EP.
The initial plan was to change the last bit of our name to reflect the style of each subsequent release but, for better or worse, we never made it past the Fishgodeep moniker that was used on our second EP.
By the end of the decade our studio had expanded considerably and we were increasingly happy with the sound that was coming out of it.
We started shopping tracks to some of our favourite US house labels, and, to our surprise and delight, many of them bit. When there’s just two of you making music in a bit of a vacuum, it’s difficult to be objective about the results, so it was a huge confidence boost to get that validation from labels that we loved and respected.
We first met Tracey Kelliher from Tralee in the early 2000s. We knew she had a beautiful voice from her time with Galway band, Dextris, and there weren’t many Irish singers working in electronic music so we arranged a session.
The first song we recorded was ‘Lil Hand’ and Tracey recalls that day well:
“I was too shy to come down on my own so I brought [Dextris singing partner] Aisling with me. We recorded the vocals in Greg’s cupboard! Well, his utility room probably.
“But a few months later, Greg was playing in Dublin and it happened to be my birthday. He came back to a party at my house and I played him some of the tracks I had produced at home.
“Greg and Shane were in the middle of switching their studio over to digital, so in the meantime, they sent a track to keep me busy. And that’s when I wrote ‘Nights Like These’.”
‘Nights Like These’ became our first release with Tracey and we started collaborating regularly after that.
In the Studio
Aside from the occasional trip to the utility room, the entire album was recorded and mixed in our attic studio in Greg’s place. At the centre of our set up was, and still is, a chunky Allen & Heath GS3000 mixing console.
Greg describes it as “the sound of the album”.
“It has a lovely warmth and gave the record a nice richness and depth.”
It’s also a fine desk for recording live instruments and Greg’s guitar, Kieran Curtin’s bass and Mick Heffernan’s flute all benefitted from this.
Keyboard and synth sounds came mostly from the Roland JV1080 and the wonderful Waldorf Microwave XT. I was — and still am — a sampler fiend, and our Akai S2800 provided most of the drums.
When you’re working with others, outside your usual comfort zone, results can be mixed but all these sessions went smoothly.
Tracey also remembers the period fondly: “It was a time of great creativity and excitement and challenge, pushing myself to get past a lot of shyness and insecurities about singing my songs in public and to write more frequently. I was doing exactly what I had wanted to be doing.”
It helped that Tracey, who was living in Dublin at the time, would arrive in Cork every couple of weeks with another great song.
“I used to love coming down for the weekend to record. It was so relaxed so it was always chill and fun and working hard. And there’s always a great lunch in Greg’s house! I remember each recording but ‘Lil Hand’ and ‘Cure and The Cause’ seem to stick out more.
“I would usually never record if my voice was anyway sub-par but Greg persuaded me to just sing since it was all set up and we ended up getting the right take. It had the wistfulness and a huskiness that the previous ‘perfect’ takes were missing.
“And ‘Cure and the Cause’ - that particular day my voice was ON. The take we ended up using was the rehearsal take — the very first notes I sang… mad! There was some kind of glitch in the main recordings, which in the end was a blessing.”
In 2003 we released a Fish Go Deep EP on a Canadian label, Ultrasound. These guys also ran a vinyl pressing plant in Toronto and were well connected with distributors and record stores across North America, so seemed the ideal partner when we floated the idea of an album.
Ultrasound looked after the mastering and pressing over there and shipped copies to us for the Irish release in November 2004 — I remember the UPS delivery arriving with just hours to spare before the Dublin launch party.
Because we knew the market here, we decided to distribute it to Irish record shops ourselves, with Ultrasound weighing in with a worldwide release in early 2005.
In retrospect, this wasn’t a great idea, as we ended up chasing invoices for months afterwards. If Richard Branson is reading this, your long-gone Virgin Megastore in Cork still owes us a few quid!
Greg recalls loving the album when it was released.
“It was a snapshot of where we were at. There’s a real straightforward honesty and naivety about the album. We didn’t overthink it. I still like it. There may be some things I would have changed but overall I think it stands the test of time.”
I’d go along with that. We’ve learned a lot more about making music in the intervening years and might make a better-sounding record if we were producing it today, but there are some great songs on the album and it has a lovely flow and distinctive sound.
Once we had settled on the lead single from the album, American producer Dennis Ferrer was top of our list to remix it.
He had been on fire in the studio for a couple of years, producing amazing tracks of his own and turning out great remixes for other artists. His remix of ‘The Cure and the Cause’ took a while, though.
He had started on it but got a bit stuck on what direction to take.
Fellow New York DJ Jerome Sydenham later told us that Dennis had played him the work in progress and wasn’t sure about the string stabs that became such a key hook in the track. Jerome — modest as ever — claims credit for persuading him to go with the strings and, as they say, the rest is history. Thanks Jerome!
When Dennis sent us the finished remix, it was so radically reshaped that it took us a few listens to get our heads around it.
We recognised that there was something special going on but had no idea that it would resonate with so many people.
While still on promo in the summer of 2005 we started to get word back that it was blowing up in New York and was being played by all the heavyweight house DJs in the city.
By time it came out as the first release on our own Go Deep label, records stores in the US couldn’t keep it in stock and it was starting to make waves on this side of the Atlantic as well.
Greg recalls that he knew it was a lovely song but never expected it to be a hit. “Our profile was definitely on a global scale after that and we did a lot of gigs on the back of it,” he says.
Tracey remembers exactly where she was — in a car in Dublin — and exactly how she felt when I heard Dennis Ferrer’s remix.
“He brought it to an astronomical height. We had no idea it was a hit until I was asked to sing a live PA in Turnmills in London. I had never sung on my own so it was a big deal. I was a bit nervous.
“I thought a few people might know it since I was asked to come over, or maybe it was just the promoter or local DJ that was into it, but when I started singing the whole club erupted.
“The crowd went completely wild, jumping up on each other and roaring the entire song, I actually couldn’t hear myself. I called Greg and Shane after the show like: ‘Eh… I think they know the song in London’.”
Once Defected Records came on board, it started to crossover to the massive UK Garage scene and, eventually, the UK charts.
It peaked just outside the top 20 but, in the years since, has become one of those songs that just keeps on keeping on, passing 10 million streams last year.
In the years since, we’ve put out numerous Fish Go Deep EPs on various labels, have remixed heroes of ours such as Kerri Chandler, Charles Webster and Mateo & Matos, and have recently issued release number twenty on our own label, Go Deep.
We’ve also worked with Tracey on other projects, including the key song on our second album, Draw the Line.
The whole process of writing, recording and releasing Lil Hand — and subsequently dealing with the ups and occasional downs of having a hit single — taught us a huge amount about the music industry.
I think we’ve all been able to use this knowledge in different ways and situations since.
As Tracey says in answer to the question: in what ways did it change or shape your career? “In all ways.”
Lil’ Hand is available via fishgodeep.bandcamp.com