WHEN musicians Kevin Murphy and Thomas Haugh began collaborating, their ambitions were far from lofty. “My main hope really, when we set out,” says Murphy, “was that we wouldn’t be embarrassed by it, that it would be something we could stand over. And amongst our peers that we could just play it and feel that it was some kind of contribution.”
Throughout the 1990s, Murphy, from Monkstown in Cork, spent much of his time with Dublin-based Interference, as well as performing as a session player for the likes of the Gavin Friday and Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan. About two years ago, he encountered his current bandmate at a gig where Haugh was playing drums and Murphy was playing cello.
“I was just noodling around with a load of ideas that I had,” Murphy recalls, “and he was just saying, ‘See all that stuff there. We could definitely use that as a basis for something that could turn out to be good’.” From there sprung Seti The First, and last April those ideas arrived in the fully formed and elegant shape of the album Melting Cavalry.
Driven by Murphy’s cello-led sound, the 10 instrumental tracks on the album are augmented by multi-instrumentalist Haugh’s exotic range of percussion and eastern European string instruments, as well as the subtle use of piano, trumpet and double bass.
“I suppose our aspirations have increased somewhat since then,” says Murphy, reflecting on his initially modest ambitions. “And it does seem to me like it has some kind of potential. I suppose our own bar has been raised by how it turned out and how it’s been received.”
When the pair first set out on this, it was on the understanding that they would play some music together and see what might happen. But Murphy had certain parameters in mind.
“I wouldn’t say that it was a very strong, coherent conceptual framework or anything like that. I suppose the idea was it would be instrumental music, but we didn’t really want it to be film music or anything. We wanted it to stand up on its own. We didn’t really want it to be ethnic music but at the same time we were envisioning some kind of folkish level to it, but as original as possible at the same time.
“Obviously, it probably doesn’t really sound like folk music, but funnily enough that is the one kind of concept that we were throwing around at the time anyway. I suppose to some people it sounds probably a bit more classical. Obviously there’d be influences like Arvo Pärt and Steve Reich or Górecki, those kind of people. And Tavner. But it definitely wasn’t ever supposed to be a classical record either.”
Melting Cavalry certainly wouldn’t be out of place in the modern classical bracket, but while it is music of serious intent, it could spill out beyond that particular niche in the manner of, say, an Agnes Obel or a Dead Can Dance.
Indications of this were found when Danish sensations Efterklang included a Seti The First track for a mixtape they did for online music magazine Under The Radar.
As Hulk, Haugh had remixed the Parades’ track Cutting Ice To Snow. So when Efterklang played their Piramida concerts in Ireland six weeks ago he left a copy of Melting Calvary with one of the security people at the Dublin gig.
“We didn’t really think it was going to get through but, lo and behold, three or four weeks after that we got an email from them to say they were listening to it and they loved it,” says Murphy. “So that gave us a huge boost.”
His determination to stick to his vision of an instrumental cello-based sound is beginning to pay dividends, but there was a time when he turned his back on the instrument.
“I was in the Cork School of Music and I hated it. Gerry Kelly was my teacher and he did everything possible to try and enthuse me but I absolutely hated it. Most eight-year-olds don’t like playing the cello. You kind of develop a love for it later when you’re about 17 or 18 when you realise that girls kinda like people who play cellos, but your peers when you’re eight or nine certainly don’t appreciate it,” he laughs. And well he might.
* Seti The First play Triskel Christchurch, Cork, on Thursday, and Sugar Club, Dublin, on Saturday.