B-Side the Leeside: Emperor of Ice Cream and the album that never was

Ed Power collects the oral history of Emperor of Ice Cream, today remembered by many as the great Cork band that never was.
B-Side the Leeside: Emperor of Ice Cream and the album that never was

Emperor of Ice Cream signed to Sony in the early 1990s. Although their album was never released, they made some decent EPs and enjoyed their brief brush with fame, writes Ed Power

Emperor of Ice Cream: John ‘Haggis’ Hegarty; Eddie Butt, Graham Finn and Colm Young.
Emperor of Ice Cream: John ‘Haggis’ Hegarty; Eddie Butt, Graham Finn and Colm Young.

In his apartment in Brooklyn, Graham Finn is contemplating the end of the world. “It’s a bizarre situation,” says the Cork musician, from the city that has become one of the global epicentres of the coronavirus pandemic.

“In my building alone there are 48 apartments. Everyone is living on top of everyone. You have millions taking the subway. It’s a petri dish. Social distancing is definitely a lot harder in New York.”

Finn moved to the city 14 years ago. He plays in the well-regarded indie band August Wells, helmed by former Rollerskate Skinny leader Ken Griffin.

His day job, meanwhile, is managing a number of bars across Brooklyn. However, he also has a fascinating second life as the guiding light behind several of the most engaging music projects to ever originate in Cork.

Bass Odyssey, his late 1990s drum and bass outfit, featured on the soundtrack to 1999 Samuel L Jackson b-movie Deep Blue Sea and were championed by LL Cool J.

He also provided the music to the 2000 novelty chart-topper ‘Who’s In The House’ and played on Depeche Mode singer David Gahan’s 2003 album Paper Monsters.

But the project up for discussion today is wistful indie underdogs Emperor of Ice Cream and their four-track 1994 EP, William.

William, on its release, was heralded as a calling card from a group with the potential to be next Frank and Walters or Sultans Of Ping.

The quartet’s trajectory bore striking similarities to those the Franks and Sultans. Gigs around Cork had drawn a following and attracted record label interest from outside Ireland.

The London rock press was on their side, too – always an achievement for an Irish band. So there was a widely-held assumption they would join the Sultans and the Franks to form a tri-force of Cork indie legends.

Alas, music industry politics got in the way, and they fell apart before putting out an album. Which is why Emperor of Ice Cream are today remembered by many as the great Cork band that never was. This is their story.

Early Days

“We were all in different bands — all trying to get record contracts,” recalls bassist Eddy Butt. “I was in a band called the Rose Garden — more of a goth band really. We had a niche following.

"We ended up supporting the Sisters of Mercy at Sir Henry’s in Cork which was fantastic. But all the bands we were in had a very short lifespan. I’d heard John, our future singer, in his previous bands. He was fantastic — there was a real Stone Roses vibe about him.”

Graham Finn was 17 and still studying for his Leaving Cert when he, Butt, singer John ‘Haggis’ Hegarty and drummer John Lynch, formed Emperor of Ice Cream — named after a poem by the 1920s American modernist Wallace Stephens.

“We were all a bit fed up,” says Butt of the time. “So we started the band to have a bit fun.”

Growing Hype

In late 1992, the Emperors were asked to headline a four-band showcase at Nancy Spain’s on Barrack Street in Cork. The bill also included Ruby Horse, another Leeside act winning a lot of plaudits at the time.

Sony Ireland’s rep, Olan McGowan, was among the audience and immediately took a liking to the Emperors.

This was at the height of what the British music press had dubbed the “Corkchester” scene. The Sultans and the Franks were the toast of UK indie-dom; Cork was being hyped as Ireland’s Manchester.

British journalists wrote about it as a scrappy second city with a chip on its shoulder and an apparently inexhaustible supply of fantastic new musical talent. Soon label scouts were descending on Cork with orders to sign a band, any band.

Sony were first to the post in terms of sealing a deal. Later, Emperor of Ice Cream would discover Nirvana’s label Sub Pop also had an interest.

But when Sony offered a development deal they did what anyone in their position would and put their names on the dotted line. Because Finn was still a minor, his father had to co-sign the documents on his behalf.

It wasn’t an especially lucrative contract. But by modern standards it was shockingly munificent.

For instance, when four musicians moved to a house in Perry Vale in the London borough of Lewisham to develop their live sound, the label covered their rent and paid each an £80 stipend.

“Olan MacGowan was very supportive,” says Finn. “Eddie Kiely, our manager at the time, was adamant it was going to take a while. We’d need a couple of EPs to develop our sound. And then we’d do an album. The whole thing was supposed to be four singles and the option to take an album.”

Recording William

Emperor Of Ice Cream proudly wore their droning “shoegaze” influences on 1993 debut, the Overflow EP.

But by the time it came around to recording William at Protocol Studios in London in the shadow of Arsenal’s Highbury Stadium, they were starting to find their own sound.

William was produced by Adam Kviman, a mixing desk wiz who had previously worked with the Wannadies and The Cardigans.

“Olan figured that Swedish pop production would be perfect for us – which it was,” says Finn. “Adam came over to Waterford to watch us play a show, at the Mansion House I think. We went to Protocol, which was where My Bloody Valentine made Loveless.

It was massive for us: here we are in London with a producer who has his own engineer, in the room where My Bloody Valentine did Loveless.

At that point, Emperor of Ice Cream were already building a following in the UK. They had been picked up by influential booking agent Steve Strange, who was about to have his first major breakthrough with Ash.

And they’d done well supporting Manic Street Preachers and the Sultans around Britain.

“Steve Strange was the go-to guy for Irish bands in London in those days,” says Finn. “I know Tim Wheeler from Ash as we both live in New York. He remembers Steve bringing them to see us at the Camden Falcon.”

The Emperors were finding their feet as a heartfelt indie band. William was a huge leap forward. As was follow-up single, ‘Know Me’, which has an irresistible Charlatans-esque spring in its stride.

And they’d lined up a producer for their album: Fast Eddie Clarke of Motörhead.

“It was literally all ready to go,” says Finn. “And then at the 11th hour, Sony pulled the plug.”

The Meltdown

“You can be out of date very quickly,” recalls Butt of the band’s disintegration. By early 1994 the UK music scene was starting to change. ‘Corkchester’ had been cast aside in favour of the arriving Britpop scene.

Meanwhile the Emperors sound was turning more rock oriented, as demonstrated by decision to work with the guitarist from Motörhead – not someone you can imagine producing the Sultans or the Franks.

“Melody Maker had been writing about us,” says Finn. “When XFM [UK radio station] started, Steve Lamacq gave us single of the week for ‘Know Me’. We were on the right path and then suddenly it ended.

The people we worked with believed in us. At the end of the day, the label executives were looking at the quarterly reports. They were also releasing Michael Jackson records – they don’t care about the little guy.

Still, having sunk so much time and cold hard cash into the Emperors, it was baffling that Sony didn’t at least take a punt on an album.

All the songs had been written and demoed. Fast Eddie was a big name producer. The money had been spent.

All that was let were the final recording sessions. What was there to lose?

Strange Homecoming

Stung by the rejection, the Emperors came home and the group fell apart.

“We were pushing into rock n’ roll and maybe that wasn’t trendy,” says Finn. “At the same time they should definitely have put the album out. We were holding back material thinking, ‘This is going to be an album track’.”

“We had a lot of fun,” says Eddy Butt. “We were getting quite a big following in London. We were doing tours – getting fan mail in the door. And then it just stopped.”

“Once it all happened and we parted from Sony…we kind of drifted,” recalls Finn.

“It was an emotional time for all of us. One minute you’re riding the crest of a wave, the next the wind gets knocked from your sails. We left with a little bit of debt to the banks. It wasn’t a whole lot, though at the time it seemed that way. We ended up doing a bunch of gigs towards the end in Ireland.

We made decent money because we were selling out venues there. So at the end of the day we didn’t get into huge debt. A lot of the money we spent was record company money.

Britpop and the rising profile of Suede, Blur and, later Oasis, may not have helped.

“We were definitely not in that category,” continues Finn. “We were pushing in a more rock direction. Maybe that wasn’t trendy.”

Looking back, he wonders if they didn’t quite fit the stereotype of what a ‘Cork group’ was supposed to be. “Our name was a slight misnomer,” he says.

“On paper, a Cork band called Emperor of Ice Cream… people thought they must be like the Sultans of Ping or the Frank and Walters. The press were definitely thinking, ‘Cork band – quirk name’. ‘They have to be weird’. That worked against us a little bit.”

Despite the break-up, Eddie Butt – now working for this newspaper – has happy memories of those days.

“Whilst the much-anticipated album never materialised, the experience of being in a professional band was a life-changing experience. These were fun times and it opened the door to many friendships.

“There is more to being in a band than just wanting to be famous. Creating something special, like writing music with friends no matter how good or bad, is a great way to grow up and I would recommend it to everyone.”

Where are they now?

John Hegarty lives in Waterford. In 2012 he launched a musical collective, Band of Clouds and runs a studio in Waterford with Katie Kim.

Eddie Butt lives in Cork and works as a graphic designer at this newspaper, the ‘Irish Examiner’.

Graham Finn lives in New York where he plays with August Wells and manages a number of bars.

Colm Young would later join Bass Odyssey. He now lives in New York and plays jazz.

More in this section