When a young band scrapes together the money to record a self-released debut album against the stultifying background of a small city in the throes of a recession, they might hope the album will be their one-way ticket out of town. When they call that album Exit Trashtown, it might seem like they’re raising two fingers to their beleaguered hometown on their way off to better things.
But that’s not the message indie rock four-piece Cypress Mine (styled Cypress, Mine!) were sending to Cork when they chose the title of their 1987 debut, explains former vocalist Ciarán Ó Tuama.
“People thought we were talking about Cork, and it’s true that Cork wasn’t in great shape in the Eighties,” Ó Tuama says. “but it was more about getting yourself motivated to do something creatively, as though ‘Trashtown’ was a mindset. In fairness, we did want to go further afield, and travel and make music in front of different audiences.
“A lot of our friends went to the UK to express themselves, but we wanted to see if we could do it from Cork. We said to ourselves, we have a talent and want to do something with it, what can we do? In our case, it was get a bit of money together and get an album recorded.”
Ó Tuama and his bandmates, guitarist Ian Olney, bassist Denis 'Skoda' O’Mullane and drummer Mark Healy rustled up a grand total of £800 and rented out Elmtree Studios, which was on the Mardyke. It was the summer of 1987 and they were recording their debut album without the backing and resources of a record label.
They were DIY long before digitisation made DIY the affordable option it is for so many bands today: the analogue process was lengthy, and time was money. For this reason, many bands self-released singles, but entire albums were rarer.
Elmtree was an eight-track recording studio. “It was essentially a garage, backing on to Fitzgerald’s Park,” Ó Tuama says. “It wasn’t very big; there were two rooms, one for recording and one for mixing. It was very small and very hot. That summer of ’87, it was a very warm summer. The recording took a week and the mixing took a week.” Through analogue technical wizardry, producer Dennis Herlihy could give the band 16 tracks to record onto, meaning they could get in guest brass players and keyboardist Skully from fellow Cork band Real Mayonnaise to flesh out the bare bones of the songs.
Despite the grim prospects for young people in 1980s Cork, and the exodus of talent to the UK, by the late Eighties, Ó Tuama says there was a small but lively scene built around a handful of promising bands of which Cypress Mine were just one.
“There were a lot of bands floating around the place, Porcelain Tears, Burning Embers, Real Mayonnaise, all trying to get noticed and get onto the national stage,” he says.
“The bands that were our fore-runners, like Microdisney and Five Go Down To The Sea had moved to London. They gave us inspiration, they made us believe we could do something with it, and not just us but people like the Sultans of Ping and the Frank and Walters. And I hope that at least we inspired a couple of the next generation to do their own thing too.”
The band’s enthusiastic young manager, Tony O’Donoghue (now a sports broadcaster with RTÉ), persuaded record label Solid Records, owned by fellow Cork man Denis Desmond of MCD productions, to cover the costs of distributing the 1,000 copies of Exit Trashtown that were pressed.
While their biggest success probably came with their 1988 single, Sugar Beet God, the work that went into Exit Trashtown paid off, with the LP acting as a calling card and leading to gigs in the UK and an MTV appearance, as well as legendary hometown gigs at Cork’s Lark by the Lee.
Just two years after the release of Exit Trashtown, Cypress Mine folded. Olney went on to play with Power of Dreams and Sultans of Ping, but for everyone else, including Ó Tuama who is now a designer, and O’Mullane, who owns popular Cork eateries the Liberty Grill and Café Gusto, careers outside of the world of music beckoned.
O’Mullane, who had picked up the nickname Skoda because of his van, said that for him, the very process of recording Exit Trashtown had been a wake-up call that the world of rock‘n’roll was not all glamour.
“I just remember hours of repeating to get things right,” O’Mullane says. “I’d never even seen that lengthy process to do an album before; you could record a single in a day, but this was a week of recording and then a week of mixing.
“It was an eye-opener for me, in terms of whether or not this is what I wanted to do with my life. I know Mark and Ian loved it, but for a bass player, your job is done quite early but then you still have to go and show up.”
Vocalist Ó Tuama had worked as a music photographer for years before Cypress Mine formed and the band’s uniquely quirky worldview, evident in the styling of their name, and in song titles like 'On Hillside' and 'Phone Call from Heaven', was heavily led by Ó Tuama’s arty vision: this was another reason, according to O’Mullane, that the band wanted to record an LP instead of singles.
“We were trying to make a statement,” he says. “Ciarán’s worldview was pretty weird so I think it takes a whole album to kind of get it.” Exit Trashtown was rereleased as a double album on vinyl, with the original ten tracks on one LP and a collection of the band’s singles and demos on the other, in 2017. Original pressings of the album have been known to fetch up to €500 by collectors.
For all its rawness and the rudimentary nature of the recordings, both O’Mullane and Ó Tuama are still proud of the album to this day.
“It’s a bit like seeing a picture of yourself in your communion clothes,” he says. “It might be a bit embarrassing, but it’s still you.”
Now a sports broadcaster with RTÉ, Tony O'Donoghue first met the band at a Youth CND rally in Cork and says he instantly realised they had a star quality.
“In that period, there was a lot of unemployment and things seemed pretty grim and yet there was a lot of politics, a lot of interest in things like civil rights and nuclear disarmament. Youth CND were a group of like-minded people who were doing what all young people should do: protesting and finding their voice.
“The lads were boy-band handsome, well, at least Ian was, and the girls seemed to like that sort of thing. Ciarán was a photographer and came from a long line of Gaelic poets, musicians and academics.
“Exit Trashtown was a calling card, a passport to get to London and to play the UK. We headlined Irish Rock Week in the Mean Fiddler, and Ryanair sponsored our flights. We persuaded Rory Gallagher to come down and see us, which was amazing.
“They had all the talent. They were good enough to produce great live shows and a very interesting debut album, but that’s only the start. Having worked really hard against all the odds for a number of years, and having achieved recording and releasing an album to critical acclaim, it’s then we had to double down and make it work, but real life got in the way. We all needed to make full-time careers for ourselves. There’s a massive regret from me, because I think the songs demand and deserve a much bigger audience.”