KEN Griffin of August Wells smiles when he hears himself described as the “overlooked genius” of Irish rock, Ed Power.
“I don’t feel at home in the music industry,” says Griffin, his Dublin accent still strong after 20 years in New York. “I’ll be at a meeting and just want to jump out the window.”
Griffin is here to discuss his new project, August Wells. But to many he will be forever synonymous with Rollerskate Skinny, the 1990s group widely agreed to be one of the great lost Irish bands of the decade.
John Peel, the influential BBC Radio 1 DJ, was a prominent champion. Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction invited them to tour America as part of the Lollapalooza tour and in 1994 they duly shared the bill with Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, and Beastie Boys. Griffin and company seemed bound for somewhere exciting.
But things fell apart just as they were supposed to come together. Their 1996 album Horsedrawn Wishes was a messy masterpiece; when it flopped Warner Records brought its relationship with Rollerskate Skinny to an abrupt end.
Burned by the experience, Griffin relocated to the US where he has spent the past two decades trying on a variety of musical guises. August Wells, a collaboration with pianist John Rauchenberger, is his most stripped-down yet “With Horsedrawn Wishes I knew we had done something pretty special. I also understood there was no chance of it getting any attention because the big thing at the time was lad rock. “
Even worse than being overshadowed by Blur and Oasis, he says, was that Rollerskate Skinny were lumped with the “shoe-gaze” scene: an alliance of wispy, ethereal musicians typified by fellow Dubliners My Bloody Valentine. If scented candles could play guitar they would have played shoegaze. Griffin is still horrified to have been placed in such company. “We got thrown in with shoegaze, which was defined by very simple hooks. Rollerskate Skinny would have 32 parts to a song. We were buried under that and it took a long time for people to separate us out.”
August Wells is his latest stab at an anti-Rollerskate Skinny. On the band’s just released album Madness Is The Mercy, the ingredients are raw and unpretentious. It’s mostly just Griffin’s sandpaper voice — rougher and sadder with age — Rauchenberger’s piano lines, and crashing waves of gorgeously-spun ennui. “People think you’re down on your luck when they describe you as this “overlooked artist. That’s not true. I don’t feel overlooked when I’ve just played to a packed venue. I’ve been offered opportunities but wasn’t interested. I wanted to stay in control. The language of the music industry is the opposite to the language I want to use. I don’t think I’ve been overlooked — I’m just doing my thing.”
He gets back to Ireland several times a year. He loves coming home, but can’t imagine himself living here in the near future. “It is a little odd. People over here ask all the time, ‘why don’t you go back?’ I really enjoy touring Ireland. I like that it can remain a little bit magical in my head. We’ve toured there three times in the past year. It’s amazing — nowadays you can play across Ireland for weeks. When I started out, there were just a handful of places.’
He has lived in New York for two decades. He is currently based in Williamsburg, ground zero for the hipster apocalypse. “You see a lot of lawyers with neck tattoos. It’s pretty strange — but hasn’t that always been the way? A group of artists moves to an area. Then come the pretend artists and then the rich kids. And all the artists are forced to move even further out. New York is expensive but a lot of cities are that way now. People used to move up to the big smoke. Now it seems everyone has to leave the city because they can’t afford to live there.”
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