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Around the House: Interview with KÍLA's James Mahon

BACKSTAGE: the Daily Pint editors with James Mahon and his wife Francine.

On the 30th of December, 2022, we had the unique opportunity to interview James Mahon, piper and flutist for Kíla – a highly postmodern fusion of deeply rooted Irish traditional music with one of the broadest arrays of world influences. With a floating formation of uilleann pipes, flutes, fiddle, mandolin, electric guitar, bodhrán, electric bass, drums and several kinds of percussions, Kíla is certainly one of those bands that takes everything to the next level – including, of course, the audience, which is driven to a boiling point of unbelievable collective energy. The interview took place moments before their much awaited concert at Monroe's Live, in the heart of Galway's cultural nightlife, a night to remember indeed – which was thoroughly enjoyed by the Daily Pint and photographed by our editor Leonardo Ramos for this here article.

THE DAILY PINT - How do you feel about playing tonight? How do you feel about playing in Galway?

JAMES MAHON - We play in Galway probably twice a year in this venue, Monroe's, and it’s always great because it’s always high energy here. It's kind of a crazy venue, it's got a lot of energy. As you can see, you’ve got the stage and then the floor just below it and then behind it you’ve got two levels… so you’re actually looking at three levels of people. It's like looking at three different rooms of people having a great time. So, it is great.

PINT - Galway is sort of a musical town, especially when we talk about trad. Is there any difference in playing in Galway and elsewhere in Ireland?

JAMES - Here you would recognize a lot of musicians that come to the gig. I suppose at this time of the year, at Christmas, people would be back to see us. I think going to a Kíla show at Christmas time is a ritualistic thing… especially the Dublin Christmas show which now is actually in January, but used to be in December just before Christmas… a lot of Irish people who lived abroad and would come home for Christmas would meet at the Kíla Christmas show. So it’s like a meeting place for people. When I was a kid my brother brought me to the Kíla Christmas show when they were doing two nights at Vicar Street, which is a big venue in Dublin. But time has changed, you know? We’ve been through sessions, the Covid going on… so now it’s difficult to sell a venue two nights in a row.

PINT - How was coming back from Covid for you guys?

JAMES - It’s been pretty good because we are doing things a little bit smarter. We are not doing loads and loads of shows. We are doing less shows for better fees and it gives us an opportunity to find funding or sit down and be creative. So we have more time for creativity and family time. We’re doing maybe one quarter less shows per year, which would then be maybe 25 shows less per year… which is significant.

PINT - You did a few soundtracks and have been nominated to prizes, you won an IFTA for ‘Arracht’. How is the creative process for soundtrack and how is that different from gigging and recording albums?

JAMES - It takes a long time. First of all, the two soundtracks that we were nominated for were Wolfwakers, the Cartoon Saloon animation movie, which was nominated for an Oscar. And then with Arracht, which is an Irish language movie, we won the IFTA which is the Film and Television Awards. So that was a huge honor. We were very passionate about that project because of the content… the story of the movie was about the famine and British rule in Ireland. So, winning an award for the music was really powerful. In both projects we looked at segments of film that were cut together as examples of what the journey in the movie was going, and we would watch it over and over again, get really deep inside the atmosphere and try to be the person in the scene… trying to create music, create sounds, create atmosphere that was representative of the vibe that was there. For that movie the soundtrack and the effects were quite tense, dark and deep moody. And then with Wolfwalkers we collaborated with Cartoon Saloon and a french composer called Bruno Coulais. It was a team effort… he writes scores for some sections and we write melodies for other sections. So, if he gets an orchestra to play his bit and it might not just have that kind of live energy or feel the excitement that he is looking for, we add our bit to it and bring the colors that he might not be able to get under pressure recording an orchestra in the studio. Then we sit and watch sections and play what feels right. It’s a lot of fun. Everyone would pick up a percussion instrument and do the dogs running through the woods and a lot of drumming running effects and stuff like that…we would always do it while watching. We never just write it on a piece of paper and get stuck on it. It’s always like being a part of it and interactive energy. It’s the same as we do on stage, if you give us energy we give you back energy. If you don’t give us energy it can be really hard to play. If there is one guy standing there with his arms folded our job is to get him dancing. And he keeps there with his arms folded, after a while I go there to say to him “get out of my eyes!” (laughs)

PINT - How's the band's creative process? Do you jam together to come up with new ideas?

JAMES - It’s really hard because we live in different parts of Ireland. So when it happens it’s during soundcheck. Like, today I have brought a new melody into the mix and just started playing in soundchecks and it’s evolving. So, what has been now a melody with a song part to it has a new subsection evolved just now, where there is a kind of a talk back and forth between the electric guitar and the pipes. That’s something we just tried today before the show. You know, we all have our own lives, our own families and stuff on the way of getting us together, but when we do it it’s always great. We usually have scheduled rehearsals around five times a year…but in order then, it’s arriving early and doing the soundcheck, because otherwise it doesn’t happen. It’s really important for us to try something ourselves and then try it for an audience and see how they respond to it.

PINT - I suppose the stuff you get recorded would have been bounced back and forth from the audience and the gigs?

JAMES - Yes, it could take a couple of years. And there are some things that we play for a while and we think “ah, that’s crap” and we don’t do it anymore for a long time…and then after some time we re-emerge it. I think the way the band is working is that the music that will go on an album is the music that is really working well in the shows, where in the earlier days would be to write music for an album to then play in shows. And since Covid, we had the opportunity to collaborate with different types of artists… so we’ve had circus companies and now on the 27th of January we’re going to do a big show at Dublin TradFest with an 8 piece Brass Band, so that’s a working progress.

PINT - You define yourselves as World Music and not Irish trad. Is that true and how would you define the band?

JAMES - I would say one or two of us might define ourselves as World Music. I think we are best defined as Kíla because we all have our own influences and it all comes together as a group. So it is world music because we have influences using global instruments and when we travel the world we get to hear traditional music in Malaysia, for example, and get inspiration from something really lovely in there that would influence a piece of music. So it is World Music.

PINT - Could you think of a top 5 influences that would play a big role in the band?

JAMES - I think if you asked that to the eight members of the group there would be different answers. But for example, there is a breton band called Gwerz and they were a big influence on Kíla in the early days and that’s where the track Gwerzy came from. So that’s a Breton influence. Then you’ve got Fela Kuti that has a huge influence on that kind of groovy percussion. It’s a tough question because you would get different answers.

PINT - And what would be your personal big influences?

JAMES - For me the Moving Hearts would have an influence on how I approach playing with the band because if I’m just sitting playing tunes in a session I would play it very differently. So when I play with the band I play for the show. It’s like getting into a different costume… it’s a looser approach to playing. I have always enjoyed listening to Dan Ar Braz, Fela Kuti and recently I was introduced to Gwerz, so it was cool to hear their early influences… and there are hundreds of other examples. That’s the trouble of having Spotify. We don’t have an album to put down and pick up again… it’s just “listen to this” and it disappears into nowhere. So it’s hard because I’ve heard some great stuff over the years and I don’t know where it is anymore. That’s a disadvantage of a musical collector unless you actually get hard copies of albums. I really feel it’s an important thing to do, you know? You get to feel the real thing and see the work the artist has been doing to it, instead of just tapping a button on Spotify and playing for a couple of seconds and skip it, because that’s what everybody does. When you put an album you can walk away and do your dishes and actually absorb the music…for me it’s far more special. But now I have to sit in the car ‘cause I don’t have a CD player anymore (laughs).

PINT - Do you personally have any influence from Brazilian music at all, being married with a Brazilian girl?

JAMES - Brazilian music is absolutely gorgeous. Probably the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. I remember being in Brazil and hearing two guys performing in a restaurant… for a moment I even forgot about the people that I was with because of these guitarists. The energy is amazing in Brazilian music. I’ve been in the Carnaval as well and for thousands of people to be able to move and dance to one vibe is just mind-blowing. So yes, I’ve been influenced by Brazilian music and people. When I first went to Brazil I saw you guys there really passionate about traditional Irish music and really wanting to know how to play it with the Irish accent… that moved me so much that got me to a conversation with Alex Navar to do something, so that you guys would have more excuses to get together and then eventually it turned to Comhaltas Brasil. My conversation with Alex started many many years ago and at first I said “Brazil is miles away... I will probably never end up there”. But… little would I know. I have been there more often than I thought I would be.

PINT - There is a lot of Brazilian people now that just hear about trad and start picking up on the tin whistle, which is probably the easiest instrument for them to get there. What would you say to those people?

JAMES - If it feels good, keep doing it. And listen. Keep listening to different stuff. I think a lot of Irish traditional musicians in Ireland, especially young people at the moment, they don't really tend to listen as much as I would have when I was their age. I learnt so much by listening to lots of different stuff… and again, I don’t know if Spotify or YouTube helps. Years ago somebody might go “hey, listen to this” and they would hand you an album, then you would go home excited to play it and listen to it carefully. Again - it’s difficult to listen closely to stuff nowadays. But try to listen to it. You can try that app to world music radio stations and tune in to an Irish radio station and listen to it. That’s how you get the accent, it’s like learning a language, you know? You listen and you speak with each other.

PINT - It leads to the way we tend to learn Irish traditional music in Brazil, which is going to sessions. Here as well, but there are also gigs, concerts, radio stations, you can learn from a teacher, when in Brazil it is basically sessions. How important are the sessions and what would you say to the Brazilian people?

JAMES - Well, the sessions are the most important thing, it's the heart of it. It's the point when musicians sit together and play. Getting a lesson is almost like you’re training for a football match and the session is your time to play the match. It’s your actual time to be with other people and share, and that’s what this music is. So keep playing in sessions! Playing together with other musicians is the most important thing. It’s not about learning a couple of tunes and then going on stage and finding the time to be a showman… that tends to come after a long time afterwards. But if you’re fluent at the language you can figure it out. At the moment I’m not getting the opportunity to go to sessions as much as I’d like, and when I do it is a gorgeous thing and it reminds me that I should do this more. Sitting down with friends and playing for joy. Because if you’re practicing and playing at home on your own or with the same people that can get a little bit tired. Even if you try to get people that don’t play Irish music to get involved into a session it can be very interesting to see what they have to show.

PINT - What is your favorite Kíla album?

JAMES - I think ‘Mind The Gap’ is a huge one for me because when I was starting to learn flute Emer Mayock, who is a flute player, was living with my brother and she gave me a cassette tape with her album on one side and Kíla’s ‘Mind The Gap’ on the other side, so that is very dear to my heart. I went from being a kid listening to Kíla and going to my first ever gig when I was 14, which again was Kíla gig, and now I’m in Kíla. So it’s pretty special. It’s happened twice because before Kíla I was playing with Afro Celt Sound System… so it happened previously. Another album I would like to mention is the one that is coming out very soon with the brass band and it’s going to be pretty exciting!

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