As the grotesque spectre of Brexit hangs over the Halloween countdown, many artists are joining in the collective retch and railing against the ghouls who got us here. But not everyone can pull a Slowthai ‘Fuck Boris’ stunt, holding up a severed BoJo head at the Mercury Prize show.
Instead of outright sedition, Belfast artist Philip Quinn has bottled the existential dread and disgust in Ireland and the UK at the minute, on his second album Gross Net Means Gross Net – a wry nod to Theresa May’s nonsense slogan from a time that actually feels more innocent now in hindsight. Track titles like ‘The Indignity of Labour’, ‘Of Late Capitalism’, ‘Shedding Skin’ and even ‘Theresa May’ are an obvious hint, before you’re gripped by the record’s dubby post-punk, wiry electronics, and dark corner ambient sound design.
Gross Net Means Gross Net is a follow-up to 2016’s LP Quantitative Easing and the cassette Outstanding Debt, and is his first release since leaving the now-split Girls Names. It builds on previous themes of recoiling against capitalism and oppression through body horror, sarcasm, bleak humour and Quinn’s resigned, battered down lyrics. I caught up with him recently to dig deeper into the quicksand and eventually come out with a bit of hope. Only a bit, mind you…
Gross Net Means Gross Net (obviously), but what else does it mean?
It means nothing intrinsically, which was a point I was trying to make. I saw this record as a bit of a departure from all the previous Gross Net output and in a sense it was my way of saying that Gross Net is whatever I say it is.
If you were to judge an album by its cover, this one has you with your head in your hands. Do you think it’s a pessimistic record?
Well yeah, though I think there’s a range of emotion that can be read into that head in hands gesture. I think of it in terms of defeat to be honest, the period in which I’d been working on the album was difficult personally, politically and musically and I suppose the times now remain so, albeit in some altered way.
And I think the music reflects that really, the previous record was more raw emotion and energy, mania even, and this record is the other side of that. The energy is spent and the problems are seemingly worse now that the hunger has changed from appetite to desperation. So, yeah, pessimistic.
Around the time of Quantitative Easing you wrote, “we’re all fucked, basically”. It must have been around the time of the actual Brexit vote. Was that the seed of the new album?
I suppose I’ve the same obsessions since I started the project but yeah a lot germinated from that and I knew at the time I’d use that as fodder for the current record. As hinted at in my previous answer, the politics has dovetailed with my personal tedium. It’s all so long, dragged out and ridiculous, but that doesn’t make any of it go away, though.
Is there any grim sense of fascination or even vindication seeing how the whole fiasco has panned out in time for your album release?
Oh definitely, I find it absolutely fascinating. I’d much prefer if such a political existential crisis wasn’t happening to me, however. I’ve not known the like of it to be honest, the most surreal political situation I’ve been in since the Troubles, although thankfully I missed the brunt of them.
In a recent interview with The Thin Air you said the album was finished in early 2018 but you had doubts around releasing it at all as you didn’t recognise yourself in the songs. Is that one of the reasons for giving your music existential themes – a reluctance to write very explicit autobiographical songs?
Ha! Well this is another thing, I find some of the tracks to be too autobiographical and marred by my especially bleak and insular worldview from the time and I worried they could have fallen into sadboi navel gazing. That being said, I aim to write about more universal themes as I think they’re maybe more interesting and more relatable? I think there’s something awkward or embarrassing when it’s too autobiographical.
On the album Quantitative Easing you seemed to explore capitalism and politics through a kind of body horror. Even the financial term gross has an obvious double meaning. When did you start having this type of visceral recoil?
I think I’ve always had it really, but nothing sharpens that capitalism/political body horror lens quite like the experience of living in the cold and dark while being hungry and mentally ill and feeling like you’re trapped with nowhere to turn. That, is truly ‘gross’. It’s all become an obsession since realising that the bottom line is what is paramount in life, and not anything else.
I, and I think we all really, do things every day that we don’t want to do but which we’re obliged to do regardless, for, and by capital. My head and heart say no but my body does it anyway, so in its own way, the capitalism and politics seep into the mind and body. If I said we were caught in it like a net would that conclude this extended metaphor?
Gross Net Means Gross Net is quite detached from a lot of what we’d call ‘protest’ music with its specific stories and on the nose sloganeering. Is this detachment or sarcasm a way of protecting or shielding yourself?
I suppose it’s my means of keeping things at arm’s length. I don’t really want to get into debates on political theory as I’m not a student of it and I don’t wish to be drawn. I don’t really want to sloganeer either as it tends to end up being Trump/Capitalism/whatever is bad! Like, no shit.
I suppose I tend to look more at experiences rather than catch all terms? I’m not sure if I really use it as protection or simply because I find it more interesting? Especially with politics these days people are drawn to choose sides/positions and it’s all a lot more confusing and messy than that allows. There’s little room for dissent on any side.
I’m guessing you still admire other more explicit protest music, have you any examples of artists who inspire you politically?
Not really I guess? I imagine Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Nina Simone when I think of protest music and while I respect all of them I’m not sure how much I’m really inspired by them. I suppose growing up it was Radiohead who inspired me most, although even then I found some of the lyrical execution a bit trite. I’m one to talk!
There’s a lot of ambient sound design and dubby techniques on this album compared with the minimalist cold wave directness of Quantitative Easing. There’s a lot more ‘space’ in general. How did the recording and writing differ from the previous album?
Last time I wanted to improvise which was both fun and a quick way of working but I found a lack of depth in it and I hadn’t written a ‘song’ for a while so decided to change things up for this record.
I’d estimate it took me roughly ten times as long to write and record and particular attention was paid to how musical ideas/instrumentation/effects and all came together and effected each other. Space is the place after all! A lot of music these days can sound too cluttered I reckon, I aim to strip things back more in future too.
You’re playing Ireland Music Week on Saturday, how important are these curated showcase festivals for exposure? Does it take away some of the pressure of the actual ‘business’ of constantly trying to make your presence felt in an underground scene?
Honestly, and it’s undoubtedly not what they’ll want me to say, I kind of do these things just for show. I’m amazed if I get picked up for one of these sorts of things as traditionally I don’t seem to be many’s cup of tea in terms of A&R, PR, media, organisers, promoters etc etc etc. Maybe it does do some good, I’m not sure, I think it’s hard to quantify if you make music like mine…
You’ve also had a series of album launch gigs, how have the live shows gone down so far?
They’ve been great, particularly the launch show at the Workman’s Club in August which was maybe my all time favourite show on the island and I played in Sligo for the first time thanks to the lovely folks at Art for Blind.
Apart from the obvious things like money and gaming the social media system, what’s the biggest struggle facing an independent artist in Ireland these days?
Well, those are two big ones. Maybe finding somewhere to play? It seems that more venues are closing, especially in Dublin, and they’re not really being replaced. I think the real DIY sorts of venues in particular are being hit which is a shame.
I’m guessing the Indignity of Labour is a riff on the Human League’s the Dignity of Labour? There’s a huge contrast between the drudgery of an “eight-hour locked in body syndrome” with smoke break respite, and the Human League’s tribute to Gagarin’s space mission.
This indignity hangs over a huge percentage of artists in Ireland and further afield. By the way, I actually didn’t come across the Human League track until after the fact but I was inspired by the term.
What’s been your experience of balancing music, creativity and work you don’t necessarily enjoy?
Most of the time I’ve hated it! I find it difficult to be around most people for even short periods of time so being forced into spending eight hours a day, five days a week, with a bunch of strangers that I’d sooner cross the street to avoid is mentally torturous. I wrote this track with one job in particular in mind, whereby I’d sit in a room doing nothing all day but look at the internet.
There’s only so often you can refresh social media/check news sites. Often I’m exhausted by the time I get home and I just want to relax, so I’ve to will myself to do some work on music. Fortunately I’ve found a workplace I feel pretty much comfortable in now. The dream would be to be able to work on music all day, I actually saved up and took two months off work to finish the album but if I’d needed to work on it on evenings and weekends it would’ve taken a lot longer. Still, there are worse off people in the world so I manage the best I can.
You’ve previously mentioned bands like Einstürzende Neubauten and Throbbing Gristle (“brutal, honest, disgusting”) as influences. Apart from the obvious Brexit shitstorm, have any other artists influenced your work in the last few years?
Coil and Scott Walker in particular have been big influences. Coil in terms of their sound design and making electronic music that doesn’t often fit into many ‘electronic’ norms, and Scott Walker’s later albums for his use of space and instrumentation and how one song can have a number of diverse sections which don’t repeat.
The track Theresa May is an instrumental that’s quite a serene, droney ambient piece. Is there any way you feel sorry for her in all of this?
Yeah I do, but then I cop the fuck on.
If you were to do a Boris song what would it sound like?
Blustery horns playing minor key clown music…
The album ends with Social Nationalists and the repeated line, “Coming together is falling apart”. It initially feels like a pretty bleak parting shot, maybe the crumbling or falling apart of collective action. Then again could we flip it to mean we’ll come together as things fall apart? There’s gotta be some hope…
Yeah, that’s the general idea, that something new is made from destruction or some otherwise irreversible change. People wanting one thing but finding its dialectical opposite in an abstract and different way and all being constantly in flux! People are always falling apart and coming together all the time for good or ill. It’s already begun.