R.S.A.G. Interview: ‘with art it’s all about connection’

“For a drummer I’ve got really bad timing,” says Jeremy Hickey over a WhatsApp call, a few days after the release of his third album as Rarely Seen Above Ground.

As with any conversation these days, we get the C-word out of the way in the first minute or so, but it hangs around, adding a conditional constraint to every plan and idea an artist might’ve had for a new record in the old normal. 

Chroma is Hickey’s first full-length album in 10 years, with Be It Right Or Wrong recorded and released in the depths of the recession, so he really doesn’t make it easy for himself. But even though he’s not elbows deep in the usual launch gigs, radio interviews or in-store sessions, he says the album is connecting deeply already, aside from the positive reviews.

“I’m getting loads of positive feedback,” he says. “Not just friends and family, but people I haven’t seen in ages, maybe people I haven’t ever met getting in touch with me. I think maybe it has something to do with time as well… people feel like they want to reach out, it’s been brilliant.”

Hickey says that “people are really plugging this 10-year thing”, so he’s been nervous in the lead-up. He’s a ‘one-man band’ of sorts, co-writing with longtime school pal Jamie Walsh, but recording drums, bass, guitar and electronics himself, and presenting it live as a virtual band, with him drumming on stage in silhouette, cut with close-ups of him in the studio on other instruments. Maybe there’s less pressure when there’s no band knocking heads together for years trying to squeeze an album out.

Indiependence 2015. Photo: Dara Munnis.

“I was gonna bring it out last year, but it just wasn’t there,” he says. “It wasn’t fully formed yet, the emotional download was at 70 so I just couldn’t do it.”

With download complete, Chroma is RSAG’s most dynamic work yet. While his debut Organic Sampler and follow-up Be It Right Or Wrong had a close-mic’d clanking blues vibe with a few snarly nods to The Birthday Party or Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones, the LP springs from a more emotionally resonant and vibrant palette, so the album title is no accident.

“When it comes to anything to do with art it’s all about connection,” he says. “Maybe reading a book or poetry can be deeper, but it’s not as immediate. Music hits you straight in there, and that’s what I love about the process. That’s what I tried to do with with with Chroma, with the  idea of chroma simply meaning the intensity of colour, the intensity of light.” 

He says he tried to capture the range of human emotion like that chromatic spectrum, from simply sticking his mic out the window of his Kilkenny home studio to record the birds on an idyllic morning, to thinking about “what kind of happens to all of us, each and every day, each and every week, and every month or a year, and causes that rollercoaster thing to happen”.

He weaves tactile ambient textures and field recordings through opener Morning Sun and closer Weather the Storm, while leaning into wiry dance-punk (Meet You There), dubby brass breaks (Leave a Light) — and on The Jungle and Don’t Move So Fast, the type of frantic Afrobeat rhythms that Talking Heads co-opted on Remain In Light. 

Hickey posted a short tribute to legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen when he died in April, and he says it’s even hard to get behind a kit after listening to players like Allen.

Indiependence 2015. Photo: Dara Munnis.

“There’s so much structure, so much… what’s the word I’m looking for… there’s a patience. He was such a beautiful player,” says Hickey.  “Even up to his last album with Damon Albarn, The Good, the Bad and the Queen, just the sound of his kit, oh my God, the snare sound. I nearly wanted to go back and record some of the album again because of that snare sound. 

“Discipline is the word I was actually looking for, which I don’t have in a lot of things. With Fela Kuti and anyone else he played with, it was, OK Tony, you lead the way now…”

David Byrne’s Talking Heads tics emerge in his clipped, frantic vocals on the likes of The Jungle, while Hollow and Focus channel the brittle melancholia of Byrne’s underrated acoustic solo album Grown Backwards. Hickey doesn’t try too hard to deflect the comparisons, while acknowledging other reference points such as Jon Hopkins, Primal Scream or Aphex Twin’s ambient pieces. 

He says: “I think the whole David Byrne thing is, we have similar similar timbres to our voice, it’s just that tone. You know, my dad is a singer and he sings the same way. Listen, I can think of a few singers I wouldn’t like benign compared with, but David Byrne? That’s not too bad.”

There was no such happy accident in track 2, The Spark, a direct homage to Wu-Tang Clan’s Reunited, with a violin lead that’s just on the right side of legal. Hickey says: “I listened to that album [Wu-Tang Forever] in Boston in 1997 and that riff from Reunited stuck in my head for years, with the female vocal, ‘Wu-Tang muthafucka, Reunited muthafucka’. I knew I had to do it this time. I got Karl Rochford from Kilkenny to the studio and put the microphone about two inches from the strings because I wanted to get right into people’s heads.

“It has that cinematic feel, even if it’s a small riff, a motif. I love the cliched tropes of the hero’s journey. At the end he or she is victorious at the end and you’re left on a high. Even during recording when Jamie and I would meet up for a few beers it wouldn’t always be about the project, we would obsess over movies, great writers, poetry… I think that whole kind of ethos comes through on Chroma.

The RSAG live show is an intense audio-visual experience, but Hickey is reconsidering his projected visual approach — maybe anticipating crowds who might be allergic to screens after so many months in lockdown and cut off from the visceral experience.

“I’d like to create something with lights rather than screens and visuals,” he says. “Something a bit more live. With a screen it might look a bit… 2D, I want to immerse people into it. 

“I would love to just do a gig now, y’know. I don’t care whether it’s to five people, just to get out and celebrate the whole idea of it. And as corny as it sounds, just celebrating being here. When we all get back out there playing live, it’s going to be a big, big moment.”

RSAG’s Chroma is out now on Reckless records. 

(Featured image by Ruth Medjber — see more at ruthlessimagrey.com)