The performance troupe Scream Blue Murmur, formerly known as the Belfast Poets’ Touring Group, are pathbreakers in Ireland’s currently burgeoning live arts scene. Here they are interviewed by fellow poet and performer Dave Lordan of Irish Left Review on the eve of setting off on their latest North American Tour with their new show “Something’s Gone Wrong in the Dreamhouse”. Two exclusive tracks from the show are available to download below.
How challenging is it to combine political principle with artistic rigour?
I think this group starts with the idea that, in writing, sincerity, honesty and passion should be the driving force. To write well, in whatever form you choose, is a challenge. Whether you want to convey your message in traditional or slam poetry, multiple voice performances or songs, sometimes even combinations of all these at once, the choosing of a form is almost as important as the message.
The political side of the equation comes in when the issues or ideas that need to be expressed have to be formulated in such a way that they don’t fall into the trap of pamphleteering, basically the writing of a political treatise in poetic form.
If there is a challenge, it is the challenge of writing interesting political or historical material that can be conveyed to a world-wide audience in a relatively accessible format. The political equation is whether or not you can find an angle to illuminate the issues that interest you without being reduced to sloganeering.
You’ve recently incorporated a DJ, a human beatbox, and former Stiff Little Fingers Brian Faloon drummer into your group. Why, and has it had the effect you expected?
The group is going into its fifth year and we are continually developing the Scream Blue Murmur style and method.
Basically, we take all our external influences (music, comedy, writing, poetry, art, film) stick them in a blender on high speed and what comes out is our sound, sometimes surprising even to ourselves.
Everything stems from the writing, the added instrumentation supports what is spoken or sung.
In a traditional musical group the tendency is for the singer or performer to follow the music and fit in the words with the tune or rhythm. Alternatively you see poets read or perform over music which, unfortunately, has no connection to the written words. For us, it is the other way round, the musical accompaniment follows the words but we aim to find a connection between the two things.
Our drummer, Brian Faloon, has a substantial impact on the way the music wraps around the words and rehearsals are an experimental process where we each contribute to the overall sound. In our musical numbers we juxtapose harsh lyrics with sweet melodies and tight harmonies, we add to the percussion backing and we make our own dubstep or dance backing tracks. The Scream Blue Murmur sound is constantly evolving so we have the opportunity to develop our strengths.
Tell us about your collective artistic process? How do you deal with disagreements?
We are a completely harmonious group, so we never have any disagreements. Any tensions are resolved physically. Usually whoever is left standing at the end wins; similar to a wrestling match in a cage. Aisling Doherty bites and fights dirty – usually the biters win but some of us have been practising our moves off the top rope.
Your new show is about the American Dustbowl disaster of the 1930s. Why choose to remember this catastrophe over so many others?
The new show “Something’s Gone Wrong in the Dreamhouse” is our fourth touring show and it is based on, not only the Dustbowl disaster, but the entire decade of the 1930s.
After much research, we have written material on the interwar period and the impact of the war on people’s lives. We have written about the aftermath of the roaring twenties and the stock market crash, the dustbowl, the rise of fascism with Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, about Cable Street and about the fightback, things like the Bonus Marches, the Unions and the Auto Lite strike in the US.
We have a dance music version of the Billie Holliday anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” with an accompanying poem about lynching, and there is also material about some of the icons and the pastimes of that period. We have tried to cover as much as possible that is still of (sometimes regrettable) relevance in the world today.
We aim to come at these issues ‘from angles’ so we don’t aim for a linear or straight up historical reporting element in the writing.
With “Strange Fruit” for example, the aim was to investigate the attitude towards lynching. How it became commonplace in some places, so much so that postcards were produced of people picnicking under lynched bodies.
We approach the Dustbowl in the same way. There are a series of arguments around the cause. Some argue that it was caused by an unexpected and lengthy drought, others by the move towards monoculture and intensive capitalist agriculture. It would be easy just to write about that argument, but our work looks at the religious ideas in people’s heads at the time and how that impacted on their attitude to the Dustbowl, and also the turmoil that the Dustbowl caused in forcing people off the land.
A very important question, I think, for all austerity artists is how do you fund yourselves? Any tips for those disheartened by lack of funding?
There are two elements to this question and there is a fair bit of discussion and debate about the financial situation for art and artists at the moment.
It seems that public funds are normally only divided out amongst the same small, select group of artists, whether they are working in poetry, music or theatre.
The end result of this is other writers, poets and artists give up because it just isn’t financially viable to write or perform. There doesn’t seem to be a desire to support the next generation of artists financially.
In the US and Canada they have opened the door for a middle ground where circuits exist for writers, musicians, artists and poets to produce shows cheaply and make money, enough in some instances to live reasonably well on.
We think though, that we could really just take about 10 per cent of the military budget and there would be enough to fund hundreds of thousands of up and coming writers, musicians, poets and artists.
In terms of funding ourselves the sad thing is that a group like ours is forced to operate like a small business when public funding really isn’t available. We have always worked hard to find money to fund our tour, by gigging constantly through the year and taking workshops. We are coming ever closer to covering all costs, which would be an ideal situation.
You have had a very positive reaction in the states. Tell us about that and your next tour.
The group has generally had a good reaction wherever we have performed. Since the beginning we have had audience members who have seen us, enjoyed what we do and become bridge builders between us and a wider audience by encouraging other people to come and see us. Given that we have had hardly any press or TV coverage locally, this has been essential. In Kuala Lumpur one person heard of us, but we went over there anyway and thanks to their enthusiasm we played to a packed house. We have kept in touch with many of the people we meet on our travels and always look forward to catching up on our return visit.
We have had an exceptionally good response to our work in the US, particularly New York and Minneapolis. The most interesting thing about the scene in the US is the level of discussion about writing, music and art. There is a serious critical dialogue between audiences, critics, reviewers and performers.
This seems to us much more substantial than what we witness here. In Northern Ireland in particular there seems a real fear to engage in debate about the ideas that are being expressed; so most discussions, critiques or reviews avoid ideas, relying on description or reporting of events rather than looking over the underlying ideas being presented.
Our experiences in the US are that we are challenged much more thoroughly on both the performances and the ideas being expressed, which has led to us constantly developing both our written work and performance style.
It is worth noting that the performance standards in the US appear to be more responsively developed than almost anywhere else we have performed, perhaps as a result of that circle of critical investment made by audiences.
Will you be touring Ireland?
We have found that for our group is it far less draining artistically and financially to tour overseas than it is to tour and perform in Northern Ireland & Ireland.
A group like ours doesn’t fit easily into a simple categorization. We are not simply a poetry group, nor are we a standard musical group. We are a combination of writing and performance styles. We look for unique ways to convey the work to an audience. We like to keep it interesting for ourselves as well as those who have come to see us.
Our experience is that in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Europe this need for categorization just doesn’t matter. They appear to take you on face value. That means that groups like ours get a hearing and can build an audience.
It is much harder for a group like ours here. In Ireland and Northern Ireland there appears to be a savage demarcation of styles, therefore music groups play only in pubs, dance music in clubs. The two extremes of the poetry scene are found either in back rooms of old pubs with damp carpets and disgusting toilets or in plush venues like universities with tiny numbers of people in attendance.
What do make of the poetry scene in Ireland at the moment? Anything interesting going on?
As with any art form there is an ebb and flow in the themes, performance styles and audience reception of work.
A few years ago we would have said that the poetry scene here, both performance based and literary based was blazing a trail in the world of words. However, recently there seems to be an air of stagnation, with themes becoming more introspective and performances less inviting to the passerby. Whether this is due to the weight of the world’s issues becoming too much to bear for the “sensitive artiste”, or due to the pay packets of the established poets making their garrets a little more comfortable, remains to be seen.
However, when communities are in turmoil or conflict, artists inevitably respond with a creative surge. Given the current economic and political climate, we would anticipate that creativity will again bloom and that recent political apathy will be forced into submission.
Perhaps then that momentum will return and bring about the beginning of the next phase in Irish and Northern Irish poetry.
Right-click and select Save As to download. Unfortunately, only in .m4a format at the moment.