So Cow is Brian Kelly, a young Galwegian man with a penchant for the scuzzy side of pop music. His most recent album These Truly Are End Times (2007) is a truly unique gem which I - personally, yet passionately - believe to be one of the greatest Irish records of all time. Critically acclaimed and loved by all those who listened, it also resulted in support slots with the likes of Dan Deacon and Ted Leo and The Pharmacists. His marvellously haphazard cover version of Deerhoof’s ‘The Perfect Me’ even attracted the attention of musical savant Greg Saunier who made it available for download from their website. Having spent the past few years teaching English in South Korea, he has returned to our island community clutching the half hour of power that is I’m Siding With My Captors. I catch up with him as he eats a curry and listens to Times New Viking, an unwise, stomach-upsetting combination.
12 / other / Basra
Sweet. First of all - don’t kill me - why are you called So Cow?
So Cow comes from a spelling test given to a classroom of elementary school kids in Korea. One of the words I tested them on was ‘such’. One kid, Nick, wrote 'so cow'. I saw that, and the rest, as they say, took a while. Then, by coincidence, I found out that the Korean word for ‘cow’ is ‘so’. And when asked how they are feeling, if in anyway not totally happy, Koreans will answer in English “so-so”... it snowballed from then. It’s bigger than all of us now.
Wow, I had no idea it was so intricate. So the third So Cow album is coming out soon. What’s happened so far?
Well, the first one doesn't count [2005’s That’s It, Christmas Is Cancelled!]. The official first one was released last year to moderate acclaim and minimal financial reward. It was called These Truly Are End Times. Google it and, indeed, buy it. The new one is called I'm Siding With My Captors. It’s the second and a half, counting the first as the half. But yeah, it's the second. The first was burned onto, like, 41 CD-Rs for friends and nobody ever commented on it. If it was a dog, it would have been a stray knocked down by a lorry on a motorway.
From what age were you musically involved? What first got you ‘into’ music?
I liked music from early on, specifically The Beatles and Queen. But as for writing songs, I was more of a fantasist. I would imagine myself and three classmates standing on a stage, all playing guitar (which, in hindsight, was stupid… I used to imagine Beatlemania scenarios). This would have been when i wasn't restaging All-Ireland football finals in my back yard. I would guess I was a pretty inward kid… But writing songs took ages, until I was 16 or something. And I should point out, I was restaging ENTIRE Beatles shows and ENTIRE football finals. They were more innocent times.
Now, on to So Cow: The Korea Years. I once heard someone describe you, aptly I think, as “Guided by Voices meets Cornelius”. Do you think your time spent in Asia has changed or modelled your sound in some way?
Do you think I sound "Asian"?
I think some stuff - say the guitar solo on Casablanca - sounds un-European.
I mean… if you listened to me independent of knowing where I lived - and excepting the odd Korean lyric - the Cornelius would probably fall out of that equation. Though I guess I've learnt a lot of harmonies and ways of going about them while over there. They use different scales and whatnot, and I've planned on adopting those but not got around to it yet. But yeah, I get asked that a lot. It sounds, I would think, like a man in his flat writing songs in the style of music that he likes. I'm kinda stuck in many ways with my writing. I'm not going to leap out of the blocks with an Afrobeat record any time soon… Am I this generation’s Status Quo? That's actually something I'd aspire to.
You're this generation's Vampire Weekend.
I do what I do, and that's the end of it. I really shouldn't have had curry.
Where has been more receptive to your music, do you think... Korea or Ireland?
Oh, Ireland. but maybe that's the language barrier. In the last few months, America has been the place where from I get mails and CD orders and radio play and all that. Ireland, less so. Korea, not at all. Also, Korean crowds tend to be extremely reserved. I end up trying to goad them. Irish crowds... I don't know... I haven't played to enough, and perhaps “crowds” might be optimistic. What's smaller than a crowd but bigger than a rabble?
On record, you play everything yourself. So what’s your song writing process? What comes first?
The idea, then the humming, then the quick documentation (MP3 player mic or jotter), then the tryouts, then the melodies, then the lyrics, then the recording from which to run. That’s the usual method. So then the song only exists in my head, and I find it very difficult to tell other musicians what to do. They could be ace musicians but it wouldn't be what I'm hearing and I’d end up disappointed. I'm better on my own.
But do you ever feel restricted by it just being you?
No, I don’t. I'd feel 75% more restricted in a four piece band. I'm not a good drummer. They'd be pissed off. And I'm competent at most other things, and good on guitar. With bands, there are compromises that I can't imagine making. I'm not Ian MacKaye or anything... I'm not sticking it to The Man. They’re just personal choices as to how I go about things and about the work left behind when I'm done.
So do you think it's a good or a bad thing that it's just you involved throughout, until the final product?
Yes, I think it's a very good thing.
So you won't be going into a studio with a producer anytime soon?
I would go into a studio sure, but I’d run how things go, and I'm aiming to be the only person ever to play a note on a So Cow record. (thinks) Hell, my friend Adam Hopgood of Australia introduces the first song on this album… Well, I'd have someone there to make sure things aren't clipping or sounding shit. It's not an ego thing... I know that there are roughly 3,465,331 better drummers in the world than me, or recording engineers and so on. But at bottom, I make the decisions because it's my thing. But if you're going to do something, and you have the ability to do it yourself - or at least learn from it - then why not? Then again, I'm not hell bent on being a fixture. I'm not going writing soundtracks to Lucozade ads. I could go that way if I wanted.
What do you mean you're not hell bent on being a fixture? You're not going to stop making music.
No. I'm going to put out an album every year until I die... that's set in stone. I'll never stop.
But I haven't gone the route I've always assumed is the route so far... “do some demos, gig like mad, try and get a radio session, do an IMRO tour, do a half page in a monthly music mag where you talk about how cheap the beer was in Prague, release a decent first album, gig some more, play CMJ, release a less good second album with some odd musical direction and then, well... leave quietly”. I mean... that's a fairly solid route... “gotta play Oxegen in 09!”. If this all finally comes together in a commercially/critically successful way in, say, 2022, that's fine. I have other stuff to do, like jobs. So Cow will continue. I don't see this as something where I need to be at a certain place at a certain time. There will be many songs, that I can promise. But there are bands now where I just think "this will be over in two years", which I guess they are fine with. But I'm in this for the long haul, i.e. LIFE.
You have a sexy aesthetic.
Why thank you. It's not often my aesthetic gets called sexy. Anyway, So Cow for 2022.
A lot of your songs are love songs, but even so they manage to be really fresh and clever - the likes of Casablanca (So Cow bemoans the Hollywood portrayal of romance), Commuting (So Cow falls in love with a lady on a bus), Ping Pong Rock (So Cow proclaims love by quoting everyone from The Beach Boys to Mirakil Whip) and Moon Geun Young (So Cow’s relationship crumbles beneath a billboard where a Korean teen superstar flogs mobile phones). What do you aim for when writing lyrics? Where do they come from?
I find lyrics difficult, and I like ladies. So what tends to emerge are songs about the various stages of liking ladies... the before, middle and after. I don't aim for cleverness a whole bunch. I aim to sum up something so neatly that my friend Muiris will go "ah, nicely said". I like the idea of someone listening and going "ah, that's what I thought!". But thoughts are scattershot. We all think stuff. But I always like listening to a song where someone says something and you just think "right, well summed up". The lyrics of a Coldplay song, for example… that's why I don't like them. The lyrics have that vague "we are running through the speed of light, everybody knows the way is not the way" bollocks. I like places, times, contexts, references. I like to be someplace in a song… a map that folds out with each line. I don't always write like that, mind. Very often I get vague. Often it's a necessity of rhyme.
I can’t think of many other bands whose lyrics make me laugh AND say "that's just perfect!".
I get tagged with funny lyrics a lot. That's fine, but I'd hate for anyone to think I'm on a bus with a notepad chuckling to myself.
What about the lyric "I've got one hundred Helens on my street"… what’s that about? Do you actually have that many Helens on your road?
It's about nothing. When I was playing that riff over and over again, I just sang that. I since found out where it comes from... Kids In The Hall [a Canadian comedy troupe] apparently had a sketch called 'Thirty Helens Agree' which I probably saw on telly when I was 9. I guess that's coming through.
So what does ‘I'm Siding With My Captors’ sound like? Is it different to the last one?
It's more rocking. There are eleven songs in 28 minutes. The only acoustic song is the last one. I wanted it to be ‘bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang relax’. I'd like to think, in a parallel universe where I was releasing singles, that I'd have a choice on this one. Then again, it was recorded in an office, so I think we'll stick to this universe and say that I'm far more confident in this album as an across the board batting average. If I could go back to the first album, I’d cut five songs - I just got giddy - or rename it 'The Kitchen Sink Story'. But yeah, I think it's better recorded and rocks more and is pop more. There's less fucking around… not that there's anything wrong with that.
I read that you started work on I.S.W.M.C with 32 songs. How did you whittle them down?
haha, that's how furious I am. Half of them were ideas, half of them songs. Fourteen or so ended up not fitting in at all. Six or so ended up being dead ends. Two or so got culled at the final moment for bringing things down, upsetting the apple cart. About ten will be re-jigged. They make more sense for the next album.
What are your plans for 2008?
I’m going to do an Irish tour in late April. I'm Siding With My Captors is out around then. But so far it's only Galway and Dublin and I’m kinda fine with that. I'm off to America in May, for a West Coast tour with a dude called No Bunny who is amazing. Then shows in NYC, Cleveland, Columbus and hopefully Montreal and Toronto.
How did that come about?
It's all fall-out from a seven inch of Moon Geun Young that a label called Almost Ready Records put out. Some people went nuts for it. Sometimes I still think it's a big piss-take. But America seems a bit more interested than anywhere else, so I'm off to see why.
Is the So Cow/No Bunny thing a coincidence?! Is he like the American version of you?
It only crossed his mind after the third email... totally a coincidence. But I reckon it'll make for good posters. He's just him; amazing songs, such fun. So I’ll come back in July, then release album number three. That'll be out in October, I would guess.
Oh, is that nearly done?!
There are about eighteen songs ready. It's written. I'm recording the drums for it in two weeks. It's probably going to be twelve or so songs. Again poppy, but with some noisy noisy bits. Like, disgustingly horrendously noisy... the sugar and piss album.
Like Times New Viking?
Em, maybe. Shit, you've just popped my balloon! I'm not going back to four-track or anything. The fidelity will remain the same. There'll just be more... well, Cornelius would be a good mapping point. By which I mean I'll be playing with the stereo aspect of things... going nuts with it hopefully. What else you want to ask? Ask anything! Ask away! I'm into the spirit of things.
I don’t trust myself.
haha, in what sense? Are you a muck raking hack?
If you could be in any band ever, who would it be? And how different would they be because of you?
Fantastic question... In the past: The Who maybe? Everyone in that band was going nuts. I used to want to be in Pavement or a band like that, but there's no real challenge there. Me and you and two other people could fuck around in a practice room for a weekend and be like Pavement. In this modern day and age, I’d choose Deerhoof for much the same reasons as The Who. They’re just musically exciting and above and beyond, without being an arse about it. But I would hope not to effect the band at all.
Oh! And why The Who?
I don't know. I liked Noel Gallagher's quote about them… "they were all playing lead... mental!”. I'm not a prog-head or anything. I just think they had something a lot of bands in that time lacked. I mean… I still can't find any reason to like Bob Dylan. It just seems like petulant, whiny, plodding shite. I know I WILL like it someday. It WILL click, but right now, no.
I don’t get him either. I saw The Flaming Lips supporting him a few years ago and they whooped his wrinkled arse.
In Nowlan Park?
Yeah [on June 24th, 2006]… I was an alien onstage!
Really? How hot was it?
It was unbearable until we could take the masks off. They were these big heavy plastic yolks, but we had to wait until three or four songs in. Best day ever though.
I think my brother was there. I was at a wedding in Ennis. I remember that day - at around 5a.m - getting up on the roof of the hotel and having a weird pivotal moment where I decided to start doing shit, finally.
And So Cow did indeed start doing - as he modestly puts it - shit, and has being doing shit consistently and brilliantly since then. I’m Siding With My Captors will be launched at Anseo on Sunday April 27th, with support from Big Monster Love. It is available for a bargainous purchase here. Click onto So Cow's myspace for more info, tour dates and new tunes.
The League of Impressionable Teens (from 'These Truly Are End Times')
It's Over (from 'These Truly Are End Times')
The Perfect Me (Deerhoof cover)