Lunch with I Am The Cosmos

By Joseph Burke

Photography by Cáit Fahey & venue’s own

TGP takes the gents behind I Am The Cosmos on a lunch date ahead of their much-anticipated EP release.

We meet at lunchtime in Hang Dai, an anonymous shop front on Camden Street that opens out into a long dining room decorated to resemble the inside of a subway car. A car on a train that might be travelling between San Angeles and Neo Tokyo. Aside from a lone businessman slurping down a noodle lunch the place is serenely empty. The taking of a corner booth at the back does nothing to dispel the cinematic frisson of inhabiting some future tech noir. I, for once, am early. They are perfectly punctual.

They being Ross Turner and Cian Murphy who, aside from many and varied side projects that intertwine them into the heart of the contemporary music scene in Ireland, combine together to form I Am The Cosmos. Since releasing their beautiful début album, Monochrome, in 2013, they have quietly yet steadily become one of the country’s leading creators of electronic music.

Electronic with heart, though, or “tears on the dance-floor” as Ross has called it previously. Hugely productive yet very selective when it comes to releases, they’ve taken the same approach to live performances, trying to make each one count; a worthwhile experience for all involved. Now, they’re about to release a new 12 inch EP, ‘Nothing But Love’, with Art For Blind Records.

“The value of the experience of getting vinyl in hand, sticking it on, there’s a whole nature to it, a ritual to it you won’t ever get from anything else.”

Both Ross and Cian are smart in every sense of the word, and like their music and name, are both precise yet deeply emotive, personal yet endlessly expansive. This latest release was all written, recorded, produced and mixed in the one location, a new luxury for them.

“The first album we did was recorded between Exchequer Street Studios and Ross’ room, essentially,” says Cian, chuckling.

That new place is the old UCD medical school building at the back of the National Concert Hall. They’ve been in residency there for the past couple of years, getting to use the empty building as a sort of collective space with some of their more illustrious contemporaries (James Vincent McMorrow, Neil Hannan, Cathy Davey, Paul Noonan, Glen Keating) while the Concert Hall are developing plans to turn it into a children’s science museum amongst other things.

“It was a good bunch to bring into a space like that, with the idea that everyone would feed something back into the building in some way,” says Ross. “There’s still all the old signs up, and a morgue there in the pathology department, with a campanile out the back,” says Cian. “We painted the classrooms initially, put in some floor tiles and some bits of baffling and stuff. And it quickly became a studio.”

And quickly that studio overwhelmed them with its infinite possibilities for the aurally inclined though it eventually led to the distillation of their sound.  

“The best thing about the building is the way it sounds, these big open cavernous spaces, so we thought we were in a unique position and it’d be great to have some sort of sonic fingerprint or imprint of the building in our music, but while changing what we were doing to fit it in,” says Ross. “I’d be out getting field recordings – creeping around with a microphone, hearing choirs as the sound would carry beautifully down the halls – and trying to place that in. We were making electronic music but wanted to have this open, spacious, amorphous sound which was just a really long process in order to get those things to marry.”

“We were making electronic music but wanted to have this open spacious amorphous sound which was just a really long process in order to get those things to marry.”

But both being generally musical, with talents and tastes that range wide beyond the purely electronic, they found it hard to stop the process of exploration they had begun. They had managed to write and record an entire album but it seemed the one thing they were both certain of was that no matter what else it was, it wasn’t an I Am The Cosmos album. “It took us a couple of goes at it, some of it worked and some didn’t and in the end it didn’t really satisfy us,” says Ross.

At first they were merely happy they weren’t on a tight release schedule and didn’t have to hand it over or label it as their newest work. “If there was someone waiting for it we would’ve just followed through and put it out and we wouldn’t have been happy with it,” says Ross. After, though, they realised it had been a very useful creative process.

“Over time we realised what we wanted to do,” says Ross. “The music we were making has to be engineered in a certain way, it’s designed in a certain way, that’s why it works it’s club music, electronic music and once we got past all that we now use three or four different things and that’s it drum machine, synth, vocal or one more element.”

“‘In the first album we did sort of just throw every idea at it and go ‘That’s good, throw it in!’ We wanted to refine that a little. In that way each element becomes more essential, in what it’s propping up, the skeleton is more… skeletal,” says Cian, laughing as his analogy finds its end. “It’s not loads of little bits building up a whole, it’s more totemic.”

While working within these new Cosmological guidelines Ross and Cian quickly realised they didn’t need to start over from scratch entirely. The album they had made, rather than being a necessary yet time consuming cul-de-sac they had explored, was a new piece of bedrock, its own lump of Carrara marble ready to be sculpted and sandblasted.

“You just let it do whatever, taking it out of the computer, which was really satisfying, you’re leaving it up the spontaneity of what the machines do,” says Cian. “Then we just worked from that.” And so they went on, playing with the machines, being inspired by the surprise of what they would do after and in turn having what they responded with leading to ever more change. The parameters even lead to spontaneous creativity in drum machines.

That process led to ‘Nothing But Love’ which gets its vinyl release in the next few weeks – an event they’re still slightly giddy about. After releasing Monochrome as a digital download, getting a full 12” pressing release of ‘Nothing But Love’ (including gorgeous fold out cover art work by Cian’s preposterously talented 12-year-old niece) holds a special power for them.

“The fact that anyone is willing to put up money to put out our record is just about as good as it can get,” says Cian. “Even on a modest level, to hope for anything beyond that is not necessarily greedy, but this is just all we ever wanted.”

And they’re also happy about being a part of the vinyl resurgence, which is no longer just for the affected audiophile but a legitimate economic investment for both label and customer, a reaction to the paradox of choice brought on by the infinity of online streaming and downloads, where searching through music inevitably precludes actually sitting and listening to it.

“Vinyl, it’s more satisfying, it has a warmer sound but it’s more expensive, less space for mistakes or storage space, even. But the value of the experience of getting it in hand, sticking it on… there’s a whole nature to it, a ritual you won’t ever get from anything else,” says Ross.

Though on the classic analogue vs. digital debate they try and remain fairly egalitarian, respecting the past while being – some might say unusually for musicians – hopeful for the future. Aware that puritanism is essentially a dead end, they know the advantages of the fluidity of our present moment will always outweigh any perceived solidity of the past.

“It’d be nice to find a balance between something sounding good on a record and something sounding good on a phone.” says Cian. “But when it was first invented, recorded sound was on wax cylinders which were heavy and really hard to move and carry around, then it was the LP that was invented and that revolutionised people’s consumption of music and I suppose it’s just the progression of that constantly.”

“We’re at a very primary stage of society developing with all this technology,” says Ross. “I think really great things are going to come from it. We have a nostalgia for things we understand, but it was always changing, it’s not good or bad, better or worse. It’s really exciting. It’s only a matter of time before the technology and people’s minds develop in another way, that something really extraordinary comes along, and there will be another Prince or another Beatles.”

It was their own sonic adventuring that led them to a place of reflective acceptance about the impulse to do it in the first place. “I think we’ve adopted a perspective of openness,” says Cian. “And hopefully the music reflects that. It’s something I’ve pondered a lot but I think you have to respect and appreciate anyone who produces a work of art regardless of its quality being particularly resonant to you. It‘s a tricky thing to do or follow through with, you have to work pretty hard.”

Of all creative industries, music was probably hit the hardest and had its traditional revenue streams hollowed out the most by the great online digitisation of artistic output, but they feel that you can’t fight any futures or hope to rebottle any genies. In fact, the new models might be developing slowly but might also be signifying a deeper shift in consumer behaviour. Rather than having to pay a lot of money to simply access any music as before, unheard, people are consciously choosing to spend on and support music and bands they like and want to hear more of.

“It’s funny, because anyone who pays for music now is literally a patron of the arts,” says Cian. With Ross agreeing: “It’s impossible to reverse and at the same time the greed of the industry won’t ever change either, so it’s entirely up to artists and bands to come up with ideas themselves outside the three or four major industry labels.”

And as those labels retreat, like the Hollywood studios, into an ever more formulaic, market tested, creatively conservative output there is room amongst the rubble for the rest to play and grow. If the Internet has been a neutron bomb going off in the creative world it’s effect will be to irradiate some into the superheroes of tomorrow as well as breaking up the established infrastructure of what came before. “That’s the internet’s real power, if it’s good enough people will find it,” says Cian. “The Internet, I think, is essential, but I really don’t think social media is essential in any way, and for a lot of people I think they’re being conflated, unfortunately.”

“It’s club music, electronic music… and once we got past all that now we use three or four different things and that’s it: drum machine, synth, vocal or one more element.”

And what sort of a musical future do they envisage, long term? Both are struck by the impossibility of being aware of one’s own subjectivity, of being able to step outside your own present moment and look back in, especially as part of a continuum stretching both back and ahead.

“Ha, I’d love to get this dead on and have everyone come back in 10 years thinking I’m a genius,” says Cian. “But it’s impossible to predict.” They certainly don’t think they’re immune to an automated, machine dominated world, as much at risk as any long haul driver or chartered accountant.    

“Maybe AI will make a song out of all your favourite tunes, maybe put all your songs into a playlist and will come out with some mutated weird kind of version of the songs in your Top 100,” says Cian.

“There’s AI that has made songs,” says Ross, and with that they’re away into their own musical obsessions.

“I’ve heard that tune, it’s really spooky!”, says Cian.

“Yeah the one I heard was really cool but scary,” says Ross. “Sounded really odd.”

“Meant to be it’s version of a Beatles song or something? There was a drum beat in it, kind of a talk box, computerised vocal about a car or something,” says Cian, stretching his philosophy of respecting and appreciating all artistic effort to even include a programmed algorithm.

But this doesn’t bring any fear, for the one lesson to take is that even if it’s a computer making music, it will still need someone around to listen to it. And there’s no better place for that than the pheremonally charged, resolutely biological experience of a live show.

“Hopefully one thing people won’t ever lose is the desire of interaction, of being in a room with other people,” says Ross. “Like a football match almost, that congregation feeling of church or whatever it is, that feeling of being in a room with however many other people experiencing something together.”

With that, we disembark, getting off the dining car into Dublin 2017. For I Am The Cosmos, and we who get to experience their music, the future is most definitely now. 

‘Nothing But Love’ is released on Art for blind November 17th (digital) and December 15th vinyl. Pre-order your copy here.