Cian Nugent by Andrew Aylward

Guitarist Cian Nugent on teenage kicks, the definition of dad-rock, and the technicalities of a three-song album.

Cian Nugent

Cian Nugent. Photo by Cáit Fahey.

Dublin guitarist Cian Nugent’s most recent effort, Born With the Caul (No Quarter), finds the young guitarist equally at home with the history of rural American guitar soli and with the wandering, expansive stylings of the Grateful Dead circa 1969, not to mention the taught and explosive instrumental passages of Marquee MoonBorn With The Caul’s tendency to shift between dexterous arrangments for acoustic guitar and full-on electric rock songs makes Nugent and his band The Cosmos the most overtly psychedelic member of a small yet substantial noveau-American-Primitive-psych movement that includes such artists as Steve Gunn (with whom Nugent has collaborated as Desert Heat) and Daniel Bachman. Imagine a thirty-seven minute cosmic-folk-prog-blues record of only three songs and thirty seconds of singing, and you are envisioning Nugent-ertainment. We spoke about the gigs and albums ingested during his impressionable youth, his inclusive approach to music-making, and meeting John O’Neill of The Undertones twice.

Andrew Aylward So you’re at home in Dublin.

Cian Nugent Yeah.

AA How you doing, besides the rain?

CN Pretty good! I just went to see that Inside Llewyn Davis movie.

AA Yeah? What’d you think?

CN It was kind of relentlessly grim.

AA It is a bit, yeah.

CN He doesn’t catch a break ever. Almost to an unrealistic degree, I found. He sort of takes his music so seriously that it’s lost all joy for him. And it’s based on Dave Van Ronk, isn’t it?

AA Yeah.

CN Dave Van Ronk was much better than that. That guy was not much to speak about, but Dave Van Ronk was really pretty good. And also surely Dave Van Ronk’s career did take off.

AA So basically it’s like, Inside Llewyn Davis: is that your story so far?

CN Well, as I was watching he movie I got a text off my landlord asking me where my rent is—

AA Well that’s pretty good!

CN I was like, “Oh god, I’ll get it to you soon! I’m gonna get it to you soon, man!” (laughter) And then when I got home just now, I saw a bill here for the internet and I’m like “Ah, no …”

AA The wolves are at the door.

CN But I do actually have a house and I’m not just bumming on people’s sofas so that’s something to be grateful for. As long as I can get this rent together.

AA Yeah! So let’s talk music. How and when did you start playing?

CN Well, I started out in the same way that I think a lot of people start out. When I was thirteen and I was getting into music, my best friend Chris who lived around the corner got a guitar for Christmas, and our other fiend Craig got a drum kit for Christmas and they were both like “Well, you gotta get a bass and then we’ve got a band!” I didn’t really know what a bass was. I was still that young that I wasn’t entirely sure what a bass does.

So I got it and I was forewarned that if I wanted do any wicked guitar solo parts on the bass I’d have to do the low bits, and I was like “Yeah, yeah, I understand.” But then I got it and I was like, So … you really can’t do any of those sort of high, wiggly-wiggly bits?

I had to kind of acquire a taste for bass, pretty quickly, but I had a really nice teacher named Garvan Gallagher who incidentally wrote all the music for this kids TV show which anybody between twenty and thirty in Ireland would have watched as a kid. It’s called Bosco and it was about this weird puppet thing, but it was really great and it was everyone’s favorite Irish show when I was a kid. He wrote all the music for it, which I found out recently.

He was just really cool. His whole policy was that I had to lead the lessons—he wasn’t going to teach me anything that I didn’t want to know. I chose Green Day songs and Feeder songs and Jimi Hendrix songs—that sort of confused mix of general “Rock Music” that you’re into when you’re twelve years old, before you’ve really figured out the difference between punk and classic rock and all those different things that are in your head.

AA Are those artists you just listed the beginning of you having your own music—CDs or albums you would come across yourself that weren’t necessarily given to you by someone else? I’m not going to pin Green Day on you!

CN Well, I did love Green Day! But the first thing I ever really got into myself was Oasis, and that was probably when I was six or seven. Then I think I sort of went through a pop phase, like whatever was on the charts. Then I had an Eminem phase when he first got big in 1999 or so.

I remember my neighbour had gotten a really good stereo from a department store and he was blasting the Marshall Mathers LP and I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. And I remember video-taping—do you remember that song “Ante Up” by M.O.P?

AA Um, no.

CN ”Ante Up! Yap that fool! / Ante Up! Kidnap that fool!” It was a big hip-hop song and had this really tough looking video.

Around that time, I started to think, I might look beyond the people who live next door for friends. (laughter) When I went to what I guess is the equivalent of High School in the States, I started to get into rock music—some pretty “bad” stuff, some of which I still have a soft spot for: stuff like Limp Bizkit, Slipknot, those kind of bands.

AA What’s that Limp Bizkit song , whatever their big one was?

CN “Break Stuff?” Or was it that one with, “Welcome to the Jungle / Take a look around / It’s Limp Bizkit fuckin’ up your town.”

That was some pretty eventful stuff for me. After that, I remember a gig that my mother took me to see: The Undertones and Van Morrison, in Derry.

AA Wow.

CN Which is like five hours away from Dublin, up in Northern Ireland. We won this really weird holiday—

AA A holiday that involves seeing The Undertones? Was that part of it?

CN It was just a coincidence. I was a very awkward twelve- or thirteen-year-old, and that summer—no school and nobody to talk to—I was really intensely following this news story about these two children who had been abducted. It turned out they had been killed by their janitor in their school and it was all over the newspapers at the time. Me being a weird little twelve-year-old, I was totally glued to the story to find out what happened.

AA Yeah.

CN So, I remember that being a weird time, but then going to my first ever gig and that it was Van Morrison and The Undertones, which even now seems to me like a pretty good bill.

AA Did they play “Teenage Kicks?”

CN They did, but they didn’t have Feargal Sharkey with them anymore. But other than that, the band was original. My mother had been at this hotdog queue and she met the mother of the two O’Neill brothers (both original Undertones), and they got chatting. My mother said. “My son likes music,” and the O’Neill’s mother was like, “Oh, my son likes music too! Why don’t we get them together?” The O’Neill’s mother brought John from The Undertones over and it was sort of like “Oh, so you guys like music, chat away!” With all due respect to my mother, she has some pretty good taste in music as well, taking me to see Van Morrison with The Undertones.

AA For sure.

CN Another shout out I have to give her: when I got to the age when I started to want to look through her records, she did have the first Cramps album.

Anyway, I was talking to John O’Neill at my first ever gig, and I really liked The Undertones. He was like, “If you like garage rock stuff, then you gotta watch out for this band The White Stripes!” And then, within maybe six months of that, they became maybe the biggest band in the world as far as I was concerned!

AA Oh yeah, they definitely were of that status for a while.

CN It’s great stuff, and I still love the White Stripes, but it just seems so surprising that it would end up with such a broad appeal: “Wow! People sort of like the same kinds of things I do? I thought I was completely at odds with the public!” (laughter)

Cian Nugent 2

Cian Nugent. Photo by Megan Woods.

CN Anyway, that was when I started to be really into music. I’d read interviews with the Jack White and he’d mention albums that he loved. He’d be talking about Fun House, and Trout Mask Replica, and Robert Johnson, this really broad range of stuff that I’d spend my pocket money on. I remember getting Trout Mask Replica and I couldn’t make head or tail of it, but then just spending more time with it and getting into it.

I think everybody has a sort of ‘gateway’ band that gets them into a lot of different stuff. For people who are a bit older than me it’s probably Nirvana, but for me it was The White Stripes. From there, I just got big into music.

Actually, as a little sidenote to the Undertones story, I went to go see Yo La Tengo a couple months ago, and after the gig I was at the merch table. There was this older guy and I thought he looked familiar, and then my housemate Conor nudged me and was like “That’s John O’Neill from The Undertones!” We went over and were chatting with him and we were saying “We play in this band called The #1s, and we were just played up in Derry,” and he was like “Some of the lads up in Derry were telling me about The #1s! I meant to come along to that gig.” He was super nice about it and then I said to him “You know The Undertones are one of the best bands I’ve ever heard. I’ve cried thousands of times listening to “Teenage Kicks.” It’s the best song I could ever think of.” And he says, “Ugh, I fuckin’ hate The Undertones. I’m fuckin’ sick of The Undertones.”

AA (laughter)

CN I asked him what music he was into and he said. “I really like Thee Oh Sees, and I’m really into Ty Segall.” And I said, “Me, you, and my friend Conor have to start a band!” He was like “Nah, fuck that, I’m a fuckin’ old guy. You should start a band with a young guy.”

AA Wow. That’s a pretty awesome part two to that story!

CN Yeah, it kind of came full circle!

AA I hear a lot of Grateful Dead on the new record, especially on the track “The Houses of Parliament.”

CN I was playing with David Lacey, who plays drums, just jamming, all improvised stuff, nothing fixed—it was probably what turned into “The Houses of Parliament.” We’d record and listen back, and I remember David saying to me “You know, this sounds like The Grateful Dead.” I was like “What? I don’t know. I don’t think I want to go there.” (laughter)

This was about two years ago, and I had yet to really listen to them or what I had heard didn’t really stick with me. He kept saying, “Your guitar sort of sounds like Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead, you should check it out.” From there, I did sort of get into American Beauty. David’s favorite one was always Anthem of the Sun.

AA Yeah, right on.

CN I tried that and I was like, Yeah this is cool, I like some of it, but it wasn’t until I heard Live/Dead that I said, Okay, Now I can see why people listen to The Grateful Dead. That was so raw and Jerry Garcia’s guitar playing is almost sort of nasty at times. It was way more tough than I thought the Grateful Dead were. I had it in my head that they were kind of airy-fairy, bad hippy.

You know that song “The Eleven?” The first time I listened to that, I was like, This almost sounds like the Velvet Underground or something—really repetitive, in a groove, with distorted organ and cool guitar solos. Since then I’ve gotten pretty deep into them, but that one record will remain my favorite, that ’69 period, where guitar is pretty raw and trance.

I feel they’re best as an instrumental band. They kind of lack a singer.

AA Interesting.

CN I said that to Tom Carter, when I was doing a few gigs with him in the South and he said, “I think it’s one of their strengths, because if they’d had a singer, then they wouldn’t have jammed so much.”

AA I really like the fact there’s only three songs on this album, and I want to ask—especially with “The Houses of Parliament,” which I guess is the big one—are the songs arranged as movements or separate parts? Were they recorded live in one go?

CN With “The Houses of Parliament,” there are three separate parts. The first ten minutes or so, with the six-eight beat going through it, is the full band playing. Then the middle section is mostly guitars, and that was all multi-tracked. I wanted to have something that was totally stiff compared to the band stuff, which was all recorded live with some over-dubbing. For that part in the middle, we recorded like three or four different guitar tracks—

AA Is that the part with the vocal and guitar panning?

CN That part, yeah. It goes back into a live band recording after that, and I liked having those three different sections as a contrast between the stiff, multi-tracked guitar section and the looseness of the band playing live.

AA If you’re going to start listening to a twenty-three minute song, whether you like it or not, you’re going to listen to it in its entirety. It seems weird to dip into it, you know?

CN When we were writing it and it was coming into existence and we realised it was going to be such a long song, the only way to do it was make it the whole side of a record and go with it. Then when the record finally came out, I thought, Should we do edits of it that people could play on the radio or something? I haven’t figured that out yet.

It’s not a great business idea—with the music industry being the way it is and people listening to stuff online—but I kind of like the way it’s just putting something out there. You can take from it what you want.

AA Yeah, it’s refreshing! I’m glad you’re not influenced by business decisions when you’re planning out your records.

CN Well, maybe next time!

AA Yeah, you can make money off the next one.

CN Yeah! After I made my previous record (Doubles on VHF Records), I said that the next one was just going to be a normal album with short songs. I’m telling myself the same thing again, but I know it’ll probably end up being four songs on the next one. They’ll get progressively shorter, and maybe the tenth album will have ten songs on it.

AA (laughter) On the song “Grass Above My Head”… I stumbled on that song on the No Quarter SoundCloud page, and I just got really obsessed with it. I really love that slow part in the breakdown at the end, and then the kind of back-out. Is that an electric violin on that?

CN That’s my friend Ailbhe [Ailbhe Nic Oireachtaigh] playing the viola on that one. I think her playing in general, she’s gotten a lot more confident with it and progressed a lot, whereas before she would hang back a lot. On the new stuff, she’s been stepping out front a lot more, which is nice, having this kind of melodic partner almost. It’s real cool when we play live, because she does some of the lead parts with me and it almost feels like we have two guitarists sometimes.

AA Yeah, it sounds really great.

CN David, the drummer, is really into this band High Tide, a hard rock band from the late ’60s. Listening to them, at first you’d think they had two guitarists, but what they did was they had a second melodic instrument, an electric violin that has a lot of fuzz and wah on it. The two just sound so cool together. It could be cool to get that sort of dynamic going if we progress.

AA Cool. From what you can tell, who is the average fan of your group?

CN (laughter)

AA At concerts or other stuff, who do you see in the crowd?

CN That’s a good question! To be honest, it’s kind of a mix!

AA Cool, that’s good! That’s a good thing.

CN Yeah, like I’m kind of aware that we’re getting kind of dad-rock. (laughter)

AA Really?

CN Musically, you know? I guess we’re sort of dad-rock-y, because a lot of the music we listen to is like that.

The kind of dad-rock that I still haven’t really gotten with is maybe something like Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. That kind of stuff. But then, some of the stuff that I love is probably real dad-rock, like Canned Heat, or the Allman Brothers Band.

AA Okay, yeah.

CN But as for our audience, sometimes there’s girls there, sometimes there’s mum-aged people, sometimes there’s teenage-looking guys so it’s kind of like a mix—

AA A mix of older women and teenage boys?

CN (laughter) Yeah! Well I was thinking more like nineteen-year-old guys. And then you’ve got the bald-head zone.

I’m aware that our target audience might be middle-aged guys, but middle-aged guys are great too.

AA Yeah, nothing wrong with them. OK, last question: if you could go back in time, to one concert, what would it be? Gut reaction.

CN Gut reaction … See, there’s a lot of bands that I love, but I can sort of tell that they probably wouldn’t have been great. I would have loved to see The Gun Club, but I could imagine them being a bit of a disaster live. Actually, I would have loved to have seen Television, around the ’76 or ’77 era—

AA Yeah, totally.

CN Yeah, another one I would love to see would be like Big Star at The Rock Writers Convention. It was around the time of Radio City and apparently it was incredible. Big Star may be my favorite band ever; seeing them would be pretty nuts.

Cian Nugent is a guitar player and composer from Dublin, Ireland. He plays Union Pool withDavid Grubbs on February 19th.

Andrew Aylward is a musician and audio engineer living in Washington DC.

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