Turn it Up: John Kelly

Turn it Up: John Kelly

For over a decade, John Kelly has been broadcasting his own distinct mix of music on national radio, first with the BBC, then Eclectic Ballroom on Radio Ireland (now Today FM) and Mystery Train on RTÉ Radio 1, establishing a reputation as a broadcaster who is always at the musical cutting edge, and building a particularly loyal listenership. His current show, JK Ensemble on RTÉ Lyric FM, is a rarity in Irish broadcasting, mixing classical, traditional, jazz and the avant-garde on weekday daytime national radio, and it has just reached its second year. In this interview, Toner Quinn, Editor of JMI, talks to John Kelly about his views on broadcasting, the current Irish music scene, the artists he admires and the listenerships that aren’t being catered for.

TQ: It’s ten years since you left BBC and came to Dublin. What are the energies and trends in music during that period which you think are particularly significant?

JK: I think the accessibility of music has been significant. When I was growing up, the reason I had such a narrow interest was because I hadn’t heard anything much. It was through a lack of exposure to anything else. When I went to university there were all these people who were much more clued in, who were listening to The Smiths and Joy Division and all these sorts of people. It seems ridiculous that in the 1980s I hadn’t heard that kind of music, but it wasn’t on Irish radio. I think what is different now is that there is a lot more exposure. There are so many people in Ireland now who are into, say, electronica, which just wouldn’t have been an option twenty years ago.

It’s to do with access. I meet people all the time who know so much more about music than I ever did. I keep meeting people who say to me, you should listen to this, this and this. I have heard of none of them – and I am fairly clued in. There is just so much music now. But again, I don’t think that television and radio necessarily represent all of that, because musics get dismissed as being weird. The singer-songwriter thing is hugely acceptable because it doesn’t look weird. MySpace pages are a different kettle of fish, and there is great music being made. When I hear people like Jeff Martin, the Jimmy Cake, Julie Feeney – that there are even artists like that in Ireland – people doing their own thing, I think it’s wonderful.

It’s not that long ago that I was coming back from America with bags of records, after going to some shop in Chicago or New York. Nowadays, if I want something I go on Amazon and I have it in a couple of days. It’s a shame in a way. I like that adventure of walking into a shop in New York and never having seen a CD by a particular artist before, but now I can see them on YouTube. Just type in Big Joe Turner and there he is, singing in your house. While it’s a wonderful facility, and I make full use of it, it does remove a little bit of the excitement that there once was.

TQ: Do you think that the accessibility of music is also responsible for what you heard at the Button Factory gig, that merging of classical, rock and alternative genres.
JK: I think so. I think young people are more curious and interested, and they seem to be far more so than when I was at school. God forbid if David Bowie had been in my class: they would have torn him apart. If I had been the kind of person that I admire, I would have caught on to Morrissey and people like that far earlier than I did. But growing up in Enniskillen our tendency was to dismiss everything.

TQ: Are there any particular artists on the Irish scene that strike you as particularly interesting at the moment?
JK: In Ireland, I think some great music is coming from the traditional music scene. I don’t go so much for the groups, I tend to listen more to solo performers, and I think some of the younger traditional musicians are pretty extraordinary. I am curious as to what Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh is doing. I am not entirely sure I understand, but I like it. I am looking forward to his next work because the last one was a strange sketchbook.

On the more pop end of things, I think Lisa Hannigan has got something. She has a lot of soul. There is a rock band called Fight Like Apes – they have great energy – and I love them. I think Arcade Fire are a great band, and Feist. But I think the most interesting stuff is coming from Iceland. There is some great stuff there, both Sigur Rós and the producer/composer Valgeir Sigurðsson.

I think Sigur Rós have benefited from the fact that people are less prejudiced now. A while back people would have said, oh this is prog rock, and that’s not good, but there is something very beautiful about what they do. I do think it’s part of the new openness. When I was growing up, if you were into rock music you didn’t like Ska. If you were into Ska you didn’t like rock music. If you liked disco you were a weirdo. I think that has changed. I think people are much happier to embrace all different kinds of music at the same time.

TQ: You mentioned Steve Reich’s visit to Ireland for the 2006 RTÉ Living Music Festival, which featured his music. It was an important weekend for you. Do you think it was important for music in Ireland generally?
JK: I think that was a very important occasion, a very important event. In years to come, we will be interviewing some Irish musician who will mention the time Steve Reich came to Dublin. People came out of the woodwork for those shows. I was just delighted to see it, a packed contemporary music festival in Ireland, one that was making no concessions to anybody. I think the Reich festival was one of those moments when it dawned on everybody that there was a new audience. There have been certain gigs over the years that personally meant a lot to me, but I think in terms of a mass impact, the Reich festival was very important. There were loads of people at that festival who will do something, but we don’t know what, and we don’t where or when they are going to turn up.

TQ: In the weekly RTÉ television arts programme The View, which you present, you are doing something similar to the JK Ensemble in bringing new work to a broad audience. What are the challenges involved in presenting The View?
JK: I certainly don’t want to encourage windbags or encourage the kind of art speak that drives people away from the arts. I am not one for the jargon and psychobabble that you hear about music or painting.

I object even more to the attitude that the arts means nothing to the ordinary person, which is often suggested in  newspapers. Columnists tend to take this approach, setting themselves up as spokesperson for the common person and deciding that all this stuff is a load of old tosh. I resent that. I grew up in a family where my father was an ordinary man who read books, who liked opera, who watched all the movies, who if there was a play on in the town would go and see it, who was well read, self-taught and self-educated. And yet you have some person trying to say that the arts aren’t for him. Well who says they are not for him. Let him make up his own mind.

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TQ: Is there a nervousness in our broadcasting culture about putting out something too sophisticated or challenging?
JK: I think there is a resistance to that in broadcasting generally. When I was growing up you would hear people on popular chat shows like Peter Ustinov, Kenneth Williams and Malcolm Muggeridge, and when they were on, the attitude from my father was that you should listen to this man, this is a very bright man, a very intelligent man, that you should listen to him. You rarely see people like that on television anymore or even on radio.

TQ: You mean intellectuals?
JK: Well, people talking at length. Alan Bennett said he was on the street in Camden with Jonathan Miller and this man came up and said, ‘You fucking intellectuals!’ And he said that in Paris that would be a compliment.

TQ: In Ireland it can be an insult.
JK: Yes, but I mean actual intellectuals. I don’t mean people pretending to be intellectuals. There is a difference. I have heard people talk about my guests on The View, dismissing them and saying, what was he on about, what was he talking about. Just because you can’t understand what someone is saying does not make that person an idiot.

TQ: What triggers that reaction?
JK: It’s safe and easy to put that cloak on. Then you don’t have to engage with anything. I was at Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days in the Abbey and people were laughing their socks off. Anybody would, it’s just hilarious. And yet the amount of people who would say, ‘Oh God I wouldn’t be into that.’ Well why not?

TQ: What kind of future do you think the next ten years of music-making holds?
JK: In terms of the music scene in ten years time, who knows how it is going to change. Pop music as we know it might cease to exist. A guitar and drums rock band could become a thing of the past. You just don’t know what can happen. What I am hoping for is some kind of thunder bolt, something that we don’t expect. Is it going to be somebody playing an instrument we have never seen before, or is it going to be some kind of music we have never heard before? As the world changes are we all going to be listening to music from Egypt in ten years time? Something kind of revolutionary? Something that nobody sees coming, that actually changing everything? We are probably due one of those peaks.

TQ: Are you constantly looking for something like that?
JK: I suppose so. It’s not that I am going to discover it, but I think it is needed.

TQ: And why is it needed?
JK: Because things get very complacent very fast. The system moves in on it and takes ownership of it and dilutes it. The one thing you can be sure of is that the record companies will miss it – and broadcasters will miss it.

TQ: RTÉ Lyric FM is ten years old now. In the next ten years what would you like to see happen at the station?
JK: I would like to see Lyric called RTÉ 3 or RTÉ 4, so there is no distinction between it and RTÉ 1 and RTÉ 2 in terms of its importance. I would like it to be an indispensable music station where curious, interested music lovers feel that they absolutely have to be listening to know what is going on, that it is essential listening for the people that are listening to Sigur Rós as much as it is for the people that go to the National Concert Hall. I would also like to see it getting more attention and people becoming more aware of what is there. There is a whole lot more on lyric than people realise. I hope Lyric becomes strong and is perceptibly strong, and is not seen as some kind of polite alternative. I am not interested in radio as an anaesthetic. That’s not what it’s for.

The JK Ensemble is broadcast Monday to Friday, 2:30–4:30pm, on RTÉ Lyric FM.
rte.ie/lyricfm/jk/

This is the edited text of an interview which took place on 6 October 2008

Published on 1 November 2008

Toner Quinn is Editor of The Journal of Music. His website is www.tonerquinn.com.

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