FolkWorld Issue 43 11/2010; Article by Seán Laffey
Coming of Age on Stage
Dervish Celebrate 21 Years in the Music Industry
The Sligo based band Dervish celebrated 21 years in the music industry at this October’s Sligo Live festival and to mark the passing years they have released a live album. It was recorded at the Sebastopol festival in California and the previous Sligo Live festival in Ireland. The album, entitled From Stage to Stage includes guest appearances by Duke Special, Ron Sexsmith, Väsen, Martin Hayes and Denis Cahill and bluegrass mandolin virtuoso Mike Marshall. Seán Laffey talks to Dervish’s box player Shane Mitchell about the new album, life on the road and promoting Irish traditional music.
Seán Laffey: Where and how did it all start 21 years ago?
Shane Mitchell: We were all friends who played sessions in local pubs, it sounds simple but we were asked to make an album of local instrumental Sligo music and so we did. The album was very well received by the media and lots of offers for festivals and tours came in from all around the world. It was amazing really. The problem was, we were not really a band and we were all working in our various careers, so around 1990 we decided to put a live concert set together and we asked Cathy (Jordan) to join us as we were friendly with her and her sister. We then made the album Harmony Hill and this was a big success for us and we then started to tour and take festival bookings.
Where did you play and how did you manage the business side of things when you were starting out?
We really enjoyed what we were doing, so even though we had difficult periods this was overshadowed by the good times. Getting into the US market was really difficult for us, I remember there were all sorts of politics and problems but thanks to a licensing deal with the newly formed Kells Music label, the US became a reality for us around 1997. Thanks are due to Paddy Noonan in New York and our long term friend the songwriter Brendan Graham who helped us out then also.
Dervish are famous for being self-managed, are there rules you need to follow if you are going to be in charge of everything yourself?
I would like to think we are famous for our music (only joking), but yes people seem to be intrigued by our professional set up. I suppose the fact that we have released all out albums on our own label, licensing and distributing them ourselves was different around 17 years ago, many acts pick this model today particularly in the indie music scene. But it has to be said that this way of working has stood to the band in terms of being in control of our careers and also it provided extra income of course. If we were signed to a small independent label (and let’s face it that's all that exists in this scene) we would be less well-off. We felt unless there was a clear commitment from a record label to promote our music, we’d be better off managing that side of things ourselves.
We don't do all the work, we have agents and distributors in all the countries we perform in, so these people play an important part in our career. In particular we have had a great and long term relationship with our American agents Folklore Productions. In terms of how we make decisions we all have our area that we look after outside of being musicians. We have all developed skills over the years out of necessity really, it’s like a committee that meets each week, we discuss stuff and vote on issues then we decide on what we need to do. After that we then pass on directions to the people who work for us, our agents and so on. We have periods dedicated to our music and likewise to our business.
1989 Liam Kelly, Shane Mitchell, Martin McGinley, Brian McDonagh and Michael Holmes form the band to play Sligo instrumental danced music; they record the album The Boys of Sligo.
In what ways is the new CD a marker for the first 21 years on the road?
It represents how our music has matured and I really think it has, I feel there is more depth to our music now and it also shows how the band’s music is constantly evolving. For example we always seem to have new ideas to add to our arrangements.
I’m intrigued by your decision to go for a live CD rather than a studio album, isn’t it a lot more dangerous to commit yourself to a live recording where there is much more that can go wrong?
We are more comfortable live than in a studio. I feel no matter how hard you try the music always loses some of its character in a studio and our Live in Palma CD is still probably our most popular recording, so hence we wanted to put out another live recording to mark the big anniversary.
There are a number of guests on the album, and I get the feeling you have made musical connections with them outside of the studio and off the stage, I’m intrigued about your connection to Väsen …
We met Väsen at a festival in Sweden about 15 years ago and we were instantly attracted to their music and became good friends with them. Martin Hayes and Denis Cahill also are old pals of ours and it was great to get them onto the new album. Dervish are really up for collaborating with other acts now and this will play a big part in our music in the future. It is good to interact with other artists and it develops your playing.
The set recorded at Sligo Live makes the closing third of the CD, what is your involvement in that festival and how do you see it evolving over the years?
I founded Sligo Live and I co-produce it with Rory O’Connor. Our main artistic vision is to expose Irish traditional music to indie and more contemporary music audiences and I have to says it’s working. We had 39,000 people here last year. We can see the space for traditional music developing each year. My personal goal would be that a whole new audience for traditional music would be developed, exposing people to new experiences and to our native music ...
In your 21 years on the road you must have seen some examples of “best practice,” is there anything you have noticed on tour that you thought “Now that should really apply in Ireland?”
Public agencies in Ireland could learn so much by working more with the professional practitioners who are out there in this area. Many other countries’ native music by law has to form a large percentage of mainstream broadcasting, that does not happen in Ireland. There are no public funding bodies that professional traditional artists can apply too for annual funding. Here it seems to be on a case by case, festival by festival, tour by tour basis, which makes it hard to plan ahead. These artists are special as they attract tourism and inward investment into Ireland. I have to say, Culture Ireland is a positive step forward and there are some talented people behind that organisation.
I cannot see any difference between the Druid Theatre Company for example and bands like Altan, Lúnasa and ourselves, we have the same day to day challenges as any other arts group in Ireland. In our 21 years we have counted about 53 bands that have broken up, because in many cases they got no help, this is very sad to see. We have brought this to the attention of the Arts Council on a number of occasions but it appears to have fallen on deaf ears. It looks as if the traditional musicians of our country are treated as the poor neighbours in terms of arts funding. Farmers get help, the fishing industry gets help and others, why not our music that has potential to employ so many people?
There needs to be some public funding body set up to cater for both the professional and emerging traditional musicians. At the very least there should be an album brought out each year with established and emerging talent along the lines of “Traditional Irish Music 2010” with a significant marketing budget in line with music industry standards.
Perhaps along the lines of the great work being carried out in Denmark by the “Go Danish” folk album series ...
Ireland's profile will benefit from this and there is so much more that can be done. Ireland needs its music and culture now to help attract attention and create employment. Sweden, Canada, France and other counties all do this very well. With the rise in culture tourism, now is the time for the government to put this in place.
Dervish are still a relatively young band, and if we take the careers of the Chieftains and the Dubliners as bench marks, your are only half way through your stint, so what would you hope to be doing over the next couple of decades?
It would be nice to keep developing the audience for this music. We would like to work with producers from other music genres to develop new sounds that enhances the music rather than take from its nature. But most of all we would like to keep enjoying the music and the craic. Now you know the offers, just keep coming in each week and hopefully that will continue!
Happy Birthday Dervish, it’s been a whirl!
(1) Press Photo, (2) Live @ Olympia 2006 (from website),
(3) Cathy Jordan (by The Mollis).
To the German FolkWorld
© The Mollis - Editors of FolkWorld; Published 11/2010
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