Interview: BallinaPunx release "The Last Gig at Emmett's" by Shithatt

Ballina, County Mayo, population ten thousand, used to be the biggest town in the county. In the early twentieth century, that distinction was transferred to the growing Castlebar, some forty kilometres away. Today, Ballina is a known destination for salmon fishing and attracts anglers from around the country. It is also known, at least in niche scenes in Europe, as a great punk rock destination. The town hosted the GGI festival in 2013; a rotating festival organised between the punk communities of Groningen, Glasgow, and Ireland, and throughout the noughties and early tens, domestic and international bands came to play in Emmett's bar in their droves. The owner, Emmett Moloney, sadly passed away recently, but his influence on the scene is apparent in my chat with Conor Hickey, guitarist of rock band Shithatt. Shithatt have recently released the live benefit album "The Last Gig at Emmett's", a swansong to a time and place. 

When I meet Hickey, he is using a capo to open a beer. Though now a respected music teacher in Mayo, Hickey's not so straight-edge punk rock days aren't far behind him as he approaches the big four-oh later this year. The beer, Staropramen, is from Czechia, where Hickey tells me he toured (Prague and Brno) twelve years ago with his then band Only Fumes and Corpses. Hickey has been a circulating member of many underground bands since the start of the millennium: Gummidge, Section 4, Nippons, Riastradh, and until recently, his passion project Shithatt, an anagram of 'this that,' which in itself was a mistaken attempt to make an anagram of Take That. A convoluted story, but one which highlights punk's intrinsic nonchalance. If you call your band Shithatt, you're not concerned with getting radio play (though they have). 

Recorded on October 28th, 2018, "The Last Gig at Emmett's", which features five originals and five covers, was forgotten about until Hickey was recently reminded of its existence by one of his bandmates. "I recorded the gig on my little portable Tascam DR-40. Brilliant thing," Hickey says. "I just left it in the room somewhere and played. At the time, we didn't know Emmett's would close. For ages, I thought we didn't have recordings of those covers, Wicked Game and the TV on the Radio song Wolf Like Me, and those were two we played a lot, and then Sid [Hickey's bandmate] said to me, "We have that gig recorded." So I went looking on a hard drive and had a listen and thought, jeez, that was a good gig, the playing is good, and it sounds OK. Why not put it out and do it for charity?" 

I asked him about the cover, a black and white photograph by Sean Mag Riallain showing someone crowd surfing in a seemingly crowded Emmett's, "The cover isn't from the last gig. It's from Shithatt's EP launch, which was also in Emmett's earlier that year. That was JF, the singer. He tended to go a bit crazy, get into the crowd, fall about the place, take his clothes off and bust himself." 

Ballinapunx at Emmet's, 2016. Photo by Kyle Gorman

The live album is a rough and ready document of a band playing passionately on home soil. Friendzone is an abstract and atmospheric post-punk banger, Lengthwave is a short and surprisingly melodic track, while And Wha? is aggressive, complicated, and fun, all in one. For the covers on the album, there's an irresistible take on Chris Isaac's classic Wicked Game and a rendition of Waiting Room that sounds almost identical to Fugazi's studio performance. But there's undoubtedly no sheen here, the recording is proudly low-fidelity and true to life. Put it on loud through some good speakers, use your imagination, and you'll feel like you're at the last gig at Emmett's. 

Emmett's Treffpunkt was a cosy, local pub on James Connolly Street known for its frequent and alternative live music. I asked Conor about the curious 'Treffpunkt' in the name and whether it had anything to do with the genre commonly played there. “Treffpunkt is German for ‘meeting place’,” he tells me. “Emmet had worked in bars in Germany before opening bars here in Ireland. So that's where that came from." 

Hickey has organised and promoted countless gigs over the years, and continues to do so. I asked him about some of the highlights from his time as a promoter; "People have asked me that before, and there are two that stick out; Adebisi Shank, in 2007. That was insane. They were just tearing it up. At that time, they were in their prime. They blew everyone away. It was just one of those nights where everyone came, and everyone was in the mood for it, and then this insane music happened. And Litovsk, who are a band from France. They're a Cure-influenced punk band. They were brilliant. It was just a time when things were going well, getting a lot of people coming to the gigs. It was a Thursday, and that stands out because nothing happens in Ballina on a Thursday." 

I ask Hickey why he thinks so many bands from the punk genre were coming out of Ballina at that time, and why so many international acts were willing to go deep into rural Ireland to play there. "I think Emmett's is the biggest factor, really," he replies, "We don't have anything more than what you have in Castlebar or Athlone or wherever. There are people who are into alternative music, and they start bands. Venues are always the issue, though, aren't they? Emmett was sound and let us do it. We had a good relationship; the gigs went well. He wasn't particularly into the music, but he enjoyed the nights. So we had a good arrangement where I'd say, "Can I have a band on this night," and he'd say, "Yeah, sound, just tell me how much money you need." So we'd never have to charge into the gigs. Bands were guaranteed money. Nowadays, I would be reluctant to give a touring band a gig because I can't guarantee them a certain amount of money, but we never had that problem for all those years." 

GGI festival, Ballina, 2013. Photo by Kyle Gorman

When I asked him about a potential replacement that might fill the void left by Emmett's, Hickey said, "I don't see us having a home. There's nowhere we'd be able to do the same things. It's not the same time. We did a gig in the arts centre last year, and I would love to have that as a more regular gig spot. They were sound to us there, but you can't have your regular 'punk' gig there. People want to get up and close to the band and get in each other's faces. I like having to sit and watch a band, paying attention, but it has to be the right type of music. We have a venue called Tarbh 47, it's a good venue, and it's good to play, but it's not the kind of place you're going to bring in some weird French band. We'll do a gig there now and again, but you need to bring in a crowd. It's not going to be like Emmett's, where he didn't care if anybody came or not." 

Another essential to any budding music scene is a communal practice space. Ballina has this in 'the Arcade,' a small two-room area nestled down a dark and unassuming shopping arcade on the main street of the town. "We've had it for eight years now. Loads of different bands and people have been through the space over the years. We're still there somehow. Months and months behind on our rent and ESB, but we're still there. There are always people there using it. It's tiny. There's a backline in there. Some of the amps came from Emmett's. When it closed, they gave them to us. There are two rooms. You've got the practice room on one side and the craic room on the other. It's been a social spot. It's comfortable. It's not warm, but it's comfortable. And sometimes you might play some music." 

When I asked him about his motivations for putting out this live album now and what it might symbolise, he answered, "I think it symbolises the end of that period of my life, which for, probably ten years, was me constantly travelling and playing gigs; three weekends a month, over in the UK and Europe, and the end of Emmett's which was our home during those times. It was the place you'd always go. I still plan to do some gigs and travelling, but doing it all the time, I feel, has come to an end. I was lucky to get to do all those things, and listening to that album brought back a lot of memories, but I'm ready for something new. Who knows what that will be." 

"The Last Gig at Emmett's" by Shithatt is out now on Wahshtuff Records, with all proceeds going to the Ukrainian refugee crisis.

Shithatt - The Last Gig at Emmett's on Bandcamp