Hifi Pig’s James Fleming heads up to Dublin and the salubrious surroundings that are The Workman’s Club to see and speak to Strength NIA.

Blood red walls, faded black leather seats, fuckin’ disco balls. The Workman’s Club, Dublin, is hardly at the height of rock n’ roll glamour. And once the hipsters, dressed in varying degrees of scruffiness, file in, the negative, long-haired rock n’ roll prejudices shift into overdrive.

Until after Strength NIA’s first two songs. Opening the show with two slow tunes can either be dismissed as foolhardiness or a demonstration of the band’s willingness to take risks.

But once lead singer Rory’s wool cap is torn off as the band launch into 1956 Olympics, it doesn’t matter does it? The neurotic vocals combined with the shimmering keyboards, Talking Heads bass lines and pulsating drum machine beats… if your rock n’ roll prejudices are still acting up at this point, then you’re not listening.

And Strength NIA give the distinct impression that they don’t really give a good-God-damn. They play their songs with a deranged passion, revealing a gritty, insecure reality through their lyrics and Rory’s wild man yelping. Bassist Eoghan’s spidery limbs flail crazily, like Scott Pilgrim taken to the most illogical of extremes. Keyboard-maestro Benjamin’s head nods in time/approval, he knows well how good this is.

The James Chance-esque blasts of sampled sax cut through the club like a hornet’s sting. Rory’s stare holds the gaze of the audience for an uncomfortably long time without blinking. Genuine spurts of laughter spill from the crowd at the witty lyrics (jet skis?) as each song reaches a demented climax. Tension builds, builds, BUILDS!

And then the track ends. Applause and cheering. And a surprise of all surprises; Rory’s polite between-song banter reveals this band for what they are; joy-struck musicians just grateful for the chance to do this. And awestruck that people like it.

Then it begins all over again; the count-in, the yelping, the spasms. On Farewell To Strongmen, the feedback-laden distorted bass doesn’t thump in your chest so much as painfully extract bone marrow. And we love it.

‘Cause here’s a band who’s put the thrill back into live music. Too many bands strum their chords, thank their crowd and collect their cash. Dismissive of the debt they owe to their paying crowd and to themselves to put on a good show.

There’s no dismissing with/of Strength NIA. A band this good, muscular yet brittle, wild and relatable, to dismiss them shows not only poor taste but lack of foresight; they may not be the ones to turn the top 40 on its head. But whoever does, bet your ass they were listening to Strength NIA.

So to await Myles Manley’s performance with a touch of scepticism is understandable. To follow that, well, that would take an almost inhuman amount of skill and confidence.

But by Jim he does it! In his own awkward-yet-compelling-adolescent way, he does it.

If Myles had tried to beat Strength NIA at their own game he wouldn’t have. But with deft skill and dollops of confidence, he plays his own tunes by his own rules in his own way, and the result is oddly mesmerising.

Manley writes strange, lilting songs. Sung in a voice reminiscent of Daniel Johnston’s own fragile, damaged tones. Tunes like I Fuck Your Wife and his new single Relax; Enjoy Your Night Upon The Town sound like the hilarious chaos that would ensue if Dylan Moran formed a band with Flann O’Brien and Lee Ranaldo.

He scarcely moves a muscle. Until the last song, where he dances jerkily around playing the most godawful but glorious harmonica solo this side of Bob Dylan’s best(?) attempts.

Guitarist/bassist Chris tears Lydia Lunch-like shrieks from his glass slide and telecaster combo. Or pulls mad sliding lines out of his bright red bass guitar. Drummer Solamh thrashes mutated beats straight from the radioactive jungle from his properly-sized (no Neil Peart he) kit. And all the while, that lilting voice soothes the soul. Whether it softens the edges, or the music sharpens them is up for debate. But right now, in the moment, it doesn’t matter a shit.

The inventiveness and beauty of Myles’ songs lures you in innocently, expecting an awkward hug maybe. Then a shard of white noise gets you in the heart and you back away quickly. But then, his breaking voice charms you into another approach. Before the no-wave style guitar-shrieking starts up again and hits you right in the old entry wound. Nirvana pulled a similar trick in the ‘90s. And we still love them.

And this crowd will love Myles until their dying days. All the teenaged-charm of Feargal Sharkey’s Undertones without the cheese. Myles is continuing a great-Irish song tradition into the 21st century, embracing the vulgarity of the vernacular with the ungainliness of many of our outcast teenagers. He could soundtrack the film version of At Swim-Two-Birds. And if Brendan Gleeson does what he’s been threatening to do for ages now and makes the damn thing, Myles should be the man for that job.

Myles finishes up what he claims is “his first real encore” of this tour. His ungainly go-go dancing stopping as suddenly as the processed beat of the tune started. As the hipsters’ applause fades out to the darkness of the Dublin night, that hour where taxis clog the main drags, it becomes clear; my prejudices are smashed.

James Fleming speaks to Strength NIA’s Rory. 

The green room’s walls are covered in scrawled graffiti, bearing such gems as “I’m with my dad and he’s in fookin’ double denim,” and “I want to shift your sister!” There’s a suspicious puddle on the floor and a stink of piss pervades the close air. This, is rock n’ roll’s natural habitat.

Though to describe Strength NIA as “rock n’ roll” is hardly fitting is it? Their mesmerising combination of bass guitar, keyboards, processed beats and frontman Rory’s unhinged vocals are closer to Devo and Suicide than Sabbath or Zeppelin.

But the passion with which they attack their set on The Workman’s Club’s stage this Spring night is as rock n’ roll as it gets. Their sound may not be traditional (which is a good thing), but it’s as real and vital as any roots rock n’ roll act.

From up north, Strength NIA formed a couple of years ago as a project Rory started on his own with a cassette machine after he became interested in the process of writing, recording and releasing music himself. But over the course of the last two years, it’s become more of a functioning band.

They needed a flag to march under, and after a friend said “strength” Rory decided ‘we’ll go with that.

But at the time as well, I was reading about karoshi victims in Japan and how the people work themselves to death. I was reading about the widows and the husbands that were left behind from people working themselves to death, I was just reading this article in the paper. And I just thought of the strength of that, to get through something as kind of tragic as that. This was the same time as someone suggested “Strength.”

And I thought about those people and their strength going through that particular tragic experience and it all came together.”

Unfortunately, ‘Strength’ was not only taken, it was trademarked. So, a modification was in order. And the ‘NIA’ tag was added, standing for ‘Northern Irish Artists.’

In the beginning, Rory worked with lots of pieces of equipment that he had to hand or that other people didn’t want; half working keyboards, an old drum machine. The idea was to give himself as much freedom as possible to write music, record it and release it.

Previous experiences with record companies had been stifling in terms of creative freedom; ‘you’re going to work with this producer and you’re going to do this and you’re going to release this. I felt very shackled by that whole period of being with the record company.’

Rory’s mission statement was ‘to create something that was good with what I had.’ That creative challenge led to the development of the Strength NIA sound. A melodic but skeletal take on the post-punk of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s.

Rory had a very clear vision as to what he wanted the sound to be. And through that vision and the creative limitations he imposed on himself the sound came together quite quickly.

I was kind of working with really crap equipment. The sound that I was trying to create with the equipment that I had was definitely the sound of the late ‘70s period. When I realised that it was Logan string machines and Casio organs that I liked I went and got them.’

Dave Mattacks, the drummer for Fairport Convention (‘he almost played like a drum machine!’) and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot were key influences on the sound Rory was looking to make with Strength NIA.

I loved he way he [Mattacks] played the drums. It sounded like he was playing busted sofas! I just loved that flatness of what he was doing, and I tried to get the drum machine to emulate his way of playing.

‘And then I just thought; “that, and a bass guitar are just the components I wanted to use to create songs.” Of course, the organ and the string machines… there’s a particular flavour with the likes of him [Mattacks] and The Idiot by Iggy Pop. I knew that those particular artists were definitely what I was attracted to soundwise.’

The writing of the material for Strength NIA has become more of a collaborative effort as the band has progressed. But, Rory says he still writes ’90% of everything.’

Growing up in Northern Ireland has impacted the band’s sound; the lyrics for their track ‘Northern Ireland, Yes’ came about from a conversation Rory had in the car while getting a lift with someone about growing up in Belfast in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Prior to Strength, I was always kind of writing stuff that was more fantastical and more fiction-like. I realised that I wasn’t really looking at anything that was about who I was or where I come from or where I was growing up. So Strength was important in the content of the lyrics. I actually intentionally wanted to address and to regurgitate the culture of where I grew up.’

Strength NIA have labelled their sound as ‘existentialist pop.’ A genre of Rory’s own invention constructed ‘to question and to go deeper into oneself.

To look inside and to explore my own thoughts about what I think about everything,’ Rory says. ‘What I think about myself and what I think about others and what I think about the world. To reveal the self.

Rory believes that everyone is individual and that everyone has their own completely unique experience of life. And when he thinks about music and artists he thinks that they’re not doing anything new ‘because everything in music is derivative from something else, what we’re trying to intentionally do in Strength is to reveal ourselves. ‘Cause there’s nothing like personality in music.’

And that there is the key to Strength NIA; personality. Here is one unique person’s take on the world and on music. The results are riveting stuff, existentialist pop for the 21st century. And soon, fingers crossed, we’ll have an album of it…

We’re just finishing off recording our debut album which we’re open to release in September. We’ve been talking to a label about putting it out. We’re doing that up in Derry and hopefully it’ll be out in the next few months.

You heard it here first folks, watch this space. Preferably at a venue near you.

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