In August of last year Damien O’Kane and David Losky decided to release an instrumental album titled ‘The Mystery Inch’. Whilst some may consider it a daring move it was all underpinned with a great sense of spirit and fun, the results are an album that has an incredible live feel that captures the very heart of a great session. We caught up with Damien for a banter. He talked about the album, his musical background, involvement in the design of a new Fairfield Tenor Banjo and an album with Leon hunt.
He also let us in on some great new news: He is working on an album with his wife Kate Rusby celebrating her 20 years as a touring musician! He also spoke about family life and some other exciting news…read on!
The Concept: The Mystery Inch
Dave and I have been the best a pals for about 8 or 9 years now. We met at the Hexham Gathering in Northumberland back then were we were both messing around and playing music at a session. I loved his playing and he loved mine more so we kept in touch, became good friends and played a lot of music together. We soon realised that we had a real connection with Irish music in particular, and at Cambridge Folk Festival 2007, the concept for The Mystery Inch came about.
A few beers had been sank admittedly, and gibberish talk often follows so we started joking about aspects of each others musical tastes and my facial hair du jour! The usual. Eventually the chat got round to Dave and I (plus Joe Rusby who was also there taking part in the consumption of alcohol and who is also one of the finest studio knob twisters on the planet) making a record of some of the music we’d been playing together for years at sessions and throwing some of our own material into the mix as well. Joe checked to see if the studio was free (Pure Records’ studio) immediately after the festival as I was fancy free for a week and Dave had some spare holidays at work so we agreed to descend upon the studio and set about making our, hopefully, sonic triumph. 4 years later, and The Mystery Inch was complete – it wasn’t intended to be so long in the making but as there was no pressure with it and we both fell really busy and didn’t get the chance to get at it for long periods, it took 4 years to finish.
We are both really pleased with it as we feel it captures the live, raw vibe we were after. As Dave rightly said, ‘…as selfish as it may sound, we wanted to make an album to please ourselves…one that we would listen back to for years and never have any doubts about what we played.’ Dave carried on to say that ‘…we wanted to make an album that was full of goosebump inducing moments…the thinking and intention behind that being that if we could produce moments that did that to us then there would be a strong chance it would do it to others…these moments in music are what make stand out albums that you want to listen to again and again.’ It was great doing this album with Dave as it really is as raw as it sounds and i really feel our personalities, our relationship, our laughter and emotions are all over it. Mystery Inch No 2 is already in the planning!
The Mystery Inch? (Reader Challenge)
There are clues on the album cover. It is up to you to put them all together and come up with an answer. Let me/us know how you or anyone reading this gets on with it!
Are you from a musical family?
Very much so. I come from quite a large family of six children, with me being third oldest. I was taken to music lessons (beginning with tin-whistle) from the age of 7 as we all were. My mother and father, Colette and Joe, wanted to give us that experience from a young age and they were huge folk music fans anyway.
Eventually when we all got a bit older we formed a family band were my mother sang, my two sisters Briege and Sorcha played fiddle, flute and sang, my brother Aidan played bass, guitar and sang, other brother Peter played bodhran and I played tenor banjo, guitar and sang. Dad was twiddling his magic on the sound desk so it really was a proper family affair. We travelled quite a bit, to places such as Iceland, Austria, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain and this is really what put me in good stead for what I do today so I owe a lot to my parents and siblings for giving me those opportunities and the experience from such a young age.
My mother was and still is a great singer and my father played bodhran and on occasion would sing a song (generally when he’d had more than 2 pints of guinness [laughs]) so we grew up listening to them and to whatever was blaring from the cassette player. It was a wonderful upbringing and I can’t imagine what or who I would be today if it weren’t for my family and the music.
How were you introduced to playing the banjo /guitar?
I started playing the banjo when I was 10 after my ma and pa took me to my first Irish Fleadh in Ballyshannon 1988. They took me to a session one night, after pleading with the bouncer to let me in as I was only a nipper, and it was there that I met two banjo players (Marinie Toman and my late friend Glen Creaney RIP) who were wearing daft hats whilst playing in the session. I found this extremely amusing and extraordinary and even better, I loved the sound of the banjo (tenor) and the way they played it. I couldn’t contain my excitement and the same year I got a tenor banjo for Christmas and here I am today. I spent huge amounts of my time with these two banjo players right through my youth at fleadhs, sessions and get-togethers. I would always say I have been self taught but it was these two fine gentlemen that showed me the way. I owe a lot to them for the time they gave me and their generosity to a young edjit like me!
The guitar followed a few years later when I was about 14 or 15 but it was always second best to the banjo. My brother Aidan was the guitar player in our family so I just twiddled at it now and again and played it the odd time in our family band. It wasn’t really until I moved to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne to study a degree in Folk & Traditional Music in 2001 that I really focused on playing guitar. You had to have a first and a second instrument so guitar was my second. To answer the question then as to how I was introduced to the guitar, I suppose it was after my brother Aidan started playing it. Aidan still plays and is a fine musician.
I should also mention that I have been playing tenor guitars for a few years now and they have very much become a part of my gig and my music. They came out of the woodwork a few years back for me and I loved them straight away. You can hear them on most of what I do now.
Well first and foremost, Marinie and Glen (as mentioned above) would have to be my biggest influences for banjo. Others for banjo would be Gerry O’Connor, Cathal Hayden, Kieran Hanrahan, Charlie Piggott, Barney McKenna, David McNevin and bands like Stocktons Wing, De Dannan, Four Men and a Dog, The Fureys and so many more. The one thing about listening to all of this music is that I feel now I have my own style which is very important for me. Some people choose to go down the ‘clone’ route but for me it has no soul when this happens. When you express yourself through your music, it’s always best, in my opinion, to be yourself.
My guitar playing is influenced by so many players such as Arty McGlynn, Ed Boyd, Chris Newman and Ian Carr but it is also influenced, as is my music in general by lots of different genres. I listen to all sorts of music and I feel this has enabled me to be the musician i am today, be that a good one or a bad one!
Tell us about the work you’re doing with Fairfield Banjo Company on tenor banjo
Well I was asked by Leon Hunt, one of the founders of the company and also one of the best 5-string banjo players you will ever hear, to be a part and help with designing a tenor banjo. The original plan was to make five 5-string banjo but the director of the company, John Whelan wanted a tenor as well so I got the call.
Leon had already designed the headstock and the inlay for the banjo and chosen the wood to use but I was given reign to change some of this for my design…I made a few changes to the inlay on my banjo. Leon had chosen to use Mahogany wood for the 5-strings but I chose Maple for mine. I also altered the headstock slightly and chose what skin to use on it, what tailpiece to use, what width the neck would be and really the rest is down to Phil Davidson who is the champion luthier of the Fairfield banjos. Phil made my other banjo so we were able to keep some of the measurements the same from my previous Davidson model. Leon and I have the easy bit really, Phil is the real genius!
I hear your working with Leon Hunt on a new album. Will this be a fusion of styles?
We are at the very very early stages at present as we are both busy with other things but it is a very exciting project and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what direction it takes. It will be a fusion of styles definitely as Leon’s background is bluegrass and I, Irish Trad music but we both have very similar tastes and ideas and I’ve been a fan of Leons work for a long time. Anyone not partial to a bit of banjo, which I think there may be a few of on this record, may exit through the back door, run like Forest and don’t stop!
Can we expect another instrumental from yourself and David Kosky?
Absolutely. Already being planned and some material has been put in the Mystery Inch No. 2 bag. It is a real laugh and a pleasure to work with David. He is one of the best guitarists out there today and we have fun while we work – that I find one of the most important things about music. I would expect this record to be complete near the end of 2012 or early 2013. We won’t be in any rush again but plan not to stretch to 4 and a half years this time!
Who can we expect to see you performing with at festivals this year?
I will be doing them mostly with the superb Ed Boyd on guitar (sometimes fellow Northern-Irish man and equally fab guitarist, Gerard Thompson steps in) and bodhran god John-Joe Kelly with Duncan Lyall on bass on occasion. All seriously talented guys and a real pleasure to be on stage with them.
Are you working with Kate [Rusby] on any musical projects?
Yeah, just last week we started recording Kates 20 Year Anniversary record (as a touring musician – what a legend!) and that will be an ongoing project now for a couple of months. There are some unbelievably exciting people coming to play on it – I’m so excited that i may have an accident! In all seriousness though, this is a major project to be involved in and i am very privileged to be asked and to work with such a professional as Kate.
How are you and Kate finding the work/life balance with Daisy-Delia in the family now?
In short, tough but worth it. Daisy-Delia is an absolute delight and we love her dearly. It does get difficult trying to balance at times but you just get on with it. She is 2yrs and 4 months now and runs us ragged but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Being tired is the killer sometimes, especially when you’re touring about, being up late and getting up early but we manage pretty well and look forward to our second, due in may this year. Bet you didn’t know that!!
No I didn’t expect you to come out with that! Congratulations you two!!!
Damien with John-Joe Kelly & David Kosky. From Blas Ceoil.
Damien and Kate
17/03/12 Camden, London The Roundhouse
11/04/12 Edinburgh Edinburgh Folk Club
13/04/12 Stockton Arc
20/04/12 Pomeroy The Rock, Haydens Bar,
21/04/12 Limavady Roe Valley Arts Centre
09/06/12 Gower Peninsular Gower Festival
10/06/12 Wimborne Wimborne Festival
15/06/12 London Kings Place
27/07/12 Warwick Warwick Festival
On Tour with Kate Rusby
23/02/12 Wolverhampton Wolverhampton Civic Hall
24/02/12 Buxton Buxton Opera House
26/02/12 Scunthorpe The Baths Hall
10/08/12 North Berwick Fringe by the Sea
17/08/12 Macclesfield Gawsworth Hall
25/08/12 Shrewsbury Shrewsbury Folk Festival
07/09/12 Barnstaple Queen’s Theatre
08/09/12 St Ives St Ives September Festival