Mixing two of the outstanding talents of the Dublin trad scene, with a wild card flamenco guitarist, Bully’s Acre have delivered a thrilling debut album The Twelve Pins. It draws on all of their individual virtuosity, creating a truly unique sound, so we just had to find out more about what drew this talented and unusual trio together.
I managed to talk with Robbie Harris the bodhrán player, although those two words hardly do justice to his skills and he’s enthused and immediately tells me, “We’ve just played the Temple Bar TradFest. It’s their 10th anniversary and they had a special, gala concert at Dublin Castle and were on supporting John Sheahan, who played with Declan O’Rourke, Damien Dempsey and Susan McKeown. It was a great honour to be on the same bill as such legendary names, I mean we’re only really a couple of months old as far as the audience are concerned because the album has only just come out. We did a half hour opening slot and people really seemed to like it” He seemed genuinely thrilled.
Robbie was also quick to acknowledge that they were in their element to a large degree explaining, “I think people respond to the energetic groove that we set up, which frees Peter up to play across the top of that and push and pull against it.” He continues, “Playing with Peter I generally very much enjoy bouncing beats off him, but we worked out during the recording that when everyone’s doing it, it gets too sloppy and so Lucas and I concentrated on setting up the rhythms.”
Lucas Gonzales could be described as Bully’s Acre’s point of difference. All three, Robbie, Peter Browne their fleet fingered accordionist and Lucas can rightly be called virtuosic, but then the Irish Traditional music scene boasts many other fine instrumentalists with equal claim to exceptional ability. The clue for Lucas’ distinctive contribution though is in his name, as the Argentine, born in Córdoba, only arrived in Ireland in 2007. He originally came to Dublin following the international scholastic route, with an Erasmus from Switzerland facilitating his switch to Royal Irish Academy Of Music to further his studies in composition.
Explaining his part in Bully’s Acre Lucas tells me that he sticks pretty close to his own traditional style, “I tend to play the way I play flamenco but mixing some Latin improvisations in. I think there is a very interesting rhythmical complexity between Robbie’s bodhrán and my guitar, which is a more syncopated way than the usual Irish traditional way of strumming, that happens to be, from my point of view, a solid, and yet original, percussive base.” Lucas highlights the way that Peter uses this as a launch pad for his extremely fluid improvisations.
Robbie picks up Lucas’ thread revealing, “The most exciting thing for me is trying to find a way to use the new voice that Lucas’ flamenco-esque playing gives us, trying to find the feel for the triplets and cross fours that he plays.” Robbie acknowledges that they are breaking boundaries and pushing their instruments to their limits in some ways, which can lead to some seat of the pants thrills.
As the free voice of the band, Peter offers, “I suppose what we’re aiming for musically can be split into 2 sections. Firstly we are exploring the connections between the flamenco rhythms that Lucas is already familiar with and trying to make the Irish tunes fit into this not very well explored territory, which makes me play in a certain way. Or Robbie might set up a particular groove, forcing me to phrase in a way I don’t usually get a chance to in traditional Irish music. Then there are other tunes, in which Lucas is more familiar with the type of genre and using his strengths in improvisation and trying to find common ground between us with more improvised themes, as I also have a background in improvised music. Robbie is so diverse as a percussionist he can go pretty much go anywhere we need to go with it.”
In some ways, it’s so new that they are still learning about where their music can go. Robbie explains, “For the record we are able to overdub stuff, but playing live, we don’t want to start getting into loop pedals and all of that, we had to rethink things again and find ways that allow each of us to have our voice without loosing the energy and the tune going flaccid.” In terms of material too Robbie is clear, “We did try some jazzier things, but rejected that direction deciding it was best to keep within the Irish traditional and world music areas. It’s fine to develop a jazzy feel to some of them, but I wouldn’t call myself a jazz musician, so there’s nothing straight ahead in that way”
Robbie adds that as much as he admires the Irish traditional players, however, he’s always been drawn to those who have an edgy style and are prepared to push their instruments and also rework tunes to fit different moods. He’s clearly got Peter in mind as he talks and admits, “I’ve known Peter for about 20 years and we’ve met up now and again around the Dublin scene. He lives and breathes music and we’ve collaborated a few times, nothing too serious, but I’ve always gravitated to Peter and the musicians he surrounds himself with because that’s the style I most admire.”
I ask Lucas for a bit about his background and he reveals, “I studied classical guitar and oboe in Córdoba, Argentina. When I was around 17 years old I started playing flamenco in a band there. Originally I knew very little about flamenco, but quickly learnt about the style and started playing percussion as well. From then on I have mostly played Flamenco but mixing in all sorts of Latin American folk music. I went back to the classical guitar for a period of three years in Switzerland, but at the same time doing flamenco or Latin folk music gigs and alternating between guitar and percussion.”
Continuing his musical journey Lucas reveals, “In Ireland I have been playing different styles in different projects, generally in small venues, flamenco, bossa nova, jazz, salsa, French chanson, and general Latin folk, as well as composing, recording, producing my own music. I have been doing all sorts of gigs and met Robbie in one of those bands, a jazz / Brazilian / Balkan fusion band called Gato Azul.” He adds that he’s only got to know Peter through Robbie, so that brings us bang up to date and Bully’s Acre. Robbie also confirms, “Since playing in that band with Lucas, I’ve wanted us to work together. He has that ability to bend the rhythms or completely change a feel depending on the interactions of the setting.”
Whilst much of the material is a progressive take on Irish traditional tunes, Lucas has also contributed a couple of his own and I ask him to tell me more, he explains, “Living in Spain, (more than 10 years ago), I met some Irish guys who gave me a tin whistle as a present, with it I composed that little melody called Encuentro. If I could go back and tell myself that I’d end up recording that little melody in Ireland with two renowned Irish traditional musicians, I doubt I’d believe myself.” He continues, “The other one Sal Del Mar is based on a flamenco rhythm called Buleria, the chord progressions in the middle section were meant to be for soloing and those two chords in the soft sections, (sort of bridge sections), are more of a Latin inflection.”
Peter fills me in a little on the other material and where it comes from telling me, “As far as the sources go for the Irish tunes, they would be common enough. I usually pick a few tunes for a set and let the guys come up with a groove for it. We’d go with a general chord arrangement and I’d leave the rhythm up to them and I try to work around what they come up with. Then we picked some themes, either just based on a chord progression that Lucas may have come up with, or as in the case of Devlin, it was written by Tony Rice, a well known bluegrass guitarist, who also dabbles in jazz. I had played it before with a couple of other guys, so we just threw it into the mix.”
Finally Peter makes it all sound so casual revealing, “We just started throwing ideas on the table and tried to see what was playable or doable and what might work as a trio. We didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse, so everything is quite raw. But it seems to work for the most part. The input is fairly equal from the 3 of us in regards to what happens. There’s no leader, but we trust each other musically enough to have a sense of what works and what doesn’t. I think there are more diverse things to come and a lot of ideas we have yet to explore.”
There you have it. Imagination and trust fostered by the unquestionable virtuosity that this trio boast as individuals are the things that make Bully’s Acre very special indeed. Their place on the prestigious Temple Bar bill is a sure sign of things to come. Peter and Robbie are readily acknowledged as two of Dublin’s finest musicians of any sort and in Lucas, they have found a nomad soul who’s every bit their equal. But it’s together that they push this music to its limits and back again, with seat-of-the-pants precision and thrill-a-minute panache. It all adds up to the The Twelve Pins being one of the most exciting records you could wish for.
Interview by: Simon Holland