The phenomenon of the one-man band brings up the inevitable precedent of Dick Van Dyke as Bert in Mary Poppins, the chipper mockney travesty eternally enshrined in the popular imagination as an endearing, roguish source of winsome humour and novelty. Despite its ludicrous sense of caricature and whimsicality, it’s a depiction that’s stuck. Any time the term ‘one-man band’ is thrown about, the unwanted recall of Dyke infernally pounding his drum, doffing his cap to the well-heeled and emitting a sparkle from the eye as he rolls out moronic gags isn’t too far away.
But as always, there’s a reassuringly subversive inverse to such a common inheritance. For instance, the maniacal ragged primitivism of Hasil Adkins, who’s impromptu use of percussion and threadbare sound contributed to something that revelled in its misfit individualism, setting an early precedent for cult outsider music.
As a digressive yet pertinent, more recent example, consider the essential footage of an Alan Vega solo set performed in 1983 at the studios of a Madrid TV station. Promoting his latest record at the time, ‘American Dreamer’, Vega is in impeccably rabid form. Within the first few moments of ‘Wipeout Beat’ he tells the crowd to shut up, proceeds to intensely scan their faces for the duration of the performance and frequently invades the personal space of those in attendance. As if willing the crowd to spill from indifference into hatred, Vega faces off against an apathetic reception, stoic in his demeanour and indomitable in the outbursts he directs at those who are unmoved by his efforts. These are just two instances which spring to mind, of an individual engaged in a persistent provocation, challenging the boundaries placed upon them, intent on defying the odds.
A similar sense of assured antagonism informs the work of Christian Donaghey and his output as Autumns, a solo endeavour which configures the ‘one-man band’ as an industrial assault unit bearing fried noise thrash and smothering submergence. Imagine the one-man circus of Van Dyke/Bert appropriated by someone reared on a teenage diet of Merzbow, The Pop Group and Grauzone, with a taste for turning the rock and roll paroxysms of Adkins and Vega into a sinister textural groan. On his latest release ‘Das Nichts’ Donaghy’s sound is half-buried but brusque, distorted to such a point as to be on the verge of disintegration. Powered by drum machines and electronic bass, it’s as if the guitar strings he frequently throttles into furores of distortion are being fitfully filed down by sandpaper, rather than manipulated by the virtue of vigorous dexterity.
Initiated in January 2013 with a few trial uploads on Soundcloud, Donaghy was almost immediately tapped up by Karl O’Connor (aka Regis) in April of the same year, for a release on Downwards, a notable feat for someone who had just intended to see what his first experiments would resemble:
‘This was all when I just turned 19. The songs on the record [2014’s Pale Skin EP] are the first songs I had ever written and I recorded them all myself. I guess the lack of equipment limited what I could do which made me work harder. It was just me seeing what I could do, to find out if I had any talent or potential.’
In spite of or perhaps because of these restricted resources, it made for a dynamic listen, displaying a nascent promise in its restlessness, from the engulfed grit of the title track to the gleaming crests of ‘Gerantophobia’ and ‘It’s Sooner Than You Think’ to the tattered, precarious garage pop of ‘Terrible Tuesday’. The release treaded mutably between sullen irritation and fervent elation, at odds but still standing out amongst the predominantly techno-orientated material Downwards released the same year. Despite the pressure that such favour might entail Donaghy remained relatively unfazed, partly because he hadn’t come across the label before and partly because O’Connor imparted some reassuring advice:
‘I had no idea who he was and who Downwards were, and I still don’t really know. That didn’t make me apprehensive at all though, I thought that anyone who was willing to take my first songs and commit it to vinyl must have been a really good person, it didn’t matter if they only released techno. I think the only influence he has had is that he tells me not to give a fuck about what anyone thinks, just do what I want to do, no questions asked.’
Such an attitude seems to have been born out of necessity rather than the result of an affected stance, given the inauspicious nature of the scene in Donaghey’s hometown of Derry, a place where his efforts haven’t always been greeted with appreciation. The usual reaction has been quite the opposite:
‘People in Derry hate Autumns. People walk out all the time at my shows and think it’s too much, which I think is great. However, there are a handful of people who do enjoy it.’
Although it’s a struggle to comprehend the notion of disliking Donaghy’s work to such an extreme degree, it’s perhaps understandable why his live show might prove to be an uncomfortable and intimidating experience. On ‘Motel Lover’ – the first track from ‘Das Nichts’ – the welcome is hardly ingratiating, with a scolded eye-of-the-storm squall unfurling over the course of twenty minutes. It’s something that you imagine would probably prove daunting to the uninitiated; an expansive and infernal ride filled with lashings and wails of unabating distortion, and equally brutal percussive downstrokes, like the sound of perverse punishment without a safe word. Nevertheless, like the more nuanced strains of contemporary noise music and industrial techno, it reaches a frenzied form of exhilaration even amidst such forbidding havoc.
‘Das Nichts’ is a much heavier proposition than Donaghy’s prior material, with ‘Cut Through’ following this extended relentlessness with lurking dread and more voluminous sabotage. Undoubtedly confrontational, the majority of the EP is sharp, hard-hitting and brutal in its impact. But as ‘Smother Me’ proves, there’s just as much intent to see the range of sounds that can be wrestled out of an economical set up than there is a drive to overwhelm with uninhibited intensity. Mangled signals that recall the dystopian mutations of early Cabaret Voltaire are strewn throughout the mix, adding a stranger rendering to it all, as if the sound of melting metal were trading space with the persistent functionalism of a burnt-out generator. Although this recent progression in Donaghy’s sound is discernible, he’s seen it as a much more natural transition, with the same approach adopted as before shaping the end results:
‘All the tracks were recorded and mixed by me in my bedroom…they were recorded over 2015 and early 2016. I’m actually shocked that people think there’s a big shift in sound, to me it doesn’t sound that different. It was so natural I didn’t even notice the change.’
As for the themes that concern him, Donaghy admits to a slight shift in focus, with early material having been significantly shaped by the influences of teenage years, from encounters with Japanese noise, Bristolian post-punk, and German synth-punk to tentative forays into William S. Burroughs and the novels of Nick Cave. Though Donaghy is reluctant to attribute his early work to any one particular experience: ‘I guess at the time the music and books that I was interested in was feeding into what I was doing, and how my life was at that time.’
Those experiences don’t seem to conform to the conventional expectations of late teenage-hood. On ‘Gerantophobia’ for instance, anxieties concerning old age came from a genuinely held fear:
‘When I was 19 I really started to fear getting older which sounds ridiculous, but I did and so that’s what I wrote about.’ With ‘Das Nichts’ however, there are more broader preoccupations at work, with attention turning to ‘numerous themes ranging from lust and depression to experimentation and philosophy. I would say it’s the most personal record to date.’
The sum of what Donaghy’s releases have conjured hasn’t gone unnoticed, with recent support slots for Ought and The KVB adding to a sense that the project is beginning to garner a greater sense of momentum, even after having those first few demos singled out for a significant inceptive release. This year saw Donaghy embark on an American tour, a string of dates which heralded a few first time experiences, from playing backyards at SXSW to supporting the likes of Lust For Youth in San Francisco:
‘The states was amazing. It was not only my first tour, but my first time in America and first tour of America. Highlights was definitely getting to play in New York and San Francisco, but it was also so nice to hear really good feedback and to meet a lot of people I’ve only been able to talk to online.’
It's an impressive place to be considering the ‘awfully depressing’ origination Donaghey has described. From the bemusement of his local Derry crowd to the notability of a vinyl release on an international techno label - after only a few uploads on Soundcloud - to the development of a consistently feral but elevated sound on ‘Das Nichts’, things are falling into place at an encouraging rate. It’s an upward trend that seems likely to continue with an album scheduled for release in the near future, and another one in the works:
‘The first record was recorded in a studio and my bedroom in Derry over the period of 3 days. I worked on it from around the late Summer of 2015 right up until the deadline of January 2016. I think people are going to be shocked at it and maybe a bit worried about me. It’s a very immediate, intense record I think. I’m proud. I’m recording my second album this Summer too.’
It’s clear that the etching out of an original sound has led to this prolific activity. As Autumns, Donaghey has struck upon a distinctive ferocity, owing as much to post-punk liberties as it does to the trenchant severities of noise and the extended hypnotic perpetuity of industrial techno. It’s not merely an imposing affront to the pain threshold - a typically tough and masochistic type of noise-based music – but a sound of colossal atmospherics, dynamically suffused with abrasion and filled with heavy reflections that feel half-entombed yet thoroughly vented.
In keeping with Adkins and Vega’s memorable lone provocateur performativity it’s the one-man band as something that defies the limited resources at its disposal. A vehement industrial overspill, loaded with lust, depression, experimentation and philosophy. All of that, from a bedroom in Derry.
Here are 5 formative records on Autumns, as kindly revealed by Christian.
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