Gugai – Co-owner and live music promoter @ Roisín Dubh.
He is also a DJ, band manager and has a new record label, Strange Brew Rekkids.
Can you tell us a bit about how you've gotten to where you are today?
I'm from Limerick, and I came to Galway to college in around '95 or '96 to study History and Soc & Pol, which I never finished. It came down to running shows and college, and college kind of slipped by the wayside. But originally, I had been involved with the Students Union a little bit and I ran a charity gig for a guy I knew from school - his mother had died of Leukemia so I organised a trust fund gig in the Quays in 2005. I asked Tommy Tiernan to do it, and it was just after he won the Perrier, so it was a big enough deal. There were about six bands on the bill and it went very well; it was a great show. After that I just knew I never wanted to do anything else ever again.
Then I started running gigs anywhere I could - in Galway, Sligo, Limerick and Dublin. I did a lot of shows upstairs in Liquid, in Pacino's up on Prospect Hill when the Burkes had it. And with Kevin in the GPO. I did a really good club night there on Mondays called Suds and Soda - some great bands there, and O'Malley's. I did a lot of stuff with the Warwick - that's where I started the Strange Brew Club Night that I still have - It's going to be 666 nights old this October. But the Warwick was too big for what I wanted to do, and so I started looking for somewhere to put on shows. I was very frustrated at this stage. Galway was very much a cover bands city; there wasn't much going on. So I went to Kevin (Healy) for some advice about it - he had just sold the GPO the previous year. He said he'd come back to me in a week, so we sat down in Massimo's a week later and he said, 'Do you want to buy the Roisin Dubh?' I actually stood up and said, 'If you're not going to fucking take me seriously, I'm just going to walk out.' So that's how that happened.
What was it about organising gigs that drew you in?
We always went to shows in Limerick; my friends had always played in bands there. I was never very musically inclined; I played Clarinet, but not very well. So I was never really drawn to it from a musician's point of view; I just really loved listening to and going to see music. At the start, I did it because there was no one else doing it; there was no one else putting on bands that I wanted to hear or no one putting on bands that just wanted to play their own music.
"Some of them are driving around in a small car or staying in shitty hostels or shitty hotels, eating shitty food and the last thing they need is to come to a venue to find out that no one's put their posters up or that no one's bothered to put towels or water on the stage."
You get some of the best names in the industry. What's your secret?
My whole business is built on relationships and reputation. Especially in Ireland; there's only about eight people doing what I do. And there's very few venues in Ireland that are booked by their owners as well and that's doubly for the Roisín, because Kevin books all the comedy there for the Comedy Festival. A lot of it's by reputation and building relationships with bands and with agents - who are the devil!
Also, a lot of friends of mine, say Finn in MCD or Declan in Pod or Leagues from Harmonic and Foggy Notions, might need a second show if they're bringing a band to Dublin. They'd know me and that's basically how I started forging relationships with agents. Independently of them, if an agent was looking for a show outside of Dublin, I'd be recommended. So that was good even before I had a venue. As an independent promoter, it was difficult to get some of the larger acts. But we still managed it. I'm not saying it wasn't tough, but if it was easy, I suppose everyone would be doing it.
What about working with artists - is there a certain knack to working well with them?
I think the same as with anyone else, if they're treated with a bit of respect...You get what you give back, I guess. I could probably count on one hand, thankfully, in the 20 years I've been doing this, the amount of times I've had serious problems with bands, which is great, because most musicians are doing something that they love. But you've got to remember that some of them have been on the road for a long time. We just had St Vincent in the Big Top and she's been touring that album now for 19 months. So that's 19 months on the road. Now, not every band is going to do that, but a lot of bands who do that aren't able to do it in the style that St Vincent is able to now. So some of them are driving around in a small car or staying in shitty hostels or shitty hotels, eating shitty food and the last thing they need is to come to a venue to find out that no one's put their posters up or that no one's bothered to put towels or water on the stage. Stuff like that. Ollie Longhair, a really great sound engineer who's been working with me backstage for years, gave me this advice when we took over the Roisín; “Sandwiches - that what sound engineers and crew like - sandwiches and a cup of tea.” And that advice has stood well to me as well. Practicalities like that, the small things.
You DJ as well...
Yeah, I started Djing as a cost-saving measure, but I just really enjoy it. I find it hard getting someone to play the kind of stuff I like to hear. Not to everyone's taste, I guess. But I do Silent Disco as well, which is a guilty pleasure. Myself and a friend do it in the Roisín every Tuesday and that's like evil Gugai. That's just fun - people really enjoy it. Then we do a Silent Disco Street Party; there's one coming up on August 2nd. That's mental - so much fun. You've got a couple of thousand people singing 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' on the street - that's real power!
What is it you enjoy most about your job?
My girlfriend Jean will tell you that it's a 24 hours a day job. I've been on holiday where I've spent the whole time on the phone because it doesn't stop and if something comes up, you have to deal with it. It's very hard to delegate a lot of it because it's built around relationships. I like everything about it except when I don't. Like everything else, you have bad days - like, when shows go wrong, obviously the financial impact of that is difficult. But when shows go well, there's no other feeling like it; it's just incredible. Because it's not just you - it's a shared experience that you have with the artist and the audience. Like St Vincent last night; I was getting text messages and tweets about how incredible that show was and the band had such a great night as well. Like I said, Annie's been on the road for 19 months, and she's still able to come off stage and say, 'That was a really great show'. I love that. That's a really nice experience.
You have done a lot in terms of bringing all these acts to Galway that people probably wouldn't have heard of, or wouldn't get the opportunity to see if they don't travel to go to see different gigs. What kind of a buzz do you get from being able to do that for Galway?
To be able to bring someone like St Vincent to Galway, or the National or bands like All Tvvins and Jape, and to be able to provide a platform in the Roisín for the really high quality local talent that's here - it's rewarding. It's like when you're djing and someone says, 'What's that song, it's brilliant' - that's the best feeling I ever have when djing. Or when people come along to see a band that they don't really know and come away with an album going, 'That was incredible'. But Galway is such an amazing town - it's a great mix of students and tourists. There's an audience there for this music - it needs it. That's why I started, basically. There's not a whole lot of other stuff going on that's catering to the live music market. Mick Crehan does a great job with The Crane with traditional music - it's fantastic. He's a treasure.
Are you proud of what you've achieved?
I'm really proud of what we've accomplished in the Roisín in the last 11 years. When I started, I think I would have been happy running one gig a month; that was my goal initially. I thought, 'If you do that it's already better than what's happening here'. I wouldn't be happy with that now.
What's the Irish music scene like at the moment in terms of talent?
There's been a huge creative explosion in Ireland in music. It's the best time for music in Ireland ever; there's so many great acts out there. There's Daithí, who I manage - he's amazing. He plays house music based around the fiddle. He's like a force of nature; incredibly gifted and talented. He's always working; he gets up in the morning, he goes into the studio, and writes and practices. And it really comes across in his live show; he gives it everything. Elaine Mai that I work with as well; she's incredible - she's got a really beautiful voice. There's a band called Not Squares in Belfast - I just put out their album. They're also incredible. All Tvvins; they're amazing. They're gonna be huge. And that's what I like as well, seeing the progression of acts that we work with.
"My whole business is built on relationships and reputation. Especially in Ireland; there's only about eight people doing what I do. And there's very few venues in Ireland that are booked by their owners as well."
How can you tell that a band is going to make it big?
Sometimes you're right and sometimes you're wrong. It's easier to point to the times you're right than the times you're wrong. For every time I've been right, there's a thousand times that I've been wrong. It was like with Hozier two years ago. I had Hozier booked for the Roisín two months before he was really heard of. So we were doing tickets for €5 and by the time the gig was on, we could have sold ten gigs at €20. And the same thing happened with the Two Door Cinema Club, when they played Strange Brew - in the three months between when I booked them and by the time they played, they had just exploded and that's a great feeling. But even watching the bands grow incrementally, like Le Galaxie or Delorentos or bands like that that we've been working with for ten years, and just seeing them start off as supports and then going off doing their own headlines. Le Galaxie are now one of the most successful live bands in Ireland. They've got this huge stage show and this has just really been their year, and they've really worked so hard for it. So to see them getting really good festival slots - that's fantastic.
They're probably your buddies at this stage as well.
Oh yeah, that's the thing. All these people are all your friends. I see more of these than I see my actual friends like.
How does art and culture influence your daily life?
I would say tremendously. I read a lot, I listen to alot of music, and I watch good television - it wouldn't have been easy to say that ten or 15 years ago. I consume culture, I guess. I listen to a lot of music. I love finding new music. What I really miss is walking into a record shop and not knowing what I'm going to buy. It's really hard to do that in the digital age. I've got some amazing records that I just picked up by walking into Mulligans; maybe I read a little bit about it in a magazine or I'd be just thumbing through the vinyl section and I'd say; 'I like the look of this' or 'I like that producer', or 'let's give this a whirl'.
How do you go about finding good music now?
You read about things, you hear about things. Nialler9 is a friend of mine - he has a really good influential Irish music blog. Jim Carroll in the Irish Times - The Ticket. He's always great, and occasionally sends me good tips. I read a lot of blogs, and I'm on mailing lists and you get some stuff from labels. Other times people just go, have you heard this? I've put my playlist up on Spotify - the Gugai spotify account.
Nice Job you have…
When it's good, it's really good and when it's bad, it's bad. Because it's incredibly stressful as well. I get really stressed. If things aren't going well it's a horrible job. Because when things go wrong in this business, they go really wrong. It doesn't really go by halves. There's no guarantee that anyone is going to buy a ticket. So it's basically gambling every single time you do it. Every single time you put on a show, you're basically gambling.
I guess so many people are relying on you to make it successful...
Sometimes things that should work don't. I put on a show for a guy a couple of years ago called Steve Mason who is from the Beta Band, which are one of the best bands to ever come out of Scotland, and I'd say we had about 30 people at the show. The show was incredible and he gave it everything on stage, but that's when I get really pissed off with Galway.
Stress levels must be pretty high?
Yeah, and it's not just once a month - that's four or five days a week.
At this stage, do you not trust yourself that everything will be alright?
I trust myself completely, it's the people I don't trust. I know I'm doing the right thing; it's just convincing other people to go. If everyone just listened to me and did what I told them to do, it would be perfect. It would be an amazing business model! (laughs)
Do you find you have to make sacrifices for your work?
I don't know if I'd say sacrifice...actually, yes, I do. It's hard to get any time that's just time alone with the kids or time alone with my girlfriend where I'm not doing something, because there's always something to do. I'm sure it's the same for anyone who has their own businesses. My girlfriend's very patient.
What achievements are you most proud of?
The Roisín. I think what we've done with Roisín is incredible. We looked at it and went, 'Yes we can do this, this is a viable business' and then so we expanded in 2006 and made the venue bigger with the upstairs. Our goals changed organically over time. I don't think we thought it would be as big as it is. I just wish we could go back over the canal now, or down!
What drives you?
I don't know, to put on a better show I guess. You always want to do something bigger. I don't know if it's even bigger, I just want to do better, I think. The Roisín Dubh - I love that place - every millimeter of it. So to make that the best that we possibly can, to continue bringing that high quality to Galway, and not to let it slip. And to try to not sacrifice the artistic side of it for the commercial, because in the end it is a business and thankfully I have partners there who keep reminding me that it's a business, because I'd have been out of business a long time ago if it wasn't for Simon and Kevin and Greg. They taught me an awful lot about the practical side of it, which I'm not very good at. We work really well together. Kevin and myself would do the bookings and the advertising promotion, Greg runs the bar and Simon tells us to stop spending so much money. It works really well, but the real aim is to balance the commercial and the artistic to make it commercially viable. There are shows that we put on solely because we need to generate revenue to pay for the stuff we want to do. I'm not going to say which shows those are...but there's a lot of stuff that we do because we have to but if we didn't do those, we wouldn't be able to put on the likes of the Steve Mason shows or the Strange Brew nights or maybe the other free stuff we do. So there's that trade-off, but I have increasingly less of a problem with that than I used to because it's necessary. The other fact of the matter is that people really like some of those acts and they should be able to see them as well. Who am I? Much as I would like to tell everyone who they should listen to and what they should go to?
So it sounds like you work on instinct?
Alot of it, yeah. You know you get a feel of it as well from other promoters. Alot of my friends are promoters in other cities and we'd talk a lot.
Any new projects in the pipeline?
Yes. We're looking at something for next year but that's all I can say. Next summer, hopefully, we'll have something nice. Kevin's the director of the Galway Comedy Festival, so the Roisín is heavily involved in that as well. That's been growing every year, so that's really exciting. We just used St Nicholas' for the John Reilly gigs and God, that's an incredible venue. I just want to do a series of shows in there now.
"There's no guarantee that anyone is going to buy a ticket. So it's basically gambling every single time you do it. Every single time you put on a show, you're basically gambling."
"Then we do a Silent Disco Street Party. That's mental - so much fun. You've got a couple of thousand people singing ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ on the street - that's real power!"
Who/what has been your greatest influence?
There's people I work with, or other promoters. There's Timo - he does stuff under a company called u:mack. There's Leagues who works for Aiken now, but he used to work for Foggy Oceans. Declan in the Pod, Jenny from Body and Soul. I did a lot of work with Finn from MCD as well. Seeing what other people do has had a strong influence on me - they've been a great inspiration to me. Simon and Greg have taught me an awful lot about the business side of it - not enough yet, but I'm getting there. Kevin's been a really strong influence on me, because I wouldn't be doing the Roisín without him. And the bands - the people who actually get up there and play the music. That's inspiring.
What impact do you see what you've brought to Galway having on Galway city?
Well, I'd like to think that it brings people to town. We do the Big Top as co-productions with the Arts Festival. This year is the busiest Big Top ever, which is great. I think when people see Galway as a destination like that, when people go, 'Let's go see that band in Galway instead of going to see them in Dublin'. When you have people coming from Dublin to see a gig in the Roisín, I love that. Everything that people do here adds to the overall appeal of Galway - everything from the buskers to the market, the restaurants, the live music venues. It's a cultural melting pot. There must be something in the water. There's this whole sort of mystique that Galway has - and it's a great place for partying culture. I still love seeing Galway on a sign post. Every time I'm driving home, when I see the Galway sign, a little part of me goes, 'Doesn't that look really nice'.
Do you feel proud that you've added to that?
Yeah, it makes me proud of what I've done and proud to be a part of the community in Galway that's creating this huge cultural nexus for Ireland. For a city that's half the size of Limerick essentially, it's incredible what people have done here.
Your favourite cultural city in the world?
Galway would probably be my first choice, but I love going to South by SouthWest in Austin, which is this huge music festival. It's incredible. I've been there about six times - it's insane. You just go to see bands from 12 in the afternoon till 3 in the morning; your feet would be bleeding afterwards. Jim Carroll recommended hiring a bike. I did that this year for the first time and it's a revelation. You get to see all these bands and musicians all hanging out and playing gigs in coffee shops and on the street.
What's your vision for Galway as a cultural utopia?
It would be great to have a larger venue, somewhere like the Opera House. Extended licensing hours. In Dublin they get to serve until 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning - here is just ridiculous. I'd really like to see Dominick Street pedestrianised. Galway's West End as a brand is really gelling together. They're doing a lot of work down there on it. I love that side of town; I don't really cross the bridge after six o'clock unless I'm going to Neachtains or Sheridans. It has some of the best restaurants in Galway and all the best bars are down there. If it just got a bit more love from the city, I think it would be amazing.