Chugging Purple Drank at New Blood – a party where FKA twigs and Neo would feel equally at home – we meet the creative duo injecting Ireland with a much-needed boost of contemporary culture
“I love the people who just completely disregarded the dress code and came as vampires,” says John Leo Gillen, deadpan. He throws a look over his shoulder at a guy who clearly made an effort, but failed on all counts in white make-up and a pound-shop cape with a sagging collar. He’s standing on his own, swaying to Sega Bodega’s experimental beats on the dancefloor. “You OK there?” he asks the lone vamp.
We’re at New Blood, a send-off party for Dublin’s Bram Stoker Festival. The dress code is strict. The concept is “if FKA twigs and Rihanna had a strip club in The Matrix”. Some took that to mean they finally had an opportunity to parade their closet fascinations with bloodsuckers, but the majority of those in attendance are kitted out in retrofuturist patent leather and hoop earrings.
New Blood is the brainchild of Mary Nally and John Leo Gillen. As a team, the pair have been injecting Ireland with a new sense of cultural promise. Their immersive experiences are a five-layer dip combining sound, visuals, food, drink, and atmosphere. “What we do is different to nightlife, almost every part of it could be in a restaurant, a gallery, a theatre – and we just happen to do it at night time.”
Go deeper (read: downstairs at the venue), and you’ll find an entire video installation by multimedia artist Gretchen Bender with flashing images from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining juxtaposed with vintage clips of Clint Eastwood and John Travolta films. You’ll also find weird ‘pickleback’ shots (whiskey with a pickle brine chaser) using The Fumbally Stables’ fermentations. “It’s not to be different,” Gillen explains of their 360-degree approach. “The nightlife scene lacked creativity for so long. We had two decades where clubs were controlled by property developers and rich old men. Thank fuck the bust killed most of those clubs and broke down the barriers to entry. And what had been a very small underground scene took over the big stages. Sometimes the music is really high-calibre and love what those guys do, but for us there’s more to it than tunes. What about the rest of the experience?”
“What we do is detail,” adds Nally. As an example of this, all the cocktails tonight are named in reference to drinks that frequently get bragged about in hip hop tracks (Purple Drank, Gin & Juice, Sizzurp et al). Gillen insisted they be served in “super-tacky” Styrofoam cups – another element he was really excited about, until he realised that “most people don’t give a fuck”.
So why do they go to the trouble of putting on these explosive nights, often on a shoestring budget? Isn’t a bangin’ Spotify playlist all that a good party needs?
“We do it for the few that do give a fuck and want that bit more. I obviously really like music, but sometimes events or club nights to me are just like the music, the music, the music... It’s all about the act playing,” says Nally. “I want to be entertained! I want to taste something that’s amazing and I want to see something, feel something and smell something. How do the audience want to feel when they walk in the door, what are the textures they’re going to touch? It’s like the meat curtain – walking through that is actually part of someone’s experience on this night out.”
The meat curtain is a big deal. The thick transparent plastic sheets hang in the performance space of Dublin’s Project Arts Centre, surrounding the stage and creating a liminal space between the dancefloor and the rest of the party. Nally and Gillen have wanted to install meat curtains at nearly every event they’ve done before. “We talk about that every time we do a party,” Gillen says, laughing. “This time we actually had a budget so we were like, ‘We’re getting the fucking meat curtains!’”
The meat curtains are just the beginning. There are also upcycled gold chairs with laced-up corsets sewn on to the back, salvaged from a “horrendous” short-lived nightclub. Spray-painted toy guns and gilt-edged mirrors line the walls, along with a video on a loop by Kevin Freeney, reminiscent of Jesse Kanda’s visuals for Arca.
“I remember picking up a taxidermy lion that was left outside a pub. We got it and it was so disappointing. It was completely emaciated. You think it’s just one little thing like, ‘Oh, that’s forgettable.’ You don’t need the lion – but then every single thing is one of those things” – John Leo Gillen
It may seem like it’s all for the ‘craic’, but often Mary & John’s events will have a bigger message, like back in May when they staged a gay wedding in the wake of the Irish referendum on same-sex marriage. “I grew up in really small town where it was crap to be gay and then we were like, ‘Let’s do a fucking party that makes people feel like it’s actually OK and there are other people like you as well here,’” says Gillen.
Hanging out with Nally and Gillen is an exercise in keeping up. Their conversation is like an intense match of Wii tennis. They ‘vibe’ off each other. Gillen is trying to fit a condom over the smoke alarm in the venue’s backstage dressing room. He wants to smoke, and he’s low-key worried about setting it off – the ultimate party killer. The condom breaks, so he uses a sock. When he finally lights up, the duo dive into a story about how, for one event, they were determined to secure a taxidermy lion.
“I remember getting into this van to go to Knocknacarra to pick up a taxidermy lion that was left outside a pub,” recalls Gillen. “We could have just not had the taxidermy lion and nobody would’ve noticed. Then we got it and it was so disappointing. It was completely emaciated. It had died of natural causes in the zoo and they’d stuffed it.”
“It was fucking hilarious,” says Nally. “So many people got their photo taken with it.”
“Still talking about the taxidermy lion…” says Gillen, shaking his head. “You think it’s just one little thing like, ‘Oh, that’s forgettable.’ You don’t need the lion – but then every single thing is one of those things.” He turns to Nally. “Did we actually need our pal’s uncle to drop off the 1,000 moon rocks from his failed holistic business? We could’ve done without them. Do we actually need all those weird monkey teddies hanging from the roof? But there would be no party if there wasn’t that aspect.”
Those moon rocks and monkeys are always welcome guests to Mary & John’s events, but it’s in these strange spaces – surrounded by emaciated mammals and saggy-collared vamps – that Irish creativity roars to life. It’s not often talked about, but it’s fucking hard to make ends meet as an artist in Ireland. In October, it was reported that Ireland’s youth unemployment rate was a staggering 19.7 per cent. Compare that to England, whose youth unemployment rate sat at 14.2 per cent between July and September 2015. Jack Gibson, a friend of Mary and John, works odd jobs while on the dole. “There’s a lot of government support for some projects but there’s also some people who really struggle, so maybe you just get to see some of the good stuff, the ‘funded’ stuff.”
This is why what Gillen and Nally are doing is so important. “Mary and John are at the forefront of making Ireland cool. They’re the only thing we have that’s remotely cool. We have a really progressive art scene that holds itself back, almost by its audiences. We were a very conservative place for a very long time; it’s taken a while to shake that off.”
“The most annoying thing is that Ireland isn’t represented correctly in global media. It’s represented in a very ‘diddly-dee’ way as opposed to actually what’s happening here” – Mary Nally
Nally puts that stuffiness down to how Ireland is often taken at face value. “The most annoying thing is that Ireland isn’t represented correctly in global media,” she says. “It’s represented in a very ‘diddly-dee’ way as opposed to actually what’s happening here, which is very interesting. There are so many people doing great things and a lot of underground and smaller movements that are really, really interesting but they’re just not getting recognition. We couldn’t do what we do without these people. The beauty with Ireland is it’s small, you get to know the like-minded people in different industries which makes it easy to collaborate and pool the creative resources that help build each experience.”
To counter that narrow perception, they choreograph nights like these because “nobody else is going to throw the party for you”. Every two years, Nally brings the party to Inisheer, a small island off the west coast of Ireland, for her contemporary culture festival Drop Everything. An element of the event focuses on the future of the country’s artistic community, and everybody flocks there to find out whom Nally has tipped as Ireland’s newest talents.
For New Blood, the night’s programme is a rollcall of acts on loan from the airwaves at NTS Radio. Evvol, Embrz, Junior Spesh, Sega Bodega – the gang’s all queer. Basically, what’s happening tonight on stage behind the meat curtains is a concentrated version of what will be happening a year or two from now.
“Dublin’s changed even in the five years that I’ve been going to college and started to get working. For the young girls there’s Crush, for the older girls there’s Spinster, for all the old, hip gays there’s Mother,” says Gibson, listing off nights available now that didn’t exist just a few years prior. “It’s totally different, we have all these gay club nights or ‘polynights’. There are new, young, all-girl nights, raunchy man-on-man clubs... Queer club culture is totally changed – it’s becoming really responsive and very, very clever.”
Back in the meat-curtain quarantine, the stage is cleared for a portable stripper pole and the debauchery begins. It’s a set-up for the next act’s performance, but it’s Sega Bodega’s hype man, Connall Jackson, who decides to have a go first. Others in the crowd take it in turn to test out their Coyote Ugly skills before a bouncer comes to tell them off for dry humping a stage prop. Jackson looks bummed, but he keeps reaching up on stage to take sips of Bodega’s drink before returning to carve his path through the crowd. The theme of the event, I come to realise, is on-point. If Rihanna did have a strip club in The Matrix, then this is the thumping, blood-spattered “Bitch Better Have My Money” room in back.
“I’m usually thinking about certain people whose attitude and behaviour I really like,” says Gillen about the people that inspire his and Nally’s vision. “I want to give them a place. It’s not to force somebody to have something they might not already have. I love those people and they never get to do this. There’s nowhere for these guys and I just want to go to the party with them.”
Sipping Purple Drank, brushing against the meat curtains, sponging up the sounds of Junior Spesh, I’m convinced that Mary & John are succeeding in getting Ireland’s creative pulse racing.