I first met David Donohue, the Carlow-born all-rounder who records and writes infrequently as The Floors, in the early 1990s and, ever since, he’s fitfully turned up in my life and stolen all of the scenes we’ve played together. I last bumped into him maybe ten years ago, days before Christmas, on the footpath outside The Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin when, like many of those caught up in the end-of-year rolling maul, we were both racing against the frenzy. David told me he was off to New York for the holidays and, while he was there, was going to record the actress, Mia Farrow, reading an audio version of one of his children’s books. As pay-offs go, it’s one of the more memorable.
We made the usual unsustainable promise to catch up and stay in more regular contact before disappearing back into the heaving. And as I made my way back up Baggot Street, the thought struck me, not for the first time, that I’d just waved Duke Fame on his way to an Enormodome on the edge of town. By comparison, I was headed for a weekend conference of coroners at a NAMA-recovered hotel in Monaghan.
It’s always been like that with David, though, and you just never know when or what he’s going to land on you next: in my head, I’m convinced that Paddy McAloon wrote ‘Mysterious’ about him. A few years back, for instance, I caught him on an afternoon television show for children, spelling words backwards and I never gave it a second thought. Cryptic, elusive, smart, mysterious to the last.
Our paths crossed for the first time just after he’d recorded his debut single, ‘Someday’, and coaxed some of his friends to knock-up a snazzy video for it at a time when promo clips were off the table to most novices. Released on Limerickman Tom Prendergast’s Bar-None label – the Hoboken-based imprint with a fine pedigree, another of Irish popular music’s lost stories never comprehensively told – we were delighted to give its drawled, downtown ambition a spin on ‘Scratch Saturday’, the budget-free youth television series on which I did a regular turn. Even at that stage, David was already cut apart from the pack and, while many of my favourite emerging groups were busy in dilapidated rehearsal rooms, lugging third-hand amplifiers up staircases all over Ireland, he was running at a different pace. As an adjunct to his own writing, he’d produced two excellent television documentaries, ‘Put Blood in the Music’, about the alternative music scene in New York city, and ‘Words for the Dying’, an incisive portrait of John Cale, with whom he’s still in contact. It’s fair to say that he’s wired differently than most of us.
David had been in and out of New York and New Jersey for years, during which, among other things, he’d worked as a stringer for both NME and Hot Press, filing a series of fine features that name-checked Lee Ranaldo, Lydia Lunch, Neil Young, Iggy Pop, John Zorn and others. Given the breadth of what he was exposed to on the East Village underground beat just as Sonic Youth were about to launch a ground-breaking double-album, ‘Daydream Nation’, its little wonder that ‘Someday’ was so out of sync with much of what was going down back home. It was just about on the right side of cool and, to my mind, as important for its swagger as for its musical chops.
Sonic Youth’s progression from peripheral noise-artists to steadily influential left-fielders over the course of their first four albums has been well documented. But although David gave me a first- hand, ringside perspective to that story – and demolished some of the more fanciful notions I’d constructed about it by so doing – he was far more comfortable talking about Kelso and Thirsk than Kim and Thurston. Horses and horse-racing are among his many interests and he’d recently returned from Happy Valley in Hong Kong, where he’d been working with Jim Sheridan on what sounded like a really ambitious feature documentary about the nags. I have no idea what, if anything, became of that project but I do know that David fitted in perfectly with the smart-set in The Long Valley on Winthrop Street, appropriately enough, once we’d repaired there. These days you’re as likely to find his name in The Irish Field as you are to see him listed as a participating children’s author on World Book Day.
It was because of his association with Tom Prendergast – a long-time ally on the other side of the world – that, I suspect, Keith Cullen added David to the expanding roster at Setanta Records shortly afterwards. Recording and performing as The Floors, where he was bolstered in studio by a battery of showbiz chums, he made one of my own favourite records on the label’s wide and distinguished catalogue, the seven-song ‘Truths and Distortions’, which was released in 1992. That mini-album was released during a period of frantic activity and no little optimism at Setanta which, at that point, was still being run from a customised council flat in Camberwell in South-East London. The previous summer, Into Paradise – the imperious Dublin outfit managed by the label, and who’d found their sea-legs on a couple of early releases for Keith – launched their first, and only, major label elpee, ‘Churchtown’. A House spectacularly re-announced themselves with ‘I Am the Greatest and The Frank and Walters shot from nowhere and landed with an almighty brouhaha. In a garden shed in Fermanagh, Neil Hannon was busy with a small porta-studio, completing the demo recordings that would later form the basis of The Divine Comedy’s ‘Liberation’ elpee, and Setanta was about to launch Brian’s excellent cri de coeur, ‘Understand’, on an unsuspecting public. What could possibly go wrong ?
On one level, ‘Truths and Distortions’ – sussed, free-thinking and busy – sits perfectly in that sort of company and, on another, its woefully out of kilter. The Floors sucked their influences far more widely than most of their label-mates and David was very strictly more New York than New Cross Gate. Consequently, ‘Truths’ is a difficult record to accurately pin down, even if it was easily the imprint’s most mainstream release up to that point. It’s a far from cohesive record, unsurprising enough given the piecemeal manner in which the various cuts had been recorded, but there’s no denying its ambition. ‘Truths and Distortions’ definitely had something about it – and still does – even if those of us at Setanta, in the music press and maybe even David himself, were never entirely sure what that was.
‘Precious Thing’ might sit, for instance, on one of Paul Westerberg’s solo albums, while there are shades of the later Setanta story in the Hawley-deep vocals and smart, late-night lyrics that pepper it. ‘Someday’ features prominently with its scratchy guitars and never-quite-at-the-pitch vocals, while the rattling ‘Used To Be’ was a source of no little entertainment to the Setanta staff, who’d rip it apart unmercifully as part of the burlesque floor-show that regularly constituted life in Rumball House, the council block in which the label was located.
The dramatis personae on the record stretches as far and wide as its scope. ‘Precious Thing’ was recorded by Pat Donne, himself a fiercely talented producer and musician and whose guitar break on that cut is a thing of rare majesty. Also involved – as indeed, they have been with David for years – were Azure Days, the four-piece guitar pop band from Carlow led by Gala Hutton who shimmered briefly during the same period and who peaked with the excellent single, ‘Anything For You’. And there are name-checks also for both Maria McKee of Lone Justice and Pierce Turner, among others.
It’s worth noting, I think, that the Setanta roster boasted a clatter of fine lyricists from the get-go, from David Long of Into Paradise to Neil Hannon, Dave Couse, Paul McCartney of The Deadly Engines and Brian’s Ken Sweeney to William Merriman from The Harvest Ministers, Edwyn Collins and Richard Hawley. Keith was certainly as swayed by the power of the message as he was by the force of melody and David – a quietly masterful wordsmith – was another knot in that lead. His powers of observation and his ability to knock out an accompanying killer couplet are just another part of his gift.
As it turned out, ‘Truths and Distortions’ was David’s first and only Setanta album and, as these things often go, he went on to do his best work elsewhere. 1998’s self-released ‘Morphine Watch’ elpee is, by a distance, the most consistent and certainly most confident of the three Floors albums to date but by then he’d already hit a career high with his best ever song, ‘Jesus Lived Six Years Longer Than Kurt Cobain’. ‘Jesus Lived’ opens his second long-player, ‘Superbe’, released in 1996 on Dublin’s Dead Elvis label, another important indie from the period. Run by Eamonn Crudden and his brother, Óg, from a flat in Phibsborough, the excellent Dead Elvis catalogue also includes releases by Wormhole, Jubilee Allstars, In Motion, The Sewing Room and others.
‘Jesus Lived’ is among the stand-out cuts, not just from David’s own body of work but from the broader canon of lost Irish music during the 1990s. Brazenly bolting together familiar lines from Abba, Nirvana and The Beatles’ ‘I Am the Walrus’ – ‘You are the Yoko, I am the egg, and you are the breast and I am the leg’ – it’s a dizzying commentary on the faddishness of popular culture wrapped around a whip-smart word-play and no little studio nous. Up there with the likes of ‘We Don’t Need Nobody Else’ by Whipping Boy – in whose tonal likeness it is cut – it’s a terrific calling card that, for the first time I think, does proper justice to the scale of David’s ambition for his recorded work. Happily, ‘Jesus Lived’ features prominently on ‘Six Long Years: The Best of The Floors’, an eleven-song compilation that David assembled and released on-line last February.
‘Six Long Years’ takes its title from The Smiths’ ‘Half A Person’ in which, morbid and pale, the author spends ‘six long years’ on someone’s trail; feel free to read as much or as little into that as you like. Cataloguing the best of David’s recorded work from 1992 until 1998 – and somehow excluding ‘Precious Thing’ – the record connects some of the many layered chapters in the complicated life-stories of those songs. In that regard, it’s perhaps an exercise for the benefit of the writer, who has consistently evaluated his own work, as much as it is for the listener.
After years spent living and working in County Kilkenny, David has recently re-located across-country to Ballyvaughan, County Clare –where they love their hurling and traditional music in equal part, apparently – and from where he’s now plotting his next steps. Ballyvaughan is a small village on the edge of the Burren, close to the Flaggy Shore, referred to by Seamus Heaney in his poem, ‘Postscript’, in which he implored readers to ‘make the time to drive out west, into County Clare’. And our hero has already been busy on his new manor. In the spirit of the Lisdoonvarna Folk Festival – a hugely significant popular cultural celebration of ‘amhráns, bodhráns and amadáns’ that took place during the late1970s and early ‘80s in a field in nearby Doolin – he’s assembled a stellar cast to man a forthcoming fourth elpee, provisionally titled ‘All My Lonely Friends Are Doing Fine’.
Recorded and produced remotely over the last twelve months, the album features contributions from Joe Henry, Jono Connell, Luka Bloom, Florian Blancke, Niamh Regan and Altan’s Dermot Byrne. Among the many stand-outs is ‘The Drinkers, The Gamblers’, a co-written duet with Adrian Crowley, and which we’re honoured to debut here. The new ten-tracker should see the light of day over the coming months but, in the meantime, ‘Six Long Years’ is a fine palate-cleanser.
The posed photograph that accompanies it and that would, in another era, have constituted its sleeve art, captures the main man at work on what looks like a large, wooden dining table doubling, perhaps, as a working desk, replete with an array of fudgies, old and new: an ornate, hand-crafted bowl, an electronic charger, envelopes, oils and scented candles. David is stuck intently into an i-Pad while a small alarm clock faces outwards, its back to him. Given the value he’s long put on words and images, he’ll be mindful how, in that snap, the essence of his music is caught so succinctly. Work with The Floors continues at its own pace. But it continues.