THE WORMHOLES: TILTING AT TRANSCENDENCE

We’re delighted to host this piece by Niall Crumlish, which is included in the booklet that accompanies ‘You Never See the Stars When It Rains’, the recently-released anthology by Dublin band, The Wormholes. Niall is a psychiatrist and music writer from Dublin. He has written extensively for Hot Press and State Magazine and now posts deep dives into individual songs and long-form interviews with Irish musicians on his site psychiatryandsongs.com

In 1995, opening a review of The Wormholes and Jubilee Allstars in The Attic, I wrote: Now is as exciting a time to be a rock’n’roll fan in Dublin as I can remember. No longer do you have to wish that you’d been aware of the existence of the Underground a decade ago; everywhere you look, these days, there’s another crowd of lo-fi misfits getting it together to borrow or steal distortion pedals and to promise as fantastic a few months as that legendary summer of ’85.

Music journalism rewards strong opinions whether or not they are supported by facts but here, for once, I was on to something. As Daragh McCarthy’s film ‘The Stars Are Underground’ depicts, the mid 1990s were genuinely great days to be into independent music in Dublin. The sequence of events is broadly as follows.

The DIY ethos of the first wave of punk and post-punk dwindled in the 1980s, when the intrusion of major labels into Dublin in the search for U2’s successors became stifling. As the Nineties arrived, bands more interested in creativity than careers chose not to await A&R department approval and punk ideals reignited. Artisan labels like Blunt and Dirt released amazing music by the likes of Mexican Pets, Pet Lamb, Female Hercules, Luggage and The Idiots. Sunbear formed their own label to release their evergreen, eponymous, and only album. Niall McCormack of Jubilee Allstars, interviewed in The Stars Are Underground, said it simply: ‘There’s just loads of people putting records out. You don’t really care so much about being part of an industry, but just purely for the love of putting out records’.

At the centre of things was Dead Elvis Records, the label founded by Eamonn and Óg Crudden, brothers from Dundalk, along with Eamonn Doyle and producer/ engineer Marc Carolan. Between 1994 and 1999 Dead Elvis was at the heart of Dublin’s lo-fi flourishing and another band of brothers, The Wormholes, from Ringsend, were at the heart of Dead Elvis. 

Anyone reading this will already know that the late Dave Carroll played the drums and sang in The Wormholes, while his twin brother, Anto Carroll, played the bass and keyboards and Graham Blackmore played guitar and sang. They all wrote songs, although increasingly as they went on, their songs became the sounds they unearthed in the ether as they played together, improvising with inhibitions in abeyance. When Dave, Graham and Anto joined together in full flow they made an almighty and liberating noise. Three was the magic number.

The Wormholes’ ‘Chicks Dig Scars’, named by Evel Knievel via The Simpsons, was DeadElvis 001 and Dead Elvis’ final release in 1999 was The Wormholes’ third release, long in the works, ‘Parijuana: Four Years in Captivity’. The album ‘Scorpio’, recorded after ‘Parijuana’ but released before it, was released in 1997. All three albums are represented in this anthology.

The Wormholes were the first band to release on Dead Elvis but they were not the first Dead Elvis band to whom I became devoted. My ideal album in my early twenties was sparsely recorded, direct in its storytelling, melancholy in tone, and immediately relatable. As in: Big Star’s ‘Third’, Smog’s ‘Julius Caesar’, American Music Club’s ‘California’, Magnetic Fields’ ‘The Charm of the Highway Strip’ and Kristin Hersh’s ‘Hips and Makers’, specifically ‘The Letter’, because the lyric of ‘The Letter’ was so obviously autobiographical and was the most anguished on the album. So, into this aesthetic, some Dead Elvis bands fit more snugly than others.

I connected instantly to The Sewing Room’s ‘And Nico’, with its loping careworn stories about vain attempts at romantic connection and loneliness numbed by intoxication. The dreamed denouement of Eamonn Davis’s ‘Lord Let It Be Over Soon’ was that he and his disappearing lover would ‘achieve a kind of intimacy that drink would only ruin’, a far-off prospect for me and my social circle, reliant as we were on pints for social ease. I laughed in wincing recognition at Stan Erraught’s ‘Miles Away’, which laid responsibility for any failures of connection with the protagonist, standing in for the listener, not his hard luck stories: ‘All she wanted was a word from me / All I needed to say / Was ‘I am here beside you’ / But I was miles away’.

Jubilee Allstars, another fraternal outfit, delivered pointedly uncomplicated yearning lyrics sung shakily by Niall McCormack and accompanied by taut strumming and drumming. In Motion’s Alan Kelly, on ‘Until My Dreams Come True’ from ‘The Language of Everyday Life’, sang ‘No matter how far I go / Loneliness is around / No matter how far I go /No matter how far I go it will follow me around’, and he buried the pain in jangly harmonies, so even better. These Dead Elvis bands got me through my left brain, my more readily accessible hemisphere. They got in through their use in lyrics of language I understood, through the meaning of their words aligned with vibrant melody and empathetic arrangements. I really loved those bands and I do to this day.

The Wormholes got into you in other ways: right-brain ways. They were viscerally thrilling and their music bypassed the usual central processing. When The Wormholes initially engaged my heart it was not in the way that other music engages with the heart as the poetic seat of warm emotion. It was the way a jolt of adrenaline engages your heart. And The Wormholes required you to listen with your whole body. The crunch of the guitar on ‘Leave The Blanket In’ ‘Lay It On’ and ‘Riotman’ is not just a cerebral or auditory experience. It is somatic, experienced just as much in your stomach and sternum.

I always loved The Wormholes live, where they took the roof off the place, but it took a while to appreciate their records properly: the love and bravery that went into them and how music can speak to you in a different way if you learn to let it. And then for me their music acquired, alongside its raw chaotic energy, a beauty and depth that was obviously always there. If Jubilee Allstars were The Replacements and In Motion The Byrds, The Wormholes were The Stooges. They were loose and electrifying, intense and poetic, furiously tilting at transcendence. Like The Stooges or Sonic Youth, like Sun Ra or ‘Slanted and Enchanted’, the freedom with which The Wormholes played their music was the meaning of their music.

The tracks from ‘Chicks Dig Scars’ are tricky to write about in 2020. I played this album a lot a quarter of a century ago so my impressions of ‘Chicks’ are embedded in my memories of those years and obscured by everything that has happened since. It is hard to have a clear view of songs that are ingrained in you. Like ‘Leave The Blanket In’ says: ‘the past keeps rushing in’. But it is an extraordinary album and the songs chosen here are classics.

‘Leave The Blanket In’ is a force of nature, with its open longing [‘I want to see your skin / I wanna touch your / I wanna lick your …’] and its distorted vocals and heavy guitars somehow comforting, like a layer of cotton. ‘12AM’, which live was an immersive exploration of unyielding noise, is taut, then explosive, then joyful, and the glorious jubilant “A-roo doo doo” that underpins the second half of the song – well, that’s always been just one of my favourite sounds. ‘In My Head’ is immense, rocket-fuelled by anxiety and frustration and a touch of tired malevolence. ‘Tryen Alone’ is touching and empathogenic. The Wormholes had range.

‘Lay It On’ is gloriously riotous [‘Get out of here you ain’t no good / Leave this fucking neighbourhood’]. In ‘Lay It On’, The Wormholes may also have been responsible for the greatest music video of the No Disco era, their friend, Phil Doab, jerkily dancing up a storm in Ringsend. It was good to check in with the video while writing this: I’ve been taking The Wormholes pretty seriously in this piece and it was good to be reminded, via this pandemonium on Pigeon House Road, that they didn’t take themselves too seriously.

Then, ‘Rooftops’ has a poignancy that – well, in the aftermath of Dave Carroll’s untimely passing – just aches:  ‘Miles and miles of rooftops / Grey bleak and unrelenting / My life is like a rooftop / It goes on forever and ever / And I wanna know / Does it end? / Does it ever end?’. The final representation here of the ‘Chicks’ era is ‘White Coat Ilyad’, from the ‘Lay It On’ EP, the descending minor chords of which attain peak Pavement’s unsteady grace.

The anthology continues with two sides composed largely of pieces from ‘Parijuana: Four Years in Captivity’. The central positioning of ‘Parijuana’ makes sense: it is a highly distilled expression of Wormhole’s personality. I came to ‘Parijuana’ relatively recently and I always understood it as the bridge between the song-based ‘Chicks Dig Scars’ and the improvisational music that Dave and Anto later made with E+S=B and Amygdala. ‘Parijuana’ was improvised and made over a period of four years from 1994-98, with production by Stan Erraught and Marc Carolan.

The first ‘Parijuana’ track here is ‘Out of Place 94’, a masterpiece of unease. ‘You want it all’, sings Dave Carroll, alongside ascending guitar chords above a rumbling distant bass. ‘You won’t let me in / I see it in your grin’, he continues, and there’s no satisfying resolution afoot. The song ends with waves of electronic noise and I imagine the band in the studio researching which wavelengths of sound are the most unsettling. And yet: Dave’s vocal on this is just so gentle, so defenceless, like something ineffable disappearing across the horizon.

Mission Hall’ is the Wormholes at their most simultaneously ragged and delicate. It opens with a hesitant piano melody before Dave’s drums join in, and you hear the band coming together, then separating, and the music waxing and waning before ending violently. ‘Parijuana’ songs like ‘Mission Hall’ work well with your eyes closed so you are in the room with them while the music ignites. The band recorded this song in the actual Mission Hall in Ringsend, where Graham’s parents worked. ‘Mission Hall’ sounds different each time you hear it, although knowing it was recorded on The Wormholes’ home turf adds a grounding sense of place.

‘We Can’t Play for Shit E’ is rooted in Anto Carroll’s bass. It has to be rooted in something: something has to keep this music moving forward as it drifts and hangs like a dark fog. There is a lot to love about this piece – its serrated energy, its abundance of ideas, the vocal that arrives at six minutes for one line only – but what I love most is the trust in the band: the attachment. ‘We Can’t Play for Shit E’ is the sound of unshakeable connection.

‘Riotman’ could have graced ‘Chicks Dig Scars’. It is more of a song than an improvisation and it has a clear direction, with unrelenting bass, drums, guitar, and squeals of harmonica. In my mind this song sits alongside Sonic Youth’s ‘Cross the Breeze’. There is a pummelling urgency and the refrain of ‘I wanna know’ echoes Kim Gordon’s ‘I wanna know / Should I stay or go?’ These are earnest agitated demands yet there is a meditative stillness that music like this allows you to enter, as phrases reassuringly repeat themselves and your body’s rhythms and the rhythms of the music are aligned. You arein the song, not separate.

Like Faust covering The Fall, ‘Blame Superstition’ is a Krautrock-grounded stream of poetic consciousness. The kinetic driving rhythm frees up Dave Carroll’s singing in form and content, his tone drawling then abrasive, his improvised lyrics harsh then daft and playful [‘The people around here / They can’t understand me … I think I’ve been abducted by aliens, I think I’ve got a rash’]. This is how you sing in a lyrical language you invented yourself. Someone in L7 once described J Mascis’s guitar playing as the ultimate expression of freedom and I think of that description when I hear the howls and squalls and raucous applause that close ‘Blame Superstition’, the unleashable exhilaration of ‘Parijuana’. ‘No Second Chance’, then, could have been on ‘Nuggets’.

‘Mark Chapman’s Revolver’ is expansive in its ambition – a reimagining of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ named after John Lennon’s assassin no less. But you don’t need to know the backstory to immerse yourself: to turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream, as it were. A classic Dead Elvis meandering guitar line threads through Dave’s vocals surrounded by a sonic landscape that could be Neu! covering Panda Bear, and it is quite rapturous.

1997’s ‘The Wormholes’ Scorpio the Album’ is represented here by ‘Go Under’, which has a harmonica-led litheness recognisable to fans of Brian Jonestown Massacre, and ‘Bee Mee’, which is somehow both pugilistic and plaintive. ‘44 Bulldog’ and ‘Free the Tones’ round out the choices.

Free The Tones’ is a collaboration with Dublin electronic pioneers Decal, a spacious piece that shows the openness, inventiveness, and curiosity that Dave, Anto, and Graham would bring to their other post-Wormholes incarnations.

It was incredibly exciting to be in Dublin when the bands Of ‘The Stars Are Underground’ were in their pomp and years later I used to look back on that time with a sense of sadness, a feeling of something somehow unfulfilled. The Dead Elvis / Blunt / Dirt bedrock bands did not become successful in the way I thought they might become, and that I thought they deserved to become. They broke up, or moved on, and most never played anywhere bigger than Whelan’s.

This was and is the wrong way of thinking about it. It may even be an 80’s A+R man way of thinking about it. When you look in 2020 at what came out of the Dead Elvis era, you see that so many of the mid 90s players are out there even now continuing to create art. Eamonn Doyle, who left Dead Elvis early on to found D1 Recordings, is now a fine art photographer. Eamonn Crudden teaches film production. Marc Carolan is still a successful sound engineer and travels the world with Muse. Pat Clafferty of Mexican Pets paints. Stan Erraught, PhD, is a lecturer in the School of Music in Leeds, working at an intersection that I didn’t know existed between Immanuel Kant and popular music. Brian Mooney of The Idiots recorded some of the most painfully beautiful songs of 2020 as The Next New Low.

Of Sunbear, Colin Morris and Joe Chester released new music in 2020 and Chester has a prolific output of solo work and collaboration. Niall McCormack of Jubilee Allstars is a graphic designer, his company called Hi Tone, which was the name he gave the label on which his band released their first single. His brother Barry, too young to be allowed into Jubilee for their first few songs but who later joined, has released six solo albums.

Brian Brannigan, an inspirational writer and performer with A Lazarus Soul, who found his own inspiration as a fan of all these bands in The Attic in 1990s Dublin, told me in 2019 that the scene in the city at that time was ‘Probably the greatest local music scene ever … every band was different. They were just such great bands. Brian told me that Dave Carroll, in particular, was an inspiration to him: ‘I never met a more infectious and passionate person in my life’.

I wrote earlier, half-apologetically, that I was taking The Wormholes very seriously and if I do, which I do, I am encouraged to do so by the likes of Brian Brannigan elevating them and proudly stating how they influenced him. It’s important to recognise when art has an effect on your life and I think it’s important to let artists know that they do, when they do. When I think now about The Wormholes I think that they are an example to us all. They had the courage and integrity to follow their music where it took them. The anthology you are holding demonstrates this. In this way, they behaved artistically the way idealised artists do and created a body of brilliant work.

I think I owe The Wormholes and although I am not a musician I’ve learned a lot from them. I’ve learned to appreciate how master musicians who are committed, close, and courageous, can take an idea, flesh it out and run with it, to follow the idea towards its conclusion: a piece of music that could never have arisen any other way than the way it just did. How those musicians go straight on to the next piece because the next piece is the interesting one. How it never stops because the music is right there. You can reach out and touch it. Just follow where it goes.

The Wormholes’ music showed me how staying with master musicians while they take that high-stakes journey is thrilling; how trust between musician and listener pays off. How when you listen back to an improvisation it won’t sound quite like it did before because your listening is part of the creative act and you are different now than you were when you heard it first so the music is different too. How improvising can reach an ecstatic conclusion that could not have been reached any other way except by those people in that room in that combination at that moment. How the music made in those moments by The Wormholes, by Dave Carroll, Anto Carroll, and Graham Blackmore, is music at its most sublimely alive.

NOTE: This piece is included in the booklet which accompanies the ‘You Never See the Stars When It Rains’ anthology by The Wormholes, released on AllChival in November, 2021.

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