Currently on a UK tour playing keyboards for alternative folk singer Junior Brother from Kerry, the main man behind The Bonk, Phil Christie chats to Lauren Guillery.
On May 14, Phil Christie will grace one of West Cork’s most intimate venues to promote the release of his second LP ‘Greater Than, Or Equal To The Bonk’. If you’re into left of field genre-bending performances and jazz improv, Levis Corner House will be the place to hang out that evening.
Originally from Waterford but now based in Dublin, Phil Christie was for many years the keyboard player and backing singer for O Emperor – the alternative rock band that announced in 2018 its break-up with the release of its farewell album ‘Jason’, only to win the prestigious RTÉ Choice Music Prize for Irish Album of the Year a few months later. The Bonk emerged from the ashes of O Emperor, seemingly fully formed with its blend of garage rock and experimental pop with jazzy undertones, and although influences are hard to pinpoint, the band wouldn’t seem out of place alongside the likes of 70s experimental rockers CAN, New York synth duo Suicide, and idiosyncratic rocker Captain Beefheart.
It won’t be Christie’s first visit to Ballydehob – the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist performed there at last year’s Jazz Festival, playing synths with Cork experimental group Fixity. Asked if he’s planning to bring the whole band set-up for The Bonk’s upcoming tour, he responds “We will have the full line-up in levels, but not in all the venues. I think some places are just too small to accommodate us all, and while most of the gigs are with a full band, there’ll be a couple that we might do as a trio or quartet, it’s kind of malleable in that way,” he explains. With a core band of six musicians where Phil sings, plays guitar, keyboards, percussions and sometimes theremin alongside his brother Jimmy on drums, Patrick Freeman on bass, his cousin Phil O’Gorman on guitar, Fixity’s Dan Walsh on saxophone and flute, and Robert Grant on trumpet, it will be pretty amazing to see them all fit behind Levis’ shop counter.
The Bonk has so far released three digital EP’s, including two volumes of ‘Songs for the Mean Time’ in 2020 and 2022, and ‘Chore Loops’ in 2021, all only available as downloads on the online streaming platform Bandcamp. The first album, ‘The Bonk Seems To Be A Verb’ was released in 2017 on cassette and digital format, with only a selection of tracks available for streaming. Phil explains that he wasn’t interested in paying an online aggregator to have his music placed on streaming sites. Spotify and other mainstream online platforms pay ‘peanuts’ per stream (an average of €0.004 per play and sometimes less), which means independent musicians and more obscure acts have very little chances of ever receiving a payment for having their music streamed there. The ethos of Bandcamp are different: musicians earn more money per sale since they decide their own prices, and they have a lot more freedom on the platform. Though he’s excited to have his upcoming album released on vinyl, Phil confesses he’ll probably make the album available on Spotify too. “I’m aware that it’s the only access some people have to listening to music, so there’s kind of a balance to strike.”
While The Bonk’s first album was a collection of one-off live studio takes, Phil explains that despite seeming improvisational in nature, most of the songs on the forthcoming album were initially demoed using rhythms and form as a basis for writing them. A couple of other pieces started in the practice room as a jam session with the band, which he later cut up, edited, and made into songs. For this project, he was particularly interested in rhythms, exploring swing rhythms and early blues as a starting point, and how to incorporate these structures within songs. The formal structures of language too, inform how he delves into using words and word play as rhythm and sounds in his compositions. “I kind of gather things as I go along, I don’t really think of it as a genre specific thing, but more digging into those interests myself and seeing where that goes,” he reveals.
The Bonk have teamed up with Drogheda-based independent label thirty-three45 for the release of ‘Greater Than, Or Equal To The Bonk’. The album was self-produced and recorded over two sessions. The first one in 2017, was recorded with long-time collaborator Brendan Fennessy in his Cork studio Big Skin with whom Phil had worked previously on O Emperor albums. The second recording session took place at Ailfionn studios in Dublin at the end of 2018. While these seem like quite a long time ago Phil explains that by the time the album would have been released, Covid and subsequent lockdowns put a stop to any touring plan. “It will be nice to have them out in the world and feel like there’s a line drawn under those”, he enthuses. Naturally, during lockdown he ended up recording and releasing his two three-track EP’s “to keep going in between the larger projects that were on hold”.
The album cover was designed by Dublin visual artist Barry Gibbons. “It comes from a video that we made for one of the songs on the album, where he created geometric shapes inspired by tangram puzzles,” he says. The video was for the song Future 87, one of the leading singles for the album, and is a rotoscope animation of choreographer and dancer Aoibhinn O’Dea. “She had the tangram shapes fastened to her limbs and did a dance with the shapes, and so the video is the animation of those movements. We took some of the stills and used them for the album cover; the geometric nature of it all seemed to tie in with some of the other elements we were thinking about.”
With a total of eleven dates around the island of Ireland this May to promote the album, The Bonk’s tour will start in Manorhamilton and conclude at Dublin’s Sugar Club, with Galway folk singer/songwriter Maija Sophia as the main support act on many of the tour dates. Phil had previously shared the stage with Sophia at festivals but ended up on a residency as part of an Arts Council programme at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Cavan, where both had received the prestigious Next Generation Artists award. The bursary was designed to support emerging artists in creative disciplines with an opportunity to develop their skill and produce new work, and West Cork is very lucky to have venues like Levis’ that bring us the most interesting and innovative music from around the country. Make sure not to miss it!
The Bonk, with support from Maija Sophia, play Levis Corner House on May 14.