Offaly man Peter Coughlan talks Royal Albert Hall to the mountains of northern Algeria
Peter Coughlan, lead singer of London Irish trad-folk-rock-band Hungry Grass, speaks to Fiona O’Brien about releasing an album ten years after their well-received debut
It’s been ten years since Hungry Grass, South London’s traditional Irish music behemoths, released their last album The Parting Glass to much aplomb. But their absence from the recording studio should not be mistaken for a lack of activity as the band has toured extensively and in some truly extraordinary places to boot.
Over their near quarter of a decade of gigging around the capital the band have become well known for their acclaimed and dynamic trad sound, fronted by the enigmatic Offaly man Peter Coughlan on vocals and guitar, who is often described as London’s answer to Luke Kelly.
John Gaughan plays bass guitar, and his energy and playing style onstage creates a musical backline all of his own, while the classically-trained Christian Vaughan-Spruce brings a welcome depth to their sound on piano and accordion. The final piece to the current four-piece is Kerryman Mark Conyard, whose moniker ‘Galaxy’ suggests that while some musicians are world famous, Mark’s fame is truly cosmic in the Irish music circles.
Since their last album was released the band Peter has found himself performing in some memorable venues, and as diverse as the Royal Albert Hall to the mountains of northern Algeria. Peter was lucky enough to take centre stage and sing-out the coverage of the Ceiliúradh Presidential reception at the Royal Albert Hall for President Michael D. Higgins’ visit to the UK capital, performing alongside the likes of Elvis Costello, Glenn Hansard, Imelda May and Paul Brady.
“Gary Dunne and Nora Mulready asked me if I wanted to be a part of the choir that were backing the musicians on stage,” he says. “The final song, which had all the singers perform a verse each and sing the chorus together was decided to be The Parting Glass and they asked me to sing the last verse on my own from the choir.
Royal Albert Hall
“It was a fantastic moment to be on stage with those musicians, but even at its simplest to just be able to hear your voice in the Royal Albert Hall.”
And so from getting recruited by London Irish executives to get on the bill for one of the most prestigious exhibitions of Irish music in the capital of all time, how did Peter find himself touring northern Africa.
“We were playing as Hungry Grass in London one night and a Berber musician happened to pass by and he really liked our sound. He had never heard that trad and folk music before and he got speaking to us afterwards. He was very successful in his home country and in France, in particular Paris too, and left us with one of his albums. It’s a really interesting sound, their beats and everything are far different to what we would be used to. So we went out to Paris with him, even appeared on French national television and radio and then eventually myself and Mark went on a tour of his homeland with him… which was an experience to say the least.
“It just kicked off on our first night. It really did. We needed a human shield to get off of the stage to the bus, and even if we wanted to go to the toilet we had to be escorted to a wall to do our business against.
“We thought it was going to be at a football pitch, but it was more like the rubbled areas you see outside a prison, with a big marquee.
“The problem was that Akli D was touring and these were his local people who were annoyed that he wasn’t going to be performing in his hometown. So they were quite annoyed.”
The experience picked up however from the night of the second gig, although Peter says it is not one he is likely to repeat.
“We were up in the mountains with the Berbers from thereon in. It wasn’t until that second gig that we finally met females, there were none at all in the vicinity for the first night or two.
“It was an incredible experience. These people are almost indigenous to the area but they are being ruled by Arabs who came hundreds of years ago.. but they themselves are not Arab. They’re more like the three wise men you associate with the story of Jesus and Christmas.
“But it’s a case of ticking it off the list, been there, bought the tshirt. It was great and we’ll likely work with Akli again but I don’t think we’ll be heading back there.” Peter also explains why it has taken ten years for the band to get back in the studio.
“Well first of all we are all very busy. It’s something we want to do and do right, but that comes with its own constraints. I would say myself I am quite OCD in wanting to be a perfectionist and do it right, but I’m also a farmer, so it takes a while to get the urge to get a thing going sometimes!
“Then there is trying to get everyone free at the same time. One of the original members Kane O’Rourke will be working on this album too, so there is five of us. I’m an electrician by trade, and then the lads all have their full-time jobs going too.
“Mark is a British Airways engineer, John is a conservationalist for reptilians and things and Christian is a foot doctor. We’re like the A-Team!” he jokes.
Peter lost both of his parents over the past two years which has been hard to deal with and also caused delays.
“That was obviously a hard time. There was a lot going on so I wasn’t thinking about it and we all have personal projects too but I think we are ready now. Music was always a big part of my life growing up on the farm in Ballyboy.
“There was always music and sin-songs in our house. Dad was a great singer, although you wouldn’t hear it much, and so were all of his family, his sisters and all so I guess that it where the voice comes from.”
Peter is one of seven children, and a twin.
“And me and my twin are the only two that play music! Dad actually inspired the name for the band too. He used to always talk about not walking through the hungry grass on the way home, and how apparently an uncle had and all that folklore storytelling.
“Then when the band got together I was passing Fullers’ Brewery there by Heathrow and looking at these horses pulling the kegs. I just thought to myself ‘look at those hungry looking things, I bet they’d love some fresh grass’ and then ‘hungry’ and ‘grass’ got together from what Dad used to say.
“Of course he knew that he had inspired the name, but it was never a said thing. Everyone in the family and people who know us would have been familiar with him telling the story.” Peter says that his musical influences changed once a record player moved into the house.
“All of a sudden that impromptu singalong session stopped and we had records. I can still visualise all of them now, the best of Irish folk and trad.
“But as I grew up my older brothers started to bring rock music into the house and I got hooked. Things got heavier and heavier then and I was really into Metallica so I started to front rock bands.
“In fact one time in Carlow we got a band together purely by chance. There were these really cool dudes with motorbikes and stuff in one band, and me and a couple of friends in another.
“They worked out we had the same setlist as them for the competition, kind of a battle of the bands, so they asked if we could combine. It worked well, they weren’t really up to much but looked the part, and we didn’t but had the skills.”
It was only when Peter moved to Ireland that he got back in touch with his Irish musical roots, but the rocky sound he gained through his earlier years have moulded his unique voice on the folk circuit.
“I think that’s what happens when the Irish move to London isn’t it? Or anywhere, you could be in Amsterdam and ignore all of what they have going on to seek out the first Irish pub.
“Well I got back into the folk scene then and was playing in a band around south London. John was looking to set up a band and him and Christian seen me a few times and approached me to be their frontman after a gig and the rest is history really.
“We are really proud of that first album, but it isn’t us now. We’ve grown since then. I played it in its entirety there over Christmas and it is great. But we want to do this one properly. That one was done because a guy wanted to record us playing. And then we worked on it and made it really ‘us’. But it’s not like a planned album as a concept. More of a pick and mix.
“This one will seem more themed as will all be recorded on purpose together and will be a mix probably of original material as well as some classics.
“We will probably get fans to choose their favourite one of our live songs to finish the album off too.”
Peter ends by saying how he ran into the Irish president again since his performance in the Royal Albert Hall.
“Myself, Mark and Enda from the BibleCode Sundays played in Galway a couple of years later while President Michael D Higgins was doing some official business and he happened to come into the pub we were playing in with Sabina.
“We spoke and took a photo afterwards and Michael D remembered me from the event and my name too which was great.”
Not bad for a lead singer who joined in with the ‘cool dudes of Carlow’ because he could sing the same rock songs.