Interview – Brian: Ken Sweeney interview

He’s 32, he’s been in Father Ted, he’s just given up his day job and is now A Professional Musician with a record deal and the patronage of Sean Hughes, Ardal O’Hanlon, Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews.

Musicians are queueing up to play with him. He’s On A Roll. He is Ken Sweeney, trade name Brian, and his latest album, Bring Trouble, has just appeared – a full seven years after his first…
Ken muses that “nothing was worth putting out” between 1992 and 1999, but having a full-time job must’ve had something to do with the lapse of creative output. Sweeney has just broken out of The Aspiring Musician’s Vicious Circle – want to write music, need money, get a job, no time to write music. He’s one of the lucky ones – countless thousands never give up the day job and continue to revolve. Now Sweeney’s got members of The High Llamas and The Divine Comedy playing with him in London, Dublin and elsewhere. How did The Divine Comedy connection happen?

“It was a really weird thing,” says Ken. “Three or four years ago I put in the name “Brian” and “Setanta” into a search engine, hoping to find something about my band, and all that came up was fucking Bryan Mills (note – spelled with a “y” rather than an “i”) and The Divine Comedy!” He means this nicely. “Who was this guy? Anyway, about a year later, during the course of events at Setanta I bumped into Bryan, and you know he’s a very kind of… well, compared to some of the other people in The Divine Comedy he’s much more of an outgoing guy, you know, you meet him out and about, so I got talking to him about music and stuff like that, so he said if I ever came back with the band he’d love to do some stuff with me. Sure enough, when the record (Bring Trouble) came out Bryan was one of the first people to get a copy and he told Setanta that he’d work with that guy, even if there was nothing in it – he loved the record.”

This led to a string of gigs where Ken was backed by Bryan and fellow Divine Comedy strummer Ivor Talbot. I’m wondering if the musical admiration is mutual – is Ken a Divine Comedy fan?

“Yeah! I think Neil’s very good at being Neil.” Well, yes, indeed. “I really started getting into them when Casanova came out – that put me over the edge. I think they’re really good.”

Ken arrives at being A Professional Musician despite appearances in Father Ted, one of which involved being kicked by one Father Dougal Maguire, played by Ardal O’Hanlon. “Yeah, he kicked me in the head!” Ken points to a table nearby. “The two guys over there are the writers,” he says. Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan are as we speak sipping their drinks and awaiting Ken’s return from Interview Hell. “I kinda grew up with them – Arthur played drums on one of my first EPs.” He goes on to tell me about his tendancy to loiter around the Father Ted set. “If you’re not involved in a movie shoot then people kinda resent you being there and they were looking for priest extras, so I dressed up as a priest to keep them happy. I got to know Ardal through Father Ted and I did the music for one of his videos – it was all kinda self-perpetuating.”

Indeed so. There is today definitely a London Irish scene and Ken is at its epicentre. Sean Hughes has been playing Ken’s songs on his radio show while Graham Linehan paid for Ken’s demos. “When Setanta was based in Camberwell,” continues Ken, now in storyteller mode, “lots of bands and MicroDisney people used to go drinking in a pub called The Cavern so everyone knew each other.”

With The Divine Comedy moving to pastures perhaps greener and certainly golder at Parlophone, does Ken see himself filling Neil’s boots as Setanta’s mainstay? You get the impression that Ken’s been here before…

“I get asked that question an awful lot in Ireland – I don’t think anyone’s gonna fill Neil Hannon’s boots anywhere. It would be nice, but he’s been so consistent. I hadn’t written a record in six years where Neil was bringing out good album after good album, and that’s what you need. They happened over a long period of time, not just overnight, so I’ve got to get to that level of consistency. It would be nice, but they’re a hard act to follow.”

Having a vested interest in finding an answer, I ask Ken for any tips for aspiring musicians.

“I think its about persuading other people that they should be in a band with you and you need to motivate yourself. Our first single, A Million Miles, for example. I used to go round London, go into Tower Records and put up my single as Single of the Week in their display when they weren’t looking, just trying to spread the word. But it is also a question of chance. If you listen to good music for long enough then it rubs off on you. If you submerge yourself in people who’re really good then it’ll rub off on you. When you’re young and listening to music you’re taking in all this information and at some stage you kinda stop and cling on to the things you really like. You find your own identity.”

That said, at the age of 12 did Ken know of his future Professional Musician identity?

“When you’re young you’re attracted to music because its all about emotion and when you’re young you have a lot of heightened emotion, so if you hear Radiohead and you’re young you feel the emotion from the music. I always cared about music from listening to it – some of those guys who wanted to be, like, famous musicians when they were younger haven’t even bought a record for the last seven years.”

This brings us neatly to the inevitable question of musical influences. Ken has plenty of answers prepared.

Miracle Legion, Radiohead, The Go-Betweens, Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams,” comes the barrage. “If you feel emotion coming off the record then the style of music doesn’t matter; it can be rock or country if it has emotion. I’d love to perpetuate that – I try to put a lot of me into my records. There’s a shared human experience then.”

With the aim of perpetuating his human experience through music, where now musically for Brian? The good news is that Setanta have provided Ken with the capital to write another album and be A Professional Musician. It was on the day of this interview that Ken packed in his day job and he can scarcely contain his delight. The new album will be in the shops by mid-spring 2000 and thus far the signs are all good. Bryan Mills is among the assembled multitudes who think that, while Ken’s stuff to this point is great, he is capable of producing a much better record. What will it be like?

“‘Bring Trouble’ was very much a pop album. I think from here the new one will be about things I haven’t really tackled before. It’ll probably be closer to ‘Getting Meaner’ than the rest of ‘Bring Trouble’. I’m getting to the age now where I feel I’m coming into my own. I’m starting to write music that I really like.”

Nothing at all like The Lightning Seeds then? I can’t believe I asked him that… Ken defends his corner admirably.

“People who make those comparisons have never heard Miracle Legion or The Go-Betweens. A lot of reviewers put on a record, listen to the first twenty seconds and make up their minds from there. It was maybe a mistake I made with this album – I put the singles at the start and if I’d put the later stuff there they wouldn’t be doing that, do you know what I mean?”

It clearly riles Ken to be compared with The Lightning Seeds which is perhaps surprising. Reviewers are, after all, not saying that Brian’s music sounds like The Lightning Seeds but are rather trying to use a comparison between a band everyone has heard of and a new band in need of publicising in order that Joe Public has a better idea of the new band. If Joe Public then goes out and buys Bring Trouble he will discover the tracks in question but also that there is much more to Brian’s music. In the meantime Brian’s music will have reached more ears, which surely can’t be bad. Over to Ken.

“I’d be interested to know if they (the reviewers, including myself) thought that the first album sounded like that, or the next one, you know? When you’re writing pop music and using that sort of technology it is going to sound like that, I suppose. I was trying to write a pop album because you’re always trying to change people’s preconceived ideas of you, even old ones. We’d never written pop music before – I think the next album will be completely different.”

Indeed, the current single, ‘Turn Your Lights On’, has a demo as its third track called Cabaret Band which, rather than sounding like Ian Broudie’s mob, sounds like what would happen if Carter USM, James and Levellers all got involved in a punch-up. It is absolutely riotous and I’d love to see it at a festival. Ken’s voice and the emotion he spoke of earlier are easily enough to get any festival crowd going with him and the more of Brian’s music I hear the more I realise that Ken Sweeney can write music in any style he wants. I’m already in agreement with Bryan Mills – this man is capable of yet greater things.