“A MAN is least himself when he talks in his own person,” observed Oscar Wilde. “Give him a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.” While Wilde would undoubtedly have sniffed at their suspect sartorial style - cheap tracksuits, gaudy jewellery, balaclavas expertly fashioned from plastic shopping bags - it seems likely he would have otherwise heartily approved of comedy hip-hop duo The Rubberbandits.
Despite the shape-throwing silliness and hard-men accents of their onstage personas, the two controversial Irishmen are actually drawing from the same satirical pool as Jonathan Swift, Flann O’Brien and Wilde himself. They rightfully consider themselves to be subversive artists, and refer to their movement as “Gas C**tism.” They’re joking... or are they?
While they seem unlikely spokesmen for a generation blighted by official indifference to a multitude of social issues, the Bandits – two wily Limerick thirtysomethings who trade under the monikers Blindboy Boatclub and Mr Chrome, actually speak more home truths about contemporary Ireland than most ‘serious’ newspaper columnists.
That two topless men, wearing plastic bag balaclavas, can tackle such thorny issues as political corruption, poverty, paedophilia, religion, homelessness, racism, homophobia, masculinity, gay sex, and mental illness, through the medium of hip-hop, while still making audiences wet their pants with laughter, is a testament to their dark and twisted genius. A song such as ‘Spastic Hawk’ might seem to have a ridiculous premise, but listen closely and you realise it is actually about coping with bullying.
The duo have never shown their faces in public, and always do their interviews in character. Their style is satirical, surrealist and crude, but also usually scalpel-sharp. Except when they are pretending to be high on yokes.
I interviewed them before a live audience in the Hotpress Chatroom at Electric Picnic 2011, and they effortlessly batted back every question with a witty riposte, delivered in a Limerick hardman drawl. Well, almost every question. Whenever they got flummoxed, they simply accused me of pushing “the Viking agenda.” The audience lapped it up.
They weren’t called The Rubberbandits back then, but the pair first began working together while they were still at school. Ireland’s least recognisable celebrities met while attending Ardscoil Ris in Limerick, and were entertaining their schoolfriends with recorded prank phone calls from their mid-teens. Those prank calls were compiled into bootleg CDs, which eventually became hugely successful radio broadcasts both here and internationally. This gradually paved their way into occasional television work.
'The lads make comedy music, or as they describe it, music that happens to be funny'
Having entertained Irish audiences with weekly sketches on RTE’s Republic of Telly, the Rubberbandits hit the jackpot in late 2010 with their spoof song ‘Horse Outside’. Released in December, the video went viral on YouTube, gaining almost 2.5 million views in just 10 days. Although they were invited on to The Late Late Show to perform it, they politely declined (unusally for them ) when RTÉ insisted on censoring them.
“If you go on The Late Late Show they make you perform without cursing,” Blindboy Boat Club said at the time. “There are 17 instances of the word ‘f**k’ in our song. We don’t want to perform it without the curses so we’re not doing it.”
They did not hit the coveted Christmas No 1 (a long-forgotten X-Factor winner held them off the top spot ), but ‘Horse Outside’ won them an IFTA and other awards - and also much international acclaim. Almost six years on, it has now racked up almost 15 million YouTube views. The widespread success of that song led to TV deals with ITV and Channel 4. Earlier this year, they signed a lucrative deal with MTV for a series of shows in America. There is also reportedly a new RTÉ programme in the pipeline.
While some naive commentators dismiss them as a silly novelty act, The Rubberbandits are deadly serious about what they do - something which RTÉ Radio 1’s Joe Duffy discovered to his cost when he haplessly attempted to interview them on his radio show (“Will you pleeeese speak properly, Blindboy?!” ).
According to a band spokesperson, “The word ‘novelty' is something that gets thrown at them now and then, but it stems from people's lazy desire to label things rather than deal with the anxiety of ambiguity. Novelty music is gimmick music that lacks substance or talent, ie, ‘Crazy Frog’.
The lads make comedy music, or as they describe it, music that happens to be funny. More importantly, their music is not merely a vessel to carry jokes, but rather it is equally as important as the joke. They write, perform, record, produce, mix and master all the music themselves. The songwriting, production and melody are just as important as the jokes and satirical undertones in the songs.
For instance, take a song like ‘Horse Outside’, remove the lyrics about the horse, and just listen to the structure and the melody. You are left with a pure pop song that sticks in your head. Because they take the utter piss all the time, people assume that their music has no creative merit. Just like the way that some people think that they’re fools, because the characters they play are fools.
The fact is they have had the biggest selling Irish single since Westlife, with a song they wrote, performed, and produced themselves in a Limerick bedroom. That requires talent, creativity, and an understanding of the artforms of both songwriting and comedy.
'By using creativity or humour, an artist can present ideas to people in a way that is non-threatening'
Interviewed by Bressie recently for the A Lust For Life mental health website, Blindboy Boatclub explained why the Rubberbandits do what they do, the way that they do it:
“It all comes down to defence mechanisms. Ideas that are controversial, or that challenge a dominant narrative, can feel threatening, so humans block them out with fear or anger. By using creativity or humour, an artist can present ideas to people in a way that is non-threatening. Using metaphor and allegory also credits the listener with intelligence, which means that they are being presented with questions rather than having a viewpoint shouted at them. Social messages when presented through art, encourage critical thinking. Things like advertising or religion discourage critical thinking.”
For all the deep thought that goes into their material, it’s worth noting the Rubberbandits are still absolutely hilarious, and occasionally genuinely shocking, in a live environment. Their vulgar onstage banter is lip-splittingly funny, and their songs are always accompanied by thought-provoking and entertaining videos. Their Galway audience is in for a real treat on Halloween night when they bring the Comedy Carnival to a close in the Spiegeltent in Eyre Square.
Incidentally, earlier this month, I interviewed Blindboy Boatclub again in the Hotpress Chatroom at Electric Picnic (Mr Chrome was apparently “off somewhere shoving f**king yokes up his hole!” ). He explained he was currently doing a PhD, studying controversial art movements throughout history. When I observed that it was obviously a subject close to his heart, he agreed. And then he laughingly confessed that, “Really, I’m just doing it so the next time I’m on f**kin’ Liveline, Joe Duffy will be forced to call me ‘Dr Boatclub’.”
The Rubberbandits play the Vodafone Comedy Carnival, Monday October 31 in Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, Eyre Square at 9.30pm. Age 18+. Halloween fancy dress is advised. Tickets are €20. See www.vodafonecomedycarnival.com