M(h)aol: Ownership, Attachment, Reclamation

TW: This article contains discussions of sexual assault.

There’s a directness to M(h)aol. Noisy, confrontational, and candid, every movement of the Irish five-piece demands recognition. Symbolic of a lifetime of frustration and work against hegemonic patriarchy, the band are steadfast in resolve and perpetually welcoming of love and healing. Important at the best of times, but vital now, their politics and heart are gaining rightful momentum.

Pronounced ‘male’, the quintet of Róisín Nic Ghearailt, Zoë Greenway, Jamie Hyland, Constance Keane, and Sean Nolan are an impressively deliberate and intimidatingly agile unit. With lyricism informed by Nic Ghearailt’s Masters in Gender Studies (fittingly the name of their debut EP), visuals built on Greenway’s film industry experience, recordings captured by Hyland, and support from Keane’s own label, TULLE Collective, the group have continuously built on what M(h)aol is lyrically, sonically, and politically. 

Having developed a considered and politicised framework for their art over an eight year existence, the group now have the necessary platform for their creatively dense and rhetoric-rich debut album, Attachment Styles. Across ten tracks, most only clocking in at two minutes and change, the album finds the time to be both intrepid in sound and complex in messaging. Blending minimalist punk and seething noise with a determined undermining of societal status quos, Attachment Styles proves to be a strong statement of intent.

Tackling matters as sensitive as Nic Ghearailt’s own experiences with rape culture, the exclusionary nature of male-dominated industries, and heteronormative societies, M(h)aol’s art possesses an undeniable weight. Opening the album by spotlighting the cycles of trauma brought on by sexual assault, the band leave no doubt that they will face troubling issues and will call out the toxicity of our lives. With a compassionate beauty, though, their focus isn’t on hurt but rather, on how to continue moving. Bringing joy and playfulness too with tracks like ‘Period Sex’ and ‘Kim Is A Punk Type Dog’, the band is most importantly generous and triumphant. 

In their consolidation of bold, intersectional feminism and daringly inventive noise-rock, the group also embody what punk, in all its definitions, truly represents. While at first glance it may seem easy to place M(h)aol as another in the line of Irish noise purveyors, simply the next My Bloody Valentine or Gilla Band impersonator, it’s quickly apparent that they are much more than that. With jagged, intermittent snarls of noise, and tense, minimalist drums, the outfit reclaimed what became tired in the hands of endless uniform guitar bands and breathed a propulsive lived experience into it thanks to emotive performances and inspired production. 

Having brought their charged voices to countless festivals, tours with Shellac and Gilla Band, and now a vital debut album, it’s clear that M(h)aol are opening the path for bold, new conversations. Luckily, drummer and label director Constance Keane helps guide me through the hearts and minds of the band.

It’s been nearly eight years since the release of your first single. How does it feel now to be releasing your full-length debut and why is now the right time for it?

This feels somewhat surreal to be honest because it’s something that I don’t know that we thought we would do until we physically got in the room together to write and record the record. It was something that had been floated as an idea a few times but had never been firmly decided upon. 

We started years ago but then had a break of three years in the middle while people all lived in different countries. We then came back together even though people were still living in different countries but there was still a want to continue a project that we had unfinished business with.

It feels very cathartic to be finally putting out a debut album and I think that now feels like the right time to do it because we’ve actually had a chance to build a community around our band that we hadn’t had before. It does feel like we’re releasing an album to people instead of just into the void

And how does it feel looking back at where the band started compared to where you are now? I imagine it must be gratifying.

Yeah, it’s a really gratifying feeling. I was only like 21 when the band started, I’m now 29, so a part of me is surprised that I’m still doing this but it feels really nice to still have amazingly close relationships with people that you care about and an opportunity to create work that you’re really passionate about with those people even though so many years have passed and so many life changes and so many societal changes have happened. To still have each other and to still have this unit feels really gratifying.

I know some of these tracks were written quite a few years ago, closer to when you first started than now. Is there a dissonance between how you saw the tracks when you first wrote them versus now? Like you said the world has changed a lot.

Yeah, the world has massively changed. There’s been a lot of societal shifts since we started as a band. 

I think the oldest song on the album is ‘Kim Is A Punk Type Dog’, which is a song that I wrote the lyrics for probably seven years ago, I would say. It was about my dog Kim, who was alive at the time but is unfortunately no longer with us. 

We had never recorded that song and released it and Kim was such an important part of my life and my family. I found her attitude to be such an inspiration that, for me, it felt wrong to release a physical product like a vinyl record and not have her engraved into it in some kind of way. We’d never had a chance to do that before, really.

Other than ‘Kim’, ‘Asking For It’ was the other song that we had written before. Róisín is better equipped to talk about that because she wrote all the lyrics, and it’s an incredibly personal song, but I know that for her, writing ‘Asking For It’ when she first wrote it and coming back to it for the album was a lot of internal conversation around how she had viewed herself and coming to a point of survival, despite something so horrible happening. 

I think for her it was really important to be able to come back to that song and reapproach it because, as someone who’s just a listener to the song, I think the message is really important and it’s a very complicated issue, and one that I completely see how over time your approach to it would change and develop.

A lot of your music does deal with political issues at quite a macro level but like you were saying a lot of the songs are quite personal to your own lives. Is that freeing when you get to put it into a recording or do you find yourselves needing to take a step back from your own performances and music?

I personally find it quite freeing. I find being able to create something in a moment in a room with people that you love to be quite a cathartic way to deal with bad things that have happened to you. Those bad things can be of varying degrees like the song ‘No One Ever Talks To Us’ is just about crap men in the music industry. On the surface, it might seem like a superficial problem, but its one of those problems that when you’re encountering it day in, day out, it becomes a lot less superficial because you’re not talking about just one crap guy backstage at one show, but you’re talking about how that one guy is actually a symptom of a much bigger issue.

For me, it feels incredibly freeing to be in a physical space with these people who I love and who I’ve had these shared experiences with. To be able to make music out of them is such a joy and a privilege.

How much of your music comes from that collaborative process then?

It all does! I think ‘Kim’ is the only song that I wrote the lyrics to on this record and when it comes to the actual music of the songs, everything is written together at the exact same time. We spent seven days writing and recording this album. There was a gap of about five days in between but the block was seven days in a space. 

It was recorded in a rehearsal studio, not a recording studio, and I think having that friction between such a rigid timeframe and also not a professional and quite a relaxed environment created this tension that was pretty wonderful. For me, it gave a lot of inspiration I’d say. All of the musicality is created in the moment. I find that feeling quite electrifying.

I think this is the first time we wrote songs that we ended up not using. We wrote more tracks, but, for whatever reason, we felt like by the end of the seven days they weren’t finished or they could be better like maybe we should just put them on the shelf and pick them up another time to give them the attention and the time they deserve. 

But yeah all of it is done at the same time, together. We walked in with no music.

That’s really impressive considering how creatively dense and inspired the music is, and that’s not even getting into the weight of the lyrics.

I think a lot of that comes from this insane time pressure that we’d applied to ourselves. I had already booked in the vinyl pressing slot and paid a deposit on so I was like ‘We can’t be late with this,’ because funnily enough, there’s not a lot of money in punk music! We don’t have a thick bank account that can pay back that vinyl pressing slot if we missed it.

I think having that time pressure, for some people and some projects, can make you feel like you’re stuck in a very rigid way of creating but for us it actually pushed us in the opposite direction. We’re already trying to do an insane thing by doing an entire album in seven days, we may as well try anything. 

Just to clarify, were the seven days a choice or a necessity because of the distance between you and the DIY nature of the project?

It’s both! I would be really interested to hear the kind of music we make when we give ourselves a lot of time but we did our EP, Gender Studies, in three days. We wrote and recorded it in three days. So, we kind of have now become quite accustomed to working in what some people might call quite unrealistic timeframes. I think it adds a certain energy and chaos that brings an interesting quality to what we’re making. 

But we only did the EP in three days because of necessity. I’m living in London, Róisín is living in Bristol, Jamie is in Belfast, Zoe is in Cork, and Sean’s in Dublin. We only get together for these intense, short periods. What started as a necessity became what we saw as an advantage because it pushed us to think differently.

When you get extended periods of time where you get to be together for more than a few days, say like on tours, how does that feel?

It feels like a school trip sometimes, especially when we’re touring and staying in like a hostel room with bunks on top of each other. It feels like this thing in Ireland that we have called the Gaeltacht which is this Irish language summer camp that you can go to. You go for like two or three weeks when you’re a teenager and you have to talk Irish while you’re there. It’s very much that same energy where you’re in this random hostel in a place that you’ve probably never been before, trying to navigate the world around you as a strange unit. 

A band relationship is a special relationship I think. It’s somewhere between a romantic relationship, where you have the intensity of that because you’re also creating and being vulnerable in a way that you often aren’t with your friends, and a familial relationship, where you all end up having different roles. Me and Róisín switch between being the mam of the group, Sean is the dad for obvious reasons, and then we call Zoë and Jamie the twins. 

It ends up like this strange family holiday sometimes. You have downtime with these people that you wouldn’t normally have with your friends. If you have eight hours in a van, that’s not a situation you normally end up in even with your best friends. It’s a really special relationship that I find quite difficult to explain to people.

Talking of touring reminds me that you engage with the industry very much on your own terms. You put out music on your own label and I know you’ve spoken before about taking boats and trains rather than flying. Has that been challenging?

Oh very much so. It has been challenging but it’s also the only way we want to do things. We try to not to get too caught up thinking ‘woe is me’, because ultimately these are choices we’re making.

We could get a plane for an hour every single time we want to play a show if that is what we wanted to do but it’s not. To then complain feels a bit redundant.

I started the record label, TULLE, during the pandemic because I’d been working in the music industry for a few years in London and I was quite shocked and confused about why no record labels that have retail distribution into record shops are actually owned by women in the UK. None of them are owned by women which is really weird because I was working with amazing women at different record labels and management companies. It seems like women get to a certain stage and that’s it. A lot of times I was seeing women in logistical roles when they’d be just as capable as men in creative roles like A&R. 

I started it with my friend Emily Kendrick who is the director of project management at XL Recordings. We just decided we might as well try this thing and I was putting out my solo record and I didn’t want it released on a label that was owned by a man, which is how I made that discovery about UK labels. We decided that there were certain things that were important when it came to releasing music and one of those things was having proper representation of women and gender minorities. It just sort of made sense for that to be something M(h)aol were involved with.

It is something that as a band we are super conscious of. Like we don’t have our photos taken by men. I don’t either in my other project because I don’t want to be captured by the male gaze and I haven’t done it in many many years. We just try to be conscious of those kinds of choices.

Have you felt your own politics and worldviews evolve with the band? Obviously, you’ve imparted a lot into the project but it’s interesting to see how it flows backwards too.

Yeah absolutely. I think for us, one of the biggest benefits of being in a band is being able to go see different parts of the world you wouldn’t get to see otherwise. Most of my travel in the last year and a half really, since travel started happening again, has just been music and work related. It’s pretty much all been around touring and playing shows. 

I think it is objectively a good thing that is going to change your opinions on things. Getting out into the world, meeting people with different opinions to you, it’s impossible for that to not have an impact on you and to not brush off on you.

I think for me it’s been really fantastic to have ideas you had challenged. Like I went to SXSW last year and I found Texas really shocking but I had never been to America before. I had never been outside of Europe before.

I found Texas really shocking but then we ended up at this trans rights protest in Austin and it was just really inspirational to be around people who were organising these kinds of demonstrations in spite of legislation that had come in like literally the week beforehand around education in schools. Infowars turned up on the back of a pickup truck and it was really jarring and intense!

But like, Texas had been a place that ignorant me beforehand could have thought ‘oh Texas, is there even much activism going on there?’, and there is! There is incredible activism going on there that I’d never been exposed to or let myself be exposed to.

You just touched on how the environment and discourse can differ internationally. Obviously your music is much more focused on what happens in Ireland. How do you feel the reception to your dialogue has been in the different places you’ve played?

I find the South of England really quite culturally different to Ireland. I’ve been here for quite a while now and I still come across a lot of cultural differences that still catch me off guard. One example is we get asked sometimes about why we would pick a name that is so difficult to say but it’s an Irish word. We picked it because it’s an Irish word and we’re an Irish band. A lot of the stuff is microaggressions, no one is shouting at us in the street saying horrific things, but it is culturally quite different.

It’s like people mocking your accent at festivals and you’re like, ‘this isn’t cool’. It’s just frustrating. It’s just one of those things where you’re like ‘it’s 2023, really… cool, cool, cool. You guys obviously don’t go to Ireland other than for your stag dos, that’s all you see this country for.’

Maybe sometime it’ll stop being jarring but I still get very surprised by it.

Does it feel like it’s improving or is it staying largely stagnant?

To be honest it still feels the same as when I arrived in 2019. I haven’t really noticed much of a difference in the day-to-day perceptions of what Irish culture is, specifically to South of England White British people. I think they have quite a rigid view of what Ireland is. I think they want Irish bands to fit into certain boxes and if you don’t fit into that, they’re not that interested. 

I do think there is a gendered approach to Irish music when it comes to how much the UK is appreciating Irish music. I think there are a lot of worthwhile male acts that do very well in the UK but that has not led to the UK market being interested in finding any of the amazing women in Ireland. That can be quite frustrating.

When you went across mainland Europe on your tour with Gilla Band did you encounter similar sentiments?

Not really, I mean different places are going to have different ideas of Irishness but the difference is that Ireland doesn’t have such a fraught relationship with Mainland Europe. Ireland was occupied by Britain for 800 years so something someone says will always feel more loaded when it comes from that person with that accent. 

I can’t think of any instances where strange things were said to us in Mainland Europe. Most of it was just being treated with respect and basic human decency and being fed really well and getting to learn different bits of different languages. We had a really lovely time!

Returning back to the themes of your record, the beautiful thing about your music, to me at least, is that despite all the grim politics and the trauma and the noise, there’s also an embrace of lighthearted fun, healing, and growth. Emotionally and politically, how do you manage that balance? Do you ever make a conscious decision to reframe certain tracks?

We play a different setlist at most shows that we play and we have certain songs that we will not play in certain settings. For example, we don’t play ‘Asking For It’ at festivals because we don’t think that is an appropriate setting for that song. 

At a festival, a lot of the time, it is people wandering upon a stage and they don’t know what they’re wandering into. It doesn’t feel particularly mindful to be playing such a tense song about such a heavy topic to people who may be under the influence, and are camping that weekend and didn’t know that was how their afternoon was going to go.

Sometimes we opt to play songs like ‘Óró Sé Do Bheatha Bhaile’ in the UK more because it feels fun to sing in Irish in the UK. But yeah, it’s definitely about reading the context of the situation and definitely taking into account the audience’s experiences. 

There’s ways to play with that, like we played Eurosonic last week and it was a majority of men in the audience and we played the album closer, ‘Period Sex’, which makes a lot of men uncomfortable. We play it in a playful way to make people uncomfortable so they can then question why are they uncomfortable. It’s not about trying to ruin anyone’s night but it’s just about asking the question ‘if this makes you uncomfortable, why does it make you feel uncomfortable?’

At our own headline shows, we feel a lot more fluid about the songs that we’re playing because people have come to see it, they know what they’re in for.

I suppose it’s hard with your music because it is so direct and confrontational, but do people ever take the wrong message away from it? Do people react badly to your messaging?

I mean, people don’t like it but that’s fine! I find that people very rarely feel meh about it. People are very rarely indifferent towards our music. They either really like our music or they really don’t. There’s an argument to be made that art is meant to make you feel something so for us, the fact that we’re making something we like is enough. 

But yeah, people definitely don’t like it. There are a lot of people who really don’t like what we’re doing but that’s fine. There’s a lot of stuff that I don’t like.

There was this guy at the front of the crowd at Eurosonic. He was like this middle-aged man, and we ended up absolutely grand, but he was standing there with his hand on his chin and just kept talking. I said in between our songs ‘are you aware you’re at a feminist punk gig?’ and he started laughing. He ended up being really lovely, he had actually brought his teenage daughter who was having the time of her life. He was up for that banter. We do encounter a lot of people who are up for that banter.

There are other people that are just like ‘it’s not for me but you’re doing something different and variety is the spice of life’.

Speaking of shows, how do you feel about your headline tour coming up later this year?

I’m really excited, I can’t wait! What we’re trying to do with M(h)aol is to create something we would have wanted as teenagers and when you’re doing a headline tour you automatically get more of a say in things. I’m very excited to have control over creating a space we would have wanted.

I’m really looking forward to it. We’re getting to go to some places we haven’t been to before. I think it’ll be really good fun. There are places we played festivals but not headline shows and it’s fun to go back and see in practice if the reception to the last time you played somewhere was enough for people to buy tickets again. It’s good craic.

Before people go off and listen to your album and see you live, any final thoughts to leave people with?

If you’re not a man start a band.

Words: Varun Govil // Photos: Naomi Williams

‘Attachment Styles’ is out now via TULLE Collective. Stream or purchase the album via Bandcamp.

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