“I think Flann O’Brien’s brother might have delivered me,” says Blindboy Boatclub, podcaster, author and half of the melodic Dadaists the Rubberbandits. “Fergus O’Nolan” – Flann’s brother – “was my family doctor. He was a lovely man. He’s the reason Flann’s work was in my house... When I was a baby in the buggy, he came to my ma and saw me and said, ‘Jesus, he’s going to be very handsome. He’s going to grow up and he’s going to be famous for being handsome.’ And now, of course, I’m famous for wearing a f***ing bag on my head. That’s pure Flann.”
Yes, Blindboy Boatclub, author of the excellent new short-story collection Boulevard Wren and Other Stories, wears a plastic bag on his head. I suspect Flann O’Brien would love this. He admits that in recent years the Blindboy persona has increasingly become indistinguishable from his real personality, and he talks several times about “dropping the mask”, but he means this metaphorically, not literally.
During our three-hour interview, in Limerick, he doesn't remove the bag once. Why does he wear it?
Being in any way recognisable is absolute hell. I basically want to do what I love, but I don't want someone asking me for a selfie when I'm in Aldi buying jacks roll
"Because being in any way recognisable in 2019 is absolute hell," he says, "I love being an artist. I love writing. I love doing live shows. But, unfortunately, what goes alongside that is a weird obsession with notoriety and celebrity. I basically want to do what I love, but I don't want someone asking me for a selfie when I'm in Aldi buying jacks roll."
He says anonymity became even more necessary when he started talking about mental-health issues, because strangers often disclose painful things to him. He always wants to give these people his time and empathy, he says, but he couldn’t do it all the time without becoming emotionally drained. “I’d have to withdraw from talking about mental health.”
How many bags does he go through?
“I’ll get 10 uses out of this,” he says. “It’s a fresh one from JC’s in Swords. They’re closed down now. This is environmentally friendly, because I took 10,000 single-use bags out of circulation... What I want to do at the end is, when I’m 60 or 70, build a giant kitchen sink as an art installation and underneath it have all my bags.”
What were the origins of the Rubberbandits?
"My voice was barely broken. Mr Chrome" – the other half of Rubberbandits – "is older than me. He did transition year or something, and he ended up in my class. We were in art class together, and it was the first time in my life where I'd ever spoken to another person where it was like we could read each other's thoughts... Up to that point in my life I had a bunch of friends, but I had these weird thoughts in my head that I would never say out loud, because they'd think I was a lunatic. I could say them out loud to Mr Chrome, and he'd laugh. And I realised that those weird thoughts, they weren't weird at all; it was me being creative."
One day a classmate heard the duo doing impressions of their teachers and suggested they record CDs for friends. They decided the best way to do this was to prank-call people. A technically adept friend rigged up a telephone so that they could record conversations, and soon their recordings were circulating the country. “We were kind of nationally known on an underground level before we’d even done our Leaving Cert.”
Why were they anonymous in those days?
If I walked into a shopping centre I'd have a massive panic attack and end up inside the disabled toilets, thinking, I'm going to die. That was so traumatic that I wasn't leaving my bedroom
"Probably my mother. She loves to worry and loves the worst-case scenario. Even last week she asked, 'What do you think you'll mention on the podcast this week?' I said, 'I want to talk about how Boris Johnson technically lied to the queen, so he committed treason, but the only reason he can't be hung is the EU law that [means] the Brits can't do it.' My mam, instead of finding it funny, said, 'Boris Johnson will send MI5 over, and you'll be shot.' I think when I told her about the prank phone calls she said, 'Charlie Haughey nearly went to jail for recording phone calls.' So we freaked out. I think that's when we decided that we were the Rubberbandits and were going to have pseudonyms."
He also struggled greatly with anxiety and knew that being publicly known wouldn’t help. That anxiety had a huge affect on him as a younger man. “If I walked into a shopping centre I’d have a massive panic attack and end up inside the disabled toilets, thinking, I’m going to die. That was so traumatic that I wasn’t leaving my bedroom; living the life of an agoraphobe. I couldn’t make eye contact with another human being.”
His pain was so bad that he thought he had schizophrenia until a psychiatrist explained to him what a panic attack was. Later, when he went to Limerick School of Art and Design to study visual communications, he took advantage of free student counselling and over three years there learned tools for dealing with his mental health. When he left college, he says, he was “a confident, happy person”.
He also realised that he didn't want to be a graphic designer and instead did a course in psychotherapy that would have led to a master's degree if had he completed it. (He later completed a master's in socially engaged art.) He never pursued therapy professionally. Instead he sent Mr Chrome a CD with nine or 10 pieces of music and they ended up writing a song called Bag of Glue.
"We put it on MySpace, forgot about it and then two months later all these hipsters in Dublin were saying, 'Holy f***, this is the best Irish hip-hop song we've ever heard.' So we wrote more. Irish hip hop at the time was particularly cringey. 'Man, you're not from Compton, so you can't rap about Compton.' The only thing with any authenticity was Scary Éire. I was deeply affected by the work of Flann O'Brien, so I thought the way to make this Irish was to go Flann O'Brien with it."
He also loved writers such as Tom Waits and Randy Newman, whose songs showcase unreliable narrators. "It used to break my heart that Randy Newman was just laughed at and never taken seriously because he dared to use comedy in music. I was balls deep in Short People when we started."
They kept getting offers to do gigs but weren’t sure how to perform live and remain anonymous. They considered wearing balaclavas, but less than 10 years after the Belfast Agreement it didn’t sit right.
So what was the worst costume they could think of?
“A plastic bag. When you’re a kid there’s a huge irrational fear of plastic bags. ‘Don’t put plastic bags on your head, it will kill you.’ We thought, F*** it, we’re grown men now, we can put plastic bags on our heads. So we did.”
They created a parallel universe for Blindboy and Mr Chrome partly rooted in misconceptions about their city. "In 2007 we had a bit of a situation with gangs down here, not too far off what Drogheda is going through. The media focused on it hugely, which led to people having a very distorted view of Limerick."
I didn't grow up in a council estate in Limerick. My da worked in an airport, and my mother packed shelves in Dunnes. So I certainly didn't grow up with money, but I never had to experience poverty
He likens the national news coverage of Limerick to the French critic Jean Baudrillard's analysis of the war in Iraq. "I got a mad horn off Baudrillard's idea that the Iraq war never happened, because [the media experience] was not the real war but a hyper-real copy of it... We were very conscious to subvert that image of Limerick, to use the language of gangster rap to make people think these are Limerick gangsters, but if you listen to the lyrics we're talking about a greyhound's balls. We were both art-college students, so things like subtext and making sure your work has deeper levels of meaning was very important."
Some people missed those layers. When they released Up da Ra, an absurdist riff on armchair republicanism, they nearly lost their newfound audience. "The hipsters... would have been mortified and embarrassed by anything to do with the Ra. Ultimately it was a type of classism... When Up da Ra came out our own fans were saying, 'This isn't cool,' but that was because they thought we were little Limerick assholes [who] didn't have the intelligence to subvert it and be self-aware."
That was the first time he "let the mask slip". He wrote a 1,000-word MySpace post "explaining in great detail, subtext, exactly what Up da Ra meant, referring to Short People by Randy Newman, explaining what the unreliable narrator is, explaining 'armchair republicanism', which has nothing to do with history and was really to do with masculinity."
Then they started writing sketches for the RTÉ sketch show Republic of Telly. They wrote Horse Outside, a song in which a bragging narrator woos a young woman with the promise of a horse outside. "Horse Outside went way bigger than we intended, and we ended up with 70 per cent of our audience who hadn't a f***ing clue what we were about. They thought we were parodying the perception of Limerick, almost like a Limerick blackface... I didn't grow up in a council estate in Limerick. My da worked in an airport, and my mother packed shelves in Dunnes. So I certainly didn't grow up with money, but I never had to experience poverty, and I had a lot of support and love and a really happy childhood. A lot of my friends didn't. They were in parts of Limerick with extreme poverty and community violence and were at risk in a way that I wasn't at risk... But we ended up with an audience who were laughing along for the wrong reason."
And the gigs were just horrible, he says. “They’d be drunk and roaring at each other. You’d try talk between songs and they’d start roaring ‘Olé, olé!’ at the top of their lungs.”
They released the sweetly surreal, deeply odd follow-up song, Spastic Hawk, "to deliberately lose fans". Then they ignored Ireland for a while and performed in Edinburgh and London, where they were championed by comedians such as Russell Brand and Frankie Boyle.
In about 2013 Blindboy started talking publicly about mental health. “Before that the character of Blindboy was a very silly, surreal character and would never answer anything in any way seriously,” he says. “But by 2013 we were bollocks deep in the recession. The level of suicide happening in Limerick was f***ing shocking. People were dying all around me. People were leaving. It was bleak as f***, and I kept thinking back to the training I did in psychotherapy and thought about the journey I’d gone on myself.
I thought that if I have 300,000 people on Facebook, one positive message based on what I've learned from cognitive behavioural therapy and existential psychology might make one person's day a bit better
"If I was 19 in 2013 I would be dead, and that's a given. The environment would have given me no hope... I decided, as well, that the Bandits thing was over, that we'd never come back from Horse Outside. And I thought that if I have 300,000 people [on Facebook], one positive message based on what I've learned from cognitive behavioural therapy and existential psychology might make one person's day a bit better."
He began to appear on chatshows, speaking psychological good sense from his plastic bag. Conor Nagle of Gill Books asked him to write a book of essays, but Blindboy asked if he could, instead, write short stories. (He credits Kevin Barry as an encouraging early reader.) In an effort to publicise the first book, The Gospel According to Blindboy, from 2017, he started what was meant to be a short-lived podcast. He read his stories, but he also waffled empathically, eruditely and hilariously against trance-like piano chords. The second episode got 50,000 listeners. The podcast and its crowdfunding Patreon page are now the main basis of financial security for him.
And this brings us to a few misconceptions that really bother him. The first is "that I was born a rich kid. I f***ing wasn't... My ma had to pack shelves in Dunnes. I had a medical card for my asthma and a means-tested grant for college... When I meet people in Dublin who're middle class, they're posh as f***. In Dublin my contemporaries would be people from Crumlin. It's a weird thing, class in Ireland."
The second misconception is that he’s rich now.
"People would say, 'Sure, Horse Outside has 12 million views, you're f***ing loaded. Who are you to talk about the recession and mental health in your giant ivory tower?' I call it the Enya factor. I love Enya, I think she's a f***ing genius and is massively overlooked. She should be treated like Brian Eno in terms of her contribution to ambient music. Enya is someone with huge social anxiety, but she is able to live in a castle. She has a panic room, and she doesn't have to gig. She was making music when music sold. I basically have Enya's personality... If Horse Outside happened in the 1980s and [those YouTube views] were physical CDs I'd be a multimillionaire, living in a castle near Howth with my own panic room."
The reality, he says, is that at the height of the Rubberbandits' fame he was living on €50 a week. When he worked it out, the money they were paid for their excellent, Ifta-winning Rubberbandits Guide to 1916 amounted to about €1.50 an hour. He's not complaining. "I thrive on asceticism." But the Patreon page and the podcast have changed his situation. "I now know exactly how much I'm getting. I can budget. I can plan. That's the stability an artist should have in their career."
The third thing that annoys him is the “angry uninformed lads who we will collectively call ‘das’” who tell him he has changed and has drunk the poisoned Kool-Aid of 21st-century leftism.
This comes, he says, from a misunderstanding of what the Rubberbandits are about. He has always had left-wing politics. His dad was a union rep, a “socialist borderline communist” whose female colleagues spoke movingly after he died about how he was one of few male colleagues they could trust for support and respect.
In Spain a waiter came up and said, 'What are you writing?' I said, 'I'm writing fiction.' He got it into his head that I was writing fishing, and so any time I go to a f***ing restaurant now they start coming down with these platters of shrimp
Blindboy wrote about his own politics for the first time on the now-defunct MySpace page in which he defended Up da Ra. “At the end of that I said, ‘We have solidarity with the Travelling community. We have solidarity with Palestinians. We have solidarity with oppressed communities.’ Everything I speak about now was there in that essay, 14 years ago... One of the queerest parts of my career was when I went on the Late Late and said that men should look at feminism. It got me violent hatred [that] came from a deep, deep misunderstanding of feminism.”
He thinks his podcast has occasionally converted some of these men to his way of thinking. He usually hears of this not from the men themselves but from their wives or girlfriends. “It also pisses me off that some lads will only listen to another man talking about feminism,” he says. “Anything I know about feminism is me regurgitating it from women in my life who’ve told me about it. I’ve had to learn from them.”
He thinks something has happened to radicalise young men in recent years. He thinks it relates to how data companies wind people up with extreme opinions in return for monetisable social-media updates. He thinks that in this frantic, overly connected digital age, podcasts act as a rare opportunity for meditative reflection. “What the f*** is my podcast? It’s storytelling. I just sit down and do it. I put the prep in, but it’s flow. I’m chasing the dragon of flow. If I sit down and feel flow in my heart, I know it’s good.”
He seeks a similar sense of flow when he's writing. For several years he has gone to Cordoba, in Spain, to write. "When you go on holidays you have weird dreams, because the stimulus and input you get throughout the day is so different – the smells, the sounds, the f***ing concrete, the trees... I call Cordoba 'hot Limerick'. It's the same size as Limerick. We're an old Norman medieval city, but they're Islamic medieval. And it's not very touristy. They don't really drink at all. Their beers are only two quid. So I'm Irish and I'm the only drunk person in the city.
“Over the years the waiters wonder, ‘Who is this drunk Irish guy with a laptop?’ One day a waiter came up and said, ‘What are you writing?’ I said, ‘I’m writing fiction.’ He got it into his head that I was writing fishing, and so any time I go to a f***ing restaurant now they start coming down with these platters of shrimp and shit like that. But my ma’s pure allergic to shrimp, so I won’t eat shrimp because I’m afraid I might be allergic to it too. So I have to politely put the seafood into a napkin and flush it down the toilet.’”
That sounds like a short story. He laughs. “It does, actually.”
His stories often begin as funny ideas that evolve into something deeper and more unsettling. "I have a long-time obsession with Gabriel Byrne. I don't know why. It's that Irish iconography, the fact he's a bit mid-Atlantic... So for the Rubberbandits video Fellas we made a 2ft version of Gabriel Byrne. Why not?" More recently, he thought, "What if Gabriel Byrne is snorting bags of his own skin as a form of system-restore points? What if this is what he does on his Wednesday evenings?"
This ultimately became a darkly funny story about a distressingly plausible internet trend called The Skin Method. Many of his stories veer into fantasy and sci-fi territory, but he’s not sure if his work really falls into those categories.
“I try not to have magic occur in my universe,” he says. “What I prefer is to tell the story through the lens of someone you can’t truly rely upon, so the magic happens in their interpretation of the universe.”
Sometimes he only understands what his stories are really about after he has written them, he says. He only recently realised that his new book is riddled with "climate anxiety". He observes how The Wind Milker, in which a young man generates electricity from the residents of a retirement community, is essentially a generational climate-change revenge story. Even Jo Lee, my favourite story in the book, and which I initially thought was set during the Famine, he suggests might take place in a climate-collapse future.
Did he ever consider dropping the bag and using a different name for his literary endeavours?
I need someone's aunt in a shop to think, My f***in' eejit of a nephew likes that c**t with the bag on his head. I'll buy that book for him
"The writers the literary people tend to love have really f***ing boring Irish names," he says. "'Donal Flaherty', that sounds like a real serious Irish-writing name. So I could call myself Donal Flaherty and then maybe get all the praise from the literary world for being an avant-garde satirist from f***ing Limerick, but I wouldn't sell any books... I need someone's aunt in a shop to think, My f***in' eejit of a nephew likes that c**t with the bag on his head. I'll buy that for him.'"
Anyway, he adds, “My desire for people who are like me to say ‘You are good, boy,’ is really hollow... I need to focus back on whether I’m happy with what I’m reading. If I didn’t write this, would I like to read it?”
He's inspired by writers such as Flann O'Brien and James Joyce and Kevin Barry and June Caldwell. He thinks the weird dualities of Hiberno-English give Irish writers an advantage. He would love to take his stories and turn them into an Inside Number 9 or Black Mirror-style anthology TV series. I can see him as a Rod Serling-type narrator.
He's certainly not leaving television behind. He has been working with his long-time television cowriter, James Cotter, on a four-episode series for BBC Three, Blindboy Undestroys the World, in which he works with investigative journalists on subjects such as slavery and sex trafficking. And he's soon embarking on an international podcast tour, to places including Hanoi and Barcelona – 60 per cent of his huge audience is outside Ireland.
He will also work with Mr Chrome again. He suspects they’ll be working together until they’re old men. The only disagreements they have are over things like whether their Gabriel Byrne puppet should have kneecaps. Even then, he says, he’d defer to Mr Chrome. “Me and Chrome have specific sets of skills. Chrome makes the puppets. I shouldn’t really argue about the state of Gabriel Byrne’s kneecaps.”
Boulevard Wren and Other Stories is published by Gill Books on November 1st