When you play a gig in the Banana Block, you have a license to dress like a banana. That’s why Thibault Barillon dresses in bright yellow, with matching nail polishes. He hangs out in this prime location in east Belfast and he’s ripe for a big artistic moment.
hibault is a computer scientist by day and a jazz-punk warrior by choice. He plays tenor saxophone with the Robocobra Quartet, a group that is a concert hall favorite and has received much acclaim. They came here to mark the release of a terrific third album, Living Isn’t Easy.
Each band member has an individual groove. Bassist Nathan is well known to fans of the indie band Hot Cops, and he’s got composure and precision. Other players have a looser style. But this six-piece’s greatest asset is the ability to swing like a team.
They set up their gear in the Sound Advice record store, inside the Banana Block. And for a good 40 minutes, they play new tunes and reliable favorites, making us think hard about the modern condition, but also making us smile.
Chris W Ryan plays drums and also declaims into the microphone. It’s not really singing, but it speaks the words and it interacts with our nervous systems. He plays all these syncopated parts on his kit and then barks the lyrics like an angry man at a bus stop. It’s fascinating.
There’s a new song called Chromo Sud which takes us on a tour of a series of gruesome properties in a desperate Irish town. The housing situation is dire and this lost soul is trying to hold it together. The tenor and soprano horns howl sadly. “We’ve been through the worst now,” bleats Chris, unconvincingly.
There’s a manic tune called Wellness that basically compiles some daily routines of an online influencer. It’s all about activated charcoal, morning urine tests, and a standing desk at the office. The story is ridiculous and Chris gets shrill at the end.
Later, I have the chance to talk to the author of these remarkable tunes. He is planning a trip to Glastonbury with the band and there are many complications before they reach the stage at William’s Green. Flights are changed and logistics are tough, but Chris is obviously an artist who finalizes things.
I mention the Talking Heads song, Once in a Lifetime, as a similar idea to songs like Wellness. The guy rose through the ranks in the materialistic world and then realized that there was nothing at the top.
“It’s the tragedy,” he said. “We’re told what’s important, and then you put all that stock on all those things that are ephemeral. In the end, you realize that nothing matters. It’s quite overwhelming.
You could say that Robocobra Quartet came to fill us with terror and anxiety. Certainly, other parts of the album deal with mental health issues, medication and suicide. But Chris is keen to highlight the rise of their method.
He says, “I have this feeling of existential dread, that life has no meaning. But I’m a pretty optimistic person. I guess you would call that optimistic nihilism. The inherent fact that nothing matters is beautifully liberating. It gives me a lot of freedom. Sometimes people watch these documentaries about the cosmos, the stars and the solar system and they feel small and sad. But I feel small and happy.
“I don’t believe in the myth that you have to be miserable to make art. Art is a great outlet when you’re unhappy. It’s a great way to channel that feeling.
“I don’t think you have to be miserable to do it. The main thing with our group is that as long as it’s exciting and fun, we should do it. And if it looks like it will be misery, there is literally no point.
Chris grew up in Wexford and moved to Belfast in 2011 to study at the Sonic Arts Research Center at Queen’s University. He is a renowned music producer, working with artists like NewDad, Just Mustard and Enola Gay. He collaborated with the Ulster Orchestra and mounted a solo electronic project, Sorbet, during confinement. All these experiences made him appreciate the dynamics of the Robocobra group.
He adds: “I also spent a lot of time recording other people’s music, producing other albums and I just realized that there is music that is well served by one person. With electronic or classical music, those things make sense – having a brain and a singular vision.
“But if you’re doing community music and you have people you trust and share a similar outlook on life, then they’re definitely going to do something special.
“I think we’re also very nice to each other. I’ve done a few tours with other bands and had the privilege of seeing what other artists are like. We try to be nice to each other, because we’re barely getting rich.
Robocobra Quartet will perform at The Empire, Belfast on October 7th. The album, Living Isn’t Easy, is now available on First Taste Records