‘It's just like pressing a button’
Eternal gratitude, travelling away fans, an unforgettable dress sense, and a missing jumper (possibly a cardigan) are just some of the crucial ingredients for the long-running popularity of The Sultans of Ping.
It’s been 14 years since the Cork rockers played on Leeside but this month they’re back, playing 2 shows in The Cork Opera House on 10 and 11 February, a venue they have never played before. Initially it was supposed to be just the one show, but when tickets told out in less than 48 hours a second was added, a clear sign of their undentable popularity here in Cork.
As they prepared to get stuck into their “chaotic” practice sessions before the 2 shows, drummer Morty McCarthy took a moment to chat with the Cork Independent about Cork, music, slang, rasa, and legacy.
“It's incredible with time, I mean, we were meant to play during the pandemic and it just never happened, so suddenly it's been 9 years,” says Morty.
“It's very exciting, especially when you've never played there before. I remember as a kid going to the pantomime there, I mean it's a huge deal to play there and all the band are looking forward to it.
“We definitely wouldn't have got anywhere without Cork because we had a big fanbase in Cork from the very beginning and when we did our first show in Dublin, they all travelled up to Dublin. It was the same in London, I think 70 or 80 from Cork came over, so that's what got the band going, so we're still eternally grateful for that. We really did have away supporters which is incredible. It got us to where we are now.”
Formed in Cork in 1988 by singer Niall O'Flaherty, Pat O'Connell, Paul Fennelly and Ger Lyons, Sultans of Ping FC, as they were known then, came to the attention of the Irish and UK music press when their cult hit 'Where's Me Jumper' crashed the charts and put the band on the front of influential music magazines NME and Melody Maker.
A series of singles followed, supported by the band’s riotous live shows, memorable dress sense and an intelligent, coverage-friendly wit which saw them get signed to Epic Records and release their iconic debut album, ‘Casual Sex In The Cineplex’.
The Sultans' star burned brightly for several years, releasing subsequent albums ‘Teenage Drug’ and ‘Good Year for Trouble’.
The band went their separate ways in 1996 before reforming in 2005 with a new lineup including Cork native Morty McCarthy on drums. Morty currently lives in Sweden where he teaches English for 6 months of the year. For the other 6, he goes on tour with some unknown band called Radiohead as their merchandiser. Morty says he and the rest of the band, who all live in London, usually get together for 2 or 3 shows a year, but that coming back to Cork is always special.
“The city is very different for me now, there's been a lot of changes. It's a much busier city, it's a much more international city. I feel a bit sad when I see some of the inner city, there's some good things being done there but there's a lot of closed down buildings, you know, shops that were open when I was there. But then you down to Páirc Uí Chaoimh and see the Marina and the new parks, so lots of good things are happening as well.”
Recalling what Cork was like when he was a young fella, Morty has fond memories of a rock and roll city with some of the best venues in the country.
“There wasn't a lot to do in Cork in the ‘80s really, there was a lot of unemployment obviously, so a lot of people turned to music,” says Morty.
“Sir Henry's started putting on a lot more shows - Mojo's was great, The Phoenix - there was a very good scene in Cork around the mid-‘80s, a lot of things that aren't there anymore.
“I can't keep track there's so many new bands in Cork these days. I think musicianship is definitely better, you know? There's a lot of good musicians around Cork, but whether they can write better songs – that's another question.”
The shows in The Opera House will mark to the month 30 years since the release of ‘Casual Sex In The Cineplex’. With 3 decades and over 500 shows under their belts, Morty says the group does a few practice sessions before shows but that it’s the audience and the energy of the moment that makes their gigs work.
“The practices can be pretty chaotic but it always comes together on the night,” he says.
“I think when you have an audience in front of you, you just kind of up your game, like, Niall's a different person when you put him in front of an audience. It's just like pressing a button. It's just something that's in the blood now. I don't think we dwell on it too much. Once the crowd is with you, it's a fantastic feeling.”
Aside from teaching, being a musician, and merchandising for Radiohead, Morty has also written a book on Cork slang called 'Dowtcha Boy’, which came out in 2004 in the lead up to Cork’s stint as the European Capital of Culture.
“When I became a teacher in Sweden, I had to change my accent,” explains Morty.
“I didn't realise how many words in Cork were slang or just English spoken differently. I don't think I was ever aware of it when I lived in Cork. I actually got food poisoning and I ended up in the Mercy Hospital for a month and I met some great characters there and I started writing down what they were saying, that's where the book idea came from. It was a love letter to Cork.
“I'm a fisherman myself so I love a bit of fishing slang, so ‘strawk-hawl’ and all these. And I love 'rasa' obviously, we've a song called '2 Pints Of Rasa' so, there's nothing better than a glass of rasa at Christmas is there?”