Because Milwaukee’s Irish Fest is such a mover in the international Celtic festival scene, you can typically see the latest and greatest in Celtic music of all stripes here when the festival sets up shop along the lakefront each August.
This year, young Scottish sensation Mànran makes its United States debut, on the heels of the release of its second disc, "The Test," which was, like its predecessor, produced by no less than Phil Cunningham.
The six-piece band burst onto the scene a few years ago with the goal of bringing Gaelic music back into the U.K. charts. To reach that goal, the group has mixed drums, bass, guitar, pipes, accordion and whistles to create a poppy sound that is part trad, part modern and thoroughly engaging.
We talked – well, we emailed since he was in Glasgow at the time – with bassist Ross Saunders about "The Test" and about the status of getting Gaelic atop the U.K. charts again...
OnMilwaukee.com: Give us the history of Mànran, if you will.
Ross Saunders: Mànran was formed just over three years ago – June 2010 to be exact – thanks to the efforts of our accordionist Gary Innes. Gary had the idea of creating a new and exciting Gaelic/folk/trad-rock band, starting off with the rather ambitious attempt of trying to crack the U.K. charts with the first Gaelic single to reach the UK top 10 in the 21st century.
We failed of course, haha! Which is no surprise really, especially when you look at the current state of affairs within the music industry these days. Although we were, I quote, "on top of Cheryl Cole" for at least a few hours at one point!
OMC: Do you think it can happen?
RS: Like I said above, we didn't manage to crack the U.K. top 10 in January 2011, however, we did manage to stay in the top 100 finishing at No. 63 in the official UK charts, No.1 in the singer/songwriter charts, No. 6 in the Scottish indie charts and No. 6 in the Scottish singles charts, which we felt wasn't too bad for a Gaelic folk band. I think the moment may have passed in a lot of ways, especially with pop industry becoming more and more saturated each and every day. But we wouldn't say no to trying again if the opportunity arose.
OMC: What would it mean for the roots music community to have a chart return after so many years since Runrig and Capercaille, etc.?
RS: Looking back the reaction we had toward "Latha Math" in 2011, I think it would mean a lot to the traditional music community if we cracked the charts. On the first day of "Latha Math" being available for download, I had our local distributor calling me personally to say "iTunes have been on the phone because you've had over 2,000 downloads already. They want to know who you are..!"
That was crazy news considering we were practically brand new on the scene, but it just proved that the country were firmly behind our campaign to show the world that the Gaelic language isn't a thing of the past and that an independent band could still have a chance of making themselves heard.
OMC: You recently released your second record, produced by Phil Cunningham. What was it like working with him? Was it a bit intimidating for you?
RS: It wasn't intimidating at all actually as we'd worked with Phil on our "Latha Math" single initially, followed by our debut album "Mànran," so we'd already established a good working relationship with him. Phil has an astounding musical ear and can literally pick melodies out of the cosmos, even if the musical idea you're playing to him is in its foundation stages. His musical wisdom and guidance really helped iron out the creases in our first album, but thankfully we were a lot more prepared this time round with "The Test" as most of the material had been written, arranged and gigged in advanced which made things a bit easier.
OMC: What did he bring to the process?
RS: Asides from the qualities mentioned above, a strong sense of compositional maturity, a fantastic ability to compromise when needed, his piano and cittern skills, but most importantly, a hell of a lot of funny stories!
OMC: Will this be your first trip to the U.S. as a band?
RS: Yes, and we're looking forward to it!
OMC: Have you heard much about Irish Fest and Milwaukee from other bands and musicians that have played here? What are your expectations?
RS: We've heard nothing but great reports about Irish Fest and Milwaukee from our colleagues. We're good friends with the lads in Skerryvore and some of the lads in the Red Hot Chilli Pipers and they've said nothing but great things about the hospitality they received and the great response from the festivals audiences. We're really looking forward to making our U.S. debut there this month.
OMC: What can audiences here expect when you guys play? Tell us a bit about the music itself and about what your gigs are like?
RS: It's safe to say that our shows consist of an evenly spread mixture of Gaelic songs, English songs and high energy tunesets, so there's definitely something for everyone!
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.