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Escape Velocity

From The Ashes: Enola Gay Interviewed
Alex Rigotti , October 3rd, 2023 06:53

In 2020, Belfast guitarist Joe McVeigh became the victim of a sectarian attack, his perpetrators leaving him “one kick away from murder”. Alex Rigotti digs into how this inspired Enola Gay’s new EP, as well as the links between raves, punk and folk music. CW: Contains image of violence

Joe McVeigh was born in Belfast on 8 July 1997 as riots raged across the city. Sparked by the decision to allow the Protestant Orange Order to march through the Catholic neighbourhood of Portadown, it was the last major outbreak of widespread violence in the city prior to the Good Friday agreement the following year, and saw over 100 civilians injured and one killed. McVeigh grew up during the peace process that followed, attending cross-community events between Catholics and Protestants. The city is now far from the violence of The Troubles, yet the ‘peace walls’ – separation barriers between different neighbourhoods – remain.

“You can't get certain taxi depots across the peace wall because they associate certain depots with certain areas,” says McVeigh. “My dad's a taxi driver for one of those companies. He would never drop into a certain area, even to my friend's houses, because there's kids that wait at the corner to see those taxi banners with a handful of stones.”

McVeigh grew up listening to a wide range of music; his mother’s 80s mixtape introduced him to OMD’s ‘Enola Gay’ – a song born of another conflict whose lyrics concern the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima from the aircraft of the same name, killing 70,000 civilians. In his teenage years, he found solace in punk and political rock staples like Rage Against The Machine and Dead Kennedys. But then he met Fionn Reilly at a Chemical Brothers gig in 2016; the pair explored Belfast’s rave scene, eventually forming a band with Reilly on vocals and McVeigh on guitar.

They weren’t planning on releasing any music until 2020 hit, and Black Lives Matter protesters gathered in front of Belfast City Hall, all the while withstanding online attacks by racist trolls. The contradictions were so infuriating that the duo put together their debut single ‘Birth Of A Nation’ in just two weeks.

Enola Gay have since created an impressive back catalogue, casting their eye on targets like rape culture, and elsewhere on figures like Boris Johnson. On their upcoming EP Casement, they refuse to take their foot off the gas. ‘Leeches’ eviscerates the apathy of right wing politicians who suck money out of underprivileged areas. McVeigh’s own electricity meter started running out as they were recording, its beeping sound perfectly in key with the song.

It is ‘PTS.DUP’ which is the most confrontational track of them all. A nuanced reflection on the frustrations of coexisting in modern Belfast society, inspired by McVeigh’s own personal experience with sectarian violence. Its accompanying music video deploys a snowballing barrage of “jingoistic rhetoric” from the DUP, Northern Ireland’s most prominent unionist party and second-largest overall, displaying stark quotations denouncing climate change as “a manmade con”, homosexuality as “abominable”, Sinn Féin voters as “sub-human animals”, then contrasting them with a direct statement of the band’s own: “The DUP exploit feelings of abandonment and identity-erosion many young people in the north of Ireland feel today. With talks of a United Ireland looming we should consider how and why Unionists fear they will be left with nowhere to call home when they shouldn’t have to.”

It’s a necessarily uncomfortable watch, and core to the band’s motto and the inspiration for its name: “You can’t get more political than being anti-war. [OMD’s ‘Enola Gay’] got used on an advert for BritBox recently, and that not only undermines its message, but also what happened. Emotional, visceral conflict has seeped its way into our music, time and time again”.

’PTS.DUP’ was written after you were attacked in an act of sectarian violence. What happened that night?

Joe McVeigh: Basically, I was at a rave in November 2020. When you're at a rave, all politics are meant to be left at the gate – that’s the whole point of raves. A car went by and I thought it was picking me up. I said, “Would you go to my area?” My area is located in the West, which is nationalist area. A voice behind me shouted: “That's not for you, you Westy tramp.” I was turning around and said, “Fuck off”, but once I turned around, I realised there were seventeen people there. At this moment, I knew I had fucked up."

The car drove on and nothing happened for 15 minutes. I was on the side of the road, my phone was dead, everyone was doing their own thing. Next thing I know, I was approached by three people and I ended up just getting up absolutely smacked. An eyewitness said that seven people were jumping on my head at once. The next day in hospital, the doctor said they were one kick away from murder.

How did you feel the next morning?

JM: I'll not lie, the next day I woke up feeling absolute tribalistic rage – the same stupid sectarian tribalism that fuels the anger that [angry DUP supporters] can have and the rhetoric that they're brought up on. Obviously, that's not healthy. After reflecting, I was like, this is how conflict ensues. If we take a second to step back and think, “Why do they think this? Where does this come from?” At the end of the day, they are victims of the rhetoric that they've been brought up on.

Joe McVeigh following his attack. Photo courtesy of Joe McVeigh

You also say you felt shame, which is an interesting emotion to observe.

JM: I went to cross-community events from a very young age and I was taught that it should be normal to have friends that have different opinions, and that it’s okay to challenge your friends. The current social climate is so polarising and it's just a bit ridiculous that we can't meet in the middle and have conversations where you can try and enlighten people without trying to shut them down. But that's why I would be ashamed of thinking something like that. My parents have definitely tried their hardest to steer me away from that line of thinking because they've seen [what it causes] themselves, they grew up on it, and it's quite clear that there's people that still feel that way.

How did you go about writing ‘PTS.DUP’ afterwards?

JM: I remember me and Fionn sitting there thinking that it would be too easy for four nationalist fellas to write a song that looks at the other side and says they should go fuck themselves. Instead, we can actually look at the problem at the source. We spent a lot of time making the music video educational so that people from the outside can look in and see why the DUP can lead to a generation of people who are suffering from an identity crisis, not knowing what to do themselves, abandoned by their own people, why paramilitaries are running nefarious means.

I showed my [Protestant] friends the music video because it's obviously a very sensitive subject that I wanted to get right. They were saying how anything remotely Protestant has been turned into a loyalist gimmick and that doesn't represent them as people, which it doesn't. It's the minority of Protestants who are these extremists.

How much power do you think music has to enact political change in Northern Ireland?

JM: Here's a really class example: an Irish Republican hip hop group called Kneecap, who are good mates of ours. There's been a massive growth in young Irish people that are studying Irish at GCSE. They're demanding it because a lot of people have said, “I don't speak Irish, but I can rap you a load of Kneecap lyrics,” and they are hungry to know what it means.

How did you and Fionn meet and create the band?

JM: So me and Fionn met at the Chemical Brothers a couple of years ago, and as soon as we met, we clicked. We kept going to raves for years. When we started the band, I was messing about with guitar sounds after hearing things like Gilla Band, Idles, Just Mustard. We thought, we’ve all gone to raves for the past few years: how about we merge the influences together?

Fionn's always made this great point of how folk music is almost punk in its purest form; it's oppressed people singing songs of rebellion. So he's always had that insight for lyrics. The wordplay with hip hop that we're listening to, the way that electronic songs had an unusual structure, it just all lent itself to the music we were making.

What sort of connections do you see between rave and punk music?

In Belfast, there's a pretty big techno scene. Bicep, AVA Festival, it was just always around us. Those illegal raves have a punk aspect to them, whether it be that sense of community or the fact that you would have the police trying to shut them down but they never could. I think that strong sense of community where everybody knows everyone, I never really went to punk gigs in Belfast, but I heard what they were supposed to be like. And I find that they have a lot of symmetry.

What do you want to achieve through Enola Gay’s music?

JM: Before we even wrote anything, we were like, “Right, there's going to be certain rules: only write about stuff that matters.” Either it matters to us or it's stuff that we want to address. Fionn takes a lot of his approach to lyrical writing from folk music. And I've always had a bunch of rants on my phone about things that piss me off. We don't want to particularly write about love and on ‘PTS.DUP’, we felt that we actually had an opportunity to write something educational, seeing as the topic is something so specific to the north of Ireland.

What pisses you off the most?

At the time, Brexit was pissing me off. It pissed me off that the people who were really convinced the deal wasn't going ahead couldn’t see they were being fed algorithms. Social media algorithms had such a massive hand in screwing us over for Brexit. The DUP obviously piss me off. In Belfast, we all call them the dinosaurs because they're still against gay marriage and abortion, they're living in the 1800s. It's just the way things are and the way things are going. I don't see how people can't actually get off their arses and do something about it.

Enola Gay’s new EP is released on 4 October via Modern Sky