In November 2015, I visited Irish bar Ryan’s Daughter in New York City to attend the renowned storytelling series Stoops to Nuts, as I sometimes do, and was delighted by the music of indie rock duo Supersmall, whose debut album Silent Moon comes out February 2016. One half of Supersmall is Irish comedian and storyteller Colin Dempsey, who, in addition to delighting us with his tunes, told–for the first time on stage–the story of owning a car from hell that resulted in a broken hand and, in a round about way, broken ribs. After the demon vehicle kept him away from the steering wheel for ten years, Dempsey now drives in his home of New York City, which, he says, is like driving in Mad Max but with drivers who are more reckless.
Exclusive Q&A with Colin Dempsey
Anglonerd: Which came first, music or storytelling?
Dempsey: Music has always been my main focus. I’ve been playing guitar since I was twelve and performing my own songs since I was eighteen anywhere they’d let me. My two main loves have always been music and comedy (although, strangely not together), so when I was in my 20s, on a hiatus from music, I decided to try standup and pursued it pretty intensely for over five years—a friend and I even ran a weekly comedy show at The Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden in Astoria, Queens for two of those years. But it wasn’t long before influences such as Stewart Lee, Daniel Kitson, Dylan Moran and Billy Connolly started to show: my sets had less punch lines and my time on stage started becoming a single continuous narrative. Even though my standup act became more hit and miss, I became strangely proud of being a comedian with no jokes. Returning to the city from a road gig in New Jersey the headliner informed me that I wasn’t a standup but in fact a storyteller.
Unlike actual storytelling, when I write for music it’s very indirect. I’ve always considered what Supersmall does as a form of storytelling but through a series of disjointed imagery. Storytelling (as performance) for me is more direct, like a natural conversation with the audience. I try to keep it as simple as possible. The only way they intersect is that I am more comfortable talking about the songs and the stories behind them now when onstage. The music helps the storytelling in the editing. You have a fixed amount of time to say what you have to say and then get out. That’s pretty much what a song is.
What is the difference between performing in Ireland versus performing in the U.S.?
Irish audiences are not too receptive to anything that may appear forcefully structured or overly rehearsed. They expect to connect with you immediately, like you’re one of them, just having a conversation. If you work from a tight script you’ll have a hard time convincing the audience you’re worth listening to. In the U.S. there is more emphases on editing and streamlining the story to be more efficient. Irish people are not known for making a long story short—sometimes tangents become part of the act itself. I don’t think one way is better than the other. Performing in the U.S. has helped me reign in my flights of fancy and drifting from the subject somewhat. But really, these are minor things. If a story is good and the performer enjoys telling it while getting it across, that’s all that matters.
In addition to Supersmall, Colin also plays in the American neuroscience rock band The Amygdaloids. (Music about science, you guys. Is there anything that’s a better fit for Anglonerd magazine?) Colin and Amygdaloids frontman Joe LeDoux also perform as a duo called So We Are, which plays acoustic versions of Amygdaloids songs and other songs to do with neuroscience. Colin admits he’s the only person in the bands not in the field of science, but nerdy as I am, I had to ask him about science anyway.
What is your favorite science fact, theory, or idea that makes you excited by science?
Performing, travelling with and seeing members of the band lecture about their work has resulted in me absorbing a lot of random scientific information over time.
I find some of the science regarding memory fascinating. Learning that when you remember an event you are not remembering the actual event, but a memory of it was very interesting. That a memory is a copy of a copy of a copy. Also, when you retrieve a memory it becomes very unstable and that new information can be incorporated into the memory at that point. This can mean that a witness to a crime may change their story upon what they absorbed from the papers and television in the lead up to the trial. Emotional memories are the most vivid yet least reliable.
Another interesting experience was Daniela (Supersmall & The Amygdaloids drummer) using me as a subject in an olfactory experiment she was running based on memory retrieval using the sense of smell. I spent 45 minutes in an MRI machine one morning performing various tasks to see how my brain would react. I ended up with some impressive images of my brain, which to be honest kind of grossed me out a little at first. Have you ever seen a picture of your own brain? Trust me, it’s weird. To think that everything you are, all that you know and have experienced is all wrapped up in that tiny little meat noodle.
What are your all-time favorite British TV shows?
The Day Today, Brasseye, and anything by Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer make me laugh out loud no matter how many times I repeatedly watch them. Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle is chicken soup for the soul in my opinion, hands down the smartest comedy on television in a long time. I was lucky to see Stewart perform at The Shepard’s Bush Empire a few years back.
My wife is a big fan of BBC mysteries and we’ve spent a lot of time watching Inspector Morse (and all spin-offs). In fact, while in London, we took a bus out to Oxford just to drink in the Turf Tavern and other Morse locales. Miss Fisher, Foyle’s War, Death In Paradise, Wallander, Vera, and Prime Suspect to name a few others. At this point, I’m pretty sure we could easily solve an actual murder in less than an hour.
Two shows I was unhealthily obsessed with as a child that although not English in origin, were shown exclusively on British TV was Ulysses 31 and Once Upon a Time…Space. Damn fine, yet very odd sci-fi animation.
Colin Dempsey’s Ultimate Recommendation List
- Neil Finn
- Nick Drake
- Elliott Smith
- Aimee Mann
- Neko Case
- Thom Yorke
- Neutral Milk Hotel
- The Silver Seas
- Belle and Sebastian
- Billy Connolly
- Stewart Lee
- Daniel Kitson
- Dylan Moran
- Maria Bamford
- Andy Kindler
- Tim & Eric
- Neil Hamburger
Storytelling (all over the U.S.)
- The Story Collider
Venues (New York City)
- Under St. Marks
- UCB Theater
- Cornelia Street Cafe
- Sidewalk Cafe
- Rockwood Music Hall
- Go Faster Stripe
- Chortle (read Colin’s Chortle piece)
- Acorn TV
Irish Bar (New York City)
- The Kettle of Fish on Christopher Street (as a Wisconsinite, Jaime Pond approves!)