John Barker may not be a name you are familiar with, but he is one of the most important men in Irish music today. As the Presenter of 98FM's Totally Irish, Barker champions Irish music, often bringing it to the mainstream media for the very first time. Most recently debuting Zombie Cops new single "You Do" on the show. Barker has also championed AIMR favourites Sacred Animals and Squarehead.
We caught up with him to discuss his take, on the Irish music scene today. His "top tips" for the future and his plans to make Irish radio, totally Irish.
Did you always want to be a radio presenter?
Well I always wanted to be involved in the media in some form, but probably more as a journalist. Then in 2004 my friend Daragh O’ Tuama and I began presenting a show called Abú on Dublin City 103.2 FM once a week and the hook was quickly lodged...
How did you come to present Totally Irish?
I had been working on the radio show Splanc on Newstalk 106-108FM every Friday night for 3 years doing sports and entertainment when the opportunity came up in January 2010.
Music is obviously an important part of your life. Where you in bands growing up?
Hmm yes I was in a band for a year back in 2000. I was the lead-singer who constantly sang off key but didn’t know any better. We made an EP that cost us a lot of money and we gave it to everybody we knew. In hindsight we shouldn’t have, it really wasn’t very good...I still play guitar and record songs on a cassette dictaphone. I learnt my lesson though and keep all the tapes in a shoe-box.
Who are your favourite bands, be it Irish or international?
This answer could be pages long...Some of my favourite Irish bands at the moment are Funeral Suits, Fight Like Apes, Villagers, O Emperor and The Cast Of Cheers.
My favourite international bands are Beirut, The National, Sufjan Stevens, Ryan Adams and Interpol.
Have you always had it in your mind to champion Irish music?
Yes, as soon as I started in radio I had an idea of doing an Irish music show that would promote up and coming bands and create a platform for their music to be heard.
The show is very detailed in relation to where bands are playing next and release dates Do you compile all this information yourself or do you have a research team behind the scenes?
I do it myself as I like to know what I’m going to be talking about as much as possible. My colleague Shane Prunty also does a lot of work on the show every week.
Do you go to many gigs looking for new bands and new music or do you rely on bands sending you demo's and links etc?
It’s probably a mixture of both. I go to a lot of gigs and have discovered the likes of Planet Parade, O Emperor, Sweet Jane and Enemies from seeing them play live. However, through cds being sent in and reading music blogs etc, I’ve discovered artists such as Jennifer Evans, The Danger Is, Sacred Animals and Our Little Secrets.
What should bands do, or not do, to give themselves the best chance of getting their song on the radio?
I guess pretty obvious stuff like making sure the recording quality of the song is good and that the song is a little bit original and catches the attention of whoever is listening to it. I think there are some Irish bands who are reluctant to take risks with their music and instead play it safe, when it might be better for them to experiment with their sound...and, I know this is a cliche, but have faith in your music, because if the song is good enough chances are that somebody will pick up on it, whether it’s a radio station, a music blog or another band tweeting their recommendation.
You present the show in both English and Irish do you enjoy a "cupla focal" outside work?
Yes I have a degree in Irish from N.U.I. Maynooth and am also an Irish & English teacher in a secondary school in Dublin.
Do you believe that an Irish band can do a Super Fury Animals and bring the mother-tongue to the mainstream. If so who?
It is weird how Welsh is perceived as being a ‘cool’ language and Irish isn’t. I guess it would be seen as being too risky to release music in Irish and I’m not sure it would work in mainstream music anyway. It’s hard enough as it is for Irish bands to get radio play! However If any one can do it I’m sure Jedward can. I don’t know how that would go down with all the gaeilgeoirs though.
You are very careful (or so it seems) to ensure the show is not Dublin-centric. Where are the best music scenes outside of Dublin?
To be honest there’s an amazing music scene all over the country at the moment. I get cds and emails from bands from nearly every county in Ireland. Outside of Dublin there’s a really good music scene in Galway (Daithí O Dronaí, Go Panda Go, The Kanyu Tree, Milan Jay, Lost Chord etc) and there’s also some amazing bands from the North (Japanese Popstars, Cashier No 9, ASIWYFA, Yes Cadets, The Lowly Knights, Paul Shevlin etc).
What Irish bands get you going at the moment?
There are loads...I really like the new stuff from Funeral Suits. Joshua from Japanese Popstars is a great song. I saw James Vincent McMorrow in The Pepper Canister Church recently and have been listening to his stuff more and more. The Sounds Of System Breakdown have a new EP out called Colour which I like. Also a new one from Delorentos called Bullet in a Gun, check them out on YouTube playing it on the streets of Madrid, nice...
Who are your tips for success for the remainder of the year and beyond?
I think Spies are going to be really big. I bought their single Barricade in Tower Records a few weeks ago and saw them at Forbidden Fruit where they played an amazing set on the Lighthouse Stage...Another young band who I really rate for the future are The Kapitals. Am also really looking forward to albums this year from The Ambience Affair, Sacred Animals, Planet Parade, Jennifer Evans, The Danger Is, Cashier No. 9 and Squarehead.
Who do you believe is the most criminally overlooked Irish artist or band of all time?
When I was growing up I could never understand how Revelino weren’t more successful. Happiness Is My Mine is an all time classic. Myself and my friends used to go to every one of their gigs and we let them know it too!
In more recent times I’m not sure how last year’s album from The Rags A National Light didn’t lead to them becoming more successful??
Why are radio stations reluctant to promote new Irish music outside the confines of shows like yours. When the quality of music is so strong?
I really don’t understand it myself and it’s the biggest complaint I hear from anybody involved within Irish music. A lot of station’s playlists are like exclusive clubs. I do honestly think it will change though. If the Irish music scene continues to grow and develop amazing bands over the next few years then I really hope that radio stations will have no choice but to include Irish artists more. In saying that DJ’s such as Cathal Funge, Dan Hegarty and Donal Dineen already do a great job promoting Irish music.
Would you like Totally Irish, to expand beyond radio ie compilations, gig promotion or even television?
Yes , there are plans for hosting Totally Irish gigs in a venue in the city centre throughout the year and this will hopefully begin in September. We did look at creating a ‘super-group’ of Irish musicians for a Christmas single last year and might try to do it this year. Releasing a compilation album would also be very interesting to do. As for television, sure why not?You can listen to Totally Irish with John Barker every Sunday, between 8-10pm on 98FM. For further information check out http://www.98fm.com/onair/shows/totally-irish/