Christmas, Jesus, and modern visions of hell: we chat with Rhyece O’Neill

Christmas Day was a little different this year. Normally, our ears would be filled with sounds from the likes of Bublé, Carey, Stewart… but this year we were all treated to something a little different. All courtesy of Rhyece O’Neill & The Narodniks.

With the release of their latest single Jesus In Hell (the first from their upcoming album Two Crying Clowns), the band probably ruined your mum’s Christmas lunch, but they made ours. The track is twisted and demented, and we haven’t stopped listening to it since its release. So we caught up with Rhyece O’Neill himself to chat about the track, the significance of Christmas, and modern visions of hell.

Fresh off the release of his twisted latest single Jesus In Hell, we caught up with Rhyece O’Neill to chat about Christmas, Jesus, and modern visions of hell.

HAPPY: Hey, how’s it going? What are you up to at the moment?

RHYECE: Hey Bill, I’m good thanks. I’m on Jimmy’s (Narodniks bass player) couch in Collingwood undertaking the rather tedious process of burning CD’s to take to radio. In between burns, I’m reading Jimmy’s copy of Harold Eggers’ memoir of his time as Townes Van Zandt’s road manager. I’m at the bit where he has painted himself in the war colours of a Sioux Indian warrior and chained himself to a tree with a shotgun in one hand and a bottle of Jack Daniels in the other. Illuminating stuff. Jimmy is off to steal some breakfast from Coles and the agreement is that I will cook. Sounds like a fair deal to me.

HAPPY: Jesus In Hell is pretty demented. What made you want to premiere the track on Christmas Day?

RHYECE: Christmas is about giving Bill. Christmas is a pretty demented time of the year on a number of levels. May as well release a demented blues song for the occasion.

HAPPY: You pretty much made up all the lyrics on the spot, right? Listening back to the song afterwards, were you at all surprised with what came out?

RHYECE: I don’t think we had a lot of time to really stop and think at all in that session. We recorded about 12 songs in two days. The other two days we engaged in a feast of gluttony and pure debauch with Milan the engineer. Sono Records is a musicians paradise. It’s a state of the art studio with one of the best rooms I have ever heard. It has a bar and a restaurant and it’s in the countryside about 45 minutes south of Prague. Limp Bizkit recorded there should I say any more? After we mixed it I was not really surprised at all, to be honest. As a songwriter, I had at my disposal some of the finest musicians one could hope for. Sonically it was easy. The lyrics just appeared.

HAPPY: What was your band’s response to the end product?

RHYECE: I know the band are very proud of the performance. Milan also. Milan is as rock n roll as they come. But it’s not often that he gets to work with rock n roll bands. He plays drums with Dirtmusic – one of our influences. But we had no idea of this until he said that we reminded him of his band. When we found out that his band was Dirtmusic we were pretty chuffed, to say the least.

I know that Liam who plays drums, guitar & harmonium on the track was excited to have free reign and test out his Jazz roots. Similar with David Cadoret on double bass. They are both very talented Jazz musicians so I think it was nice for them to have the opportunity to improvise to a point. Though it should be noted that the song is not a pure improvisation. I had a fair idea of what was going to happen musically, I simply led the charge and off we went into the dark.

HAPPY: Where did the concept for the song come from?

RHYECE: I demoed it last year in my studio in Melbourne (which was subsequently robbed while I was on tour). I was probably listening to a lot of Fred Mcdowell, Junior Kimbrough & Swans. I was sent to a Catholic school but was never baptised so I was prevented from receiving the body of Christ. As a result, I have a fear of missing out. But I get a lot of ideas from the scriptures. It really is quite repugnant and insipid a lot of it, while some of the Bible is utterly beautiful. Reading it can help me with the production of songs. A few years back I became obsessed with a poem by an Irish monk written in the 12th century. It’s a pre-Dante vision of Hell called The Visio Tnugdali or The Vision of Tundale. My songwriting ever since has been primarily concerned with the notion of Heaven and Hell. This third album of which Jesus in Hell is the first single forms the final instalment of a Triptych. Übermensch Blues being the first instalment, Death of a Gringo the second, and this last one Two Crying Clowns is the third. Like the Hieronymous Borch painting The Garden of Earthly Delights I wanted to create a sonic triptych that was a modern-day vision of hell. Bukowski described love as a dog from hell. These three albums deal primarily with love, heaven and hell. Christmas, religion and consumerism are everywhere we look and it’s kind of overwhelming. It’s a modern hell for me. I suppose I wanted to express that somehow through words using a kind of vicious industrial blues sound. The Blues is a perfect medium for this kind of thing.

HAPPY: How are you feeling about the track now that it’s been out for a little while?

RHYECE: I’m glad it’s out. I’m looking forward to performing it live. I’m very proud of what we did with the production. Milan really is an outstanding engineer.

HAPPY: The track’s full of so many great one-liners. Do you have any favourite lyrics?

RHYECE: “Jesus I found you, on a bridge in Prague town” I’m obviously referring to Charles Bridge here. I really love that place. I would go there late at night when while the tourists were safe in bed when there were only beggars and the odd couple pashing by the river. I’d buy a six pack and distribute the beer to the beggars. It’s thirsty work kneeling on the cobblestones for hours on end they must have shocking lower back pain I would imagine. My favourite statue on the Bridge is the Crucifix. Mary is pining for Jesus directly opposite on the other side of the bridge. It’s quite a remarkable place. I’m amazed it survived WW2 and Stalinism.

HAPPY: What’s next for Rhyece O’Neill & The Narodniks? When can we expect more music?

RHYECE: Our new album is complete. Liam Wilkerson and I mixed it in two days with Milan at the end of our tour back in the Czech Republic. It will come out in a few months. We will go into the studio at the end of the month and record a new one. This will be a very stripped-back country affair. No more Hell just a collection of lonely love songs. I have about 15 new songs and we have been working on a cover of a Calvin Russel song. One of our favourite Texas songwriters. He ran with Townes Van Zandt, Steve Young and that crowd. I kept seeing his name on old posters in places we played in France. I felt his presence while we were over there as he played some of the places we played. He really should have a wider audience. Plans are afoot to return to Europe in June/July and we are working on an Australian tour before we leave. The band is firing on all cylinders, we have been rehearsing the new songs weekly since we returned in October. It’s a very inspiring and creative time for us I think.

HAPPY: Cheers for the chat!

RHYECE: My pleasure Bill. Take care and I’ll catch you in Sydney for a beer soon. Respect.

Catch Rhyece O’Neill & The Narodniks live at the Yarra Hotel, Abbotsford on January 24th with Foggy Notion and James McCann. Listen to Jesus In Hell above.