The RAW-Gelände is usually a Valhalla for ragtag, DIY punk aficionados – a graffitied, rundown staple of Friedrichshain nightlife on Revaler Straße, where excitable young tourists and leather jacket wearing punks congregate for long nights of hedonism. But this is Thursday 12th March, and Europe is in the midst of putting public life on hold to tackle Covid-19, and the closing of Berlin clubs and bars is an inevitability. As a result the music venue Urban Spree is ghoulishly quiet. The former locomotive sheds of the RAW-Gelände are eerie in the absence of the usual throngs of people. Even the drug-pushing sentries seem denuded in numbers, and half-hearted in their entreaties to the small pockets of party-goers to buy their illicit wares.
Artfully-executed grunge pop
Everything is about to close down. But before it does, there‘ll be one more blast of “bubble gum grunge” energy, courtesy of Dublin-based noise pop sextet Thumper, who pound through an intoxicatingly fun set of music that manages to distract the crowd from uncertainties outside. Their music fuses the indie rock riffs of bands like Wavves and Parquet Courts with the scuzzy, fuzz-pedaled guitar sound of Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth – a coalescence of influences that seems purpose-built to wow packed audiences in venues like Urban Spree. In normal circumstances there would surely be a sweaty crowd moshing together. But tonight there is a smattering of people in attendance, understandably careful to maintain their own space and avoid physical contact, but treated nevertheless to a course in artfully-executed grunge pop.
Having cultivated a dedicated following back home in Ireland, Thumper played sold out shows in London earlier in the tour, but crowd sizes in mainland Europe have differed. “We played to a full room in Brussels the other week“ says frontman Oisin Leahy Furlong to us after the show. “And then to six people in Cologne yesterday“. Inconsistencies in audience numbers don‘t seem to visibly sap the energy of the band, who grin throughout the set, although offstage they tell us about the physical toil of heavy touring. “I‘ve already needed my neck massaged twice“ says bassist Dav, when we tell him about the cricks to our necks caused by headbanging for the last hour.
With music this propulsive and catchy, it’s very difficult not to jump animatedly in appreciation. Starting as a one-man-band, their lineup has grown over the last few years to encompass a three-pronged guitar assault spearheaded by Oisin, bass, and two drummers. An augmented rhythm section ensures a relentless, metronomic beat that serves as perfect scaffolding for feral, fuzz guitar riffing. The band open their set tonight with new single Ad Nauseam to a crowd initially reluctant to approach the stage. But thanks to the bantering efforts of Oisin and the rigorous, relentless drive of the band, by the time we get to seven minute euphoric set closer Down, the crowd has given itself up to the wall of sound, converted to the raucous display of euphoric energy in front of them.
There are a surfeit of gloom-laden, introspective artists eager to document the horrors of the world outside, and ‘fun’ doesn‘t appear to be in the DNA of many bands right now. So the sight of this hirsute troupe of grunge rock lovers thrashing their guitars and pounding their drums so gleefully offers a welcome respite from a world turning upside down. But that’s not to say that the band members are necessarily carefree party animals offstage. “This is just one side of me” Oisin tells us while chomping on an apple after the show, when we remark on his theatrical stage presence, and predilection for running amongst the crowd. The other side is introspective and thoughtful. The band listen to Fionn Regan and Leonard Cohen on the tour bus, rather than The Stooges or The Melvins. Oisin‘s solo project, Anamoe Drive, displays gorgeous dream pop sensibilities redolent of Wild Nothing. He tells us how much he admires Leonard Cohen‘s ability to say so much in so few words, and the gleefully scuzzy guitar sound of Thumper disguises the agonised, arresting imagery of his own lyrics. “When I’m in my room milk curdles in the sun. When I’m in my room bring a magnet to the haystack. When I’m in my room cat eyes glare through the smoke. When I’m in my room alone” sings Oisin in In My Room as a plea for camaraderie in an anthem against solitude.
Time for reflection
And indeed Oisin exudes a natural gratitude and pride for being in a band of like-minded musicians that has allowed Thumper to tour Europe and gradually expand their fan base, spurred on by increasing radio coverage by the likes of Steve Lamacq and Huw Stephens, culminating in the release of last year’s excellent Out Of Body Auto-Message EP produced by Girl Band’s Daniel Fox. The band’s inexorable ascent to mainstream status might seem a foregone conclusion, but Covid-19 has clouded immediate plans in uncertainty. Before starting the show in Berlin, their gigs in Karlsruhe and Paris had been cancelled. So what does the future hold for the band now that their European tour has been curtailed? “We’re taking every day as it comes. At the end of the day we’re all in the same boat as other musicians” says Oisin. Their debut album is more or less under wraps, and he tells us there’ll be plenty of time to write album number two now. “I thought I’d be in Europe all month, so I had sub-let my apartment. I might not have anywhere to stay in Dublin when I come back now” he says half-jokingly.
Thumper are indeed just one of thousands of talented young bands whose ability to make a living by gigging has been cut short by the virus. We can only hope for their, and indeed all our sakes, that they have the conditions to return sooner rather than later. As we leave them to enjoy the after party of what will turn out to be the unexpected last night of the tour, we return home thankful for the exhilarating jolt of grunge rock energy they’ve given us. Because if there‘s anything that will see us through the necessary cultural shutdown in Europe, it’s the knowledge that there’s a world beyond our four walls, and that there are likeminded lovers of jubilant, scuzzy grunge rock waiting to be partied with.