Actually Brian is Ken Sweeney with additional help from musicians Niall Austin and Andy Aldridge. I recently caught up with Mr. Sweeney and tossed a few questions his way…
Ken, where were you born and what are your fondest memories of growing up?
I grew up the youngest of four brothers in Dublin. We were always on
bikes or having adventures in the Phoenix Park which was pretty close
to where we lived.
I love the American band ‘Miracle Legion’, particularly their first
album ‘Backyard’ which captures childhood brilliantly and which echoes
my own. Happy times.
How did you first take an interest in music? Was your family musically
I think all three of my brothers had guitars but my eldest brother
David (sometimes) known as George, was quite a well known
guitarist in Dublin. He played in ‘The Maxquadband’, which Adam
Clayton of U2 was in for a while, Rocky DeVelera & The Grave Diggers
and quite a famous Irish punk/powerpop band called ‘The Vipers’ who
did John Peel sessions and toured the UK with Thin Lizzy and The
Boomtown Rats. This was about 1978/79. Years later he formed a band
called ‘Fat Lady Sings’ but left after their first single ‘Fear &
David was seven years older and taught me a lot of guitar. We used to
sing together at home, doing harmonies on Squeeze songs. I was always
amazed he could conjure up these tunes I loved on an acoustic guitar.
I was playing chords from about 15/16.
David could play great lead guitar, still can, and I wasted lot time
trying be that good when maybe I should have gotten into songwriting earlier.
Do you recall the first 45 or LP you purchased?
Andrew Gold’s ‘Never Let Her Slip Away’ when I was maybe 10 or 11. It
was the soundtrack to a holiday in Spain when I was about 11.
I bought Billy Joel’s album ‘The Stranger’ in Jack The Lad’s record
shop in the Dandelion Market in Dublin. That’s the first album I
bought. I still like it. There’s a a song from “She’s Always A Woman’
which was on pirate radio at the time, somebody covered it lately. I
really wish they hadn’t…..
By about 13 or 14 I’d gotten into The Jam, my brother’s band The
Vipers supported The Jam on Irish dates in 1978 and I remember playing
a single he had by them ‘Down In A Tube Station At Midnight’. I
became a mod soon after and met lot friends and got into The Who and
local bands like The Blades who were a big influence. By about 1982 I
was listening to Echo & the Bunnymen and then early REM.
What was the music scene like growing up in Dublin?
Brilliant. There isn’t now but at the time in Dublin (from the early
eighties till dance music took off) there was a real Indie music
scene in Dublin.
There was pirate radio with people like Dave Fanning on Big D and a
great DJ on Radio Dublin, another pirate station, called Pat James,
who played all the Dublin bands.
What was the name of your first band?
I had a good friend called Peter Devlin, another mod. We did a gig
playing with an established local soul band called ‘The Temps’.
They were a bunch older guys but wanted to attract a mod audience so
they got two mods in.
Think our first gig with The Temps was Halloween 1984 in The Ivy
Rooms. It was a Halloween night with all these weird and wonderful
Later we started our own mod band called ‘Instant Party’ (not as bad
as it sounds, it’s a Who track) with a drummer called Alan Bates,
another mod I knew. (more here :
I say mod but we played a lot Moondogs covers (because Peter Devlin was
from their Newry and liked lot those bands) and new wave stuff. The
Starjets, The Undertones. Being a mod band there was an audience for
us in Dublin in places like the CIE Hall in Marlboro Street.
We supported lot visiting bands as well, and did a gig in Dublin
supporting The Blades. Some mods in Donegal booked us for a gig
supporting Cactus World News in Letterkenny.
Instant Party are fondly remembered. We weren’t very good players but
there was a great energy. We also produced a demo (has a sports car on
cover) which we sold mail order and which continues to turn up. It was
a three song demo on which I’d written the tracks There was one review
in a Kildare modzine which talked about my potential as a songwriter
which seems funny looking back now.
Peter Devlin, later started a band with his younger brother Colin,
called The Devlins and signed a big US deal. He’s still a friend as
is Alan Bates, who was a great singer and drummer and still plays in
The Modfathers, a mod band in Dublin.
First instrument you learned to play?
Guitar, just guitar really.
Were you classically trained or self-taught?
My brother taught me chords and then I’d buy books with guitar chords
in them of songs of the day or try and work stuff out. I learned a lot
of Blades songs which taught me a great deal about songwriting.
Who were some of your major influences musically?
Early REM , the Murmur album was a huge influence. It just sounded so
unusual, there were no guitar solos on it and the type of
guitar-playing on it was something I could do.
I was always much more into REM than The Smiths.
The Go-Betweens were another huge influence, just their feel.
The American band Miracle Legion for their warmth and nostalgia.
The Blue Nile for the sadness of their music.
I liked all these acts but I wanted to put something of my own life
and experience in Dublin into it.
I loved The Blades but wanted to do something that was more acoustic
like their b-sides ‘Animation’ and singer Paul Cleary’s solo single
‘Some People Smile’
But the biggest influence was a single I came across by The Buzzcocks
called “You Say You Don’t Love Me”.
It came out about 1979, it’s not on their Greatest Hits, even people
who like The Buzzcocks might not know it.
It was an incredibly sad record with something quite resigned about
it. I used to play it over and over.
Maybe I stored up something listening to it.
Talk about how Brian came together.
I played in Instant Party from 84-85. I played in bands with both Peter Devlin
and Alan Bates afterwards but nothing really came of it.
Sometime in 1986, my brother came home from London after leaving ‘Fat
Lady Sings’ and booked a studio in Dublin to do some solo stuff. I
was kind of helping him and persuaded the engineer to let me demo a
It was “A Million Miles’ , pretty simple but I played it to friends
who liked it.
One of the people who heard and liked this was my friend Niall Austin
who I worked with in a Dublin advertising Agency. One Good Friday ,
when everything closes in Ireland, we jammed together and I suppose
that was the start of ‘Brian’.
As far as the name goes, I think I saw it on the
cover of a magazine or something. I wanted something very plain and
lo-fi. For years after people have called me ‘Brian’ instead of Ken
but I can live with it.
There was a good friend of my brother’s called ‘Brian’ Foley , who was
in The Blades. I might have said that was something to do with it but
that was probably just chance of name dropping The Blades into
In 1989 just before I moved to London myself and Niall decided to
re-record ‘A Million Miles’ and put it out as a single. There was no
band. We did it anyway on Whitesands Records, our own label. It had a
wonderful sleeve of a road out near St Anne’s Park taken by Cathal
Dawson a very talented Hotpress Photographer.
I went off to get a job in the UK and bizarrely the single in my
absence started to get great reviews. By Christmas 1989 Hotpress Music
magazine had it as their fourth best single in their critics poll.
Elvis Costello was no 5.
That floored me.
Why the move to London in 1989?
At the time that was where you went. I was listening to Microdisney’s
album ‘Clock Comes Down The Stairs’ which was all about London. I
wanted to get a job and it was probably a good idea to get away from
Dublin and go somewhere new.
Although you have recorded with other musicians, you actually prefer going it solo. Explain.
I’ve had all sorts of very talented people in their own right to help
me, like the producer Ian Catt.
What I will say is that, I’ve spent hours working with other musicians
to get exactly what I want with musicians who in general hated the music
because I wanted them to play less.
The one man band thing happened because I just found it so exhausting
trying to persuade people to do things my way – paying drummers or session people to do exactly what I wanted. My
friends Niall Austin and Andy Aldridge who both played with Brian for
a while were the exceptions.
How did you come to be signed by Setanta?
Myself and Niall Austin were ‘Brian’ . Niall followed me over to
London and we started doing demos.
We sent one into the trade publication ‘Music Week’ who reviewed it
in their demo column.
They wrote “every discerning A&R man should be checking out this act”.
Our phone rang solidly for about a month after with A&R men from
record companies as far away as the US and Australia.
I didn’t meet any of these guys, Niall took care of that but no one signed us.
Setanta were interested around then but backed out.
I just kept at it by taking out a bank loan to put out a single.
It was supposed to be a really fast pop song called ‘Wonderful’ but I
demo’d a b-side, a throw-away track called ‘You Don’t Want A
Boyfriend’, which turned out so well I decided should be the A-side
My good friend Andy Aldridge put it out on his label Detzi.
It did really well in Ireland, again in critic’s polls but myself and
Niall weren’t really getting along and I decided I wanted to stop the
I stopped for about six months, in the meantime Niall moved back to Ireland.
Keith Cullen started playing the demos again and decided he wanted to
put out Understand as an album, basically the demos.
Getting onto Setanta was incredible for me. It was probably one of the
hippest labels in the UK at the time.
I loved bands like ‘Into Paradise’ who were on the label.
Understand did fantastically well for Setanta in the UK and in places
like France and Spain and
we got a lot of press from NME and Melody Maker, it didn’t cost them
Talk about your early album of demos and EP released in 1992.
Most of the songs I wrote for Understand were written in my first year
in London maybe missing home and people. I won’t bore you talking
about the subject matter but I suppose it must have meant a great deal at
I did The Planes EP later in 1992.
What venues have you enjoyed playing live?
The University Of London with A House in 1992 was good but the Brian
stuff was more about the moment I recorded it.
You can’t recreate that in a draughty venue.
I’m not a natural performer and often I was working with under
rehearsed pals who were doing me a favour.
Critics have compared your vocals and music somewhat to The Lightning
Seeds. What say you regarding this analogy?
Back to Brian, I had a huge problem trying write songs after The Planes EP.
Songwriters really need a change of surroundings sometimes and I was
stuck in London, in the same job paying back the back loan I took out
to pay for the second single.
It was really stupid looking back as I wasted all the interest I’d built up.
But I didn’t know any different. I just didn’t feel anything and I
scrapped a lot of material.
I suppose the fact I stopped added to the mystery …
Voluntary redundancy came up in the BBC where I was working in 1995
and I moved back to Dublin.
Almost immediately I started writing songs, stuff I really loved.
I used to stay up in a coastal village called Termonfeckin in County
Louth with some of the clearest night skies in Ireland and that’s why
there are so many references to stars and satellites on Bring Trouble.
I got back in touch with Setanta and to their credit they were interested.
Bring Trouble was done in The Cocteau Twins studio September Sound in
Richmond, London with Ian Broudie’s engineer Cenzo Townsend.
I don’t think I owned a Lightning Seeds album at the time.
I have yet to find a Lightning Seeds song with lyrics like ‘Right
I really loved songs like ‘We Close 1-2’ and many of the other songs
on ‘Bring Trouble’, which I literally spent years on, and it was quite
horrific to have some people dubbed it as the Lightning Seeds.
I don’t think it would have sounded so Lighting Seeds if I’d been
allowed to put stuff like ‘Cabaret Band’ on. (It ended up as an extra
track on Turn Your Lights On)
But there was a really stupid woman employed at Setanta at the time. I
think Keith Cullen found her in a shoe shop.
She was against the louder stuff I’d done and I gave into her. I’m
told by the people who did like Brian in Setanta, she took the
decision not to put out a second single off Bring Trouble (which would
have been ‘We Close 1-2’) and to stop promoting the album very early
That album was so radio, the first single was a BBC Radio One single
of the week, I think it would have been worth doing another single but that was it really. The woman in question went off to be an
actress shortly after …
I felt really bad for Setanta in some ways because they invested a lot
of money in the record.
But overall I’m glad to have gotten my music out because so many other
song writers don’t get that opportunity.
I think a French magazine came down on its “eighties production” which
is hilarious given how eighties production came back into vogue about
a year or so later with the Killers.
Relate your songwriting process, i.e. where does the inspiration come from?
Lyrics first, then music or vice versa?
It’s really just a feeling. Maybe I tape something on the guitar and
play over it quite simply.
Sometimes it’s a line like ‘We Close 1-2’ about an office I worked in.
Sometimes it’s a lyric that comes with a sequence of guitar chords.
Most of the time it’s autobiography.
What are your favorite songs you’ve composed?
‘Getting Meaner’ I love because I’ve never heard a song about that theme.
How you wake up one day and you don’t feel music in the same way. How
you change as a person, you no longer read books the same way.
‘Boyfriend’ is good because of that moment at the end where the strings
come in “maybe you Leaving me….”
“It Never Crossed Your Mind’ and ‘Knowing’ . ‘Time Stood Still’. The
World Ended With You’
Most of all ‘Light Years’ because it’s the best mix of all the things I
wanted to say in a song.
The theme etc
What other artists do you listen to/like?
I loved Stina Nordenstam’s album ‘Then She Closed Her Eyes”‘ The
Canadian band ‘Stars’ (they were on Setanta for a while ).
Are there any you would like to work with?
You’ve done a bit of acting as well. Tell us about Father Ted. Any other
I’m not an actor . I had some friends involved with Father Ted and I
got roped into be an extra because I was hanging around. I thought
this might get shown once but in Ireland Father Ted is on all the time. Bizarrely in one episode I was an extra playing a priest next to Brian Eno.
In between takes. We started talking about music and when I told him I was in a band, he asked ‘and what’s name your band ?
When I said Brian. I realised from the look on his face. He thought I’d name the group after him.
What is Ken Sweeney working on currently?
Setanta did want to do a third album but there were huge delays during
For a start the producer I was using, mid-way through the album got
himself a manager who hadn’t been part of the original deal so we had
to wait for gaps in his calendar to get stuff done.
During the recording I was in negotiations with Setanta over my
publishing which led to at least one occasion where I got turfed out
of the studio because I wouldn’t sign my songs away.
One person was my label, publisher and manager which can lead to
I was working on Bring Trouble from 1996 but it didn’t come out till 1999.
In the meantime my life was on hold ..
Just after Bring Trouble came out I got a break into journalism. A lot
of journalists , particularly in Ireland were Brian fans and I got a
huge amount of help from them at the start. The years I had in bands
opened all sorts of doors.
It can be incredibly interesting, one morning last year I was flying
to London to interview The Flaming Lips.
The weird thing is the Brian stuff doesn’t go away. I was watching a
documentary on BBC4 about Jeff Buckley last year and ‘Understand’ popped up
in his record collection. A Brian fan became quite a respected
director in France and used some of my music in his film ‘Primrose
iTunes and Spotify have been great too, it’s kind of liberated the
music from the old CD’s and vinyl. I get PRS statements for Brian
music and it gets played all over the place, particularly Finland for
What direction do you see yourself headed in the near future?
Probably the wrong direction. (joke) Id love to make another record ,
I really would and I often play with the idea.
I’ve got some ideas but it’s really trying to find the time, a lot of
the energy I put into music now goes into work.
But you never know.
I have been very inspired in the last year by people creating these little home videos of Brian songs on You Tube. Setanta never had any money to make videos.
That people would care enough to do this after such a long time is quite touching and giving Brian tracks like ‘Getting Meaner’ (which I’d assumed had been overlooked) a chance to be heard which they never got at the time. Watching these videos has led to be listening to my music for the first time in years.
For more information on Ken Sweeney and Brian, check out Brian’s MySpace here http://www.myspace.com/brianonemanband