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Meet Chalk, the Belfast experimentalists making ‘trauma techno’

As they release their second EP, the trio discuss forming a band in lockdown and making music bound to their city’s history.

By Will Richards

Chalk (Picture: Aaron Cunningham)

In recent years, Dublin has got a reputation for producing some of the best new guitar bands on the planet, while 100-or-so miles further north, the dance scene in Belfast is proving unrivalled.

While acts on separate ends of this spectrum are producing exciting and boundary-pushing music, some of the most interesting music comes from those blending the two. Alongside the likes of Just Mustard and Enola Gay, Belfast’s Chalk draw from both post-punk and techno to make their intriguing, metallic racket.

Forming in the pandemic, the trio – formerly working together in a garage rock-type project – indulged their love of harsh and noisy electronic music to make debut EP Conditions, all without playing a single gig.

When they did start playing shows as we exited the pandemic, Chalk became a meatier sonic proposition, a change reflected in Conditions’ sequel EP, out now on Nice Swan Records. On it, they make rock songs imbued with the rattling synths and wobbling bass of techno. Whether it’s the pummelling sonics of ‘The Gate’, the foreboding slow burn of ‘Kevlar’ or the sweeping, widescreen synths of closer ‘Bliss’, everything is done with intensity at its core.

With their first proper tour ahead of them and new music on the horizon, the band discuss their beginnings, how playing live changed them, and how the complicated history of their hometown influences its signature sound.

What makes the Belfast electronic scene special, and how has it influenced the sound of Chalk?

Ross Cullen (vocals): If Chalk was a Dublin project, I don’t know where it would have ended up. You’re always pulling from influences around you, and we pulled from Belfast. At the start, we were trying to blend both the noise rock and industrial elements with a four-four kick, and living in Belfast – with the context of how huge the dance scene is here – was huge for us in terms of finding that starting point.

There’s something special here. We were talking to a promoter once and he was comparing Belfast and Berlin, these two cities with a lot of trauma. They both have this really pounding electronic dance scene. He called it ‘trauma techno’.

Benedict Goddard (guitar/synth): It’s a pretty apt description! It feels quite black-and-white – Dublin has guitar bands, Belfast has a dance scene – but it’s also correct.

You worked with Chris Ryan (Just Mustard, NewDad, Enola Gay) on Conditions II – what did he bring to the process?

Goddard: The guitars on the Just Mustard album was the reason we wanted to work with Chris. We were aware of the post-punk scene happening in Ireland, but it was a slow realisation. When we were writing the initial songs, we couldn’t even see any live music.

Cullen: Chris nudged us in the direction of more electronic parts. We never would have thought to include drum machine parts, but he helped us bring it all in.

Alongside your more electronic elements, what do you like about what the guitar brings to Chalk?

Goddard: The performance element is really important to us. There’s a certain physicality to the guitar that we really love. Then there are songs that I’m just playing a sampler for. As a groundwork, the guitar is the instrument I’ve been playing since I was a kid, and it lends itself to the stage. The sampler is its own other kind of beast. We want to incorporate more and more instruments as time goes on.

Does this straddling of genres extend to your live shows too? Do you like the idea of playing alongside a line-up of DJs as well as punk bands?

Cullen: At our first ever gig, we played with an ambient drum-and-bass artist and others. Curating that sort of night is important to us, so it’s not just three bands that sound the same. We had a DJ at another show alongside a band with sax and violin. We’re very open to making sure there’s a nice mix on the night. I’d love to do the late-night festival slots too though.

Chalk (Picture: Mathieu Zazzo)

Does the word ‘band’ sit comfortably with you to describe Chalk? You play guitars and drums but it’s far from a traditional band setup…

Goddard: Did we throw around the idea of calling it a ‘project’ before we ever played live?

Cullen: We did! We were sick of writing that we were a band.

Goddard: I don’t really care now. We’re not big enough to be pigeonholed yet. We’re just happy that people are listening.

What else is coming up for Chalk?

Cullen: We’ve always been the kind of band to think a year or two ahead. We’re already thinking about a longer project and an album. It’s exciting for us to have these two EPs that people have come to really connect with, and we can’t wait to go and play it live. We’re especially excited to play Belfast – whenever I think about playing these songs live, I think about Belfast.