We’re upstairs in Whelan’s – it’s the end of the gig, and the crowd is huddled together before the stage, clapping enthusiastically and screaming at the top of their lungs. Only it is not a band that stands before them onstage – everyone’s staring intently at the King Kong Club’s Clap-O-Meter.
It’s a concept familiar to anyone who has set foot in an arcade – a series of vertically arranged lights, which light up one after the other as the crowd gets louder – progressing from red at the bottom, then through green, and finally to a pristine white light at the very top.
This is the method used to decide the winner at every night of the King Kong Club, the Dublin battle of the bands competition that is in its eleventh season now. It has just made the move from its longtime home, the Mercantile, to Whelan’s, something which booker and photographer Ferdia Mooney says is a great progression.
“It’s Whelan’s, the home of music, one of the last venues still alive in Dublin… while the Mercantile was great and had that centrality to it, Whelan’s is Whelan’s… when young bands hear they’re playing Whelan’s they love it, they push it, everyone wins,” said Mooney.
Tonight, the energetic Nicky and The Heart Vandals have pushed the Clap-O-Meter all the way to the top, and are declared winners of the heat – they will play in a semi-final in a couple weeks’ time. The other acts of the night offer warm congratulations, despite the competition, and it’s easy to notice the community vibes in the air.
The bands are sat down at the beginning of each night, and “we force them to be friends,” laughs Mooney. “Bands come back all the time, not just to play but to hang out. They know us, they know the other bands. It’s important that it’s not just five or six bands coming in, sound checking, playing and going their separate ways, it’s a community, and that’s what we’ve got over every other live music night.”
It is not just the bands that become part of the community either. King Kong head honcho Kieron Black hosts every night. He is an eccentric host who constantly encourages the crowd to reach out to each other, link arms and hug and show their appreciation not just for the bands but for each other and the vibes they create.
Stuart Dunne, a student who has been coming to King Kong nights for two years now said that kind of audience interaction is part of the reason it’s “always worth coming out to,” and Ferdia credits it as a big part of why King Kong is still going after 10 years.
“It’s a lot more fun than other shows,” he said. “You’re not just coming out to see 3 or four bands where if they’re bad, you’re often stuck watching them – with us, it’s just three songs, it’s enough, you’re intrigued, you want more – if you don’t like them, it’s just three songs – nothing gets stagnant, and you’ve got the Clap-O-Meter at the end of the night.”
The presence of the Clap-O-Meter can make the bands raise their game too, Dunne said. “Some of the best bands coming out have that bit of a vulnerability to them, they dropped out of school or college and are trying to make it work – and you see that kind of thing here where bands are fighting for something at the end of the night.”
Of course, it doesn’t just end on the night, as Black explained that the bands who make it to the semi-final will then be competing for a slot at Sea Sessions. “It’s like Yale,” he says, emphasising how hard it is to get booked there. “Your parents have to have played there.”
Mooney said that King Kong Club is all about “nurturing and helping” bands and the prizes – festival slots, studio sessions, radio slots- all point towards that.
”It’s a platform for everybody.. as an artist (Mooney raps as Anti-One) I know that not everything is to everyone’s taste, my music isn’t to everyone’s taste, so it’s not for me to say this band are crap, they’re not playing. Obviously there is such a thing as a bad band, but we don’t necessarily say no to them. We talk to them, give advice, between us all, we have a lot of experience in the music industry.”
Image Credit: Facebook.com/theKingKongClub