“The last thing we wanted to do was be just another podcast where two or three lads sit around chatting about nothing for an hour.”
Mission accomplished then for Mick McCullagh and Nathan O’Regan, hosts of the Mad Notions podcast. Far from their fear of chatting about nothing, over the past six months the two musicians have, perhaps accidentally, created something which is having a positive impact on other musicians in Northern Ireland beyond the infectious howls of laughter the two share during episodes.
Cooped up in Nathan’s home studio better known as the ‘Poditorium’ once a week, Mick and Nathan (or Nathan and Mick, depending which you ask), chat about their weekends gigging around Belfast’s bars, working on their own new music and more generally about the music scene in Northern Ireland, before tackling a Mad Notion – a conspiracy theory, unbelievable tale or rumour which Mick haphazardly researches and then presents to Nathan for comment.
“We decided just to try it out,” says Mick, gradually regaining his composure despite forgetting about the interview he’d set up and then showing up in gym gear which left little to the imagination. Relief all round that this wouldn’t be televised.
“We even considered having a third person involved, a silent producer type who could pull up facts about the stories and research things we were talking about…”
“But we quickly realised nobody is listening to us for facts or accuracy,” says Nathan, providing that familiar foil.
The duo are effortlessly funny, bouncing off each other perfectly and provoking the best of their partner in crime. So far they’ve discussed rumours around Beyoncé’s pregnancy, John Lennon’s murder whether Debbie Harry could have become a victim of serial killer Ted Bundy. It’s outlandish, unpredictable and ferociously funny.
Beneath the laughs though, Mad Notions has also become something of a therapy session, both for its hosts and its listeners. This is perhaps best heard in the episode titled “Noitíns 2” where they discuss their first hand experiences of mental health. Jumping from conversations about the logistics of owning a monkey to the pressures and pitfalls of life as a professional musician should be jarring, but Mick and Nathan open up at the right times, discussing potentially tricky subjects with admirable maturity and honesty.
“People have said that it’s therapeutic to hear us and know that they’re not on their own,” says Mick. “You can definitely be facetious and flippant, but serious at the same time.”
“It’s almost cathartic for other musicians, I think,” says Nathan. “We have a great listenership and there seems to be a really nice community growing out of it, but it does seem to mostly be other musicians and creative people. The likes of social media doesn’t help, where everything feels like a competition and you feel pressure to match other people. It can be easy to get disheartened. It’s harder than it’s ever been to release new music. Some of the messages we get are people saying it’s great to know things happening to them at gigs aren’t just happening to them. Hopefully it’s helping people.”
The “things happening at gigs” range from abusive punters in bars to the anxiety and depression experienced by musicians like them all over the country.
“Cover gigs aren’t the reason anyone gets into playing music,” says Nathan. “But we would both say playing them does a lot for your playing and performance skills. It hardens you and there are lots of examples of musicians starting off playing in pubs and going on to have success with their own music. Learning how to perform is invaluable for musicians. I’m worried though that on the other side, there’s starting to be a real lack of appreciation for what people do and because of that there’s some really talented people sitting at home and not working.”
Understandably the pair have used it to promote their own careers – Nathan recently released a single Moving Closer which was played on the podcast, while Mick has discussed plans for his album release, which includes a six part TV comedy series he produced and acted in.
“We were being mercenaries,” jokes Nathan. “We wanted to get into people’s hearts and minds.”
Without missing a beat, Mick picks up the thread, “Let’s get them with the infectious personalities first, then hit them with the sub-standard music!”
Although initially a promotional tool, the podcast is getting Mick and Nathan places their music so far hasn’t. This year’s Stendhal and Focal Festivals will feature live sessions of Mad Notions, bringing the pair outside the comfort of the Poditorium.
“Well, they wouldn’t take us for a gig…” jokes Nathan, provoking howls of laughter from Mick.
Regaining composure, Nathan explains, “I think the guys at Stendhal listen to the podcast and they approached us about doing something at this year’s festival. I think it’ll be good to be thrown into it and it’ll be great craic. We’ve had messages from people who are really excited about it, which is great.”
“We weren’t exactly hesitant about it,” says Mick, “we just thought it sounded cool but we were wondering how exactly we could do it. We still probably need to work that out. The key will be trying not to change the dynamic too much. It’s completely new territory for us to be performing without the comfort blanket of a guitar.”
Since the first episode in January 2018, Mad Notions has become a fixture of the week for many local musicians, and many people beyond Northern Ireland who have a connection here.
“I’ve been surprised at how it keeps growing,” admits Mick. “I sort of expected it to grow a bit and then just plateau, but it keeps going…” “The graphs just keep going up, Mick!” Nathan howls from the other side of the room, sending both into bellowing laughter. Like many of these moments in the podcast, it’s not entirely clear what’s so funny, but their enthusiasm, even for inside jokes, is infectious.
After a pause to breathe, Mick continues, “Last week we were seeing that people were tweeting that they had just found the podcast and were bingeing on it, which is just mental! We know it’s still fairly dense and localised, we’re not anywhere near the popularity of Blindboy or anyone like that, but it’s definitely spreading like a good ol’ virus.”
Mick and Nathan first met at a songwriter camp a few years ago and quickly struck up a friendship. Mick remembers, “I singled Nathan out as a very humorous smart-arse and decided to sit beside him.”
However, as life, work and other commitments threatened to interrupt the friendship, recording the podcast has become as much about comedy and creativity as about simply making time for a chat with a mate.
“After meeting those first few times and having great craic, it was always quite difficult to have an excuse to meet up,” says Nathan. “Now it’s a priority. There’s always going to be two and a half hours a week where we just talk and laugh, that’s the best bit really.”
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Photo by Darren McSorley