“It wasn’t making me happy. It was the machine. The TV machine,” reflects Declan Feenan. Sat upstairs in the Royal Festival Hall, away from the hurtling rain of an unwontedly mild December evening, Feenan is competing to be heard over the class of school children just beginning to bellow out high-pitched Christmas carols in the foyer below. On top of this, he is nursing a cold picked up last weekend while filming a video for his latest EP, Little War, under the moniker Spy From Moscow.
Feenan’s lengthy hair and full beard intimate an inveterate heavy metal allegiance more than anything else (he hasn’t, by the way) and belie any notion that he was once part of a hybrid hip-hop and country outfit. “We called the style Clip-Hop and we only did one gig. Then The Streets came out and we were in Belfast with not much happening there and we gave up. But I did once come across an exhibition of Miles Davis’s sketches upstairs in a local furniture store, which was an incongruous find to say the least.”
Grafting out a trade, though, in TV and fringe theatre for years as a freelance writer and also producer, he eventually felt the bristles of success — four star reviews in national newspapers here, commissions from Dublin theatres there, writing a short film for Film4 — but in time his love for screens and stages started to wane. “You have an idea, they love it, it stays in development for a year, two years, and then you don’t work on anything else and you end up wasting a lot of time,” he gripes across the table. “Either make it or cut me loose.”
Then in 2011, the day after his father passed away, Feenan decided “Fuck this, I’m going to do music again. This has to happen now”, and dropped his career.
Pulling in provisional members to fill in the parts he can’t do alone, Spy From Moscow is essentially a cast of one. “I prefer playing solo. I can do a gig when I want and not have to think about anyone else,” says Feenan, although he isn’t fully satisfied with his live sound yet: “I’ve been putting off using loop pedals — every solo act seems to use them. I think I’ll get one, though, and use it tastefully.”
Is he ever tempted to oil the TV cogs again?
“I’d like to get back into writing for TV and film, definitely. Maybe I worked with the wrong people the first time around, you know? Or maybe I just couldn’t hack it at the time — it’s a tough game.”
However, theatre has never been too far away. “I still work in it a little, for Arcola Theatre in Dalston. I help produce short-play evenings every few months for a company called The Miniaturists.” Normally approaching both new and established writers to whip up a Warholian fifteen minutes’ worth of drama, Feenan himself wrote a three-man play earlier this year called In The City A Short Time Ago that was performed through The Miniaturists. “I just love the rhythm of the title,” he says. “It’s about why I left the theatre and a couple of feelings I had at the time that end up playing off each other.”
Besides plans to release an album in 2016, the future, so it seems, is quiet for Feenan. He is brooding over the concept of a “whispered musical”, one acted out in a small, dimly lit space with instruments like a violin or harmonium providing a minimal soundtrack. “I like the idea of whispering that we never quite catch. At some point I want to merge music and theatre.”
If Feenan’s pursuit of some kind of new, hushed theatre makes it onto the stage, one thing is certain: topical issues will be left untouched. “You get a lot of writers who read the Guardian and then write a play about what they’ve read. Like modern day slavery in gypsy camps or immigration,” he says, the singing downstairs having finally relented. “They might be interesting articles, but they’re news pieces, and that’s how they should stay.”
You can find out more about Feenan and Spy From Moscow here:
Cover photo by Arthur Striker