In our Westernised city cultures, we become accustomed to recognising success in things we are learning by getting A-grades; scoring marks out of fives and bests of threes; hitting signifiers that congratulate us, and tell us that we are heading in the right direction. What are your signifiers when the thing you are good at is something you’re teaching yourself? Something you fell upon because a feeling inside you told you that you had to; something you became accidentally good at? When do you know that you’re getting better?
The video for Kojaque’s ‘Bubby’s Cream’ sees the artist himself hanging out a washing: pink bedsheet, pink t-shirt, pink pants, pink sock, red sock. The sock is the culprit, the villain in the piece that’s turned the pristine white bed-sheets a soft(boy) shade of pink.
Film-maker Sam McGrath, the brains behind the sock, is a bit like that red accident in amongst the white wash. He’s the glitch in the system, with the result being a creative output that’s softened out the edges and saturated the colours. It might have initially given your ma a heart-attack when she opened the barrel door, but after becoming acquainted, she’s sort of gotten used to it.
“I did BESS [Business, Economics, and Social Science – the kind of degree for an accountant, or Taoiseach] in Trinity for four years. I fucking hated it. I just absolutely despised it. I did like maths, applied maths, physics, accounting, economics in my leaving cert, and I always loved film and it was always secretly my passion, but I was kind of scared of that. At the end of the four years I was so depressed and down. I thought that if I keep going down that path, I genuinely won’t survive. I can’t.”
Amazingly, McGrath only started his film-making in earnest a year and a half ago. Since then, he has churned out banging videos illustrating banging tunes – Kojaque’s most recent ‘Flu Shot’, ‘White Noise’ and ‘Bubby’s Cream’, Luka Palm and Kojaque’s ‘Date Night’, Le Galaxie’s ‘Women in Love’ and Soulé’s ‘Don’t Hold Your Breath’ among others. The works are rooted in Dublin city; from late night car parks to beachy strands, cinemas to out-of-hours Pitt Bros stops. The colours and accents are as vibrant as the cha-cha dancers in ‘Flue Shot’; the cinematography is clean and clear and the concepts are wild and familiar at the same time. You’d see these videos acted out on Dame Street in the early hours of Saturday night, and it’s the feat of capturing that on film (usually conceived in London) that Sam has managed to achieve.
“It’s really weird, I never would have felt my “Irishness” until I moved to London. When I’m writing stuff or creating in any way, the Irishness does kind of come through. All the characters are Irish, and they all speak as if they’re Irish. I never would have thought that – stuff always just comes out of me as Irish. It’s strange. I think I probably didn’t know because I was living in Dublin the whole time.”
When I suggested to McGrath that there was a really big move towards visual culture in Dublin, what with things like the Grey Area Project, and he was ashamed to admit he had hardly noticed it. Not from it being simply unremarkable, but because he was already so immersed in a visual world of his own.
“I’ve gone to the cinema once a week if not twice a week since the age of 10. So yeah, I haven’t really noticed any changes. I’m not quite sure what to say. It is that thing where you grow up with something it’s hard to see it for what it is.
“I definitely prefer to work in Dublin, I think. The culture in Dublin is so nice, you know? London is really, really great, some of the most talented people I’ve met I’ve met there. It’s an odd one – London is set up for the professional side of things much better. It has the architecture, the infrastructure. In that regard it’s better than Dublin. But in Dublin, there is a real ethos for making shit for the sake of just making shit. People just go out and do it. One thing I’ve found is with location. Over in London, everything is sussed out – it’s like you can film here, but it’ll cost you five grand a day. But you go to Dublin, everyone is so keen to help out – they’ll give you a free lunch as well. For ‘Date Night’, everything was a favour. In London, it would have cost 20 grand.”
Relying on others may be a characteristic key to the familial feel of the Soft Boy output, but there are also characteristics unique to Sam’s own work: a strong move towards using saturated colours, visual signifiers of pop youth culture, smooth shots that build and move to show so much within a sequence. I asked Sam how he finds the ideas – or, I should call them, the concepts – for his various different videos.
“The only thing always going into projects is ‘would I enjoy watching this?’, it’s the only driving factor. I don’t like to analyse my own work because it makes it weird when you do that, but for me it’s like is this interesting? Would I like to watch it? Cool. Then do it.
“It really depends on the project,” he tells me. “My work for a music video – I get sent the song and I’ll listen to it about 400 times, genuinely. I’ll sit in the bath and put it on loop over and over and over again. And I’d just see how it makes me feel, what kind of colours and stuff like that.
“If I’m co-directing then it’s usually just the two of us locked in a room and we fire ideas back at each other. That’s super, super fun. I really do prefer working that way, absolutely. Particularly with someone like Kevin (Kojaque) who is so crazy talented. It’s way more fun to be excited when there’s someone in the room with you, you know? It’s still a lot of fun making stuff by yourself, but being able to share something like that is amazing. You have someone to bounce off of the whole time. And in the nerve-wracking release phase, there is someone to be like, ‘Well, I love it, you love it, and that’s all that matters’, you know? Whereas if it’s just you you can be like, ‘well I love it, but maybe I’m wrong?’.
“There’s a real security in company. It’s such a healthier attitude. If you get that towards your solo stuff, amazing. It’s just a bit harder.”
This sense of self-doubting certainly never held McGrath back when he first moved into making films, but don’t mistake that as it being an easy transition.
“I graduated with BESS, did the full four years,” he explains. “Trinity was cool, obviously, but I just wasn’t doing what I liked doing. I was like, give the film thing a go. Try it out. I started doing it, and I just fucking loved it. It was instant, it was fucking amazing. I was so, so bad at first, it was absolutely terrible. But I just felt good doing it. That was kind of how I knew I was on the right path – it was something I was willing to work harder at than I ever knew possible.”
And how did he start off?
“It was just sketch ideas that me and my friend would make. We’d do it in a weekend, and we’d think it was funny. We’d do loads of small things like that. We tried to make a short film, it was terrible, one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. Everyone said it was awful, but I was glad that I did it. You learn, completely. Every single thing you do, you learn from it.”
And there are other experiences Sam had that he learned from, not all film or BESS related. Testament to someone knowing himself, Sam was so unacquainted with what he truly wanted that he hit real lows. You have to hit the bottom before you can see the top, as he knows overly well. For Sam, he had to see how bad it could be before he was able to say what it was that he truly wanted – and that’s when things started to change for him.
“I think it was all based on how awful things were for me. I was really a complete alcoholic and struggling with drugs and I reached rock bottom. It was really hard, and I was so low in a horrible place. I was willing to try anything and I just went for it, I wanted to try. It was instant. Something just clicked.
“I hadn’t gotten a job yet, I literally just finished my summer exams and I hated it. I pushed off, all the applications for the big five accountancy films, and I kept kicking it down the road. I found it so hard to write those cover letters because I just thought, you are just lying, you are just completely lying. That summer I just started making things and then I didn’t want to stop.
“Doing BESS was me holding myself back. It’s so scary to put yourself out there. Saying you want to make films is the kind of thing that you only realise when you say it, and that’s when you realise in that moment that people will back you. You’re terrified to admit what you want because you’re scared that you won’t get it, but it was Kevin [Kojaque] who taught me just to embrace the fear of that. It’s going out there, not being scared to be scared.”
Sam is so complimentary of everyone who he works with, to the point where he almost downplays his own role – between championing Kevin Smith and Ellen Kirk, Soft Boy Record’s visual mastermind – you would be almost mistaken into thinking that Sam simply stands behind the shoulders saying ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘do what you like’. But to think that is to be mistaken, for the concepts arrive, and it’s Sam who breathes life into them on film. His ultimate dream is to make ‘feature narrative films’, but he hates that I call it that and would rather simply say ‘movies’. Just like when I ask about the symbolism behind different features like the fish or the sock, or colours like red and pink, and he tells me that he doesn’t get bogged down in all that stuff, those “details”.
He undersells himself, in a way, and it makes him only more endearing because the work begins to speak for itself in its own language. It’s staggeringly professional, and you get the sense that it’s borne from someone who really just relished making it. He is the red sock in the white wash, quietly manipulating the way that we see the world around us. And we are all the luckier for it.