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Loafing As an Act of Resistance: an Interview with Bartholomew Ryan

Image Credit: Niall Hearne

Image credit: Niall Hearne

In the cozy rooms of B.O.T.A., one of Lisbon’s many bastions of independent artists, the friendly buzzing of a crowd consisting of friends, supporters, and a lucky few who simply wandered in, diminishes to hum, to a whisper, and finally into silence, as Bartholomew Ryan, also known as Loafing Hero, takes the stage to introduce the world to Jabuti, his first solo record. All of us in the crowd are entranced by the stories he tells with a soft inflection, accompanied by a nylon string guitar, creative percussion, and backing guitar. 

This isn’t Bartholomew’s first time taking the stage, far from it. He’s traveled far and wide and has continued to create through every leg of his journey. So how did this loafing hero end up here, on his first stage since the start of the pandemic, with a brand new repertoire of songs all his own, so far from his Irish homeland? 

Image Credit: Raul R. De Godoy

Bartholomew Ryan was born amongst familiar sounds of Dublin’s 1970s, with Van Morrison and The Bee Gees reverberating through the house, along with the usual commotion of siblings and parents growing up and growing older. Despite this environment, or perhaps because of it, Bartholomew’s penchant for music wasn’t realized from a young age like many of those drawn to and later on obsessed with music. 

While Bartholomew’s two sisters and brother all made good use of the family piano, Bartholomew expressed his adolescent rebelliousness through an active avoidance of the instrument. It wasn’t until he was well into his teenage years and, like many others his age, had his life and tastes changed by Oliver Stone’s The Doors biopic. 

However, it wasn’t the dark, moody sounds of the Doors or the nearly universal draw of Jim Morrison that caught Bartholomew’s attention. It was the a song on the film’s soundtrack, The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” that spoke to him, and it enchanted him instantly. After running to his local record store and pinpointing the source of this sonic beauty, the likes of which he’d never heard before, it was time for Bartholomew to pick up the guitar and try his damnedest to emulate the powerful, deceptively simple styles of Lou Reed. From “Heroin” to “Sunday Morning” to “I’m Waiting for the Man”, Bartholomew began to lay the foundations of his musical expression.

Bartholomew was satisfied with this casual relationship with the instrument and the expression it facilitated through the rest of his school years. Songwriting wasn’t on his mind, although he already felt the urge to travel itching at his heels. On a trip to Vancouver when he was 19, Bartholomew and university friend Simon wrote a song in anticipation for the rest of their group to arrive in the airport, as a joke more than anything else. That song was called “Welcome to Vancouver,” and young Bartholomew found himself both surprised and pleased by the experience. “That gave me the confidence to write other, kind of goofy, songs, and it became more and more addictive.”

From this point onward, songs were written on occasion, alone and in collaboration, and always out of simple enjoyment of the experience. 

For Bartholomew, this was not only how his art should be created, but also how his life should be lived. From early on, Bartholomew felt a distaste for the accelerated, thoughtless consumerism and productivity for the sake of productivity that Ireland and the world were moving towards in the early 21st century. Graduating from Trinity College Dublin during the Celtic Tiger, Ireland’s period of unprecedented economic growth at the turn of the century, Bartholomew was witness to the dangerous effects of a world hurtling forward without taking the time to sit and contemplate. The arts and humanities had begun to take a backseat to business and marketing sensibilities, wars were being started under false pretenses and being blindly supported by reactionary citizenries who had neither the time nor the desire to stop and think about the actions being taken. Slow and poetic thought seemed to be quietly slipping out of humanity’s grasp; the art and principle of rest, of inactivity, of just being, was disappearing from everyday life bit by bit. Inherently an act of unproductivity, loafing was being relegated to only the “poets and shamans,” or those deemed exempt from the suffocating notion that all time must be spent either producing or consuming. Gone were the days that “nothing” was an acceptable response to “what are your plans”. Bartholomew saw loafing as “one of the last means of resistance against the age of information,” and the age of acceleration that he felt it so important to push against.

Called to (in)action by this loss of healthy idleness and inspired by the great loafers and thinkers of old, including but not limited to Kierkegaard, Whitman, and Deleuze, Bartholomew has made loafing central to his personal philosophy, although he’s the first to admit it’s a deceptively difficult philosophy to adhere to. 

“I’m still trying to be a good loafer myself,” says Bartholomew. Loafing is inherently anti-capitalist, it’s the act of sitting still and listening to the world outside and within, to think in parameters unconcerned with the productivity or the applicability of those thoughts, and thus can be a hard thing to practice. Western society has very successfully bred into many of us a sense of guilt that makes loafing feel degenerate. 

Loafing can also be a daunting task for someone whose heels are plagued by an incessant itch.

Thankfully, there are at least two schools of loafing. Professional idlers like Lisbon’s own Fernando Pessoa, who barely left the city after returning from Durban, present-day South Africa, when he was 17 — wrote in the Book of Disquiet: “Travel is for those who cannot feel.” 

Loafers of Pessoa’s brand placed what Deleuze called “nomadic thought” at the center of their lifestyle, calming the body so that the mind could wander. According to Bartholomew, nomadic thought is something that “escapes the net of capture, escapes the net of capitalism, of appropriation,” and many would argue that too much interaction with the world, a considerable amount of which is based around capitalism, would be counterproductive.  

The other brand of loafing, championed by the likes of James Joyce and Jack Kerouac, intertwined nomadic thought with physical exploration, keeping the spirit of resistance alive by never staying in one place for too long and allowing the body to wander just as much as the mind. This is the camp that Bartholomew has found himself in, and his physical meandering has birthed some of his most cherished experiences. “Traveling… is a beautiful thing. I have to admit, I always feel wonderful when I’m on the road.”

Out through the gates of Trinity College and across the Atlantic, Bartholomew spent some months in South America, namely Brazil, where he fell in love with the Portuguese language and the thoughts and sounds of that glorious continent. Fate would bring Bartholomew back to Brazil nearly 20 years later for the inspiration and genesis of Jabuti, his first solo record as Loafing Hero. In the meantime, from the Southern Hemisphere, Bartholomew made his way back to Europe, this time up north to Denmark to complete his PhD in philosophy. It was here that the first inklings of Bartholomew’s flagship artistic collective, The Loafing Heroes, began to pop up. 

During these Danish years, Bartholomew and Jamie Weber recorded a handful of demos together, and a number of these tracks made appearances on the first official releases under The Loafing Heroes. Once the passion and career of philosophy brought Bartholomew to Berlin four years later, the creative circle of the loafing heroes of folk expanded to a full lineup, including bass clarinetist and now longtime collaborator Jaime McGill (a true loafer in Bartholomew’s book) Jonathan Jarzyna, and Neil Goodwin. Bartholomew and these finally-found kindred spirits developed and recorded the first three Loafing Heroes projects with the help of producer Tadklimp, who is also largely responsible for the feeling and ambiance of Bartholomew’s most recent record, Jabuti. 

After four years in Germany, a mixture of fate and desire finally brought Bartholomew to Lisbon. Always drawn to this region of Europe, firstly by his fascination with the Portuguese language as well as the unique mixture of culture and influences, ranging from Arabic to Celtic to Brazilian, Bartholomew decided to leave the heaviness of Berlin for the warm, alluring opportunity of Lisbon. From the few contacts already established in the city, Bartholomew’s personal and creative experience quickly butterflied out into a vibrant and fulfilling community of friends, collaborators, and sources of inspiration. The first night of Lisbon brought Bartholomew and Portuguese novelist João Tordo together through longtime mutual friend Enrique Pinto Coelho, and a shared desire for creation led to many successful jam sessions that evolved into a new iteration of the Loafing Heroes. Along with other Lisbon friends Judith Retzlik, Giulia Gallina, Nuno Morão, João Abreu, and the ever-present Jaime McGill, The Loafing Heroes began to take on new forms and tackle new areas of the musical medium. 

“Lisbon always felt like home. Berlin didn’t feel like that. It was fantastic, but I always knew I’d be moving on,” remarked Bartholomew. While settling into life in Lisbon, appreciating the slowness of the city and the warmth of the weather and the people, similarities between Lisbon and Bartholomew’s hometown of Dublin began to reveal themselves. The two port cities are of similar sizes, with similar backgrounds in Celtic and Catholic culture, with a happy mixture of provincial and metropolitan qualities. 

These familiar sights and feelings brought Bartholomew into a period of recollection and reconnection with his Irish roots. Finding a home in Lisbon reminded him of his home in Dublin, and the effects of these recollections can be heard throughout Crossing the Threshold, the first Loafing Heroes record written and released in Lisbon. Maritime elements are scattered throughout, a reflection of the sea between Lisbon and Dublin and the qualities they share as major seaside cities. A song about Roger Casement and another about the legendary Book of Kells are further indicators of this era of reconnection. Establishing this home away from home, Bartholomew found himself in what he describes as a “joyful exile.”

It’s been 10 years now since Bartholomew began calling Lisbon home, and The Loafing Heroes have released two more records during that time. Just before COVID-19 changed the world, Bartholomew took a journey through the heart of Brazil, following the story of his cousin Patrick Fitzgerald. Cousin Patrick, originally from Kerry, Ireland, lived as a Redemptorist priest in the town of Iguatu in northeastern Brazil and had his life cut short when he drowned in the Jaguaribe river. 

Before heading for Iguatu, Bartholomew spent two weeks in a Buddhist monastery tucked away in the rainforest. During his stay, he experienced the near-spontaneous birth of a brand new collection of songs, largely inspired by the story of Cousin Patrick and the grand country of Brazil that has fascinated him for so long. 

Bartholomew brought these songs, at first nothing more than recordings on his phone, back to Lisbon, and began piecing the album together with the help of long-time friend and collaborator Tadklimp over the course of 2020. Creating together remotely through lockdowns and a solitary summer, Bartholomew in Lisbon and Tadklimp in Berlin, the team developed Jabuti into a sprawling journey of a record, traversing time, space, and memory, tied together by the ever-present sounds of the Brazilian rainforest, preserved on the album from the original monastery recordings. 

Now, just in time for spring, Jabuti has been released with the help of A Garden Collective and is available for purchase on Bandcamp and select record stores. Catch a showcase of the record in its entirety Thursday, March 31, at Zé Dos Bois, supported by Shaka’s Lo-Fi ExperienceRead more about the show and grab your tickets here (Atlas may receive a small commission from the concert ticket sales through this link).

Related: Let’s Have A Word #6: The Loafing Heroes

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