It's a relationship that reveals a lot about their music. About two minutes into "Octagon," from the recently released EP of the same name on Rhythm Nation, an acid phrase twitches like a sprinter's muscle over rich, soupy synths. The easy musical exchange between these two parts is gripping and remarkably fluid. Like many of their tracks—particularly "Second Labour Of Hercules," from their second EP on the Irish label Major Problems—it's both banging and ambient. It's club music you could swim in.
Ward and Downing both studied sound engineering at Sound Training Centre in Dublin. Before that, Downing had dropped out midway through a four-year psychology degree, and Ward was a window glazer. They met on a course night out and quickly realised that their ambitions extended beyond recording other musicians.
"They were trying to [make us] be sound engineers, be in the studios," said Ward, "just being the guy on the desk recording or whatever, recording other bands, so you could be a freelance sound engineer. And it kinda made us realise that we just wanted to make tracks ourselves."
Ward and Downing had only played in bands before college, so making music by themselves seemed daunting. Striking up a friendship encouraged them to take their new pursuit more seriously than simply "messing around" in the college studio. Their first shows, in Dublin clubs like Button Factory and Twisted Pepper, were test labs. Between 50 and 100 people would watch Terriers play live sets of "beat-heavy" downtempo music (they weren't DJing at the time). But as they played out more they became more confident, and their music evolved in kind—mainly, it got faster.
At the same time, they committed themselves to learning more about analogue equipment: as they gradually switched from using computers to hardware, their self-belief was enhanced by the improved reliability of their new setup (syncing issues with their laptops during early gigs made them anxious and "ruined the vibe"). Sensing this renewed enthusiasm, staff at the STC often gave them keys to the place at night, and the pair would stay as late as 5 AM in the studio to explore the gear there, which included a Yamaha DX7, a Juno 60 and a Roland JX-3P.
"It's fun, it's never been work," Ward said. "It's like messing with a buddy kind of thing, just hanging out. It seems like our personalities match for us to work together. We're honest enough with each other that we'll tell each other if we think something's shit."
"I remember when we first started working together," said Downing, "and Peter was like, 'Nah, man, that shit is bad.' You know the way when sometimes you're working with other musicians, they'll be like, I dunno, you'll be worried about how you're coming across when you're trying to criticise an idea or whatever or contribute to it, but it's also just like"—he nodded his head—"'yeah, yeah!'"
Two summers gave Terriers crucial time to focus on their craft: one in Dublin in 2013, the other in Berlin the following year. They spent the first summer between a flat in Drumcondra Ward had rented with friends and an office in a glass factory in Coolmine Industrial Estate.
"I got really freaked out," Downing told me of evenings spent at Coolmine. "At night it was so scary. There were always people, like, scumbags driving around outside... And there's no curtains, so we'd always have to hang up bedsheets at night."
"It was cool though," Ward said, "it was a place where we could really have our speakers turned up full. We got a lot of work done, actually."
During that time, they made material that wound up on their 2014 debut, House No 9, a slightly rawer and heavier set of machine tracks that nonetheless carried their swollen drums and rich, cloudy synth arrangements. Later that year, at Coolmine, they did something else to advance their career—they responded to a Facebook post.
In December of 2013, Levon Vincent invited producers to apply for a 90-day apprenticeship in Berlin over the following summer, where he would provide accommodation and studio space. "Think of it as bootcamp," he wrote. "You must be completely committed to your craft. Anything else is secondary, and I'll know immediately from the first beat of your demo, so don't front." Nine months later, Vincent wrote a congratulatory note on Facebook addressed to Ward and Downing after their first EP came out, thereby revealing who he'd sponsored the previous summer. The pair had taken a punt on Vincent's offer when they spotted his Facebook post at Coolmine while making tea—naturally, they expected nothing to come of it.
Ward and Downing first met Vincent in April last year, after he'd whittled them down from a shortlist of about 50 applicants. When Vincent first called, Downing panicked—he didn't have a passport, having previously lost two, and was forced to delay the trip several times as he waited for another application to be approved. He felt like he'd won the lottery but lost the ticket. Ward, meanwhile, insisted he wouldn't have gone without him.
"I absolutely hounded the passport people," recalled Downing. "I was going in every other day, 'Is my passport ready?', 'Will it be ready?' 'Please, I need it for this... very serious work!'"
"It worked out in the end though,' said Ward, who tends to put a slightly brighter spin on these stories than Downing does. "We ended up going there. We got a taxi from the airport and then he welcomes us straight into his house. We had tea, coffee, cheesecake, and just chatted. We had a snoop through his records—ridiculous, ridiculous record collection. And that was pretty much it. It was honestly one of the strangest experiences of my life, but in a good way."
"The whole time on the way there, we were like…"
"'...This is actually really happening!'"
By both Vincent's and Terriers' accounts, the summer in Berlin was more about creating a dedicated space for making music rather than a hands-on mentorship. "What I did was, I got them a room to work in and I paid their housing rent, too,' Vincent said. "They were here for three months. I gave them a place to work uninterrupted—a proverbial 'woodshed.' My friend Mike had a newly-built studio—he works the lights at Berghain and he's an excellent human being. So, luckily, I was able to rent Mike's studio for the lads, and a flatshare with a friend, Manolo. Then, they went to work. They are very talented and were well on their way. They just needed what we all need but which is so rare—uninterrupted time to polish their craft. I was happy to provide a little time for them to bang things out."
Over time, Vincent came to seem less like a celebrity to Ward and Downing and more of a friend, and the pair fell in love with Berlin, as many musicians do. They enjoyed a rare freedom to pursue their creative instincts, unhindered by laborious hunts for flats and jobs in a strange city. Theirs was a privileged experience, for sure, but managing to treat a paid-for, three-month stay to Berlin as work—which is how they saw it—requires discipline.
Like many of their Berlin-based peers, Ward and Downing went to nightclubs often. Their partying, though, was an education as much as anything else. Reflecting on that summer, Ward said: "The whole mindframe we were in was just like, 'Oh my God, we actually have the keys to this place, we can make music whenever the fuck we want,' and we wanted to get as much done as possible. I think we did, but we also partied and stuff. Sometimes we'd go back to the studio after nights out, and those were some of the best times there. We'd be locked in there, back in the studio."
After returning home for a few months to live with their parents, Ward and Downing returned to Berlin permanently, and have settled easily into their new homes. Now that they're in the city for the long haul, they've grown to like the more mundane aspects of life there: they mention Berlin's public transport network, and being able to have "street beers"—drinking in public is banned in Dublin. "We don't have too much money at the moment," said Downing, "so we're not really going clubbing and stuff all the time. We'll go and get a few beers and go somewhere that's really nice-looking and just relax." They're also getting used to the grind of making a living as young musicians. Downing is a cleaner; Ward, formerly a bartender, is "between jobs."
When Ward and Downing discuss equipment they've been buying, their back and forth becomes more to-the-point; manufacturers and model numbers dictate a more concise conversation. They got a great deal on a Korg Poly 800 synth via eBay, but "crap is good sometimes," too. They like German synth maker MFB, and use their 522 model a lot. Ward wants a Roland RE-201, also known as a Space Echo, badly. When I ask them about making music together, though, they recognise that their greatest asset is each other.
"Sometimes you don't know if what you're doing is actually good," Ward said. "You're questioning yourself. And it's nice sometimes to have a friend—someone who can be honest with you, you know? Cause there's been loads of times where I've been literally working on something for two hours, and Ronan'll actually check in and say: 'Man, this sucks. It's actually shit.'"
"It actually is shit," Downing replied. "I'd been messing around with Logic at home all the time, when I was at home, but I could never finish anything, ever. Just working on shit with Peter: 'OK, let's get this done, let's actually do work.'"
"We always wanted the tracks finished when we do them together, and it's kinda hanging out as well."
"Friendship and music!"
Thank you to Onitsuka Tiger and Berlin Friseure for allowing us to take photos in their shops.