Deep dive with Trinity’s Cooks But We’re Chefs

Madalyn Williams sits down with Jesse Russell to talk about the band that has shaped the Trinity music scene and his college career

Cooks But We’re Chefs has been a staple of the Trinity music scene over the past few years, with the nine-piece ensemble jumping from strength to strength: they are set to play Trinity Ball for the second time later this year, and have performed at Electric Picnic, The Academy, Extinction Rebellion’s occupation, and what seems to be every society ball worth going to. As their original vocalist and trumpet player, final year Film student Jesse Russell has been there for it all. 

Anybody who has attended a Cooks gig has probably gathered that there is always a lot going on their fusion of jazz, hip hop and disco creates a bewitching display that even the dullest crowd would struggle not to dance to. Chatting with Russell is similarly eclectic, with his answers darting through time, names and band references quicker than I can follow, but eternally circling around one truth: his genuine love and admiration for music and for every single member of the group. 

As someone new to Dublin, the name meant nothing to me, but Russell explained that a curricular focus on music helped lead to a pooling of creative talent: “Bono went there”, he offered as an example, and quickly clarified that U2 is “not something [they] aspire to”.

What is often considered a gold standard of Trinity bands, Cooks began long before any of its members had even passed the Leaving Cert. Russell’s childhood friendship with Malachi Graham, the band’s electric guitarist, led to his introduction to friends at Mount Temple School in Clontarf. As someone new to Dublin, the name meant nothing to me, but Russell explained that a curricular focus on music helped lead to a pooling of creative talent: “Bono went there”, he offered as an example, and quickly clarified that U2 is “not something [they] aspire to”.

Inspired by Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Russell began playing the trumpet when he was 12, but became bored and frustrated by the classical music he was learning. When the group of friends realised the breadth of talent they collectively offered (which now includes the trumpet, electric guitar, drums, keyboard, saxophone, bass and synth) they entered the sixth year talent competition, vying for the €100 prize. They won, and had an “incredible” time doing so, but instead of their prize money were given 24 cans of Coca Cola left over from the concession stands.  “We were like, this sorta sucks” laughs Russell, but they were also not going to waste time being disappointed. They started selling the cans at school to try and turn a profit, “hijinks” in which Russell claims he was “not involved” since he’d been attending a different secondary (but which doesn’t stop him from gleefully recounting the experience). Sadly, the cokes got confiscated, and they were left with “nothing but the embers of what would become Cooks But We’re Chefs in the future”, a result which Russell admits was “probably worth more than money could buy”. 

In their 2nd year of college, they gained widespread attention and scored a place in the Trinity Ball line-up when they won Battle of the Bands, and have been going strong since.”

From there they began to play more regularly, doing gigs for neighborhood friends and family, and gaining a following through their infectious tunes and what Russell cheerfully refers to as “nepotism, basically”. When they graduated, many of the members went to Trinity, with others studying music full time. Some of the original band left when they felt like they couldn’t make the time commitment, and new members joined. In their 2nd year of college, they gained widespread attention and scored a place in the Trinity Ball line-up when they won Battle of the Bands, and have been going strong since. Russell admits that it’s “hard to piece it all together”.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to miss how much Russell values the current members, of which there are nine in total. Since they won Battle of the Bands in 2018, Siofra Nolan and Methembe Mafu have both joined as vocalists. When Nolan joined the band he told me he couldn’t get over the fact that “she’s incredible, she’s so so good…even inside, she’s just such a nice person”. Likewise, Mafu is “the most empathetic man I have ever met, he just feels so much. Siofra too actually, they just have such big hearts”. He admits that he felt somewhat uncertain when Mafu first joined, having previously been the only male vocalist of the group: “I think it’s easy to feel like that…self-conscious…where you don’t feel like you’re good enough”. But “it doesn’t take long for that to wear off with Methambe, he’s just such a good lad”. 

He jokingly adds that ‘you could probably replace someone like me’, but that ‘people like Luke and Dougie and Dan, who write a lot of the music, they are indispensable.'”  

If “God forbid someone were to leave”, Russell knows they would be almost impossible to replace. Not from a musical standpoint, he admits, because “there will always be someone who’s insane at music”, but “it wouldn’t feel the same…practice is a time when we have so much fun, and it’s a detriment as well, because we just won’t get stuff done just because we’re goofing around”. This mood translates all the way onto stage, where band members’ dancing is as infectious as their music. He jokingly adds that “you could probably replace someone like me”, but that “people like Luke and Dougie and Dan, who write a lot of the music, they are indispensable”.  

So what’s next? Russell is clear that “music is what I want to do with my life”. The band are currently “planning on writing an album” (which Russell tells me should be my “scoop”), and they dropped their four-track EP Sports Day just a few days after we spoke. At the moment they are considering “getting away” from Dublin for a while to focus on writing new stuff, and to keep things fresh: “You can only play so many live gigs before people get sick of you.” The devotion from fans is something Russell is both grateful for (“We’re just astonished at how generous they are with their time,”) and befuddled by, (“How can you listen to this song again?”).

“‘Personally, I would say my college work has suffered – I’ve been very hedonistic: VDP and the band have been at the forefront of everything.'”

Against all this success, it’s easy to forget that they are college students, too. Russell is “ready for [his] dissertation to be over”, and sees a need to “actually put [school] first in some way”, even just to demonstrate his gratitude to his parents for putting him through college. Somewhat on the contrary, he admits he hasn’t really found a balance between course-work and everything else: “Personally, I would say my college work has suffered – I’ve been very hedonistic: VDP and the band have been at the forefront of everything”. Russell served on the Vincent De Paul Committee last year and currently manages one of their kid clubs, which he says has been “the best thing I’ve done in college so far”, so it “sort of seems like a no-brainer”. But he willingly props up his band members as better examples: “Dan is probably up to his eyes, and people like Christian, he’s smashing his course at the moment”. 

As he reflects on his time in Trinity and on his future with the band, Russell is earnest about the importance of his experience: “I personally feel like I’ve squeezed every last drop of college out, I won’t have regrets in terms of what I’ve done”. He can see the difference in his playing when he looks back at scores he used to find impossible which he now glides through easily. But of course, it’s not just about him: “All of them, I’m so proud of them, they’re doing so well…It’s so great to see so many people excel in Trinity”. With what will soon be a cast of full-time members, we cannot wait to dance along to whatever they do next.

Madalyn Williams

Madalyn Williams is an Assistant News Editor for Trinity News.