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| 8 February 2018 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar

Heading Down Under for the band’s 40th anniversary (“give or take a year”, as their poster admits), Irish punk originals STIFF LITTLE FINGERS play 19 Feb at The Rosemount, Perth; 20 Feb at The Gov, Adelaide; 22 Feb at The Triffid, Brisbane; 23 Feb at Metro Theatre, Sydney and 24 Feb at Croxton Bandroom, Melbourne.

Mainstay Jake Burns is feeling thankful that their audience has stuck with them for so long.

“It’s definitely a milestone,” he says, warmly. “I’m not sure that it’s pride – incredulous that we’re still here, is pretty closer to the mark than pride! Yeah, I guess it’s something to be excited over. Not many bands get this length of time to do it, so it’s very flattering that the audience has stuck with us. We are still, amazingly, all still enjoying it. It’s fun.”

Beats working for a living, right?

“Yeah – when you ally that with the fact that we’re probably all completely unemployable at anything else, it’s nice that people still wanna come see us, ya know?”

Burns left his native Ireland over a decade ago for the United States, but it’s only more recently he decided to apply for citizenship. Approval has not yet been forthcoming, and he thinks he might know why the process has been taking so long.

“Well, I decided to apply for it when the last election results came in,” he explains. “Because, you know, I’ve cheerfully lived here for 10 years, quite happily. And then when I saw [the results], I was like, ‘you know, the only thing that citizenship gives me is the right to vote. I think I need the right to vote back”. That was why I went down that road.

“Yes, it’s progressing. I filled out all the forms. I haven’t actually been to be cross examined yet – I’m not really sure how that’s gonna go. The rest of the band has already sort of said to me, ‘you might want to dial it back a bit [and keep his opinions to himself about the current administration].’

Is it as troubling a political situation as in Ireland in the ‘70s?

“It’s a strange sort of hybrid,” Burns says thoughtfully. “It reminds me a lot of – and I never thought I’d hear myself say this – but it reminds me a lot of a crazier version of when Thatcher came to power in Britain. And I thought that was about as crazy as things could get!

“It’s kind of like this strange hybrid between that and the sort of civil unrest that was happening in Ireland. Because, obviously, there are violent outbursts here that have been instigated just simply because of who’s in the Whitehouse, and the stuff that they’re saying and basically getting away with…

“The huge difference, of course, is that it’s such a big country and there’s so many different facets to it, as opposed to Northern Ireland, which, while it was complicated, it was still – to use a phrase from the time – ‘it was a local unpleasantness,’ is what it was. This [in the U.S.] could have global repercussions. That makes it much scarier.”

With the state of the world right now, Punk should be more relevant than ever to protest the disturbing political environment.

“I think it would be if the bands could actually be bothered to write about it,” Burns complains. “It’s interesting you mention that, because literally almost the last question I was asked [in my previous interview] was about the current and younger bands, in particular, younger American bands and the music they’re writing. I think at the moment, it’s just a huge opportunity missed. So much of what passes for punk rock these days seems to be songs about drinking, fighting, and having sex.

“Well, okay, but is that really all you want to talk about? Have you looked at a newspaper? Have you looked at the news recently? You must have the internet, surely. You must know what’s going on.”

Rebellion ain’t what it used to be…

“Well, I’m sure it’s out there – it has to be out there somewhere! I don’t know if it’s because punk rock, such as it was, got subsumed by the entertainment industry and it’s its own little sub-genre that CBS and Polygram can cheerfully package up and sell to the kids.

“Does it depress me? Yeah, I guess it does depress me but there aren’t the firebrands around that they were when we were [young]. What you wouldn’t give for a Joe Strummer these days, ya know?”

On that note, the recent 40th anniversary of UK and Irish punk: having been a part of that, should it be viewed as an exercise in glorified nostalgia, or was it a really valid celebration?

“I think it depended on how you looked at it,” he says. “I mean, we looked at it as a celebration, just simply because – like you said – not many people make it this far. And also, we were all told, to a man, ‘you’re never gonna last. It’s a fad that will be gone in six months.’ For some people it was. I think the bands that are still here are entitled to wallow a little bit.

“But what we’ve tried to do – and hopefully it’s something we’ll be doing when we actually get down to play for you guys – is to actually include at least couple of songs that we haven’t even recorded yet in the set.

“Just because, although it is a celebration of 40 years, it also should be a celebration while looking forward as well, ya know? That’s kind of what we’re hoping to do. I say that now, but you’ve got an hour and a half onstage. Where exactly are you going to put these two new songs? We’ve got the 40th anniversary set list – we’re looking at it now and it’s like… we had to do a couple of changes in Sweden just a couple of weeks back. It was one of the nights we were playing a festival, and [we were told], ‘you’re only playing for an hour.’ We’re going… hmmm, that means we’ve got to cut sex songs out. We couldn’t think of two to drop, never mind six. So trying to put another two in, it’s like, where do you start, ya know?”

And of course, a large chunk of any crowd is there to relive the glory days: they don’t want to hear new stuff.

“That’s true as well,” Burns agrees. “We’ve always tried to keep moving forward, but in a way, if it’s a 40th anniversary thing, you kind of let them wallow a little bit – there’s nothing wrong with that. But just don’t expect us to be doing it – to wallow in it – for too much longer, ‘cos as far as I’m concerned, there’s still enough to get upset about and there’s more than enough to write about.

“Since we touched on the current incumbent of the Whitehouse, somebody said to me, ‘you can’t be stuck for new material!’ I said, ‘you’d think, wouldn’t you?’ but it’s kind of like being suddenly confronted with the biggest all you can eat buffet in the world: you don’t know where the hell to start!”

As an older man, how does 2018 Jake Burns look back on his former, teenaged self – did he do okay?

“He made a lot of mistakes that most kids make,” reflects Burns, “but in general, I think I still sleep pretty well at night, so nine times out of ten, he pretty much made the right decisions. A couple of dumb ass ones, but you wouldn’t be a kid if you didn’t. In particular, I think, the period when we split up, in the ‘80s.

“I think if I knew then what I know now – certainly in terms of the nature of the music industry – I would have said to them, ‘look, you know what guys, go away. Take six months off, don’t even see each other, and come back in six months and see how you feel.’

“Because we’d all been living in each other’s pockets since we were 18 or 19 years old. You couldn’t make a decision without checking with the other three. And also, with other people relying on us for livelihoods and stuff – it was a lot to put on us. It’s hard for every band that becomes even moderately successful – it’s a lot to put on young shoulders.

“The reason we split up is because we were all pulled in different directions. But it was also because guitar bands looked to be washed up. How many times have you heard that? That was the reason Decca turned the Beatles down, for God’s sake! Because guitar bands were finished.

“If we had any sort of idea or appreciation of musical history, we would have known that was nonsense. And all we had to do was just go away, calm down and think about things, and come back again. I think that’s probably the one big regret that I have of our career: that we didn’t take a bit of time off and just cool our jets a bit and come back again. Because I don’t think splitting up did us any good.”

We’ve heard similar thoughts in hindsight from a lot of bands from the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s – not least from Scott Gorham, who said almost the same thing exactly, word for word, about Thin Lizzy.

“Really?” Burns asks. “I know Scott. We have the same manager, so I know Scott quite well, and I knew him back in the day. Yeah, I think it’s a common sort of misconception that when you hit the first bump in the road, you’re finished. Certainly, if I were managing a young band, that would be one thing I’d at least be able to pass onto them: it’s not as dark as you think it is, chaps.”

They were different times. Bands were expected to have a new record out every year or else they’d somehow magically be abandoned by their audience, as if fandom was that fleeting and fickle.

“That’s part of the changing shape of the music industry,” sighs Burns. “’Cos again, back then, it was album- tour- album- tour- album- tour. In some instances, you were looking at two albums a year, [though] we didn’t actually do that. It’s a lot of work, but you’re still young men – you’re still effectively learning your trade.

“[Now] that records don’t sell anything like the quantities they used to, you’re now reliant more on live work. That’s also kind of freed you up when it comes to making records, because now, you can actually take the time.

“Our last studio record, I had most of it – well, I had most of AN album written five years before we recorded it. I sat there and listened to it and thought, ‘this is rubbish – I’m just doing this because we felt we need a record out. Why do we feel that? I’d rather scrap all of these and write some songs that I believe in.’

“And because I didn’t have a record company breathing down my neck, and because, like you said, you don’t need to put an album out every year, I actually had the freedom to – well I had to break the news to the band – but I had the freedom to literally scrap those songs and go back and start again. It took us another four or five years to put the record together, but I think at the end of the day we’re looking at a much, much better record, and one that we can all stand behind. Whereas, if we’d have put out the record that we did have five years earlier, it would have been, ‘yeah, there’s some good stuff on it, but there’s a lot of filler as well.’ It’s a double edged sword.”

There’s so much more we could talk about, but once again we are out of time. Jake is just as frustrated.

“Yeah, sorry,” he says generously. “These 20 minute chats are like – you get, ‘hey, hi how are ya,’ [then] you get something you can sink your teeth into and it’s, ‘okay I gotta go.’

Category: Interviews

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