Chattanooga Times Free Press
August 12, 2010
FYI Weekend | Q & A with Larry Kirwan
scroll left
scroll right
Thursday, August 12, 2010

Q&A with Larry Kirwan

By: Casey Phillips

Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Philliips spoke with Larry Kirwan, founder of the New York-based Irish rock band Black 47, about his thoughts on the last 20 years, The Beatles and why he avoided listening to Shane MacGowan.

CP: Black 47 has been around for 20 years, as of 2010. Does that blow your mind that it's been that long?

LK: Definitely. (Laughs.) I mean, I couldn't believe it, really, because we basically formed with the idea of fulfilling some dates. It just kept getting bigger over those years until there was no turning back. You hit different milestones. You don't really think about it, and then all of a sudden, it's been 20 years.

I guess if you weren't doing new things all the time, it might seem a lot longer and more onerous, but there's never been a period where it's lagged. There was always a next album to do or a next tour to do, whatever.

We're always a live band, too.

CP: I definitely get that impression from watching videos of you online.

LK: Yeah, it was always about the experience of playing. Obviously, having done so many original songs over the years, we're into that side of it, too, but the playing was always a lot more important - the moment of playing was a lot more important - than the actual recording to us.

CP: Is it difficult, as a live band, to go in the studio and try and capture that verve on a recording?

LK: No, apart from the visceral whiskey on stage - (laughs) - which you're not going to do in the studio. Usually, the way we do it is that we don't rehearse, or not more than a little.

What happens is I'll bring a song in to the band with a very rough arrangement, and during a soundcheck or whatever, we try it. The whole idea is to do it instantly that night, and to get from A to Z without falling on your face. Amazing, if you do that with a song live on stage once, it jumps at least 50 percent in its allure and the tightness and knowing what else you have to do with it. Then, within two or three plays, you're kind of there with it.

When we're going to record, there will be this frenetic 3-6 month period beforehand when we're working out how to cut 15 songs down to 12 songs. There are all these songs floating around, so when you go into the studio, they're very fresh but you've played them on stage, so you know the ends and outs of them.

I've always thought that good songs are like footballs: you can kick them any which way, but they'll always come back into a proper shape. There is no filler on a Black 47 album. We know the songs because of working them out on stage in front of an audience.

CP: Are you planning to play anything new when you get to Chattanooga?

LK: Yeah, we have a new album, so we'll do four or five songs out of it. The way it is, we have so many albums now that only the most devout have everything. A person might have one or two, and people are already e-mailing to say they're driving 300-400 miles and would we please play such and so. You think, “My god, 300 or 400 miles? I hope I don't forget to play that one.” We try and cover a spectrum of the music so if a person has just one album, they'll probably hear something from that album.

CP: You and Chris Byrne in 1990. Under what circumstances?

LK: That I do remember. (Laughs.) Chris left about 10 years ago, but I met him in a bar one night and jammed with a band he was with. At the end of the night - I was working in theater at that point and had gotten out of music - I had a great time, and at the end of the night, he was crestfallen. We were drinking, and I asked, “What's the matter?” and he said, “Well, the band is breaking up, and I have all these gigs for five or six weeks.” I said, “Well, I'll do them with you.” That's how the band started.

CP: That's crazy.

LK: It was more than crazy; it was dangerous. The band he was in was a fairly nice sounding soft rock. I'm not sure I could play soft rock, even with the best of intentions. (Laughs.) I came more from the CBGB (a Manhattan punk and new wave club) scene. Chris was a traditional uillean pipe player who liked rap music. (Laughs.)

We got together once or twice, and we were like, “What are we doing? Now we have to play four sets?” That was the genesis of Black 47, trying to do original music right from the start, but probably sounding pretty original and awful because it was uillean pipes, a drum machine and guitar.

Then one night soon after that, I'd been playing in an improv band in the downtown scene in New York. Fred Parcells had been in one of those bands with me, and he only really knew me as an improv player, and he heard I was playing and dropped by to play improv with his trombone. (Laughs.) When I heard that sound of the pipes and the trombone together, I'd never heard anything like that before. It was like this Celtic/New Orleans marching band. (Laughs.)

Then, Geoffrey Blythe had recently moved to the U.S. He'd recently been in Dexy’s Midnight Runners and The Bureau. His wife was an old friend of mine. I met her in the park one day, and she said, “Geoff's going crazy. He's got no gigs,” so I said, “Send him on down.” So Geoff arrived, and now, we had a drum machine, an electric guitar, uillean pipes, a trombone and saxophone. (Laughs.)

It was a very unlikely thing, but we were ripping it up at this point. If you're playing really long sets, you have to stretch things. We were starting to find each other and find a way to interpret all these original songs I was writing. We were adamant that it had to be original songs, even though we were playing four sets a night. I was turning them out like Henry Ford there at one point. (Laughs.)

Then Fred, the trombone player, used to go off and play with other bands, so I would get a guy named Thomas Hammeland, who had been in a band with me before that, a new wave band. He'd gotten into African-style percussion. The thing about Irish bars in that period was that if you were advertised as a four-piece, you had to show up as a four-piece because you were paid by the man. When Fred wasn't there, Hammy would show up. One day, Hammy said, “I'm not leaving,” so we were a five-piece.

Eventually, when we got the record deal and got on MTV and all that stuff, we got a bass player, and Hammy went back to playing trap drum.

CP: Looking back on the band's development, does anything surprise you about where you are now, the directions you've headed in and approaches you've taken?

LK: Yeah, in a certain way, but in another way not, because we all came from an improv background, so nothing seemed that off-limits to us. But I never thought when we were stating as a two piece that we'd end up with a brass section.

I guess we were always trying to see different connections and try different styles of music. Apart from trying new songs, we'd try new genres in the songs. We hit a lot of different styles of music.

The odd thing is that it all seemed to fit. It didn't seem out of place to play reggae or hip-hop or New Orleans jazz or modern jazz or Irish trad. It all seemed to make sense, in an odd way. That's the thing that it surprised me, that it seems to have its inner core, that you can try anything, and it will work to some degree.

CP: So I suppose you weren't surprised by all the cross over albums between The Chieftains and players from country and reggae and rock.

LK: Yeah, not at all. I knew (multi-instrumentalist and founding member) Paddy (Maloney). He's a friend.

No. To me, there are only types of music. There's good music and bad music. The interesting thing about musicians is that the really good ones are really open to anything. Paddy is a top-of-the-line player. Paddy can hear anything. You can take that with a Miles Davis. He could go to “Sketches of Spain,” for instance, which is my favorite Miles Davis album and the one furthest away from his inner core, but the music works.

It's only the less good musicians and the purists, who think it should be pigeon holed. I never wanted to be pigeon holed. I never wanted to be pigeon holed.

For one thing, being a writer, you're always looking for some way to break through with a new song or a different style of music or a different set of chords. If you can present your song and hang it on top of something like that, then you've got a new song, and an original one.

For instance, I didn't know from the start that the uillean pipes are basically written for the keys of D and G. (Laughs.) You know, we made them do things, got them playing things that uillean pipers hadn't played before - partly through ignorance. Ignorance is bliss in certain ways.

The Beatles were that way. They didn't understand classical music. They were telling George Martin, “I want to play this,” and he was like, “OK, let's see how we can do it. It's not normal thing to get a flugel horn playing in that range, but let's go for it.” The Beatles are a big influence on me, any way, in the sense that nothing is impossible until you can't do it.

CP: That influence from The Beatles has carried over into your writing as well. You wrote “Liverpool Fantasy,” about an alternate history of the band.

LK: Yeah, and the thing about that book, too, is that it started off as a play. I lived with that over the years. (Laughs.) In the midst of writing that and during its production0, I got so involved with The Beatles, I got to where I felt like I was managing them.

The play and the book were not just about The Beatles, they're about musicians, what it's like to actually be in a band, the bonds that stay with musicians long after those bands have broken up.

There was a play called, “A Championship Season” that dealt with basketball players in the same way. From doing the “IRAQ” album and so many Black 47 fans being in the service, it's that same feeling with people who have been in a unit in the services, and the feelings they have for each other even 20 years later.

It was exploring that bond that was more important than me than the fun you can have with what The Beatles would be doing. There was an inner core to it that was serious about musicians and how they relate to each other.

CP: That wavering between serious discourse and black irreverence has always been a trademark of Black 47's music. Has it ever been difficult balancing presenting both ends of the spectrum without going too far in either direction?

LK: No, it just seems to be a natural mix between them. If anything surprises me about where the band went to, one thing that does surprise me - and no one has ever questioned me about it - is that we can be doing a song about Irish political history and then a song about a guy wrecking his girlfriend's wedding and then go straight into a song about an American soldier in Iraq on to the lost tapes of Jimi Hendrix.

The sheer amount of ingredients in the mix - no one seems to question it. It doesn't seem jarring. I don't know why that is. It probably has to do with the musicianship of the players.

CP: Does your eclectic instrumentation makes the delivery of your song's messages different than for, say, a singer/songwriter with just a guitar?

LK: Yeah. Often, to me, the instrumental message is as important as the lyrical message. The lyrical message will be there, but in every Black 47 song, there are very substantial instrumental breaks. Those instrumental breaks not only heighten what's been said, but they take it to a different area.

For one thing, I'm always leery of preaching. The last thing anyone needs is a guy with red hair and glasses up there hectoring them. The songs are all about characters; they're from a character's point of view. Even in the strongest political songs, they're not saying, “You have to do this.” It's showing what happened and letting them take their own opinions out of it.

The Clash are one of my favorite bands. (Lead singer Joe) Strummer was a big help in the early days of Black 47 with getting us gigs and whatever. You would never accuse The Clash of having a strong sense of humor. You can tend to come across much harder if you don't have humor, but we always - maybe it's being Irish - but humor is such a huge part of life.

I think in the Irish experience, too, there aren't too many victories in its long history. (Laughs.) It's one defeat after another. The only way to deal with that was with a black humor and irreverence, a black irreverence.

When you think of irreverence, there's irreverence, but it's more irreverence for a certain political hypocrisy and social hypocrisy. It's more for that, but underneath it, there's a seriousness of purpose.

It's just that the Irish don't put it that way. Bono is a new breed. He was able to do that. To us, with humor, you can get a message more palatable, and it might stick better.

People ask, “What do you want people to get from a Black 47 show?” and I usually say I want them to get value for their money, have a good time and leave with a smile on their face. Then, maybe in a few days time, the things we've been saying will resonate. If not, that's cool, too, as long as they had a good time.

There have always been many camps in the Black 47 fan base, but from the point of view of political and non-political, there are 25 percent of right and left, and a big 50 percent in the middle who can take it either way. I don't mind what the outcome is, as long as people have an experience.

CP: Black 47 predates many current popular Irish rock bands like Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys. You also came after the genre's earliest bands, like The Pogues. Bridging the founders and the current artists, what's your take on the state of Irish rock today?

LK: I think it's great. It's powerful music, you know? Matter of fact, I find that, from being in it, I find it hard to take pop music and rock music without the soul. There's a soul in Irish music, just as there's a soul in a lot of African American music. I don't feel a lot of soul in white music. I've played it, and I look back on what I played and don't feel a lot of soul in what I did, either. In Irish music, there's an intrinsic soul there. I don't know what it is.

My only draw back with it would be the songs. There are some people doing good songs, but as a genre as a whole, I'm disappointed that the songs tend to follow (The Pogues frontman) Shane (MacGowan). Shane a great writer, but I made a conscious decision to keep the hell away from Shane. I didn't listen to The Pogues because I could tell early on that that guy was a monster. Luckily, I had a background in other types of music, but Shane is very seductive: three chords, a great melody and a great story.

My only advice to anyone is “Don't listen to Shane. He's too strong.” The Murphs and Flogging Molly are all friends of mine, and they're just tremendous bands. I admire the two of them really well. I do find that a lot of bands tend to copy those two. They're falling into the same trap as the earlier generation that was listening to The Pogues was falling into.

If I were starting out to play Irish punk rock, I would throw away all my Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys albums. They're too strong. Get away from them. That's a compliment to them.

One thing I do find really interesting is how Irish music and the original punk music and hardcore melded so well.

CP: Does that have to do with a lingering generational anger among the Irish for all those defeats you mentioned earlier?

LK: Maybe, but I think it's deeper than that. The attitude of a lot of punk people is, “I'm alone, and I'm against the world.” There's a certain amount of that in Irish music and the wilder Irish poets, that sense of being alone.

I think the original idea of punk that, “I'm going to do this myself. I'm not very good at it. I don't know all the chords of Pink Floyd anymore, but I can't listen to you guys anymore. You might as well be sitting down on stage.”

Punk went back to Eddie Cochran and the original rockabilly music, which is the basis of so much rock'n'roll anyway. Like, how did these Southern, working-class white guys change the world, you know?

The original rockabilly guys - Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins - they changed everything. Their influence is still being heard and reinvented. You can hear it in the Murphys and The Flogging Mollys, the ongoing influence of that original Nashville/Memphis connection. It's a powerful story, and I don't think it's every been told.

CP: Your latest album, “Bankers and Gangsters,” was a real turn around, in terms of its tone, from the seriousness and political commentary of “IRAQ.” What were you hoping to accomplish with it?

LK: Well, with “IRAQ,” it was about a specific time and place. One of the things I'm proud of about “IRAQ” is that you can put it on, and you're back in that period of 2003-2007. It means a lot to the guys and women serving overseas. They feel it's the one album really devoted to them. It's their stories.

It was very specific. I had to get really lost into that period. Coming out of that to do a new album, it was like, “Wow, the sun is shining,” as it were. I could write about anything. So I just let my mind go free.

I also wanted to feature the musicians more. With “IRAQ,” it was very much about, “Let's get the message right. It's important to get it right.” Everyone had to sublimate themselves to create this feeling of war. With “Bankers and Gangsters,” even with that song, which is about the serious subject, it was like, “How do you lighten the thing up?” It was fun to do songs like, “Long Lost Tapes of Hendrix” and “Izzy's Irish Rose,” to just get that side of the band out. That was a release, that one.

CP: Kind of an exhale?

LK: Yeah! It was like, “Let's make some music, man.” We were doing the songs live, quite a number of them, and we were getting more rambunctious as we went along. It was fun.

I also really knew the sounds I wanted with it. The sound of “IRAQ” is very intense. With this, I knew I wanted a big rhythm section and a big, bold bras sound.

I found the right studio for it. We walked in and it just sounded right. That's not always the way. Oftentimes with albums, you're fighting that.

CP: Looking back at “IRAQ,” do you think being so centered on such a specific period of time will make it less relevant to listeners in the future?

LK: No, it's meant to capture that time. I had to listen to “Stars and Stripes” the other day because someone was interested in using it for a movie. I hadn't heard the album in a couple of years, but just from the first couple of notes, it was like I was back in that period.

It wasn't particularly comfortable, you know? It was a painful period for the country, and there's a lot of that in there. But then there's an upside to it, too. Really, you can't think of things like that, “Will it work or won't it?” To me, hearing the first four bars of it is very powerful. I was into the song. I had forgotten the rawness and the vitality. That's what I was trying to do. I was trying to capture these young people in an environment they couldn't imagine. To me, it works. Whether people play it on Christmas Day or something, I don't know. (Laughs.)

CP: Have you gotten feedback from soldiers about their take on it?

LK: Yeah, they love it.

CP: That must be pretty rewarding, given how commentary about the war didn't seem like a very popular subject for some people.

LK: That's great. I didn't care about anything else except they liked it. It was a very well received album, as regards to critics. It wasn't very well received when we first started doing the songs. In fact, the first three years of the war were a nightmare. It was just intensely confrontational.

I used to think, “God, here we go again. Tonight, maybe we won't do any of these songs,” but then, I'd think, “----, there are guy are over there in 115 degrees getting fired at at this point, and we can't even feel like playing the songs?”

It was a troubling time, though. I choose to become an American. We were accused of being non-patriotic, but to me, one of the great things about America was the right to dissent, and that dissent is patriotic.

The songs were about all the people who were over there anyway, but there was a blanketing in the country, at a certain point, that “You can't speak about this subject. You just have to support it.” I think that was wrong. That really troubled me. I felt that, “This is not America. This is not America the way the world sees it.” Everyone looks to America as this shining city on a hill, and in that period, I felt like people were turning out the lights.

Then, one day, around September 2007, it just stopped. It was really interesting.

CP: So people began to accept the songs?

LK: People stopped saying anything about it. Up until then, it was people walking out and giving you the finger and complaining to promoters - everything you can imagine … threats.

Then, I think people began to see that this war wasn't what it was painted to out to be, at the beginning. People started to dance to the songs - they still do.

The songs became parts of the culture, and they weren't really noticed anymore. It was kind of amazing. It was like, “What happened?” As you said, people began to exhale at the end of 2006, beginning of 2007. It was a huge relief. People saw it more as a cultural album, rather than as a protest album or anything like that.

CP: It seems like, at that time, few musicians were actually being critical of the war during that period. Did you ever feel like you were alone in writing songs like that?

LK: I thought that rock'n'roll and rap and all the popular media really let down the young people being sent to Iraq. I felt it was a total failure on the part of our music, and I lost a huge amount of respect for it at that point.

Maybe I'm naïve or something, but I thought that a song like “Stars and Stripes” could get on the radio. It was rock'n'roll, you know? I remember being in with our record company, and they were great - they put it out and everything. I said, “We should get this out to radio,” and they said, “Are you kidding? We've already tried. We sent it to a AAA plugger, and he said, 'Are you kidding me? This isn't suitable for radio.”

It was like, “Wow. What does that mean?” It wasn't the merit of the song or the beat. Does that mean that there's a form of censorship, or does it mean that people are just so ----ing dumb? Either one is kind of frightening.

I remember walking out of the room - and I like these guys - and thinking I must be way out there or something. I just didn't see it in the same way at all. I thought a song is a song, and if it has something important to say and it's said well - which I think 'Stars and Stripes” does - that that makes it even more valuable.

I was floored. I had to go home and think, for the first time, “Am I in the wrong business?” (Laughs.)

Where were all the songs? From a songwriting point of view, you couldn't go wrong with Iraq - the trauma, the generation you're in is going through, that the country is going through. There was important work to be done. Music can really care this message in a way that politicians or talk show hosts can't. Music has a visceral power to do it, and yet no one did it.

Folk music didn't do it either. Forget about it. We went to play Pete Seeger's festival upstate. It was the only time we were ever invited, in 2006 or something like that. I remember we were the only ones singing about Iraq at a Pete Seeger festival.

All the folks singers were getting up singing about their relationships and their whale fishing. You know, the environment is all important stuff, but (expletive), there were kids getting their heads blown off over there, and we're disrupting a whole country and a region.

Not only that, but I came from a folk singing background, and you could definitely make a point that Black 47 songs are folk songs with a big beat to them. Yet we were the only ones doing it, and the crowd loved it; they were up on their feet, fists in the air.

But we didn't get invited back. Nothing against Pete, who's a god, but none of the folk singers were doing anything about it. I thought, “Wow, the folk singers aren't even doing it. The rock singers aren't doing it. The rappers aren't doing it. What's going on with this country?”

From a sheer compositional, writer's point of view, I wrote that “IRAQ,” after the first three or four songs, I wrote eight of them in 2-3 weeks and could have kept writing. Everything you looked at was inspirational, both words and music. I don't know, maybe the country is just numb. They'll come out of the big sleep at some point.

When we played colleges, they had no interest in Iraq. The only way I could ever get a rise out of them was to say, in an off hand way, “It's a real shame about the draft coming through today. We wish you guys all the best,” and then drop it. You'd see that spreading around. That was the only thing about Iraq that ever seemed to have any resonance.

CP: Have you given any thought to your next album? Are you working on it?

LK: No, I haven't actually. (Laughs.) I'm not sure which way to go. I'm waiting for the good lord or whiskey to strike, whichever one gets there first. I have a feeling I know which one.

Whatever we do, I'd like to explore more, instrumentally, but I really don't know. I'm mixed up in a lot of theater stuff at the moment. I'm working at creativity through that. I mean, there are something like 100 songs by Black 47 that we don't even know how to play anymore. It might be an idea to take a breath and work backwards a little bit. (Laughs.)


Post a comment

Commenting requires free registration.

Password:   (Forgotten your password?)


Posted comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. To view complete guidelines for submitting content, comments and feedback, click here.

Share This...

These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
Points of Interest in Lower Manhattan
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
White Water Rafting with Chattanooga Adult Sports at CAFE LEMONT
Sunday, Aug. 15, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
White Water Rafting with Cascade Outdoors Rafting! Sunday, August 15, 2010 1:00 PM **Check in 12:30pm ... Read More

Sunday with Steinway at Summitt Pianos
Sunday, Aug. 15, 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Michael Boggioni from Atlanta will perform at Summitt Pianos, 6209 Lee Highway (next to Nutrition World) ... Read More

Sunday, Aug. 15, 2 p.m.
Matt Cordell, the 2010 National Ultimate Elvis Tribute Champion will perform. 423-618-0375, 423-263-7499, 423-263-2228 ... Read More

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Top Jobs Image

LPNs & RNs Maxim H

Production Engineer

HVAC Service Technic

More jobs

© 2024 The Reel Book - Powered by Parcells Programming