Interview: Jake Burns of Stiff Little Fingers

FORMED in 1977 at a time of deep political and social turmoil in their hometown of Belfast, Stiff Little Fingers are the original punk-rock mainstays. Known for their energetic live shows and angry lyrics tackling subjects from sectarian violence to teenage boredom, the band will make only their second ever trip to Australia to play Soundwave Festival. I spoke to singer-guitarist and chief songwriter Jake Burns.

Tell me about the recording of your new album, No Going Back. How does it sound so far?

At the moment we’re only getting started; the drum tracks are down and Ali is working on the bass tracks at the moment, and that’s kind of how it works, we build these things up in layers, you know? We all go in together, play all the songs through once and they get recorded, so Steve has a basic skeleton track to work with, and then he does the drums for real. Then Ali goes in and replaces his skeleton bass-lines with the real ones, and so it keeps going. Starting tomorrow, we’ll begin on the guitars. We’re actually slightly ahead of the game, which is always a good place to be, as you can never be sure when there’s a nasty little hiccup just around the corner; something which will take a day out of your schedule.

When are you expecting to have it finished?

February 5th is the last day in the studio. Then I get to fly home to Chicago on the 6th. I’ll have about six days to unpack, do my laundry, re-pack, then fly to Auckland. Then, we’re on tour until May. It’s a long time away from home, but it’s what we’ve signed up for.

In terms of lyrical content, could it be called a classic Stiff Little Fingers album?

I’m not going to say it’s a classic; that’s for the audience to decide. There aren’t any “I love her and she loves me” songs on there, because it’s not what I write, you know? I’ve never been able to do that; every time I’ve tried it sounds like bad schoolboy poetry or something. They’re all songs about things that have made me angry. Steve and Ian have both written a song, and they’re all songs about things that have fired us up in one way or another over the last few weeks and months.

You went down the crowd-funding route for this album. Are you surprised at how well it turned out?

I think everybody was. We allowed two months for it, and we reached the target in under twelve hours; it was incredible. I was sitting at home and I knew it had been launched, when my wife came running down into the studio in the basement and asked me if I was watching the pledge figures, and I said no, as it had only been launched that morning. She told me to stop what I was doing and come look, and we sat and watched it. The best description was made by her; she said it’s like election night, and nobody goes to bed until this thing reaches a hundred. Literally, within an hour of saying that, it reached a hundred percent. It was astonishing; I don’t think any of us realised the regard the audience has for us. We always knew we have an incredibly loyal audience, but that was truly – without wanting to sound fake – humbling. And they’re still pledging!

Do you see that as the future for bands making records now? Would you do it again, for example?

I’m sure we would. When the Internet took off in all it’s glory, it was basically the end for traditional record labels. The writing was on the wall when even the likes of Madonna and U2 were doing deals based on touring and merchandise rather than record sales. At that point you think if U2 can’t sell bloody records, what chance has anybody got? When it came up we were hesitant, but then we realised this would make us a proper, independent band again. This takes us right back to where we started, but with thirty-six, thirty-seven years experience behind us. It can only be a good thing, and it’s turned out to be an astonishing thing. It seems like we’re masters of our own destiny, whereas in the past, when you’d go in to make a record you’d have it in your mind that you’re spending EMI’s money. Not that you’d be slapdash and throw it around – at the end of the day it’s your money anyway – but we’d just give the record to EMI and it’d be up to them to go and sell it. Now, it’s the audience’s money, and they’ve already bought the record; that’s effectively what this is. They’re putting a huge amount of trust in us, and what if they all hate it? They’ve all already bought it, pretty much. We feel a huge amount of responsibility – much more so than any record before – because this is our audience we’re genuinely playing for; they’re our bosses this time around. We don’t want to let them down.

You’ll be playing Soundwave Festival very soon. What can fans expect from the show?

We’ve only played in Australia once before, and even then it was only in Sydney and Melbourne. It’s a festival setting, and I don’t even know how long of a set we’ll be given. So what we’ll basically try to do is keep the chat to a minimum, play as many songs as possible, and try to cram as much of our career into whatever time we’re given. We’re doing two sideshows in Sydney and Melbourne, so we can stretch out a bit, but we’ll work on getting the balance of the set right. Sometimes it’s harder to work out what to leave out, rather than put in, you know?

Do you still feel that songs like ‘Alternative Ulster’ are relevant today?

That song was never specifically written about Northern Ireland. Yes, there are R.U.C. references in there, but it was basically a song about being young and having nothing to do. It was set in Northern Ireland, which of course just meant having even fucking less to do than if you’d been somewhere else. But, it’s just a fairly universal song about being a teenager, which I was when I wrote it. Sadly, that’s still the case with teenagers today. Those who were living in what was basically a war-zone in Belfast at the time; I could see why they were bored. It always used to annoy me when bands from London would say they were bored and had nothing to do. Are you kidding me? Hadn’t they seen the back page of the NME? There were always about ten gigs I’d kill to go and see and they were all on that night!

Can you tell me a little bit about how Ali (McMordie, founding bass guitarist) came back into the band?

When Bruce (Foxton, bass guitarist 1991-2006) said he wanted to go, we had a long talk about it. Those were a big pair of boots to fill. Bruce was a big name, and he is a fantastic bass player and singer. We tossed a few names around, and realised that auditioning people probably wasn’t going to work. After a while we thought about asking Ali if he was interested in coming back. I’d kept in touch with Ali over the years; if he ever passed through Chicago we’d go for a beer or whatever, and he’d come to see the band and stuff. But I hadn’t really spoken to him for a while, and I wasn’t even sure if he still had a guitar and was still playing, but eventually I gave him a call and left a message saying that he might be able to do me a favour. He returned the call, and as luck would have it he was due to come through Chicago in a few days time, so we met up and discussed it. Initially I asked him to only do the one tour to see how it went. He’d been doing tour managing very successfully, but he came back, seemed to have a ball and I don’t think we ever asked him to stay, but he’s still here (laughs).

And finally, I told my brother I was interviewing you and he wanted to ask you a question, so here it is. Why did Jim Reilly (drummer, 1979-81) leave the band? Was it because he’s a complete tit?

(Laughs). Umm… no! Jim just didn’t like the new songs I was writing and I think by that stage we had toured America a couple of times, and Jim had one eye on wanting to try his luck there, and that’s exactly what he did. He jumped ship and moved to San Francisco, and ended up in a band called Red Rockers, who got themselves signed to C.B.S.. They had a little bit of success with a top-forty hit and toured with the likes of Neil Young and Bob Dylan, so he had a half decent run. Last I heard, he was back in Belfast.

STIFF LITTLE FINGERS PLAY SOUNDWAVE FESTIVAL BEGINNING SATURDAY 22nd FEBRUARY IN BRISBANE. TICKETS FROM http://soundwavefestival.com/tickets

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