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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

Live review: Soundwave Festival – RNA Showgrounds, Brisbane – 22/2/14

Mastodon Soundwave Brisbane

HOW QUICKLY another Soundwave comes around. It doesn’t seem like a month has passed since Metallica, The Offspring and Blink-182 were topping the bill in 2013, but here we are again with a new crop of bands, another fantastic line-up, and a new set of timetable clashes to ponder. First world problems aside, this year’s timetable looks healthy and enticing across the board, and with the standard cancellations and what festival promoter AJ Maddah referred to as “pissing contests” between bands in the past and a weather report mostly free of rain, it’s game on at Fortitude Valley’s RNA Showgrounds.

One thing is clear from the off: Soundwave fans can agree on very little. From as early as 1pm there are friendly debates raging across the venue; the vast majority of which revolve around which bands to see next. Luckily the choices are vast, and equally luckily is the fact that Florida’s Alter Bridge are putting on a fine show of classic rock on Stage 2. Frontman Myles Kennedy is perhaps best known for his work with Slash, but his own band – in existence since 2004 – are great in their own right and his is the first of several outstanding rock voices on show today.

Over at Stage 5b Less Than Jake are rattling off the ska-punk tunes with a ferocity not often seen at 12:40 in the afternoon, and are clearly ecstatic to be here despite the early time slot. Upon singer Chris DeMakes’ instruction a circle pit is formed, and as shoes go flying skywards and several people retire to the sidelines shaken and bruised, the band kick on with ‘Plastic Cup Politics’.

Richie Sambora fills another early slot at 1:15 on Stage 1, and plays songs he trialled at his Sidewave show at The Tivoli two days previously. ‘Burn The Candle Down’, ‘Lay Your Hands On Me’, ‘Every Road Leads Home To You’ and ‘Learning To Fly With A Broken Wing’ precede the big close of Midnight Oil’s ‘Beds Are Burning’ mashed-up with ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ in a strong set. South-Australian guitarist Orianthi – a former member of Michael Jackson’s touring band – is once again outstanding on lead.

Directly after Sambora on Stage 2 is last-minute additions The Living End, and they pull the biggest crowd so far. The level of devotion among their fans is evident as every note and word that emanates from Chris Cheney, Andy Strachan and Scott Owen is met with screaming, dancing and fist-pumping from a diverse audience. ‘Second Solution’, ‘End Of The World’, and ‘Roll On’ are early highlights, and a later cover of AC/DC’s ‘Jailbreak’ is a nice touch.

It’s always satisfying to discover something new and interesting by accident, and it comes in the form of English alt-rockers Pulled Apart By Horses, who are making a hell of a racket at the covered Stage 5a. Having been swapped with Crosses so Chino Moreno’s group could have the later slot, the Leeds quartet set about their business with the right amounts of style, ferocity and humility. “We’re feel like we’re in some kind of dream. And we’re shitting our pants,” their guitarist says, which only makes them more likeable.

Costumed thrash-metallers Gwar, on the other hand, don’t seem the most likeable of chaps, and while it’s fun for some audience members to be squirted with fake blood and listen to indistinguishable lyrics being screamed by a bunch of fat guys in rubber suits, it doesn’t make for a particularly tuneful set. Nevertheless, it goes down well with a number of people, despite the blasé attitude to beginning their set on time.

Soundwave Brisbane 2014

Back at Stage 1, Placebo are running through a greatest hits set but with a few glaring exceptions, starting with ‘Post Blue’ and including ‘Every You Every Me’, but leaving out perhaps their most well-known hits from their ’90s beginnings, while Norwegians Satyricon are bringing the black metal at Stage 7b with a pitchfork microphone stand and the likes of ‘K.I.N.G.’, ‘The Pentagram Burns’ and ‘Our World, It Rumbles Tonight’. Meanwhile, Black Veil Brides are repeatedly shouting “wake up motherfuckers!” to their audience and Filter get a big response from a decent number of hardcore fans despite the set being cut short.

The next happy accident comes in the form of Clutch and frontman Neil Fallon, who – along with his harmonica and cowbell – puts in one of the most visually arresting performances of the day. The band go through a series of jams in front of a fairly aggressive audience, with a highlight being ‘Once More Unto The Breach’ as a toilet roll flies across the audience members’ heads. A long, bluesy jam follows; providing a free-flowing highlight not often seen in shortened festival sets.

Deftones frontman Chino Moreno’s side-project Crosses is a bit of change for him, but it’s one that works well. When he sings “I’m so excited I can hardly take it” on ‘This Is A Trick’ it’s a nice interlude to all the hard-riffing that has been happening so far today.

Alice In Chains provide a poignant moment back at Stage 1. “There have been six guys in this band,” says guitarist Jerry Cantrell. “This song is for the other two.” Acoustic number ‘Nutshell’ is of coursed dedicated to deceased former members Layne Staley and Mike Starr, while William DuVall’s vocal performance throughout the rest of the set is nothing short of epic.

Belfast punk legends Stiff Little Fingers make an old crowd happy as dusk sets in with a twelve-song set of stone-cold classic numbers, including ‘Suspect Device’, ‘Roots, Radicals, Rockers and Reggae’, ‘Nobody’s Hero’, ‘Barbed Wire Love’, ‘Strummerville’, ‘Tin Soldiers’ and their signature tune ‘Alternative Ulster’ just as a Soundwave official tries to usher their set to a close. A new tune entitled ‘When We Were Young’ fits in nicely among the older material, and the small crowd who turn up for “the band playing next to the hot chip van”, as frontman Jake Burns puts it, witness SLF’s first ever appearance in Brisbane in a near 40-year career.

And so: the head-liners for this evening. Timetable clashes become a major headache at this point, and it’s hard to know whether to stick with one or at most two bands, or try to jump between them and risk getting caught in the human traffic jam under the rail bridge.

Green Day Soundwave Brisbane

Green Day burst onto the stage at 7pm amid a retina-searing array of lights, and the quartet start strongly with ’99 Revolutions’, ‘Know Your Enemy’ and ‘East Jesus Nowhere’. It’s clear from the off that Billie Joe Armstrong is in good form and putting his all into it; he runs across the stage and flings his guitar around with all the vigour he displayed in the ’90s, and even gets political with a call to the audience to be more aware of situations in Thailand, the Ukraine, and in Russia in reference to Pussy Riot, before reminding the crowd of how lucky we are to be together. A series of American Idiot tracks follows; ‘Letterbomb’, ‘Holiday’, ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ and ‘Wake Me Up Before September Ends’ before a series of Dookie tracks in ‘Burnout’, ‘Chump’, ‘Longview’, ‘When I Come Around’ and ‘Welcome To Paradise’ provide the nostalgic highlight. ‘Basket Case’ and ‘She’ are played pleasingly in order and a mash-up of songs including ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’, ‘Shout’ and ‘Hey Jude’ bring the pace down before a big finish including ‘American Idiot’ and ‘Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)’.

It’s all over at 9:40pm, but after a long day of bands, beer and bleeding ears it’s a satisfying feeling to head for the gates and home. Highlights for the day include Less Than Jake, Pulled Apart By Horses, Clutch, Stiff Little Fingers and Green Day, but it’s the scale and variety of Soundwave acts that is most impressive. Same time next year, everyone?