I’ve known Jake Burns, lead singer of the one-time Northern Irish punk band Stiff Little Fingers, going back to 1980 and their first Boston gig at the Paradise. I’ve seen them a lot over the years and they return to the Sinclair Sunday July 12, (they sold it out last September), but our recent chat – which follows, in some detail – was prompted by a Facebook post of his.
For a brief time last fall, Stiff Little Fingers had the No. 1 album on the UK rock charts. Burns posted this on his Facebook wall. “I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon on here recently, and it’s one we’ve become party to since releasing the new album. (Well, more specifically since the album charted.) Some folks actually go out of their way to find a page and say: ‘I don’t like you now. You look old. I used to like you in 1978 but you look like someone’s Dad now and why don’t you remake the same record over and over?’
Well, newsflash! …We are old. We were young in 1978 but that was a while ago. I’m guessing you probably look like someone’s Dad as well now. As to ‘remaking the same record,’ I’ve seen other bands do that and these same people criticize them for ‘just playing the same old shit you did in 1978, why don’t you move on?’ For my part, this seems an awful lot of effort for something you don’t like and have no interest in. If I find myself in that position, I just don’t buy/listen to/watch whatever it is I used to like in 1978 but no longer like now.”
|Burns raises some issues all of us – musicians, fans, critics – of a certain age face: Was Jethro Tull right? Are you never too old to rock ‘n’ roll if you’re too young to die?|
|So, here’s what Classic Rock magazine said about that new album: “If at times you marvel at their ability, some 35 years on, to still sound like their younger selves, remember that nobody else ever managed it.” I’d concur, ‘tis a difficult task. But here they are – two original members, Burns and bassist Ali McMordie and a lineup that’s been intact eight years – and they’ve come up with something aggressive, hook-packed and more personal than ever. “No Going Back” is a worthy companion piece to their debut “Inflammable Material” and its follow-up “Nobody’s Heroes.” So, we talked …|
JSInk: All right, what’s all this No. 1 business about with “No Going Back”? A punk band of your vintage isn’t supposed to be doing that.
I can be honest; it’s kind of a false number one. They separate rock albums from compilation albums from dance albums so on the master chart where everything’s put together, we’re still in the top 30, but we’re not No. 1. At least until tomorrow, we have the most popular rock record in the UK.
Not bad, though rock is dead as they say. Or it’s, you know, been “dying” for years. I’ve had one listen through the disc and it sounds really good. Did this take lots of time and effort?
Yeah, it took a long time, mainly because its been 11 years since the last album and there are a couple or reasons, some of them personal. I went through a divorce and moved countries and remarried and that tends to eat into your time. But it also addled my concentration. When I did write, I was writing because I felt I had to, not because I wanted to. I was going thought the motions. Six years ago, we had the best part of an album written and that coincided with my 50th birthday and I don’t make a big deal of birthdays but Shirley, my wife, was like “Come on, it’s your 50th, we’ve got to do something special” and I said “I don’t want a fuss, I just want to go down to the bar and have some drinks with some friends” and she took me at my word and basically flew in my friends from England, Ireland, France from the west coast, everywhere. It was kind of like an episode of “This Is Your Life,” and she didn’t tell me any of this was going to happen, so I’m just standing at my local bar and every time the door opens another piece of my life walks through it. That made me look back over my life and at the end of that weekend we went away and I came back and listened to those songs. I didn’t like the way they sounded. Being 50, it was on my mind, and I listened to those songs and said “You could have written this when you were 20 and not cared” – not that I’m saying I didn’t care when I wrote the songs when I was 20, but these would have been songs I could have written at 20 and rejected even then.
So they weren’t good enough and didn’t reflect my life, who I was as a person at that point, so I think the only one I kept in its entirety was “Liars Club” and the others I either kept parts from or threw out completely. We had the best part of an album written at that point and the band were sort of expecting me to go home after the tour to finish it off and we’d be in the studio in the fall. So they were not at all amused when I phoned them up and said no. This was about six years ago and five years from the previous album. I just went back to the drawing board and tried to write songs I was happy with and reflected where I was in my life which is why songs like “Full Steam Backwards,” which obviously does reflect on the banking collapse and what have you and it reflected very genuinely where Shirley and I were in our lives. She had lost her job through no fault of her alone along with a lot of other people when the recession started to bite. We found ourselves and I love the euphemism – we had to downsize. It does mean you’re broke! Suddenly we didn’t have two salaries. We’d moved briefly toe Washington DC chasing a job for her, took a six month lease and then they decided they didn’t want to do the job after ten days. It was like a 21st century version of Tom Joad Those weren’t subjects I could have written about in my 20s because I wasn’t aware of them. I wanted to put all of that experience into the songs. It’s not a particularly comfortable record to listen to because it hits on a lot of problems a lot of people hve gone through, but it was as honest as we could make it.
There’s linkage to your early stuff is the aggression, anger and frustration at the way things are. Which I think is consistent with who you are as a songwriter and who you are as a person.
Yeah, I often joke I can’t write “I love her and she loves me” so I do have to find that offends my sense of justice as a writer. I think the one thing about this record, more than probably anything since the first album, that although there are songs that deal with racism and general things, there are a lot more personal problems addressed on this record.
“Dark Places” makes me think of Social Distortion’s “Ball and Chain” and where Mike Ness was singing about shaking addiction, you’re singing about trying to beat back depression You sing: “I’m not going back to my dark places.”
Yeah. I only wrote that song as a form of catharsis for myself and I never really envisioned it being played in public. It’s more as a reminder to myself, there’s a note of caution in the last verse but you’re always aware that … I think it’s always there. Like an alcoholic or a drug addict can be clean forever, but they still consider themselves an alcoholic or a drug addict. I think it’s the same if you’re prone to depression; it’s always going to be there. I reached a point where I think I can recognize the warning signs and I know how to deal with it on my level. Shirley was very keen that we play it and it was Ali who convinced me – he flew from New York to Chicago specifically to sit me down and say we’ve got to play that song. I’ve been amazed at the people who’ve come up to me – probably more so than any other song I’ve written – and talked to me openly about the fact that they’re going through the same problem. I think that is a big thing. With depression or any form of mental illness, there’s a stigma attached to it. You don’t talk about it, you brush it under the carpet, you’re seen in some ways as defective. I think particularly with depression the first step in coming to terms with it is to talk about it, but that’s the one thing people seem to unwilling to do. Once somebody stands on a stage and sings about it and talks about it, then people then feel empowered to turn to the guy next to him and say, “I feel like that.” Who knows where that leads to?
You read William Stryon’s “Darkness Visible” ?
I met him at a party around 2000-2001 and said how moving and brave the book was – how it helped me – and I asked him if having written he was able to stay out of those dark places. He laughed ruefully and said, no, he fell back into a major depression six months later.
Sure. That’s the point I was making. There are times when you think “I’m going to wallow in this for a day or two. I’m going to lock myself away, I’m not going to get out of bed,” but I think there’s still a handle I can grab onto. This isn’t the end of the world. I know I can come out of this. When it first hit, I didn’t see an end to it, I didn’t know how you got out of it. Fuck it, I am going to feel sorry for myself for a day or two, but as long as you know there’s a door back marked exit you can get to.
Did you go to therapy or take medicine?
I didn’t bother with the medicine. I did a little bit of therapy, but it’s a probably a little bit of the Northern Irish upbringing in you – “oh for fuck’s sake pull yourself together” was in the back of my mind. As regards to pills, I really, really didn’t want to go down that road. My reasoning was: I think of it like a hangover. If I go and drink another beer, it’ll take the hangover away for another day but all that’s doing is delaying it or making the problem worse. You’re just postponing the problem and not facing up to it.
Your Facebook posts about criticism that’s come your way for having the audacity to be older and look older. I guess we all deal with this if what we do is connected to youth culture.
I am older. Yes, I’m older, everybody’s older, it’s better than the alternative which is to be dead. I’m grateful for that. The bottom line is that what I do for a living and I am old enough to remember Mick Jagger being asked this when he was 30. They were inspired by the likes of Muddy Waters and they could say well the blues guys are still doing it in their 60s and 70s, but they’d say “Your music is about youth culture and surely you should stop.” They said “We don’t know how much longer we can go on. Nobody’s ever done it before.” And that’s still the thing, that attitude – that you should stop at 30. I’ve quoted Ian Hunter [in “All the Way From Memphis”]: “You gotta stay a young man; you can never grow old,” but Ian Hunter’s still good and he just turned 70.
I talked to him last year and he said he spends time with people in their 30s and 40s and that helps keep him vital.
Absolutely, and I deliberately seek them out. [When we lived in a college student environment in Chicago I found] they still have a naïve passion and I’d like to think I still have a passion – though it’s not naïve – that helps my outlook as well. I thought I was like a vampire just feeding off the young people. [laughs] Hopefully I didn’t steal the ideas, but just the energy. The only people I hang about that in my age group are the guys in the band. When I’m at home, everybody’s younger than I am.
The band now is …
Ali is back and has been with us eight years; he came back in 2006, just before we did the 30th anniversary tour. [Drummer] Steve [Grantley] was with me in the Big Wheel in the early 80s, he’s been in the band for the last 20 years and [guitarist] Ian McCallum has been with us the last 15 or so. It’s a very stable lineup, at least eight years.
How does the old SLF stuff mix with the new? How do the songs relate? Do you still feel close to those songs you wrote then like “Alternative Ulster” and “Suspect Device”?
Yeah, I do. There are certain songs I don’t feel comfortable with which we don’t play like “Gotta Getaway” for example. My reason for not wanting to play it is: I can’t put as much into it. It’s a song about arguing with your parents and wanting to leave home and I’m 56 years old and on my fourth fucking mortgage. I can write a song about wanting to get away from the band and go home! [laughs] Some of the songs are as relevant now as they were when we wrote them. I was hoping some of the “Irish” [conflict] songs would be folk songs by now – songs written all those years ago! – but unfortunately … if it’s not Ireland, it’s Scotland, starting to fall into the same trap after the referendum.
Chicago has been your home for …
Ten years now. I’m very happy in Chicago. The main reason was I fell in love with an American girl. That’s why I moved here and live here, and at the time she was between jobs. At one point, she considered moving to the UK but she has a good career here and is known in her business. She is a direct marketer mainly for non-profits. Sadly, she’s been unemployed for some time. I can do what I do as long as I’m close to an airport. It’s like you’ve been to America many times, touring, what do you like? And my two favorite cities were San Francisco and Chicago and San Francisco is prohibitively expensive, so she said I’ve been offered a job in Chicago so before we knew it, there we were in Chicago.
Your audiences now, are you drawing people both our age and 20-somethings?
Yeah, we are. I know a lot of bands say it and I’m not sure how true it is, but we really do draw from 14 to 55, sometimes older. In general, that’s the age span. We’re getting 20 and 25-year-olds coming and saying “Can you sign [album] this for my dad?” One on occasion we had grand-dad, dad and son come.
Punk rock coincided with our youth. When I listen to it now, it still connects and I like to think it must connect with kids still – despite the way the world has changed. It’s so direct, so in your face, rebellious, aggro, catchy. Timeless in a way.
Yep. I also think it seemed at the time that everybody had one great fucking song in them. The bands that you never heard of before or since had one absolutely blinding single. It was the beginning of DIY. Anybody that could scrape together a couple of hundred quid could make a record. Some of them were phenomenal. And everyone seemed to get an equal crack at the whip. There was great joy at sticking two fingers up in the air and saying, “This was the best record of the year and, guess what, none of you saw it coming!” Us, the Clash before us and the two-tones bands, the Ruts – they all wrote about things that meant something to them and were putting their heart and soul into it. And I think that still stands up today. You can hear a Specials record and it will still make your blood run cold.
Tickets: $20. Opener: TBA.
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