Punk Legends Stiff Little Fingers – The interview

Interview first published at www.13thfloor.co.nz

“Live fast, die young,” and “Not fade away,” surely apply to the first punk generation that exploded in a blitzkrieg of bile and fury in the 1970’s. The mantra was like some anarchic politico-SAS mission. Yet a few of the old guard endure – The Sex Pistols reformations or the return of the Buzzcocks… and it was no surprise to discover that Irish Punk heroes Stiff Little Fingers just celebrated 40 years of stickin’ it to the man. The 13th Floor’s Tim Gruar got right to the point in his interview with lead singer Jake Burns.

TG: Weren’t you supposed to crate the chaos and get out?. Yet here you are 40 years on.

JB: “People still are angry and there’s still a lot of rage we can tap into.” He laughs, in his treacle-thick accent, “Trump is a gold mine. We just celebrated 40 years of challenging the system and the establishment. How many bands will he spawn in protest, I wonder?”

TG: What was Belfast like in the 1980’s? Paint a scene of the early days of the band.

JB: “I was about 11 years old when the Troubles began – about 1969, 1970. The civil unrest that was going on at that time was every day life to me. The riots, invariably bomb scares, not always with bombs involved but even just the mere whisper of trouble meant your bus home was diverted, delayed or cancelled altogether. You couldn’t walk down certain roads because of the threat that a building blowing up. On the plus side, for an 11 year old, somebody might get wind of a bomb in the school and you’d get the afternoon of which was great (laughs). That’s the only upside I can remember of it.”

TG: So when you started as a band, I understand that you were into Deep Purple and Led Zep, etc. You were even called and tear Purple’s 197- classic Highway Star.

JB: “Yeah, well why wouldn’t you? We couldn’t play it but why wouldn’t you chose a name like that? That goes back to the days when I was about 12 and all the guys I hung out with were all that little bit older than me. They were 15, 16 years and they were the ones buying the LED Zep and Purple records. I got into that stuff at an early age. I completely missed out on Glam Rock, completely passed me by.

“Every other kid my age was listening to Marc Bolan and mucking about having fun. I was seriously sitting around, listening and discussing the latest Jethro Tull album with a bunch of older kids in great coats, y’know? (Laughs) But you know I think it actually helped me when the punk rock thing came around. I’d been listening to all these hard rock bands on record and in pubs and stuff. I was completely fed up withe the guitar solo, and the drum solo and stuff so when punk rock came around I thought “Thank God something that’s finally here that’s exciting and vibrant and quick and done in three minutes.” Y’know? I was a very easy convert (to punk).”

TG: How did punk rock come around for you?

JB: “It was John Peel. His radio show. He was always at the forefront of what was cool. He was from way back but always moving. Hugely influential. He was the champion of Pink Floyd in the 1960’s but then the next band and the next. So when Punk Rock happened that was the only way we could hear it – on his BBC radio show. And it was a sort of ‘side bar’ to all the social unrest in Ireland that was goin’ on around us at the time. And no band was stupid enough to come across to Northern Ireland to play. So the only way to access them was on the radio. The only sources were the music papers and when Johnny (Rotten) famously went on television and swore then they (The Sex Pistols) were on the front pages of the tabloids every where. Suddenly Punk Rockers were ‘Public Enemy #1.”

TG: You wanted to be ‘Public Enemy #1’ as well?

JB: “Not really. That was just a side effect. I remember it transformed me though. I went from being a long aired hippy to gettin’ my hair cut. My dad was initially delighted that I’d cut my hair but then he saw the punk rock get up and he kinda wished I’d grown my hair back again (laughs).”

TG: I found some early footage of Stiff Little Fingers from the early 1970s on YouTube and all your fans and audience are already decked out in Punk attire. With Mohawks and ripped clothes and safety pins. There’s even a guy with a swastika around his neck. So there must have been a scene established in Belfast pretty quickly after the whole thing took off.

JB: “Yeah, well it did, really. Was once asked to critique Culture Club (for a TV show) and people would say “Why are you doing that – Punk’s meant to be ‘real’ and ‘gritty’ and that.” And I thought, well, “did you ever see us? We were more dressed up than they were!. And bizarrely I ran into Boy George later that week and I asked if he remembered that and he fell about laughing. “Yeah, I remember that”, he said. So there you go. We were louder and more obnoxious peacocks.

“There were more similarities than people care to remember. It was all just part of being rebellious. The whole swastika thing was very misguided and certainly nothing I took part in but all part of it. Anything to provoke a reaction, I suppose. I’ll thought and stupid”

TG: Can you remember your first gig as a Punk band?

JB: “The very first show was in a bar in Belfast called Lamb’s Lounge – Paddy Lamb was the owner. I’m not sure Paddy really knew what he was gettin’ . We basically 30 or 40 songs – it was a very long set. It was a strange old evening. We veered from Damned songs to Eddy and the Hotrods to Dr Feelgood. I think we even played Van Morrison’s Gloria. I seemed to remember jumping on tables and jumping around, generally. It was very unruly because it was what we thought Punk rock should be, you know? And there were a couple of people in other bands who’d come to check us out. And we tried to do the same thing. So apart from those guys, who kinda knew what to expect. The rest of the audience didn’t have a clue. Just a couple of bemused guys who’d come out for a quiet beer. They didn’t know what the hell was going on on the stage (laughs hardheartedly).”

TG: Was Belfast crazy back then, with Punk coming in, the largely working class population that were attending pubs and gigs and then being surrounded by the IRA and the troubles every day?

JB: “Half the place wanted to escape it all, half wanted to fight back and who ever left just wanted to blow it up. That’s pretty close to what it was like. We kinda kept out of each other’s way. If you wanted to see a particular band then you went to a particular bar. There were certain ones that we played, but others you didn’t even try to get near. There were bands doing covers of the Eagles and Steely Dan, or whatever. They had certain pubs. So you didn’t even try to get into those. And their audiences had no interest in seeing us and we had no interest in trying to play for them. There was rivalry but more like oil and water, certain people just didn’t mix and that was that. You stayed way from certain place because that’s where the bombers met, or the unionists or the bosses, etc.”

TG: What’s the craziest gig you’ve done?

JB: “There were so many. Going back to the earliest days I remember the first time we played outside the UK, a show in Finland, an open air festival. Tens of thousands of people turned up. When I take my glasses off on stage the audience just becomes a blur. Maybe the first two rows. To my poor eyes it was like playing to a cornfield with all these millions of blond heads disappearing off into the distance. We did it with a band called the Members and the back stage was a double-decker bus, the hired equipment was terrible. Everything broke down or sounded awful. We were so frustrated. We got so pissed off we ended up trashing all the equipment out of rage. The we left and only then did we notice The Members standing on the side of the stage ready to go on. They were going to use the same gear. And we were, like “Oh. Oops, sorry. We forgot you had to use that gear.” Sheepishly retiring and skulking off. And then having to sit on the double-decker bus with them while the roadies had to repair it all so they could go on. I’m amazed we’re all still friends to this day. They weren’t particularly pleased at the time.”

TG: Back in the day, the tabloids beat up the Stiffs for exploiting the Troubles in their lyrics and praised the Undertones for avoiding them. Was there any truth behind this?

JB: “Well, that was their attitude, the papers. That we were cashing in on it all. How you can cash in on your own life and what was happening around us at the time, I really don’t know. I felt that both attitudes were valid. I felt that bands that went to The Undertones, they wanted to go see a band and forget their day to day stresses of living in Northern Ireland. The were there to provide entertainment and that’s perfectly valid.”

TG: Your recent record Inflammable Material seems to me to be less of an ‘Irish’ record more universal. Also, is this really a chronicle of teenage frustrations. Odd choice for men in their middle age?

JB: “Everyone calls it the ‘Irish’ record because it feels like it belongs in the era of The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks. Which might be right, I suppose. The theme is close to what we’ve always talked about in our music: disaffected teenagers kicking out against the world. In some ways I want kids today to do more of that. Be less complacent and get off their I-phones and challenge what’s happening around them. Done be a drone. Hey, I’m still disaffected, and I’m still kicking out!”

TG: Do you think the environment you grew up in give it some extra edge and maybe that’s what people outside Northern Ireland are tapping into?

JB: “That’s likely but it’s our perspective – all that we knew, really.”


Auckland Folk Festival

Thanks to the wonderful Trevor Villers, got to attend the third day of the Auckland Folk Festival on Sunday 28th January.  This annual three day event has three main stages, umpteen workshop spaces and it’s own tent city as most of the attendees and artists choose to camp out under the stars at the idyllic location of the Kumeu Showgrounds.  The festival featured a number of big hitters such as Nadia Reid, Reb Fountain, Klezmer Rebs and Canada’s East Pointers.  Another surprise was Scottish harpist Esther Swift and USA’s the Lonely Heartstring Band. Here’s some of Trevor’s wonderful photos.


13th Floor Talks To Mermaidens Abe Hollings


First published at: https://www.13thfloor.co.nz/13th-floor-talks-to-mermaidens-abe-hollingsworth/worth

Back in early August last year Wellington trio Mermaidens released their most recent long player, Perfect Body.  Since then the band has toured at home and across the ditch, gaining accolades and respect for their unique sound.  Now, this February they’ll get to play at their home crowd, at Wellington’s second Coastella Festival.  Tim Gruar caught up with drummer Abe Hollingsworth, who along with band mates Gussie Larkin (guitars and vocals) and Lily West (vocals and bass), make up this very creative three piece. 

For those that missed the memo, here’s a bit of a recap on the band.  Mermaidens are a three-piece outfit based in Wellington.  They are renowned for their intricate and unique song writing which is boldly raw but increasingly undergoing more refined studio production.  On stage, they are reported as creating a hypnotic live synergy that leaves audiences enchanted.  Their entrance onto the NZ music scene was extremely strong following the releases of their widely acclaimed debut EP O in 2014 and subsequent album Undergrowth in 2016.  As a result, they’ve done dozens of national shows, and have now been picked up by Flying Nun Records.  If you’ve been to any big tours lately you may have seen them supporting international acts like Death Cab For Cutie, Sleater Kinney, and Mac Demarco, and Windhand.  And then there was last year’s show for Lorde’s birthday in Dunedin.  More on that later.

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So how do you describe their sound?  Abe likes to quote his bandmate Gussie Larkin on that one “A bit of stoner rock; a smattering of ‘60s surf; some dark-dream psyche pop and some moody ‘80’s punk – and there you have it.  Plenty of pedals and reverb and long, long notes.”

Over the past three years as a trio Mermaidens has put out a couple of EPs and secured themselves a name with high rotation plays on student radio. A hectic tour schedule in 2014 saw them playing a heap of shows, both in their home town Wellington, and around the country.  Then Gussie Larkin and Abe took off overseas for a bit – Gussie to the UK for six months, and Abe for a three month stint in south east Asia and Japan.

Before they left Mermaidens recorded their debut album, for the first time swapping out flat bedrooms and lounges for Blue Barn Studio in Newtown. That’s where James Goldsmith, known for his work as an engineer at Munki Studios, go in on the act.  Sadly Munki was levelled to make way for a new park.  But Blue Barn rose from the ashes just in time for Mermaidens.  Goldsmith is described by Gussie as “our number one favourite person.”  Following a bit of a revival the and got to work again making music and were able to put out Perfect Body, recorded and mixed by James at the aforementioned Blue Barn Studios back in August last year.

For today’s catch up it takes a few text message exchanges to line up it all up.  You see, Abe is a busy man these days.  He’s on a shoot today, helping out his friends Hans Pucket, another Wellington band, who are holed up at a secret location making a new music video.  And the band just returned from an Australian tour.

“It went pretty well”, reports Abe, ‘given we were an unknown band and a bit gutsy to just rock on up to the shore and tour.  We did it all ourselves.  Organised the tour.  Booked all the shows and all the support bands.  It wasn’t super successful, but we had a great time and got our music out there.  That’s what you have to do.”

How did the band go down with Australian audiences?  “We had pretty positive reactions.  People who came up after the show were pretty positive.  New Zealand might have more supportive little enclaves in each town but culturally, we and the Aussies are not so far apart.”

So, what was their best gig?  “Sydney.  We found this pub in a place like Newtown (Wellington).  We rocked up.  It was very much a ‘pub’ with green carpets and mahogany woodwork and paisley wallpaper.  Old pub vibe.  There were old men (maybe Dads) with stubbies on, watching the footy, drinking Fosters.  And we were like ‘Oh, no.  This isn’t going to work.’ Then the game finished and the ‘beer punters’ left and the indie rockers all turned up.  Just like that.  And we met this guy called Dean who helped with the show and put us up for the night.  Drove us to the beach and the airport and helped out a lot.  And the ‘snake’ did not break, in case you are asking.  It was really cool to do such a seat-of-the pants show and for it to come off”

This, of course, was in contrast to supporting Lorde – on her birthday no less – late last year in Dunedin.

“Definitely.  Most of our Australian shows had no dressing rooms or green gooms.  They are foreign concepts.  We’d use toilet cubicles or the back of a car.  Lorde was different.  You have a dressing room down a corridor.  People with clipboards and radios and strict schedules and headsets.”  So, how was the ‘Lorde’ experience with the ‘roar’ of the crowd that you don’t get in a ‘pub’.  “Super exciting.  We were amazed at how supportive the crowd was, given that they were mostly teen who wouldn’t have known us, but they were so cool to us.  They weren’t like “you’re not Lorde.  Get off the Stage.”  They were very supportive.  It was at the Dunedin Town Hall.  The biggest capacity show on her tour.  So, an extra buzz.  3500 people.  The biggest audience we’ve ever played to.  They were her people, obviously.  But I think we won a few hearts.”

So, did they get to meet Lorde?  “Unfortunately, not.  But we hung with her band and had a couple of beers.  So that was almost as good.  It was a much easier conversation, too. Because as much as I’d like to meet her I think I would just choke. I’d be, like, ‘Hi. I love your album.’ Then what?  But with the band there’s no pressure.  You can just talk shit and that’s fine.”  Abe also acknowledges the difference between himself and big artists like Lorde.  “I feel for her because everyone wants 5 minutes of your time – so, you have to protect yourself and your sanity but be polite and gracious under pressure. She’s still human.  So…”

Given the intimacy of their sound, how does it change between a pub show and a Dunedin Town Hall, like a Lorde concert.  “Obviously the better the equipment, the more epic it will be.  Especially, in a big room with all those speakers and a captive audience that reaches back so far.  Compared to smaller speakers and people chatting and beer glasses clinking and cash registers and all that. But in both cases, we have to perform a captivating show.  The vibe is different, and you have to get on top of that.  Audiences can smell the fear (he laughs).”

He says that the best rooms to play are the ones where there is an absence of noise because the silence can give power to the notes and the sounds.  “Notes can hang in the air with this fervency.  That’s the effect we’ve been trying to effect in our Newtown studio.  It’s definitely harder.  That song Satsuma, that we played in Marty’s space, for the video.  There’s a lot of space in it.  And that’s actually the power in it.  Because it’s Gussy’s guitar for a long time. Every four bars there’s one note.  So, it creates the atmosphere of that song.  On the record the soundscapes are performed live, so they will sound different when performed live on a different occasion.  That’s the beauty, I guess.

And now they are back in the country.  Back to earth.  Gearing up for some shows on home turf, starting with one up the Kapiti Coast.  “Coastella has a family kind of family vibe.  Kinda chilled.  We are looking forward to it.  How will we go down?  Well, we seem to have a big ‘Dad’ appreciation vibe.  So, I think we are looking forward to collecting some more ‘Dad’.  We’re not BBQ reggae but still listenable, but with a real appreciation from those intellectual family members (laughs).  The Dads.”  Not the dad that tell bad jokes then.  “Ah no.  I’m thinking of the ones that collect vinyl.  Our new album is on digital and vinyl.  Dad appreciate that I think.”  Were there many dads coming to those Aussie shows, I wonder?  “Perhaps the more bewildered ones who’d stayed to long in the pub after work and should of cleared out before the gig got under way.”

Mermaidens play Coastella Festival 17 February – Southwards Car Museum, Paraparaumu, Kapiti Coast

Watch The Mermaidens 13th Floor Video Session Here:



St Jerome’s Laneway Festival (Auckland 29 January 2018)

Kia Ora, readers.  I had a blast at Laneway this year.  Normally, I take my own photos but this this year I had a little help.  Here are some of the highlights, in pictures – courtesy of my friend Trevor Villers.  Enjoy