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Stiff little interview

By R&H poet laureate Owen Jenkins

Posted February 17, 2016
jake burns of stiff little fingers
Jumpin' Jake Flash: Jake Burns of SLF in action. © Adam PW Smith

Jake Burns of Belfast punk legends Stiff Little Fingers speaks to the R&H's Owen Jenkins on the eve of their upcoming UK tour.

Stiff Little Fingers (SLF) sprung from Belfast in the late 70s when the Troubles were at their height.

It was a time when punk was growing throughout the UK and youth culture would be forever changed.

The band now have an impressive 25 albums under their belt, with songs like Suspect Device and Alternative Ulster having gone down in punk history.

Right now, on the 37th anniversary of the their 1979 debut album Inflammable Material, they are about to embark on a UK tour, starting at the Oxford O2 Academy this coming February 25 and finishing 23 days later at the O2 Ritz in Manchester.

With that in mind, I got to speak via telephone with frontman Jake Burns in his current home a few miles west of Belfast in the quiet little village of Chicago.

SLF current line-up
SLF from L to R: Ian McCallum (guitar), Jake Burns (vox/guitar), Steve Grantley (drums) and Ali

McMordie (bass). © WebBarbie

Your tour is starting on the 25th in Oxford at the O2. This will be the first of 18 gigs in 24 days. How do you prepare for that?

It's actually not that many really.

We've been doing it for that long now it's kind of like a well-oiled machine.

We've got a routine we stick to, because we are all scattered to the four winds as well.

We all live all over the place.

We all email each other set lists of what we want to play and what we kind of need to play.

So we spend the next couple of weeks at home learning our own part and then we get all together a few days before hand in London, book ourselves into a recording studio and knock the whole thing into shape.

So that's about as much preparation as we need as a band and obviously the crew are doing other stuff in the interim: hotels have to be booked and stuff like transport and making sure we've got enough strings and drum sticks to get round, you know.

Do you find it much different touring now compared to the old days?

It's a lot less frantic than it used to be.

Like I said, we settled into a routine and we all know what we are doing.

Back in the day, it all seemed a bit helter-skelter, plus everything was new then.

You kind of wanted to do everything when you got to town because you had never been there before, you didn't know what it had to offer.

These days, not saying we've been there done that but we've kind of been there done that.

It's a much easier thing to do now.

We've all grown up and you don't rely on each other so much.

Back in the day, it was like we hung out together, it was like if one person was going out then everybody had to go out.

Now we are all much more relaxed.

For example, on the day, I sort of just lock myself in my hotel room and watch television and don't go out, basically try to rest a bit more.

That's because we are all getting to be old geezers now.

jake burns with captain sensible
Happy, talky, talky, happy talk: Jake with Cpt Sensible and Shirley Sexton. © Cpt Sensible

Out of all the places you've played, which has been your favourite?

Well, again it's a standard answer to this, but it's definitely Glasgow, just simply because I think there is a lot of similarities between folk on the west of Scotland and those from Northern Ireland, so we had a lot in common when we first started.

The Glasgow audience kind of adopted us almost from day one, much more fervently than everywhere else.

We got a pretty good reception elsewhere but Glasgow was always that little bit more fervent.

Also, this year it's our 25th year of playing Barrowlands on St Patrick's night.

So that's kind of special, so we are filming and recording it.

Just to give us two more things to worry about on the night.

That's going to be some gig, then?

It should be, yeah.

It sold out very quickly.

I mean, it always sells out, but this year it was particularly fast.

I think because people realised it was the 25th anniversary and they reckon that we are probably going to do something special.

So yeah, it should be a really good night, as long as everything works.

That's the trouble with having done it so long – when you are 18 or 19, although you get slight stage nerves, you don't have that many because you know, at that age, you think you can conquer the world and rightly so, but you also don't know what the hell can go wrong.

But having done it for this long, I know everything that can go wrong.

So I'm always petrified something's going to fucking break before we get half way though the show.

I saw in the news that you played in France a couple of days after the attacks. How was that?

To be honest with you, it was just another show.

We never really thought about it.

I mean, our own concern was once the atrocities happened the French government put the whole country on a kind of public lock-down, so much as public gatherings weren't allowed.

So our only concern was whether we were going to actually be allowed to play or not or whether the venue wanted to go ahead.

We obviously didn't want to be seen as disrespectful but by the same token, having grown up in Northern Ireland I was of a mind that, well, we all were, that anything that's seen as a return to a normality as soon [as possible] after something like that can only be a good thing.

We are very lucky that the three-day ban on public events stopped on the day we got there.

Also the venue – we contacted them, make no mistake – if the venue had said they didn't want to do it, we wouldn't have gone but they said they very much wanted the show to go ahead.

So we just went ahead and did it.

I mean, if anything, the audience deserves more credit than we do because obviously they must have been more shaken up and the thought of going out to another show after what had just happened...

So it was certainly an emotional evening but we tried to make it as normal as possible.

The French people showed great spirit in the days following the atrocities. French people seem to really rally around each other in hard times.

I think most people do.

It's one of those things, it's your life.

Well, it's more than that, it's your way of life.

I think most people believe that you can't be dictated to by outside forces.

jake burns with current drummer steve grantley
Flamin' groovies: Jake with drummer Steve. © SLF

On a happier note, it's the 37th birthday of your first album Inflammable Material.

Yeah, it's a long time.

I just saw that today on FaceBook; I was, like, "really?"

It's one of those weird things, obviously sometimes it feels like it was just yesterday and other times it feels like it happened to somebody else it was so long ago.

If someone had told you back then you would still be playing music in the same band 37 years later, would you have believed them?

Probably not.

I mean, I think once we released the record and once we saw the impact it had we knew that it wasn't going to be something we were just going to stop doing in six months.

You know, when we made the record we didn't have a record deal.

Rough Trade had never made an album before and we had never made an album before and it was kind of like, "well lets do it together", which was great.

It was an incredibly brave thing for them to do, to make us their first album release.

We had been turned down by every major record company, so we almost thought we would go in and record the songs and at least, if nothing else, in years to come we would have something to play to our grandkids and say: "I made this record once."

So no, we never thought that it would go on for this length of time but once the record came out and did so well, we realised that we were certainly going to be doing this for the next few years.

At the time, we thought like most bands, we didn't think like it was a career but if we do get five years out of this, we are doing well.

So to still be doing it, like you said, 37 years as well.

As a band, this is our 39th year.

Next year – well, assuming we get through this year without killing each other – then next year will be our 40th anniversary, which is just incredible.

Again, it really does seem like a blink of an eye that I was in my bedroom in my mum and dad's house writing those first songs.

So to be here this much later is just astonishing and very humbling, and an audience has stuck with us so long.

Yeah, you do seem to have a very loyal fan base.

They are.

Again, something I've often said, they are more like a football crowd than a rock crowd.

It's like we are their team and they're going to stick with us though thick and thin.

It's very flattering.

slf fans
Loyal support: Some SLF fans t'other day. © Shaun Jones Photography (if you hadn't noticed)

What kind of songs can the fans expect to hear on the coming tour, some old stuff and new?

A bit of both.

To be honest, I've never been a fan of going to see a band with a new album out and they play the whole dammed thing.

You know, everybody wants to hear the new songs but you don't need to play it to death.

Three or four off the new record is enough really.

We've had such a long career really, we have got to reflect that in the set list.

We try and hit as many of what we consider to be the best songs, songs that the audience consider to be your best songs as well.

At the end of the day, we are there to entertain people.

We try to play as much or as many bits and pieces of our whole career as we can.

We only get 75 minutes but we stretch it out to about 90 before the crew start yelling at us and looking at their watches.

Out of all the songs, which is your favourite to play?

That's a really hard question.

It kind of changes.

If you ask some people, they will say it's the most recent thing they have been writing, just because it's freshest in their mind and it's the thing they are most excited about.

The benefit of hindsight, I couldn't put my finger on one to tell the truth.

The song that will follow me to my grave will always be Alternative Ulster.

That's the song the band is most commonly identified with.

I don't have a problem with that.

I think it's a decent song, certainly to have written it when I was 19 or 20 years old.

I look back on it and think, "Yeah, that's pretty good for a 19-year-old to have written."

jake burns with former drummer jim reilly
How many sugars do you want? Jake flicking the Vs with former SLF drummer Jim Reilly. © SLF

Do you think your writing techniques have changed a lot over the years?

Yeah, any songwriter will tell you there are song-writing tricks to use that make anything exciting.

I remember seeing years ago Elton John being interviewed by Michael Parkinson.

He was asked, "Could you actually sing the phone book?"

He said, "Yeah, sure" and they got a phone book and [he] sang the phone book and everyone was really impressed.

I remember watching it, saying "How is he doing that?" but, of course, now I know the easy tricks you get, so everybody could sing the phone book if you know what you're doing.

So over the years, at first you think the song is great but then you realise that there are tricks and everybody knows them so if anything it's become, not harder to write, but I think it's more about trying to avoid the obvious tricks and throw something in that surprises people.

Without actually making it sound like it's not supposed to be there.

On your latest album (No Going Back), the song My Dark Places is one of my favourites.

It was a song I wrote because I went through a long period of depression myself and I had finally come out the end and I basically wrote down everything that had happened to me and how I had dealt with it.

It was more of an exercise for myself – I never really meant for the song to be published.

If I hadn't been a songwriter, it would have just been written as a poem or a shopping list almost.

Just something I could refer back to whenever I could feel myself depressed again: I could say, "Hang on a minute, you know how this works, you know how to deal with this."

Being a songwriter, I put it to music.

I never wanted it to be released but the band heard it.

It was actually Ali who turned and sat me down and said, "We've got to record this."

I said, "It's just kind of me moaning on about being depressed – who wants to listen to that?" and he said, "The bottom line is you're not the only person in the world that gets depressed."

So I'm really glad we did record it because of all the other songs I've written, including Alternative Ulster, it's the one song that most people have come up to me and thanked me for writing and said it's helped them and they are glad someone is talking about it out in the open.

Because somehow there is this stigma to do with what is perceived as mental illness.

It has this weird stigma to it, like you're not allowed to talk about it or it's something to be ashamed of almost.

It's seen as a weakness and it's not and, realistically, talking about it really is the first step in getting better.

ali mcmordie
Putting the fast in Belfast: Ali on, er, bass by the looks of it. © SLF

The genre of punk was such a revolution in music, fashion and youth culture. Do you think we will or could see anything like that again?

I would imagine so.

I imagine there are just as many bored, disaffected kids about today as there were when we were kids.

I don't see any reason why not.

I think it expresses itself in the form of rap music but unfortunately that's just became much like punk rock did, it became distilled down to some sort of basic common denominator.

In rap music, it's become about gangster-rap misogynist nonsense; in punk rock's case it seems to be you've got to have the right hair cut, the right leather jacket, write songs about drinking and fighting.

Which is, like, "OK, fair enough if that's your thing".

It used to be so much more, you know.

With the way music is made, produced and sold these days, do you think it affects the new teenage bands, actual musicians rather than X Factor rubbish, from making it big?

Yeah, I mean, it's a weird thing; there was a period before the real complete rise of the internet when I would have hated being in a band starting out.

Because live music was dying on its arse and unless you were an established band, people weren't getting booked.

No one was taking the chance, going to see an unknown band.

The record companies were just signing up like X Factor acts.

It really did look for a long time that the music industry was going to die.

It's a strange economy that because of the rise of the internet and the fact that the kids can afford to fairly cheaply make records in their bedroom, whereas when I was a kid it was just writing the songs was as much as you could manage.

You needed a recording studio to do these things.

Now they can be put out on the internet with millions of followers on YouTube, they can build a following, so when they do finally go play live, should they want to, they have a ready-made audience.

Of course, the downside to that is that there is so much illegal downloading and stuff going on that really the incentive to write new music is taken away.

Particularly if it's what you do for a living.

Everyone has to pay bills at the end of the day.

If you're spending years working, writing, making a record and then basically putting it on the internet and people just steal it, then your incentive disappears.

It's kind of harder for younger bands to make money but much easier to be heard.

What kind of modern-day music grabs you now, stuff that packs the same punch as Stiff Little Fingers?

I always dread this question because I'm the world's worst for going out and watching bands and stuff.

I know the minute I hang up the phone on you I'll think of about four bands, but right now I can't think of any.

I know they are out there.

Soon as I hang up, I'll think, "Damn, I should have mentioned them."

We've done a few festival tours and stuff now and there you see bands – again I would probably never have heard of – and while watching on the side of the stage you would think, "God, these guys are good."

So there are acts out there certainly.

It's not the desert that a lot of people have you believe it is.

jake on stage in 2014
Major salutes, sir! Jake on stage in 2014. © SLF

What kind of genre of music do you listen to the most?

Basically, I'll listen to just about anything apart from jazz.

I can't get on with jazz at all.

It never made any sense to me whatsoever.

At home, I'm just as much likely to put on an old Howlin' Wolf album as I am to put on the newest Elvis Costello.

People I grew up with – and by that I mean people who were contemporaries at the time or just ahead of us, like Costello – I'm always really interested in.

I like to see what he is likely to come up with because he has changed direction so many times.

A lot of his stuff he has done hasn't been as successful as you would hope in terms of, not by the record sales, but on how it worked.

Equally, there are some chances that he has taken that have come off brilliantly well.

I think it started when he made a country and western album in 1980.

The Clash are putting out London Calling and he is putting out Good Year for the Roses.

It was like, where the hell did that come from?

Chief hack's note: Good question indeed, sir. Anyway, cheers, Owen, and a huge Rake & Herald hats-off and thank-you to Jake for not only answering Owen's questions, but for all the bloody ace music he's been writing, recording and playing over the years. Seriously, I bloody love SLF and have done ever since I first heard them as a nipper. Although I've never quite worked out why Terry's a lobster.

Anyway, don't forget to check out the SLF website, where you can find the full list of upcoming tour dates, not to mention a detailed biography, discography and some rather tasty items of merchandise to boot. Similarly, if social media's your bag, why not give their
FaceBook page a like and their Twitter feed a follow as well?

Now, bearing in mind what Jake has to say about the internet, I hope it's not too amiss of me to embed a few SLF numbers here on the tune-tastic
Rake & Herald for strictly educational purposes. That and the fact that the following two songs are, in my opinion at least, some of the greatest punk tunes ever recorded. And if you disagree with me, tough tits 'cos I'm the editor. So here they are now, embedded from the respective YouTube channels of allister girvin and fabiossh.

See also Johnny Was, posted 14/12/13, and A natty natter with Roddy Radiation, posted 5/2/16.

The original version of this article can be found on Owen's Life on Music blog. Cheers muchly for letting us run it here on the Rake & Herald, chief!

Owen Jenkins is an Afghan veteran and serving soldier with the British Army. His poems can be read online here.

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Virtual Trouser fites dem back

the bard of brixton linton kwesi johnson

Bread in the oven bakin'! Virtual Trouser eats with its gun, sleeps with its gun. It even cleans its teeth with its gun.

Virtual Trouser knows the score

come to milton keynes

Big fish, little fish, cardboard box. Yep, that's right, it's time to get your whistles out as Virtual Trouser goes old skool raving.

Thurston Moore's big pile of gash

thurston moore

Shit gig. Great review.