Stiff Little Fingers press shot 2012 November 12, 2012 © Ashley Maile

Jake Burns is in a good place these days – although this has not always been the case. Coming through a bleak period which included a marriage break up a few years ago and a subsequent period of depression, he has since happily remarried and relocated to the

Stiff Little Fingers - Portraits
Stiff Little Fingers press shot 2012 November 12, 2012 © Ashley Maile

United States. Since those down days he has had a new lease on life, particularly since the release of Stiff Little Fingers’ last album – the crowd funded ‘No Going Back’ in 2014 – and is now looking forward to finally playing a full set to an Adelaide audience with the band at The Gov on Wednesday night.

On the phone from Perth, Burns spoke about a broad range of topics from the current state of world politics to what he sees as the lasting legacy of his iconic band.

Upside News: With the Buzzcocks playing here last week, Glen Matlock a couple of weeks ago, and the Gang Of Four tour on the near horizon, its like the dawning of British punk rock all over again! Is this a particularly good time to get out of Britain or what?

Jake Burns: It’s like 1970’s London all over again!

UN: This is your second time in Australia within three years. What brought you back so soon this time?

JB: Well the promoter got in touch and we realised this would be only our third time in Australia. The first time we only played in Sydney and Melbourne.

UN: So many great bands do that. They come to Australia and bypass Adelaide.

JB: Well yeah, it’s such a long way for us to come and only play two shows. It seems insane, but that’s what they wanted us to do. And then the last time we came through we were just part of Soundwave which meant we only got to play, I can’t remember whether it was 30 minutes or 45 minutes, which, either way, was nowhere near what we would normally play. So realistically, this is sort of our first real tour of the country – which is pretty embarrassing as next year will be our 40th anniversary.

UN: Forty years? That seems like it has flown by in a wink of an eye…

JB: It does. It seems like only yesterday we were rehearsing in a lonely church hall, but then at other times it seems like, ‘Dear God! Is that my entire life nearly gone!’

UN: So do you still get a buzz out of touring after 40 years on the road?

JB: Yeah, it is still the best part of the job, it really is. Not so much the travelling though. As I’m sure you’re aware, modern travelling is nowhere near as much fun as it used to be. Airports are more like an assault course these days. But once you get that out of the away and get to where you are going and play in front of people – that’s the really fun part. I’ve always loved that instant reaction part, to me that’s more fun than making records. I do enjoy that too, there are very few parts of my job that I don’t enjoy, but playing live is definitely my favourite part.

UN: The adrenaline still pumps when you hit the stage?

JB: Yeah, it’s funny because I was talking to someone earlier who asked me about ‘stage nerves’ and I realised I now get more nervous than I ever did when I was 18 or 19, and that’s because when I was 18 or 19 I didn’t know what could go wrong! After all this time, I now know everything that can go wrong!

UN: So compared to when you were younger, when it was all about the energy and commitment, is it more about pride in the craft of your performance these days?

JB: Well, we always had pride in our performance, but, looking back, it is more like ‘Oh yeah, that’s the time that the fucking amplifier blew up!’

You can’t remember anything else about it – it could have been the best gig in the world, but what you remember is ‘That is the time the amplifier blew up…’ You’re just more aware now of what can go wrong, so that’s what makes me nervous about going on these days. And you now have a reputation, and you didn’t have that reputation when you were starting out. And our reputation is something we take great pride in – you don’t want to let yourself or the audience down.

UN: Sometimes it’s those moments that stay with the fans though. I remember seeing XTC in ’77 in Cardiff and Barry Andrews keyboards fell off stage and into the crowd so he just played air keyboards for the rest of the show…

JB: (Laughs) Ah you’ve got to laugh {at such moments] and there’s no point in losing it because at the end of the day it’s just pop music isn’t it? It’s not exactly the most important thing in the world.

UN: I have to say congratulations on the last album No Going Back, as well as on the previous album ‘Guitar And Drum’; but there was ten years between the albums – is that because song-writing dried up, or did you just take a sabbatical?

posterSLFJB: There’s a number of reasons to be honest, I went through a divorce at the start of the writing of the last album. Basically life got in the way. And that took me a bit of time to come to terms with, and then I, rather foolishly, got married again. My wife won’t read this because it’s in Australia! (Laughs) No, obviously, I love my wife! And getting married for the second time is the best thing I ever did, but that entailed moving to America. And that meant quite a bit of upheaval and that all took quite a bit of time so I took my eye off the ball a bit.

I was still writing songs, but I wasn’t convinced by them.

And then my 50th birthday occurred, when I had nearly finished an album’s worth of songs. This would have been around 2008 – eight years ago. I’m not a big one for birthdays, but my wife was like, ‘It’s your fiftieth, and we’ve got to make a big deal of it.’ She threw a huge party and flew friends in from everywhere. The party lasted for about three days at the end of which I had to go on tour, so I effectively left straight from the party and went off on tour.

So, the 50th was kind of hanging in my mind all the way through that tour – normally I wouldn’t have bothered about it – and I met the guys at the end of the tour and they said ‘Go home and finish off the last few songs and then come autumn we’ll be in the studio ready to record them.’  That was the plan.

So I came home and listened to the demos that I’d made and … I didn’t like them.

I mean being fifty was not playing on my mind in a bad way, but I was listening to the songs and thinking these are the sort of songs you could have written when you were twenty – and you wouldn’t have thought they were that good then. They sounded like Stiff Little Fingers by numbers. Like I was writing songs because I had to, more than because I wanted to, and the songs didn’t reflect where I was in my life as a 50 year old.

So, with the exception of ‘Liar’s Club’, I threw them all out.

I kept some musical bits & pieces, but even musically I wanted to change them, because not only did they not not reflect where I was in my life – the songs didn’t reflect anything near my best work.

I sat down and thought, ‘Well, what does concern me?’ My wife had just lost her job and we were staring down the barrel of losing our apartment, and basically it was just the sort of everyday stuff that a lot of 50 year olds were dealing with. I thought this was the sort of stuff I should write about.

And then the next concern was: ‘How the hell do you write a rock and roll song about not being able to pay your mortgage?! It’s not very fucking rock and roll is it? It’s not exactly trashing your hotel room, is it? But I did what I always do and that is to write from the heart as much as possible and put down what I felt.

We then played them to people and amazingly they said, ‘That’s exactly what I’m going through.’

So I wrote songs about losing a job and whether you were going to be secure. I went through a long period of depression following my divorce and stuff, so whether it was dealing with depression – which again turned out to be way more prevalent among people of my age than I thought – these things became as much of a universal theme as Chuck Berry riding along in an automobile was back in the fifties. These were concerns that people have and I guess I didn’t realise it because no-one else had really written songs about them.

UN: I can hear what you are saying, and I actually had a question here to ask you along those lines: That over recent albums the band seems to have taken a more general personal political & philosophical approach – I’m thinking of songs like ‘Be True To Yourself’ from ‘Guitar & Drum’ or ‘I Just Care About Me’ from the latest album, for instance – rather than tackling more specific contemporary political issues.

JB: Yeah, well Ian [McCallum] wrote the ‘Be True To Yourself’ song, but ‘I Just Care About Me’ – I had become very suspicious of the term ‘career politician’. I never though that being a politician was supposed to be a career. You were supposed to enter public service in order to make a difference; make things better for people. And you weren’t supposed to see it as some sort of grasping on to the corporate ladder as it has become.

UN: Sounds like Australia…

JB: I think it’s world-wide. I am almost embarrassed to say I live in America, because the first thing that people say is ‘What do you think of Donald Trump then?’

Where do you actually start? Start with ‘media buffoon’ and work down from there. And people are taking him seriously!

The thing that scares me about Trump is not him so much, as he is just an idiot, but it’s the fact that he’s up there and getting so much coverage and its like he’s given permission to every rabid racist arsehole in the country to suddenly ‘come out’. It’s like he’s validated their views. Suddenly people are declaring ‘It’s just as valid me being racist as it is you not being racist’, and – no, it fucking isn’t!

UN: Our local paper ran an article today drawing a parallel between support for Trump and support for Pauline Hanson here years ago where people dismissed her as a racist crackpot, yet she attracted enough support to win quite a number of seats at the time. Trump is a much scarier proposition again though…

JB: Yeah, I remember a number of years back there was a thing called ‘Rock The Vote’. I think Bruce Springsteen was instrumental in it, and they did a tour. I saw interviews with all the guys involved in it – Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, and other folks – and they all spent time explaining why they were getting involved in the movement, and it was obviously an anti-Bush thing. The most salient interview I saw was with Mike Mills of R.E.M, and his interview lasted just one sentence, and it applies even more nowadays. What he said to the camera was: ‘I just want a President who’s smarter than I am.’ And that’s not a bad fucking starting point really!

UN: So, with you living in America these days, is it hard to get the band together to rehearse and write new material?

JB: Not really. We actually do so much touring. We’ve done an awful lot over the last couple of years. Pretty much since we finished the last record. We finished the record on February 6th (2014) and the next week we were in Auckland. We did the UK tour last year and we are here now. Actually, the miracle of the internet makes it so much easier. You can actually have online discussions as to what songs we should play. Even writing songs has become so much easier because of that, you know I can work on a song at home and send an mp3 to everybody in the band and get a reply within minutes as to whether they like it or not. Whereas in the past, even living just twenty miles away, it would be like ‘Well, I won’t be home tonight until late.’ It seems a strange thing to say with all four of us now living in different cities – two in the U.K. and two in America – but it is actually easier now than when all of us lived in the U.K.

UN: Is Ali McCordie still playing bass for you?

JB: Yes he is. I haven’t actually seen him yet. He didn’t arrive until midnight last night by which time I was fast asleep. I am sure he’s still asleep now!

UN: So he’s now a decade into his ‘temporary’ return to the band?

JB: Yeah we haven’t got around to asking him permanently to rejoin, but he just keeps on turning up.

UN: So the current setlist is a balance between your old stuff and tracks from the last two albums?

JB: Basically what we try and do with every live show is to hit as many bases as we can because we are always aware there will be many who have never seen us before. We have a lot of new young fans. We get more complaints about not playing ‘all ages shows’ than just about any other thing. So coming to play, for what is really the first time, in Australia, we are very much aware of [achieving a good balance]. We are playing roughly the same set we played in the U.K.

It’s really quite hard when you’re a band that hasn’t really had ‘hits’ as such – but we know the songs that people want to hear and hopefully we play most of them. So we’ll play two or three from the new record and the rest from trawling back through all the other stuff. There’s quite a lot of stuff there you know.

You start off by thinking these are the songs we’ve got to play, and once you’ve put those into the set you realise, well, we’ve only got about four spots left!

We can’t play all night, and obviously the club will have to shut down so you’re aware of the time limit. If anything, it gets harder as time goes by. When we were starting out and we only had one album to pick from I used to think, ‘God it’ll be so much easier when you’ve got a few more records to pick from’ – but it’s actually bloody harder!

UN: Is ‘Strummerville’ in the set? I have to admit I had a bit of a middle aged man weep when I first heard that one!

JB: Yeah, ‘Stummerville’ makes the setlist.

UN: It seems particularly poignant this year with so many icons dropping off their perches…

JB: We’re just getting to that age in life, you know. It really is that you go to more funerals than weddings these days. But it seemed particularly bad this last winter, every day you woke up and it was somebody different. You knew it was coming with someone like Lemmy but others, like Bowie, came out of nowhere.

UN: You know, in my mind I always think I’m still a teenager, but his passing made me think otherwise…

JB: I think we all still do [feel like a teenager] and that’s the trouble…

UN: One last question. The band has a great legacy. What is the one thing you look back on with the most pride when you reflect on the history of the band from a 2016 perspective?

JB: I think we always tried to stay true to what we wanted to be. As far as I can think, we have never actually been dishonest with our audience. I think that’s the main reason the audience has stuck with us for so long. That, plus as I mentioned earlier, the subjects we have chosen for the songs are things we are concerned about and obviously they have touched a nerve with the audience as well. So realistically I think it is the honesty and the connection with the audience that I am proudest of. For the longest time we would argue that we didn’t have ‘fans’, but we had ‘friends’, because that’s what it felt like. A lot of our audience have become friends. There’s a woman and her daughter who come to a lot of our shows in England and they have actually become very close friends with me and my wife, in fact the woman has come and stayed with us in Chicago!

UN: It must be good not to have to play that aloof, celebrity game anymore…

JB: I don’t know why people do that. Realistically, I am sat here in this hotel room having to do these interviews and it’s driving me nuts! I’d rather be with the guys and walking around the town and seeing the place. Not that I mean to be disparaging! But I mean if you want to play that ‘I’m aloof, I’m above you in my ivory tower’ crap then you’ll just be stuck in a fucking hotel room all the time – and what’s the point of that?

UN: I’m glad you think like that. I guess I might even get to have a beer with you on Wednesday night then?

JB: Absolutely! I’m always game to have a beer!

UN: Thanks for chatting to The Upside News, Jake and thanks for keeping on believing in the power of the guitar and the drum!

JB: No worries at all. Thanks for calling, buddy. See you on Wednesday!

Stiff Little Fingers play The Gov on Wednesday March 30.

Interview by Ken Grady