INTERVIEW: JAKE BURNS OF STIFF LITTLE FINGERS

It took iconic Irish punk band, Stiff little Fingers, nearly 40 years to tour Australia for the first time, only to find that, at every gig, including their Adelaide show at The Gov, the fans embraced them like long-lost brothers.

Obviously, buoyed by the affectionate and enthusiastic reception they received on that tour, the band are keen to head back to town in February next year to share more of their particular brand of fiery social commentary, and frantic riffing, with their old Australian fans and those more recent converts to their cause.

Jake Burns, rugged up against the snow and ice that was engulfing his adopted hometown of Chicago, chatted to The Upside News impatient to get over here and bask in the warmth and hospitality that the band will undoubtedly experience on their upcoming Antipodean summer leg of their 40th Anniversary World Tour (Give Or Take A Year), as well as demonstrating he has lost none of his acuity when it comes to discussing the disaster zone of current world politics!

 

The Upside News: Hello, Jake Burns!

Jake Burns: Hello Ken, how are you doing? Thank you for calling.

TUN: Thanks for taking the call.

I chatted with you once before, I don’t know whether you remember, around February last year I think…

JB: Wasn’t it the year before? Oh jeez, I honestly don’t know myself now…(Laughs). I’m losing track!

TUN: You’re right, it might have been earlier actually…

But now, forty years of Stiff Little Fingers! You’ve been touring around the globe to celebrate that milestone. How has the celebration been unfolding?

JB: It’s been fun. You know, we’ve schlepped all round the world pretty much. You guys are next on the hit list. It’s been a lot of fun.

It’s a strange old thing, you know, because sometimes, looking back on it all, it feels like it seems like only yesterday and that everything’s happened in a blink of an eye – and then, at other times, it feels like ‘Nah, it does feel like forty damn years! (Laughs) You can’t really quantify it.

When we first sat down [to discuss the milestone] and said, ‘Well alright, what are we going to do?’ There were a number of things we especially wanted to do.

We wanted to make sure we did a special show at home, in Belfast, just because that’s where it all started. And we managed to pull that together. We got some of our old friends to come and play with us [The Stranglers, Ruts DC, The Outcasts, amongst others] and we did a big outdoor thing in the summer, and that was a lot of fun.

But to be honest with you, Ken, the hardest thing has been putting the set-list together, because you only get a certain amount of time on a stage – you get like an hour, or an hour and a half, at most on most nights – and trying to shove all the highlights of forty years into that…! It’s more a question of what you leave out than what you put in, you know?

There are at least about seven songs over our career that if we don’t play them we run the risk of the audience lynching us. (Laughs) So we’ve got to play those! And then there’s B-sides and album highlights and before you know it, you’ve filled the list up and you’re sat with, ‘Well, we shouldn’t leave that one out’, and ‘We really ought to play that‘. And given that our promoter has billed it as our ‘fortieth anniversary – give or take a year’ – by the time we make it to Australia – we’re already looking forward to recording an album, so you kind of want to throw in at least one, maybe two, new songs in to the mix as well just to prove to the people, you know, ‘Well OK, this is kind of a celebration of the last forty years but we don’t want to the show to be seen as some sort of nostalgic wallow-fest, or whatever.’

We are still a working band, we are still moving forward, so we’d like it to be a forty year celebration but with one eye on the future.

So, great, you do all that but then it’s like, now we’ve got these two new songs…where the hell are we gonna put those? (Laughs) So then we’ll have to negotiate – ‘Does anybody mind if we stay on an extra fifteen minutes just so we can fit all these songs in?’ It’s the only way we’ll be able to do it.

TUN: Well, nobody is going to complain about that!

So, when you were talking, initially, about choosing the set list – and you were talking about reflecting back on the past and your music – is there a criteria that you apply to your work now? Are there some songs you now look at and say, ‘No, the sentiment in that song – no matter how great it was then – I don’t feel that way anymore, so we have to leave that one out’? And are there others that have, maybe, grown in meaning over the journey?

JB: Yeah, certainly. There are. Well, there is one song in particular that people keep asking us to play – a song called Beirut Moon which we wrote at the time when there were a couple of British hostages being held in Beirut. We actually wrote it for the campaign being run by the friends of John McCarthy to try and help raise awareness of the fact that he was still being held out there. At the time he was captured, he was being held with an Irish hostage, a guy called Brian Keenan, and there were a couple of American hostages being held out there as well.

Both the Irish and American governments had intervened on their behalf and got their hostages released. I don’t know what deals they struck, but, you know, they were seen to be doing something, whereas the British Government of the time under Margaret Thatcher was sticking to its, ‘We will not negotiate with terrorists’ stance’, so she was not going to doing anything anyway.

The upshot of this was that after we recorded this song, John McCarthy was released, as was Terry Waite, who I believe was the other British hostage being held, and time’s gone on and our audience in the U.K. are still like, ‘That’s a great song! Why don’t you play it anymore?’ And we’re like, ‘Because it’s not relevant anymore!’ (Laughs) The guy was released thirty damn years ago! It is really not relevant…

And they kept going ‘Yeah, but it’s a really good tune.’ But unless we get a completely different set of words for it…you know, what’s the point?

So that’s one. There are a couple of others. And I think that’s the trouble if you write songs like I tend to, you know, about things that have upset my sense of fair play, or whatever, then these things – some things – will actually get resolved, and therefore, like you said, some songs will just no longer have any relevance, and no matter how great they are – they’ve gotta go!
TUN: Well, The Specials were here earlier this year and they still played Free Nelson Mandela – sometimes artists just feel a song has to still be heard…

JB: They did or they didn’t?

TUN: They did. It still serves as a big singalong number, but the message is certainly not as relevant as it once was!

I read a recent interview with you where you stated that the only thing that has really changed about all of the things that made you angry back when you were a teenager was that Belfast has largely recovered from the political divisions, as much as it can, that were evident during The Troubles. What changes, realistically, did you hope you would have seen happen over the course of these forty years that still haven’t occurred?

JB: Well, I think you can’t really put a band-aid on a bullet wound and think it will heal instantly. There are still some deeply held suspicions that are going to take a while to disappear. And they’re not going to disappear, even in my lifetime.

There are still certain sectarian beliefs that are so deeply ingrained in some sections of the community that t’s going to take a long time for them to go, but the point is that they are going. They were never going to disappear overnight, but the fact that people, in the main, have moved beyond that now is hugely heartening, you know?

As a country, Northern Ireland has moved forward so much, and Belfast, as a city, certainly, has moved forward so, so much from when I left it.

It’s mad! It’s a wonderful place to go to now. It’s actually been named Lonely Planet’s “Must See Place To Go To For 2018!’

I mean if you think back to when I left, back in 1978, some forty years ago, there’s no way on this planet, lonely or otherwise, that you’d have made Belfast a must-see destination! It was a ‘must avoid’ destination back then…

But now it’s a place where, you know, when people plan bachelorette weekends that’s where they go! They used to want to go to Dublin, or wherever, but not now – they want to go to Belfast. It really is seen as party town, which is fantastic! I’m glad that that’s the case, you know.

TUN: And that endorsement by Lonely Planet…a little aside here, if I may. We were surprised here because Lonely Planet named Adelaide the ‘Live Music Capital of Australia’! We miss out on a lot of international touring acts here, but apparently we’re the hub of live music in this country, so thanks for putting us on your itinerary again this time around!

JB: Well, sadly for you – you’re just getting us…but you know…(Laughs)

TUN: Last time I spoke to you, you said to me that your song-writing focus had shifted over the years and had moved away from broader political issues to more specific personal concerns, those confronting your age group – I think you mentioned mortgages, and dealing with mental health, and suchlike – but now, I guess, with the recent rise of Trump, and things like Brexit and North Korea, the pendulum may have swung back again? Are you finding yourself more fired up now about those sorts of issues?

JB: I kind’ve have a little bit, yeah. But to be honest with you , I’m kind of overwhelmed by it all at the minute. I had a friend say to me, when all of this started to come to the fore, over a beer – we were sort of bemoaning the way the world was going – and he said something along the ines of, ‘Well, on the bright side, you’ve got no shortage of things to write about!’

But it’s sort of like suddenly being confronted by the biggest all you can eat buffet on the planet – you don’t know where to start. (Laughs) It’s not that there’s a shortage [of options] it’s just a matter of ‘Where do you start?’

Like I said, we do have a couple of songs we would like to get into the set when we get out there, and a couple more on the back-burner that I hope to have finished as soon as we get to Australia, and definitely at least one of them touches on both the current incumbents of the White House and of Downing Street. I’ve never been terribly subtle (Laughs). In fact, I’ve been bleedin’ obvious!

TUN: (Laughs) I’m assuming you are still an American resident. You live in Oregon, am I right?

JB: I live in Chicago.

TUN: Oh, sorry.

Does Trump seem as worryingly out of kilter with basic human values from within the country as he does from without?

JB: Oh God, yeah! It’s kind of difficult to gauge because Chicago is such a liberal town. I mean, seriously, people say to me, ‘What the hell were Americans thinking? How did he get elected?’ And I say, ‘I’ll be honest with you, I’ve yet to find one person who voted for him.’

But that’s more to do with where I live, and the people I hang out with, than the country at large.

So yes, and I can only speak for the area I live in, but yes, he’s very much seen as…well, it’s like – everyday, another embarrassment…

At the moment, as I am speaking to you, the polls are about to close in Alabama where they’re either going to elect a guy who’s blatantly racist, and almost certainly a paedophile, ahead of a civil rights lawyer who actively put away a couple of Klan members who had participated in a fire bombing of a Birmingham church and killed some young girls. So they’re going to elect the racist paedophile simply because they’re Republicans and they need the seat in Senate, and that’s kind of how widely skewed the country has become.
Bear in mind, the Republicans think of themselves as the party of Church and God, and all that malarkey, but they’re all good with all that because it’s a seat that they need.

That’s how low the moral compass seems to have fallen in the country. And when you consider, two years ago, we had the Obamas in the White House, and for things to have swung this far, this quickly, is horrifying. [**Note: In a shock result, the civil rights lawyer, Democrat Doug Jones, actually overcame the odds and defeated the Republican, Roy Moore. I’m sure Jake would have been celebrating!]

TUN: And how hypocrisy has risen so quickly to become the dominant ‘religion’…it is incredible to think how quickly such a thing can happen in the modern world.

JB: Yep, really. And it is the hypocrisy of it that is so gob-smacking. It’s like they will literally say one thing one minute and then the polar opposite the next, and expect you to believe them. The horrifying thing is that a certain number of people still do.

I was reading in The Washington Post the other day, some woman saying that, in the last few days, Trump’s approval rating has dropped to 32%, which is apparently the lowest for any sitting President in living memory. And whilst, on the surface, that seems like reasonably good news, it means that there’s still nearly a third of the electorate that think he’s doing a good job! Let that sink in for a second!

TUN: That’s 32% too many! That’s really scary isn’t it?

Let’s move away from politics for a minute, because we’ve got limited time and we have to talk about the tour coming up.

To come back to Australia within two years of your first major tour here in the band’s lifetime – you must have had a good time when you were here. What made you so keen to come back here?

JB: It was fantastic the last time we were there. It was also the first time that we had properly gone around the country under our own steam. I mean the first time we came across, we only played in Sydney and Melbourne and then we went across to New Zealand for a few shows, and we only got around the bottom of the country by way of the Soundwave festival and then we only got to play 35 or 40 minutes a set, or something.

We really had no concept of what sort of fan-base, if any, there was there for us, so when we came back last time and saw the numbers of people who came out to see us…and it wasn’t just the numbers, it was the overwhelming affection people had for the band and the fact that they knew the words better than I did! I mean, we were asking ourselves, ‘Does anybody even know who in the hell we are in Adelaide, and I think, actually, the night we played there, bloody Noel Gallagher was on across the street…

TUN: Yes, that’s right, he was!

JB: And we thought that would make things more difficult for us, but we had a really nice turn out and they were a great audience, and that was the same story everywhere we went. And, in the end, the promoter was very happy and very keen to have us back, and we were only too happy to come back. It’s something we’re very, very much looking forward to.

And, again, on a personal note, it doesn’t hurt that I’m looking out the window at the snow and ice here…you know, to leave Chicago, in February, and come there? Well, you know, how can I get there quick enough! (Laughs)

TUN: Pack your shorts!

Are you still touring with the same line-up – Ali, Ian & Steve – this time?

JB: Yeah, it is the same band, yeah.

TUN: The Adelaide show you played last time was fantastic, and I was blown away by the crowd singing along to all the songs and absolutely loving every second of the gig. It was great!

At that show there were two or three songs where you eulogised some of your fallen comrades – Joe Strummer; Phil Lynott, when you sang When We Were Young; and The Specials’ John Bradbury. Do you find that you are more of a reflective person these days than a ‘see it as it is, call it as it is’ songwriter?

JB: I don’t think I’ve reached that stage yet. I’ve certainly become more reflective as a person, that’s for sure. I’m not sure that I’ve actually reached that stage in the songwriting yet.

I mean obviously with a song like When We Were Young, that was inspired by…well, actually, the story I told about it was actually true about that night out with Phil.

We were moving house, at the time we were stuck for a last song on the album, and I happened to come across a bunch of old cassette tapes that we were just going to throw out. They were all just labelled ‘Song Ideas’, and that was one of them. And I remembered coming home after that night out with Phil and scribbling down the words and then recording just the first verse. And finding it again inspired me to finish it off.

Phil was kind of in my mind anyway because we’d just started working with our new management who were looking after Thin Lizzy as well, so I’d just seen Scott [Goreham – Thin Lizzy guitarist] again for the first time in a long time, so those guys were back and uppermost in my mind again, you know?

But I haven’t deliberately ever sat down and written the, what’s the old Michael Holliday thing? ‘One day I’m going to write the story of my life?’ [a 1958 hit tune!], I haven’t quite got to that yet, but I’m sure it’ll rear its ugly head at some point… [Laughs]

TUN: You certainly sound excited by life at the moment. I know you sang My Dark Places last time where you sang about times [where that excitement for life wasn’t present], but that seems to have changed – apart from the fact you have to put up with Donald Trump in the White House…

JB: Yeah, well if nothing else, that gives me something to rage against, you know!

 

Stiff Little Fingers return to Adelaide and play The Gov on Tuesday 20th February 2018.

 

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Tickets are available fromhttps://metropolistouring.com/stiff-little-fingers/

 

 

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