Interview: Stiff Little Fingers
Stiff Little Fingers are one of the original Belfast punk bands – the founding fathers of the movement in Northern Ireland.
Having exploded onto the scene back in 1977, we are now approaching their 40th Anniversary and the band are still are passionate and authentic as they were on day one. This summer’s show at Custom House Square promises to be a monumental celebration of 40 triumphant years of disruptive, destructive punk rock rawness. Stiff Little Fingers are burning as brightly as ever and they show no signs of going anywhere!
Gigging NI: Lucy calling from Gigging NI. How are you? Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. It’s a pleasure to speak with you. I’ve been a big fan since I was a child. I saw you guys for the first time back in 2007 in Mandela Hall. Great gig – I actually lost a shoe in the pit because it was so rowdy.
Jake: Funny you should say that, I actually lost a shoe in the same venue at a gig not so long ago!
GNI: Brilliant, sure it’s a key component in the making of a perfect punk gig. So shall we get started?
GNI: Okay, SLF formed back in 1977, just as the punk movement was kicking off – what inspired you to start making music together?
Jake: Three of us had been playing in school bands anyway. The whole music scene at the time was really kind of boring. I was initially inspired to pick up a guitar by Rory Gallagher. A lot of the other bands that were around at the time really weren’t as interesting as he was. I mean, there were bands like Yes, Genesis etc., where it kind of seemed like you had to go to go music college just to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band and that’s really not what I thought it was all about. I was fed up with the main bands who were around at the time and I was kind of fed up with guitar players who were just showing off.
“I started to focus on the songs rather than people just being flash. By the time punk came around I was already listening to the likes of Bob Marley and Dr. Feelgood. When punk actually happened I thought it was incredibly exciting. Hearing the likes of The Pistols and The Damned for the first time – at this stage when bands weren’t coming over to Belfast, I didn’t see any big future in it, I thought it would be done in 6 months but then I heard The Clash. That changed things. They were actually writing songs about their lives and that’s when I could see a future in it and that’s what inspired me to actually start writing songs instead of playing cover versions.
GNI: Punk’s main appeal comes in its ‘Do It Yourself’ attitude and emphasis on self-expression. I think your ability to expostulate your own experiences of growing up in Belfast and actually questioning what was going on around you, really set SLF apart from other bands that were around at the time. You exude a sense of realness and rawness and the people adore it.
Jake: To use a horrible marketing term, it was definitely our unique selling point. As much as I was inspired by The Clash; to hear them singing songs about being bored living in London, when I’d buy the NME and see all these incredible bands were playing there every night, when there was absolutely nothing going on in Belfast – I’m thinking, you think you have something to moan about? Come and try living over here fella. When we started, having taken the signpost from them in terms of writing songs about our lives, Belfast was our lives at the time, you know we can’t really write songs about bowling down Californian highways when they furthest west we’d been at that point was Galway!
GNI: Brilliant, so if we move onto our next question, it ties in nicely with the first. Who are your biggest influences and why?
Jake: The reason I picked up a guitar in the first place was seeing Rory Gallagher. When I first saw him I think I was about 12, which would have been in 1970. It was a concert at the Ulster Hall that was shown on TV just after the football results. I was about to leave the room when he started and the sound literally made me stop. I was mesmerized. That’s when I started pestering my parents for a guitar however, the week before I wanted to be George Best so they held off for a while, because the football boots were still sitting in the corner. I was about 14 when I got my first guitar. And like any teenage boy at the time, whatever annoyed my parents the most was exactly what I wanted to do. If my dad was complaining about the racket I was listening to, it just inspired me to do it more.
GNI – Oh, of course, that sense of teenage rebellion that’s built within all of us. And in turn, SLF are now a massive influential figure in the industry, especially to musicians in NI. A lot of the new wave punk bands have plucked ideas from your music – a particular example that springs to mind being Billy Joe Armstrong (Green Day) and his take on your signature stage move – the leg behind the back and guitar over the head move – definitely seen you do that first.
Jake: It’s always nice when other bands credit you as an influence. In turn, some of their audience want to come check us out – something we always refer to as the Iggy Pop effect. When we were starting out, a lot of bands were crediting Iggy. I’m sure even he would admit, that at the time his career wasn’t exactly at a high spot. When these bands like The Pistols and The Damned came out and covered his material, suddenly there was a big upsurge of interest in what Iggy was doing and in a way we kind of got a little bit of that when the likes of Green Day etc. said they were fans. It’s come from unusual places – some bands, I’ve been very surprised to hear they’re fans of ours. In the main, it’s very nice when people give you this admiration.
GNI: Being one of the longest standing NI bands – how do you keep your music interesting and fresh?
Jake: That’s actually a very good question. One I don’t really have an answer to. It’s a number of things I think, it’s a bit bizarre but I think it’s worked to our advantage that we never got as big as someone like Green Day, I think when you get to that stage it’s inevitable that you’re going to lose touch with your audience because you’re living a completely different life from them – what those guys know now are private jets and luxury hotels etc.. It’s a totally different life from what the majority of people lead – we never reached a status like that, we still lead very modest lives. To be honest, I’m not in a much better position that what I would have been when I was working in Maccies when this all started. When the most recent banking collapse happened, my wife lost her job and wasn’t able to get a new one for about five or six years. We lost our apartment – had to get a smaller place. We were facing problems everyone was facing at the time and to be able to write about that from personal experience rather than writing some patronising ‘here’s to all you poor people’, what we were actually writing was ‘shite, I’m poor too’.
GNI: Your music definitely does provide that sense of unison and again, that goes back to what I said before about the realness and rawness in your music that fans adore. So in a way, by not reaching that level of fame, it goes to show that you haven’t sold out to the mainstream.
Jake: I think that’s one of the main reasons why the band have stayed relevant and why people relate to the music.
GNI: Whilst your music has evolved over the years, it has always remained true to the very essence of punk by carrying themes of fighting for the pursuit of greater freedom and candid action for political innovation – you’re now tapping into the current economic collapse with ‘Trail of Tears’ – the line ‘Land is the land and it was always free’ brings hope to everyone who listens – especially now at a time when it’s needed most.
Jake: It’s one of those things, by this stage I had hoped that all the early Belfast songs would be old folk songs from when times were terrible but sadly that’s not the case. Even a song like ‘Trail of Tears’ – it was written when New Mexico brought in this new law whereby the greater powers could stop somebody if they didn’t like the look of them and ask to see their identification. Then they claim this wasn’t fascist at all. And I’m thinking, ‘lads have you ever seen a WW2 movie? “Show us your papers” is kind of their catch phrase’. Not only did it resonate with USA but also throughout Europe with the current refugee crisis too – we thought to ourselves, there has been this huge outcry – it’ll go away, but now we’ve got Commander Cuckoo Bananas as president over here [Chicago], this is a man who wants to build a wall on the southern border – it hasn’t gotten better, it’s gotten bloody worse.
GNI: SLFs music rings true to the fact that we haven’t given up and we won’t back down or stop fighting for hope and for freedom.
Jake: I think it’s so important now more than ever.
GNI: Moving on to our next question. Having played in a punk band for 40 years, you must have seen some pretty wild things on the road – what’s the strangest thing you have seen / did on tour?
Jake: You know, touring is probably a lot more boring than people think it is. The whole ‘throwing TV’s out of hotel rooms’; it’s the sort of thing you read about other bands doing and when you’re young and stupid you think I suppose we ought to get drunk and give that a go – and it’s all great fun until you get the bill. The one time I remember anyone out of our band slinging a TV out the window – he was actually on the ground floor, it wasn’t quite the chaos we hoped it would be. He threw it out the window, it landed in the flower bed and we said to him, ‘away you go, bring it back up then’ – the great rock n roll gesture.
GNI: And if you’d brought it back up, it might have still worked! And that leads us nicely onto the next question. What’s your fondest memories whilst being in SLF?
Jake: Millions of memories. But the one overriding memory, when we eventually do hang up the guitars and look back on it all, is of laughing a lot. We’re seen as a serious political rock band but we have all known each other an awfully long time. I mean, even those who we refer to the new boys, have still been playing with us for over 20 years. Ally, the bass player, I’ve known him since he was seventeen – we’ve known each other pretty much our entire lives and we’ll still go on tour and something will happen that will have us all absolutely cracking up and laughing with each other. Sitting in a bar late at night laughing with the guys; it’s a serious amount of fun to do. Touring gets harder as you get older but if you look at someone like Mick Jagger who’s still running about like a spring chicken at god knows what age he is, there’s still a bit of life left in us yet.
GNI: I think that the deep connection with the band is one of the many reasons why SLF have withstood the test of time and are still creating great music today.
Jake: We’re friends first and a band second. It makes going to work a lot easier if you look forward to seeing the people who work there.
GNI: A sturdy foundation for a truly fantastic band. SLF have the power to make a whole room packed full of strangers feel a sense of unison and possibility – can you give us a teaser of what the 40th Anniversary show has in store for us?
Jake: We started talking about it early last year and I was desperate to do something special for Belfast. Our manager said, ‘leave it to us and we’ll get in touch with some local promoters’. When they came back with what they came back with, we were absolutely blown away. The other acts we’re bringing with us are all old friends – I’ve known The Outcasts since 1977 and not much later, as soon as we moved to London in 1978, I was invited to go sing at a few shows with The Stranglers. It’s like getting a whole bunch of your old mates together to play. And it’s supposed to be a celebration – we’ve made 40 years still standing so it’s fantastic to come back and do the one really big show in our hometown.
GNI: This will be the bands biggest ever hometown headline show – what a way to celebrate the landmark occasion. I think the way that SLF have progressed and matured as a band truly inspires fans both old and new – for aspiring musicians, to see a band still burning so brightly after 40 years in the business, is really exhilarating. It promises to be a show not to be missed and I think I speak on behalf of all Belfast punks in saying, I absolutely cannot wait for it.
Jake: I’m pretty excited myself, equal parts excited and hellish nervous as well.
GNI: Your latest album ‘No Going Back’ reached number one on the Official BBC Album Chart and has opened the newest chapter of your music. What are you working on at the minute and what does the future hold for SLF?
Jake: I’m off the road for a little period of time now so I’m trying to get my head around writing some new stuff. The next thing I’m doing is, for two weeks in July, I’m going out in my own with the Dropkick Murphys and Rancid. I’m playing on my own with an acoustic guitar so I’m slightly nervous considering this is something I’ve never done before just completely on my own. Those bands are very popular over here so you’re looking at somewhere around ten thousand people a night, to wonder out there on my own is a bit nerve wrecking. So yeah, I’m dividing my time between all that and writing some songs – see, you can’t sit down force yourself to write a song. If nothing comes then I go back to playing my acoustic guitar. I’ve those two things to keep me going. Obviously the next thing we look at doing is another studio album. We were taken by surprise by the success of ‘No Going Back’. I mean, we knew the pledge campaign to put it out there had been a great success but whenever it came back again on its own and got to number 1 – we were all taken aback. It’s been taken up by a label in Germany who have just reissued it again so now I’m having to cast my mind back and do interviews all over again; ‘what were you thinking about when you wrote that Jake – ah jeez I don’t know’.
GNI: This album is a testament to the ever versatile style of SLF. ‘My Dark Places’ is a personal favourite of mine. The line ‘can’t explain what I feel when what I feel is no emotion – it’s not a tragedy yet that’s how It feels to me’ really resonates in me as I’m sure it does in many people. It’s heart-warming to see musicians give so much of themselves to their music.
Jake: It was a song I almost didn’t want on the record. I do actually suffer from depression and I wrote it after coming through some pretty bad spells of it. It was written almost as a memory aid for myself – you know you do come through it, there is a light at the end of the tunnel and so on. It helped me remember the coping mechanisms I had for the tough times. We’re all unique – things that work for me don’t work for everyone else. It was Ally who talked me into putting it out. I had sort of been thinking – who wants to listen to me complaining about my life, you know, then he brought this to my attention, – ‘You think you’re the only middle aged man who gets depression? Millions of people do!’ – It has been certainly eye-opening, the number of people who have come up to me after a show and said, ‘thank you for writing that, it’s helped me through it as well’. And if something I’ve written can help people realise they’re not on their own then that’s a big part of getting through it.
GNI: With you saying about coping mechanisms there– this song has, in a sense, became a coping mechanism for so many people.
Jake: You’re right, that’s great and I’m really glad it’s helped.
GNI: And finally, as we draw to a close – do you have a message for the future generation of punk?
Jake: Find your own voice as soon as possible. The one thing I find disappointing about the music business at the minute is that there are more people than ever playing music but the vast majority seem to be in tribute acts for other bands. Okay, the way you learn to play is by learning other peoples’ music – you have to give yourself the confidence to get up on a stage and to play in front of an audience but as soon as you’ve done that you need to find your own voice. Find a part of you that you’re willing to give up. I guess, to me, that is the key to going on to do something great. If you’re putting yourself into it, it’ll be unique. That’s my advice.
GNI: Thanks for 40 glorious years of anti-establishment, confrontational, controversial music and for giving meaning to the age old saying – punks not dead. It’s very much alive in the Stiff Little Fingers and in all of us. That’s just about a wrap.
Stiff Little Fingers play their 40th Anniversary show in Belfast’s Custom House Square on Saturday 26th August 2017 with The Stranglers, Ruts DC, The Outcasts and Terri Hooley.
For tickets & more information, please visit here.