The Bonnevilles at the Empire Music Hall, Belfast
A beautiful, balmy May evening in Belfast marked the first night of The Bonnevilles’ Ireland/UK tour with their Alive Records label mate James Leg. I was lucky enough to score an interview with Bonnevilles front man Andy McGibbon who led me through a labyrinth of corridors to an upper room in the legendary Empire Music Hall. He munched on a mandarin orange while I had the chance to ask him a number of burning questions before he and band-mate Chris McMullan took to the stage for tonight’s gig.
Gigging NI: An obvious question and probably the one you’re asked most often; but who were your main influences? How did two boys from Northern Ireland find this gritty bluesy sound and how did you and Chris find each other?
Andy: I fell in love with the blues thing when I was fifteen or sixteen. I was the only person in my circle listening to anything like that at that time. We were going to all the heavy metal gigs that were coming to The Ulster Hall; Iron Maiden and stuff but I was never really into that. You went to see whoever came really, didn’t you, in those days? Then I discovered Robert Johnston and just fell in love with blues.
GNI: And how did you hook up with Chris? You’re from Lurgan, he’s not?
A: He’s from Banbridge. He was the drummer in a band called The Childish Thoughts and they needed a bass player so they asked if I wanted to come in. We were having a lot of fun playing ‘60s garage punk stuff; I just wanted to be able to go and have a few beers and play and just turn my brain off and I did that for a year and it was brilliant. Then I got this band together and was trying out a few different drummers but they weren’t working out and I had gotten to know Chris. I asked him to fill in, he said ok, and he never left.
GNI: And did he have similar influences?
A: No, all he was listening to was Metallica! But he got a lot of his education in Childish Thoughts; Denny and Jason knew their stuff and he was bringing that into rehearsal and not playing heavy metal style.
GNI: Your sound has variously been described as scuzz-punk, Mississippi Hill blues, punk rock, Irish punk blues, garage punk blues; does any of that come anywhere close to what you think you are and what do you call yourselves?
A: Garage punk blues. I decided that we should self-label because you’re gonna get labelled so you might as well. I settled on that early on. People think if it’s groovy it can’t be punky. But punk just means skewed off to the left, doesn’t it? It means different.
GNI: And a bit anarchic I suppose?
A: Yeah, anarchic is a good word. So, we go with that but we don’t really mind. They can call us whatever they want.
GNI: At least three of your songs have Lurgan in the title; Hardtale Lurgan Blues, Erotica Laguna Lurgana, No Law in Lurgan. Has Lurgan been a big influence and are those songs a tribute to or a vilification of your home town?
A: I am a big believer in telling the truth and I don’t like fluffiness and floweriness. It’s not to say that there’s not beauty in a thing but you can’t tell me everything’s all nice, it’s not. Lurgan did influence me massively; I couldn’t wait to get away from it. I hated the place. I got away at sixteen, and I travelled and did a few things, then came back in my mid-twenties. I came back a couple of times in between, but I was always trying to get away. I remember one time I flew into Belfast City, got the train, and when you go into Lurgan on the train the first identifier of Lurgan is St Michael’s School as you pass it. I saw that out of the corner of my eye and I started crying involuntarily, I hated the place that badly.
I came back because I had planned to go to South Africa and work on a fishing trawler so I needed some money. A guy owed me some money and I came back to Lurgan to get it but he had done a bunk so I missed the fishing season and was stranded. I decided to work, save money, and go the next year. Then I met my wife and I have been living here ever since. And I love it now, it’s my favourite place in the world.
GNI: You have said that in Erotica Laguna Lurgana, that you were trying to make Lurgan sexy?
A: No Law in Lurgan isn’t a song about Lurgan, it’s a story, it’s a folk song about a thing that happened. But I’ll have a conversation with someone and they’ll say, “I don’t like the way you’re slagging off Lurgan”. I’ve never slagged Lurgan off in my life. There’s a body found by the river, but there’s not even a river in Lurgan! It’s just the name of a town, and why shouldn’t I put in the name of the town that I identify with? Hardtale Lurgan Blues went onto our first album and at the time I remember thinking, “I’m putting Lurgan into the name of a song, this is a big deal for me.” But why shouldn’t it go in? At first glance people maybe thought I was portraying Lurgan in a bad light because of what I had written, so I decided to do this song Erotica Laguna Lurgana, it’s an instrumental, and I had to give it a name so I might as well give it that.
GNI: And it’s a sexy tune.
A: It’s a sexy tune…
GNI: Thematically your songs are pretty dark; death, drink, sex, revenge. Is that just because that’s more fun to write about than love and all that stuff, or have you genuinely got a dark soul?
A: I do think I have a darkness, I think it’s both. Chris is a puppy dog. He’s just a big black dog that has run through muck and has come into your house and is looking at you going; *pants excitedly*. He’s the exact opposite to me. But we work well together.
GNI: The No Law in Lurgan video – who came up with that idea and was it just a hoot to film?
A: It was brilliant. Actually, Mike Mormecha who owns the studio and recorded the Arrow Pierce My Heart album said, “Listen, I really want to do a zombie video for this song”. I said, “I don’t know where you’re getting it, but let’s do it”. Something just sparked in him so we went with that. It was good fun, we filmed it in the grounds of the studio in like three hours.
GNI: Every review of The Bonnevilles talks about your voice – you’ve been described as whiskey soaked. Is there any actual whiskey involved, or where does that come from?
A: I think I’ve gotten better at singing over the years in general. I have always tried to copy soul singers, they’ve always been my influence. You know people like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke and guys like that. I’m not saying that I sound like Otis Redding, I know I fall way short of that but that’s where my high mark is. As soon as I started listening to Robert Johnston I just started trying to sing like that. It’s pre-war blues; he’s one of the greatest.
GNI: What about the slide guitar – is that self-taught?
A: Self-taught yeah. I did go to guitar lessons but it was all concert. But by the time I started to find the music that I wanted to play, which was blues music, I didn’t even know anything about open tuning or slides. I could hear these noises but I couldn’t figure out how they were doing it. There was no internet at the time, you couldn’t just Google it; “How to play like Robert Johnston”. So I was trying to play like him in concert which you can’t do – but I was trying! After years and years and years of fumbling about I just figured it out.
GNI: You’re often likened to The White Stripes – does that really piss you of?
A: I just think it’s a bit of a lazy thing to say because I don’t think we sound anything like them. Rigsy at the BBC said the same thing, that we don’t sound like them, but that we’re ploughing the same furrow. But that’s a big church. I mean how far can you go in either direction? The White Stripes are punkier and we’re a bit rockier you know what I mean? They don’t just lump all three pieces or four pieces together, but people do it with two pieces. It doesn’t bother me at all, I think it’s just lazy.
GNI: You’ve signed to Alive Records now, you’ve toured Europe and the US, what’s the next ambition?
A: Well, we release records with Alive, and we’re happy to work with them. We’re putting out another record this year with Alive so after this tour we’re going back into the studio again. The new record is pretty much written so we’ll put the finishing touches to that, then we’ll book the studio, we’ll go and record – we work really fast.
GNI: Will you record it here in Northern Ireland?
A: Yeah, yeah, I mean there are a couple of other places we’d like to record but there’s also a great luxury in that Mike’s studio is fifteen minutes from my house and if I need something changed; Bang! It’s done. All being well the new album should be released this year.
GNI: So, last question; Why aren’t The Bonnevilles world famous yet?
A: You’re very kind. I don’t think we’re ever gonna be massive. We’re working musicians, that was always my ambition for the band.
GNI: I read somewhere that you resent that term “Local Band”?
A: It’s not so much that I resent it; I think it puts you into a category, it limits you. You know we play all over the world, we are not the same as the bands who don’t play outside Belfast. I can name you at least three bands that we’ve played with in the past two years that have influenced the songs on the new album. You don’t get that if you just play here all the time, and I think it’s for the better.
GNI: So what about this guy James Leg tonight, what have we got to expect?
A: James is a legend, it’s a two-piece again; drums and he plays Fender Rhodes piano, all distorted. *Growls and points to self* Whiskey soaked? I’m nothing compared to this guy. I’m like…
GNI: Like Michael Buble in comparison?
A: Yeah. He’s just awesome, and he’s a really good guy. We’re not really headlining, it’s like a joint tour. So we just split the time. He’s on Alive Records as well.
GNI: Yes, with Iggy Pop? And The Black Keys? And all of these guys who I suppose are good bed-fellows for you, it makes sense. It seems like the prefect label for you guys?
A: Oh, completely yeah. Perfect. We were very lucky. It was going away and playing tours and festivals abroad and being put on the bill with guys like James Leg and Left Wing Cruiser and Johnny Walker from The Soledad Brothers. We were at a festival in Germany and James was the headliner and we were on before him and he said, “You need to contact Alive Records”. And we did.
With the Q & A segment of proceedings in the bag, we got down to the real business of the evening! I went and caught second half of James Leg’s set and Andy hadn’t exaggerated when he described his voice. If you imagine Tom Waits meets Brian Johnson with a bout of tonsillitis, you’d be part way there. He rocked his way through one bluesy number after another, pounding his distorted piano while up on his feet. This was a frenetic performance; anyone in the front row was certain to have felt his sweat on their faces – and in a pair of trousers tight enough to be befitting of Nick Cave, the effect was quite something! Not having listened to James Leg before, I couldn’t relay his set list with any confidence. As a newcomer to his music, the highlight for me was a gritty cover of The Cure’s A Forest. But I will certainly make a point of familiarising myself with his music before I see him again, and I hope I do see him again.
The Bonnevilles began their set at around 10.30 and there was no messing about, kicking off with a cracking couple of older songs; Machine Born to Think followed by Good Suits and Fighting Boots. What really got the crowd going though were the next few songs from the most recent album, Arrow Pierce My Heart. My Dark Heart confirmed that dark side Andy had alluded to earlier in the evening. Then the eerie refrain of, “The bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling, for you but not for me,” signalled the start of fan favourite and starkly murderous folk tale, No Law in Lurgan. Whiskey Lingers was next, and while there wasn’t a capacity crowd, the numbers seemed to swell with the voices of everyone sharing in the war cry, “I never wanted to be skinny anyways, I always needed to be ready to fight”.
On stage their look is seriously cool. In impeccable white shirts and skinny black ties, Andy with his meticulous slicked back look and the 6’ 5” unshaven Chris, they look for all the world like they could have just stepped off some film noir movie set. If you didn’t know they were nice guys, they’re so slick they could look almost menacing. Almost – but shielding his eyes from the spotlights, Andy looked his audience in the eye and thanked them for coming out mid-week to support them.
The sound of The Bonnevilles is a very distinctive thing; you can’t hear Andy McGibbon’s voice and think it’s anyone else but him. The slide guitar sound may have been influenced by Robert Johnson but standing as we were in the middle of Belfast, I couldn’t help but think of Rory Gallagher, Ireland’s most famous blues practitioner, and think that his influence has got to be in the mix there somewhere.
The rest of the set was interspersed with a few new and as yet unrecorded songs; a pretty exciting teaser for the new album that’s to come. All too soon the night came to an end but the closing song did not disappoint. You don’t come to a Bonnevilles gig hoping for cheery lyrics; you want sex, profanity, booze and regret – and harking back to their Folk Art & the Death of Electric Jesus album, 10,000 has all those things in spades. Fans with skull adorned Bonnevilles t-shirts were left with images of gin, sin, God and death circling in their brains, and “Each one a reason to wave my fist at the sky”.