Hue & Cry’s Greg Kane on Brexit, Scottish Rap and Returning to Belfast

A few months ago I spoke to Pat Kane ahead of Hue & Cry’s planned gigs here in early March. Though The Beast From the East put paid to those plans, the rescheduled dates did give me an excuse to catch up with the brothers again; and this time I spoke to younger brother Greg. Though open doors were delayed thanks to a number of technical difficulties during soundcheck, he did manage to fit in a quick chat on the steps of the beautiful Empire Music Hall before showtime.

Interview al fresco on the steps of The Empire

Gigging NI: Welcome back to Ireland. You were supposed to be here earlier in the year but the snow blighted that plan. How did your gig in Whelan’s go last night?

Greg Kane: It was great, it was very busy. They were maybe too keen about putting people in the place, but it was really good to get here at last. The snow thing was weird; we could get to Stranraer with the tour bus, we could get over on the boat, we could kind of get here – but we couldn’t get out of Glasgow, that was the problem.

GNI: And none of us could get to the venue.

GK: So we did the right thing? I mean we waited as long as we could before making the decision – but we’re here now.

GNI: And how is it to be back in Belfast?

GK: This time it feels really good, there’s a really positive feel about Belfast just now. When you’re in a band, you get to see a lot of the country, and you get to gauge where the country’s at.  Our fans are really engaged with what’s going on, and our songs I hope engage them a bit more.  More so than a travelling salesman, more so than any other profession, a musician gets to feel the pulse of a country when you’re touring it.  And yeah, Belfast feels great just now.

GNI: So you’re aware of a feeling of change here over recent years?

GK: Yeah, and Dublin had a positivity about it as well. At the moment Britain’s all over the place and you can feel it.  We’re going on tour with The Christians now for the rest of the month and we’re going to some pretty pro-Brexit places. And you know, Garry (Christian) is very vocal about that, and Pat is very vocal about it.  We write songs about it, about communities having to make big decisions together, but you know Britain has got a real identity crisis just now and so we are looking forward to the tour but you get a sense of that identity crisis wherever you go.

GNI: Well you do address a lot of that through your music don’t you?

GK: We do, Pat has addressed it from the start. But I think there is a responsibility to address it. “Labour of Love”, was a song about trying to understand a working class Tory; “You’re working class; why would you vote Tory?” That’s what the song tries to figure out, it tries to pose that question.

“Looking for Linda”, was a song about domestic violence. “Violently”, was a song about men having to deal with being men, and trying to encourage them to be softer towards women, and softer to themselves. We have always dealt with issues like that and we enjoy writing songs that deal with those sort of issues.  We usually play a place in Cardiff called The Globe and the front five rows are all big Welsh rugby players, all crying their eyes out.

GNI: You wouldn’t think that’d be your target audience.

GK: And then at the end of the gig you meet them and they’re hugging you and crying and talking about lost brothers, and about lost friends, and about how the music reaches out and touches them. There’s a responsibility you have as a musician, because the people take your music very seriously and it means a lot to them.

Greg Kane on vocals and keyboards

You’ve played in the past with Belfast’s most famous son, Van Morrison. Have you played with any other Irish artists or do you have any other favourite Irish acts?

GK: Well we used to be friendly with the guys in Hothouse Flowers; they were signed to Virgin Records at the same time as us. There was a hotel that Virgin owned called The Mayflower Hotel just off Columbus Circle in New York and when Pat and I were making our first two albums I basically lived in New York for two years so I used to be fortunate enough to meet all the bands coming over and they were a nice bunch of guys, the guitarist was an especially nice guy.

And I am a big fan of the Once guy – Glen Hansard. He’s a bit Marmite; I have got a few Irish friends who live in Glasgow and when I mention him they’re a bit, “What? Really?” But I think he’s incredible. What I loved is that after the film – and the film was great – when the two of them got together in real life they made this documentary and that was amazing.

GNI: I saw it, The Swell Season, it was heart-breaking.

GK: It was heart-breaking; the break-up and then the whole thing with his mother and father, I thought it was very brave to expose himself like that.

I also remember seeing The Corrs when they were hip.

GNI: Were they ever?

GK: Yeah, people don’t realise that, but I remember seeing them in a folk festival in Dublin and they were pretty dark and there was a big buzz about them, they were quite “old folk”. Well they could play, and obviously the girls looked great and stuff, but there was something about them. There’s a band that I like now, three sisters called The Staves and they’re great, and the early iteration of The Corrs were quite like that, very dark – so I remember seeing them when they were pretty cool.

And then we toured with U2, they were very kind to us and we all got on really well with them. We used to go to Bad Bob’s back in the day, Thin Lizzy’s old pub. So we have a strong affiliation with Ireland and having Irish grandparents helps of course – they’re from Donegal.

GNI: So, you’re fourteen albums in now?

GK: Yeah, fourteen albums in, and Pat and I have just started writing a new record. Our record in 1988 was Remote, then 1998 was an album called Next Move which got us on the jazz scene, and then 2008 was Open Soul, the one that relaunched us again, and now in 2018 we’re writing another one and all of these are very up-tempo, energetic records. It seems to be that Pat and Greg get energetic once every decade.

Yes, your albums are all so different; there’s jazz and funk and soul and pop and everything in there so I wondered, does the live show reflect all of that?

GK: It does, right across all the records. And we’ve managed to put together an incredible band. There is a jazz course at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow and it’s attracting some of the best musicians in the world. It’s run by Tommy Smith who’s the esteemed jazz saxophonist and then the folk course at the Conservatoire is run by Phil Cunningham, the esteemed squeezebox player so the standard of musicianship in Glasgow just now is unbelievable. It got awarded the UNESCO City of Music a few years ago. What used to happen is that with the type of music we aspire to make, we had to go to New York to find those musicians, but now they’re in Glasgow.

GNI: I interviewed Pat back in January and he told me that you have the best band in Scotland, so it sounds like you’d agree with that.

GK: Yes, Pat and I have been very lucky; so many of these guys come in to play with us and they tell us, “you know what, your music meant so much to me growing up, you’re the reason why I started to play the guitar or the bass or the saxophone or the trumpet”. Because we were making music with some of their jazz heroes back in the eighties, we were very lucky that the record company believed in us financially and morally and so we had a strong backing for what we wanted to do.  But now, Pat always says, if you go outside and throw a stone in Glasgow, you’ll hit a great jazz musician.

GNI: Your most pure funk record is probably Hot Wire which I am absolutely loving at the minute. “Little Man” is an intriguing song, and I wanted to ask you about the rap section, where did that come from?

GK: There’s a big Scottish rap scene in Glasgow, and the guy who does it, John Paul Spears is with us tonight. He also performs as Top Dog and these guys do the proper rap battles where they’ll split into their own posses in the pubs and they’ll go at each other in broad Scottish accents. I have always been a huge fan of it, but it’ll clear a party – if you’re having a party and you put it on it’s like, “Really Greg? What’s that?”  You have to be committed to it.

When I first let Pat hear it he didn’t realise that this was happening in Glasgow and though John Paul was our bass player I hadn’t realised that he was Top Dog, he never mentioned it. Then one day I was talking about this rap scene and the guys in the band were laughing and the guitar player said, “He’s Top Dog!” and I couldn’t believe it. So we asked John Paul to write the rap for “Little Man”. He did it, and we were just blown away.

So there’s a big scene and we’ve just tried to give it a little bit of a platform. We play these big ‘80s festivals in the summer in front of 20,000 people, with Kid Creole and the Coconuts and The Christians and Go West and all these guys, and the place goes nuts when JP does that Scottish rap. They don’t understand one word of what he’s saying but they love it. They’re transfixed by him.  So we play it every night that we can. John Paul’s not the most gregarious person, he’s quite inward, but when he dons this Top Dog persona it just riles him up. And we’re doing it tonight so I hope you’ll enjoy it.

JP Spears and Greg Kane

GNI: Pat’s daughter Eleanor and your partner Tippi sing on the new album, Pocketful of Stones. Do either of them join the live shows?

GK: At the moment we have childcare problems – we have a young baby – so that’s why Tippi’s (Yvonne) not here. Musicians are typically very difficult people to get on with so usually musicians are attracted to musicians so I think that’s why Yvonne and I have been together for so long now, music was the thing that brought us together. When she struggled a little bit with her confidence after the baby was born Pat suggested bringing her in to sing on the album. It was a bit of therapy for her and she absolutely loved it and she fitted right in – and so were really missing her this trip to be honest, but she’ll be back for the other shows in the summer.

GNI: Any other message for the Belfast fans?

GK: Just thanks for being so supportive – we love coming over here. And also, just look after Scotland if you can! The English don’t know what they’re doing with the Scots, so don’t lose your connection with us!

And with just ten minutes left until stage time, Greg hurried off to get out of the shorts and sandals and into his stage suit. Check out our review of the gig in the Belfast Empire, May 2018, here.