Fireworks

Fireworks Magazine Online 64 - Interview with Stiff Little Fingers

STIFF LITTLE FINGERS: Interview with JAKE BURNS

Interview by Alan Holloway


It's been thirty seven years since Jake Burns, Henry Clooney, Ali McMordie and Brian Faloon decided to call their band Stiff Little Fingers after a song by The Vibrators. Their debut single "Suspect Device" sold over 30,000 copies, with the punk population captivated by a band singing about real lives, real events, namely The Troubles in Northern Ireland, specifically the band's home town of Belfast.

Fast forward and in 2014 the band have released their tenth studio album, the Pledge Music funded "No Going Back", arguably their strongest album yet, featuring all the aggression and melody so long associated with the band. As I sit in the dressing room with Jake at the Bristol Academy prior to a nearly sold out headlining gig he is in good spirits and erudite as ever.


Stiff-Little-Fingers

Despite my eagerness to talk about times past, it seems pertinent to ask about the new album, which has been getting rave reviews all over the place, something that naturally pleases Jake.

"It's been very well received," he confirms. "To be honest we're still a bit close to it. We finished recording on the 5th of February, and flew to Auckland on the 14th. In the meantime I was trying to pack up and move house, so I haven't really listened to it much myself. I'm certainly very pleased with the way it's been received."

This is the first album the band have recorded totally free from any record company assistance, and I ask Jake how they came to try out Pledge Music instead of going down the traditional route of the past.

"We started down the road that we would normally go down, you know, we've got a lot of songs, we want to make a record, let's go and talk to EMI. We talked to them, and a couple of other record labels, and to be honest they weren't that enthusiastic. Not just about us, but about themselves, what their own future was going to be like. In the past what a record label gave you was distribution in the shops and stuff, but there aren't any record shops any more. Realistically, the main marketplace is now the internet. For a band like us it's perfect, because we've got an incredibly loyal fan base, so much so that we actually reached the target within twelve hours."

A staple of the Stiff Little Fingers experience has always been very smart lyrics. There's not many (or any) "Baby, baby" stuff to be heard, with plenty or politics and personal demons thrown at anyone who cares to delve beneath the surface of the melodies. I enquire as to whether this is important to Jake, to give a message whenever possible.

"I've never been very good at writing love songs at all," he confesses. "Any time I try it comes out sounding like a fifteen year old's poetry. It's not that I'm opposed to doing that, I'm just not good at it, so I may as well stick to what I'm good at. Basically what I'm good at is writing about things that get on my nerves, things that upset me and things that are unfair."

So you're sort of a crusader against injustice, I say lightly.

He laughs. "Yeah – the Batmobile's out the back! I'm not sure I would go that far. If I had the solution to the problems I'd probably be a politician, but I don't have the solution, but I do have this platform where, for better or worse, people will actually listen. I think we try to highlight the problems in a positive way – we don't get miserable or depressed about them."

Unsurprisingly, the new album has some deep shit on it, so I take some time to ask about what they mean to him as the main lyricist. The most talked about has been "My Dark Places", a very personal song about depression.

"I did go through – although I don't believe you ever come completely out the end of something like this – a long period of depression, which came about after I got divorced. It wasn't an immediate thing, it took a couple of years before it really hit me. I wrote the song more as a catharsis for myself, almost as a reminder, so if I feel it start up again I can go back and look at those words. I never really meant for it to be played in public. It was Ali who said we needed to play it, said it's not just you that has gone through this."

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The church has often come in for criticism on SLF albums, not surprising when you have lived much or your life seeing the divisive influence that religion can have if used poorly. On "No Going Back" the subject of abuse is dealt with quite subtly on the light, very folky "Guilty As Sin", a personal favourite of mine.

"I never suffered from it," he is quick to point out, "but we were in Ireland when these guys came forward and were talking about when this had happened to them. They were pretty much the same age as I am when they were coming out and accusing their abusers. They didn't hide behind pixellated images, they didn't have their voices changed, and it struck me as very brave. Not only is Ireland a very patriarchal society – once you become a man you suck everything up and don't talk about it – but also the church still has a huge influence on everyday life. When I looked at them I realized I was growing up in the same country at the same time – I would have been seven or eight when this was happening with these guys. It's probably the worst use of this phrase ever, but there but for the grace of God go I. It seems like the world I grew up in was just this seething nest of nastiness."

Lyrics played a part back in 1999, when the band released the single "Under A Beirut Moon", a justified and scathing attack on the fact that hostage Terry Waite was being left to rot in Beirut by the government of the day.

"That was an interesting case in point. I got invited onto a Channel 4 news programme because of the broadcasting ban on the record, well, they 'chose not to play it' is what they said. Ostensibly it was a charity record, and normally you can't get those off the air! I think because there was an amount of criticism about the government of the day I was invited on this program, and I said "Sure, who else is going to be on" and it was this guy from the Home Office, John Nott. When he heard I was going to be on he declined to appear! I couldn't understand why someone who I guess has been Oxbridge educated and has access to all the facts and figures he wants wasn't willing to go on TV and talk about this with me. The only conclusion I could come to is that what we were saying is right. It all came to naught anyway, because the day we finished recording the video they let him go!

Conversation goes on to the fact that in many people's eyes Stiff Little Fingers are a punk band, end of. My own impression of them is that they are far closer to being a melodic rock act, albeit one with a strong conscience. The punk label was stuck firmly on in the early days, as the band were harder, rougher round the edges and fronted by a Jake Burns who shouted rather than sang. I ask, rather cheekily, when he decided to stop shouting and start singing.

"It just kind of went that way," he says, only a little offended (I hope). "From about the third album onwards it was heading in that direction. When we decided to do the first album again a few years ago for the anniversary I had to go back and learn a lot of the songs again. What amazed me was when we got to the mid section of "Barbed Wire Love" was... there's all these clever little harmonies in there! – I didn't know we could do that then. It wasn't a conscious decision to shout, same as it wasn't a conscious decision to change the singing style – it just sort of happened. I always thought we were more melodic rock. Like I said about "Barbed Wire Love", it's got a melody, they all do, maybe it got a bit buried in the production at the time or may be the fact that, like you said, I didn't know how to sing! I knew what I was aiming for, I just wasn't getting there."

Time is running out, so I finish by asking just what is it that keeps Jake and the boys going.

"It's still fun to do," he says, simply, "which is probably the highest compliment. My overriding memory of being in Stiff Little Fingers is after a show, sitting round in a dressing room or a bar just laughing, because we are such good friends and genuinely have a really good time on tour. Hopefully that comes across to the audience. We're not doing this because it's our job, although it is our job, we're actually doing it mainly because we still fucking love doing it. I'm sorry to sound so pathetic and sixteen year old about it but that's how we feel."

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