Ipswich: No Going Back for Corn Exchange bound Stiff Little Fingers, Jake Burns interviewed
- Credit: �� Ashley Maile
At the forefront of punk, Stiff Little Fingers were forged in the fire of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Entertainment writer Wayne Savage talks to singer and guitarist Jake Burns about those times, his fight with depression and their latest album.
It’s just after 1.30am and I’m huddled in my dark, cold hallway when the band answer the phone. It’s gone 6pm, with darkness having descended on LA where they are recording their latest album.
They’ve just wrapped up the last backing vocals, with another week left to mix it.
Known for their punk anthems, writing about growing up at the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, with a later shift towards power pop; asked where this album sits, Jake says he’s not a fan of pigeonholing music; he leaves that destinction to fans.
“Realistically we can only record the songs we’ve written, to us it seems like a natural progression. It just sounds like a Stiff Little Fingers record to me. There’s only two types, good or bad. As long as we make what we consider to be a good record I don’t really care what pigeonhole it gets put into.”
Called No Going Back, they funded it through the PledgeMusic campaign where fans effectively pay for the album to be made.
“It’s very flattering because these people have taken a bit of a shot in the dark, they’re buying a record they haven’t heard. Hopefully by the time they get it they like it because it’s a bit late if they don’t,” he jokes.
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Formed in Belfast, Ireland, in 1977, they were at the forefront of the second wave of punk; hot on the heels of the likes of the Clash, Sex Pistols and Sham 69. Fusing personal lyrics with political ones, two years later they became the first band to hit the UK top 20 album charts on an independent label with their debut Inflammable Material whch chronicled their band’s anger and frustration at the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Like so many bands of the era, Stiff Little Fingers owe a lot to John Peel.
In November of 1977 they sent a copy of their first two songs, Suspect Device and Wasted Life, to the BBC Radio One DJ who played them every night.
“You never realise what you’ve got until it’s gone... I don’t think he realised just how damn important he was and just how much we looked up to him,” remembers Jake, who worked at the station for a year, seeing him on a daily basis.
“What you actually saw and heard was the man. He was generally a really nice, humble, down to Earth guy. I don’t think he came to terms with what the fuss about himself was. I think he saw himself as (just) playing music, that was what he was there to do and his enthusiasm for it was infectious.”
In Jake’s eyes, Peel was the single most influential person in British rock music from the mid-1960s to the day he died.
“Just simply by the number of bands he helped, the number he gave sessions to. The fact he was so determined to find interesting music to bring forward for people to listen to... When you’re left to the mercy of Simon Cowell it drives homes to you how much we needed John Peel.”
Jake said the band took on the mantel of writing songs about what was happening around them as a way of venting their frustration but mainly because they wanted to have fun.
“The overriding thing people don’t realise about Northern Ireland at the time was it was actually a very boring place to be. I know that sounds crazy when there were bombs going off and riots. The reality was because of all that bands wouldn’t come and play, they couldn’t get insurance or just didn’t want to so we were kind of starved of entertainment.
“We all became fans of this type of music and realised if we wanted to hear this stuff played live we were going to have to do it ourselves. Nobody ever thought it was going to turn into anything serious and I certainly never thought I’d be doing it 37 years later.”
Jake’s mantra is still write what you know about; whether’s it’s his battle with depression or, as covered on No Going Back, how the greed of corporate bankers has destroyed people’s lives today.
“I don’t think you’re ever really through it (depression), it’s one of those ongoing illnesses like alcoholism or something; you take it one day at a time,” says Jake, whose battle with the illness inspired new song My Dark Places.
He admits to going through a long period where he just didn’t want to get up and face the day.
“I went through a divorce, that will cripple you anyway, you carry a huge amount of guilt with you after that. I had to move out of my home, then I met somebody else and moved to another country in the space of about two years. They say that the two biggest things you can do are move house or go through a divorce... so I kind of put myself out there to be shot at.”
Much happer than he was a couple of years ago, he knows there’s always the chance he’ll get out of bed and nothing will lift his spirits. The key is recognising the warning signs.
“Then I can try to circumvent them before it gets into a full-blown ‘I just want to go and lock myself away and not to speak to anybody’ mood.”
Part of his healing process was to write down what he was going through and it became a song. He never intended for the band to play it.
“Ali (McMordie) our bass player lives in New York and made a point of getting on an aeroplane and flying to Chicago where I live just to sit me down and say ‘we’ve got to play it, it’s a really great song’.”
Jake wasn’t sure about sharing such a personal song but Ali knew that’s what made it great. Written from the heart, he told Jake he’d be surprised by how many people would identify with it. He was right.
“I don’t want to become some sort of poster boy for depression here but we put it out there, we’ve let the genie out of the bottle and we can’t go putting it back in so... the reaction so far from our audience has been overwhelmingly positive.
“We’ve played it live on a number of occasions and had people come up to us afterwards and say ‘I’m glad you wrote this and you’re standing up there singing it’ because I think there is a stigma attached to depression. It’s not an illness people want to talk about in public and yet, paradoxically, if you talk about it that’s probably the best way of dealing with it.
“You get it out in the open and realise you’re not alone because that’s part of where it really gets you, you feel so completely isolated and hopeless. To realise there are lots of other people in the same boat as you, it does help.”
Anything that offends Jake’s sense of justice finds its way into a song.
“Some people become politicians, some people stand on soapboxes and scream and shout... That’s how we get to where we’re going you know.”
The best music is more than social wallpaper, it has something to say?
“I agree... I’ve been saddened by what I’ve seen as the modern crop of younger, for want of a better word, punk rock bands who having seen the vast amounts of money certain bands have made by being swallowed up by corporations have effectively changed their outlook on what they write to be limited to songs about drinking, fighting and s*****g. It’s like ‘really, that’s all you’ve got to say, that’s your life’ - it’s a pretty dismal prospect.”
Punk has been enjoying a resurgence for a while; something Jake puts down to how life has gotten worse not better for the majority of people.
“We’ve never been a rock star style band. We’ve always lived fairly modest lifestyles... the majority of our audience probably makes more money than we do,” he laughs. “I think we share the same concerns and I think that’s one of the reasons that people still value the band because we’re not writing songs about bowling down California highways in the sunshine but writing songs that hopefully connect to people on an everyday level.”
Splitting in early 1983, when Jake and Ali (McMordie, the band’s bass player) decided to get the band back together for some reunion shows a few years later they realised Stiff Little Fingers was the only thing they were all completely happy doing.
“We’d all gone off and tried other things to varying degrees of success but musically, once we all got back in a room together and started playing again it felt like coming home.”
They were stunned by the reaction to their reunion tour, born out of the fact Christmas was coming and they were all broke. The idea was do some shows to afford presents for their folks and get a free ticket home to Belfast for the finale. That didn’t think further than that.
“When it started becoming this ridiculous runaway success... I mean, we were originally booked into small clubs and they just realised very quickly that that wasn’t going to cut it and we had to move into these much bigger venues. We were pretty scared because we hadn’t played together in a while.”
Deciding to test the waters in Germay - the first time they played there nobody liked them and they died a death, remembers Jake - they got word from the promoter he’d had to book extra shows after they sold out major theatres.
“Okay, so now Germany seems to like us that’s nice. It’s not really what we were going for. We were going there to try and get the nerves out of the way. By that stage it was might as well jump in at the deep end.”
It’s been non-stop even since, with younger new fans joining the diehards at their sell-out shows and bands like Bad Religion, Sugar, Rancid and Therapy citing their as a major influence.
Not wanting to come across falsely modent, Jake says the seeing the broad spectrum of audiences is pretty humbling.
“There are people the same age as me, which is sadly 55, but they come now not just with their kids but these are 14-year-olds that have just found the band through whatever route - whether it’s somebody like Green Day saying we were an influence so now they’ve listened to us. That’s very flattering and very gratifying.”
The band’s Up a Gear tour comes to Ipswich Corn Exchange on March 27. Their last visit still sticks in Jake’s mind.
“We played this funky little Jamaican community centre. It was really cool, normally backstage the food is generic sandwiches and stuff but there were these really welcoming West Indian folk who were knocking up Jamaican patties and all sorts of wonderful stuff. It was great.”
Their live shows are something else, with fans in for more than just an advert for the latest album.
“It’s very presumptuous of bands to do that. It’s the first album in more than 10 years so there will be some new material but you don’t want to walk on and say ‘here is our new album in its entirety’ because people will just beat a path to the bar and you can’t blame them. We try to cover as much as we can of what is a very long career and hopefully hit on all the songs people want to hear and play a few we think, for better or worse, have been somewhat overlooked in the past.
“We start in New Zealand, go through Australia, Japan and then we head up to the UK so we should be well up and running by the time we get to you guys.”