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Photo by Matthew Hunt on flickr, used under Creative Commons license.

Stiff Little Fingers: Punk grows up

By Lee Pepper on October 4, 2016

Stiff Little Fingers released their first single in 1978, while tensions in their native Northern Ireland were at a peak.  “Suspect Device” was released on tape, and packaged to look like a cassette bomb. Allegedly, one record company had to request a second copy after taking the precaution of throwing the first one in a bucket of water.

Since then, the music business has gone through a host of changes, and so have the members of Stiff Little Fingers.

When we were 20 and angry with the world, so were they, and when we all reached 50, we were still angry with the world, but on a much more personal level.

The band, which currently includes two original members, is coming to the Bronson Centre on Friday, October 28th.  We spoke with singer Jake Burns about the changes he’s seen in the way music is made, and how his views on punk changed after his 50th birthday.

Apt613 spoke with Jake Burns by phone. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Apt613: Have you toured much in Canada before?

Jake Burns: This is the first time we’ve undertaken a full Canadian tour beyond the standard “turn up, play Toronto and Montreal, and disappear.” We did play Vancouver way back in about 1980, and shamefully, that was about it!

You used a site called PledgeMusic to allow people to pre-order your album “No Going Back”, and you’re using it again for preorders of a live album. What’s your experience been like using this system?

It was interesting the way it came about. There’d been such a long gap between our previous album and our most recent one, a gap of about 10 years. Mainly, real life got in the way: I ended up getting a divorce and having to move, then met someone else, fell in love, and moved continents, I moved to America.

We did have an album ready to go about 6 years before we did this one, but when I sat down and listened to it after my 50th birthday, I felt they didn’t really reflect who I was as a 50-year-old. They were like songs written by numbers, and I scrapped them all.

And then the whole music business changed in that 10-year period, it was apocalyptic, really. Labels were going out of business left, right, and centre, stores disappeared in large number.

When we asked our label if we could make another record, they didn’t say no, but what they said was, “Why? Why don’t you do it yourself?” They basically talked themselves out of a job.

We hadn’t [put out a record independently] since our first single [1978’s “Suspect Device”], which was some time ago!

It was our management who recommended the PledgeMusic model: they said, why not cut out the middleman and go straight to your audience? It was appealing, because it offered total independence, but also intimidating, because you’re directly asking your fans, “Hey, we’re making a new record, do you want to pre-order it?”, and if they come back and say, “Nahh,” well, then you’re screwed, because these are the people who supposedly like what you do!

We asked how long PledgeMusic campaigns usually run, and they said three months, so we decided on that, but we actually raised the money [we needed to record the album] in about 12 hours, which was pretty much a ringing endorsement!

Once we actually released the thing, it gave us our first number one record in Britain, which is absolutely astonishing! At this stage in our career, we all just thought it was funny.

I wanted to come back to what you said about how your songwriting has changed as you’ve, for instance, turned 50.

Basically, I started writing songs about things that concerned me as a 50-year-old, living in a recession, my wife losing her job, and us losing our apartment. I wrote songs about that, and about how I’d gone through quite a deep depression after my divorce.

When I sat and played back the new songs, I thought, yeah, they’re good songs, but my god, I’m a miserable bastard! Who’s going to want to listen to me moan on about this?

What amazed me, and I suppose it shouldn’t have amazed me, was that a lot of our audience had grown with us, and these were problems that they were facing as well. When we were 20 and angry with the world, so were they, and when we all reached 50, we were still angry with the world, but on a much more personal level.

Stiff Little Fingers’ music has always been rooted in Irish politics, what do you think is behind the bands’ ongoing and worldwide appeal?

I had hoped at this point they’d be like old English folk songs, you know, written about the bad old days that don’t exist anymore. But those tensions are still there in Northern Ireland, for example. That conflict has its roots almost 400 years ago: you’re not going to solve that in a decade or in a generation.

With regards to the songs’ appeal: we played in Croatia not long after [the Yugoslav Wars] finished and people there related to the songs very strongly.

Sadly, we do live in a tense and increasingly violent world, and those songs do resonate with people for that reason, although some people do just like to come and sing along. Actually, I had a friend in another band, and I won’t name names, but when he first heard “Alternative Ulster”, he had no idea what an ulster was, but he thought that an alternative to it must be brilliant!

What’s your favourite Stiff Little Fingers song to play?

It changes tour to tour, depending what we put in. The song I enjoy playing most these days is “My Dark Places”, from the last album, a song about dealing with depression. I’ve heard from a lot of people that they can relate to every word and it’s helped them, which is great and really kind of humbling.

I’ve read that Stiff Little Fingers originally started as a cover band, do you still play covers?

Well, once a year around Christmas time, I’m involved in a cover band in Chicago called the Nefarious Fat Cats. The core of the band is myself and two other guys from Pegboy. It’s like being 19 again, we play bad versions of Thin Lizzy songs!  It’s all done for a children’s hospital, and it’s a lot of fun.

I saw that part of the proceeds from your album pre-order go to the Integrated Education Fund, can you talk about how you chose this organization and what it means to you?

It was a no-brainer. Growing up in Northern Ireland, when you were a kid you either went to the state school if you were a Protestant, and if you were a Catholic, you went to Catholic school, and never the twain should meet. And that served to entrench the whole sectarian vibe of the place.

Me and Ali, the two remaining original band members, felt very strongly that if kids got to mingle together from an early age, they’d realize there is no difference, and nothing to be afraid of. You’re not born hating somebody, you have to be told to.

For more on Stiff Little Fingers, visit their website, or find them on Facebook or Twitter. They play the Bronson Centre on Friday, October 28th. Tickets are $35 and available online.

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