Jake Burns from Stiff Little Fingers Interviewed by Dave Jennings
Louder Than War’s Dave Jennings has been a fan of the brilliant Stiff Little Fingers for 33 years and Iconic front-man Jake Burns took time out from preparing for their tour in his Chicago base to speak to him about the past, present and future of the band.
Belfast punk legends Stiff Little Fingers will shortly be heading out for their annual March tour of the UK (and Europe) but this year their devoted legions of fans have an extra reason for the fevered excitement that is a hallmark of each SLF live performance. 2013 will see the long awaited release of the bands as yet untitled new album. Several new songs have already been aired live during the November dates last year and more can be expected throughout the ’Up a Gear’ tour. A further incentive (as if one was needed) to attend at least one of the live dates is the support provided by Ed Tudor Pole and The Men They Couldn’t Hang to provide what a package for fantastic value.
From their 1979 debut of ‘Inflammable Material’, one of punk’s landmark, and most angry albums and a range of issues beyond, to 2003’s outstanding ‘Guitar and Drum’, SLF have consistently focused on social issues, intolerance and injustice with a classic guitar driven sound. Live shows are a celebration of values shared with a fanatical and loyal audience and proof that, after 35 years, SLF are as relevant today as they were at the time of their fury- ridden debut putting many younger bands to shame with their uncompromising approach.
Iconic front-man Jake Burns took time out from preparing for their tour in his Chicago base to speak to Louder Than War about the past, present and future of the band.
LTW: The upcoming tour is called ‘Up a Gear’; can you explain why you chose that name?
Jake Burns: I think we all see this year as significant in moving the band forward. We’re almost in a position to record an album, which would be the first in over a decade and we’ve just taken on new management with a view to extending our touring commitments. So, I guess we all saw ourselves “taking things up a gear”, hence the title.
LTW: Crowds will get real value for money with TMTCH and Ed Tudor-Pole. Are you conscious of providing a good package at a very fair price?
Jake Burns: Yes. I think these days money is tight for everyone and we’re aware that going out to see a band isn’t top of anyone’s “to do” list. So, over the last few years we’ve asked bands along that we felt our audience would have a connection and affinity with. Therefore we’ve been lucky enough to have: Penetration, Chelsea, Spear of Destiny and now The Men They Couldn’t Hang and Ed Tudor Pole.
LTW: The last album, ’Guitar and Drum’ offered everything I ‘signed up for’ when I was 13; hard-hitting lyrics that express what I feel brilliantly, melodies and guitar power that ‘smacks you round the head’. Is the new album in the same vein?
Jake Burns: I hope so. We took “Guitar & Drum” as a template for moving on. We were all happier with it than some of the previous records. I think getting back to basics of being a four piece rock’n’roll band suited us and we all felt we wanted to do more of that. So, we’re applying the same principles to the next one…whatever it’ll be called!
LTW: Are there any specific circumstances that have led to a gap of 10 years between albums?
Jake Burns: A couple of things. Personally, I went through a divorce, got re-married and moved to a different country and that all took time! I had a number of songs around five years ago that we were looking at for an album, but when I sat down and played them all “back to back” to myself, I realised I didn’t really like that many of them so I’m afraid I threw the lot out. That meant starting pretty much from scratch. Hopefully it’s been worth it!
LTW: What stage are you at with writing and recording, any rough idea of release times?
Jake Burns: No release/recording dates yet. But we do hope to get it done this year.
LTW: You played a couple of new songs on the November tour, ‘Trail of Tears’ and ‘My Dark Places’. Both dealt with some heavy subject matter, can you expand a bit on them?
Jake Burns: “Trail of Tears” was written as a response to the recent changes in Immigration control in certain Southwestern states of America, specifically the whole idea of “checking people’s papers” while they were out on the street. The whole thing struck me as so fascistic as to be unbelievable. Land of the free? “My Dark Places” is the most personal song on the album. One of the other reasons the writing took so long was, as a result of my divorce, I went through a long period of depression to the point where I just didn’t want to do anything. It took a lot of dealing with, not just by me but by my family and friends. When I got out the other end, I felt I had to continue to deal with it and the best way I could articulate what I’d been through was to write it down.
LTW: Can you give us an insight into some of the other issues that influenced the songs on the new album?
Jake Burns: The themes are as you’d expect from S.L.F. There are songs dealing with the duplicity of politicians, the ongoing, almost institutionalised racism that seems part of everyday life now, the wholesale fraud and theft of your future by the banking institutions…you know, our typical “laugh a minute” stuff !
LTW: ‘Half a Life Away’ and ‘Walking Dynamite’ are a couple of examples of how you use real stories to write songs, with pretty hard impact. How do you decide and anymore in the pipeline?
Jake Burns: Ian wrote the “Half a Life Away” lyric immediately after watching a documentary on Pop Bickham while we were on tour, so it was very much a knee jerk reaction piece of work. Conversely, “Walking Dynamite” was an idea that I’d had kicking around for ages. In terms of writing, it was probably the longest I’ve ever taken over a song. Apart from “My Dark Places”, I can’t think of anything else that’s that specific on the next record.
LTW: Looking back to pre-punk, who were your early musical influences?
Jake Burns: Rory Gallagher was the reason I picked a guitar up. I hadn’t ever heard anything that exciting in my life before that. Immediately pre-punk, I was listening to a lot of Dr. Feelgood, Graham Parker that kind of thing.
LTW: Glam Rock seems to be getting a bit of a re-examination lately, was that important to you at the time?
Jake Burns: Not in the slightest. I was never a fan.
LTW: Can you describe the ‘light going on’ moment that saw punk change your life?
Jake Burns: There were a number of moments. The initial rush of hearing the Damned and Pistols, obviously. But the real “this is really good” moment was deciphering the Clash’s lyrics and realising they were dealing with real issues, things that spoke directly to me and made me think that we could do something similar.
LTW: Abbo and Spon from UK Decay were looking back fondly on how they got going and the early days of an independent band in those days – sorting out and dropping off their records at shops etc, organising gigs. It was similar for yourselves in Belfast?
Jake Burns: Pretty much, although I wouldn’t look back on it THAT fondly! It was a lot of work. In fact, I remember us all making a vow while cutting and pasting record sleeves that if we ever made any money out of it, the first thing we’d do is get the damn sleeves made professionally !
LTW: It may be difficult for younger people today to grasp exactly how a movement like punk became so big, so quickly without the internet, 24 hour music channels and media support. What do you think was the essence of the movement that saw it spread and become, for many, a life changer?
Jake Burns: It was of the young people, by the young people. That’s the top and bottom of it. It wasn’t a bunch of po-faced music graduates showing off. It wasn’t some manufactured bunch of pretty boys posing about via glossy magazines. It was people like you and me, and that was important. Also, it was hellish exciting.
LTW: ‘Inflammable Material’ is a massive moment in music history and a hugely valuable historical source as it’s a very rare item that’s free of sectarian perspective. Am I somewhere near the mark and how do you look back on it now?
Jake Burns: Well, there aren’t all that many songs on there that directly address the N.I. situation. Folks would have you believe that the whole thing was some sort of concept album based around the Troubles. It’s a scrappy piece of work that pretty accurately reflects what we sounded like at that time. Raw, raucous and full of anger.
LTW: Do you ever look back at what you were saying at the time and think it was a bit risky? How dangerous was it for yourselves in that environment at that time?
Jake Burns: I don’t know that we were that concerned at the time. Looking back on it is a LOT scarier! At the time, we were just reflecting what we saw around us. I don’t think it was any more dangerous for us than it was for anyone else at that time.
LTW: Moving from ‘Inflammable Material’ to ‘Nobody’s Heroes’ saw you maintain your core values but expand musically and lyrically. How did you approach that at the time?
Jake Burns: It’s a strange situation to find yourself in. Previously, you were writing for fun, now you’re writing because it’s your job. To be honest, I thought “Nobody’s Heroes” was a disjointed record, not just because we recorded it in two parts, but it felt like “more of the same” to me and that’s something I’ve tried to avoid ever since.
LTW: Reggae has played a big part in your music and that of a number of other punk bands and there is traditionally a crossover with punk music? Can you recommend a good starting point for someone who wanted to listen to reggae off the usual trail?
Jake Burns: Leaving aside Bob Marley (which would be a huge mistake but I’m assuming everyone knows him). I’d always start with “Two Sevens Clash” by Culture. Great, great album. Others of a similar vintage would be “Reggae Got Soul” by Toots and the Maytals. “Mr. Isaacs” by Gregory Isaacs, “Blackheart Man” and “Protest” by Bunny Wailer and if you’re feeling adventurous: “Leggo Dub” by god knows who but normally attributed to Ossie’s All Stars!
LTW: ‘Go For It’ was a massive album in many ways – lyrically, musically and with its influence on your audience. How do you look back on it now?
Jake Burns: My favourite of all the early albums. We “almost” achieved everything we set out to do with that record. It has diversity, it has good songs, it shows the band moving forward, we experimented with different sounds, different musicians, and different styles. We really pushed ourselves with that record and in the main it came off.
LTW: You probably regularly hear how your songs have helped people and influenced their lives. Does that give you added satisfaction?
Jake Burns: It’s always nice to know that what you do has been appreciated, but to be honest I try not to place too much importance on that sort of thing. As long as we’re happy with it, then that’s a start!
LTW: 1982ish saw a few of the established punk bands at the time start to run aground. Were there any specific issues like record company demands, changing fashion, media influence around this time that made it difficult?
Jake Burns: Music changed a lot around then and, I can’t speak for any other bands, but certainly we were floundering around a bit looking for a direction. The diversity which had served us so well on “Go For It’ seemed to obfuscate things a bit on “Now, Then” leading to a confusing record which certainly didn’t help us in that musical climate. So, I think all the factors you mentioned brought about the break up.
LTW: The atmosphere at the 1987 reunion gigs was (certainly in the crowd) amazing and unforgettable. In fact it’s probably not far off that still at gigs – did that surprise you? Can you give us an idea of how important the audience are to the band as a motivation?
Jake Burns: We were amazed. We honestly had no idea that anyone would turn up. That was reflected in the fact that we’d initially booked much smaller venues and the guys who were promoting us only did so as a favour “for old times’ sake” after they’d been told by their contacts in the business that there would be no interest whatsoever in a Stiff Little Fingers reunion. The audience is crucial, not just to us but to any band. Without them, you’re just rehearsing. Our audience particularly, are deserving of a mention. I can’t think of many other bands who are lucky enough to have such a loyal and diehard following. I’ve often said, it’s more like a football mentality than a rock band, you know: “Once you’re an S.L.F. fan, you’re a fan for life.” I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen our name and logos tattooed on people. It’s incredibly flattering, slightly humbling if I’m being honest and something we’re really grateful for.
LTW: I hate this question but here goes. We’ve always had to travel a fair way to gigs from my home in Wrexham. You’ve played here a couple of times, the second of which some dick chucked beer over you. Someone actually did it to JJ Burnell in Liverpool last March (rest assured he apprehended the culprit and dealt with him). Why don’t people get the message, there’s a packed room, all into the music, many of whom have travelled a long way, it’s not big, it’s not clever and it’s not bloody punk to chuck beer over someone with a load of electric gear strapped to them. (sorry, rant over) Any message to would-be beer chuckers?
Jake Burns: We’ve said this a million times and it still doesn’t get through to a couple of dickheads. It’s dangerous, it’s annoying, it’s stupid and eventually we will walk off and not return. I can’t state our position any clearer than that.
LTW: Can you tell us a bit about the circumstances around the recording and banning of ‘Beirut Moon’?
Jake Burns: Ah, the government said it wasn’t banned, they simply pointed out that they’d prefer it if it wasn’t played as it contravened some section of the “Broadcasting Act”. Must have been the one about telling the truth and embarrassing the incumbent politicians. I was invited onto a Channel 4 news programme to debate the issue with John Knott, who was a government minister at the time. When he found out I’d agreed to appear, he cancelled. Now, why would a university educated politician with access to information that I could only dream about, be so worried about debating with a punk rock singer on television unless I was right and he was wrong ?
LTW: ‘The war on terror’, western foreign policy in general and even the ‘we’re all in it together’ mantra etc doesn’t seem to have effective opposition that is widely heard. Does that increase your motivation to keep doing what you’re doing?
Jake Burns: Not necessarily. As long as something upsets my sense of natural justice then I’ll feel entitled to write about it. It doesn’t have to be an issue that’s been “swept under the carpet” as it were.
LTW: Some of your lyrical subject matter from way back has included anti-racist and anti-sexist views. Do you feel society has moved on or are these still relevant?
Jake Burns: Sadly, those views are still all too prevalent today.
LTW: UK Decay say that one of their main motivations in recording for the first time in 30 years is a perception that young people are too passive politically and happy to be part of a materialistic world. Punk is just a meaningless label /genre. Can you empathise with that?
Jake Burns: Yes. I think to a large degree “punk rock” has become just another branch of the entertainment business. You only need look at the number of bands whose subject matter seems to consist totally of “drinking, fighting and fucking” to realise that it’s pretty redundant.
LTW: What gives you most satisfaction in your achievements so far?
Jake Burns: The fact that we’re still playing and people still want to listen. I think after 35 years or so, that’s something to be proud of.
LTW: Is there any new/different music you’ve discovered recently?
Jake Burns: I am the slowest person in the world at picking up on musical trends etc. For Pete’s sake I only heard Gogol Bordello for the first time last year ! (I loved them, by the way.)
LTW: Any artist living or dead who you’d really want to see perform?
Jake Burns: Ah, so many dead ones I missed or couldn’t possibly have seen. Hank Williams, Howlin’ Wolf but probably the one that bugs me the most is The Ramones. They always played London when I was away on tour. I met Joey once, but never saw them play.
LTW: How difficult is it to put together a set-list for the new tour? Can we expect more new material?
Jake Burns: It’s always a balancing act between what we want to play, what the audience want to hear and (differently) what the audience “demand” to hear. We’d like to play more new material, the audience would like to hear us shake up the old material and play some more obscure stuff and then the audience demand that we play “Alternative Ulster” “Suspect Device” etc.
LTW: Is there one SLF gig that you feel stands out and why?
Jake Burns: No “one” specifically. Obviously, Glasgow Barrowland is a stand out every time we play it. It feels like the bands spiritual home. Belfast is always special because, no matter where we live, it’s always “home”.
LTW: Are you ‘Still Burning’?
Jake Burns: Hopefully.
Stiff Little Fingers start their tour in Southampton (The Brook) on March 7th and continue throughout March and into April across Europe. Please visit the website for more details.
All words by Dave Jennings. More work by Dave Jennings on Louder Than War can be found here.