Stiff Little Fingers, out of Belfast, Northern Ireland was amongst the first wave punk bands, and among those with a lasting impact. Their debut album, the seminal Inflammable Material celebrated its 40th Anniversary earlier this year. The album features a trilogy of angry, political songs. S.L.F. founder and lead singer Jake Burns still has a bit of that same early anger in him and is hitting the road again as Stiff Little Fingers readies itself for another tour. The tour, entitled “40 Years of Inflammable Material,” celebrates the 40th Anniversary of the band’s debut album of the same title and they will be playing said record in its entirety. The first leg, well the US leg, takes them across the nation from October 1st in Phoenix, AZ and ending on the Flogging Molly Cruise with Burns’ friends and fellow Chicago residents in Pegboy.
Speaking of Chicago, Burns’ journey from his youth in his hometown of Belfast, Northern Ireland to his adopted home, the Windy City, was one of the subjects we recently discussed. Read the entire interview below.
MG: Growing up in Belfast, did you feel as a musician a sense of duty to write political music to write great songs, because of what was happening there? Or was it simply a natural reaction to write about what you knew from daily life?
JB: I didn’t feel an obligation to write political songs as such. I tried to write about what I knew, which is the basis of most decent writing, and growing up in N. Ireland, politics was such a part of daily life you didn’t even really notice it. To be honest, I’d written one song that addressed my everyday life (“State of Emergency”) and felt that was enough. It took an outsider, in the form of our first manager, and eventually my songwriting partner for many years, Gordon Ogilvie, to point out to me that I hadn’t even scratched the surface.
MG: What was it like growing up in such a conflicted place? As an American and a photojournalist, I know much of my impression of Belfast from that time comes from war photographers (now called conflict photographers) and news reports
A: It may seem a strange thing to say, given what was happening on a daily basis (rioting, shootings, bombings etc.) but the over-riding memory I have is one of boredom. Because of the Troubles, bands wouldn’t play in the province either because they were afraid or couldn’t get insurance. Honourable exceptions were: Rory Gallagher and Horslips, both of whom were Irish and therefore had some inside knowledge of what they were letting themselves in for.
There was a security fence around the city centre that had gates in it that were closed around 6.30 p.m. and re-opened around 6 a.m., so no-one could get in or out of the heart of town during those times. That cut off the majority of cinemas etc. Occasionally, there would be army curfews when you wouldn’t be allowed to be on any street after about 9 p.m. so even popping to a local bar for a beer was out.
MG: In some many conflict prone regions, we don’t see the daily life going on. What are some of the things about Belfast people should know?
JB: That was the point. Daily life did go on. You’d be amazed how quickly you can adapt to a situation. Of course, I was only 11 years old when the disturbances started, so it’s fair to say that I don’t remember much before then. But, it became normal to be searched when entering the centre of town, when going into any store, occasionally on the bus. It became normal that your journey would be disrupted, or cancelled because of rioting or a bomb (or bomb scare) on the route.
You got used to seeing armed troops moving around the town, tanks and armoured cars and land rovers were the norm. I guess because of all the restrictions, you were forced to make your own entertainment to a degree. I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have been so conscientious about learning to play guitar if I’d been able to roam the streets freely as a teenager.
MG: That leads me to the question of what reaction was there to the music from fans outside of Northern Ireland. Those fans who like me only saw a small part of where you came from?
JB: I guess you would need to ask them that. Some people thought we were sensationalizing the situation and somehow “cashing in” on the problems. We couldn’t stop them thinking that any more than we could help where we came from. As far as we were concerned, no-one was criticizing The Clash, for example, for writing about their lives in London so why should we be criticized for writing about our lives?
MG: Of course, not all songs on Inflammable Materials are about what was happening politically in N. Ireland. Did you notice different reactions to the non-political songs?
JB: No, I can’t say that I did. The point was always to write a good song. That meant not just lyrically and subject wise, but it had to have a strong melody. It had to have good chord changes, a chorus and it had to feel exciting. Whether that was a “political” song or not made no difference. Also, at this point, it’s probably worth pointing out that I’m not a fan of the term “political songs”. I see the band as musicians and myself as a writer as simply following the tradition of protest songs.
The idea of protest within and about any system is as old as dirt. You can go all the way back to court jesters, whose role was not only to amuse the king, but also to point out his shortcomings all while hopefully keeping his head.
Protest songs, fill the same function, in my opinion. I have to entertain while “kicking against the pricks”.
MG: Do you set out deliberately to write political songs, that is set down and say I have to write about this incident or leader or what not or is it more often the songs come to you spur of the moment? I am thinking of the story of how you came to write Liar’s Club. The story being that you were driving by Liar’s Club as you heard on the radio a story about Tony Blair and George W. Bush re: the war in Iraq.
JB: I never actually set out to write any song. “Liar’s Club” is a good example of how haphazard the writing process can be. I was listening to those two on PBR [NPR — National Public Radio) while sat in traffic coming up to Liar’s. While staring round me, I caught sight of the sign. The correlation between what I was seeing and what I was hearing was so obvious that I had almost written the song by the time I got home.
The only thing I was missing was the guitar riff. So, I had the melody, the lyrics and the chord sequence, but it wasn’t “exciting”. Then, one evening just before Shirley and I were heading out for dinner, I was messing around in the basement and came up with a “James Bond/Aqualung” hybrid riff that sounded great. Stuck the two together and, bingo! A song.
MG: Do you still feel a duty to stay political? What drives that aspect of you as a person and as a musician? You have a song, “16 Shots” about the murder of Laquan McDonald. And of course with Donald Trump in office. Please tell us how 16 Shots came about. Did you immediately after the news broke about his murder feel driven to write the song or did it take some time?
JB: A song like “16 Shots” is the polar opposite of “Liar’s Club” insomuch as I was enraged by the injustice of, not just the Laquan McDonald case, but many other murders of young black men in recent times. The current administration has done nothing to deflect the notion that these murders simply don’t matter and may have gone a long way to sweep them under the carpet. When the police officer, Jason van Dyke, came to trial, and all the dashcam evidence and background came out, I was stunned. And angry. I’m not a politician, I’m a musician. And even within that, I’m never sure if anything I write has any effect at all. But, it gets it off my chest and if it brings it to even the smallest audience’s attention who would otherwise have been unaware, then it’s worth doing.
(JB continues) Now, I said earlier that I always try to write about “what I know”, so this presented a particular challenge. I knew I was angry enough to want to write about it BUT, I didn’t know Laquan, I wasn’t there and all I could do was present an “after the fact” account. To do that; I had to read as much as possible, not just about the murder, but also about Laquan as a person, his life and what brought him to that point. So, unlike “Liar’s Club” which was about something I was very familiar with and therefore wrote itself in about 10 minutes, “16 Shots” took a lot of thinking and care in an attempt to get it right.
MG: How do you view yourself as an artist and is there an obligation as a musician and as someone living in the United States to use the mic to be part of the resistance so to speak?
JB: That is totally up to the individual. Everyone has to sleep at night and what you do with your life during the day determines how restful, or otherwise, that sleep is.
MG: You live in Chicago now, but how much have you paid attention to what is happening with Brexit? I recently read on BBC online that the Crown Solicitor’s Office in Belfast advised that a no-deal Brexit would breach the Good Friday Agreement [from BBC online: “On 10 April 1998, something called the Good Friday Agreement (or Belfast Agreement) was signed. This agreement helped to bring to an end a period of conflict in the region called the Troubles.”] Is what is going on there now something you can see yourself writing about or have you?
JB: I’ve included the occasional reference to Brexit in one new song: “Tilting at Windmills”, but I’m not sure I’m the guy to write an entire song about it. I’ve no doubt Billy Bragg has his pen and paper already out!
MG: You moved to Chicago several years back to marry, is that correct?
JB: Yup. 15 years ago.
MG: Do you find any similarity between Belfast and Chicago, with the latter being a dangerous city for many of its residents?
JB: There are similarities that are beyond the violence. Both are ostensibly working class, blue collar cities and that’s where I tend to feel most comfortable. Not that I have anything against folks from other classes, I have many middle class and even the occasional upper class friends, but I guess you stick with what you know. Both have a healthy “don’t get too big for your boots” attitude that I like. You have to be able to laugh at yourself. Equally, I find that those attitudes also tend to breed a fierce loyalty to your friends and family. It’s good to have people you can rely on. Both cities have that in abundance.
MG: What was it like to make the journey from hometown with much violence growing up and now to find yourself many years later in such a violence prone city? Do you feel an affinity to young people growing up in the most dangerous parts of the city?
JB: I left Belfast in 1978 and lived in London for about 11 years. Then I moved to Newcastle upon Tyne, in the north east of England, living there for a further 16 years or so. The part of Belfast I grew up in was not the most violent by a long stretch, so I only feel an affinity for those suffering as a result of violence insomuch as I know the misery it can bring and how difficult that cycle is to break and break out of.
MG: How do you and have felt about SLF often being spoken in the same sentence as the Clash. Has your reaction to that evolved? I have read interviews where you spoke of having met Strummer only a handful of times. Why do you think that happens – is it the subjects being addressed? The way the band perform or some other reason?
JB: Ah, The Irish Clash! LOL. We got that a lot in the early days because journalists needed a shorthand and easy way to describe us to their readership. It was an obvious comparison that should have been done away with by the time The Clash released “London Calling”, which was before we released “Nobody’s Heroes”. By that stage it was just lazy. They went off dabbling in musics far and wide whereas we went down a different path, just trying to become a better rock band.
MG: The next questions are similar to what I have asked Jeff Pezzati of Naked Raygun. What is like to know you are considered an elder statesman of punk rock? When you first hear the word legend being attached to your name and your band what was that like and do you recall when you realized people where calling you the Legendary Jake Burns or the Legendary punk rock group Stiff Little Fingers? Are you comfortable with that and if so, have you always been?
JB: I have talked about this with other “legendary” (Ha!) musicians, Sensible from the Damned for one, and we’re generally of the opinion that after a certain amount of time in the music business, you get called “legendary” because you haven’t had the decency to die or retire. So, hang around long enough and before you know it, people who thought you were rubbish 40 years ago are queueing up to proclaim you a “legend” and throw some award or other at you.
MG: Do you feel a responsibility to hold out your hands to the newer bands and musicians? Or do believe they should learn entirely on their own? Do have you advice for younger bands or again, do you believe they can and should learn on their own, make mistakes on their own and that is the best way to go?
JB: The only advice I can give any young band is to find your own voice as soon as possible. Obviously, we started out being heavily influenced by The Clash in our style and other bands and musicians in our playing, but if you want to do anything beyond the trite, you have to develop your own style. Your influences will always be there, and will surface more often than you know, but find your own voice.
MG: Were there musicians that held out their hands to you as a kid in Belfast? And were there were others in particular non-musicians who inspired/helped you?
JB: Regarding Belfast musicians, no, not really. As for non-musicians, yes. The most obvious one is Gordon Ogilvie, who I mentioned earlier. He became not just our manager, but he and I shared an apartment for years and became the band’s main songwriting team. Strange to think that I wrote with someone for so many years and I find that really difficult these days. I’ve become much more a solo writer. Another whose help was invaluable in the very early days was the BBC disc jockey, John Peel. Peel was the arbiter of all things musical in the U.K. and when he started playing our first single on a regular basis it was like being anointed by the powers that be.
MG: And are there up and coming bands or bands that have been around for a while, yet you believe to which people should be more exposed.
JB: The Wildhearts. The Wildhearts. The Wildhearts. Buy “Renaissance Men”. You won’t regret it.
MG: What was that moment you realized music would be your life? Was there a Eureka like moment and were there moments as a younger musician where you thought this is great but what am I going to do after we do a bit of this?
JB: It was what I always wanted to do from I was about 12 years old, but there was no “Eureka” moment. My main difficulty was finding out “how” you broke into it. Once we managed that, I knew I wouldn’t be turning back.
MG: You formed Nefarious Fats Cats in 2009 and has been described as a Chicago supergroup because of you and your bandmates including: Mark DeRosa (Dummy); brothers John Haggerty and Joe Haggerty (the brothers Haggerty are both from Pegboy. John also formerly of Naked Raygun; Joe, also formerly of The Effigies); Scott Lucas (Local H, Scott Lucas and the Married Men), Herb Rosen Rights of the Accused, owner of Liar’s Club, the aforementioned Chicago bar). The group is also known for using its shows to raise money for local charities. How did the formation of this group come about?
JB: The wonderful Katie Augustyn asked me to play a couple of songs at the KT’s Kids benefit at Liar’s one year with these guys I didn’t know. I turned up for a few rehearsals and they had learned all these SLF songs, so that was what we played. The next year we varied it a bit to include songs that either the other guys had written or that we just liked. We realized we had so much fun doing it, we tried to make it a more regular thing but that didn’t take off, so now the loose collective in some form or another plays the KT’s Kids benefit each Christmas.
MG: What is making music and touring like for you now? Are there aspects that are the same? What are those? And what is different?
JB: It’s much more business like now than it used to be. I guess since the days of the record company picking up the tab are long gone, everyone is much more budget orientated. To be honest, now that I’m a little bit older, that kinda suits me a bit better. I know my liver is happier as a result.
MG: What are you up to now? What tours/shows/projects are you working on now and what is coming up for you and for SLF?
JB: Still writing material for the next SLF record, in a world that cares decreasingly about records! We’re about to head out on our longest ever U.S. Tour with The Avengers from San Francisco opening, starting in October. Then, early next year we hit the road again with shows in Japan, Hong Kong, Australia & New Zealand in February and the U.K. in March.
MG: And is there anything you would like to tell our readers?
JB: That’s all, folks!
P.S.: When Jake Burns advises you to check out a certain band, it would be well worth your time to do so. Here’s a link to The Wildhearts: