In Memory of Alistair Hulett

Alistair Hulett, 1951-2010.
Schooldays over and I was working Saturday nights in a lowlife outer suburban bar as bilge monkey still far from fully grown – a scrap of a kid, I was – when I discovered the great Roaring Jack of Sydney City. I spend most nights playing tin whistle along to favourite on a scratch-built stereo and was well pleased to bring home a 45 single I found in Parramatta, ‘The Swaggies Have All Waltzed Matilda Away’ by Roaring Jack. As The Pogues’ iconic ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’ rarely left my turntable, I was delighted to learn of an original folk rock act at large in my home city. So there was the 45, with yesteryear’s vagrant on the cover with his sad hurdy-gurdy slung over him and the Mighty Boy Records athletic logo on the disc. The song drew a shuttle across the loom of Australian history, a song written by a Glaswegian migrant, one Alistair Hulett. He reiterated popular sentiments of The Powers That Be fucking people around and the ironically resentful-yet-malleable nature of the colonial-gone-capitalist Australian psyche. ‘Swaggies’ culminated in a call to “raise the red flag” but I’d listened to enough Billy Bragg to not find the radical politics overtly stark (I was left by nature anyway). What I really liked was the raw, strong melody, a tune that bespoke of sincerity. The song had the feel of a march about it and it was not hard to imagine a colliery brass band playing behind it.
And so, consulting the street press, I sought out the band in question. Only just old enought to get into the pre-sterilized, pre-wankerfied pubs of Newtown (that change being addressed, prophetically, by Alistair in a couple of his own songs), I followed Roaring Jack from the rabble of The Sandringham Hotel and its bubbling mosh, like a tavern built into a ship’s dungeon, to The Harold Park Hotel near the racetrack at Glebe, and back again.
Alistair Hulett was the lead singer and main songwriter of Roaring Jack and he cut a mean, neat figure with his electro-acoustic six string and John Lennon specs. He was fit and sharp and direct in speech, delivery and stage presence. Multi-instrumentalist Steph Miller was like a quartermaster or First Mate at his side and Alistair would slice through set after set without missing a beat. I have never since heard such a quality and quantity of songs from a pub band. One Roaring Jack set would put most Sydney’s bands’ entire repertoires to shame and there was no shortage of these sets, they’d just play all evening and right into the night.
I could not believe that I got to be amongst it all. Leaping from bar and stage with the drinking songs, ‘Lights Of Sydney Town’, ‘The Lass Behind The Beertaps’ and the blazing, fatalistic ‘Buy Us A Drink’. Alistair made fond nods to tradition with the waltzy ‘Wild Rover Again’ and ‘Polythene Flowers’, and then there was the boozey reggae of ‘Ball Of Yarn’. And the defiant Union songs, ‘Days of ’49’, ‘Lads Of The BLF’ and ‘Cat Among The Pigeons’, a four segment folk-punk epic that took in everything from Steeleye Span to hillbilly hoedowns to Marxist prose.
From the first time I heard ‘Proddy Dogs And Papes’, I considered it Alistair’s finest work. A sad and pretty melody in Scottish cadence, he ong is one of those rare gems that sounds equally powerful in slow ballad form or as a flatknacker punk rocker. It follows the theme he explored in ‘The Auld Divide And Rule’; the futile, self-thwarting machismo of sectarianism. You want to physically turn away from the infantile, deluded automatons that are the football fans described in the song, it is emotive stuff.
Alistair was a prodigious writer of no-bullshit folk ballads who played like a crusader. He did great justice to his influences; Billy Bragg, Woody Guthrie, Dick Gaughan and Shane MacGowan. Roaring Jack were electrified Celtic punk before Flogging Molly were a glint in Dave King’s eye and were always undaunted in their own powers of expression. Alistair was the sharpest edge on a sharp band that gave me something to look forward to seeing at least once week, and listening to on the days and nights in between shows.
… Goodnight, and joy be with you all.
Will Swan
Sydney, Ought Ten

Neck come out swinging – Inteview with Leeson O’Keeffe

(S’n’O) First of all, congrats on finally getting “Come out fighting” released in the UK. Why the delay and when can we expect a proper US release?

(Leeson/Neck) Thanks John – it’s a massive relief! Well, it was set to go a year ago, but there were some last minute glitches that, due to tour commitments, we weren’t around to fix. So it got postponed – which gave us & the label time to reflect & it was decided, as Wispy was back off ‘the Subs bench’ to let him overdub some bass parts, re-master it (at the right level), completely overhaul the artwork & get proper PR campaigns working behind the album – which meant putting it back to now to enable all that.

(S’n’O) The title – “Come out fighting” and the fists up on the CD sleeve. I’m guessing there is a statement there?

(Leeson/Neck) Yep – but it’s more about having a ‘pugnacious’ state-of-mind rather than going down the boozer ready for a ruck. It’s down to the title track, which is about those times in life when the shite really hits the fan & you, literally, feel like you’ve gone 15 rounds with Mike Tyson & you’re on the ropes, emotionally, with the guy ready to throw in the towel. So you really have to dig deep, & figuratively speaking, get off the ropes, catch your breath, get your balance – put your guard up, set your brow & be downright bloody-minded & take the fecker on! If ye know what I mean…

(S’n’O) I heard a few complaints from long time Neck fans that while the production on “Come out fighting” is 1st class there’s a lot of older Neck tracks re-recorded. Any particular reason why?

(Leeson/Neck) Of course: rather than selling people short, we’re just trying to give them the best we can – we thought that, as this is our first world-wide release, & particularly with legendary producer Pat Collier’s alchemy at our disposal, we had the opportunity to re-visit & improve upon songs that we love & are live favourites, but the previous recordings are either really old or were recorded either so cheaply, in a rush or mixed at silly o’clock with one eye on the clock, that we find them hard to listen to now. We knew Pat could help us do a better job of them. Which we have, and which, it appears, everyone does actually agree with!

(S’n’O) We’ve been following Neck here in Shite’n’Onions for about 8 years and while a lot of bands that started out around the same time as Neck have had a lot of success stateside Neck are still a unknown quantity – do you feel disadvantaged being based in the UK? Any plans to raise your US profile.

(Leeson/Neck) Well, none of our stuff’s been widely available in the US up ’til now (apart from a Heroic effort via your very own ‘Shite ‘n’ Onions’ – named after on of our very own tunes! – with ‘Here’s mud in yer eye!’); Also, the costs of touring & promotion without big label backing make things virtually unfeasible for us. But, despite that, because of the immense support for us over there from you guys – we’ve tried to hang-in there. We know we’re a good band & things are progressing: our two U.S. trips last year were proof of that. It’s just finding a way to make sure people know about us, & now that we’ve got a U.S. label – Abstract Recordings –  who are going to get behind the album, hopefully we’ll get our arses back over there & put together a tour around the album release in the new year.

(S’n’O) Finally, with “Come out Fighting!” finally out. What are Necks next plans – tours, next CD?

(Leeson/Neck) Well we’ve started the rolling UK tour & then, with the album being released in the USA the week before St. Patrick’s Day, it makes sense that, if it’s at all possible, we need to be in the U.S. for that – so we need to get onto things like ShamrockFest in DC, etc. to ensure that. Then we’ll be touring the album in Europe in April, with more dates & festivals all over the place to follow throughout the summer into The Fall / Autumn – so 2010 may be our busiest year ever! Release-wise, we’re starting to work on the next Neck album, & we promise it will defo be all new material.

(S’n’O) There’s also a rumour of a CD of covers already recorded, any truth in that?

(Leeson/Neck) Yes indeed: we’d already recorded a covers album (with Pat) before ‘Come out Fighting!’, but it was ultimately felt that it was better to put out an originals album as a first release. It was inspired by Johnny Rogan’s writings &, is, subsequently, ‘Necked-up’ versions of songs by other 2nd & 3rd-generation Irish artists – from Johnny Cash to The Libertines. It’s a testament to our contribution to popular music & how far we’ve punched above our weight! The front cover & title’s actually our best-selling T-shirt ‘Plastic ‘n’ Proud’ (‘Plastic Paddies’ is a derogatory term – so we’re turning the insult on it’s head, like black folk do with the ‘N’ word). The version of The Sex Pistols ‘Anarchy in the UK’ is already reaching cult status! (there’s a clip on YouTube of 5,000 people singing along to it at Glastonbury festival)!.

The Rumjacks, ‘Sound As A Pound’, the Shite’n’Onions interview

With The Rumjacks’ second EP ‘Sound As A Pound’ available this month, we’re talking here with Will Swan from the band.

S’n’O: Like your debut EP ‘Hung, Drawn and Portered’, this one has a well-known traditional song on it. With ‘Marie’s Wedding’, you’ve chosen to record a real standard, a very popular song that has been covered by several bands. Did you hope to bring any particular Rumjacks quality to it?

Will: ‘Marie’s’ was an offhand suggestion made by Johnny, just a good energetic song to throw into the set, we never thought we’d bother recording it. But, you know, Frankie was more than happy to lay on the ’20 Golden Scottish Favourites’ treatment, but with the volume right up. And we gathered whoever was around that day and got some gang vocals happening. Isolated within the mix, some of them are truly dreadful – wonderfully bad singing – but all in there together they make for a good ol’ hooley!

S’n’O: Tell us about Katoomba, of the song’s title.

Will: Katoomba is a big mountain town about two hours train ride from the centre of Sydney city. Although I lived in various places around the state – city and country – I had cousins there so I’ve always been familiar with it. Katoomba is a distinctive place in that it is a sort of nexus for drunken hillbillies AND New Age types AND artists, etc, etc. It is very cold in winter and often shrouded in mist and fog. There’s a lot of 1920s architecture up there and the whole place is set amongst lookouts and cliffs.

S’n’O: What’s the story within the song ‘Katoomba’?

Will: I was walking around the steep streets on the fringes of Katoomba and I came across these 1950s houses that were perfectly preserved. I think I actually said to my companion “it could be 1963, it might as well be”. From there I found a character, a melancholy barfly, and by the time I’d got to the train station I’d written the song in my head. I made it a distant love-gone-wrong story, as viewed through the bottom of a beer glass. You find all these postcards in the antique shops up there, really personal stuff, and you wonder what happened to the people who wrote and received them. So I fused a few ideas together and set it where I found those ideas.

S’n’O: ‘Katoomba’ and especially ‘My Time Again’ are more ‘serious’ songs than most Rumjacks songs so far …

Will: ‘My Time Again’ is one of Frankie’s, we put it together very quickly. Like ‘The Bold Rumjacker’ before it, ‘My Time Again’ is an acapella but it is the opposite of the swaggering and fanciful ‘Rumjacker’. ‘Time Again’ is somehow both dreary and epic and I think it achieves a very stark sentiment. It blurs the lines between three generations of characters who are locked in the cycle of working the pits and drinking on Friday nights, etc., and the narrator and his father both carry the terrible burden of wondering if they could have been more than what they are.

S’n’O: ‘My Time Again’ has a different sound to the other songs. Was this deliberate?

Will: We were going to make it pretty reggae but that wasn’t really in keeping with the sentiment of the song, so I threw in a vaguely European minor-key accordion loop and Johnny put a lot of mood in with the guitars and bass (Gabriel joined the band after we’d recorded it). We like to consider it an ‘original folk song’ because we didn’t derive it from any one particular folk idiom.

S’n’O: ‘Kirkintilloch’ also seems to be about working in the pits and drinking!

Will: Exactly! And also the hereditary tradition therein. ‘Time Again’ is another take on the same world. ‘Kirk’ is a Scottish song, Frankie attributes its survival to one Geordie Hamilton.

S’n’O: So, you’ve got an overt Scottish influence happening on ‘Sound As A Pound’, and yet you are an Australian band. Other than ‘Katoomba’, is there anything particularly Australian in any of the songs on the EP?

Will: ‘Shadrach Hannigan’ is about riding the rails around Australia. The protagonist is one of those arseholes who bangs on about settling down with a wife and clothesline but nobody is buying it, least of all himself. By the end of the first verse, he’s already ‘jumped the rattler’ and taken off to the sunny north with a bottle of rum in his hand. The ‘Boxcar Willie’ side of things is romatic and sepia-toned but Shadrach is a timeless figure. I wrote ‘Shadrach’ before Brisbane became our regular port of call but I’m pleased to say it does pay tribute to the area of Brisbane where we usually play.



The following is an uncut, unfiltered, unwashed, unedited, uncensored conversation between Jesse Stewart of Seattle’s rockabilly Appalachian death punk gringos, ‘The Wages of Sin’, and our own Rumjack, Will Swan.  First instalment as is follows:

[JESSE]: So, young Swan–what are some musical styles beyond “Celtic” and punk that have had a big impact on you? Where did you first hear them?

(WILL):  Yeah, the old ‘Celtic’ vs ‘Punk’ model, ay??  Well, there’s  a lot more to it than that, of course.  You know, I see songs – maybe a lot of people do – in terms of the light in those songs, the actual daylight or moonlight or streetlight or bar lights.  The elements of the setting.  And I’ve always dug the way that Spaghetti Western music, if you will, or ‘horse opera’ sort of music, has this big rootsy sound that really resonates the sense of wide open spaces.  There’s this Spanish/Mexican component to it, of course, the whole Day Of The Dead thing, the romantic violence and violent romance.  I believe you’ve trod this perilous path in your own music, Jesse?  If Ennio Morricone more or less galvanized it, then he was certainly taking a sensibility that was always there.  Cowboy music, flamenco music.  Big rock’n’roll and rockabilly bottleneck guitar sounds.  Big resonant Gibsons or Gretschs, I’m not sure exactly, I’m not a string player.  But that sort of thing always strikes a chord, you hear it in Reverend Horton Heat, you hear it in punk rock (like Rancid’s ‘Django’).  The Pogues celebrated it so fucking gloriously in ‘Rake At The Gates Of Hell’, which is just totally soaked in sunshine and blood and dust.  Coming from a country of wide open spaces, and being someone who has done road trips my whole life, as opposed to being some suburban couch potato, that’s always appealed to me.  There’s an serious outlaw mythology in America and Australia that’s part of this also.  And then there’s the mad religious imagery, that’s part of that gunslinging thing, too.  I’d say that I felt I’d come full circle when I stood with the cathedrals of Portugal looming over me, just standing there in their shadows above the crypts full of bones, totally blitzed on Portuguese white port, and thought “fuck yeah, this is what it’s about!”.   I’ve got this instrumental in my back catalogue somewhere, maybe Rumjacks will do it, called ‘Dos Gusanos’, a tequila brand I once picked up in a Portuguese bottle shop in Sydney.  I just dig all  that stuff.  I’m not Catholic, but I dig that Spanish style of Catholic imagery, to put it mildly.  You’re a gringo like me but wouldn’t you agree ….??

[JESSE]: Man, I can tell already it’s going to be hard to keep this on track, you’ve raised a half-dozen interesting ideas that I could follow on some meandering  tangent or other. I’ll try to stick to one at a time… I’m struck by your idea of seeing the light in songs, it captures the way music can tickle so much more then just the ear — all the emotions it can evoke, the way sense-memory will kick in for places you’ve never been, places that might not even exist. That feeling you had at the cathedrals of Portugal, that sense of the sublime (in the original sense of the word) — it does seem to strike one in churches and graveyards, doesn’t it? Certainly those types of sounds — the ones that evoke dusty old churches and sun-baked little towns, blood and dust and horse-sweat and the hero dying with rose in one hand and a pistol in the other — are a big part of my influences. The cowboy/flamenco thing, rockabilly and classic country (which I played for years before the Wages). So what do you think is the appeal of those sounds — what ties it to the Celtic or Punk-rock influences? I’m wondering if it’s the rebel thing, the outlaw — I can see ties between the American/Australian mythology (which have some interesting parallels in and of themselves) and the Irish/Scottish ‘rebel’ mythology. There’s a common thread there celebrating the loner; the man against the world; the doomed, romantic struggle against the tyranny of that overwhelming foe.. The fight to save your way of life (which is in itself interesting, since it’s a fundamentally conservative point of view). And of course Punk is all about rebellion against the status quo (putting aside that it’s become the status quo in some ways…), all about your own way of life. Is there some common mythology uniting the vision behind the music? What do ye reckon?

(WILL): I reckon some sense of rebellion is inherent in the music, both overtly and indirectly.  It gets represented in different ways; in rockabilly, I suppose there’s this time capsule around its aesthetic that preserves a sense of postwar rock’n’roll rebellion. That whole hyped menace of ‘fifties alarmist news reels, delinquents and tearaways and all that.  Now, over half a century later, this is more a case of honouring something, perhaps?  Part subculture, part quaint historical re-enactment, part evolving musical form.  And then there’s the whole Confederate thing going on in that, which is represented internationally.  We had a bloke at a Rumjacks show who had a great tattoo, ‘The South Pacific Will Rise Again’, he was a burly Islander.  I thought that was great.  I might be generalising but I have always seen rockabilly as essentially ‘southern’ music that took on everywhere else but carried implicit and explicit rebel imagery with it.  And I think about it springing from Scots-Irish environments and sometimes wonder if Johnny from our band has rockabilly hardwired into him, given his Scots-Irish background, he’ll hate me for saying it, but to me it just rings true!

The rebellious element is represented in so many ways, from gang vocals to pure volume to a common emphasis on drink and drunkeness.  I’ve looked at this last one from opposite perspectives.  Drunkeness is just a lens – a way of literally looking out at the world –  and music celebrating it isn’t really celebrating the drunkard so much as how he sees the world.  In that sense, making music on the subject is a pretty pure take on things.  Because you feel liberated when you’re drunk, songs celebrating that sensation are an inevitability.  But short of smashing things up because you’re drunk, you really might as well be eating chocolate by way of a ‘rebellious’ act as getting sideways drunk.  It’s just a valve for most people and that’s fair enough, although the Saturday night barroom hero is probably just some obedient citizen or henpecked wage slave..  That was never my own deal when it came to drinking, I was in it on a totally different level and lived a  totally different philosophy, but I suppose there will be songs that celebrated the liberation-by-numbers that most people treat drinking as.

The romantic underdog ‘Celtic’ sensibility always comes up, of course.  This simplified narrative of the REBEL Irish & Scots is such a huge phenomenon, a really, really complicated, messy, ridiculous, stupid, justified, heartbreaking, untold, true, false, tragic and bawdy story all in one,  and all through the history of the British Isles and the history of the diasporas.  Some bands and songwriters choose to represent it in ways that are crude and absurd if not completely offensive.  Some incorporate it in expressions of profound poignancy.   This concept of identity probably differs slightly throughout different parts of the Celtic diaspora.  It is characterized by amnesia, assimilation, denial and romanticism but it also bears the bloodstains of truth.  It’s a huge subject in itself, full of contradictions.  But the fact that we are talking about it, acknowledging ‘it’, the ‘Celtic rebel indentity’, means there must be something in it, whatever that is.  And for the record, just so you don’t think I’m some cold-blooded casual observer, my own family tree is, for a large part, made up of Scottish and Irish people who came to this country through the 19th Century up until the First World War, and I also have American Scots-Irish blood, and Welsh, (and I’ve got cheesey pugilistic leprechaun and Clan motto tattoos, so there!).

And perhaps the ‘rebellion’ doesn’t have to mean singing hoary old IRA songs, or Jacobite songs, maybe just the music itself, the actual MUSIC, maybe that’s an expression of survival and proliferation, if not rebellion.  Because music that came on leaking boats, after Highland clearances and evictions and all, well, if that music has survived and evolved in the New Worlds, then that’s something in itself.

And there’s another big ol’ rebel motif in a lot of the music, too, and that’s the whole PIRATE thing!  ‘Cause pirates are fun and pirates are cool.  Now, Jesse, I’ve got to ask … does the whole nautical thing appeal, or what !?

[JESSE: ] Well I think it’s pretty clear the nautical thing appeals to me, haha (I’m listening to the Dreadnoughts as I type this…). At least on the salty surface I think it taps into the same emotional response as the dusty vistas discussed above. The (romanticized) sense of adventure, exploration, possibility – the FREEDOM of traveling to new ports of call, of doing whatever – laughable, really, since you’re trapped on a boat aren’t you, and subject to the officers’ every whim? But that’s the dream anyway, the fantasy. And the endless sea, that vast and beautiful and terrible expanse, the smell of salt and fish and seaweed, the birds wheeling overhead – it gives me the shivers.

And pirates, who doesn’t like ’em? Most kids like pirates – I know I devoured “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped” and all that RL Stevenson stuff as a kid, plus non-fiction books about “the worst pirates in history” and the like. The N.C. Wyeth paintings in Treasure Island are still my mental image of what pirates should look like.

And of course pirates tap into that whole rebel/outlaw thing too don’t they? Masters of the sea, doing what they want, etc. – not at all like the merciless thugs they actually were for the most part (same with the sentimental vision of Old West outlaws like Jesse James, who was pretty much a confederate/segregationist terrorist). You only have to look at real pirates today to see that pirates are about as glamorous as a junkie who mugs you for a fix, but we of course prefer the noble Robin Hood vision of it.

I like the image of ‘rebel’ music expressing survival and proliferation, rather then just the romantic doomed battle – isn’t survival and proliferation the ultimate rebellion? That seems like a piece that’s often missing from ‘updated’ takes on roots music – the positive, celebratory side of it (Gogol Bordello comes to mind there). Many acts seem to have kind of a shallow understanding of the music and its history, and just grab onto a few cool images or tropes. Natural enough, it’s how we all start with, but you hope it leads to a deeper understanding at some point. It’s what leads to those ‘crude and absurd’ representations of the whole Celtic/rebel narrative you mentioned, and also to a lot of the (in the USA anyway) ‘St. Patricks’ Day’ drunken-Irish stereotypes. (And BTW I am NOT trying to present myself as some kind of expert on any of this stuff, I’m just barely scrathing the surface at this point.) It happens with country music too – lots of people love Johnny Cash singing “Folsom Prison Blues” or “Cocaine Blues” but don’t want to hear him sing “I Was There When It Happened” or any of the religious stuff. It’s all Saturday night and no Sunday morning, if you know what I mean.

It’s funny, because I find that stuff very moving, and I’m not religious at all – I generally consider myself an atheist. In fact, overt religious (particularly Christian) lyrics usually turn me off to a song or artist right quick – except of course for the dozens of exceptions, ha. I had someone listen to a bunch of Wages songs once and he said “A lot of angels and devils”, and he’s right – that imagery resonates even though I can count the number of times I’ve been to church without running out of digits. I don’t know if it’s just cultural memory, or if it’s maybe that so much religious imagery is built on mythology that goes back to the first hairy bastards sitting around a fire telling stories. But I find those symbols really powerful, even if I don’t have much use for the organization behind them. You mentioned earlier digging that ‘mad religious imagery’ – do you connect with it in a religious or spiritual way, or more as a part of the atmosphere you try to conjure when you write? What’s your take on the religious influence on roots music? It’s certainly a huge part of the catalog going back…

(Will): Well, I’m going to throw in a disclaimer here myself and just say I’m not a bonafide folklorist, but this is really interesting stuff.  As far as I know, there are NO Australian folk songs that really even mention religion.  And as for the Irish component of the ballad tradition – which is a major part of the whole deal – I can’t really think of too many at all.  Of the cuff here, there’s a song that parodies piety (‘The Glendalough Saint’) and one that is a sort of comical take on sectarianism (‘The Old Orange Flute’).  I can’t think of too many that espouse the Catholic church or anything.

That which I relate to on a spiritual level can be found in Kerouac’s ‘Dharma Bums’, or in the films of Terrence Malick  (‘The Thin Red Line’).  I’m not sure what it’s called.  Maybe ‘eternity’, maybe something taoist, who knows.  That sense informs and reflects my entire world view, it is a non-belief system, or an all-belief, if you will.  Maybe on some subtle level that will come into my writing.

(BUT … I reserve the right to dig all and any religious aesthetics and characters.  It’s all FOLKLORE, after all.  But my themes in writing seem to be pretty much wordly, especially in relation to ideas of liberty.  Liberty from the shackles of addiction, or stagnant relationships, or from jobs and ruts that have you wanting to jump out the window.  Those things bring on what Bukowski called “death in life”.  And you mentioned Gogol Bordello; I LOVE their whole take on freedom and liberty.  I always loved that band and I listen to them more and more now, my girlfriend is Hungarian-Australian, that gypsy stuff is on high rotation).

But in folk music, I’d say you can’t talk about Appalachian and American country music without acknowledging the religious subjects and themes.  They’re just so much part of it all, aren’t they?  And often, because of the sheer sincerity involved, nobody can really knock that stuff.  Far from it, everyone loves it.  You can take the most humanist, secular, intellectual, urbane, free-thinking, atheist music fan, and nine times out of ten they’ll really dig everything from the ‘dark’ Johnny Cash spiritual songs (a perfect example, by the way, Jesse) to the ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou ?’ soundtrack. ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’, ‘I Saw The Light’ … all those old-timey songs.  I think it must be the sincerity and ‘rawness’ of the delivery, as opposed to any desire for a religious connection.

Nick Cave has often incorporated these elements very directly.  So too has Tom Waits, more often with a gospel strain are the true masters of the craft.

Perhaps those themes of redemption are universal, and perhaps they are part of the rock’n’roll mythology, the opposite of excess and ‘sin’?  Taken to its extreme, this idea is explored in ‘hanging songs’, if you will.  Not just the concept of the doomed outlaw, but of the human man literally at the end of his rope.  To acknowledge this subject in song is not something undertaken lightly.  For my own part, the idea of state-sanctioned slaughter is a disgusting barbarity that has always haunted me; it’s kept me awake at night.  It still does sometimes, the same as when I was a kid.  And when it comes to death row songs, NOBODY does writes it like Steve Earle.  I think a lot of Australians have completely forgotten – if they even bothered thinking about it in the first place – that (white) Australia was founded in the shadow of the gallows and the cat o’nine tails.

For the record, Jesse, my favourite Wages Of Sin song is ‘The Drunkard’s Prayer’.  Not the word ‘Prayer’ in there!!  I think it is emblematic, it’s a terrific song that really honours its musical and thematic roots.  I love it because it is purely rootsy, unrestrained, ambiguous and whimsical, and it just rocks hard.  And I’m a recovered alcoholic, although I didn’t find sobriety through ‘that old time religion’.

We’ve covered a fair bit of ground here, Jesse.

[JESSE] I think you’ve summed it up pretty nicely, so I’ll just add a few odds and sods. Interesting (but maybe not surprising) that so much of the religious stuff comes out of the USA, that protestant gospel tradition combined with our legacy of slavery–all those spirituals and field songs. That actually touches on your concept of liberty as a subject matter in a more literal sense—songs about freedom, and singing as a way to find some kind of relief, some kind of escape, when your body is in shackles. Like Solomon Burke sings: When one of us is chained none of us are free.

You could argue that ‘Tyburn Jig’ takes the hanging concept lightly—certainly the lyrics there are in a bit of a contrast to the delivery. I had some friends of my brother who played that at their wedding! I don’t think they listened to the words too closely, haha. I’m with you on Steve Earle—I had the great fortune to see him on the ‘Train a Comin’ tour, just after he got out of jail. It was one of those shows—you know what I mean, yeah?–that was just magic from start to finish, easily one of the best musical experiences of my life. And he played ‘Ellis Unit One’, which hadn’t been released yet (the movie wasn’t even out). Just him and a guitar, and it was breathtaking—all the hair on my arms standing straight up, I swear to dog.

The Drunkard’s Prayer, yeah another religious metaphor, haha. It’s meant to be a bit ambiguous, it’s actually quite personal but I don’t like to be too literal with my lyrics, ya know? Ultimately though it’s not asking for sobriety (or personal salvation)–it’s looking for some hope for our species, our world, our universe…

For me I’ll have to go with ‘Paddy Goes To Babylon’ (at least this week). I’m probably mis-hearing most of the lyrics, but the chorus really resonates—it’s silver and it’s gold!–the whole thing’s got a kind of rough-hewn celebratory vibe to my ear, the perils and pleasures of Babylon. Kicking against your “death in life”–that pretty much captures it right there.

And with that I’m done rambling for tonight… Cheers mate, here’s hoping we can do it over a mug of coffee sometime!

The Rumjack Interview

S’n’O: We’re here with The Rumjacks from Sydney, Australia. First of all, what are you up to?

Rumjacks (Will): This is Will Swan from The Rumjacks here. I’m currently just south of Brisbane, where we play tomorrow. I think that Johnny’s in Brisbane now. The others turn up tomorrow. We’re playing shows around the place and getting some new songs together for our next EP. Which neatly gets me to the fact that we’re looking forward to our debut EP getting released through the Shite’n’Onions/Mustard Finnegan’s paddpunk label of distinction.

S’n’O: A lot of the Shite’n’Onions readers and fans will be familiar with the world of folk punk and Paddy punk bands. What’s an Australian take on the roots of this thing?

Will: Well, traditional Australian music is a branch of Irish & Scottish music, the same way that spoken Australian English is a branch of English-English. That ceilidh music was transplanted, and played on the goldfields in the ‘roaring days’of the goldrush, and of course there were songs that got adapted to the colonial setting, etc. And all this is a musical history of its own, which runs parallel to Irish and British folk music. So you’ve got a variation of the music being played and adapted a wee bit in the 19th Century. This is all before the whole diaspora world of the Irish session, to be found in pubs in the cities, etc.

Many tunes were just directly transplanted. In Australian bush dances, or woolshed ceilidhs, ‘The Rakes Of Kildare’, for instance, IS an ‘Australian’tune, if that makes sense? But there is also a distinct Australian sound, and it’s hard to describe, but the best example I can give is the early Pogues instrumental ‘The Battle of Brisbane’. That really sounds like an Australian tune, although MacGowan wrote it. Just another example of his class.

Nobody who hears The Chieftans or DeDannan is going to think for one second that they are playing anything but Irish music, but Australian folk music, especially the dance music, is a branch of it all. If you boil if all down, Appalachian music came out of Scots-Irish music, of course, and this is a similar-but-different music to what was being played by migrants at sessions in the big American cities in the twentieth century.

S’n’O: Although you are very much a punk rock band, do the members of The Rumjacks have folk backgrounds at all?

Will: Although we didn’t know each other at the time, Frankie and I were the sort of people who loved the music but didn’t necessarily get our lovin’ nourishment from a folk context. Anthony is coming out of a seriously punk background and Johnny is a (melodic) punk rocker who has played in a rockabilly band, but it is important to note the lifelong bond to Celtic music going on here. Johnny’s parents are from Northern Ireland, he’s probably Australia’s No.1 first generation Ulster-Scots punk bassist. The point is, go around to Johnny’s family home and you’re likely to find Van Morrison & The Chieftans on the stereo. Frankie was born in Glasgow and has always had a powerful love of The Corries and of old Scottish ballads. My first memories kick in with Dubliners LPs in a Sydney flat – I can still SMELL those records – and songs like ‘Maids When You’re Young Never Wed An Old Man’ & ‘Rattling Roaring Willie’on in the background. My old man is a highland piper and used to play tin whistle in bush bands when my family lived in the country here. I used to listen to songs like the Australian ballad ‘The Lachlan Tigers’and think to myself “wow, amp that up and it’d really kick”. And then I almost forgot about it all, but heard The Pogues and never looked back. What I’m saying is, The Rumjacks aren’t some bunch of local pissheads who suddenly decided we’d play music because Flogging Molly took off, (though Drunken Lullabies was a godsend when it appeared, but that’s another story).

S’n’O: How does a sense of place, if at all, influence The Rumjacks?

Will: Well, that’s an interesting question, because we realized that we’ve never really talked about themes or ideas, simply what we DON’T like. As it turns out, we can sing songs about pretty much anywhere, simply because some of them – the trad covers – are set in another time and place. It’s a bit pompous to go on about our breadth of song writing at this stage, with so few songs out, but as I know what’s going on behind the scenes, I might as well. The thing is, Frankie might want to write something set in the Glasgow of his childhood, and that will strike a chord. Or I might write something with a rural setting, simply because I want to, and that’s different again. ‘Paddy Goes To Babylon’ was deliberately written to be in ANY city and EVERY city where Irish migrants might have gone, and it’s set in the age of steam, but it could just as easily be set in the age of sail. It’s a fantastical sort of steam age cityscape, and there’s drug sub-culture references in their and various weird things, but it’s not specifically a Sydney song. Frankie’s got these sort of universal, bloody, raw folk songs he’s writing. We’re up for writing about anything. We’ve got a new song about the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. We’re not going to spend half a set on trad standards. It will be interesting to see if we develop any themes. So far we’ve got sex and death, so that’s alright by us. And leaving stuff behind, I’ve noticed that comes up a bit. We’ve got a song called ‘Shadrach Hannigan’that’s about walking away, or drunkenly running away, from the shackles of domesticity, or at least that’s how the protagonist sees it. Probably won’t win any awards for family values, but he jumps a rum-fuelled train to freedom, far away from wifey and the nappies (diapers). ‘Down With The Ship’is about walking away from destructive, pointless, bullshit scenes.

S’n’O: Not that we’re presenting you with an award or anything, but would The Rumjacks like to acknowledge anyone at this stage?

Will: Well, I can’t speak for the others, I’m just the one rattling away here. By the way, this is the first band I’ve ever been in, or even come across, that doesn’t have a central figure. The core of Johnny, Frankie, Anthony and myself all weigh in equally. So I’ll just acknowledge them.

And if I’m going to thank anyone else for even being able to write this here and now, at two a.m., an hour south of Brisbane, it would have to be Greg from Mutiny for being the first person – deep down in dank and haunted old Melbourne Town – to put me onto Against Me!, to Flogging Molly for Drunken Lullabies, which I bought in England and was immediately reminded that Roaring Jack had it right all along, and to my mum, who in playing our pre-mastered version of ‘I’ll Tell Me Ma’about thirty times in a row, made me realize that The Rumjacks were … listenable.

I’ll tell me Ma’


THE SWAGGERIN’ GROWLERS: Boston based The Swaggerin’ Growlers have just released their 2nd full length CD – Keep Your Head Held High. In honour of that momentus ocasion we asked Johnny Swagger a few dumb questions.

s’n’o: First off, can we get a brief history of the band and personally how did you get involved in playing Celtic-punk?

Johnny Swagger: The band started, like all good folk bands, in the pub. Over pints of Franconia Notch Brewing Companies’ Mountain Stout, in the summer of 2004. We rehearsed in Seth’s (of the Pubcralwers ) basement and played our first show on St Patrick’s day of 2005. Somewhere over the last two years we had a lot of lineup changes, as well as a relocation down to Boston. We finally locked everything down in the beginning of this year, and decided it was high time we put out a new record. Now, we’re off to take over the world.

As far as Celt Punk Goes: Flogging Molly got me interested, and the Pogues changed my life: The idea that you can cause that much intense insanity with acoustic instruments is glorious. It’s hard to avoid the influence of Irish music on the folk scene here in Boston, and in New England as a whole.

S’n’O: Your Head Held High! is your 2nd full-length. How does it compare to your 1st (The Bottle and the Bow)? Is there growth, maturity, keyboards etc., or did you go the AC/DC, Ramones, Motorhead route?

Johnny Swagger: It blows it away, outright – I couldn’t be more proud of the family. There’s a whole lot of growth on this record, and a lot more of our influences shine through considerably more: Bluegrass, Old Tyme, Ska, Swing, and Hardcore. We recorded the majority of it at the band house, behind a schedule that can best be described as insane, so we could have it out for the 17th. And we pulled it off, goddamn it.

S’n’O: I know you headlined the Middle East Club in St. Patrick’s Day for the CD release party. How did it go?

Johnny Swagger: It was a few people shy of selling out, actually – It was a complete frenetic mess. Jubilant, boisterous, brash. I’ve played hundreds of shows at this point in my musical career, and I can definitely say this was my favorite show to date. We were completely surrounded by friends and family, both on and off the stage, and the after party easily ran until 6am. Could anyone ask for anything more? I was in awe the whole goddamn time.

S’n’O: Any plans to tour to support the new release outside New England? Anyone you’d like to tour with?

Johnny Swagger: You better believe it. We plan on fully supporting this record over the next few years, in the states and abroad, starting this summer with a full US tour, then again in the fall. Stay tuned, we plan on announcing dates in the next week or so. Anyone got a van they can sell us? Growlersarus Rex is a little too battered to be roadworthy at this point.

S’n’O: myspace or facebook?

Johnny Swagger: I’ve done more social networking in our living room during a folk jam than on either of those. But Myspace is great for porn and spam and facebook is great for being a creepy stalker. so naturally, we’ve got both, and you should check them out.

S’n’O: In closing, anything you’d like to say in general?

Johnny Swagger: Check out our friends, The Old Edison and Faulty Conscience, our sister bands. They’re both gearing up for new releases in the near future. Also a big thank you to everyone who has supported us over the years, the friends we’ve made, and the bartenders that didn’t throw us out when the damn well should have. Oh, and buy our new record, and come out to a show or fifty. Cheers.