Black 47 @ 21 – an in-depth interview with Larry Kirwan (part 1)

2011, Sees Black 47 reach legal drinking age – 21 years old – so we thought we’d buy founder and front man Larry Kirwan a large glass of Paddy’s and ask him to reflect on the last 21 years – the highs and lows of the band, politics, life, Ireland and America.

So Larry, if you knew what you know now back in 1989 would you do it again or would you have high-tailed it back to Wexford, to Bridie and the bank?

No, John, I’d do it again. Going back to Bridie and the bank just wasn’t an option anyway. There are things I would do differently in life, but in general I would do most things the same as regards Black 47. When you look back from a distance you see that your influences and experiences pretty much ineluctably pointed you in the direction that you took anyway. We always tried to do the right thing with Black 47 whether it was politically or pragmatically advantageous, so I feel okay about that. But in a way, as the Dead put it, it’s been a long strange trip – so much so that you just have to shake your head about it sometimes.

Seriously, 21 years together is a huge achievement for any band and especially having kept a pretty consistent line-up (4 out of 6 members are original) and having done the major label dance and surviving been hung out to dry by them – that would have crushed lesser bands – what keeps the band together, fresh and relevant today?

Well, again that comes from the array of influences and experiences. Most of us came from an improv background so we’re very used to making every gig a very different experience. Besides each member came from a very varied musical background. We’ve never done the same set twice in over 2200 gigs – no one knows just how many gigs we’ve performed but I would say it’s under 2300. That would set us pretty much apart from most rock-based bands. But it also means that each gig is a very different experience. So that tends to keep you fresh – even when you’re fatigued.

Chris Byrne (uilleann pipes) left the band in 2000 and Joseph Mulvanerty has been with us since then. That was the big change. But in the early days we didn’t have a bass player and most of our replacements over the years have been with that instrument. Back in the early 90’s we might use a bass player or not, depending on different circumstances. When we didn’t use one, Fred Parcells (trombone) and I (guitar) would hone in on our bass notes, so even that was a different experience and each of us still taps into it from time to time on stage.

I always expected that we’d get “dropped” by a major label and we did – but twice. I had a major label deal before with Epic in a new wave band called Major Thinkers, so I was in some way prepared for the hurly-burly of it with Black 47. We set up the band so that we could operate independently of the system. Daniel Glass, who signed us to EMI, got fired and we got the boot with him – all very normal – but we didn’t miss a beat. I remember the evening we got called into EMI to be told the awful news, and Chris and I went off and did a show with the band and barely mentioned it.

What amazed me was that Danny Goldberg signed the band within a year. We hadn’t let the grass grow under our feet but went straight into the studio and self-produced Green Suede Shoes. Danny heard Bobby Sands MP from the CD, was totally moved by it and straight away offered us a deal with Mercury. Then he got fired and we were adrift again. I think Dickie from the Bosstones might have told me we were caput with Mercury – they were on the same label – but again it didn’t take a feather off me. If you dance with the devil, you have to be prepared for a little heat. The trick is to continue to do your own thing and let the big company help you in whatever way they can. A lot of good money was wasted but we were always in creative control.

As regards relevant – well, we were always political, so whether it was the British problem in the North of Ireland, or the invasion of Iraq, we were very involved and took major stands. That doesn’t necessarily make you popular, and we suffered a lot for it from a financial point of view, but it sure as hell keeps you on the cutting edge. My real amazement is just how little other bands and musicians were interested in these long simmering events. From a sheer creative and songwriting angle, you couldn’t beat those two conflicts for drama, heartbreak and sheer cussedness – the backbone of powerful songwriting.

Then again, our people were getting hurt in Belfast and Baghdad, so we felt we had no other choice but to get involved. I wouldn’t have felt right about myself if I’d just been writing about Bridie and the bank. Besides, political writing has some major rewards: James Connolly was and still is a breakthrough in songwriting; I never hear Bobby Sands MP without being transported back to the streets of Belfast in early 1981. And I only have to play a track from IRAQ and the feeling of those crazy years from 2003-2008 comes tumbling back. Many American troops feel the same way.

All of these things help keep you fresh and, up until now anyway, relevant. I guess the day that ends, the dance will be done – but until then…

To Be Continued.