Black47: the Larry Kirwan interview (Apr’02)
Black 47: the Larry Kirwan Interview
Black 47 are the original and most original Irish rock band in the US – today, yesterday or tomorrow. Thanks to Larry Kirwan for taking the time to answer my questions.
(S’n’O) The first time I saw Black 47 was back in 92(?) at the “Trip to Tipp” in Semple Stadium, Thurles. If I remember correctly B47 played about 11.30 am and I was there to watch Therapy? (I was a “Heavy Kettler” in those days) who were the next band up. Despite my whiskey induced hangover B47 blew me away musically and lyrically with a sound I’d never heard before. I’ve yet to hear another band that sounds like Black 47. Why is that? What makes Black 47 so unique?
(LK) I remember that show because my voice started to go during James Connolly. I think we had just arrived in the country under a lot of stress. We didn’t have a soundman traveling with us, at the time ,and I had to go an explain to the “house” sound engineer what the band was all about. Which leads to your question. Because he looked at me, his mouth somewhat open ,as I explained the instrumentation – Drum machine, electric guitar, uilleann pipes, African percussion, bass, sax and trombone. Nevertheless, he did an admirable job.
I had actually thought that, with the success of Black 47, there would have been more imitators but the reality is that the sound is unique and the players even more so. They’re not exactly replaceable. Each one comes from a different background of either big band jazz, Stax soul, classical, downtown noise, folk, etc. and each had done stints in improv bands. So, there is a certain fearlessness. As a writer, also, I’ve never been afraid (or perhaps been confident enough in the writing) that I don’t mind the songs being worked on, at an early stage, in front of an audience. Most writers like to have their songs somewhat polished and ready for an audience before they’ll showcase them. Because of Black 47’s schedule, we rarely rehearse; thus as soon as I have a rough arrangement ready, the band tries the songs out onstage, modifies (or even throws away) the arrangement and just goes for it. Then again, the lyrical content is pretty broad, dealing with everything from politics to bawdy humor with gusto and passion. So, there are a lot of contents to the Black 47 sound and, even with this long-winded explanation, I’m probably leaving out some vital elements that listeners would suggest.
(S’n’O) The Irish media have always jumped on the bandwagon of anything Irish that’s making noise in America and Black 47 for years now have been know as “the Irish” rock band and been in every publication from Rolling Stone to Newsweek yet Black 47 are an ignored, unknown quantity in Ireland. What do you attribute that to?
(LK) Oh, politics, undoubtedly. And also, we’ve never fitted in any genre and actually despise the fact that bands should be expected to fit. We’re a genre of one and proud of it. We, actually, did receive quite a lot of press in Ireland around 92 because we were getting such press and word of mouth in NYC. But, we always had a political agenda which was to keep the British problems in the North of Ireland on the front burner. Now, to the politically correct Southern Irish, this was a heresy. They wanted their politics to be the airy U2 type of conviction – that the earth must be saved, and that everyone be kind to each other (views that I share and I think that U2 are a tremendous live band); but ours were much more specific – that habeas corpus be restored to the 6 counties, that the rights of the minority be restored and respected, and that eventually the British should cede security of the “province” to an EU or UN force.
Now, on top of all this, we’ve had two major record deals – one with EMI and the other with Mercury. The Irish representatives of both companies seemed frightened and a bit ashamed of the band’s views – there was a war going on in the North at the time and each company felt very uncomfortable having a band such as Black 47 on their label. They felt that it didn’t make them look good when they would have to go over to London. The British companies weren’t too keen on us either. So, they would release the cds, let them gradually sell out and then not print any more. There you have it. It’s a shame but what were we to do. Drop the politics and become an ugly looking Coors? As Yeats put it, “Was there another Troy for us to burn?” We were and continue to be political. It’s cost a great deal but such is life.
(S’n’O) Larry, would you consider compromising your lyrics/ politics/ activism for the big record label push to success? How important are the politics/ activism to the Black 47 sound?
(LK) I didn’t see this question before answering the last one. I think we’ve already demonstrated that we would never compromise. In fact, I’m not even sure I’d know how to. We are political and activist too. But, for those who are not familiar with the band, it’s important to point out that there are also many other sides to our music. Black 47 is a great rollicking rock band who play and live life to the fullest. About 30 to 50% of the songs are political. Many of the other songs deal with life in general. There’s a lot of romance, humor and loss in the songs. Some are about emigrants, many are about New York City and they all deal with redemption (not the established church type) but the feeling that life is important. You may have a rough day or week or year but you still have to get up the next morning and do it again. Black 47 has written a soundtrack for the people who rise to the occasion, day after day.
(S’n’O) Along the same lines what’s the most important, commercial or critical success (or success at all)? Do you feel that you’ve musically achieved what you wanted when you started Black 47?
(LK) I’ve never thought about critics (professional or otherwise). I know when the song is good and when the audience is with you. I don’t need to be told – for better or worse. I’m a professional musician and a professional writer. We’ve had commercial success and, perhaps, will have more of it. But it never affected how I wrote, perform or feel. I’m immensely proud of the band, what it achieves every night, and of the songs I’ve written for Black 47. In the long run, we have a body or work that is top shelf and stands up to anything out there – both musically and lyrically. But then, I don’t tend to look back. That’s for other people to do. The band is vital and goes on making new music. As soon as we stop doing that, then it will be time to call it a day. But, for now, the new songs sound great. We’re always looking to break new ground. And, I’ve always gone along with Jim Morrison’s words as regards creation – “the future’s uncertain and the end is always near.” I felt that 12 years ago when we formed and it’s still in my mind today. We never set out to do anything except make great music and be original. As long as we continue to do that, we’ll stay together. If we don’t…..there are other easier ways to make a living.
(S’n’O) What are your long term goals/ambitions/dreams for Black 47?
(LK) I think that’s summed up in the last question. Tonight’s show in Boston is the most important we’ve ever done. Then Saturday’s show in Connolly’s will supplant that and so on…
(S’n’O) After songs about Connelly, Collins, Sands, RFK and Joyce (well his grave at least). Is there any other historical figure that you’d like to write about?
(LK) Oh, there are many. You just have to find the right setting for them. I took my background as a playwright and wrote about Connolly, Sands, Collins, Countess Markievicz, etc by delving into their personalities (rather like a method actor) and becoming the subject onstage. It was a relatively new concept in rock writing and performing. But each one was treated differently. Finding the way into the heads of these people and then defining them in a different setting is not easy and takes time. I’m presently working on one about James Larkin (Connolly’s superior in the Labor Movement in Ireland) and I’m having a hard time. Two steps forward, one step back. On the solo cd, Kilroy Was Here, I’ve also worked with (in a more elliptical form) James Joyce’s releationship with Norah/Molly and the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca. So, it goes on. I’ve thought of doing a new solo project where I’ll just take a dozen important poltical figures (to me) and deal with their lives. But time is tight.
(S’n’O) Have you found younger fans digging for information about people like Connelly or Collins that they my not have heard of previously? What’s the feedback from the fans like on these people?
(LK) Oh, yeah, that happens all the time. You see, we don’t lecture people on stage. The songs are written in an allegorical manner. They set out the facts and delve into the personalities. Then it’s up to people to take what they want from those ideas. But we’re not like, say, The Clash (whom I adore). We don’t tell people what they should think. Rather, we introduce them to ideas and hope some of the ideas lead them to investigate topics and people in their own way. And that happens all the time. The emails I receive are extraordinary. People come home from a show and write asking a few extra questions; you reply to them. And then you might hear back a year later. The person has done extensive research and now may inform me of things I didn’t know. And so on, like a ball being batted back & forth. It’s a wonderful experience. The songs are also used in hundreds of college and high school courses around the country. And from time to time, I go out and speak in front of classes at the request of professors and teachers. Which can be fun. But there is nothing quite like the high of becoming James Connolly on stage in front of an appreciative crowd, who no doubt, are experiencing the same transformation.
(S’n’O) Finally, after “10 Bloody Years” how much do you think B47 have had a hand in modernizing Irish-America and Irish-American culture?
(LK) Of course. But I don’t think of it as modernizing. Rather we reintroduce Irish-Americans and anyone else who cares to their roots, many heroes, and to a way of seeing the world around them. We get people to think and that’s about the best gift we can give anyone.
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