The following interview with Gary was conducted by Simona Ksoll for issue #3, 1994, of ‘Chelsea Chronicle’ Magazine (Austria), in the bar of the Szene in Vienna, shortly before The Whisky Priests’ gig there on 18th May 1994, during the band’s ‘The Power And The Glory’ Tour.
The Quintet from the Northern English County Durham seems unstoppable. This is already their fifth time in Vienna. Their music is an explosive mixture between folk, punk and reggae. The songs are about the hard life in North Eastern England, which includes not only streams of Guinness but also people dancing on the tables of local pubs.
Comparisons to The Pogues are unnecessary because The Whisky Priests are way more authentic, way better, to make a long story short: “Bloody Well Live!”
You founded the band in 1985. What was the intention behind it? Or was it just for fun in the first place?
Glenn and me founded the band within a month of leaving school. The original line-up was more or less school friends. At the time, we didn’t really envisage it taking the proportions that it has now. We probably didn’t even think that the band would have lasted this long. At the beginning it was fun, but Glenn and me always knew that we wanted to pursue music as a career. It’s difficult remembering now what the original intentions were. It was a matter of having the opportunity to do something we enjoyed doing.
How did you get into folk music?
Well, I suppose it could have been any music. Glenn and me, we have a very wide interest in music, it’s all different types of music that we listen to. Maybe it was just a coincidence. Our music stands really for the region that we come from. In the early days, we were trying to achieve a combination of our interest in music and our interest in our region. When we started, I had an electric guitar, Glenn had a keyboard, and our music at the time, before The Whisky Priests, was sort of influenced by Punk Rock and Ska. Then we decided to go for a sound that is more acoustic. I think that was just the idea we had, to get across the North Eastern-ness. We wanted to make things as basic as possible. In the early days, we didn’t have a drummer and later it was just a very basic drum-kit. And that’s basically how we ended up having the style that we have.
Why did you name the band ‘The Whisky Priests’? Do you have a special foible for this drink?
Well, we went through the same dilemma that every band has, when you finally have a set of songs together and the first gig is approaching. We needed a name and we had a list of about 100 (!) different names. Somebody suggested The Whisky Priests and everybody liked it. The name comes from a book by Graham Greene, ‘The Power And The Glory’ (Note: This is the title of the Priests’ new album). There’s a character called ‘the whisky priest’ in it. When we started we were very young, about eighteen or nineteen. It was a very common thing for us to drink whisky. I suppose this was when we were going through our alcoholic phase! It just seemed a good name. People make more out of it than is meant to be there.
Within the years, your line-up changed a lot. Wasn’t it difficult to work with so many different people all the time?
That’s right. It is difficult. We formed the band from a close circle of school friends and nobody did really see the potential of the band. People in the band didn’t see it as a long-term thing; it was just something to do for a bit of fun. For Glenn and me it was different. Many people think that making music has got to do with a glamorous lifestyle, and when they are really in a band they realise that it is a lot of hard work and stress. Ex-members of the band found out that it wasn’t really the lifestyle they wanted. It took us until now to actually find the right people.
It seems that the band is more or less you, Glenn and Mick. Are the others just hired musicians that can be replaced anytime?
I can understand why people think that. The whole concept of the band was Glenn’s and mine from the outset. We are more involved and we have our own ideas about how and what we want the band to be. I mean we created it. So anybody else coming along is joining something that already exists. Mick has been with us for a long time now, he has established himself. You have to compromise. If one person left now, then it would be a real problem. This is the first line-up where everything is fixed and stable. Everybody understands everybody else’s role.
You are running your own label; the band is totally self-financed and self-managed. Why is it so important for you to be independent from the music industry?
It’s important that we have control of everything we do, when we want to tour, when we want to record, what kind of songs we write. We did have a manager in the early days but that didn’t work. When we were playing the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1990, we got another manager, but we were tied down on a very bad recording and publishing deal. And we have never had anybody until recently who had taken enough interest in the band, so we had to do everything ourselves. This was a lot of hard work and of course had its influence on the progress of the band.
You play lots of traditional songs and in your own songs the lyrics deal a lot with life in County Durham, they are about unemployment, closed coalmines, poverty. Do you see yourself as a political band or are you just socio-critical?
Good question. We used to do a lot of traditional songs, not so many now; the new album is all original material. The traditional songs don’t play such an important part now, but without the traditionals, we wouldn’t really exist as we are. The songs deal with the area we come from, because we know the region. We are not a band that invents stories. We try to be honest. We are basically observing things that happen around us and we sing about them. In this sense, you could call us socio-critical. County Durham had been a badly treated area, there’s no industry left, the region is very neglected politically. Like in the rest of North East England, that’s led to a lot of social and economic problems, which has created a lot of bad feeling towards the government. But, at the same time, and this is a strong aspect of the North East, the people have a very strong spirit.
Tell me something about the new album ‘The Power And The Glory’.
The new album, for me, is the most satisfying thing we have ever done. I think for the others it’s the same. It’s a much more together album, the songs shine more, though we didn’t have the money for a big production, but everything went really well in the studio, considering that we don’t have a big budget and the limit of time. This album has got more potential than ‘Timeless Street’. Having said that, I think there’s still a lot more to achieve. The next LP will be maybe improving more. Although I like this album, I think it’s still not perfect, though there’s much more variety, the songs are more three-dimensional. They mean a lot more to me.
I know the next question is a bit of a tender subject, but especially in Austria you get a lot of Pogues comparisons. How do you feel about that?
We used to get more Pogues comparisons in the early days, whereas now it becomes a bit tedious because it’s so unoriginal. One of the reasons is the instruments we use. People just see The Pogues as the obvious comparison because everybody knows them. Our music is in fact North Eastern and not Irish and that’s never been fully recognised. Probably this has got to do with the fact that Irish culture and Irish music is much better known internationally than, for example, the music of Scotland or North East of England.
The music press speaks of your style as a mixture of folk, punk and reggae.
Everybody has his own description of our music. Everybody in the band has got different musical backgrounds. Glenn and me listen to a lot of different types of music, Nick, our drummer, is into Jazz, and Mick was into Punk, he was in punk bands, before that he was into Pink Floyd, he was a hippy and then he was into folk music. We have never tried to pin our music down to anything in particular. We don’t plan our music. It’s natural in a way and it’s got different styles in it.
You do a lot of touring and have developed a big following. Do you need to have that close contact to the fans?
It’s important. We’ve always struggled very hard not only for success but also to survive. Our audience to us is the most important thing, because without our audience we are nothing. I can’t stand bands who think that they are more important than their fans. We are normal people like everybody else and we don’t want to create anything bigger than that.
Even in Austria people follow you from one show to the other. This is very unusual.
I can’t explain why that is. We don’t get that much promotion, so I think most people find out about us through word of mouth. I hope that continues, even if the band becomes more successful. Wherever we play, we always try to give our best. Even if I’m ill, I try to give my best.
This is your fifth time in Austria now and this time you do eleven(!) gigs. That’s more than usual.
Everybody says Austria is a nice country and people like us here. To me, it doesn’t matter where we play if the people are O.K. These eleven gigs have all been organised by Christine our Austrian agent/tour-manager (Note: Christine Flamond -Powerhouse). She said she could book two weeks in Austria and she did. I couldn’t believe it either in the first place.
Do you have a special message to your friends, fans, and enemies?
Our enemies, that’s the music industry, and I want to tell them to “Fuck off!” (Laughs). We will survive without you!
Do you want to say something about your support act ‘Blyth Power’?
Yes. They are brilliant, the best
band we could ever bring on tour with us. They are the favourite band of Glenn,
Paul and me. We met them at a show they played in Middlesbrough and we have
remained friends with them ever since. We are very similar, not necessarily
from a musical point of view but they had the same problems with line-ups,
record companies, etc. We are very close spiritually. I think Joseph is one of
the most talented songwriters and I like it if somebody writes really great
songs. Blyth Power are so unique, you can’t categorise them. They are totally
English and I love their music. Great people! Everybody should go and see their
gigs and buy their new album ‘Pastor Skull’; you won’t regret it. (Note:
which is absolutely right).