I caught up with the Undertones in their dressing room at RTE Studios after they finished recording their performance for the Late Late Show. The lads are celebrating 40 years as the Undertones, their first stint spanning from 1975 to 1983 and their reunion in 1999. For their reunion they replaced Fergal Sharkey with Paul McLoone and performed several tours across the UK, Ireland, Continental Europe, Japan, Turkey and North America and this year, they are playing a string of Ireland, UK and European dates.
You have all been pursuing your different broadcasts such as radio broadcasting etc. so I have to ask, is there any new material on the horizon?
Michael: Start with an easy one why don’t you?!
Paul: The short answer is no. John would be the main songwriter. We’ve talked about it and we sort of made a half assed attempt to do new stuff a few years ago and it didn’t really come together. We did a little one off single a few years ago which was brand new stuff but beyond that; it’s one of those things, it’s either going to happen or it’s not essentially and at the moment it’s looking like not!
According to the reception of the tour, everyone seems to have pleasant memories of the Undertones in concert, but what are your favourite gig memories?
John: The Derry show just at Christmas there was fantastic actually, it’s still great doing it just having Paul as a singer just brought a new fresh feeling to the band and we’ve been going now about 17 years and it doesn’t really feel like that, it still feels great.
Michael: That was the last show we did.
John: Touring with the Clash was probably one of the highlights.
Damien: I was just about to say touring with the Clash.
MichaeI: I always remember one we did with Joe Jackson
Billy: Fergal got stung by a hornet and we were laughing at him.
Paul: I really loved Electric Picnic there actually about 6 or 7 years ago, we did it for the second time and it was great.
Billy: We played in Las Vegas at the Punk Rock Bowling and the next day, I think at about 2 o’ clock in the morning but it was like a courtyard in the back of a pub, it was complete chaos but it was brilliant.
Michael: And it being Las Vegas, it was lovely and warm!
What would be the most crucial aspect to your music making process?
Paul: Showing up! Fast drumming, loud guitars, commencing and finishing approximately at the same time.
John: And short songs.
Paul: We try not to overthink and reinterpret the songs, they’re supposed to be played the way they are so I suppose at this stage it’s very clearly set and that’s what we do, fast loud and short!
What effects did growing up through the Troubles have on your musical performance and even getting your music out there?
Michael: For me, it didn’t really take that much of an effect because I spent the Troubles in their house (Damien and John.)
John: I suppose playing in a band was an escape from it. Definitely, you couldn’t get away from it from day-to-day but as a band playing, we were able to imagine ourselves coming from anywhere. And when we were first making the records, we didn’t want people to feel sorry for us because we came from Derry.
Michael: Now we do!
John: I suppose we wanted to be taken on a merit of the songs and not from where we came from.
Michael: We wanted to make records like the records we liked.
Damien: I was just consumed by the whole thing, all I wanted to do was get in a band and nothing else mattered. We knew what was going on and we were aware of it, it was practically on our doorstep.
John: We were just trying to become better musicians and write better songs.
Not many bands wanted to actually play up the North because of the Troubles, with the exception of a few such as Rory Gallagher. So, how important was music in promoting peace?
Billy: It’s funny you should say that actually, it’s only as I got older that I began to realise how important Rory Gallagher was and the fact that he kept playing in Northern Ireland. That needed to happen. We should have probably acknowledged that about Rory Gallagher. That was a very good thing for him to do. We only really saw bands on the likes of Top of the Pops and you started to realise “God, this is really an important thing you can learn from.”
John: I suppose, when we played the Casbah, a couple of Protestants came I think. The Derry side where we were from was about 90% Catholic so it wasn’t really much of a mix in Derry but Belfast, I suppose, is where more of the two communities come together.
Paul: Well that’s more of a geographical thing really because in Derry, there’s a huge river coming down the middle which separates the two communities. But in Belfast, despite the east and west Belfast kinda thing, there’s actually a lot more mix in that. I think people saw music as a kind of a commonality. Maybe these kids weren’t in bands themselves but went along to see bands for the same reason that the kids that formed the bands, formed the bands. It was kind of to get away from this negative thing so it’s kind of natural that these communities would mix through the medium of music. You’d at least have that much of common.
Do you think musicians have the same fire in their belly as they did in the 70s? Do they have the same love for making music?
Billy: I’d say so, yeah!
Michael: Well, I’d say they don’t.
John: I think it’s very manufactured now but there’s a lot of great punk stuff coming from America, I hear.
Billy: I retract that statement.
Paul: The industry, obviously, has changed but the importance of pop music in peoples lives has probably diminished. There were always bad bands and great bands but even the bad bands, like the manufactured bands, some of them actually weren’t that bad back then. There was always those two approaches, the sort of assemble a band and market a band, that was always happening, that was happening in the 1950’s. And the more, so called, authentic bunch of kids get together and decide to make a band. Those two things were always in tandem and some of it was worthwhile and some of it was terrible. I don’t think that’s really changed that much, like we have the X-Factor kind of model and then you have these kids who get together in sheds and garages an be “proper” bands. A lot of the more interesting stuff and seemingly, the more vital and interesting stuff seems to be coming from America at the minute.
Michael: Burger Records. Not just because it’s called burger.
Paul: Maybe that is the reason! Food Records..
Michael: Chips Records! Ah no, Burger Records is a label in Los Angeles, very 60’s but they’re very good.
Just to finish up, if each of you hadn’t pursued a career in music, where would you be now?
Michael: I’d be a nun.
John: A flying nun?
Michael: The Sisters of Mercy.
Damien: The civil service.
Paul: I’d be doing equally what I’m doing; working in radio. That’s what I’ve always been doing. That’s the industry, where I discovered, I could get away with being a mouth and people would call it a job.
John: I’d be working in a fruit and veg shop. We had a fruit and veg shop you see.
Michael: McGirk’s. Write this down: M-C-G-I-R-K-S. McGirks fruit and veg shop.
Billy: A builder.
Paul: A builder? Bill the Builder. Building bridges in our divided community.
Michael: Damien, you’d be a footballer!
If you want to catch the guys live, they are playing the Limelight in Belfast on the 20th of May and the Academy, Dublin on the 21st of May. See you there!
For more info see- http://www.theundertones.com/