Interview with The Real McKenzies vocalist/founder Paul McKenzie | By Josh Roush
Many romanticize life on the road as wine, women, and song, but if the road was such an easy place to inhabit, many more bands would still be around today. To stay the course, it not only takes talent, but also a hearty amount of good ole-fashioned stubbornness to deal with the worst of what touring life can spit out at musicians. After two and a half decades, more than 100 members, and a dozen albums, The Real McKenzies are still driving full throttle, showing no signs of slowing down.
Along with kicking off a new tour on March 3 that takes them around the world, they released their rip-roaring new album on Fat Wreck Chords / Stomp Records, Two Devils Will Talk. The album is quintessential Real McKenzies – a mashup of Celtic punk rock and dark humor, and a celebration of both good and bad times.
One of the standout tracks on Two Devils Will Talk is a cover of Stan Rogers’ a cappella song, “Northwest Passage.” When asked by the band chose the iconic song, lead voclaist and founder Paul McKenzie explains, “Here in Vancouver, [B.C.], we have a maritime museum, and the first ship that actually did the Northwest Passage was the St. Roch – it’s in the museum. And I remember I took a young girl there – [NAME REDACTED], a fine Irish lass – and she accosted me in the galley of that boat! She wanted me to take care of her ‘Northwest Passage,’ I guess! But anyway, Stan Rogers is a great Canadian writer, and they spent a lot of time looking for that [passage] – a lot of guys died looking for that.”
The life of a touring musician is much like life on the sea. Bands have to deal with one another in constant close proximity. “Over 25 years, we’ve broken over 100 men,” McKenzie states. “In this business, if you want something? You can get it, and a lot of it. So, in that respect, it can break you if you don’t have restraint. There’re also guys who wanted to get a real job and start a family.” He continues, “Big Jimmy Brander had to quit because his arms were falling off. The way he played [drums] made the sockets in his arms rot away.”
It’s no wonder so many men have fallen by the wayside during the band’s career. “The way that we tour, the way that I enjoy touring, is that we play every day,” McKenzie says, “and if we’re not playing every day, or maybe two or three times a day, we’re driving to our next show.” McKenzie is committed to this life until the bitter end. “I’m definitely going out onstage,” he says. “I don’t have any plans for retirement. I have no illusions. I’ll be working until the day they plant me in the ground.”
Though bands like the Pogues are an obvious precursor to The Real McKenzies’ sound, there are many nuanced inspirations for the band that are seldom talked about. As it turns out, much of the humor inserted into songs such as “Fuck The Real McKenzies” originates from their frontman’s love of the Scottish crooner, Sir Harry Lauder. Not only was Lauder a serious music hall singer, “he would always put comedy in his records as well,” McKenzie explains.
On the more serious side, much of the band’s inspiration stems from McKenzie’s appreciation of poetry, specifically that of 18th Century poet, Robert Burnes. Once, during an altercation with a group accosting the band, McKenzie used a Knights of Columbus sword belt to “lambaste” a few of them, causing the cross in it to fall out. Unable to locate it, he laminated a picture of Robert Burnes and put it in its place. Later, a man wrongly accused McKenzie of having an ego, because he wore a picture of himself on his kilt. McKenzie was so appreciative of being compared to Burnes that he got the man into the show for free.
“One of the things about his poetry and verse is that it really gives you an idea about what it was like to be alive in Scotland in the 1700s,” the vocalist explains. “Burnes was one of the first in ‘The 27 Club,’ and he died of syphilis because he was a real fucker!”