Interview with Stiff Little Fingers frontman Jake Burns | By Spike Porteous
Belfast legends, Stiff Little Fingers, are synonymous with the punk rock movement of the 1970s and gave the youth of Northern Ireland a voice through their music – which was heavily influenced by the violence and political stalemate going on around them – with songs like “Suspect Device” and “Wasted Life.” Having released multiple studio albums and embarked on countless tours, Stiff Little Fingers find themselves more in demand than ever. Their latest release – the live album, Rockers – came out in October of 2016 via Secret Records, and the band are now celebrating 40 years of making music and touring. Frontman and founding member Jake Burns—now a resident in Chicago—has been the kingpin of the band from their inception and sits down to chat about life, the band, and the future.
Where did you see this going when you started out?
I don’t think anyone gets into this game thinking they’re going to last any time at all. Generally, when you form a band, I think you do it for fun. Some folk go fishing, some play football, and some form bands, you know? We were no different: at first, it was a bit of fun, and then, it started getting a bit more serious.
I think, in the back of my mind, maybe it was something I kind of hoped I could do, but it’s not the sort of thing you say out too loud or you get laughed at! Once it started to happen, though, I think, like most bands, we thought we’d get a few years out of it and it would be something to tell the grandkids about.
We just played for fun, there wasn’t any master plan—to be honest, there has very rarely been any plan at all over the past 40 years!
What do you put your longevity down to?
I really don’t know, I think there are a few things that have added to it. We have always been honest with our audience; we never tried to set ourselves above them and do the whole rock star thing, which actually worked against us with some record labels, as we were never trendy. So, that never got us the kudos that I think we deserved. Not just from the press, but as I said, even from our own record label.
I remember when music videos became the new media. We were one of the biggest selling artists in the U.K., and they didn’t even know how to approach making a video for us. They spent a fortune on [British new wave band Ultravox’s fourth studio album], Vienna; I’m not begrudging Ultravox, far from it. But they could see them as kind of a cinematic thing, and I think the [managing director] of the label at the time saw himself as a bit of a Francis Ford Coppola. Blondie made a whole video album—all right, they were Blondie, but even so. I think they could have thrown something our way.
For example, for the single “Listen,” we had to cancel gigs to go and do “Top of the Pops” in England, as we didn’t have a video and that hurt us. We left it a week too late to do the show, so by the time we did do it, we cancelled a big gig and the people in that city never really forgave us. The rotten record went down anyway.
I also think that because we never made “U2 money,” our lives never divorced themselves too much from [the audience’s]. Although my job is different from a truck driver or a plumber, I still have the same concerns. I have to meet my mortgage payments and things like that, and I think that’s reflected in the songs we write. We never got to the stage where our days were endlessly lying around swimming pools in Los Angeles. I think if you become divorced from reality, it will ultimately be reflected in the songs you write, and that may be why we have had such a long career.
Who or what continues to inspire SLF to keep going?
At the moment, basically, it’s the world. In terms of why I write songs and what I write about, it is what I see going on around about me—anything that offends my sense of justice. Back in the early days, the obvious influences were people like The Clash; that was written large on the first couple of records. Also people like Elvis Costello. God love me, I could never write a song as complicated as he can and then make it sound simple and look effortless.
Sometimes I think it got lost—not just in my delivery, but in the production techniques at the time—but if you go back and listen to our very early records, there are still melodies in each of those songs. It wasn’t just shouting over three chords, and that was something I tried to take from the likes of Costello and those people. Also people I was listening to prior to punk, people like Graham Parker. I was a huge Dylan fan, and I was also listening to Bob Marley; when you listen to his early records, they were phenomenal.
It wasn’t my idea to [cover Bob Marley And The Wailers’] “Johnny Was,” it was our first manager’s idea. My initial reaction at the time was: “Have you heard the song?!” I mean, we could barely play. Their version is this really sophisticated ballad, and I had no idea what we were going to do with it. But when you sit and listen to the words, you suddenly realize what was happening in Jamaica wasn’t a million miles away from what was happening in Northern Ireland, albeit probably a lot more violent. They didn’t have the explosions, but they certainly had just as much in the way of murder. It was very, very similar. I mean, it was a two-party system, and they had really drawn battle lines the same as they had in Northern Ireland. So, there were a ton of similarities that I saw; I am in no way comparing us to The Wailers, but at that point, I realized that we probably could do something with the song—but we had to do it as us.
Is punk rock still a thing today, and is it still relevant? Or is it more a fashion label?
It’s another part of the music industry. Arguably, you could say that the minute the Sex Pistols signed with EMI or The Clash signed with CBS, it was done. To a degree, there is an element of truth in that, as when the EMIs and CBSs of the world realized they could make money from it, it then became marketable and another commodity, another form of entertainment.
There are so many bands—and sadly, many American bands—who don’t seem to have any social responsibility at all. They don’t see that as part of the gig. You get endless songs about drinking, screwing, and fighting. Really? That’s your entire life? You have a platform, you have an audience, and that’s what you want to sing about?! To me, that kind of makes it a cartoon version of what it was, and that takes away all of its relevance. It also takes away all of its danger. They think they are being dangerous because they have tattoos and studs—sorry lads, you’re not saying or doing anything that’s worrying anyone, or even making them think. From my point of view, that was one of the most dangerous things about punk rock: it had the ability to make young people think.
I am not saying that I know what punk rock is; I mean, everyone has their own definition. In fact, I’m not sure I would class us as a punk rock band. I’m not sure what the fuck I would class us as!
How have you seen your audiences change over the years?
Some people have stuck with us for the entire journey, and a lot of bands will say the age of their audience runs from 14 to 50, [but] ours genuinely does. We do get a lot of younger people coming along, and maybe that is down to bands like Green Day saying they were influenced by us. It’s what we call the “Iggy Pop effect.” You know when bands like The Damned and the Sex Pistols said they were influenced by Iggy, and suddenly, his audiences went up. So, it’s great when the younger bands namecheck us. But that only explains why they come the first time, it doesn’t explain why they keep coming back, and that’s the gratifying thing.
Do you pay attention to the music that is going on around you?
No, and I really should. Generally, when I get home, the last thing I want to do is go see a band or listen to music. I mean, if I do buy records at all, I’m buying Van Morrison reissues or old Howlin’ Wolf records that I haven’t seen before. It’s all looking back, and I know that’s bad. My wife is much keener to go to shows and see bands than I am. In fact, she really has to drag me out. I’ve even had friends come through town and I don’t go!
Is the music business in a good place right now?
I would hate to be starting out now, I really wouldn’t know how to go about it. I have never spoken to the others about it, but I’m sure they had the same speech: when your dad sits you down and gives you the “Do you know how many people have tried this?” My dad followed it up with “Thousands try this and thousands fail—and they’re all better than you!” In those days, it was difficult, but there was also a kind of career path: you formed a band, practiced, played in public, hopefully got a few more gigs and got picked up by a scout. It was also standard practice that you got signed for three albums, and depending on how prolific you were, you could string that out for six years if you wanted to. That just doesn’t happen anymore. Even the bigger acts are now signing with the likes of Live Nation, not with record labels. They are now selling their live shows and merchandise.
For us, the lifeblood is touring, but we have had 40 years to build up an audience. If you are starting out now, though, I genuinely wouldn’t know where to begin.
You are going out with Rancid and Dropkick Murphys later this year. How did the collaboration come about?
We have toured with the Dropkicks a couple of times, and they are friends of ours. [Their bassist] Ken [Casey] caught me at a weak moment. It’s no secret that, back in the day, I was a bit of a drinker—not Shane MacGowan [of the Pogues] levels, but I could probably have given him a run for his money on the occasional night. These days, I drink very little, maybe the odd glass of wine or a beer after a show. I don’t drink at home, so it has become something I physically have to get up and leave the house to do. This happened to be one of those nights where I had physically gotten up and gone to the pub. I got a text message from Ken saying they were doing a tour with Rancid, and how would I fancy coming out on my own with a guitar and playing for half an hour each night? Now, I was in quite a happy place when I got the text, I’d had a few drinks, and I answered him straight away, “Yes, let me know where and when.”
I woke the next morning, and I asked my wife, “Did I dream it or did I agree to go on tour with the Dropkick Murphys?” She said, “You thought it was a great idea last night.” I thought, “Well, I’m not so sure now!”
But the more I thought about it, the more I thought the worst that can happen is I get to hang out with a bunch of mates for a couple of weeks. It’ll be just me and my guitar this time ‘round. The following month, Stiff Little Fingers will be touring many of the same places, so hopefully, I’ll be able to persuade some of the audience to come back out and see us.
What can we expect going forward?
After the dates with Rancid and the Dropkicks, we are pretty much booked out on tour for the rest of the year. We have also signed with a new label who are releasing a Blu-ray of our concert in Glasgow, Scotland, last year, and we are also in discussion with them regarding the next album.