Jason Setnyk

Interview with Stiff Little Fingers frontman Jake Burns

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Stiff Little Fingers

Ottawa, Ontario – Legendary punk band Stiff Little Fingers are playing this Friday, November 16th at The 27 Club in downtown Ottawa.

Formed in 1977 in Belfast, Ireland, Stiff Little Fingers were among the first wave of punk bands along with the likes of the Ramones, The Clash, and Sex Pistols.

“The reason we wanted to play that type of music was that it was exciting, and I had been a music fan for quite some time. I was bored with what the other bands were doing. I got to the stage where I didn’t want to hear a ten-minute drum solo or a ten-minute guitar solo. I started going back and listening to early rock and roll stuff like Little Richard and started to listen more to songwriters. I always have been a Bob Dylan fan, but I became more interested in the songwriting aspect than the showing off with long solos,” Stiff Little Fingers frontman Jake Burns explained.

Prior to punk rock, it was pub rock that inspired Jake Burns as an artist. It was raw and stripped down compared to the contemporary rock of that time.

“Before punk, what we had in Great Britain (and some people would dismiss) was pub rock, and that’s basically because the bands were playing in bars and pubs. They were a return to the essential roots of rock and roll music, people like Dr. Feelgood, Graham Parker, Eddie and the Hotrods, those sorts of guys. I was really drawn to them and bought all their records. Those were 3-minute rock songs, but they were actually songs. It wasn’t about technical showing off, it was about making your point and moving on, and that appealed to me. When punk happened it was lead by people my age, and it was a bit more exciting. It was a bit faster, and a bit lighter, and it appealed to the younger hooligan in me. I didn’t see any future in it,” Burns went on.

Jake Burns never saw the Ramones or Sex Pistols live, but he saw The Clash quite a few times and was inspired by their songwriting.

“The Ramones were sort of a live cartoon version of the Beach Boys as far as I could see. Sadly I always seemed to be on tour when The Ramones played and never got to see those guys. The Sex Pistols had kind of imploded before anyone outside of London really had a chance to see them. They seemed to be there to shock for the sake of shocking. I saw The Clash quite a few times. It was whenever I first heard The Clash and heard them writing songs about their lives and things that mattered to them – that appealed to the Bob Dylan fan in me. That’s when I saw a future in that form of music. That’s something we could do. We can write about our lives and what matters to us. It became something that really dug its hooks in me. From that point on it’s what I wanted to do,” Burns said.

Stiff Little Fingers wrote about what they knew growing up in Northern Ireland. Some of the issues they wrote about are still relevant today.

“The main influence was the environment we were growing up in and what was happening around us. Any writer will tell you the easiest and best subjects to write about are about things you know, and this is what we knew. At first, we were kind of resistant to it, because much like The Undertones felt, people were sick of it because they were living with it all the time. Once it was pointed out to us, this is your life, what else are you going to write about, after that it was obvious. That was the main influence, our lives, and about the people around us, and incidents we saw on a daily basis,” Burns explained.

“With regards to whether they’re still relevant today, I’m afraid sadly they are. I often said I hoped those songs would one day be regarded like folk songs from a previous time, the sort of thing old guys might sing around a fire and say back in my day, this is what we had to deal with. Unfortunately, much further down the road, and to a lesser degree, it’s still there. There is always the possibility, not just in Northern Ireland, but anywhere in the world that form of bigotry and intransigence is more prevalent these days. I think the songs are still relevant, but I’m dismayed that they are,” Burns added.

1979, Stiff Little Fingers became the first band ever to hit the UK top 20 album charts on an independent label. Their classic debut “Inflammable Material”, released on Rough Trade, sold over 100,000 copies.

“The DIY thing was forced upon us. The first single was completely DIY because nobody knew who we were, and we were trying to get some attention so how manager stumped up the money for that, and that wasn’t an unusual move at the time. Prior to punk rock, everyone was convinced you could only get a record out once you’ve been vetted and signed by EMI, or CBS, or whatever. That was the case. With the DIY ethic of punk rock for a few hundred quid you could make and press your own record, so that’s what we did. Then we had the opportunity to support The Tom Robinson Band who at the time was one of the biggest bands in Britain on their first album tour which we knew was going to be a big tour. We were convinced that at the end of that tour we’d be signed by one of the record labels like CBS or EMI. We got astonishing reviews, we had done really well, and still, nobody was interested. At the end of that tour we had to decide to whether to pack up and give up or not,” Burns recollected.

Then an opportunity happened thanks to Geoff Travis who owned a record store called Rough Trade.

“It was Geoff Travis of Rough Trade Record Store who put the idea to us. He said, “we’re a small independent record store, we’ve never put out an album, you never put out an album, why don’t we put out an album together and see what happens”. There wasn’t a huge expectation that it would do well. It was a case of put your toe in the water and see what happens. Astonishingly it was the first independent album to break in the Top 20 and was the highest new entry in the charts that week. Between Rough Trade and ourselves we had made a point that being independent could work,” Burns elaborated.

DJ John Peel regularly played Stiff Little Fingers on BBC radio every night. Jake Burns listened to Peel’s radio show regularly growing up.

“The thing about Peel is he was the thump of all wisdom. For someone like myself who grew up listening to pop music when I was seven or eight years old, it’s just what you heard on the radio. I started listening to it seriously when I was about 12. Not that I was a precocious kid, but my friends growing up were a few years older than me. They were already teenagers and taking the music seriously as teenagers do. I was already listening to Black Sabbath and Led Zepplin as my peers were listening to glam rock. Peel was playing all the stuff that was considered cutting edge. As soon as I got a transistor radio, I would hide it under my pillow at night so my parents wouldn’t know I was still listening to the radio at 10 o’clock at night. Peel was the person you listened to. When we finally got to the stage when we were making our own records you would hope that Peel would like them, and he did which was phenomenal,” Burns explained.

“I recall saying to our first manager, my ambition was to have John Peel say “I’m playing Stiff Little Fingers of course”. He always used the phrase “of course” when it was a band he played and liked a lot. He just presumed you were a regular listener and you would recognize the band as well. To get that nod of approval from him was something I very much wanted. I would argue that in British music terms he was the single most important person in the music industry going back as far as 1967 when he first started working at Radio One. He was giving radio sessions and airplay to people like Pink Floyd and T-Rex and others, while daytime and regular radio shows would play those people. Peel was always at the forefront. When he was playing our records we only had two singles at the time, and it was the first time I had met John and he was wearing a button of a band called The Rutz who had just released their first single. His first words to me, have you heard of these people? I think they are the next Stiff Little Fingers he said. I said we haven’t really been the first Stiff Little Fingers yet, give us a chance first. That’s what the man was like, he was always on the lookout for something new, always looking forward. He’s a huge miss, not just to Britain but to the world, and for all the bands that he championed,” Burns went on.

The musical talent and raw energy of Stiff Little Fingers helped to influence the next generation of punk bands including prominent bands like Bad Religion and Rancid.

“Bad Religion and Rancid, I’m fond of both bands, and I’ve toured with both bands. The thing about bands claiming us as an influence, it’s very flattering. Both of those bands developed their own voice, and to hear them claim we influence them in some way is nothing but flattering. I’ve seen both of those bands live a couple of times, and they are phenomenal live acts, and I can perfectly understand why they are so popular. They are both very distinct bands which to me is the whole point of it. I’m nothing but flattered,” Burns noted.

Stiff Little Fingers are touring across Canada with The Mahones. This is the second time the band has toured Canada beyond the cities of Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

“We’re looking forward to it. We got approaching 40 years and the most we’ve seen in Canada is Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. Otherwise, we skirted along the American border. One of our managers is Canadian, and we were talking one day about future touring plans. I said to him, there have to be more places than Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver to play in Canada, and he said absolutely, there are lots of places you can play. I said let’s go do it! It was two years ago we did seven or eight shows and it was a lot of fun and the audiences were great. When we asked if we could come back, there was renewed interest, and that’s why we’re doing more shows this time. We’re telling other bands, there are more than just those three cities. The addition of The Mahones should make it just that much more fun. We’ve known those guys for quite some time now. We’ve toured with them and Dropkick Murphys in America. We probably met them seven or eight years ago, and we’ve always got along well with those fellows. In fact, I’ve played on one of their albums. We’re friends, and to tour with them is going to be a lot of fun.  It doesn’t hurt they are a Canadian band. When they heard we were doing a proper tour of Canada they said we want to come with you and the answer is absolutely come with us,” Burns concluded.

Stiff Little Fingers released their latest studio album in 2014 titled “No Going Back”. They also released a live album last year titled “Best Served Loud”. Fans should check out both!

The Ottawa show on November 16th takes place at the 27 Club in the downtown market. It is presented by Beau’s Brewing and Spectrasonic. The event is 19+, doors are at 7 pm, and tickets are $35. Tickets are available at Vertigo Records and online at Ticketfly.

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