The Pogues reunited: Still driving their audiences 'completely fucking mental' Interview with The Pogues' founding member Spider Stacy
By mixing traditional Irish folk music with the snarl and spit of English punk The Pogues jump-started a musical revolution in the mid-'80s - often referred to as Celtic Punk - that, to this day, is still influencing younger bands, such as The Dropkick Murphys, The Tossers, Flogging Molly and Black 47, among many others.
Despite the departure of chief songwriter & self-anaesthetized frontman Shane MacGowan from the band in the early '90s, The Pogues carried on with two more albums (Waiting for Herb and Pogue Mahone) with tin whistle player / beer tray smasher Spider Stacy tackling the lead vocal duties. Despite the fact that these two post-Shane records may not have been as critically lauded as the band's earlier work, Waiting for Herb, nonetheless, contained the band's biggest selling single worldwide, the Stacy-penned track "Tuesday Morning."
Now with The Pogues reunited with MacGowan for their third brief U.S. tour in the last year, the entire band sounds rejuvenated and happy to be playing to enthusiastic audiences wherever they perform.
The tour kicks off in Chicago on March 5th before heading east to Boston, Philly and culminating with a New York City performance at Roseland Ballroom on St. Patrick's Day.
Livewire's Tony Bonyata caught up with Spider on the phone not once, but twice (as his recorder malfunctioned for the first interview and Spider was kind enough to phone in for a second round the following day). Here he shared his thoughts on the band's original split from Shane, touring with the reunited (albeit still not completely sober) band, the possibility of new Pogues music, what new music he's listening to these days, along with tracking down that perfectly weighted metal tray to bash on his head for The Pogues' highly anticipated U.S. shows.
Livewire: Spider, why are you only performing a limited number of dates and cities in the U.S. - I mean, the interest to see the reunited Pogues here must be tremendous.
Spider: We're of an age now where the two and three-month marathons are beyond us. It's not really necessary for us to be out even doing these shows. I mean, it's not like were out promoting new material or anything like that. We're doing it this way so we can keep it fun. That's one of the other things about a long tour; there comes a time when they're no longer enjoyable. This way everything is really fresh, and we're really fresh and it's all fairly exciting.
Livewire: Speaking of new material, is there any new Pogues material planned for the future?
Spider: Nothing as of yet, but I'd never rule it out. Who would've foreseen all this. We'll just have to see.
Livewire: Do you know if Shane has been doing any writing?
Spider: I'm sure he has been. I haven't seen it, so I can't put my hand on my heart and say absolutely, but I'm sure he has been.
Livewire: What about the material you'll be playing for these upcoming U.S. dates? Is it all solely from The Pogues' five albums with Shane?
Spider: Yeah, it is actually - except for "Tuesday Morning," which was from Waiting For Herb. It was actually the closest thing we had to a hit in The States. I think it got to 94 on the Billboard charts there... and that's when 94 was 94! [laughs].
Livewire: The only U.S. cities you're playing on this March tour is Chicago, Boston, New York and Philly. Is it because these cities have more of an Irish population and fans of Irish music?
Spider: I suppose that there is certain correlation there, but it's not something that we've been particularly tied to. For example, last year back in October we played the West Coast and finished up three nights in Los Angeles. I wouldn't say that Los Angeles is known as a particularly Irish city. We also did three nights in San Francisco, which historically is possibly a little bit more Irish, but you know what I mean. The West Coast is different in that respect. And prior to the West Coast we'd been in Japan for about ten days and well... [laughs]. What I'm trying to say is that we've never been confined, if you like, to the Irish end of things. It's always really gone beyond that.
Livewire: Were those West Coast dates last October the first time the reunited Pogues had played The States since calling it a day in the '90s?
Spider: No, we were over in the East Coast last year in March. That was actually the first. We started in Washington and went onto Atlantic City, New York and Boston, as opposed to the cities we're doing now.
Livewire: How was the crowd response for these shows?
Spider: Oh, it was fantastic! It was really, really good. We played Nokia Live in New York and I think that we did four shows there and it went really, really well. But the whole thing went really well. It's been really good since 2001. They seemed to be pleased to see us.
Livewire: Were the shows you were doing since 2001 more annual gigs just in the UK?
Spider: Yeah, pretty much. We did a festival in London and a festival just outside of London. Until we went to Japan it had all been pretty much end-of-the-year shows in Britain and Ireland. After we went to Japan we also played a festival in Spain. It's really gone more international since then. We'll be going to Europe this summer.
Livewire: Was the Japan performance for their Fuji Fest?
Spider: Well that was the climax of it, but we did some other shows in like Tokyo and Osaka prior to the Fuji Rock. It's funny because the Foo Fighters were on the white stage and we were on the green. They only had about four-thousand more people at their set than we had at ours and they were headlining on that stage. I was there for their set and I know who got the better reaction. We also sold more t-shirts at the show than the Foo Fighters, which I take pride in [laughs]. There were loads of kids there for our show too. That's really one of the best things about playing in Japan, it's seems that 100% of the audience is under the age of 25, or as near as can you make out.
Livewire: I know that historically Japanese audiences have been more of a subdued crowd. Was this the case for your shows there?
Spider: No, not at all. They've changed. They're a lot more enthusiastic. I mean they always were, but in a kind of, as you say, subdued, maybe kind of polite... no, polite's a bit of a fucking cliche. But, yeah, slightly subdued. We were never really sure how well we were going down until the end of the song when they'd all applaud like crazy, but during the song they'd be listening, you know. It's completely changed now, I mean, the first time we went back there it was like playing a club in Glasgow or something. Completely fucking mental.
Livewire: Do feel that Carol Clerk's book Pogue Mahone: Kiss My Arse: The Story of The Pogues is a true and accurate account of the Pogues?
Spider: Nothing is ever going to be as accurate as you'd like it to be, because everybody remembers things differently. Authors have their own certain way of writing books, and when it's something that you've been so intimately involved with it's very difficult for you to read and say, 'yeah, yeah, yeah I'm completely happy with that.' Even if it had been written by another member of the band I think there's always stuff you're going to quibble with. I mean, if I'd written it myself and then I was reading it back later I suppose I'd probably find things to argue about.
Livewire: What about Shane's autobiography?
Spider: That was actually written at time when Shane was not only heavily promoting The Popes [MacGowan's post-Pogues band] but also drunk. I don't think many in the band have ever even read it. We really don't need to go into that.
Livewire: You're credited with naming the band. What was your inspiration?
Spider: Yeah, it was my idea for the name. It was originally the Pogue Mahones before we shortened it to The Pogues. Its a Gaelic phrase that Shane use to say a lot, which translates to "kiss my arse." It just seemed very fitting with the music we were playing at the time. It says all you need to know.
Livewire: Is there a difference in the dynamics between the live performances you're doing now as a band as opposed to the shows you did in the late '80s.
Spider: Well, actually I think our shows are a lot better now. I don't want to make it sound like we're actually better as a band or better as musicians, but we're just a lot more focused and we are playing better than we ever had.
Livewire: Less drink?
Spider: Yeah, (laughs) I suppose. Although I really wouldn't be so crass as to put it down simply as that. It is easier playing sober than it is drunk - there's no denying that, but I think there's a lot more to it than that. I think it's just the way that the band feels within themselves. I don't know... it's hard to exactly put your finger on it. It's just that everything feels better than it did, you know? I think it stemmed from the fact that for the very first reunion everything was immediately as powerful and exciting as it ever had been. I actually think that allowed us to take it up a notch, although that may be a bit of speculation on my part. It's a weird sort of alchemy that after all these years the music is just as exciting and it's still able to move you in the same way as it ever did.
Livewire: How is Shane as a performer now? As a front man is he stable?
Spider: He's absolutely fantastic on stage.
Livewire: I only asked because I've seen him with The Popes when he was an absolute wreck - albeit an absolute fantastic wreck.
Spider: Sometimes you just get to a level that you don't hit every night. It's just not possible. There's just times when everything comes together in exactly the right way. Shane's compelling enough anyway, but when that happens it's just like 'whoa!' It's very, very fucking powerful. The way he's singing "Rainy Night In Soho" now is really draining. He puts so much into it... it's great.
Livewire: It's almost difficult to talk about The Pogues without also making mention of alcohol. Is Shane the only one drinking on tour?
Spider: You know, I don't really want to... by no means is everyone in the band sober, you know, but it's really neither here nor there.
Livewire: So it sounds like it's not an issue now. But wasn't it before?
Spider: That all had to do with Shane's state of mind and the fact that he was really unhappy with constantly being on the road, and being away from home. He'd come to a point where all he wanted to do was just sit down and relax and enjoy himself. He wasn't getting the opportunity to do that. He constantly had to drag himself around the world, feeling responsible for everybody, and feeling all this pressure for not only being the front man but the songwriter as well. I just think he got hacked-off with it and dealt with it in the way he best knew how. You don't necessarily always do things right, or handle things the right way. But I really, really want to put the notion to rest that he was sacked because he was drinking too much, or because he was taking too many drugs or anything like that, because that's not really what happened. There had to be a parting of the ways because he didn't want to do it anymore and he couldn't really bring himself to tell us that. But we knew it. So we, kind of, had to let him go. But with the benefit of hindsight we should have said, 'right, this is seriously fucking things up. We probably just should have taken a break for six months or something like that and reconvened. But when you're caught right in the middle of it all you don't actually see that as an option. You can, in fact, walk away from it, though. Even with contractual obligations, what are they actual going to do? Anyone with any brains could say 'okay these guys have been burning the candle at both ends, and they're just going to burn themselves out completely. Let 'em take a bit of time off, and they'll be all the stronger for it.' That's all very well, though, saying that now in 2007.
Livewire: Even after the spilt from Shane you decided to carry on and eventually release two more albums under the name The Pogues [Waiting for Herb in 1993 and Pogue Mahone in 1996]. What's your take on those two records?
Spider: Well, I do feel that the band was much, much stronger when Shane was in it, but at the same time... I know there are a lot of people who really like them. I think I'm a bit down on them because it's me singing, and I'm not really that crazy about the sound of my own voice. I wasn't then certainly. I probably wasn't in the best of spaces myself, the truth be told. That's another reason I'm reluctant to sit here and criticize Shane, because he was far from the only one. So, yeah, I think I'm probably a bit hard on them, but, again, there are a lot of people that really do like them. I think if you were to put the two of them together there's actually a really good album there.
Livewire: How would you compare The Pogues to The Popes?
Spider: I really couldn't compare them. It's not really fair; it's just different. I wouldn't want to compare The Pogues to The Popes anymore than I would The Pogues records with Shane with the last two we did without him.
Livewire: Shane's been known to miss quite a few shows in his days with The Popes. What are the chances he won't take the stage for any of your upcoming U.S. performances?
Spider: This is totally different. He'll definitely be there for these shows. He's very into this as a project and takes a great deal of pride in it. I know that he's missed some things in the past with The Popes, like he'd be playing New York for a couple of nights and be exhausted. So instead of going to Chicago the next night for a show he'd say 'fuck it' and just stay in New York. It was unprofessional and very unfortunate for the fans, but that won't happen here. He's very dedicated to this.
Livewire: What's your take on bands such as Flogging Molly and The Tossers, who've obviously built on the musical foundation that The Pogues laid?
Spider: The Tossers I really like. Flogging Molly... I don't know. They seem to distant themselves, stating that they weren't influenced by us at all, but then you'll hear one of their songs and it sounds exactly like ours.
Livewire: Are there any new and exciting bands our readers should be on the lookout for?
Spider: Are you familiar with Dubstep?
Livewire: No, I'm not.
Spider: Dubstep is an urban thing, particularly a London thing actually; Hackney and East London is where it comes from. It's some really, really good music. There's a great label called Hyperdub with acts like Burial that are really fantastic. Burial is a bit of mystery, because nobody seems to know if it's a he or a they or a what. Skream is also solo artist that's very good. I'm listening to a lot of new stuff at the moment, like Wolf Eyes from Michigan. They're on Sub Pop and it's visceral, creepy, noise stuff. It's really good.
Livewire: Not the typical garage rock from Detroit?
Spider: No, not at all. These are definitely proper noise merchants. There's loads of other stuff as well... Jesus, don't start me talking. I'll tell you everything I know.
Livewire: Good, then tell me a story about Shane that you've never told anyone before.
Spider: Oh my.... you'll have to give me a minute... [laughs]. To be honest there's nothing secret about Shane, you know what I mean? Shane doesn't do anything behind closed doors that the rest of us aren't going to find out about. He does it in the pub. And it's not usually anything really that terrible anyway. Now if you took some of the things he's said or what he actually thinks, then you might have something [laughs]!
Livewire: When you first started The Pogues you were known to bash a beer plate on your head as a percussive instrument...
Spider: It's a beer tray. It's what you used to get in pubs over here when you'd go up to buy a round of drinks at the bar and they'd give you a tray to bring the drinks back to your table. They used to be made of metal and they'd be very handy for hitting yourself on the head with [laughs].
Livewire: Is that something you still do onstage with The Pogues?
Spider: Actually, it's been reintroduced because I felt there was a place for it. They don't actually make metal beer trays anymore. The only thing we've been able to find that are an acceptable substitute is a pizza tray from a certain chain of pizzerias in America. It's a thin metal tray and it works perfectly.
Livewire: Doesn't it leave a mark on your head after a show?
Spider: Oh yeah, it does! They come in various kinds of weights. That's why this particular tray was good find, because it has just the right weight and resonance. If you get the heavier ones and you don't hit the right part of your head you can get a big, old bruise there.
Livewire: When you're here in Chicago next week you might want to skip using the deep-dish pizza pans from Uno then. They're like a quarter-inch thick and would probably knock you out.
Spider: Yeah, I'll give that a miss. I think I might go for the pizza inside it, though.
Livewire: Any thoughts you'd like to share on the Bush administration here in The States?
Spider: There's so much I could say, you know? But I'm reluctant to lean over the fence and criticize those in my neighbor's house when my own place is on fire. All of the things I could say about the Bush administration I would say double about our guy. The only trouble, of course, is that your guys are so much bigger and stronger. You can do a lot more damage. But then things can change and chickens can come home to roost. I'm sounding like an American politician now! [laughs]. I'm talking in homilies!
Livewire: You were gracious enough to do this interview with me again today after my recorder malfunctioned yesterday. Just my little mishap makes me think of all the things that could have, or did, go wrong during your live shows throughout the years. Is there any one malfunction at a show that springs to mind?
Spider: Back last Christmas at Brixton Academy in London someone was kind enough to pour a pint of beer inside the mixing desk, just as we were about to go onstage. The sound engineer had the whole desk covered in plastic sheeting, just for precisely this kind of thing happening. And he kept it covered right up until the last possible moment, and as soon as the sheeting was whipped off this guy, who had obviously been waiting there, just poured it right into the desk. We nearly had to pull the show. Luckily they were able to patch it up with the support act's desk and we were able to carry on. What a jerk!
Livewire: Speaking of London, what do think of The Good, The Bad & The Queen's latest, considering the theme is kind of an ode to the city?
Spider: You know, I'm not really mad about it. I'm not a fan of Damon Albarn's vocals on it and you can barely hear Paul Simonon's bass. I mean, c'mon... it's Paul Simonon from The Clash... turn up the fucking bass!
Livewire: Is there any specific work of yours - with or without The Pogues - that you're most proud of?
Spider: I'd have to say "Tuesday Morning" and "Repeal Of The Licensing Laws." My wife, Louise, and I also got married last October while touring America in Las Vegas and I'm very, very proud we did that. Actually that's what I'm proudest of.
Livewire: Do you feel The Pogues' legacy is secure?
Spider: Oh, yeah. I think we've definitely proven ourselves.
Livewire: Anything else you'd like to add, Spider?
Spider: Yes. You can tell people, if you like, that Shane sleeps standing up with his eyes open [laughs].
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