Q&A With Terry Woods of the Pogues
Nine years ago (well, and before), nobody expected the original Irish punk rockers, the Pogues, to resurface together. Fans had followed the band's slow dissolution across the late 1980s and early 1990s, parallel with the personal struggles of its mad genius frontman and songwriter, Shane MacGowan. Born in England to Irish parents, MacGowan's immigrant status left him with a permanent outsider's view that eventually led him into the later throes of original British punk.
After his first band, the Nipple Erectors, imploded in the early 1980s, MacGowan set to create a band that sonically represented his immigrant experience. His framework for songwriting was more or less punk, but the important musical details would come from the traditions of his homeland. His songs were positively soggy with boozy regret, his behavior unpredictable but electric onstage. The combination was stirring, enough to propel the band's sophomore album, Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, to the U.K. charts. The upward trajectory continued, with 1987 yielding the band's most lasting hit, the vaguely Christmas-themed "Fairytale of New York."
But MacGowan alone did not the band make. While he formed the band's famously dentally challenged focal point, its lush musical textures came from a supporting cast of absolutely stellar musicians. The strength of the group was in its relative diversity. Accordion player James Fearnley and tin whistle player (and later vocalist) Peter "Spider" Stacey were also punk refugees, while Jeremy "Jem" Finer was an itinerant multi-instrumentalist who worked on a French barge before composing some of the band's biggest hits. Terry Woods, who joined in the mid-1980s, came from a more strictly Irish folk music background, playing the mandolin and cittern.
As alchemical as their musical interplay was, it wasn't enough to slow down MacGowan's hard-living ways. A personal meltdown during a tour of Japan left MacGowan quitting the Pogues, who tried to soldier on for the following years, first with Spider as vocalist, then with the late Joe Strummer. It wasn't the same though, and Woods and others slowly took their exit before the whole thing fizzled out.
Then came a call from the band's former management, around 2001. The public wanted the Pogues back, and the musicians obliged, if only to give the band a proper send-off. But that turned into a full-blown UK tour, then a number of trips through the states. Eight years later, they're still around, although still playing the oldies but goodies -- the Pogues, at least on the record, don't have much interest in trying to re-spark the old flame and write new material.
Regardless, popular and critical reception has been phenomenal, with the Pogues playing large music halls and even arenas. MacGowan is as disshevelled but fiery as ever, and his dexterous cohorts continue to find new spins on the old songs. And, in a stroke of strange luck, they arrive in South Florida this Saturday. While originally slated to play the cancelled Langerado festival, the band decided to come anyways and kick off their latest U.S. tour at the Pompano Beach Amphitheatre.
In anticipation of the gig, New Times caught up on Wednesday with Terry Woods by phone from his hotel in London, where he awaited a next-day flight to South Florida. So fans, be alert: there are stray Pogues in our midst. Here's the full Q&A.
New Times: So you were supposed to play at the Langerado, which got cancelled, and you decided to play South Florida anyways.
Terry Woods: Yeah, the cancellation was a drag, really. I was looking forward to being at a festival in the heat and seeing all the bands. But obviously that isn't going to happen.
When you did your first U.S. tour after reforming the band, were you surprised at your reception in this country?
Initially, yeah, because we haven't played in the States maybe for a good 16, 17 years, maybe even longer. I was kind of expecting an older audience, but the audience is very much a cross-section and there are an awful lot of young folk at the gigs, which is great. And they enjoy it just as much as the young crowd did the first time around.
Who first contacted you about reforming the band back in 2001, and what was your initial reaction?
It intially came from our management, who had been our accountant originally. My reaction to it was positive, because when I left the band in 1991 or '92, and James left the band around the time, the band kind of, from being a big band, seemed to just fizzle out. Personally, I felt the band, if nothing else, deserved a proper ending.
So the first lot of reunion gigs were initially as kind of an, OK, well, this is the full stop that it should have had the first time. But actually it was very enjoyable, and the audience made it even more enjoyable with their reaction. So it seemed a logical thing to do some more work, you know?
Did you have any notion you'd still be doing it in 2009?
No! I didn't!
What were your reasons for leaving the band when you did, after the release of Waiting For Herb?
Well, Shane had initially kind of -- it had all fallen apart with Shane in Japan in 1990, and we had tried to keep it going, but it was very dififcult without the main songwriter, as he had been. In order for the band to continue, we would have had to go in a different direction. And it just wasn't happening.
Was it at this point when you stepped out?
Well, it was after Joe Strummer. The penny dropped with me then that it was -- it wasn't going to work. Well it did work with Joe, actually, but it was different. If we had developed it with Joe, it would have been a very interesting project. It wouldn't, however, in my view been the original Pogues -- but it could have been something else.
And what did you do after that? Is it then that you started your other various musical project?
After that I kind of pulled up my spurs and founded a management company, and I went into the business end of the business for about 8 or 9 years. And funnily enough, it was Shane who got me back into playing.
[Laughing] He had a project that he wanted to get off the ground, and he wanted me to play, and I said, Oh well, I haven't really been playing in a long while. And he said, Look, you'll like it, so I figured I'd have a go. In actual fact, playing again was a bit like therapy for me, so I decided then this is what you need to do.
What was the project you had in mind?
He had an idea to put a kind of Traveling Willburys together, but an Irish Traveling Willburys, but with other well-known musicians. We started to look at it, but it didn't really happen because other people had other things on. Great idea, but it just didn't happen.
And then what did you do next?
The next thing was that the idea came out from the management to reform the Pogues. So that's what happened after that.
So you had still been in contact with Shane after he left the band.
Oh yeah, Shane and I never fell out, it wasn't like that. I joined the Pogues originally because of Shane's music, and I wanted to play the music he was writing. From all the other bands I'd been involved in, in kind of the folk end of the business, the one aspect of Irish music that I'd never really played was an immigrant's view of it. And that's what Shane had. It got me when I heard it first.
And I wanted to do it, so I was fairly sad -- that's kind of an understatement -- when it all fell apart with Shane. But really at the time, what we should have done, which we didn't know we could do, we should have gone off the road and given Shane a chance to kidn of get himself together again. But that option didn't seem to be there to us at the time. There was a lot of pressure from us from management and record companies.
You toured the U.K. a few years ago with the Dropkick Murphys, which is kind of funny because they're so obviously influenced by the Pogues, and an American band. Were you previously aware of the band, or any other similar ones from the States?
I'd heard of them, but I have to say I don't keep up with a lot of the current bands nowadays. I'm somewhat old-fashioned. They seemed very nice guys, very nice people. I know they speak to Spider, I know Spider still kind of sees them.
It's been very flattering. As a musician when you've had any success at all, for other people to be influenced by you is a very flattering thing. For me, I thought, well, it's magic for the band that we obviously did mean something to a number of people.
In the last couple of years, with the demand you've wound up playing some very large venues. What has it been like to adjust to that, considering your background playing more sort of smaller rock clubs?
When we started to play, originally, in the bigger venues it was kind of difficult because of the instruments we were playing. They weren't really meant to be played the way we played them, and the way we still play them. Electronics have kind of moved along since then, so it's kind of easier now to get sound across than it was. The bigger venues aren't the problem that they would have been once.
Of course, the big question now is why you all have chosen to keep playing the older material. You all have been variously quoted as saying it's more enjoyable to do this and not write new songs.
There isn't any pressure. We've actually spoken about maybe making another album, but there's no pressure on us to make another album. I don't know whether it will happen at all, it's not something we speak about regularly. At the moment, it's been enjoyable to revisit what we originally did.
So after eight years of this reunion, you haven't thought much at all about another record?
A few of us in various kind of people have spoken about it. It's not been kind of knocked back completely, but it's a difficult one to think about because now we're all older, we have other things going on. It's not like a band in its twenties, whereby you really need to make a new record. That urgency isn't there for us, it's different.
I found some secondhand quotes from you on the Internet wherein you said Shane had been writing new songs, and you heard them and thought they were good.
He has, as far as I'm aware by some of the bits and pieces I've heard, he has stuff on the go. Whether it develops or not is a separate issue.
How do you keep the material fresh for yourself?
For me, personally, I try to find something new in what we do. I've always been like that in every band I've always been in. My view is when I make a record, it's done and I move on. I don't necessarily want to make the same record again, so I personally try and keep it fresh. I try and find new riffs to play, or new bits and pieces to play in various places. That's kind of the thrill of it for me.
With so much material to draw from, how do you all decide on your set list?
After an awful lot of tears. For this tour, it'll start tomorrow. There were a couple of things that we have liked to have a go at. I'm fairly sanguine about it all now. I don't bring as many boxes of tissues to rehearsals any longer.
What's a specific example of one song that got vetoed?
I would have liked to have a go at "South Australia," maybe, or "The Battle March" medley. But there were other songs that were more important.
Do you ever get tired of playing "The Fairytale of New York?"
This is quite funny, because having left the band all those years ago, it used to really irritate me coming up to Christmas, being in a supermarket, and "Fairytale" would come on. I'd think, Jesus Christ, not that song again. It's funny, since we got back together, it's taken on another life for me. It's quite enjoyable. We will probably not play it on this trip -- I can't see us playing it. We did try it in New York last year in the spring, and while the audience liked it, you could see the question marks over their heads.
What are your expectations for playing Florida, and for the rest of this U.S. tour?
It's really interesting foor me, not having been to Florida before. I'm looking forward to playing Atlanta again. Personally, I would like to play more shows in other areas of America but for us, there's a couple of things -- we're all older, as you can guess, right? I've hit 21 again, and even again, nearly. So there's only a certain period that we all want to be on the road for any one tour, you know.
And that then limits where you can go. Gigs are organized in such a way you can't always route gigs you would like to do them, on occasion it has to be the way the promoters see they can do the business. So again, it limits what you can do. But for me, I would love to play more cities like Nashville. There are other places in the South that I'd really like to play.
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