Inflammable Material, the ferocious debut from Belfast legends Stiff Little Fingers, is now forty years old and stands as one of the great records of the punk era. The Stiffs detailed the frustrations, anger and mind-numbing boredom of Northern Irish life during the Troubles in fearless fashion, helping to define an otherwise dark era for many. This month, the band celebrate its birthday with two Irish dates, a stop in Dublin’s Academy before returning to Belfast’s Custom House Square for the third successive year. I spoke to frontman Jake Burns about that show, his contemporaries, Brexit, and Coronation Street.
Hi Jake. These big homecoming gigs in Custom House Square are fast becoming a residency for the band. What do you think makes people come back, year after year?
Well I suppose you’ll have to ask them that! It started off as a 40th anniversary thing for the band, which was meant to be a one-ff, but it went that well that even before we’d done the sound check the promoters were asking if we wanted to do it again next year. It’s taken on a life of it’s own since last year, which is great. initially we just wanted to do a homecoming thing for our 40th anniversary, and the suggestion came up to make a big deal of it so we asked a bunch of friends to play with us: The Stranglers, The Ruts, and although they weren’t from out time in Belfast, it was great that The Outcasts could do it, and last year with The Defects, The Damned, and The Buzzcocks, which was sadly Pete’s last show.
I was going to mention that, actually. I was lucky enough to be at that show and being so shocked that he passed so soon after.
I remember on the night, I kind of saw him out of the corner of my eye. I spoke to Steve Diggle when I got back to the hotel, and I remembered thinking ‘I didn’t even see Pete to thank him, but sure I’ll see him next time’, but of course there wasn’t a next time.
With something like that happening to one of your peers, does it change the way you think about life in the band, or is it too morbid to even think about?
It affected us in the same way it affected everyone, it was a shock. I guess it does it remind you of your own mortality, basically, because these are people that you grew up as contemporaries of, we ran into each other all the time through your entire working life. But I’ll be honest with you, Caolán, it’s not the healthiest profession to be in. It certainly doesn’t change the way you look at the job though, you live your life the best way for you. I’d come to terms with the fact that I can’t burn the candle at both ends quite a few years ago! You’ve just got to approach it your own way, really.
Definitely. Touching there on the idea there that one of the best things about these gigs is that, with the Defects, and The Outcasts, Ruts and Terri Hooley playing in the past, there has been a local flavour.
That to me was really important. Even from the start I said I wanted local bands to be involved. This year, the local bands are a bit further up the bill in that we’ve got Therapy? playing. And of course Terri’s there because there’s no show without punch!
Playing with Therapy?, a band that, I suppose, are quite different in terms of their style and scene from yourselves but would still cite you as a big influence. What’s it like playing with a younger band like that that are open about being inspired by yourselves?
It’s always flattering when a band says you’ve influenced them, you know, because realistically you just go about your own job and you don’t really care or even think about what effect it’s having on other musicians. You sort of do what you do and you hope other people like, so when a band says you influenced them… I was gonna say it’s always flattering. It’s usually flattering, but there are some bands that have said ‘We wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Stiff Little Fingers!’ and you think ‘Aw fuck, are they my fault?’ But in the main, most of the bands that say we’ve influenced them I quite like!
Getting on to the actual gigs themselves, you’re ten albums in now, so there’s quite a lot of room for scope in your setlists, especially within a headline set. Have you found any songs creeping back into your setlist lately, or been surprised at how well it’s gone down live?
To be honest with you, we trouble we actually have, especially with the Belfast gig, is that it’s a festival type set up even though it’s ‘our gig’- you want to be respectful to the other bands playing, so even though we’re closing the night, we’re restricted by time so you’ve got to sort of stick to a festival set as much as possible. It’s got a number of elements to it: with it being a hometown gig, it’s got even more of a celebratory element to it, you know, so you kind of want to play… it’s a joke I always make, that in these situations you play a ‘greatest hits’ set, which in our case is a bit of a blow because we never had any fucking hits in the first place, so it’s a bit rough! You play the songs that people know best because you want to send them away with a smile on their face at the end of the night. We try and throw a couple of curveballs in, like we’ll be playing a new song that we haven’t even recorded yet, because it keeps us on our toes a bit. It makes us have fun, and the audience can’t have fun if you’re not having fun up there, they’ll see through you straight away.
With that, can we expect any new singles or even a new album in the near future?
I would like to say the near future, but our management keep, well not yelling at me, but every so often I get a gentle prod saying ‘How’s the songwriting coming on? How close are we to doing another album?’ Well I’d be a lot closer if they didn’t keep sending me out on the road! Some people can write on the road, like I’m good friends with Ricky Warwick from Black Star Riders, and he can write on a tour bus, a hotel room, I get the impression the boy can do it in his sleep, but I can’t do that. I need to be sat at home, with no other distractions before I can start working on material. And also, if an idea hits you at 2am in a hotel room, I’m sure the people in the room next to you aren’t too happy about you banging on a fucking guitar!
I suppose when you approach songwriting now, given your songs have always had a political element to them, in the era of Trump, Johnson and Brexit, it must be a fairly rich period for you in terms of inspiration, surely?
You’re starting to sound like my mates now! ‘You can’t be stuck for anything to write about!’ To be honest, it’s like walking into the biggest all you can eat buffet you can imagine and thinking ‘Where do you start?’ It has that element in that you don’t want to cram everything into one song, and the other thing is, it’s supposed to be entertainment. I know you’re right in that our songs have always had a political element to them, but it’s more directed anger than party politics, and that’s the line that the new songs, so far, have taken. We’ve got about five, so we’re probably about a third of the way, or maybe a bit more than that, towards an album.
So we’re not in terrible shape, and listening to what we’ve got so far, one of them is just a broad canvas stroke about what we’ve spoken about: sometimes you feel like Don Quixote, ‘To the Windmills’. That’s actually the title of the song! It’s easy to feel like that, but if you don’t keep going on, you just sit back and let it all wash over you. Other songs are about isolated incidents that have jumped out and become more commonplace and accepted whereas five years ago people would have been up in arms about it. The reaction seems to be ‘what can you do about it?’ Well the answer is, you get off your fuckin’ hind end and do something about it! I’m starting to ramble here, the people next door are probably thinking ‘that one next door is frigging shouting again’.
It’s the 40th anniversary of your debut Inflammable Material this year, but it’s there’s been another anniversary this week with the 50th anniversary of the start of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. You obviously grew up in that environment and the obvious influence it had on your lyrics defined the band for many people. Does it feel strange to you that your songs have, in their own way, become part of that story for people?
In a way, I kind of hoped that it would, in a way that it would be ‘here’s another folk song about the bad old days, do ye remember?’ But unfortunately, you only need to change some of the locations and those songs are still relevant today. Again, when we wrote these songs, nobody expected them to have this much of a lifespan, you know, but by now I was hoping that they’d be like old songs about the famine, that felt like they were a million years ago. Sadly, they’re all still too relevant for a lot of people, and not just in Northern Ireland.
I know you never pulled any punches about growing up in that, but to me I always saw ‘Alternative Ulster’ especially as an anthem of hope. The situation in the North has stagnated a little with the collapse of the executive, looming Brexit and even Harland and Wolff closing during the week. Are you still quite hopeful about the situation at home?
Yeah, I was just back in June when we played at Slane. I had a week off so I stayed with family in Northern Ireland. I mean, I think there’s still hope, you don’t need to dive into the depths of despair just yet. But like I said, it’s not just Northern Ireland- with Brexit, I’m in Wolverhampton at the minute, and it’s thrown the whole country into a state of flux. Between what’s happening here – I live in America too, where you get Commander Cuckoo Bananas on the fucking TV every day over, tearing the country apart. I think it’s the same thing. I don’t think Trump ever expected to be the president, it’s taken him completely by surprise and he’s just been fucking winging it. And with Brexit, they didn’t expect to win so they didn’t have a fucking plan. The whole thing’s just been bluff and bluster from both sides of the Atlantic.
Even things like Brexit making what was the Irish border the European border and now they’re saying ‘Does that mean we have to have a border back?’ Nobody thought of that! It’s only then that all the ramifications of it become slightly clearer to it all, or at least you’d hope it would be clearer to them. But it’s obvious they don’t have a plan. We were talking the other night about football but it became obvious that it was the same in politics: if your football teams got a bad manager and plan A isn’t working, and plan B is just ‘plan A but better’ he wouldn’t be in a job!
On a more positive note, Stiff Little Fingers have a very strong claim to being the definitive Belfast band. I’m sure you’ve lost count of the amount of gigs you’ve played there throughout the years, but does anyone in particular stand out?
There’s been a bunch of them, to be honest with you. The first one we did after the Tom Robinson tour, which was our first venture across the water, when we went away and did the album, we came back and the album had been a success, the first time we played the Ulster Hall, that sticks in your mind. We played it again after we’d split up for a while, to come back for that reunion show was special, and the first one we did at Custom House Square. It was a big ask and we felt ‘are you sure about this?’, like it was 5000 people, and it was packed, and the following year was packed. I think it’s the fact that what’s struck me is the genuine affection that people have for the band, and that’s more evident than ever in your hometown.
Finally then, I remember a couple of years ago being quite chuffed when I heard ‘Alternative Ulster’ in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, but it was surpassed a couple of weeks ago when you popped up in Coronation Street.
The funny thing about that, and I’m not making this up, a couple of months before that we played the Bearded Theory Festival out in Derbyshire. We finished the show and were getting changed and one of the security guys said ‘someone wants to say hello to you’. We said ‘yeah give us ten minutes’ and he said ‘Yeah, but I think he’s an actor from Coronation Street’ and he was! It was the guy who plays Peter Barlow, turns out he’s a big Stiff Little Fingers fan, who knew?
I thought you were going to say Jim McDonald for a second.
Big Jim wouldn’t have been a surprise but Peter Barlow came completely out of left-field. Really nice fella as well.
Is that the weirdest place you’ve ever heard your music?
Nah, when we were on Chrysalis, your tracks would get farmed out onto these ‘Now That’s What I Call Not Quite A Chart Hit’ compilations, so supermarkets would buy them because they had Spandau Ballet or whatever. I remember being stuck in Tesco, buying onions or something and I suddenly realised “that’s us!”
That’s how you know you’ve made it. Cheers Jake!