Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pogues Q&A

Posted By on Tue, Oct 27, 2009 at 9:51 PM

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Pogues' publicist when I requested a chat with the venerable Irish/English band's famously capricious frontman. Lucky for Gambit's Voodoo coverage, guitarist Philip Chevron does do interviews, and he does them uncommonly well. Over 40 enlivened minutes, the sharp-witted and equally sharp-tongued Dubliner detailed his 25 years (give or take a few breaks) on tour with the inveterate boozers. What was worse, babysitting the orbital MacGowan or battling advanced throat cancer and chemotherapy? Read on.

It was a pleasant surprise to see your name added to the Voodoo lineup.

It’s been a long time since we played in New Orleans, so we’re very much looking forward to it. We played in Tipitina’s a couple times, must have been 1988, ’89. We made two or three visits to New Orleans, the Grace of God tour or just after. I love New Orleans. I was there earlier this year as a private citizen, as it were. I was actually checking out the Treme district, because a friend of ours, David Simon, was making his new HBO thing down there. We know him and George Pelecanos. They used “Body of an American” and a few other things in The Wire. One thing led to another, and we kind of hooked up and discovered we were mutual fans. Myself and Spider in particular were early adopters of The Wire.

I just wrote a story about the filming of the pilot. The team of writers he assembled is incredible: Pelecanos, Tom Piazza, Lolis Eric Elie.

I bought Faubourg Treme to have a look at it. And I was fascinated! That tells the story we really don’t know, that New Orleans existed almost as a parallel entity, really, even during the Jim Crow days. It’s a really good film, that. The way they got those narratives from people, and stuck with the same people throughout, was really brilliant. My response when I saw it was absolutely the same as David: I’ve got to find out more about this. This is too good a story not to know.

We’re so used to being portrayed in caricature. Simon’s approach should be quite a change.

I’m fascinated by the city, always have been. I’m fascinated by how it kind of exists likely at an angle from America. Of course the whole business of Katrina revealed so much of what mainstream America, Main Street America, felt about New Orleans. It really did have a quite extraordinary effect outside of America, because it was a bit like looking at pictures of Calcutta. It was hard to believe that there was a Rhird World country within the United States. I’m very much aware that the political ramifications and fallout of Katrina are still not sorted, and nowhere near resolved. I think that’s a huge shame. But it’s the same old story. The vultures will descend and try to turn New Orleans into a theme park version of itself, if they can. People have continued to fight it. But if anyone can fight it, New Orleans can fight it, because it’s had such an independent history in the past. I’ve always been fascinated by the mixture of elements, in a way. It was in part a great Irish immigrant city and port, and had its own part to tell in that story. So, a fascinating place. I can’t wait to get back.

How are the tours going?

We probably would do this more often, if only we could pin Shane down to rehearsal. I would consider it a problem if it were something that was solvable. But it’s not. He just lives under his own clock and schedule. He absolutely, 100 percent means to be there at the time that rehearsal is happening. But something happens that delays him. You learn early on when you have someone like Shane in your life that you have to accept that there’s an alternative clock going on there. And that twice a day, if you’re lucky, it will be set at the same time as you are.

I read a humorous piece from Shane’s 2006 Guardian blog, about how he’d been out the entire night before a show, and thank God for the human alarm clocks waking him up 10 minutes before he was supposed to be onstage.

Gosh, I remember that incident as well! The hotel was on red alert because nobody could get into his room. And the hotel security was saying, ‘We can’t interrupt Mr. MacGowan. We must respect his privacy.’ We were saying, ‘Let us in! Give us the f—king pass key! We need to get him out of there!’ ‘I’m sorry sir, we can’t do that. Mr. MacGowan has left strict instructions that he’s not to be disturbed.’ (Laughs) Eventually, God knows how, they did eventually get him out. We got him on the stage only 10 minutes late or something. This doesn’t happen very often. Usually it will occur because something quite innocuous has happened. If he picks up on a new film — he got into Brokeback Mountain in a big way for a while, and he was watching nothing but Brokeback Mountain, incessantly. ‘You’ve got 20 minutes before it’s time to go to the gig, Shane.’ ‘I can’t! I’m still watching the movie.’ ‘You should’ve thought of that and put it on a bit earlier, maybe.’ That’s a logic that never quite works for him. The logic that works for him is, I’ll be there when I finish watching this movie. (Laughs)

You seem to have kept your sense of humor about it after all these years.

The thing about it is, you find ways around all that. It doesn’t come unstuck very often. Of course, I can talk merrily about it because it’s not my problem; it is the problem of tour managers and other people who are paid for it to be their problem. (Good stories from them?) I bet they have. They’re all taping them for their books, I think.

Speaking of, I'm curious to hear your thoughts on Shane’s book (2001’s A Drink With Shane MacGowan).

I kind of skimmed through it. I enjoyed the bits that I caught in it, but I can’t say I read it cover to cover. I also felt a little irked by the editorialization that was going on with Victoria. There’s a sort of secondary narrative going on about her. Which, while she’s a delightful woman and perfectly charming, I wasn’t very interested in reading that book. So there was some curd of doubt about whether this was Shane’s book or her book. And the book slightly got lost in the crack between those two points of view, I think. I never felt inclined to read it all the way through. The bits that caught me eye and looked like they might be an entertaining, 10-minute read, I read and enjoyed. And of course, it being Shane, a great deal of it is 3 o’clock in the morning, excessive nonsense, that is his own false recollection of what actually went on. Because he’s one of those people that when he actually decides that something happened a certain way, that is the way it will have happened forever more. There is no such thing as contradictory evidence; contradictory evidence is just simply flawed. So there is that element where, if you were to take a book like that seriously, it might hurt you or offend you.

Shane, bless him, when he heard it was coming out quite soon — I think it was our former manager who had taken legal advice on it, and was threatening to put some sort of legal injunction on the thing (he was well history at that point). I think Shane used the book to settle a few old scores. Something about the consequences of that never quite registered with him, and it suddenly dawned on him: ‘Oh, shit. This might actually upset some people.’ At which point he said, ‘It can’t come out!’ And Victoria said, ‘But darling, it’s on the bookshelves already. It’s in the shops. You can’t stop it coming out — it’s out!’ I think there must have been, at some point in the proceedings, a comparable incident where he kind of got cold feet, because he did add that final page to it where he basically says, ‘Nothing personal, f—k you all if you take it personally anyway. You should know me better than that by now.’ Which indeed is true. We do. None of that shit ever hung over our getting back together again, because it’s all just f—king showbiz with Shane, you know? He’s like some old vaudevillian who knows how best to present himself.

You two met in a London record shop, is that right?

We both worked in kind of parallel sister record shops. Mine was Rock On; his was Rocks Off. They were both in London, and they were both run by Irish people. My history, such as it is with Shane, goes back even before the record shops. He was one of the first people who came to see my previous band, the Radiators. We came to London. And he was in the Nipple Erectors, or the Nips as they became. We had shared history, shared contacts. The same sort of shared contacts that ran record shops also ran Chiswick Records, which was home to both the Radiators and the Nips at various points. So we had a shared sort of hinterland of Irish people in London. We knew each other quite well from that sort of tangential part of the London punk scene in 1977 and so on.

I was more inclined to see Shane in pubs over the years than in record shops. He would come up to Candontown where I worked and we’d go and have a few pints. In fact, one of our drinking sessions there was when the song “Boys From the County Hell” was born. Because Shane had a habit of borrowing money off people by saying, ‘Do you want a drink?’ You’d say yeah. ‘Got any money then?’ That’s how the whole, ‘Lend me 10 pounds and I’ll buy you a drink’ thing came about. Because Shane actually said it to me once. And I thought it was so funny, that immediately he stored it away for future use. That’s the Shane we know and love: generous to a fault. I’ll buy you a drink with my last pound. The only thing is, you need to give me that last pound first. (Laughs) Which I always thought characterized so much about who Shane MacGowan is, because he literally would give you his last pound. But he’d have to first find out how to get it. Again, that’s the strange, convoluted logic that works for him. And once you get used to it, works for you as well.

How do you compare the Shane that had to be ousted from the band (in 1991) to the guy you welcomed back (in 2001)? How did you go about making amends?

What we did was remove the things that made it so unbearable the first time, which is essentially that we were just overworking. We were working for agents and managers rather than for ourselves. We found ourselves on these endless roller coasters of tours, and there never seemed to be any way of getting off. Every time we tried to call a halt, there would be just one more tour we had to do because we were contracted to do it. Then there would be something else at the end of that tour. We have to go out and do this tour, because we lost money on the last one, and we have to make up losses on this next one. It was a constant battle between common sense and common decency, with the reality we actually faced, which was we were on this constant treadmill — and in the middle find time to write songs and make an album while all that was going on. Very often the tours weren’t particularly expertly routed, either. At the level we were working at, with the sort of pressure we were under to deliver commercially all the time as well, it was really unhealthy for all of us.

With the exception of Shane, we all felt nevertheless we had more in us; we felt, if we can just slow it down a bit, we had more to say as a band. But it was very clear that Shane, who really, unless you’ve been the lead singer, the focal point in a band — and I have been — you can’t fully know how much additional pressure there is there. Everybody wants to know about you. As often as possible, the interview is with you, and the photographs are of you. It becomes intolerable at a certain point. However hard it is to be the guitarist or the drummer or the bass player, unmistakably it’s twice as hard to be the singer and the focal point and the man who writes the best songs. It collapsed him a lot quicker than it collapsed the rest of us, and it was very clear that he wasn’t able to cope with it. But at the same time, he was able to walk away from it. There was an element he felt that if he walked away from it, he would be letting everyone down. We had to take that on board and say, ‘He’s not going to do it. We’re going to tell him he has to do it.’

Tell me about that day.

It was an extremely uncomfortable position to be in, but it had to be done, and I think we were all very glad that it was done. It was in Japan, in a hotel room. And after the meeting, we just all went out and had dinner together, and remained friends. That’s the thing: Although Shane got a lot of valuable mileage out of the whole thing — ‘The f—kers sacked me! Those bastards, they sacked me’ — he got a lot of press and a lot of sympathy. It wasn’t true, and he knew it wasn’t. So there were never any wounds to heal when we got back together. All we did was, we recognized it had been a few years since we’d seen each other, expressed how wonderful it was to see each other again, and got on with the job.

How do you feel about being a spokesman, in effect, for Shane?

You ask Shane a question, he will think deeply about it before he answers it. There isn’t a part of his brain that files away not so much stock answers but a kind of reservoir where the answers come from — which I have and which Spider has, which we can draw on to tell you the truth, but nevertheless with the confidence that comes from knowing that you have the answer in your head. Shane doesn’t work like that. He rather sort of thinks, ‘Why did you ask that question? What sort of person are you to have asked that question? Why could you possibly want to know?’ And then, when all that’s footworked through, ‘What am I going to tell you instead?’ That in itself is exhausting, and I understand perfectly why he doesn’t do it very often.

You come to recognize as well that the best of Shane MacGowan is without a shadow of a doubt the two hours he’s onstage every day that he’s with us. And whatever it takes to get those two hours out of him is worth doing. If that includes him not doing interviews, that’s fine with the rest of us. He understands that equation as well, and subscribes very much to that. Because he knows if he f—ks up in that two hours, there’s not so much hell to pay, but he becomes aware that everyone knows he f—ked up, and it’s an unpleasant position for him to be in. So he does everything in his power to make sure that he’s at his optimum for the two hours that he’s onstage. Most of the time that works out pretty well. There are occasional mishaps, but not very often. Maybe three or four in the last six or seven years. Which is pretty good, considering the amount of touring we still do. Though it’s nothing like in the old days, we still do a pretty fair amount.

Is there a part of you that wishes you could still play Irish pubs?

Well, we never really played pubs in Ireland. It was London Irish pubs, because that’s where all the sort of immigrant Paddys ended up. There’s a culture in London Irish pubs that isn’t in Irish pubs. Different attitude, different atmosphere, different preoccupations, a different sort of melancholy. But also, the pubs we played in were specifically music pubs. They weren’t just London Irish pubs, although there were a few that were. We progressed very slowly from pubs to small concert halls and clubs. At the same time, we were moving outwards: We were playing in Germany, in Norway, playing in places that didn’t necessarily have Irish bars. They did later, but they were prepackaged, sort of Irish bar in a box affairs that people bought and set up like franchises in every town in Germany and Norway and God knows where. The McDonald’s Irish bar, which became a very frequent occurrence the world over. But the only real Irish bars are in Ireland, New York and London.

So we were expanding our horizons anyway. We never regretted playing to larger audiences. The whole point was to play to the largest possible audience. What you then have to do is figure out a way of reducing the size of the venue down to the size of an Irish bar — rather than scaling up what you do to the size of an arena or a stadium. It’s not difficult if you stay true to what you do. I’m always fascinated by the solutions other people find to this problem. I don’t really understand what is to be gained by doing what U2 do, which is to get ever bigger stage sets and ever bigger 200-truck entourages to carry your stage around. It’s a failure of imagination or something if you have to do that. I actually think that particular band are now at a point where they are finding themselves that, if it’s not a failure of imagination, it’s certainly something that has come to a natural end. And the only way they can survive, I think, is to figure out a way to make the venue smaller, like we did.

I was going to ask you about U2. They seem like a supernova, just primed to implode.

Yeah, there is that. I think that’s a danger. You leave yourself wide open for that if you go down the stadium rock route. We’re canny, but we weren’t calculated about it. We just said, ‘Look, if we keep doing what we’re doing, and more and more people come to see us, we will know if we’re doing it right. But if we start getting it wrong, we’ll also know.’ We have sort of tempered things as we’ve gone along. There are certain places where they won’t tolerate us playing a large venue. In London, at a certain point when you get big enough, you play Wembley Arena rather than playing three nights at the Brixton Academy. But when we did that, we found we didn’t like doing that, and the fans didn’t like seeing us there. It wasn’t the same atmosphere. It was a massive gig, and it was a hugely successful gig on every level, but it wasn’t right; it wasn’t what we wanted to do. So we went back to doing the three nights in a row at the 5,000-seater venue. We’ve never found a happy medium in Dublin. So we’re doing three shows at a theater there this Christmas, instead of trying to win a losing battles against hopelessly acoustic venues that seat 8,000 people at a time. There are some places where we can quite happily play to 8,000 people at once. It’s just nicer to scale it down to something that’s more manageable for the audience and for the band.

There’s a quote from one of you that I thought was telling, about how not doing new material is what’s keeping the band happy. Is that still the case?

I think that remains true. Inevitably people want to know if you’re doing new material; it’s a perfectly natural question. But it’s never one that we’ve particularly given a great thought to ourselves. Certainly it’s been discussed and broached by management, and we looked at the possibilities there. But I think the only way we can really do it is to allow ourselves to kind of get back on the hamster wheel, to an extent. Because you can’t just put out an album now and hope it will sell a certain number of copies that will allow you to make another record. The music business doesn’t work like that anymore. It doesn’t allow for honorable failure; it doesn’t allow for modest success. I think it’s become a point of major angst for all the major artists in the world today who do make records still. Because if they sold nine million of the last one, and this one looks like it’s only going to sell four million, they become like a company trading on Wall Street: They become negative equity. That’s very damaging for them, and very damaging for the record company. The corporatization of the music business has been very damaging to music in general, I think. Fortunately it has gone parallel with an alternative culture that’s found its voice through the Internet and so on, so it hasn’t been all bad. But it does mean that we would have to compete, and I don’t think we feel like competing.

How’s the dynamic of the current lineup?

This eight-piece lineup is now together twice as long as it was the first time round. That kind of crept up on us, and it surprised the hell out of us to realize. Because it feels like a lot shorter than it did the first time round. It seems like we’re nowhere near halfway through it. It will last as long as it remains fun, as long as people stay healthy enough to do it, I think.

I know you just went through an ordeal with throat cancer. How’s the recovery going?

It was a pretty ropy two years. The worst thing about getting cancer is not so much getting cancer as getting treatment for cancer. It took me two years just to get the f—king chemo drugs out of my system. All sorts of things happen to your body that have never happened before, including in my case going deaf for three months. It affected my whole life: going to the theater and not hearing anything. My lifestyle was removed from me when I went deaf. Not just the part of it that accounts for me being the guitarist for the Pogues. It was an enormous relief when that turned out to be just a side effect of the chemotherapy. I’m already deaf in one ear anyway, since birth. For all intents and purposes, I was totally deaf. I was able to work on the box set while all that was going on because I was using a laptop with really heavy-duty headphones turned up full. And I was still just hearing the faintest amount of music. But enough to get the box set done. It was one of those moments in life where you think, ‘F—k this! I’m not going to let this near deafness stop me from doing this box set.’ (Laughs) I think ultimately that’s what gets you through shit like cancer: just a determination that it’s not going to slow you down. The determination to carry on, regardless, is what got me through. It’s quite a trip, f—king hell.

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