Legendary Punk Rock Band Stiff Little Fingers Talk line-up changes, Fave moments, and more

After over three decades of numerous lineup changes, a breakup, a reformation, and innumerable ethno-political troubles, legendary Northern Irish punk rock band, the Stiff Little Fingers are still playing music and touring for several generations of fans. On Thursday, June 2nd, at Club Europa in Greenpoint, I had the pleasure of chatting and drinking some Polish beer with bassist Ali McMordie before the SLF set.

When did you arrive in New York?

Just got in a couple of hours ago. We were in Boston last night… well Foxboro actually. Since the House of Blues bought the strip of gigs that used to be on Lansdowne Street in Boston (where we used to do like three different shows) and knocked it all down to build one venue on it, there was a shortage of gigs for us in Boston. Since we couldn’t get in there, we played at this place called Showcase Live Gillette Stadium, in Foxboro. And just as we were getting ready to play, there was this tornado warning. It just passed us by, but that still meant that everyone who was coming from Boston was going to stay at home that night. We only got a couple of hundred people there as a result, which was kind of a shame. It was a nice venue, though. I’d never been there before, and I probably never will go there again, but it was a great show.

What kinds of people do you see at your shows these days?

We keep finding that we’re playing to people who haven’t seen the band in years or never had the chance to before. There were all ages at the last show. Some of them are 10, 11, and 12 years old because of the forty-something’s, who have grown up with the band. It’s not quite three generations, but almost. I think the last show I did in the States was at Santa Monica Civic. I think that was probably the biggest audience that we had (in the States), which was like 4,000. Last night, we played for 400 (laughs)… but we’re building it up slowly.

Since SLF has changed a lot over the years, who’s in the band at this point?

Over the years, there have been about ten members altogether. The core of the band initially was Jake Burns (lead vocals), myself, Henry Cluney on guitar, and Brian Faloon on drums. Brian was the first one to leave, and he was replaced by Jim Reilly. That became, I guess, the classic lineup, who did the bulk of the initial albums. Jim then left, replaced by Dolphin Taylor from the Tom Robinson Band, which was a great break. I left in 1983. The band pretty much split up at that time and then got back together in ’87. Then I left again in ’91. In the interim, some of Stiff Little Fingers gradually relocated to the States. Jake Burns moved to Chicago around six or seven years ago. By then, the lineup was Ian McCallum (AKA “Stick,” for stick thin), He’s from Newcastle, which is where he met Jake. Jake also started playing with Steve Grantley, the drummer, who used to be in Jake’s original solo band that got together in the 80’s after Stiff Little Fingers broke up. Steve Grantley then joined the SLF, and that’s the current lineup: McCallum, Grantley, Burns, and myself. We’re the only actual original members, but the others have been around for 15-18 years, so that makes them pretty original. Steve’s a great drummer… you’ll see.

What else have you been involved with over the years?

I got involved with other bands over the years. I was playing with Moby for the longest time. Yeah, it was a bit of a departure from punk – techno. Moby actually went through a rock phase. He put out an album called Animal Rights, which was almost commercial suicide. But when he came back, he released Play. Then I came back as his tour manager and played with him occasionally. I then started managing other tours and getting more into production and all that. So the six months I did in business college before I flunked the course actually helped me in the music business! I started to take care of the back-end stuff to stay involved. I was working with different bands in New York, just playing with friends… I’ve been living here for sixteen years now.

Do you keep in touch with any ex-members of SLF?

Not really. Henry immigrated to the States as well. He still plays, tours around a little bit. I think he was out here a little while ago, but I’m not sure. I’m not really in touch. It’s funny being in a band – four adults thrown together who don’t necessarily have a lot in common apart from, hopefully, a love of the same music. I’d be hard-pressed, actually, to define SLF a band as such cause we get so few chances to hang out and write together again cause we’re so spread out. I am here in New York, busy touring with other acts and gigs. Ian is in LA. Steve Grantley is in Oxford. It’s not very convenient. If you look at a band like U2, regardless of whether or not you like them, I think the fact that they stood together through thick and thin – even with Adam (Clayton) not turning up for a gig – they still pull it off and still continue… and that’s what a band is all about.

What was your favorite moment/period in the history of the band?

Oh God, there have been so many… getting on TV for the first time, and missing all the cues as well. There’s a show called Top of the Pops, which was recorded live. We kept missing cues cause we were so busy signing autographs and chatting with the girls. I mean, it’s all the early stuff… it gets a little bit blasé after a while, but we still get a buzz from shows, feeding off the audience. That’s really what it’s all about – seeing the reactions from the audience. The shows here are fairly small. In Ireland, England, and Europe, we played for thousands of people… as I was saying earlier, seeing all the generations, it’s really good to see little kids getting into it… although it looks like some of them are being dragged there by their proud parents. They’re like, “No, I wanna see Britney.” Some of the other kids know the lyrics better than I do.

How has your music affected people through the years?

Music isn’t just about entertainment. It can reach out, touch, and improve people’s lives. Some kids told us that after listening to our lyrics, they thought twice about joining a paramilitary organization. Regardless of whether you think that’s a good or a bad thing, it can save a couple of lives in this day and age. I’m not gonna say it’s right or wrong, but it’s good to give someone a chance to think twice about their own situation. We grew up pretty much during a war – seeing gun battles. We’re all from North Belfast originally – a hodgepodge of different areas, some nationalists, some unionists. Gun battles, explosions. Rehearsals were pretty difficult. We’d try to get together. Nobody liked musicians. People thought of us as insurgents. We weren’t liked by either the authorities or paramilitaries. We seemed to be undermining society. We’d have clothes held together by safety pins – usually out of necessity, not just a fashion statement. That was seen as a threat somehow at the time. It was an interesting time.

What is it like in Northern Ireland today?

It’s changed a lot. I mean, there are still a lot of issues going on. A war isn’t evaluated in terms of the number of casualties; it’s a state of mind. It still exists. The actual problems only affect a few streets; it’s not as widespread. There are no curfews like there were. There aren’t any bums. We got a lot of tourists that picked up houses that weren’t worth anything.

What political issues are important to focus on today?

Where do you want to start? Illegal invasions of other people’s countries… what Bush did was completely undemocratic. There still a lot of anger. Nothing’s quite as rosy if you think more about it. It seems people have gotten more and more cynical, but they’ve become more accepting of government corruption. We’re still writing songs about media witch hunts, about – take any page from the New York Post and that’ll give you something to get angry about (that’s a disgusting paper). We’re still writing songs. We have a song about Tony Blair and George Bush called “The Liar’s Club.” We’ve got enough songs for the new album – it’s just about getting the time to do it.

What is your favorite SLF song?

It’s a newish song. The album is called Guitar and Drum, and the song is called “Strummerville.” It’s a song about Joe Strummer. We’re gonna play it tonight. It really felt special to make that song because it’s about someone who inspired us to get up there. If it hadn’t been for him or some of the others, who knows.

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About Christine Thelen

Christine is a music writer, photographer, and English teacher living in New York. She's been writing for Short and Sweet since 2008 but writing about music since 1999. She loves photographing and interviewing bands most of all. Notable interviews include Underworld (England), Supergrass (England), Gorky's Zygotic Mynci (Wales), Hefner (England), Zero 7 (England), Nylon Union (Slovakia), Clinic (England), Hundreds (Germany), Nive Nielsen (Greenland), Alcoholic Faith Mission (Denmark), Captain Fufanu (Iceland), and the Postelles (NYC). Watch her on the ShortandSweetNYC Youtube Channel.
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