Eternally Inflammable: An Interview With Stiff Little Fingers’ Jake Burns

Photo by Ashley Maile, courtesy of Stiff Little Fingers.

Photo by Ashley Maile, courtesy of Stiff Little Fingers.

It’s been thirty-five years since Stiff Little Fingers launched their debut album, Inflammable Material, into a severely agitated United Kingdom. A first-hand account from the heart of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the band’s righteous spirit and urgent delivery established them as one of the brightest lights of second-wave UK punk. Still standing tall under the leadership of singer/ guitarist Jake Burns, the band – which also includes original bassist Ali McMordie, drummer Steve Grantley and guitarist Ian McCallum – arrived in LA several weeks ago to record and mix its first studio album in ten years. No Going Back will be the first SLF album to be entirely self-released, with CD and vinyl copies now available for pre-order at pledgemusic.com, following a highly successful experiment in fan-funding.

We visited Burns during the first week of sessions, and were rewarded with quite an earful about the things that still get his dander up, as well as the joys and demands of total independence, and the key to career longevity in punk rock. The band will be playing dates in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Great Britain through the spring, with the announcement of American shows expected soon.

I understand that this album you’re working on has been self-funded through a PledgeMusic campaign, how has that worked out for you?

It was great! It’s a bit of a misnomer to say it’s funded by ourselves, it’s actually funded by the audience. We initially set a target to cover the budget to make the record, and gave ourselves a period of two months to raise the money. Astonishingly, we had raised the money within twelve hours, so, to say it went well is an understatement! We were a bit nervous about it at first, probably because we’d never done it before, but the more we thought about the more we realized that, realistically, with the rise of the internet, traditional record companies are pretty much dead in the water these days. We did talk to a few but, they were kind of so dismal about their own outlook that it didn’t really inspire us to want to work with anybody, And the more we thought about the pledge thing, the more we realized that it was kind of close to the do-it-yourself ethic that we came from. And it brought us almost full circle into being a fully independent band again, and there’s a lot to be said for that. Not that we ever had a huge amount of interference from either Chrysalis or EMI, or any of the record people we worked with, basically they just let us get on with it. But there always was the possibility that somebody from the company would come down and make harrumphing noises at the back of the studio. Whereas, with this, we’re the only ones in charge, so you do get a huge amount of artistic freedom with it.

It’s interesting, because, as I said in the past, we were going into the studio and we were effectively spending EMI’s money. It was OUR money at the end of the day because it’s only an advance, but you kind of felt, it’s a big corporation, they can afford it. With this, because it was the audience’s money, we kind of feel a bigger responsibility to get it right this time. Because it’s a huge leap of faith on their part. Effectively they are pre-buying a record that they haven’t heard. Which shows a huge amount of faith in us, so obviously you don’t want to let them down, you want to justify that faith. So we’re all … I think whenever the guy hit record, today was the first day I was actually working on the guitars, when he put the machine into record, I’m suddenly very aware that, I gotta get this right! I can’t afford to screw this up because, like I said, they’ve already bought it. They’ve put their faith in us.

How did you decide to do this one in Los Angeles?

Well the band live in four different locations. Our drummer’s the only one who still lives in the UK. Ali lives in New York, I live in Chicago, and Ian, our guitar player, lives here. So I think we’d already realized, with three of us in the United States, we were going to record somewhere here, simply because it’s cheaper to have one transatlantic flight than three. And each of the three home cities all have top class recording facilities, so that wasn’t a problem. And then we looked at our schedule, and realized we were going to have to do it in January! And quite rightly we realized that NY and Chicago were going to be sub-arctic at this stage of the game, and there was the distinct possibility that you might not be able to get everybody THERE. So Los Angeles became the obvious place to do it in, and so here we are.

With the pledges, did you pledge to do anything interesting? Do you have to show up at anyone’s Bar Mitzvah?

Nothing quite like that! We did, the highest end one was to come and spend two days drinking in Chicago with me. We sold two of those, and we’ve already had one guy come across from the UK. And to be honest, I think I’ve had more fun than he had. I had a great time, showing off my hometown to this guy, and also he turned out to be the nicest guy in the world. We’ve kept in touch since, sort of football banter, and have no doubt we’ll see him whenever we play in Cardiff, which is his hometown, later on in the tour. So it’s paid lots of interesting dividends like that.

We also, one of the pledges we did put in place, was if you put in a certain amount, you could come play with the band at a soundcheck. We did stipulate that “you’ve got to be able to play,” although we did kind of jokingly say, “as long as you don’t play better than we do.” And we’ve had some great people. We’ve already had three people get up and do it, a couple of guys got up and played the drums, both really very, very good. But my favorite, I think, was this guy that came over from Paris, who played guitar. And he was just fantastic. He was showing shapes and everything. And he brought a friend along with him who brought this very professional looking video camera, and they shot this little montage of his of his day, which he put up on the internet. And that was really cool! And again, we probably have more fun than the guys that get up and play do.

So yeah, it has been a very, very good thing from our point of view, to do the pledge thing. Great!

This current lineup that you’ve had is the longest lived in your history, eight years with these people and three fourths of it for about twice that long. What do you think has held this formation of people together so well?

I think, first and foremost, we’re actually friends. Probably before we were musicians, you know. A lot of bands put themselves together just based on, we need the best drummer available in the area. It’s only when you’ve worked with him for a couple of months and find yourself on a tour bus in Seattle that you suddenly realize the guy’s kind of a dick and you don’t really want to be around him anymore! With the four of us, we’ve all known each other for such a long time, and like I say, we were all friends before we worked together. So, that really helps. And I think also, we’re that little bit older, and little bit longer in the tooth. So you don’t tend to overreact to the smallest things, you don’t fly off the handle like you may have done when you were eighteen and an idiot.

And we allow each other breathing space as well, that’s pretty important. When bands start out, there’s a lot of bonding that goes on. There’s a kid gang mentality involved, that we’ve all got to hang out together all the time and, that gets pretty wearing after a while, particularly on a long tour. Everybody else wants to go out to a bar and get wasted and you actually want to stay home, watch television, have something to eat and get an early night. Back in the day, there was an amount of peer pressure that “you can’t do that! It’s a day off, this is what we do on days off!” Whereas now, everybody’s like, I’m gonna go watch a movie, I’m gonna go get some nice Chinese food, maybe one or two might go to a bar but in general everybody just disappears, does their own thing. And when we do get back together, we’ve managed to recharge our batteries, and we’re ready to get back on with it again.

And it is still a lot of fun to do, I think that’s another big factor in it. We actually do enjoy what we do. So that makes it easier to get out of bed in the morning.

As I was listening to your music while getting ready for this interview, I found myself getting pretty regularly riled up. And that seems to be a quality missing from modern rock music, I find. No one has the inclination to come right out and say things… something you can put your fist behind. Do you notice the same thing and do you have any response to this?

Yeah we do seem to be plowing a pretty lonely furrow in that respect. I can only speak for the songs that I write… I’ve never been able to write love songs, and I wish I could but I can’t. It always comes out sounding like very bad sixth form poetry when I try. But I have to believe in a song to be able to sing it. And generally to write the song, it has to be something that has offended my sense of justice. Now unfortunately there’s a lot of that about. A lot of things that do make me angry, and this is how I deal with it. This is how I react to it.

With regards to other bands not doing it, I think you’re right. We were obviously initially inspired not just by the Clash, who were obviously our main, huge influence when we started out, but also by the social realism that a lot of the reggae artists were using. A lot of the songs that pointed out the sort of injustices as they saw them. I think that when, not necessarily the first wave of punk rock, certainly in Britain. Because each band had a very definite style, The Sex Pistols were very much there to create an impression, and to create outrage. The Damned were kind of like the cartoon, almost the equivalent of the Ramones. And then the Clash were obviously the social realists. I think in the second wave of bands that came along, a lot more of us adopted the Clash model. And so you had bands like ourselves, like the Ruts, like the Members, all of whom were trying to write songs about their own lives. And ultimately that gave way to what became the sort of iconography involved in two-tone movement, the Specials and the Selecter and the Beat.

I think that then, there was a much richer vein of that type of music about. I’m sure there are bands around that still do that today, but if there are, they’re very much beneath the radar. That could be down to the demise of major record labels, because there’s no one to give them the exposure. Or maybe they don’t want to give them the exposure, even if they’re aware of them, you know.

So I was reading the lyrics to “White Noise” the other day, and the first thought that came to my mind was that this not a song that you could even do on a record label today.

Right!

You would be stopped from doing it, for fear that it would be misinterpreted. As transparently an anti-racist statement as it is, I don’t think you would be allowed to make it. As I’m thinking about this, I think about how much this has changed in thirty years, and how we’ve gotten much more permissive in the use of swear words – you could probably do a song titled “Fuck Racism” and get it on the radio today, maybe bleeped out but obvious, where in 1979 you’d be run out of town on a rail for saying that word on TV. I’m not sure what this means, that we’re erasing words with a fixed negative quality from the language, like in Newspeak, because we don’t trust each other to say what we really mean, or think about what’s being said.

I know what you’re talking about (ed: thank God!). It’s a very thorny subject. I think now, we probably wouldn’t write that song, simply because those words have now become so involved with the whole hate crime classification, that … I think the whole attempt to demystify them and take away their power isn’t really our call anymore. At the time we felt justified in doing it, and obviously we tied it together with the attack on being Irish in the final verse, just to hammer the point home for people who didn’t get it.

But even then it was misrepresented. Even then, people got it wrong. So much so that we were banned from playing, amazingly, in what became my home town for fifteen years, in Newcastle Upon Tyne. There were two wonderfully ironic points in this story, and the first is that the councilor who heard the record, heard it because his daughter was playing it in her bedroom. Now these happened to be a Pakistani family. And I thought it was interesting that the father didn’t get it but the daughter did. Now whether that was just a generational shift, I don’t know. But anyway he took it upon himself to go to the council and have us banned from playing in the city. So that was ironic point number one.

Ironic point number two, was when the local newspaper covered the story, the only photograph they could find of us playing in Newcastle was at a Rock Against Racism show! So we’re playing with this HUGE Rock Against Racism banner behind us in the photograph, and they still didn’t think to question, to actually look at the lyric and question it. And of course nobody contacted us to come explain ourselves, so we got banned.

So anyway, it was misunderstood even at the time, and today, you’re right, if anybody even got the chance to hear it, it would probably be even more widely misunderstood. But like I said, times have changed, and I think it’s no longer our call to make that stand, to try and un-demonize those words. That’s down to other people.

So what are we going to expect from this new album?

Well, like I said, it’s difficult for me to write a song that doesn’t mean anything. I still write songs about a lot of subjects that have upset me recently. Since were just touching on racism, there was the almost, perceived government sanctioning of racism in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, insomuch as it looked like, every time I turned the news on in the morning or read a newspaper, there’d be a photograph of some Middle Eastern gentleman, almost with the caption “This man is your enemy.” It was all very Orwellian. It was almost like you were being given permission to hate people, and that’s kind of scary. Not that I’m defending in any way what happened on September 11, of course I’m not, but it was just, you can’t blanket an entire race of people because of that. So that inspired one song.

Obviously, the whole financial collapse of the entire Western World, while some people made off with vast amounts of money… again it struck me as ridiculous that you’d spend all your life, you were told from when you were old enough to reason, “if you work hard at school and get a good degree, and work hard at your job, you’ll have a nice home and you’ll be secure and everything will be wonderful”. Only to find out that the whole thing was a house of cards run by some shyster, who’s gonna make off with your money and leave you high and dry, and quite possibly without the house that you’d spent all these years working for. In a lot of cases, I’d see someone rewarded with a golden handshake from the bank he’d worked for.

There was another song, we happened to be in Ireland at the time that some of the victims of child abuse by the church very bravely came forward. And I was looking at these guys, they didn’t make any attempt to mask their identity at all. They went on television, and they were up front about what had happened to them, and what they were hoping to achieve by coming out and talking about it. And I looked and I thought, these guys are the same age as I am, so this was happening when I was a kid. (Laughs) There but for the grace of God… if that isn’t the wrong-est use of that phrase ever!

And it obviously still goes on today, and not just the Catholic Church. It seems to be any institution that has access to vulnerable kids.

So yeah, it’s the usual Stiff Little Fingers laugh- a minute stuff that you’d expect! Hopefully, when I write songs, I write them about things that matter to me, and I think we haven’t lived a life that’s divorced ourselves too much from our audience. So hopefully the things that matter to me matter to them as well, strikes a resonance with them, and like you said, get them riled up! That’s … well, that’s not really my ultimate goal, my ultimate goal was just to get them to think about this stuff. Because it is there, and it’s all around you.

I kind of do feel sad about, people often ask me, what do I think about what “punk rock” or whatever you would term that as, has become these days. I’m kind of saddened that it’s become, first of all, if you don’t have the right tattoos or the right leather jacket you can’t be part of the gang, and songs in the main seem to now be about getting drunk, screwing and fighting. And I’m like, this was worth a lot more than that. This was your chance to be articulate and prove to the world you were worth a bit more than just drinking and fighting, you know.

If not that, there’s always the bands who aren’t singing about screwing, but whining about how they can’t get laid.

Not gonna go there!

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6 Responses to Eternally Inflammable: An Interview With Stiff Little Fingers’ Jake Burns

  1. Great interview. I have “Go For It” on tape somewhere (taped from my dad’s record!).

  2. Jim McCabe says:

    Such a great band and a good guy. Hopefully they’ll continue into the golden age.

  3. Geezer says:

    Still can’t believe I’m gonna miss the gig in the ulster hall on my 50th birthday 14th march! We had already booked a week in Spain for my big day! But SLF are never far away with my iPhone and every album!!! Go for it jake…

  4. dave turpitt says:

    Nice to see that a new SLF cd is due out soon… its always good to see a Jake Burns interview, not that I agree with everything Jake says… but his interviews always provoke a few good talking points… but where would we be without people saying what they thought….!!!

  5. Andy Morrell says:

    Great interview, can’t wait to hear the new songs. My first gig in 1979 was SLF at Leicester University on the “Guts for Sale” tour and was eagerly awaiting the release of Nobody’s Heroes. 35 years later I still have the same excited anticipation for the new album.

  6. Jay says:

    It’s great to hear artists that actually have the balls to cover taboo subjects and are not just interested in keeping record companies and their peers happy- long may s.l.f continue!

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