Nick Burbridge, vocalist and tunesmith with McDermott’s Two Hours, joins me in the Green Man Pub for a conversation about him, his music, and his views on a number of political subjects. I first encountered his band when reading George Berger’s 1998 book Dance Before the Storm: The Official Story of the Levellers which had this lovely bit about his band: ‘All the Levellers are keen to cite McDermott’s Two Hours as their original inspiration. A Brighton band, they were the natural fusion of the anger of Crass and the Irish-driven music of the Pogues.’ Berger later notes, ‘With lyrics that unusually crossed over between the politics of the Northern Ireland troubles, class politics and fox hunting, they were a welcome breath of fresh and intelligently worded air for the many politicos in town. For the rest of the people they were a stomping good-time band.’
Nick has insisted on fresh-baked tatie bread, so Brigid, wife of Jack Merry, baked some in our kitchen. We’ve got a nice strong rum, Nick’s favorite libation, to drink along with smoked salmon and other lovely nibbles, so it should be a great conversation. Nick and I are seated by the fireplace as a cold, rainy afternoon is at hand. . . .
The Neverending Session is playing ‘The Sligo Maid’ as we start this interview.
Green Man Review: I re-listened to all of your recorded music very recently. There’s a definite Irish roots centered feel to it that does not celebrate the drunken Irishman archetype that so many Irish-descended singers do. You yourself are of Irish descent, so please tell our readers about how that informs your music.
Nick Burbridge: I think celebrating the drunken Irishman archetype without digging deeper does no one any favours. My families — up to my grandfathers on both sides — were Church Of Ireland Cork and Kerry people. Couple this with my fifteen years with a partner from Catholic Belfast, and I would hope I had a deep understanding of what goes to make up Irish people. There are many times I’ve wished I wasn’t an Irish citizen, and those are the times when you realise what indelible characteristics it gives you.
Drinking hard, whether it’s to assuage some inner melancholy, release the spirit, drive music along, or merely out of convivial habit, is an easy image to latch onto, and a lot of people like latching onto the Irish. If it isn’t squared with all sorts of other traits, it just reinforces a stereotype. You might as well be telling Irish jokes.
GMR: Following up on that question, ‘Laying The Sligo Maid’, off the World Turned Upside Down album is one of the catchiest songs and tunes that I’ve ever heard. Is it based on Irish laborers that you personally knew? It certainly rings true.
NB: You make a good link here. Because Mickey — the subject of ‘Laying The Sligo Maid’ — might have seemed to most of the people he busked to on the streets of the English city where he settled, just such a stereotype. But the song is meant to relate his authentic history, to explain how and why he ended up where he did. I knew him well. I say ‘knew’, because I haven’t seen him for years now, but when I told his story at a folk festival last summer, a bloke in the audience said they had met someone with his name, who matched his description: a small, square-shouldered man with a turned-up nose, a ruddy face and a shock of fair hair — who played the same whistle tunes — living at a rehabilitation centre in the West Country. So maybe he’s still with us! The song tells how a truck skidded into the hard shoulder when he was working on the roads and smashed him up — he tried a long time to get compensation, though they hardly gave him a penny. He was typically exploited, but his music, his humour, and the depth of his feelings, set him above everyone who looked down at him. I remember him best from a time he’d been barred from a local pub where we had a session on Fridays, and he sneaked in and sat under the table playing. So uninterested was the landlord in the music he never noticed. Only then someone started playing a slow air on the pipes, and Mickey, unable to contain himself, cried ‘Ah Jeez!’ The big bastard threw him out onto the street. That’s where he stayed. And that’s where the song leaves him.
GMR: Okay, let’s talk about your new album, Live at Fernham Hall, which features a grinning fox on the cover. Why a live album? All of your earlier recordings are studio work, aren’t they? What I noticed here was, of course, the interaction between you, the other members of McDermott’s Two Hours, and the audience. I noticed that your band, like most British bands with a political edge, have a good rapport with the audience. Is this something that developed with time, or were McDermott’s Two Hours a band which audiences felt empathy for from the first gigs?
NB: Jeremy Leveller suggested we do a live album after we played their Beautiful Days festival last summer. We couldn’t afford anything fancy so we took this one off the desk at another festival this Easter. We wanted something that harkened back to The Enemy Within, the first McDermotts album of many years ago, to reflect what happens with the band at a gig. Even though the other albums are relatively ‘live’ in the studio, they aim for something more subtle. This is us, warts and all. And, yes, there’s always been a lot of interaction with our audience. I never plan a gig, I just take a few inner-eye ‘anchors’ along with me, and work from there. It’s astonishing how they seem to fix an audience in time and place with you. It’s empathy for sure. The politics takes things deeper.
GMR: I had a feeling listening to Live at Fernham Hall that the crowd was fairly young and mostly male. (A DVD we watched recently of The Men They Couldn’t Hang gig from ’94 showed a young and mostly male crowd — the energy was akin to what I heard on your new recording.) Is this accurate? And do you feel the gig-goers are interested in the politics of your songs?
NB: Maybe that sector makes the most noise. As it happens, it was a mixed audience, age and sex. On after us were The Oyster Band, and before us, a great female vocalist called Martha Tilston, so it wasn’t just ‘our people’. But there was a real interest in the politics, I think, and mainly because it was served up with irony, not piety. Then you hit them with a song like ‘Bloody Sunday’, and you feel the intake of breath . . . . It’s a strong, strong feeling. . . .
GMR: Speaking of lyrics, is writing them a group process involving the other band members? Or do you write the material yourself? I noticed on Live at Fernham Hall that you changed the lyrics substantially on ‘Laying The Sligo Maid’. Is this something that you wrote out in advance, or something that just arose as the song was played?
NB: I write all the material myself. It’s the only way I can work. The band can play with it musically however they want to — as often as not, as it happens on the night. Variations in advance? You must be joking. . . .One of the things that keeps me going back to the live scene is that edge when you don’t know what’s going to come out, and you take the risk anyway. Of course, other times, you might just be too drunk to remember the right line. . . /
GMR: Sliding over to your background playing Irish trad music, where did you learn to play tunes like ‘Sligo Maid’? I’ve heard it more than enough times played in sessions to say you got it right! Have you played in sessions yourself?
NB: I’ve played in sessions for more than thirty years, in England, Ireland — all over Europe in fact — and with some great players. I used to learn tunes, note for note, on the guitar and mandolin, and played a lot of bodhran (bearing in mind Seamus Ennis’ adage that the best way to play a bodhran is with a knife!) — but unless you’re showboating, there’s more call for decent rhythm and interesting harmonies, so I gave that up. Though, of course, the best accompaniments come from knowing the tunes backwards anyway. As to the instrumentalists in McDermotts over the years, they’re well-recognised on the traditional scene, in their own right. Some of us still play every Sunday afternoon in a pub called The Bugle, in Brighton. I always try to take something of the feeling of a session onto the stage…
GMR: Tell us about your work with Tommy McDermott’s Theatre. It’s not terribly common for musicians to be accomplished theater writers. Indeed the only other one I know of is Larry Kirwan of Black 47. Like him, I notice that your work’s intensely political, as The Guardian noted in reviewing Neck & Cutting Room: ‘Neck depicts a former left-wing activist and an ex-public schoolboy who, for reasons unexplained, have been imprisoned together by the authorities of an unnamed state.’ What do you find different about working in the collective environment of the theater as opposed to making music where you largely control the process?
NB: That’s a timely question. I’ve just started work on the first new theatre show for a long time. It’s a two-hander double-bill — black comedies about living with severe disablement. The first one’s drawn from the material behind ‘Song Of A Brother’, on Claws And Wings (long-term hospitalised patients being forcibly released into the so-called community) — the other’s about domestic violence. And, yes, they are meant to be funny, painfully so. I’m into theatre that hits hard — I’ve no time for luvvies or egos or material up its own arse — I like narrative, characters with through-lines, and, naturally, a strong political thrust. In grass roots — fringe — theatre, that’s an inevitable part. Just portraying social beings, at a given point in time, is a political act, isn’t it? I choose actors carefully. Of the two I’m using now, one is a mature student at an acting school in Brighton; but I met him on the road, driving for the Levellers, when he pinned me in a dressing room and made me listen to the monlogue he was working on! He’s from a heavy area of Belfast, with an equally heavy history, and I wouldn’t like to talk about what he’s been getting up to in recent years! He’s got this phenomenal raw talent, and a very direct political understanding. The other’s an Irish painter/musician/actress I’ve worked with before, who commits all she has to what she does, and has led a life full of the same grit. So the moment we start working, there’s an immediate sense of something subversive going to happen. And that’s what I’m after. I do normally direct my own plays — so whatever control I want, I initiate, but then, because these are the kind of people I work with, letting them ‘have’ the piece when it’s appropriate, is no problem. In a real sense, we’ve acted collectively from the start. As I said, I’ve no interest in status in the theatre at all. Writers and directors who use it as a vehicle for gaining power over others in the very vulnerable position actors put themselves in . . .well, that’s their trip, isn’t it? By the way, the next project’s going to combine music and theatre in exploring folklore, especially Irish folklore, in parts of British society. I’m getting excited about it all again. I hope I find my way back to the studio!
GMR: Your Web site notes that your ‘sole published full length fictional work is a political thriller, Operation Emerald, under the pseudonym Dominic McCartan.’ Brian McNeil, a Scottish musician with Leftist leanings, published two novels we reviewed, The Busker and To Answer the Peacock, both political thrillers. What was your intent in writing this novel?
NB: To be honest, I’d written a few ‘literary’ novels and none of them had got published! A relative of mine from Armagh had the bare bones of a story, and all sorts of inside information from his particular line of work, on paramilitaries, H Blocks and so on, and wanted me to write the book. We’d spend hours on the phone deciding what would happen, then I’d write it. It was a bleeding preposterous plot, full of plain writing, but some people took it seriously! It actually got onto the shortlist for a decent publishing prize, but it was never awarded, because the eminent judges fell out. Then my agent placed it with Pluto, a left-wing press who were doing what got dubbed ‘pinko’ thrillers. It so happened, the editor-in-chief there had a fierce row with the series editor — saying, as only a middle-class Englishman could, that it painted a particularly psychotic Republican killer in an unnecessarily bad light — when everyone on all sides of the military and intelligence struggle got the same treatment. The point of the book was how trapped they all were by their political masters. Yet this man threatened to resign and there was a real war over it — but someone came in with a peace process, so the book was eventually published! You might say it had a divisive history. Pluto went bust about a year later — just when I’d written a follow-up about the Red Army Faction, so that went the way of my other novels. I’ve not tried one since. It’s torture, committing all that time and energy to one project, and then seeing it go nowhere! I don’t even read novels much these days. But there’s no doubt the best works of fiction are the heavyweights of all forms of writing, and to be a successful novelist must be to have affected other people’s deepest parts in a unique way. I never got there . . . tough shit!
GMR: Let’s wrap this up with related questions. Your first recording, The Enemy Within, had, according to Dance Before the Dawn, had an interesting financing affair. Please tell us about it!
NB: That’s easy enough. The bass-player had a friend who was a New Age traveller, and was well into the band. A relative left him some money in a will and he gave us a grand to finance the album, because that’s what he wanted to with it. There’s street-cred for you!
GMR: Your newest recording, Live at Fernham Hall, does a bang up job of capturing McDermott’s Two Hours live. Why a live album? And are you pleased with it as compared to the studio efforts that came before?
NB: Jeremy Leveller wants us to record a new album before too long in the Metway, as McDermott’s Two Hours, with him playing producer. But in the meantime we needed a recording that reflected the band as it is. Not to mention the fact that the only way we could fund touring with the Levellers nationally this Spring was to sell enough merchandise, so a live album taken off the desk and some t-shirts were just what we needed! That’s as far as it goes as a commercial venture, since the only way you can get hold of it is off my Web site or live at gigs. I am pleased with the energy it captures, and the sense of an audience getting off on it. Although there are some musical howlers. In fact we had to drop one or two tracks, and fade in others, to hide things like the way I started one song in a key I often play it in acoustically with the fiddler, but a whole tone out from the one the bass player expected, and cock-ups like that. But, on the other hand, there are things in there you’d never think of if you were thinking — does that make sense? So, yes, I’m glad you said it: a bang up job. Be nice to have some whistle-playing on it, and a few in-tune harmonies, and so on — but when we get paid enough, we’ll take the other players out live as well. After all these years, we’re still where we were when that traveller gave us his money. Oh, and that’s just how it should be! Like meeting you this way, Cat, it’s been a pleasure. As one of those great novelists I’ll never be once wrote: Only connect. I think that says it all.
GMR: Which groups, besides the Levellers, would you recommend our readers seek out to listen to?
NB: Last Night’s Fun. Strip down the best thrashy electric Irish folk outfits and their energy is based in the way they tackle traditional songs and tunes. Last Night’s Fun are an acoustic trio – pipes, concertina, and guitar – who give you that core unadorned: ‘…the most exciting and entertaining traditional Irish music band in England.’ Irish Music Magazine We meet up with them at festivals all over the place. Their live act always has you laughing…and, Jesus, do they work hard!
GMR: It was a pleasure to have this conversation with you. Thank you for coming here today!
NB: Anyway, thanks, mate — I’m glad we got it done! Liked the tatie bread. Had too much rum of late, but what the hell. . . .
(conducted on the 30th of May 2005)