Formed in 1977 in Belfast, Ireland Stiff Little Fingers were at the forefront of the Punk movement. With Sold Out shows on their last Australian Tour, Stiff Little Fingers return in February to celebrate their fortieth Anniversary. Their signature style combines the energy of punk, infectious hooks, and lyrics that meld the personal and political, with a delivery that rings of honesty and commitment. It’s Jake Burns integrity and style that has meant that all these years later Stiff Little Fingers are still as in demand as ever. Bad Religion and Rancid have both credited Stiff Little Fingers as a major influence. Stiff Little Fingers live shows continue to be a special event of energy and power and for their fortieth anniversary expect all the anthems including the likes of Alternative Ulster, Suspect Device, Wasted Life, Tin Soldiers, Nobody’s Hero, Johnny Was, Barbed Wire Love and many more. HI Fi Way: The Pop Chronicles spokes to the legendary Jake Burns about their fortieth anniversary and the upcoming Australian tour.
It’s great news that Stiff Little Fingers are returning back to Australia so soon after the last tour here.
How many years? Actually, you know, I think the last tour was like I think it was like 2014 or something. No, did we go back in 2016? It might have been 2016. I can’t actually remember, to tell you the truth but either way, we’re very glad to be coming back.
Australia loves Stiff Little Fingers and it looks like you guys love Australia?
Yeah, absolutely! It’s a pity your docks are far away but it’s always worth the journey once we get there. We’ve always had a great time so we’re very much looking forward it and just as a personal aside, it rescues me from the depths of a Chicago winter so I’m really looking forward to it.
Even better still, we’ll be celebrating forty years with you guys.
That’s right. Well, I think, as we put on the posters, like give or take a year because we’re actually a year out but yeah we formed in ’77. So 2017 is actually our fortieth anniversary. We didn’t release the first record till ’78 so it’s kind of the same thing.
I guess for a lot of bands in this area, forty years is a significant milestone. What’s the secret to keeping the band going so long and doing it so well?
Well, thanks for saying we do it well. I think the main thing, there are a number of things. One, I think the fact that obviously we’ve grown up and we are still, amazingly, friends, which is the main thing. I think we’re friends first and a band second.
That makes it a lot easier because, obviously, touring and living out of each pocket. I mean, that was one of the main reasons we split up for a couple of years in the early days was because we were too young and didn’t really know how to handle that. Being that little bit older and slightly wiser now whenever we do hit a problem or a bump in the road, we’re better equipped to talk it through and find a solution to it rather than just throwing everything up in the air and going that’s it, I quit.
We have always said, all along that as long as we still have fun doing it and as long as people want to come see us then we’d keep going. That’s proven to be the case in both instances. Like I said, we’re still really enjoying it and, amazingly, people still want to come see us do it.
It must also help still being creative and working on new material. Is that part of it, keeping it still exciting rather than relying on what you did way back when?
I think you have to! I think otherwise the chances are you’ll just become like a cabaret act. That’s obviously a temptation when you’ve been doing it this length of time because we’ve got such a wealth of material to pick from that realistically you could just go out and play a greatest hits set every night. I’m fairly sure that a large section of the audience would be happy with that.
I think from our point of view, we have to keep moving forward to keep it fresh and keep it interesting from our perspective and the audience’s as well. The fact that the latest studio album, the No Going Back record, actually got the best reception, not just from the press but from the fans than anything we’ve done in a long time. I think that shows that people are still interested in what we’re doing.
Obviously with this being a fortieth anniversary tour there has to be an element of retrospective to it and looking back over the career. I like to think we’ll have at least one and maybe two completely new songs in the set by the time we get to you guys.
Do you get nostalgic when you look back over your career, particularly live when you’re playing these songs?
Sometimes, I’ve been talking a lot about it being forty years and sometimes it really feels like the blink of an eye. Other nights it feels like it really was forty years. I don’t think I get nostalgic about it while we’re playing, I think there’s too much going on. Sometimes when you’re sat at home late at night particularly you tend to look back on it. It really is quite a milestone, forty years and we’re not the only ones doing it. When we’re on a touring circuit we run into a lot of our contemporaries and lots of bands have hit that milestone all about the same time because the whole punk rock thing started sort of ’76, ’77 as far as the UK was concerned.
It’s interesting comparing notes with some other bands because I think we’ve all had pretty much the same sort of experience. What’s really encouraging is that most of the guys I talk to, they’re all having as much fun still playing as we are, which is nice. I think it’s also testament to the music, not just what we put out but that all those bands put out. They’re all still getting an audience as well and I think that it shows it’s stood the test of time, which is incredible when you think that sort of punk was only supposed to be a short, sharp shock to the music industry and yet here we all are, still trotting around the world and enjoying ourselves. Hopefully the audience enjoying it too!
What highlights stand out most for you when you look back over forty years?
I guess there are certain career highs and lows that everybody would have. I mean the first album doing as well as it did gave us a bedrock to move forward and to build on. I think even when we recorded it, we just it saw at the time as, well, this gives us a chance to record these songs that we’ve written. We honestly didn’t think it was going to go any further than that. We thought we’d make the record, we’d put it out and that would be the end of it. It’d be something that you could play to your grandkids. It took it from the realms of, well, that was fun to, oh, this looks like it’s going to be my job for a while. That was definitely a high point and the fact that we get to go to all these incredible places and people literally say you’re okay, you’re ready to go do that, it is amazing.
Again I think it’s an old adage but it’s true that if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. We’ve been very, very lucky from that point of view that we’ve all had the chance to do something that we absolutely love doing and we’ve got to see the world. I’ve said it many times, it’s an incredible job insomuch as I can’t think of many other professions where you go to work and when you finish, at the end of your shift, the entire room stands up and gives you a round of applause. That in itself is pretty incredible.
I wish that would happen when I was in the office!
Yeah, I think most people would. We know we’re in a privileged position, that’s for sure.
How did you find the solo tour that you did with Rancid and Dropkick Murphys? That must have been a bit of a different experience?
It was different! I mean, it was kind of throwing myself in at the deep end. I’ve done some acoustic stuff in the past but that was with guys from other bands where we had each other to lean on. I’d been out with Kirk from Spear Of Destiny, Ruffy and Sags from the Ruts DC and we’d gone out together as a little collective. Prior to that I’d done some stuff with J.J. Bernell from The Stranglers and Pauline Black from The Selecter. I’d done it before but always with friends on the stage. Then I got a phone call out of the blue from Ken, from the Dropkicks, just asking if I’ve even done this sort of thing but how would I feel about coming out and doing two weeks’ worth? He partially caught me as it was around the time of my birthday at the start of the year. He caught me when I’d had a beer or two and I kind of I agreed to do it. It was just the next morning I said to my wife, did I agree to go on tour with the Dropkick Murphys last night? And she went, oh, yeah, you thought it was a great idea. I said, yeah, but I was kind of drunk last night, but okay.
It was a lot of fun and it was terrifying the first one or two shows. After that it was, yeah, it was a lot of fun to do. It was interesting because I’m not sure how many of the people in the audience actually knew who the hell I was when I’m walking along. It was an experience! It is something I might want to do more of in the future, just simply because I’m going to turn sixty while we’re in Australia. That strikes you as a bit of a lantern, in terms of how much longer can you jump about on a stage with an electric guitar around your neck? Maybe it’s time to think about sitting on a stool and telling stories and playing an acoustic guitar rather than jumping about. For the moment I’m still, touch wood, healthy and happy enough to keep doing the SLF thing.
You’ve still got another twenty, thirty years, easy.
I don’t know about thirty! We’ve got lots of people who have very kindly sort of sent us cards and stuff going congratulations on forty years and here’s to the next forty. We all just looked at each other and went, yeah, maybe not.
So how do you cope when you’re not on tour?
We haven’t had that much time off, to be honest with you. My time at home is basically spent writing songs but when you’re away for so long you’d be amazed how much time the wife has to devise things for you to do when I get back. When I walk through the door I’m the same as any other guy that is into a domestic situation and hasn’t been there for a few months. You walk in and go, oh good, I’m glad you’re back. This washer isn’t working. Can you put that shelf up? There’s all that sort of stuff goes on so it is same as everybody else, really.
Is the Australian tour predominantly leaning towards sort of greatest hits and memories?
I think the idea is yeah trying to make sure it doesn’t veer into cabaret country. The thing is you’re on stage for like an hour and a half or so and you’ve got to try and cram the highlights of forty years into that hour and a half. That’s kind of tricky to do. I mean, the hardest part, to be honest with you, is what you leave out rather than what you put in, you know. I know for a fact that when we get together to rehearse for this we’d all had a couple of months kicking our heels. I mean, we’re playing again in Spain and Sweden. I know as we’re all saying our goodbyes it’ll be, right, now, work out what it is you want to play at the start of the year next year. We’ll turn up and there’ll be like forty songs that people will come in with and we’ll have to whittle that down to twenty.
I think it’s exciting the fact that there’s going to be potentially a couple of new songs in the set?
Well, there had better be one ’cause we started rehearsing it and it was actually shaping up quite well but we just didn’t have the time to polish it up enough before we did the last few shows. So now that’d be one and there are a couple of other things written. It’s just a case of again sort of going through those and saying, okay, you know, which one’s closest to being ready? This is another thing that’s tricky. With songs that people have never heard, songs that have never been recorded, songs that have never been played before, you’ve got no idea of telling which ones are the strongest ones. You’ve got no idea of telling how the audience are going to react to them until they hear them. That’s actually more nerve-racking than anything else is this sort of, here’s one you’ve never heard before and that’s usually when you see an exodus towards the bar. You know, damn, we’ve lost them.
Is 2018 predominantly more touring and hopefully finishing off an album?
That’s pretty much it, yeah, we did an awful lot of touring this year, we didn’t get the chance to get across to you guys so we’re excited to do that at the start of the year. I think then we go straight across to do the UK. We’ve got some festivals lined up but I think that a large part of next year will be spent locked away in my studio here and trying to write enough songs so that we can look to get into the studio at the back end of next year or the start of the one after.
It’s crazy to be thinking in those terms that we’re celebrating the fortieth year and I’m already thinking in terms of being in the studio but not until the forty-second. That’s how the business works these days. The days of a record company putting you on tour and then putting you straight into the studio along are behind us. The record company’s pretty much been made obsolete thanks to the rise of the internet. The only way that you can keep paying the bills is to keep going on tour and that cuts down your sort of creative time at home. I’m not one of those guys who can take a guitar on tour with me and write on a tour bus or in a hotel room. Apart from all else, I think if I was in a hotel room and some idiot with a guitar was trying to write a song at two in the morning and they were next to me, I wouldn’t be terribly happy about it!
Interview by Rob Lyon
Catch Stiff Little Fingers on the following dates…