Twenty Questions with Black 47's Larry Kirwan

Black 47 is New York premiere Irish Rock Band. Lead singer and songwriter, Larry Kirwan writes:
New York Town will be released on Feb 10th, 2004. It's an album dedicated to the city that took me in (in more ways than one), gave me a home and provided a fertile field for Black 47 to grow in. Some of the songs deal with 9/11 and its affect on the band and the city. One that's already reaching beyond cult status is Mychal, dedicated to a late friend and fan of the band - Father Mychal Judge, OFM, chaplain of the NYFD. Orphan of the Storm commemorates the hero of American Wake (from ON FIRE) and outlines his life in NYC before 9/11. The cd contains performances by Rosanne Cash, David Johansen, Suzzy Roche, Eileen Ivers, Mary Courtney, Roz Moorehead, Christine Ohlman and Ashley Davis.
In fourteen years, we've played well over 2000 gigs all over the USA, Europe and South America, did all the major TV shows, closed down the town of Hoboken, appeared in movies and had our songs on their soundtracks, rocked Shea Stadium three times, been shot at, crawled from van wrecks, blacklisted, banned, fired and rehired, sold a ton of CDs, been written about by every paper and magazine that matters and yet we've never even considered watering down the political and social ideals, the determination to be original and the black sense of humor that inspired us on that first fateful evening when we rocked the Bronx.
Not for nothing have we been called "the house band for New York City," We've now moved to Connolly's of 121 W 45 Street for our Winter Saturday residency (call 212-597-5126 to make sure we're not on the road). The Daily News called our Saturday gigs "a rite of passage for all New Yorkers;" and we like to think that there's a little New Yorker in everyone. If not, we'll put it there! See you around.

As a NYC band, how were you affected by the events of September 11?

Pretty much like the NYC population as a whole. We were dedicated to getting the city back on its feet and carrying on with our business. It was a tragic time, but it was ìfirst things first.î Let's get things going again, then we can stop and feel the bruises. In our case, we were on the road and had decided to come back to Connolly's in early November, but instead we returned almost immediately in an effort to get people to come into the city again on Saturdays. They were dismal weeks. Down where I lived on the borders of Canal Street, the smell and the dust in the air had everyone coughing and feeling like there was more going on than the government was telling us ñ which was correct. It was a small thing to go through, however ñ given what others had experienced.

What are the parallels of Irish history to 9/11 if any?

You know, I've never even thought of that. Perhaps, coming from Ireland with its particular troubles, there was a sense of inevitability that New York would suffer at some point too. Thus, I didn't have that feeling of shocked outrage that was common. To me, what happened was part of a price for living in the modern world. I hope, of course, that that's it, and that our city can get back to some sense of normalcy again; unfortunately, I somehow doubt that it will, even though I lie and tell family members that this was a once in a lifetime event.

Why has it taken five years for a new studio album?

It's actually four. That was a mistake of addition. We did do On Fire, the live album in between, and I recorded Kilroy Was Here, a solo cd. Oddly enough, I would say that 9/11 had something to do with that too. I had written a lot of songs for a new CD, but on the first anniversary of the tragedy, I was sitting in the old Friends Meeting House in Gramercy Park, when it occurred to me that Black 47 should record a new CD that would help give the city a boost. Hence, New York Town! Black 47 has always held complete creative control of what we record. That means financing all projects which can be expensive. And then, you need to have the wherewithal to promote the CD. I'm not into vanity projects, at this point of the game. The CD must be promoted and be available in stores all over the country ñ otherwise, I don't see the point in making it. I guess putting all those pieces together takes time too.

Has the improved Irish economy affected you or the band?

No. Economics isn't a factor, although bands with a social and political consciousness like Black 47 often tend to do better in more troubling times. Television is the factor that's affecting everything to do with live music now. People are so doped and addicted to it that it's getting harder to get people out of the house. I've even noticed from the stage that people are so conditioned by TV that they become restless around 27 minutes and again around 55 minutes. They're subconsciously awaiting the ads. It's pathetic, but unfortunately true.

Any thoughts of returning to Ireland?

In a box or on a tour? We took 120 people on tour with us last November. It was a great way for fans of the band to experience the rock & roll lifestyle and attend all the shows. We're running another one this November. Should any of your readers like to come with us, have them visit http://www.black47.com. We're going to be doing more of this type of even, because the traditional gigs around the country are drying up a bit. Thus, we'll have a Funky Ceili Weekend with Black 47 at the Nevele Grande Resort in Ellenville, NY on Ma6 14- 16 and details can be found at our website also.

The new album seems a bit more mature. Is this an evolution for the band?

Jesus, what a thought! Nah. It's a picture portrait of NYC before and after September, 2001. Perhaps, that's given it a glow of maturity. Then again, we've always written, played and sang about some weighty subjects. Where the hell have you been, Brian? Come out and see some of our shows again. You're spending too much time watching TV. .

How long did it take to record the new album?

We did all the backing tracks in one long blistering day. Because we play all the songs live in front of audiences before we record them, we're able to do that. The Beatles recorded their first album in four hours and then went off and did a gig. There's no reason why a good performing band can't do something similar. Of course, the polishing and addition of other instruments and voices took more time. But we're adept in the studio and unafraid to make choices. It's always back to the same question: are the songs good enough. To me, a good song is like a football. It can be kicked anyway possible and still retain its inherent shape. Most messing around in the studios comes from trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, so to speak.

How have you been able to balance family and the band?

It definitely takes a toll. Hence, I don't go out much anymore. I get a lot of work done from home, so I'm on around quite a bit. I also suffer from insomnia, and so am able to get by on 4 to 5 hours a night sleep, leaving a lot of time for work. But I often wonder about that question myself.

Have you written any new plays or have any lingering solo projects?

I've just finished a new play which is, coincidentally enough, about the after-effects of 9/11 on a family who lost a son. It's called The Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own and will have its first reading today. I've also begun a book on the songs and stories of Black 47 which will be somewhat autobiographical. I'm in the middle of a novel called Rockin' The Bronx ñ about the music scene around Bainbridge/204th in the mid-80's and I'm contemplating a new musical project ,which I'll tell you about, if I ever get it off the ground.

Absent from the album is an Irish rebel song. Any thoughts?

New York Town is about New York City. Although the opening track does bring up the thorny Irish revolutionary story of the San Patricio Brigade, which many Irish rebels and Know Nothings alike would prefer to forget.

What did you hope to accomplish with the album, professionally?

I'm like a baseball player. I look after the fundamentals which include: good and original songs, top of the line musicianship, inventive arrangements and getting out there and playing your butt off all over the country. The rest of it is luck and who you know. That's somewhat outside my realm these days.

Are you currently reading anything interesting?

I'm reading The Tinder Heart, a life of Robbie Burns, the Scottish poet. Also, Genius by Harold Bloom. And I read a chapter of Kidnapped by RL Stevenson every night to one of my kids. I just realized that I haven't read a novel in about 6 months. My shame!

Recently I read ìA Drink with Shane McGowanî where he described Black 47 as being fusion. Agree?

I never read music books but John Murray, our sound engineer, gave me Shane's book about a year ago, and I must say I learned a lot about Shane from it. Now, I've seen him up close, played with him and spoken to him on quite a number of occasions since 1990; but I think I actually understand his musical philosophy much better since reading that book. Shane wanted to bring back pure undiluted Irish music to the forefront of the culture. And that's great. For my part, I wanted to take Irish music and meld it with other forms of music to reach a new expression. So, I would tend to agree with Shane on that description. Oddly enough too, the book helped me understand why Shane is having more of an influence on many young American musicians than Black 47. His mission is a lot simpler. That's not being critical, in any sense. I greatly admire what Shane has done. Oddly enough, his message is a lot clearer than Black 47's and his music is much easier imitated. I often wish it were otherwise, but that's the hand we were both dealt and I'll always love and feel part of the legacy he's given Irish people, even though creatively I head in other directions. Hopefully, Black 47 are still in the process of doing for NYC's Irish what Shane has done for London's. Time will tell.

How is your relationship with your record label, Gadfly?

It's unique. We actually finance and own our own recordings. Gadfly helps in many ways, but essentially, they get the CDs out to their distributors, and then help promote us as best they can. Mitch Cantor, El Presidente of Gadfly, and I share some of the same music business philosophies. That's about the long and the short of it.

Are you looking forward to touring and promoting the new album?

It's your job. It's what you do. Basically, we play all year round. We might do an extra couple of gigs to support the New York Town, and I do a lot of interviews like this. It's like spring training. You do it, and eventually it kicks back and helps you down the line.

How did you hook up with Roseanne Cash?

Many years ago, she came to see us in Reilly's. We talked about that song of ours, 40 Shades of Blue ñ the title was a tip of the hat to her Father's song, 40 Shades of Green. She noticed that and we talked about it. I met her at a party in GE Smith's some time later on, and we hit it off. When it came time to get a woman singer on my solo album, Keltic Kids, she helped me out on a couple of the tracks. Even though she was going through a lot of hard personal times, she really came through for Black 47 on Fiona's Song. Then again, that's the type she is: a beautiful, talented and strong willed woman

Who are your influences for this album, musically?

My influences are legion. But, musically for New York Town, we just reached inside the band's experience bag and extracted all the different distilled influences from over the years. Obviously, Glen Miller and various Tex-Mex and Mariachi musicians. Some Middle-Eastern people too for Fatima. Even some Lynard Skynard guitar picking for Orphan of the Storm. But influences are not something that I actually think much about. It's whatever a particular song needs. Conceptually, though, James Joyce's book of short stories, Dubliners, had an effect. If you read that collection, you can get a flavor of Dublin at the turn of the 20th Century. I wanted New York Town to do the same thing for our city at the turn of the 21st. I want a person who's never been here to listen to the CD and experience life as Black 47 knew it.

What is your drink of choice these days?

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, an occasional pint of Guinness, Jameson's and Black Bushmills whiskey.

What type of guitar do you use and with what accessories?

I use Strats of varying types. I often use an old Boss Digital Delay and one of those yellow Boss overdrive/distortion pedals. I use an acoustic Martin (the least expensive). And for electric/acoustic, I play a Takemine plugged into an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man reverb/chorus unit. I use two small fender amps on stage. One is a vibrolux and the other ñ I can't remember it's name. Basically, though, as Neil Young told me once, ìget the right sound out of your amps, then turn them all the way up and do your best to hang on.î

Do you have a legacy that you would like to leave?

The songs will do the talking for us. I'm enormously proud of them. They tell the stories of the way we lived and they've inspired people to go out and find themselves. In years to come, people can put on a Black 47 album and know that they are getting a picture of New York as it was at the turn of the 21st Century.

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