The Naked Truth
16 November 1994 - Interview by Colm O'Hare, Hot Press Magazine.
We are going to spare you all the obvious puns
about going back to basics, catching this particular fish in the raw or even the
irrefutable truism that fins ain't what they used to be. But as you can see from the
accompanying pictures, there is something particularly vulnerable about people when
they're naked. Dropped by Atlantic Records, stripped of all the corporate support,
funding, and of course bullshit - this is how An Emotional Fish stand before the public,
on the launch of their independently-produced Sloper album. Not that either the band or
lead singer are without the support of people who matter. Ger is photographed with his
wife Lorraine . . .
Gerard Whelan, An Emotional Fish's charismatic frontman, arrives for his encounter with Hot Press on a big black 1960's Triumph motorcycle, parking it conspicuously and incongruously outside the 5-star elegance of the Conrad Hotel. For him, this two-wheeled, mean-machine is much more than a convenient mode of transport - it's an appropriate symbol of his new-found perspective on life, as he explains.
"For the past five years, it's been nothing but An Emotional Fish, An Emotional Fish, An Emotional Fish," he says. "all my time and energy was spent on the band. We've been five years on the road without a break. I bought the motorcycle and basically it was in bits so I spent a lot of time working on it, fixing it up, getting it on the road. I became obsessed with it and it gave me something to focus on, apart from the band. The other guys in the band were the same. They got into little things here and there and we'd turn up at the studio and get together whenever we felt like it. Music comes naturally to us anyway, so we just put all these songs together and we had a record."
That record, Sloper, their third album to date and the follow-up to the critically acclaimed Junk Puppets is indeed a fine collection of songs with more than enough meat and potatoes contained within to celebrate the band's continued existence. The first single taken from it, 'Time Is On The Wall' - a stylish Bowie/Ziggie pastiche - has also signalled their ability to pen credible but accessible pop, proving that they don't take themselves too seriously. "It's definitely one of my favourites on the album," Whelan says. "Making the video for it was a laugh and for the first time we had a go at being real pop stars.
"But it's quite a diverse album too," he adds. "For example, 'Aeroplane', for example, is a country song and it'll probably be the next single. I'd really love to hear it played on a country radio station. It's a duet with Maria Doyle who's a great singer and a special person - another friend who helped us out on the album."
More significantly for An Emotional Fish, Sloper is the band's first release since they parted company with East West Records, following the relative commercial failure of Junk Puppets. According to Whelan, it was a painless divorce and the band members 'don't harbour any bitterness about their treatment by the record company'.
"It was an amicable parting," he says. "It wasn't like 'Oh God, we've lost our jobs, what are we going to do now?' It was more like, 'goodbye guys, thanks for the experience, see you again sometime!' I'm pleased that we didn't get uptight about it or become complete arseholes which seems to be the road some bands take when they're dropped.
"We were very happy with Junk Puppets at the time," he continues. "It's a very compact album, a great sounding record. But after touring it, we looked at each other and said 'do we really want to go through all this again?' The title Junk Puppets was a reference to how we felt making the album - in a rut, on a treadmill, on a merry-go-round.. Sloper, on the other hand is just a word that describes how we feel right now - it makes us sound free, liberated, self-sufficient.
"Now that we're an indie band we thought, we'll make an indie record and that's exactly what it is. It's very much a DIY album. Making this record has shown us that it can be done cheaply, without spending a fortune. Recording equipment is now cheaper than hiring a name producer. And the fact that there was no A&R involvement in this record was a great relief to us. After the first album came out, our record company wanted twelve more 'Celebrates' and we wanted something else."
At one point, earlier this year, An Emotional Fish were reportedly close to calling it a day. Whelan confirms this, but says that having examined their various motivations and attitudes, they all decided that they still wanted to be in a band, to write songs and make records.
"I suppose we were frustrated at the time," he says. "It was kind of like, how much shit do we have to get through to make some music? But bad experiences are important - if you've learned your lesson. We've had lots of times where we've said, 'what the hell is going on?' But those episodes are necessary and we'll probably have more of them. I can't think of any long journey on a road where there aren't any dangerous bends."
He maintains that, ultimately, it was their closeness as a unit that kept the band going. "We're all really good friends," he says. "We're like four brothers actually.
"For the first time ever, we're standing on our own two feet - or eight feet," he laughs. "We've now set up our own label, Blue Music. We produced the album ourselves, even the artwork and the photography were done by us. The way we're approaching things is, we'll release the album in Ireland through Warners and see what happens after that. There are other places in Europe like Holland and Belgium where we still have a large fan base.
"When you hear it played on the radio, there is something more satisfying about having done it ourselves - you're wondering whether it is going to sound crap or not. When it sounds as good as the other albums, you think 'great, you don't need other people when you can do it yourself'. We've started playing in Whelan's again and it's also great - it's a real family affair. There are people who are friends who only meet at Emotional Fish gigs."
It wasn't always this way. Following the release of their debut album, An Emotional Fish, in 1990, the band looked like breaking through to the big league, particularly in America where they were signed to Atlantic Records by that label's legendary founder, Arehet Ertegun. Reviewing their debut, Rolling Stone magazine described the band as having "poetic fervour, with strong, beautiful playing which enlivens the Celtic Soul inherent within the band," adding that "Gerard Whelan is a passionate singer, whether he's brooding or rocking . . . the songs are intense and provocative."
Few would argue with those sentiments and time has proved them to be accurate. The rousing rocker, 'Celebrate' has, in the four years since its release, become an acknowledged Irish rock classic. Songs like 'Blue' and 'Lace Virginia' from the first album and 'Rain Careless Child' and 'Digging This Hole' from Junk Puppets are permanent testament to their consummate ability to walk the tightrope between rock cred and pop accessibility. The band have also endured and survived the sort of hype and next-biggest-thing press coverage that would have crippled many outfits before they got off the starting line.
Ironically, Whelan feels that the band might have been a few years ahead of its time in some respects and he reckons that they'd probably have a better chance of breaking in the US today than they would have had two or three years ago.
"What used to be called alternative rock is now much bigger and more acceptable over there now, with bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots having broken into the mainstream. We actually did quite well in the US especially on the coasts - places like New York, Boston, New Jersey. We did about five tours of America and we were popular in odd places - we have lots of fans in places like Springfield, Missouri, for example. But America is a big, strange place. The last time we were there I took my clothes off and we were banned from an alternative radio station. I didn't think that was possible but it shows just how mainstream 'alternative' has become."
In a 1991 Hot Press interview at the height of the band's sojourn in the spotlight, Whelan told Joe Jackson that he wasn't interested in the business side of music and that he simply "wanted to make music for its own sake." If anything, he holds to that philosophy even more preciously now and is not manifestly disappointed at the band's lack of commercial success.
"I've always said that success has to do with your life as a whole, not just one aspect of it," he muses. "You're successful, if you have friends. I think I would consider myself a lucky person and a successful person. This new record has brought all that on board. We made the album with friends. When we made the first album and we borrowed guitars we got invoices! With Sloper we just used what we had or what our friends had. We've completely redefined how the band perceives itself.
"We've also reclaimed total artistic control over our music. When you think about it, budget control is artistic control. You've got someone up there with the power to spend money on what he believes is right, not what you believe is right. Before you have artistic control you need to have art and the song is the centre of it all. All I want to do is write a good song.
"I've had people come up to me with stories about 'Celebrate' that you wouldn't believe. One guy who was in the French Foreign Legion said he heard the song on the radio and packed his bags, left and went home. That's a good thing for a song to cause to happen. With big record companies it's numbers and units that count. Two-hundred thousand isn't enough, two million is better, six million is even better and if the next one is only four million they're wondering what's gone wrong."
Freed from that kind of corporate bondage, Whelan maintains that the approach the band are adopting now is simply a return to their way of working when they first got together in 1989.
"Basically," he reflects, "when we started out, all we had was a Tascam 4-track cassette machine in a living room. All the song-writing was done that way before we had a proper band and we've basically returned to that way of working.
"The first album was a collection of songs we'd already written so it was a fairly straightforward affair recording it. For Junk Puppets we went down to Ballyvourney in West Cork and put down the demos for the album. It sounded great to us. It was good enough to be released in its own right - we called it the lost second Emotional Fish album. But we ended up moving to London to finish it, using Alan Moulder as producer and he did a good job. But we always wanted to get back to that way of working. Doing Sloper was like re-capturing the mood of that lost second album - using that innocence tied up with the experience of Junk Puppets. We started working on an 8-track and then recording the songs onto a digital machine."
And what about the songs? Was there any difference with the manner in which they were written? "No, we just set about writing the songs without any particular way of writing. There is no one approach, though it's always been a democratic thing and we all have to agree on it. It can be torture at times but the benefit is, that we all pull together.
"There is some continuity with the songs on the last album. 'Air' is a song similar to 'Digging This Hole' on the last one. It's the song that says, 'this is where we're at right now', it defines the current state of the band. It's about possessions or the lack of them. 'Disco Vera' is both a disco song and an anti-disco song. 'Leoncavallo' is the name of a club we played in Milan - an anarchist social club!
"Songs have to work for the listener. It's like, you can't say to an audience 'this song will change your life'. People have to say 'it changed my life'. You can't tell them this is deep or that is deep. To me it's important to be a clown and I listen to anything. Take Whigfield's 'Saturday Night' for instance: I can relate to that. I mightn't go out and buy it but if you can't take music like that you've lost your will to live."
And what about touring? Will An
Emotional fish ever return to the crucifying gigging schedule that they endured over the
last few years?
"We will be touring after the album's release," he promises. "But we're in no hurry. I've just had my first Hallowe'en and first summer, come to think of it, at home in five years. I love travel, it suits me. I only really fell in love with Dublin and Ireland when the band took off. But when we came home the last time we took root a little more than we had before. Next year we'll get back into it."
To their credit An Emotional Fish have made the transition from major label hopefuls to indie self-starters with the minimum of fuss and grief. On the evidence of Sloper, it might be the best move they've ever made.
Gerard Whelan climbs onto his trusty Triumph - humming Whigfield's 'Saturday Night' - and rides into the rainy Dublin rush-hour traffic. As I write these words Dave Fanning is spinning 'Superman' - an impassioned ballad from Sloper with Whelan's pleading refrain: "I want to be more than I am, I want to be your Superman."
And why not? Time is still on his side.
Sensual Records by Ger Whelan
1. The Black Saint And the Sinner Lady (album), Charles Mingus: "Listen to it blindfolded!"
2. 'Let's Get Married', Al Green: "Oscar Wilde once said, 'men marry because they're tired, women marry because they're curious and both are disappointed. Then came Al Green."
3. 'Jesus Built My Hot Rod', Ministry: "For multiple orgasm addicts everywhere. Loop it, or press the repeat button, if you can stand it."
4. 'Sexual Healing', Marvin Gaye: "Of course!"
5. 'I'm Your Man', Leonard Cohen: "Please!"
6. 'Like Someone In Love', Bjvrk" "Just for the goosebumps."
7. 'Why D'ya Do It', Marianne Faithful: From the album Broken English. It reminds one how messy sex can get. I met her on the Pat Kenny Show recently and got the sweetest hug from her.
8. 'Emergence - Songs For The Rainbow World' (album) R. Carlos Nakai: "Native-American flute music. An incredible record."
9. 'Try A Little Tenderness', Otis Redding: "By Otis Redding and only Otis Redding."
10. 'Security', Otis Redding: "It's what everybody wants - unconditional."
"Women have always played a massive part in my life. My mother was the first one to make an impression on me and I've always felt much more comfortable talking to women. I've a lot of very special friends who are women and even most of my male friends tend to be the quiet, sensitive kind, who are not afraid to cry, rather than the macho type.
"I used to have a tattoo on my forearm with the name of the woman who took my virginity, which was a big mistake, not to be recommended to anybody. I eventually got it blacked out. I absolutely adore women, and one of the reasons I got married to Lorraine was that I needed to be with one woman so I could concentrate more on other things. I'm not interested in conquests, though.
"Phil Lynnott once said that Irish women were the best lovers in the world and I agree with that, although the first time I went to Texas I found the women there were truly amazing. They really flaunted their sexuality and femininity and were so upfront which is the complete opposite to what I had expected.
I tend to go for unusual women like Bjvrk and Juliette Lewis, who played the teenager in the movie Cape Fear. In the band we've always written songs dealing with the sex war. 'Man's World' was one of our earlier songs and was about challenging the whole notion of what it is to be a man. Men have had this macho-thing forced upon them and there's a sex war being fought right now. Women want to be men, which is the wrong way to go about it - I mean do they really want that kind of pressure? On the other hand, if the roles are reversed, it'll give men a chance to relax a bit more.
"Religion has played a big part in the sex war over the years. On Junk Puppets we had a song called 'If God Was A Girl' - I got a book in San Francisco one time about the fact that historically we used to worship Goddesses rather than Gods. A lot of ancient cultures had female symbols of worship and even in Ireland we had Sheela-na-Gigs. Somehow, probably when Christianity came along, it all changed.
"To me, the greatest relationship you can have with any person in this world is as a friend and I've been very fortunate with Lorraine to have that. We've known each other for yonks but we only got married earlier this year. I proposed to her in Venice quite a while ago - the romantic atmosphere had obviously got to me - but I promptly forgot about it and it took a long time to get around to it again. She's already got a ten-year-old son and I'd really be into having kids myself."
On Women in
"The music business still tends to be male-dominated and a lot of guys in rock and roll end up as spandex victims. When it comes to performers, male singers are better narrators and storytellers - people like Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, who I like a lot. In terms of pure singing, women tend to be more naturally gifted, singers like Aretha Franklin for instance who just sounds so instinctively natural.
"We had a lady tour manager in the US once, on a tour that went all over the place. She booked us into a hotel in New Jersey that turned out to be a crack house. When we arrived there and saw the place, we just wanted to get to hell out of it. She just marched up to the desk and demanded our money back and refused to leave until we got it. I don't think a guy would have been as tough in the same situation.
"Having a woman on tour with us definitely had an effect on the way we behaved. There were more manners on the bus for a start. When men are together they fart at each other and when women are together they probably fart at each other too. But when there are males and females together, things tend to be a lot more civilised."
"I grew up in London and I was probably the typical innocent Irish Catholic boy in the big city. In those days, Soho was a lot seedier than it is now and it's been cleaned up a lot since. You could walk into a shop and see a picture of a penis entering a vagina on the front cover of a porn magazine. I remember my father telling me not to go into those shops and of course I did. As a guilt-ridden Catholic, masturbation becomes a big way of life and it was a big hobby of mine at one stage. Do I watch porn movies? Yeah, I do, occasionally, but I would never tell anyone about that!
"I've spent time in certain parts of Greece where nudity was a big part of everyday life. Men and women showered together in the same place and once you got used to it, you weren't scouring the beaches looking for tits. Sex isn't that important in itself even though it's a necessary part of life. I think it was RD Laing who said that 'life is a sexually transmitted disease with a one hundred percent mortality rate'. I tend to view sex along those lines - we're all born from it and eventually we'll all die from it."
"I used to have a lot of gay friends and I hung around Bartley's with them simply because they were great people to be with. They were so camp - complete queens all of them and I loved that whole scene. Then something happened and the whole scene got very militant. They all shaved their heads and grew moustaches. Nowadays, the only difference between a gay rights march and a National Front march is the swastikas. Though I have to say I've still got some very decent gay friends, who I treat as my sisters!"
Vasco Bono e noi ...
Italy 13 November 1993 - Interview by
According to what you have told, you don't seem very proud of your first album and sometimes it seems that you would deny it...
(Gerard) Definitely we were very naive, we had been playing together only since a year and we didn't know each other very well, I mean as a band; the harmony among us is much better now; I think this is the evidence. The sound was quite amorphous and the record likely sounded better in theory than in practise. So we decided to go on tour for two years, which was the best solution to know each other and improve the harmony among us.
So there are significant
differences between your first and second album?
(Martin) Let's say that "Junk Puppets" is better because we had good songs at our disposal. This album is more melodic, easier to listen and to approach. However, if you listen to a track from our first album such as "Colours" and another from the second one such as "Careless child" or "Sister change" you realize that they are similar; the two LP are not extremely different.
Were you pleased to know that an italian singer, Vasco Rossi, made a cover of "Celebrate" in italian in his last album? We knew about the cover Vasco Rossi made when he had already recorded it; we don't know exactly the lyrics, even if we can apprehend the matter instinctively. He changed the words completely and made "Celebrate" a political song. We don't live in Italy so it was not possible for us to understand the shades of meaning. However we have been happy with Vasco Rossi choice.
He asked you to play in some
concerts of his new italian tour....
Yes, he did, and we accepted with pleasure also because we are interested in getting in touch with an audience used to italian music. Unfortunately we didn't succeed in playing all the dates of his tour because in the meantime we are touring Europe as well.
You also will play with U2 in
Italy as a supporter band ...
They listened to our album, and we have been chosen. The Pixies, Public Enemy and Disposible Heroes of Hiphoprisy also had been cosidered.
Maybe they became convinced
by the fact that "Junk Puppets" sounds familiar to them...
People usually compares us to the U2, to their style in music. But we don't feel so close to them. Ireland is the only thing that joins us, the place where we come from; and we also put the same passion in our music. These are our common points. But we don't think these are the reasons why we have been chosen. On the other hand, they took into account more bands such as the Public Enemy who are very different from us and the U2.
Let's come back to your
album...Does Marionette have a particular meaning?
This title lends itself to several interpretations and everyone can find his own one. As a matter of fact today we are very affected by the mass-media, politics, etc. and when we chose this title we thought about those people who are resigned to everything, who don't stand up for their rights. This happens in music too. We really wanted to feel the work ours, and we had to fight a lot to impose our ideas on the record company; they wanted us to release a typical pop formula album.
Which are the topics of your
(Gerard) I generally don't like to write about politics or religion. It would be impossible for us to be a political band because our ideas are very different one from another. I usually write about subjects that I know and concerns me. The most of our songs talks about the political situation of our country only in a general and vague way. I think many of our songs contains Humor too.
As in the track "If God
was a girl", for example?
(Gerard) When I wrote that song I was in low spirits because I had to be a home man; I thought that it would have to be very frustrating for a woman to have only a home life; undoubtedly it is much better to work in a recording studio or to go on tour; it's even less tiring !
You recorded some tracks with
Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes. Are you going to release anything about this joint
We met Gordon at the end of a concert in London and ...there we were, in a recording studio. Something will come out soon.