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After more than 15 years in the business, Aslan are still able to command massive, devoted audiences in music venue and record shop alike. John Walshe joins the Lions' club on the road
John Walshe, 29 Nov 2001
Sweet suffering lanterning lamb of the holy blessed virgin mother of Divine Jaysis. My head feels like it’s inhabited by a Dublin Corporation road crew, complete with all manner of jack hammers, drills, mixers and grinders. My stomach seems to be the venue for a particularly vigorous bout of bacterial gymnastics and I’d swear my tongue is growing fur. Oh fuck! I’m on the road with Aslan and I’m only a third of the way through. Can my poor body take any more of this? As Christy Dignam later observes, upon studying my greying pallour, “Hmmmm, I think we better get onto hotpress and ask for another journalist. It looks like we broke this one.”
Eleven and a half hours earlier, I’m standing at the back of Tramore’s newest venue, the 1200 capacity South, which is full to bursting with people, young and old, male and female, singing their hearts out: “She’s so beautiful, I know I’ve got to have her”. Aslan have just left the stage but the crowd don’t want to go home. For the last hour and a half they have been well and truly entertained as the Finglas Five, as they have been dubbed, take them on an exhilarating ride through their hits, from their debut single ‘This Is’ to current seven-inch ‘Different Man’.
No disrespect to the Co. Waterford seaside town, but I didn’t think there were 1,200 gig goers there, let alone 1,200 Aslan fans – but such is the Aslan phenomenon. They have been filling venues like this the length and breadth of the country for years. Whether it be Bundoran or Ballybunion, Aslan gigs sell out. It could be pissing hailstones the size of beachballs and the crowds would still come. U2, REM and Bob Dylan could be playing an all-star jamboree next door and the place would still be thronged. So what is it that makes Aslan so popular? What special magic have they that creates this fierce loyalty to, and intense love for the band?
Sure, they have great songs: their set is jewelled with a smattering of bona fide classics, extraordinary songs about ordinary people, from all eras of their checkered history. Yep, they are a great live band, and in Christy Dignam they have one of the finest frontmen ever to stride onto a stage in this country. But there is something more, something intangible, an invisible bond that links band and audience together into some communal otherland where life is not so grim and rock ‘n’ roll can really change the world.
Perhaps the key is that there doesn’t seem to be much difference between Aslan and their fans: these guys have no rock-star pretences – they’ve seen and done too much real living for any of that – and they are allergic to bullshit in all its forms. Any of the audience members I spoke to referred to the fact that band could be your next-door neighbours or your cousins.
“They have a great connection with the crowd,” muses Lionel Harte from Tramore.” A lot of bands are very standoffish, this ‘listen to the music and then go home’ thing, but Aslan are almost part of the crowd.”
Kevin Ox and Nigel Foley have been to see Aslan playing six times in the preceding four weeks. “Apart from the music, Aslan appeal to the normal folk of the country, whether it is in Dublin, Galway, Waterford or wherever,” Kevin notes.
Gino Kavanagh has watched Aslan grow up in public and he is convinced that their secret is in the fact that they have no secrets from their fans. “They can relate to the people,” he stresses. “Christy is a marvellous man to get up on stage and, before he even sings a word, he has a bit of magic that allows him to click with the audience straight away. He is a wonderful entertainer. All you have to do is look at that crowd tonight to see it. It doesn’t make a difference whether they are playing in a venue for 1000 or for 300: he gets to the crowd and the crowd get to him.
“For all the bad things that have been said about him, at the end of the day he is an ordinary man. OK, he might have made what people will call mistakes, but he didn’t do any harm to anybody else apart from maybe himself. But he is back now and he is where he deserves to be.”
To understand what makes Aslan tick, you have to look at the five personalities that make up the band. No spring chickens, the quintet are all within touching distance of the big 40 (from both sides) but they still have more enthusiasm and belief than many bands half their age. As Joe Jewel explains, “On our days off, we don’t all meet up and go for a few pints: everybody does their own thing. But when we’re together we live, breathe, eat and drink Aslan.”
Like his best guitar solos, Joe is the epitome of unfussy professionalism. As down-to-earth a character as you could meet, Joe seems to be the band’s rock of sense. I can’t imagine him taking too kindly to the various liggers and luvvies that make up the music business.
Another man who gives the distinct impression of not suffering fools gladly is bassist Tony McGuiness. Immensely likeable, personable and witty, but with an unerring ability to cut straight to the chase, Tony is honest to the point of bluntness. I wouldn’t fancy getting on his wrong side.
Drummer Alan Downey is the quiet one: he doesn’t say much during interviews, but over the total amount of time I spent on the road with Aslan, I don’t think I saw the sticksman without a smile on his face.
There is also the Billy factor. In many ways, Billy McGuinness (keyboards, guitar, harmonica) is the glue that binds all five together. Described affectionately by some of the others as “a nice bunch of fellas”, Billy is a party waiting to happen, always ready with a funny comment or joke. When my short stint with the band is over, Billy shakes my hand, smiles and says, “It’s been a pleasure, but print anything bad about us and I’ll break your fucking legs,” I’m only half-sure he’s joking.
Then, of course, there is Christy. An enigmatic frontman possessed of one of the most engaging voices in rock music, it is hard to watch Aslan on stage without your eyes being glued to the diminutive singer. Off-stage, he’s surprisingly quiet, and is more often than not found curled up in bed with a decent book. He has had his troubles with substance abuse in the past, but these days Christy doesn’t even drink alcohol.
Five very different personalities, but two things link them all together. Firstly, their belief in Aslan is absolute, and secondly, their refusal to put up with the falseness and “bullshit” that is so often part and parcel of the music business. They have built up their fanbase not through a paid-for hype machine, but through hard graft and effort, playing every venue that would have them.
“It goes back to what record company people told you years ago,” muses Tony, “ that you build up a circuit, keep at it and if you’re a good band you’re going to get a following and it’s gonna snowball. We have always believed in that. When we started the unplugged thing, it was touch and go. A lot of places in Dublin, we were getting 60 and 70 people, places like The Sallynoggin Inn. But it has gone from 60-70 people to 800 or a thousand people every time we play there.”
The unplugged idea was the band’s response when the international wing of their record label decided not to take up the option on the Charlie Moonhead album, leaving Aslan with almost a year free, not good news for a band who paid the bills through their gigging. Hence, the decision to “bring music to the suburbs”, in Joe’s words.
“We knew we were going to lose credibility because we were playing pub venues around Dublin and around the country,” Christy recalls. ”The way we looked as it was that a cabaret venue is determined by the music it plays, not by the location. And if you were to rely on credible music people to buy your records, you would fucking starve.”
Billy feels that going the unplugged route ended up being the best move the band ever made: “If it’s a small place that holds 200, the audience are up close to the band and there is an intimacy there that most bands don’t get. The crowd can see Christy and they can nearly touch him. He goes out into the audience and gets them to sing the songs.”
Aslan also accept, however, that given a twist of fate, the band members could be the ones in the audience; as a result they are not inclined to indulge the usual rock star trappings.
“We are very ordinary people,” Joe explains. “We take people at face value: a lot of punters will come over and have a drink with us after the gig or whatever. There is no airs and graces. It has been said to us before not to make ourselves too accessible to people because then they don’t get the mystery of the band. That’s not what we’re about as people. With us, what you see is what you get, warts and all.”
But it’s not just about being being normal Joes, so to speak. There are plenty of ordinary people in very ordinary bands. Aslan are, quite simply, one of the best live bands currently gigging in Ireland or anywhere in the world. They have been playing on stage together for almost 20 years, and have honed their craft to a fine art.
“We never go through the motions,” Tony stresses. “No matter what, everyone will be giving 100 percent all the time. The way we see it is that people have paid in so give it to them: don’t just stand there like brick walls.”
“What people don’t realise is that you don’t get a bigger horn playing a gig because it’s in Madrid or New York or anywhere else,” Christy adds. “To be able to do something like this, that you love doing, and that you have dreamt about doing since you were a kid, to be able to do that at any level is a gift.
“Look at all the bands who were happening in Ireland in the late ‘80s, and because some fucker in London decided that he didn’t want to continue with them, they all split up: that pisses me off. I think if you’re a real band, you can’t split up. I don’t know what else we can do: I’d die if I couldn’t do this.”
His claim is borne out at the gig in Tramore, when the quintet come very close to blowing the roof off the new venue. On stage, they are committed, serious, professional and as tight as two coats of paint. In the dressing room backstage, they are obviously buoyed up by what all agree was a storming gig, but they are also down-to-earth enough to allow some of their fans in and spend time chatting with them and making sure they had as good a time as the band themselves.
In fact, the band are well known for their generosity, whether that be giving time over to some of their less fortunate fans or playing charity events. “You don’t do it so that people will think you’re a nice person: you do it because it’s the right thing to do,” Christy later explains. “I believe in karma. I believe if you are a scumbag, your scum comes back to you and if you do good shit, good shit comes back to you.”
Honesty and integrity are two qualities that the band have in spades, attributes which they believe are lacking in too much of what we call the music business today, as evidenced by manufactured pop bands and hypocritical journalists (“a flight and a weekend away can go a long way to a good review”). The Popstars programme was one of the more recent music business machinations to arouse their ire, as Christy explains.
“There was one girl who was a fucking great singer but she didn’t get the gig because she didn’t fit the image,” he rages. “I have a fire inside me to sing and to be in a band, and I thought of all the not so good-looking people out there who have the exact same fire that I have but can’t sing because they don’t fit into this marketing image. Not only is that terribly sad but look at all the talent that is not being utilised because these people aren’t good looking enough. We are the ones who are suffering. We are getting sub-standard music shoved down our throat because these marketing people will only use people who look a certain way and will not go for people who are actually making progessive music. That is fucking outrageous.”
Aslan have never stopped their quest to make progressive music. Indeed, their latest opus, Waiting For This Madness To End at times sounds like so much of a departure that it is hard to believe that it is Aslan. While it is not as immediately accessible as some of their past work, repeated listening brings its own reward, as songs like ‘Six Days To Zero’, ‘Up In Arms’ (a duet with Sinead O’Connor) and ‘Friend’ start to take on a life of their own. Where before, they may have been influenced by the straight-ahead sensibilities of Jagger and Richards, the new album seems to take as much inspiration from the more innovative couplings of McCartney and Lennon or the sonic adventures of Gilmour and Waters.
“We could have released Lucy Jones again, but we wanted a breath of fresh air,” Billy notes. “Look at Oasis, who fucked themselves up releasing the same record again. Radiohead took a chance with Kid A and I’d rather take a chance than keep making the same record.”
“On this album, the band came together far more than on the previous studio album,” notes Tony. “We weren’t really a unit back then, with Lucy Jones, and it was a very frustrating time for us. But something happened on this album: everybody put whatever they could into it and it shows.”
“With this album, we were thinking that it could potentially be our last album,” Christy muses. “You never know – so we wanted to make it a good album.”
Before the Hotpress letters page is filled up with fans begging Aslan not to split up, relax: they have no plans to call it a day just yet, especially with the reaction the album has received, going straight into the Irish charts in the number one position. It also gave producer Ian Grimble his first Irish number one. Having worked previously with the Manic Street Preachers and Travis, Grimble’s pedigree was impeccable and Aslan are delighted that they got the right man to work on the album.
”Ian goes for a real organic sound,” Christy notes. “The way he works is that he gets the whole band in the studio together to play the song, maybe 20 times. He will record the whole take. I find when you do it that way, you might get warts in the music but it retains sincerity and a bit of soul. Whenever you use these new computer packages, it can bleach the soul out of the music.”
Getting Sinéad O’Connor to lend her considerable vocal prowess to two songs on the album was also a “big bonus”, according to Billy: “People as talented as Sinéad would normally do something like that if there was money involved or if they were going to get critical acclaim out of it: Sinéad had nothing to gain by singing on our album and we had everything to gain. It is a talking point abroad, the fact that Sinéad sings on the album. ‘Up In Arms’ is one of my favourite songs on the album and we are ever grateful to Sinéad for taking the time out to come down. It was a big moment in the making of the record.”
Sinéad is not the only other Irish musical celebrity to make contact with Aslan in recent times. Following some comments attributed to Christy in one of our national newspapers, to the effect that Aslan never received any help from U2, Bono sent the band a case of champagne and a note explaining that he always felt they had enough talent and wherewithall of their own and didn’t need any help from him. It was a gesture which was appreciated by all five of the band.
It’s not all great gigs, hit singles and cases of bubbly, however, as Billy explains: “We spent 14/15 hour days in the studio for two months. People see the band up on stage for the hour and a half: they don’t see the shit that goes on behind it, the hard work, the arguments, the fights. We are human beings and that is the natural process of being in a band. We all have kids and yet we see more of each other than we do of our families. But when we started the band, this is what we wanted to do, and 20 years on, we’re still doing it and it’s great.
“I see the amount of happening bands who fell by the wayside when they were dropped by major record companies, bands like the Happens, the Fish, A House, Blue In Heaven. I think they should maybe have remembered why they got into it in the first place ‘cos it is only one person’s opinion if you’re dropped by a major record company. There are more and more bands doing what we are doing now: writing, producing, recording and paying for their own records and I think that is the way to go.”
For their part, Aslan own the rights to the new album themselves, and have licensed it to EMI Ireland. They are in the process of negotiating with various other labels for other territories worldwide.
“It is every band’s dream to sign to a record label,” sighs Joe, “but the days of Sam Philips and those guys are gone. Nowadays, bands are being signed by accountants and even most of the so-called independent labels have been bought up my majors. The name on the label doesn’t mean anything. You just have to try to get somebody who is going to spend a few bob on publicity, and get your record into the shops.”
For the recording of the new album, Aslan returned to Westland Studios, the same place they had recorded their debut LP, Feel No Shame back in the mid-’80s.
“We could have gone away and done the album cheaper abroad,” Christy stresses. “But from day one, when we started a band, it always pissed me off when you had these people like Chris De Burgh who come over here and do 10 nights in the Point and then bring all that revenue over to London or Los Angeles and spend it over there on recording an album. That didn’t create anything of an industry here and we have always believed that the way to keep an industry going here was to use the facilities here.”
The studio wasn’t the only parallel with their debut, though, as Tony observes: “There were serious scraps and arguments about lyrics, but that is probably because this feels like the best album we have made. It is on a par with Feel No Shame, because like when we made that album, we are a unit. This is about five people.”
It struck this listener that an awful lot of the songs on the new album are about two people, and more specifically about those people breaking up, about relationships ending and picking up the pieces that are left. The band, though, are quick to point out that it is not all about “boy-girl” relationships. Christy explains that at the time of writing the new album he “was going through a lot of head-shit, personally… I was cleaning my act up. I have knocked all drugs on the head and a lot of it [the album] was goodbye to that, as opposed to goodbye to a man-woman relationship,” he says. “This is the first album that I worked on that I wasn’t stoned. Whether it was just having a joint or being on gear or whatever the fuck it was, I have always been stoned working all my life. I played my first gig last year where I wasn’t stoned, and the very first time I stood on stage, I nearly shat myself.”
Stage nerves apart, however, the singer believes that turning his back on all forms of drugs made a huge difference when it came to writing and recording this album. He admits that in the past, he was seduced by the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll myth, with the emphasis firmly on the middle vice.
“I bought into all that,” he admits. “I thought that was what you were supposed to do, that was the rock ‘n’ roll thing to do. You think it is going to make you a better songwriter, and maybe it does for the first two days but after that it just kills everything.”
There were no such problems this time around, however, with the end result that Tony describes Waiting.. as “an honest album. It sums up where we are in our lives at this moment”. The response to that honesty has been tremendous, and not just from the public. By and large, reviews have been very positive and Irish radio stations have weighed in behind the singles to date.
“It’s not as if it’s a cool thing or a hip thing to like Aslan but there is a feeling of goodwill and a warmth there across the board that I haven’t encountered with other bands,” Billy notes. “If we knew what it was, we’d bottle it and make a fortune, but there is some type of chemistry there that works.”
Surprisingly, however, given the amount of good press they receive and how long they have been in the business, bad reviews still get to them.
“I feel sick when I read bad reviews of the band,” admits Christy, who feels that some reviewers are “too personal and too venomous”. He gets particularly angry when people cite the fact that Aslan have not, as yet, broken internationally as evidence that they should call it a day.
“Should we knock the band on the head to please one bitter little journalist and sicken 1,200 people in Tramore by splitting up the band?,” he seethes. “It does get to you sometimes because you put your heart and soul into it. I don’t mind constructive criticism but so much of it is just bullshit.”
The truth is that Aslan are hugely proud of the fact that they have made it so big in their homeland. “To me, it is a great honour to be accepted at this level in our own country,” says Christy. “We always said that if we didn’t make it, there would be some young fellas coming up behind us who would look at the fuck-ups we made and take it to the next step.
“We’ll know when it is bogey, when it is at a point that people are saying that we’re making a show of ourselves,” the singer notes. “When that is happening, I will be the first to detect it. I have too much pride in myself to do that.
“All the songs we have written, from Feel No Shame to now: that is our life’s work and there is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be able to go around playing our life’s work,” he adds. “Every other artist does it: David Bowie does it. Mick Jagger does it. Because we’re doing it in Ireland and not in the States doesn’t make it any less relevant for us.
“It is much more important for us to be successful here than in America, even though we’d make more money in America. I mean that from the bottom of my heart. There is something about being accepted in your home town.”
It’s not just in Dublin, however, that Aslan are “accepted”. The night after they conquered Tramore, their gig in the Curraghcloe Hotel, Co. Wexford was just as rabidly received: the fact that it was an unplugged gig mattered not a whit to the 500 or so punters crammed into the venue. The fact that the band could get up on stage and again give so much to the performance is all the more remarkable considering that the party after the gig in the Co. Waterford town continued on into the wee hours, with the sing-song carrying over from the venue’s VIP bar to the residents’ bar in our hotel.
Gig-wise, however, arguably the pick of the bunch that I witnessed was their storming performance in the Mullingar Arts Centre the following week, particularly when Christy transformed the capacity crowd into a perfectly orchestrated backing choir during a remarkable rendition of ‘This Is’.
Aslan are booked up almost to Christmas, and even then, they’ll be barely tucking into their turkey sandwiches when they’re off to the Point on December 27th for what promises to be the mother of all parties. Aslan, you see, are one of the biggest bands in Ireland.
“We are very proud of the fact that we’re big in Ireland because it hasn’t been influenced by anyone outside the country,” Joe agrees. “It is the people who come to see us in Ireland who made us what we are today. That is a great buzz.
“That whole thing about ‘they’re only big in Ireland’, I don’t understand that. You’re cooming to see a band play. Why should it be important to other people whether we’re big in America? It shouldn’t be an issue at all. It should be just that Aslan are a good band.”
But what of the future? Billy admits that while their success in Ireland means so much to them, they would love to replicate it on foreign shores.
“I can’t see the band getting any bigger in Ireland that we are now,” he admits. “We have sustained it over the years and it would be hard for us to get any bigger here. We want to get our music to as many people as possible and if that means having a number one in Germany or Australia or England, that’s what we want to do.”
“Of course, we would love to have deals all over the world,” echoes Tony. “The more people you can get to appreciate your music, the better you are going to feel: there is no better buzz than that.”
Back to Billy to sum up: ”People ask us where we’re going to go with this album, what we’re going to do with it. Two years ago, if you asked David Gray what he was going to do with White Ladder, I’m sure he was in the same position as we are, financing his own album and doing everything himself. The right person heard David Gray’s album and we all know what happened. We need to find the right person to break Aslan worldwide and he/she is out there. We just need to get the album to him/her.
“We don’t want someone to put the album out and put nothing behind it. Unless you have the marketing behind you and people who are going to get you on Radio One, there is no point. We could release our back catalogue in England tomorrow: big deal, we’d have a release in England but it wouldn’t be in the shops and nobody would know about it. Sure we want a release, but we want it to be the right release. We want someone to believe in this as much as we do.”