Vive Le Rock! have been fans of SONS OF SOUTHERN ULSTER for a while now, their latest album Sinners & Lost Souls making our Albums of the Year. We caught up with the boys from County Cavan to get the lowdown...
So the Sons of Southern Ulster have been around for a while. How did you all get together?
Justin: We spent our formative years in the same small town in Cavan. At that time, Cavan would have been a bit of a backwater and while it is part of the province that is Ulster – it was on the southern side of the border – hence the name. At the time it didn’t seem like there was much to do but in retrospect there was loads of mischief to be made. As kids we’d roam around the town until all hours, smoking cigarettes and sneaking in pints at some of the less salubrious establishments. There were 32 pubs in a town of 2,000 people so there was a lot of competition. Seeing a gang of fifteen year olds knocking back pints at the counter was not unusual in a few of them. Remember this was at the height of what was referred to as the troubles and we watched with a certain detachment what was going on up the road. All a bit surreal in retrospect. As David says, it was the music that got us together. Before that we’d have been somewhat indifferent towards each other but a shared love of the Jam changed all that. I remember sitting on a wall outside the Northern Bank with a cassette radio one day playing the Gift (maybe it was Sound Affects) – when David walked by. I think he was put out because I had the album first. We sort of compared notes, as teenage boys do. That would’ve been the start of it.
David: Like many bands we found each other through music, in our case a shared interest in punk music and the inevitable desire that follows to do it yourself. Given that we grew up in rural Ulster it was a real challenge to access alternative music so you really had to lean on mates to find stuff. Don't forget that albums were a substantial investment back then, so you had to pass them around a lot more! It's funny how band mates have a special status in your life, there’s a bond that endures, playing live is like going into battle together while the dedication it takes to create decent music requires huge affinity.
What sort of bands were you watching growing up?
David: Predictably we were immersed with all the punk and post punk stuff but in Ireland we also had our own bands like Horslips, Mamas Boys and the Blades who had legendary status here but not so well known in England. Obviously the Rats, Undertones and SLF were really important as they demonstrated how the punk thing could be converted to an Irish setting. Derry, Belfast and Dublin were a million miles from Malcolm McLaren’s sex shop in London but the attitude was the same. Later, bands like Paranoid Visions and Nun Attax kept the punk thing going and then the Virgin Prunes really kicked alternative music in Ireland on to another plane of artistic mayhem.
Justin: Living in a small town in the middle of nowhere meant that “cool” bands playing locally was never an option. Mostly showbands would play in local hotels and occasionally Horslips. Anyone who grew up in rural Ireland back then would have a deep seated love for Horslips because they played in parish halls all over the country. We wrote a song about a Horslips gig in the Farmers Hall in Virginia years later. A big fight ensued and it was obvious Horslips were used to that bullshit. There was a melee on the dancefloor and they just kept on playing. As it got close to the stage they weren’t afraid of throwing in a boot or a fist. We lapped it up. We’d watch Top Of The Pops and buy all the music magazines so here we were in our little town as self-appointed experts on everyone: Adam and the Ants, the Exploited, Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts!! We’d never hear half the records but we’d be well versed on the reviews in NME and opinionated as if we’d heard every note.
There was a big scene in Northern Ireland then with the Outcasts and Rudi. They always seemed more sophisticated because they’d have “youth” programs on Ulster Television. I think the Moondogs even had their own show!! We’d hear Dublin bands on the Dave Fanning radio show like the Blades and the fucking best of all – the Virgin Prunes.
I remember seeing the Undertones on the Old Grey Whistle Test. The docs and the snorkel jacket, and the half-mast trousers. That was my wake up moment – my electric circus
The whole Irish Punk scene has had a lot of attention in recent years. How has the music scene survived? Has it been difficult?
David: It’s a great time for music in Ireland right now with the emergence of real alternative-post-punk 'scene'. I guess that somewhere along the way people started using real instruments plugged in and turned up proper loud! It’s been flattering how the Irish media have suggested that our debut (Foundry Folk Songs) in 2016 was the start of that post-punk revival but I think there’s been a growing discontent for some time that has pushed music towards having a more abrasive feel with more biting lyrics - a welcome remedy to kids prattling on about (often inauthentic) feelings, usually about themselves! It’s absolutely brilliant that you can now turn on mainstream radio at night and hear decent bands that have something to say. It’s no coincidence that many of the main DJs are heroes of the original punk era – the likes of Mickey Bradley and Paul McLoone from the Undertones have brilliant nightime shows to casually wander into and hear great new music. That platform is crucial to the new scene.
Justin: I left Ireland 30 years ago so in many ways the Irish music scene is as relevant to me as Boston, or New York. I don’t consider myself a musician. I write words. Like many emigrants I have a love hate relationship with Ireland and I realize that my lyrics probably do not speak to the Ireland of today. There seems to be a snobbish view of music, or pop, that dictates that everything is throwaway and bubble gum. I would not subscribe to that notion. When punk first happened there was a sense that it was another fad that would be over in a year or two. Forty years later there is a realization that the Sex Pistols and the Clash and the likes were true artists. No less so than Seamus Heaney or James Joyce. There seems to be a few bands that realize that what we are doing has a value beyond what is in vogue. This shit is important.
You do everything under your own steam and have a real original sound. What's the secret?
Justin: There comes a point in life when you no longer give a shit about what others might think and I think we hit that point when we decided to record the first album. The Sons are not about converting people into fans. If people like what we do that’s great but were not looking to “make it”. We’re in our fifties – we’ve got a clatter of kids, mortgages, all that shit. Maybe, this is about making a small statement before we die. Maybe, its about producing something of worth – and with meaning. My kids hear us on the radio and they couldn’t give a flying fuck. “Oh yeah Dad – Coool” and they leave the room halfway through. I love that (sort of). I hope someday they listen and think dad wasn’t a total arsehole. He had something to say. Maybe be inspired to tell their story.
That people like what we do is brilliant. It’s like a gift. WE did get a shit review recently – and you realize you’re not always so zen. For a few hours you’re like fuck fuck fuck but you have to deal with the fact some people don’t get it. Remind yourself the world is full of arseholes – and move on (haha)
David: One thing about the Sons is that we make no effort to follow fashion - we know what we like and how to play that. We've been lucky with Daragh Dukes (producer) in that he lets us keep the finished product pretty raw even if it’s a bit harsh for more sensitive ears. For us it's all about the overall package. It’s been great to find an audience who really get what we are doing - Its funny how modern music had become so processed and sanitised that going raw in 2020 seems original! That said, having ‘Yodapunk’ Mr Kelly out front on vox helps to give us an extra edge and at the end of the day you can’t beat good lyrics!
Haven't you been out in America?
David: We are over and back - the two albums have been recorded in Boston and Ireland. Justin has been out there for decades - i guess that's how he has such a clear recall for the world we grew up in. Paddy (bass) is out in Australia, while Noel is on the other side of Ireland to me so we could hardly be a more inconvenient ensemble! Funny enough, that makes for very focused time together- the Sons don't bother with intra band politics cos we just don't have the time! For gigs COVID has wrecked our short term plans for a tour to release 'Sinners and Lost Souls' but in truth we usually play only half a dozen times a year and tend to go for boutique venues that allow us to muck around with the show with lots of storytelling and the like. I have never understood why a band would go to all the trouble of creating a collection of songs and then not speak to the audience between songs – it’s really not cool and actually kinda rude and elitist. No such problem with the Sons as it’s hard to keep Mr Kelly quiet once he gets off on a story. I think bands underestimate the need to have different phases to a gig in order to keep a crowds attention, even for bands that i love i sometimes find myself drifting off a bit after 20 minutes!
Justin: While I’ve lived in Boston for almost 30 years, the Sons is very much a project that speaks to Ireland and dinosaurs like me. Ireland has changed a lot since I left and in most ways for the best. That said, I see a cohort that writes off the history, and recent history, very quickly. It needs to be documented. Someone needs to speak to the powers that be that contributed to the Ireland that exists today. America is so vast. It can be a bit overwhelming to get in contact with people who may be of a similar mind. I’d love to get the likes of Henry Rollins to take a listen but where do you even start.
The album has had universal praise including some comparisons to Fontaines DC. But you were there first right? ha ha!
David: The album is certainly not easy listening - we wanted to make a historical document that will hopefully endure, but time will decide that. It's been great to see that with all the stuff about 'Sinners' that our first album is being discovered by so many new fans. We are a pretty ramshackle outfit and don't bother with management, so getting it out there is a challenge - it has been great that so many folk have been excited by the album so i guess the secret is to get it to more ears! We are happy to be patient about that as the finest wine etc…
The Fontaines are a real phenomenon and are getting the type of attention usually reserved for pop groups, but i think that they have nailed down their alternative credentials with their second album which is brave and complicated. Yes, we were 'there' first but the Sons are very different in lyrical content and have a much more old school punk sound. For me, the best punk music has a sense of humour - although Sinners covers a lot of dark themes - alienation, oppression, depression, alcoholism and death - there is a recurring sense of mischief in the narratives that keeps you on board (a bit like life i guess sometimes instinct alone means we stumble on in the face of overwhelming adversity). Poetry and naughty guitars, you just can't beat that combo!
Justin: As I assume the Fontaines are in their early twenties and we are heading towards OAP status, I’m secretly loving the fact that some reviewers have painted us as some sort of spiritual godfathers. That said, I’m sure they are horrified and disgusted to be associated with such a bunch of uncool gobshites. I saw a facebook post recently where some guy was explaining what the Sons were like to a workmate. He said , and I quote – “well, they’re kinda like Fontaines, if Fontaines had been on a 24 hour bender and told you they had shagged your sister” – not sure I’d have the stamina for the 24 hour bender or the sister but would love this on my gravestone.
People like to compare everyone to something else. This album its Fontaines – last album was Whipping Boy and A House. If you are going to be compared to other Irish bands I’ll take that.
What’s next and when will we see SOSU live???
David: We are already fiddling about with ideas for our next album - i don't think there's much point in trying to repeat Sinners and Lost Souls so you can expect something quite different. The lyrical voice aged between 'Foundry Folk Songs' and 'Sinners and Lost Souls' and i think the voice for our next album will be still further down the journey of life….or maybe we'll have a midlife crisis and sing about sports cars, dangerous women, waking up after 24 hour benders…that sort of thing! More seriously, now that Sinners is on vinyl we will be doing the same for Foundry Folk Songs and have an EP done with Pete Briquette of remixed version of tracks from Sinners and Lost Souls that is being pressed as we speak. Pete is originally from the same area in Southern Ulster as us so it’s a perfect collaboration. I think we can really indulge our weird side for the third album which is making for great fun in the composition process. One golden rule in the Sons is that if something is not fun or interesting then we don’t do it – life really is too short and at our stage our tolerance for fake stuff is very low!
Check out Sons Of Southern Ulster's latest video 'For The Birds'...
Watch the documentary Foundry Folk Songs