IT IS not easy to look towards the future right now. A Budget delivering cuts which will hurt the weakest in society, rather than the most comfortable, came this week. The euro totters on the brink of extinction. The recession will not end any time soon.
Whipping Boy lead singer Fearghal McKee is not immune to what is happening around him. “Shit’s going to happen” he tells me during our Tuesday afternoon interview. Yet he refuses to succumb to pessimism, preferring to defy the pervasive negativity. “It’s a question of standing up and not taking it all the time,” he adds.
For McKee, music is a way to counteract the gloom. It is a vent for people to express frustration, a way of instilling solidarity through people gathering together at a Whipping Boy gig; and through that solidarity and song, providing audiences with a sense of hope.
“Things aren’t going to get any better unless people start thinking in a positive frame of mind, for us that’s making music,” he says. “We have something to say and something to give as a band.”
It is a grand ambition with which to re-launch Whipping Boy, but since re-forming in the spring - original members McKee and drummer Colm Hassett; long time Whipping Boy associate Cillian MacGowen; Joey McGowan; and Finn O’Connor - the band has enjoyed a new lease of life culminating at performances at Oxegen and Indiependence, while last week releasing the new single, ‘No One Takes Prisoners Anymore’, their first new material for 12 years.
“When playing the gigs we found we had a good rhythm going on between the members,” says McKee of the band’s re-forming, “and we thought, ‘We’ve nothing left to loose’.”
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw an explosion of creativity within Irish rock. Toasted Heretic, Engine Alley, The Would Be’s, The Frank and Walters, The Sultans of Ping, The Fat Lady Sings, and above all My Bloody Valentine were creating exciting and imaginative music.
Whipping Boy were part of that scene, but there was nothing to indicate they would be anything more than also-rans. I remember seeing them in about 1991/1992, dressed in white long sleeved T-shirts and pants and sporting Jesus & Mary Chain hair-dos which covered half their faces.
The music, which would surface on debut album Submarine, was Jesus & Mary Chain meets Spaceman 3 noise-indie - distinctly unimpressive and distinctly derivative.
Fast forward to 1995. I’m sitting with some friends in Smokey Joe’s in NUI Galway. One guy pulls a cassette tape from the pocket of his coat. It was Whipping Boy’s new album Heartworm and he spoke enthusiastically about it. Was there really anything to get excited about?
Then came an unforgettable performance of ‘We Don’t Need Nobody Else’ on The Late Late Show. McKee did not stand up at the microphone, but sat down, forcing the camera to pull up close to his face.
With an intense stare, he eyed the camera directly and unblinkingly. It felt as though he was communicating to each TV viewer personally and individually. Then he stood, walked to the studio audience singing, now to them, interacting with them, leading to a spontaneous burst of applause for his performance. The song was only half-way through.
This was clearly a different band, one that had become a powerhouse of passion and creativity and had outgrown its influences. ‘We Don’t Need Nobody Else’ indeed.
“We had been evolving during that time, not staying stagnant in our own little clique,” says McKee of the band’s transformation. “We always wanted to explore. When we started doing that we evolved rather quickly. It’s the same now, it feels like we could embark on another trilogy of albums, but this time with a new band. When you get into the zone you usually evolve fairly quickly.”
For its musical and emotional intensity and McKee’s uncompromising expressiveness, Heartworm became one of 1995’s essential albums - no mean feat considering this was also the year of Radiohead’s The Bends, Pulp’s Different Class, PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love, and Oasis’ What’s The Story (Morning Glory ). Sixteen years on, Irish music fans still speak about it reverentially, even those who were barely children at the time of its release.
“It’s the story of going from boy to man, that passage, and I feel that’s probably why it is always relevant to people,” says McKee, when pondering the album’s continued appeal. “Also we were lucky to be able to get it made like that, with those high production values. You have to thank the big companies at the time [Whipping Boy were then signed to Columbia]. They splashed out on the album and the results were pretty decent, but the songs were always there, always very strong.”
Heartworm was a phenomenon and Whipping Boy seemed on the verge of great things, but their momentum stalled, in 1998 they were dropped by Columbia - then a devastating blow for band. Within a year they ceased to exist. The great potential of only a few years before went unrealised.
“It hurt,” says McKee. “It took me years to get over that but you can’t stop living. You can’t feel sorry for yourself, it prolongs the pain, you do what you have to do and live. It was a great journey to have been able to make and create and I wouldn’t change it for the world, and it gives us hope we can do that now with our new stuff.”
That was then, this is now
McKee is not happy to remain stuck in the past. Whipping Boy remain proud of Heartworm and enjoy performing it for fans, but they no longer wish to remain in its shadow and are keen to promote new material, like ‘No One Takes Prisoners Anymore’.
“The lyrics were written by Mattie Egan, a punk performance poet,” says McKee. “When you find something that sums up everything for you, it’s better to go with that and share the royalties around. It’s a great song. It’s based on a verse by Rudyard Kipling about slaves and bond markets and it seems it’s the same kind of things we are dealing with again.”
So is a fourth Whipping Boy album on the way? “We’ll probably just release songs as we record them,” says McKee. “As Billy Bragg says you can write a song on Monday, record it on Tuesday, and release it on Wednesday, but maybe sometime we’ll collect them together and put them out as a vinyl release. The technology is great, you don’t have to wait around to record anymore.”
A major factor in Whipping Boy’s appeal remains McKee’s intensity and uncompromising on-stage delivery. What kind of energies or daemons drive him to such performances?
“It’s just what I do, it’s the only way I can do it.” he declares. “You’re alive. You don’t want to just go through the motions. It all goes back to Iggy and The Stooges, The MC5, the Velvet Underground, the punk scene in the late 1970s, and the hardcore scene in America in the 1980s.
“I took inspiration from that and made my own stuff from it. When you see videos of The MC5 , they are the essence of rock’n’roll in the true sense of the word, which has always been an independent spirit, not an industry waiting to be made.”
That spirit of music is where McKee senses hope for Ireland in the future. He is impressed by today’s indie and alternative scene, declaring “everywhere you go pockets of pure art are being created”.
He feels that instead of exporting people, Ireland can export ideas and attract the interest of others through the creativity of its people.
“I think we will be able to export a lot of our ideas, become an ideas culture, and be able to create our own identity in music and the arts,” he says. “I think that where it’s at. The merging of different ideas - music, video making, graphic design - can become our Irish Hollywood if we can get into that idea.”
Whipping Boy play Strange Brew in the Róisín Dubh on Thursday December 15 at 9pm. Support is from Dead School. Gugai will be DJing afterwards. Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and www.roisindubh.net