The year was 2000 and I was in an Irish store in Stowe, Vermont. As I browsed the genuine Irish knick-knacks there was music playing overhead that immediately resonated in my heart and my head. I am half-Irish. I asked the cashier if she knew whose music it was. She replied, “Of course. We have it right here,” as she handed me Black 47‘s Live in New York City CD. At the time, since The Phil Factor didn’t exist yet, little did I know that 15 years later I would get to interview lead singer Larry Kirwan. Below is that interview.
Click the Youtube video to hear some of their amazing music. Every song sounds like you’re at a party in a crowded Irish pub.
(Oct. 26, 2015) Although the band called it quits on their own terms in 2014, frontman Larry Kirwan has remained extremely busy. Considering that he writes books and plays, writes for The Irish Echo, hosts a weekly Celtic music show on SiriusXm radio, and performs solo gigs (his new single Floating dropped last week), I was happily surprised when Larry replied to my email.
Me: Growing up in Ireland, who were your musical influences?
Larry: They were legion. Though it was a small town, Wexford had its own Opera Festival. Many people emigrated to London and brought back whatever was happening in music. Rockabilly artists like Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent were popular with the local Teddyboys and you could hear their reverb-drenched songs pumping from the town’s only jukebox. As well as that there was a strong tradition of Folk Music that I loved. And to top it all, my father was a merchant marine who loved Calypso and Tango music. I imbibed it all. But everything came together when I first heard Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone. Astral Weeks by Van Morrison was also deeply influential – probably still is.
Me: From your books and music, your love of New York City is apparent. Was there ever a time you considered returning to Ireland for good?
Larry: No, I never did. I knew from the first minute I arrived on my own with just $100 in my pocket that I wouldn’t be going home. I was illegal for 3 years and couldn’t go back and by then, after living in the depths of the East Village, it was way too late.
TPF: When you and Chris Byrne started Black 47 in 1989 did you imagine that the band would become as popular as it did?
Larry: Our first thoughts were staying alive or at least not getting the shit beat out of us. The Bronx bars we played in were rough – we were playing loud and provocatively – so we weren’t very popular, to say the least. We weren’t very good either. But four sets a night, is great practice. And there was a shortage of bands, so we could do four nights a week no trouble. We were committed to playing original music in places that just wanted cover songs. After a year, though, I knew we had something different – and that’s always the most important thing. Besides that, we were both naturally very political – and that seems to give you a bit of a cachet. I don’t think we ever thought about popularity that much. We were a band doing what it wanted to do – that might seem old fashioned now, but to us it was pretty much everything.
Me: You’ve also written several books and plays. What was your first love, writing or music? Or did one lead to the other?
Larry: I was an early reader and read voraciously through much of my life. I always thought I’d be a writer of some sort but I put it off for a long time. Meanwhile, I was in love with music so I got into songwriting and performing. I wrote a novel in my early 20’s that wasn’t very good, although I remember certain scenes fondly. But playwriting got me really into writing. I had a small talent for dialogue that made it easy to get a start. Then I had a very minor hit with my second play, Liverpool Fantasy, and that gave me confidence. I’m up here in Toronto at a workshop of a musical of mine, still coming to terms with that.
You probably have a better idea of what I’ve done with songwriting. Being a member of Black 47 was such a great outlet for me. We always needed new songs and the 25 years went by in a blur. We rarely performed more than 6 songs from an album of 12 so I’m getting re-acquainted with some Black 47 songs right now as a solo performer. It’s interesting stripping them back into their original form and finding the soul of them.
It’s a little odd. When I get an idea now I can transform it into a song, a play, or a novel pretty effortlessly, whereas when I began dabbling in all three disciplines, I always knew which of them the idea would slot into. A blessing or a curse? I guess I’ll find out as I go along.
Me: I’ll look forward to your next novel and I’ll be sure to feature it here. You’re still performing solo gigs and it’s been almost a year since the band stopped performing. Are there any plans for any more occasional Black 47 shows?
Larry: I don’t see there being any more Black 47 shows. It was a moment in time – 25 years of a moment. I miss the guys a lot – we were brothers – not just the members of the band but the crew members too. But then, I suppose, Black 47 was always more than a band. We were political, and did things our way, never looked for approval. We were probably closer to our fans than any band and yet we always played just for ourselves. I prefer to keep it that way. Onwards and upwards and look back with pride.
TPF: Larry, as a long time fan of Black 47 I’d like to say thank you to you, the rest of the band and crew for the 25 years of great music. I look forward to hearing more of your solo work and reading your novel. Also, thank you for taking time from your busy schedule for me and my readers. For readers and fans who want to keep up with Larry, you can find him on Facebook, at his blog and on Sirius XM radio hosting the Celtic Crush show on Sunday mornings. His solo music and Black 47 albums are available in stores and all the online outlets. You can find his books on Amazon, other online retailers and in bookstores.
Have a great Thursday! ~Phil