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Bap Kennedy - The Triste Interview
|Bap Kennedy was the lead singer and songwriter in the Energy Orchard, a roots-rock band which made a series of critically acclaimed albums at the start of the nineties. Kennedy's solo work saw him adding increasing amounts of country music into the mix and saw him being produced by Steve Earle. A late discovery of Hank Williams saw Kennedy immersing himself in his music and producing an album of faithful covers of several of his songs, "Hillbilly Shakespeare". In 2000 Kennedy released a new album of original compositions "Lonely Street" and toured with his band.
Triste: The first time I saw you was at The New Pegasus with an early line-up of the Energy Orchard and I met you through a mutual friend. Looking back now, I have the impression they were brilliant, optimistic times.
Bap Kennedy: I remember you saying that the songs sounded like out-takes from Astral Weeks.
Triste: Oh dear!
Bap Kennedy: No. It was a compliment. That's what we were trying to do. We were trying to marry those styles.
Triste: That was the thing. It was Them and Astral Weeks. It was absolutely brilliant. And the support band was the Miracle Mile, wasn't it?
Bap Kennedy: Most of the bands who supported us went on to be famous. Jesus Jones and all these other bands. Cast supported us about fucking ten times. Loads of bands, The Sundays. There were about ten bands who supported us on a regular basis. Most went on to be successful.
Triste: I was thinking earlier that it was about a year or two too late. There was the Pogues and Van and a massive Irish thing in London in the mid 80's.
Bap Kennedy: It was just bad timing it really was. Just when we were getting our shit together the Happy Mondays were the current thing. We were instantly dated and wrong for the times.
Triste: It was so unfair. Now it's all that timeless roots stuff.
Bap Kennedy: Timing is everything. Even now at the moment I can see what I am doing now is more relevant than it was three years ago.
Triste: Like, stars are rising again.
Bap Kennedy: Yeh. You've got to catch the wave.
Triste: When you started playing at the Pegasus that were like the start of the band. It was the Burglars or whatever up in Belfast first.
Bap Kennedy: No it was a band called the Bankrobbers. One of the guys joined us. There was the Bankrobbers and Ten Past Seven and those two bands became the Energy Orchard. Paul had moved to London before us and David and him and found their own musical feet when we eventually met up a couple of years later. We all came from the same couple of streets, which was the strange thing. Everybody thought we'd come over from Ireland together, but we all came over separately.
Triste: But those Pegasus gigs were virtually the start of the band, weren't they?
Bap Kennedy: Those gigs were special. People still talk about those days.
Triste: Yeah I'm talking about them now!
Bap Kennedy: It was like the Orchard version of the Maritime.
Triste: That's right - Van at the Maritime in Belfast in the early 60's. It was funny how you did "One Two Brown Eyes" on the first album. I never saw you do it live. It was "Baby Please Don't Go" and "Gloria".
Bap Kennedy: We did that a few times. You probably just never saw us play it.
Triste: Probably, I saw you loads at the Marquee which I seem to remember was your second residency.
Bap Kennedy: The Pegasus was definitely the one where it all came together we got our record deal. We never really surpassed those gigs. After that it all turned into shit.
Triste: But the funny thing is it's really hard to put it onto a record I think. That's the kind of problem. The first album sounded more like a later Van Morrison album or something. It was the same producer wasn't it?
Bap Kennedy: That's why we got him, because he produced a bunch of Van records and The Skids. I remember sitting in Belfast thinking if I ever get to make a record I want this guy to produce me. It was a long-standing thing.
Triste: It seemed to me, as an outsider, that there was almost a battle in the band. One side of the band was much more rock. It felt on some nights like U2 or a stadium rock band in a small bar and the more astral weeks thing the Celtic soul was more of your department I thought "fuck!" That was the reason.
Bap Kennedy: We were trying to break America and all that and listening to the wrong people. We just panicked. We realised when we'd been signed that all of a sudden we weren't relevant. Before we'd been signed there was a buzz about the band.
Triste: Yes I remember reading a big piece in the NME.
Bap Kennedy: Then all of the sudden it was the Stone Roses Madchester and that was the only thing people were talking about. And the record company were like "Fuck off! What are we going to do with these cunts you know what I mean!" The second album was a stab at trying to break America. We went to LA and recorded in Ocean Way studios with Glyn Johns. But it didn't really work. It wasn't really us.
Triste: It was really interesting, as the second side was more you. It was the first track which was weird. It was the bass player wrote the thing?
Bap Kennedy: Yeah yeah.
Triste: It didn't sound like you at all.
Bap Kennedy: We were in such a mess financially and everything. The whole heart had gone out of it. It was just the big lumbering machine. There were 12 people on the road.
Bap Kennedy: Everybody's livelihoods depended on the record and it became something else. And once it gets to that desperation sets in and suddenly you make stupid decisions because I felt responsible for peoples fucking livelihoods.' Let's do this. Let's try that song. That sounds like a hit in America. I thought some of the songs were strong there was just no heart in that record. There are some enduring songs on the second album but the second album is a crack of shit mainly.
Triste: But there's a couple of songs I really like on it.
Bap Kennedy: I'm the same. There are a couple of songs there which are among the best songs I've written, but the whole thing doesn't stand up as an album. There are too many disparate elements.
Triste: But it's interesting. It feels like a different band. The third album is the one I really like now. The version of "Madame George" is spectacular.
Bap Kennedy: Thanks very much. The second album we recorded it in LA and then in Rockford studios where Queen did "Bohemian Rhapsody". The final recording bill for that album was a quarter of a million quid. The album after that cost nine grand!
Triste: Really! It just sounds much more like the band.
Bap Kennedy: We had only a small a budget. We were on another label that didn't want to pay that kind of money.
Triste: That was Castle wasn't it?
Bap Kennedy: Once you've got to work within these restrictions you're free from the shackles. But the band was going down hill. There were a couple of guys who didn't really want to be in a band, to be honest.
Triste: The keyboard guy - he looked a bit quiet.
Bap Kennedy: Him and Spade got a band in America called Celtic Soul.
Triste: Celtic Soul! Ha ha ha.
Bap Kennedy: Which is an Irish cover band. Apparently that's what people want to hear.
Triste: It's the market I would have thought.
Bap Kennedy: They're playing professional Irishmen.
Triste: The 4th album was the one I was really disappointed with. It sounded like you were really bored with it.
Bap Kennedy: It was overcooked. We thought we were onto something but we weren't all the songs were too long. Too toiled over.
Triste: It was a shame as it was nicely packaged.
Bap Kennedy: Ah that's just marketing you know. That was the end of the game really.
Triste: Is the live album worth picking up?
Bap Kennedy: Actually, there is some good stuff on it. It's a fitting little document. The songs were really good. There's some strange noises in there. There's dog barking at the end there in the audience at the Mean Fiddler. It's all in the past now.
Triste: Do you ever see people from that time?.
Bap Kennedy: I met up with a few of the guys last year. Me Paul and Kevin the organ player. His brother died last year and we met up again in Belfast and we talked about getting together again. We left the door open when we called it again. There's always the possibility.
Triste: Maybe you're time might come now as it were. There's lots of goodwill generated about the band.
Bap Kennedy: Energy Orchard is one of those bands which people talk about after it's all over. We never reached the potential we had and that was due to personalities conflicts and record companies and management. It was a circus for three levels.
Triste: How do you get to the level where you get the balance sorted out so you're just going along nicely and not eaten by the machine?
Bap Kennedy: When you see other things going on in the world it doesn't add up to a hill of beans. You're a little band. When you look at it it's just a pile of shite.
Triste: But it's hard to keep the perspective when you're on the tour bus.
Bap Kennedy: Especially when there's blood pouring down your nose from taking too much charlie. (Laughter) I suppose you are trapped in your own little world but every time you making records you should look at CNN and there's fucking tragedy all over the fucking world. We were making our second record in LA when Desert Storm thing happened. I really did think that it was the end of the world and I was making a record.
Triste: I really think there's a feel in the sleeve art. I remember the video of how the west was won which I think is a really good record. It was the best of the rockers.
Bap Kennedy: If we'd have concentrated on one side of it we'd have a plot. We never had a clue what we were supposed to be doing. It was just a bunch of songs. You've really got to be astute and aware of marketing and we were looked like six guys straight off the bus.
Triste: The one thing I think was lost over time was the north London thing. Of guys living in North London and living in exile and that was missing later.
Bap Kennedy: There was the Pogues who really captured that cos there was no competition really. We landed slap-bang in the middle of baggy which had nothing to do with us at all. We'd never had an E before in our lives. It was nothing to do with me. We were fucking around with fucking ponytails and waistcoats.
Triste: When the Energy Orchard finished you drifted for a while before really starting your solo career. I know you did some gigs with a pick-up band called the Navarinos. Did that come after the recording of your debut solo album Domestic Blues?
Bap Kennedy: Aye. The Navarinos don't really exist. It was just the name of the project. It was Bap Kennedy & The Navarinos and The Navarinos now no longer exist.
Triste: So "Domestic Blues" was recorded with session guys over in the States. How was it working over there?
Bap Kennedy: It was good. The Energy Orchard did their last gig on St Patrick's Day and we went to Nashville two or three months later and made Domestic Blues. It all sort of ran together. But it was good.
Triste: So what happened was that you seemed to be touring with the Navarinos for a couple of years getting nowhere. Was there no support behind the record at all?
Bap Kennedy: It came out in 1998. It had been on the shelf for over a year. Couldn't get a record deal in England and then it finally came out. Steve Earle put it out after a few legalities had been sorted out with the people who had financed it and he ended up putting it out on his label. Basically, there was total apathy about the record!! (laughs)
Triste: The music you're playing now is a mixture of country, folk, rock and soul. How does it feel to be playing a predominantly American musical form? I know how Van Morrison talked about "Celtic Soul" and how it all came from Ireland, so it was legitimate to play it. Do you feel that way too?
Bap Kennedy: I always contend that we invented the stuff. It's Scottish and Irish people who went over to America and basically laid the groundwork for what we call country now. So these things resonate with me and with anyone who has any Celtic blood in them. You hear country music and you recognise something. It feels perfectly natural to me to be playing this kind of music. I just haven't got the right accent, that's all! (laughs)
Triste: I was also thinking about the lyrical side of things. You hear bands that have never left London singing about rambling down the highway and hitching a rides on Greyhound buses and it doesn't ring true.
Bap Kennedy: They're coming from the wrong place with their approach to the music. I'm coming from a place where there's a huge tradition of folk music. It's their loss.You write about things you know about. You don't write about having a ranch in Texas when you come from Hackney. That's bollocks you know!
Triste: But it's all mixed together anyway. It's one great melting pot.
Bap Kennedy: It's all about writing stuff that anyone can relate to - not imaginary ranches and things like that.
Triste: So, after your Domestic Blues album and your playing with the Navarinos, the album of Hank Williams cover versions Hillbilly Shakespeare came out. This was a bit of a surprise success wasn't it? It really took off.
Bap Kennedy: The idea wasn't to make money, just to make a record really and try to start the ball rolling again. Things had basically been ever so static for two years. I made that record just to get my recording muscles up again and have a bit of fun. It's a very self-indulgent record. I'm quite surprised it sold quite so well in America. It made me enough money to start my own label and that came from Hillbilly Shakespeare. Good old Hank!
Triste: Have you ever heard Matt Johnson's Hank Williams tribute album - Hanky Panky?
Bap Kennedy: No. People have been telling me about it.
Triste: Looking back on that album are you happy with the versions you did?
Bap Kennedy: It's okay. If I had more money and more time I'd have made a better record. I mean we made that record in a couple of days. The first day of recording we brought down two cases of Stella from Sainsburys and by 11 o' clock we were all blootered. We probably spent more money on booze than we did on the record. We did that first album for the craich really. I did it as good as I could under the circumstances. I could have done it a lot better though. I'm thinking of doing another one: Hillbilly Shakespeare Act II. The other batch of songs. Spend a few more quid on it and get a few tasty players in.
Triste: You might find that the spontaneity of it all would be lost.
Bap Kennedy: It's very easy to do that.
Triste: You've got your latest album out now - Lonely Street - and that seems a continuation of what came before. Hank Williams gets a nod and there's Elvis running as a theme.
Bap Kennedy: It's about being immersed in Nashville and Elvis and Hank Williams.
Triste: And the actual concept of the album. Did you get the ideas for the songs first or did you get a group of songs and push them into shape to fit the album's theme?
Bap Kennedy: To be really straight. I wrote "Gladys and Vernon" first and then I wrote a song called "Going Back to Nashville", which is about Hank Williams, which isn't on the album, but it's meant to appear somewhere. Then I wrote another song that seemed to be about Hank Williams, so I started thinking there's a theme here. I'm now going to sound a complete twat now and spoil all the good work, but when you hear someone saying all these songs being inspired by Elvis Presley and Hank Williams that's mostly crap. The songs all came from a similar place. They hang together quite well, even if you don't know what they're about. They still work as songs you know.
Triste: In the song "Lonesome Lullaby" there's a line about. "I don't want to die for a lonesome lullaby tonight?" But Hank Williams did die young rattling around in the back of a car. Where do you stand on the live hard, die young, Kurt Cobain thing? Does it have a strange appeal or do you want to live to you're a hundred.
Bap Kennedy: I'm probably going to die next year the way things are going. It's a song you've got to think about. I only know the prices people paid. I know if you really want to be as good as Hank Williams, then you need to go into the dark side with him. You have to go down there and I don't know if I want to go that far - just for a song and to lose everything. It's just a train of thought.
Triste: You wrote a song called "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" is that a reference to the famous quote about [Hank Williams' alter ego] Luke The Drifter writing the Sunday morning songs while Hank wrote the sin songs for the Saturday nights?
Bap Kennedy: Well picked up on that one. It's about listening to a Hank Williams song when you've had a row with the missus and how Luke The Drifter changes into Hank Williams. Have you ever heard the Luke Drifter records? They're really mawkish. They're like something out of Tom Sawyer.
Triste: Performance wise Hank Williams was a bit hit and miss.
Bap Kennedy: At the end he was really shit. I heard that at one of the gigs he played, just before he died, he turned up pissed and played for about four hours and was really good. But many of the times he'd turn up and he could hardly stand and was just crap.
Triste: What are you like on stage now? I know you were quite renowned for being quite a showman in the past.
Bap Kennedy: I used to be but since the accident I've taken it a bit easy. I jumped off the balcony one night and wrecked my leg so I haven't jumped off a PA system for a few years. I still leap around occasionally. It depends on how the spirit takes me. I get the goat dancer in me. I'm a lot more mature these days - I like the songs better.
Triste: What's the breakdown of the current set these days? Are there any Energy Orchard songs or is it just your solo stuff?
Bap Kennedy: It's a mixture of the three records mainly, but I have been asked to play Energy Orchard songs these last few nights, so I might have to resurrect them. I'll probably pick one for myself. There's one I play which is about getting drunk and .... I can't remember its name.
Triste: Aren't they all about getting drunk? (laughter) Seriously, you say that one of the songs on the last album was based on you trying to work out the chords to Elvis's "Suspicion".
Bap Kennedy: I've heard before that people have written songs by trying to figure out another song and ended with something else, but I was trying to work out "Suspicion" and ended up writing that song. It's generally song titles which inspire me to write songs.
Triste: How do you get subject matter that inspires you to write songs? How do you break out of the circle of overly familiar subjects?
Bap Kennedy: It's generally just a new way of saying it. It's the same old shit. You're just trying to say it in a different way to how people have said it before. You hear things saying something in conversations. Sometimes just taking it out of context and it suddenly sounds ambiguous.
Triste: If you come up with an idea do you physically jot it down in a notebook?
Bap Kennedy: I have a couple of notebooks. I end up using them when it comes to time to write a song. I don't usually write songs until it's time to make a record. About few weeks before a record I'll write nine or ten songs. The rest of the time I just piss about. I look in the book and I've got loads and loads of little lines, which I put together, and then I just let the juices flow. It's like putting up a shelf or something. You have to spend a little bit of time doing it - you have to be disciplined. You've got to sit in a room for a couple of hours and do some work. The rest of the year, except once a year for those three weeks, you're just getting pissed.
Triste: What about melodies? If you're walking down a street and a tune comes in your head don't you think that if you don't write it down immediately you'll lose it?
Bap Kennedy: If a melody comes into my head and it's good then it sticks, if not then they'll disappear. I do believe there are tunes floating through the aether.
Triste: What about transferring it to guitar?
Bap Kennedy: The key is simplicity. There's only twelve notes. It's the same old chord structures, the same old themes, the same old thing; you're just adding that little something from yourself. The thing that makes it fresh is the sincerity you know.
Triste: And you say that Hank Williams and Elvis have never let you down. I presume you're talking musically and not as heroes?
Bap Kennedy: Their music never let me down. I've never put my favourite Hank Williams song on or my favourite Elvis song and not got that same buzz.
Triste: So you don't regret all those lame 60's movies Elvis did - "Clambake"?
Bap Kennedy: "No Room To Rumba (In A Sports Car)" isn't exactly genius.
Triste: I don't know. The Viv Stanshall version is quite good.
Bap Kennedy: The best of their work is remarkable. Elvis has been voted artist of the century for good reason and Hank Williams is probably the songwriter of the century. The best of their work, and Hank did corny stuff too, is unbeatable, there's nothing to touch it. They did a lot of shite too but the good stuff is genius.
Triste: How do they compare with the Beatles and Dylan?
Bap Kennedy: I'd put Elvis and Hank on the same cloud and the Beatles floating just a little way below, and then you've got Van, Bob all the rest making a circle around them.
Triste: James Hunter plays on the record - Howling Wilf - is he a mate of yours?
Bap Kennedy: Oh aye. He shares a flat with the bass player Jason. I don't mean they're in love; they just live together.
Triste: He plays more of a smooth RnB swing style.
Bap Kennedy: I love his music. I'm one of his biggest fans and I'd love to make a record with him some day. And I might do that some day - produce him.
Triste: You've also got Herbie Flowers playing on the album. It was a bit surprising to see him playing. I thought he'd retired from the scene.
Bap Kennedy: He's 64. He still plays. He's in good nick.
Triste: Did you ask him to play tuba?
Bap Kennedy: Oh aye. When I knew he had a tuba I specifically wrote that song for tuba.
Triste: Winding back over all your influences, have you ever thought of doing an Astral Weeks type set-up - back to "Madame George" and the oboes and strings, but with all the experience you have now? Using all acoustic instruments and jazz guys maybe?
Bap Kennedy: I'm going to go for something like that on the next record. I'm approaching it from an Astral Weeks/world music kind of vibe.
Triste: This sounds really promising.
Bap Kennedy: A bit of Indian stuff and a bit of Egyptian. I've been exposed to a lot of stuff over the years. I know he's dead, but I really like people like Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan.
(Thanks to Iain Smith for assistance with this interview)