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Stiff Little Fingers' Jake Burns: Why I could never really write a love song

As Stiff Little Fingers return to Belfast tomorrow, singer Jake Burns tells David O'Dornan about life in America and how he still loves an Ulster fry

The Stiff Little Fingers are from left: Ali McMordie, Ian McCallum, Jake Burns, and Steve Grantley
The Stiff Little Fingers are from left: Ali McMordie, Ian McCallum, Jake Burns, and Steve Grantley
Stiff Little Fingers logo

By David O'Dornan

You can take the man out of Northern Ireland, but you can't take Northern Ireland out of the man. For Stiff Little Fingers singer Jake Burns it's the taste of home that he misses most while living on the other side of the Atlantic.

The punk star admits that when he gets the chance to come home it's an Ulster Fry he looks forward to and stocks up on fadge to take back to the States.

He says: "I tend to leave a lot of space in my suitcase to bring potato bread back with me as you can't get it over here.

"Any time I get to spend at home -and I've spent a bit of time with my sister and brother-in-law - they've got a standard routine and it seems like every morning I get a fried breakfast, which is great for the waistline as you can imagine.

"And then suddenly it's like you're reliving your childhood and 'how quickly can I get a pastie supper', you miss stuff like that. It's tiny little things that nobody really pays attention to until you can't get them anymore."

Belfast man Jake, who lives with wife Shirley, has been something of a nomad since his band burst onto the scene in the late Seventies with hits like Alternative Ulster and Suspect Device striking a chord with young people amid the backdrop of the Troubles.

He and the group left for England in 1978 and lived in London for more than a decade before moving north to Newcastle for 16 years.

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Stiff Little Fingers in 1980
Stiff Little Fingers in 1980

He has now been in Chicago for the past 15 years because he "fell in love with an American girl and got married".

Those hits that set them on their path Jake describes as "protest songs", but the 61-year-old says he still keeps an eye on political developments here from afar.

"Yeah, absolutely," he says. "Not so much the day-to-day stuff, you lose touch with that not being there, but you definitely get the headlines if you know what I mean.

"I tend to think of our stuff more as protest songs rather than political, simply because that's really what they are at their heart.

"I basically write songs about things that offend my sense of justice and that tends to be pretty broad in so much as it's not necessarily party political, although you don't have to scratch too far beneath the surface to see what side of the political divide I would normally fall on.

"We were very consciously aware that we didn't want to be party political, but growing up in Northern Ireland at the time we did, politics was just part of everyday life.

The original line-up
The original line-up

"I don't think it was something you even gave a second thought to, it was just there, it was part of your fabric of growing up much more so than if you had been born in Leicester or somewhere like that.

"I never thought it was something to be avoided. I've never been very good at writing love songs, that's something I've said many times throughout our lifetime. Any time I've tried to do it, it has come across as sixth form poetry.

"It was one of those things I thought, 'maybe I'll grow into that', but I'm 61 now and I still get uncomfortable if I try to write a love song. I'm not sure I can put it into words."

But now that he lives in America, Jake has no shortage of ideas and inspiration for writing new songs thanks to the fact it's never dull having a president like Donald Trump.

He says: "It's a strange thing again because obviously once he actually became president I had lots of friends, not just here (in America) but I'd come back to the UK and to Ireland or whatever and knowing what I do, they were like, 'Jeez you're going to be spoilt for choice now, you're not going to be short of material now, are ya?'

"To be honest with you, it's a bit daunting. They're not wrong, it seems like every day there's something different and even more incredible, and by that I mean unbelievable in terms of shaking your head, not 'Oh, that's brilliant'.

US President Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump

"You wake up every morning with, 'Dear God, what's he done now?' It's kind of daunting in that, it's not so much that you have enough to write about, it's a bit like someone walking in and being faced with the biggest all-you-can-eat buffet, because you don't really know where to start.

"Do you try and tackle it all at once or do you focus on certain parts of it? I'm kind of lost for words just trying to think of the enormity of it."

Jake is humble enough to admit that he never thought Stiff Little Fingers would be still around more than 40 years later.

"I don't think anybody actually thinks they're going to last this long," he said. "Like most bands you started doing it for fun. What was a hobby became a job and even when it became a job I think even at the stage you've signed the record contract. I think like most bands you're thinking take every day as it comes, but you're not expecting really to last more than four or five years, that's generally the lifespan of these things.

"There wasn't what you could call an original music scene - but again, nobody saw it as a career at the time, we were just having fun.

"You don't think of yourself as any form of trailblazer or whatever people want to call you - it was just a bunch of kids having fun and playing whenever and wherever we could.

"I wish I'd known it was going to last this long, simply because we might have stopped and taken a bit of time and smelled the roses.

"Because you've no idea how long this is going to last. I don't think anybody gets into this thinking it's going to be a career."

The punk and rock 'n' roll scenes have seen a number of high-profile stars not last as long in the business as Jake because of addictions - drug overdoses claimed the lives of the likes of Sid Vicious, The Who drummer Keith Moon, guitar legend Jimi Hendrix and Irish frontman for Thin Lizzy, Phil Lynott.

Jake Burns performing at the Ulster Hall in 2014
Jake Burns performing at the Ulster Hall in 2014

Jake says he never took hard drugs because he realised early on what a dangerous path that was to go down.

He said: "To use an old Northern Ireland saying, you have to wise up pretty quickly.

"The temptation's there to go down that road and I went down it to a certain degree but I was lucky for a number of reasons.

"One, the idea of hard drugs never appealed to me, I think a lot of the time I was too much of a wimp to even get involved in that sort of thing.

"But I did fall foul of the aul' drink for a while, but again that's another one of those things, you wise up after a while, so I limit myself just to drinking beer these days.

"The whole myth of the whiskey drinking Irishman, it's not a thing I'm part of these days."

But he admitted there is still a bit of that rabble-rousing and fighting spirit befitting a punk rocker when it comes to drink demands before his gigs - the band get angry if they don't get a cuppa!

He added: "The one thing that can actually cause ructions backstage if it's not there when we turn up for soundcheck is that we need to have a kettle and teabags.

"That's the one thing that is written in stone, if we don't get a cup of tea at soundcheck there's hell to pay."

  • Stiff Little Fingers headline Custom House Square in Belfast tomorrow, with support from New Model Army and Therapy? Tickets are on sale from Ticketmaster

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