Interview: Stiff Little Fingers’ Jake Burns – 22/01/2014

SLF logoHaving formed in Belfast nearly 37 years ago, Stiff Little Fingers were in prime position to take full advantage of the punk explosion that had began to spread rapidly across the Irish Sea, courtesy of bands such as the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Buzzcocks.

One of the main fundamentals behind punk was its DIY ethos. So, through creating their own Rigid Digits label, the band entered the realms of punk by producing their own brand of powerful, thematic songs about the politically divisive ‘Troubles’ that were raging in Belfast at the time.

Skip to 2014 and Stiff Little Fingers (SLF) are on the cusp of releasing their tenth studio record No Going Back, as well as preparing to tour Australia. Songsmith, vocalist, and band leader Jake Burns was in jovial mood when he spoke of the band’s new release, and was no doubt enjoying the warmth that Los Angeles had to offer compared to the bombardment of subzero temperatures that his home base of Chicago was experiencing.

It’s been a decade since SLF’s last album Guitar And Drum was released. So, how did it feel returning to the studio after so long? “So far it’s been fantastic. I hate saying things like that in case I jinx it, so I’ll probably find after talking to you that the place has blown up or something! (Laughs) But we’re pressing on a lot faster than we thought, so at the moment we’re really pleased with it.”

Unfortunately, SLF fans will have to wait for a confirmed release date.

“I don’t want to make promises we can’t keep, but if we’re really lucky, we’re hoping to get it out maybe before or indeed while we’re in Australia.”

After writing over half an album’s worth of material prior to passing the big 5-0 in ‘08, the singer recently decided to listen back over the new tracks.

“I came back after a tour and this whole 50th milestone thing was still going round in my head, and you get to reflect back on your time. I listened to the songs through and I thought they were terrible. I mean, I could’ve written these when I was 20! It felt as though I was writing a SLF record because I had to, and not because I wanted to, and I’d never really done that.”

Burns took it upon himself to scrap the lot of them, a sign of his writing process evolving over the years. “I guess I just took a lot more care over it this time round as the 50th caused a bit of an awakening.”

‘Trail Of Tears’ and ‘My Dark Places’ are two new songs from No Going Back that the four-piece have played live for the past year. Burns’ lyrical motivation was his passion for human justice.

“Well ‘Trail Of Tears’ is basically an anti-racist songIt was inspired when the state or Arizona, or the state of New Mexico, decided they’d give the police force the right to stop people they didn’t like the look of in the street and demand to see their ID papers.”

Yet, quite unbelievably, the state leaders claimed they weren’t acting like fascists, a viewpoint that infuriated Burns.

“I said, ‘Hang on a minute here, have you seen any WWII movies?’ Their whole ‘shows us your papers’ was their fuckin’ catchphrase, for fuck’s sake! That really is as fascist as you can get without shooting them.”

The title of ‘My Dark Places’ paints a grave enough picture, as Jake goes on to explain.

“I went through a period of deep personal depression after I’d gotten divorced and moved out, and you think you’re over the worst of it. I thought I’d gotten through the whole thing pretty unscathed.”

However, things soon went downhill“I think once you’re actually a wee bit distant from whole thing, the enormity of it all kinda hits you, and I did withdraw into myself and did hide away. I wasn’t fun to be around.”

While being therapeutic for Burns, the song in question has also reached out and helped a lot of their fans.

“It seems to have helped a lot of people because, for some with this depression business, there’s this weird stigma about it. People think that you’re in some way impaired because you’ve gone through this and don’t want to talk about it in public.”

In a sense, the band has come full circle. For their new record, they decided to go down the ‘pledge’ route as a way of gaining control without having a label trying influence the sound.

“You’re asking your audience to buy a record they’ve never heard, which is a huge leap of faith”

Our manager basically said that this was our chance to being a fully independent band again, that we won’t have a record company breathing down our necks, and that we can make the record we want to make. So once he started talking in those terms, then you’re thinking ‘yeah’. But you’re asking your audience to buy a record they’ve never heard, which is a huge leap of faith!”

The band members have been humbled by the reaction from their fans. “We were amazed. We reached our goal in under 12 hours, which was astonishing! We do have an incredibly loyal audience, which we’re always flattered by, but I’m never ceased to be amazed by [them]. It’s weird, I’ve always said it’s more like a football team than a band.”

The frontman said they’d just been approached to play Soundwave, despite having only toured here once before. Naturally, they jumped at the chance. Does the band have any surprises in store for punters heading along to the festival?

“We’ve got to approach this like we’ve never played there, and doing it in a festival setting kind of dictates what you’re gonna play anyway. It’s a joke I’ve been cracking with everybody, but for a band who has never had a hit, we’re going to have to play our greatest hits!”

Here’s Jake and co having a bit of fun on Top Of The Pops in 1980: 

Their website states that they will also play sideshows in Sydney and Melbourne, however Burns is at pains to say that, so far, they don’t know where. No one’s told us.  It’s frustrating actually. We’ve had a lot of people contacting us, some saying they don’t want to go to Soundwave as it’s too expensive, and we’re the only band they want to see. But we can’t tell them as we still don’t know ourselves!”

Loyal SLF fans, fear not; the musician did stress that they would be doing their normal 90-minute set, where ever it is they’ll be playing.

This interview was written for Tonedeaf (An Australian music site)