Gavin Friday is among the most artistically ambitious Irish musicians of the past thirty years. With a superb new album, entitled catholic, under his belt, he talks about the death of his father, the breakup of his marriage, the end of the Prunes, working with Naomi Campbell, Courtney Love and Cillian Murphy – and the making of his finest album yet…
Gavin Friday might be one of Ireland’s most eclectically avant-garde musicians, but the former Virgin Prunes frontman still knows the price of a litre of milk. Roughly, at least.
“How much does a litre of milk cost?” he purrs in his dulcet Marlboro-oaked voice, quizzically echoing Hot Press’s opening question. “Eh... I think it costs a little over €1. Why?”
Just checking to see if you still live in the real world.
The 51-year-old Dubliner laughs indignantly.
“I do my own shopping! I tend to do my shopping in Dun Laoghaire, and since the recession, I’ve rejected the Tescos and I make sure I buy my meat and my veg from small shops. But do I actually look at the price of a litre of milk? No, but I put it into the trolley. I pay for it along with the bread and the fuckin’ whatever. And I know how much the DART is. It’s €2.40 from where I live to get into the city centre. I only get taxis when I’m coming home late at night.”
It’s a midweek midday in April. Just back from a week’s promotional duties in Europe, the shaven-headed, heavily blinged singer looks tired, but is in talkative form. Sharp and articulate, he’s a natural-born interviewee. We’re in a Dublin city centre hotel to discuss his rather excellent new album catholic. Needless to say, the lower case spelling is intentional: “If you look up the word ‘catholic’, the true word with a lower case c, is universal for every man with wide sympathies.”
Although it’s his first long-player since 1995’s Shag Tobacco, Friday hasn’t exactly been resting on his laurels these last 16 years. Indeed, a nine-month period of debilitating illness aside, he’s been busier and more prolific than ever. Looking back over the last decade-and-a-half, he describes it as a period of “Gavin going back to school.” It wasn’t so much that he’d given up on the music business, more that he felt it had given up on him.
“I toured my ass off with Shag Tobacco, more than I ever toured before,” he recalls. “And when I was dropped by Island in late ‘98, I was sensing that something different was happening with the music industry. The word ‘industry’ was becoming bigger than the word ‘music’. Suddenly Tom Waits was being replaced by the Sugababes on Island Records. And I just said, ‘ah, I’m fucking out of here, I’m not comfortable with how things are’. I felt a bit burnt actually. But I still wanted to be in music. So I
He took the spotlight off himself, working on various artistic projects. These included composing movie soundtracks (most notably for In America, The Boxer and Get Rich Or Die Tryin’), collaborating on Nothing Like The Sun with English composer Gavin Bryars and the RSC, Scott Walker collaborations, staging a Kurt Weill show at the Dublin Theatre Festival, and making his big screen acting debut in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast On Pluto. Not to mention an ongoing spell as U2’s creative advisor.
These extracurricular activities weren’t the only distractions in Friday’s life. In personal terms, there was a whole world of pain to be dealt with – both emotional and physical. His marriage ended, his father passed away. He also screwed his back up.
“Real life kicks in sometimes,” he shrugs. “I got ill with my back. I had serious back surgery and it fucked me up for about nine months. When that happens, when you get something really hardcore like, ‘oh, I can’t get out of the bed and I have to get someone to help me go to the bathroom’, it’s a
Was it really that bad?
“Yeah, it was for a while,” he nods, wincing at the memory. “And then you slowly get better. But the fucking mad thing is it’s happened to me and everyone I know. Larry Mullen had the same surgery around the time that I did. And I think that’s 30 years of doing that (mimes drumming). And then Bono had it last year. The very same surgery. And it can be pretty fucking intense. Like, I didn’t have seventeen doctors around me.”
The break-up of his marriage to childhood sweetheart Renee in 2000 was painful in a different way. He takes a little prompting to talk about it.
“What went wrong? It’s very simple. We both fucked up. I mean the thing about me and my wife was… I go back a long time with her. I met her when I was like 16 or 17. We were kids and very, very similar in essence, we were just like that (crosses fingers). So it was quite an intense relationship but I didn’t get married to her till 1993. And it ended around 2000, separation and all that.
“We basically both grew up and grew apart, and in hindsight, which comes with age, we weren’t suited to each other. A hunchback should not go out with a hunchback. A hunchback should go out with a club foot. Because you go, ‘My hunch is killing me’. ‘Mine’s fucking killing me worse than yours!’ But if it’s a club foot, you go, ‘oh is it? I don’t know what it’s like to have a club foot. Here I’ll give it a rub’ (laughs). So, you know…”
The demands and pressures of his own hectically peripatetic career didn’t help the relationship.
“She was a really, really private woman. Even in the heydays of like the ‘80s and the ‘90s when I was hanging out, in between working with U2 and working on big movies, she was like, ‘I’m just not interested in this’. Not in a negative way, just in a private way. And I respected that.
“One of the big things when we separated, and it was all legal, was like, ‘I don’t want my private life thrown around the thing’. And it’s my private life too. I actually don’t like the way media, press, TV, everything is obsessed with the personal and the private. I really am not interested in what anyone’s doing in their own life unless they’re my mates. When you look at Ronan Keating and his wife, I actually feel bad that him and her are having a tough time. I mean, will you leave them fucking alone and let them try and sort it out! And the media is coming in with these claws. They don’t really give a fuck about the children or the missus or the husband. They don’t give a fuck.”
The death of his father a few years ago also had a huge effect on him.
“We don’t get the perspective of them until they’re gone,” he says, wistfully. “I have some fond memories of my dad but there was a war; there was an ongoing battle, from day one.”
Was it physically violent?
“At times. I remember a memory of when I hit him, when I boxed back at him. And that takes some gall because mentally I can be quite full-on but as Guggi would tell you, I couldn’t fucking defend a fly because I’m not violent. But I did hit him when I was around 17, because he was just shouting at me so much. I felt like shit because I knocked him over. But he wasn’t cruel that way. There was no abuse. Nothing like that.”
Although they’re few and far between, he does have some fond memories of his father.
“I’ve a beautiful memory of being allowed to stay up,” he says. “I mean, I was born in late ‘59 so I’m 51, but being allowed to stay up at the age of ten. I don’t know what time man landed on the moon; I think it could have been about one or two in the morning which is really late when you’re 10. But I remember my father getting me out of bed and saying, ‘you have to watch this; man’s going to land on the moon!’ And sitting on his lap watching, and I think me ma went to bed. But I had this moment of watching man land on the moon with me da and then you actually go back and you’re like 50 and you go, ‘fucking hell’ I saw it live on a crappy little telly in northside Ballymun. That’s a fucking priceless memory.”
While they’d never seen eye to eye, they repaired their fractious relationship in his father’s final days.
“I don’t think he understood me. He never went to a gig; never seen me live in any situation. Even when there was big profile things like the premiere of In The Name Of The Father, Academy Award nominations and Golden Globe nominations and all that shit, he didn’t want to know. Then he gets sick and, you know, we talked and I was very lucky to be able to see him. He had a heart attack on a fucking trolley of all things, and every bone in my body wanted to be with him. Every single bone. I could not describe why I felt so connected to him.
“We just talked and talked and talked, and it was fucking basically apologising to each other. And then, he had his operation, he got out of hospital – and three weeks later, he died. It didn’t work, basically. And I am so lucky I had that moment, that time to make amends. It was a very positive way of letting go. I think the worst thing in fucking life, Olaf, is people getting bitter and not making up and letting things fester. That gives you fucking cancer more than cigarettes, you know.”
Did you ever try therapy?
“I should have been in fucking therapy at ten (laughs)… imagine that, it would have been in shock treatment and everything. They did that to Lou Reed actually. Yeah, I went to talk to people. I usually fucking walked out because… it’s like you have to talk to somebody that you feel is as smart as you
Instead, music became a form of therapy. All of these bittersweet experiences have fed both directly and indirectly into catholic. He likens the album to “waking from a deep sleep, of letting go and coming to terms with loss.” It’s by far the most reflective and emotional collection of songs he’s ever recorded.
“That just happened,” he says of the title. “I didn’t plan it. It’s not religious, but there’s a religiousness to the music. There’s almost like a mantra
Do you believe in God?
“Yes, I do. But I wouldn’t practise Catholicism. I mean, I’ve dabbled. I fought with God and the devil for years. But I do believe in God.”
The first songs on catholic began to flow soon after his father’s passing.
“Some sort of urgency to write a song came back to me. But I didn’t have any timeline. The week after he died, I was in working with Quincy Jones and Maurice Seezer, and Jim Sheridan on the 50 Cent film.”
Soon afterwards his creative partnership with longtime collaborator Seezer began to gradually
“It wasn’t a direct fallout,” he explains. “We worked so intensely together from around ‘86, and really prolifically. And then when the Shag Tobacco period ended, we went even more intensely into soundtracks. But soundtracks are really fucking hard. Because you’re not the boss. You’re not the lead singer. You’re not even the fucking drummer. The director is the lead singer. The fucking actors are the band and you’re this glue that has to get in there. And also, the movies we were working on were very big; they were big budget Hollywood things and it’s a fucking cruel hard business.”
More recently, he began working with Cork-based musician Herbie Macken.
“Every Tuesday, I used to go down to see Herbie in Cork and come back after two days with something in me pocket. Sometimes it would be once a month and I’d go for two weeks and then back. And suddenly I started collecting these vibes, songs, templates, and I turned around, there were about 40 of them. And I said, ‘Oh, maybe I should make an album’.”
Recorded over six weeks last year in Friday’s Killiney home, catholic was produced by Ken Thomas whose production credits include Sigur Ross, Cocteau Twins and Throbbing Gristle, and features Herbie Macken, cellist Kate Ellis, guitarist Jolyon Vaughan Thomas, bassist Gareth Hughes, guitarist Anto Drennan, and percussionist Andre Antunes. Moya Brennan performed some guest vocals and broadcaster John Kelly contributed some subtle harmonica.
“It was a spontaneous thing,” he says of Kelly’s guest appearance. “I don’t like the way a lot of music is very conveyer belt-y. People talk about computers and pro-tools; you really feel that off a lot of music today. The bands are sort of looking at it logically, not just in their career but also in how they’re composing and writing, and in how they even fucking look. I didn’t want that because when you’re older, you know a lot so you have to have a little bit of naivety and vulnerability. So I wanted to find the right producer that would do that.”
The results are hugely impressive. catholic oscillates musically and thematically between tracks like ‘Blame’ (dedicated to his father) and ‘Perfume’, about our moments of promiscuity, to relationship meltdown in ‘The Only One’. The final song, the prayerfully string-soaked ‘Lord I’m Coming’, sounds like an incantation to death.
“That’s a dark one, alright,” he admits. “But I believe most people of a certain age have been in a place that’s three in the morning, you go home, you’re tired, you’re broken, you’re lost; you go ‘will I get out of it? Will I kill myself?’ This sort of ‘looking for something’ moment in your life when everything is falling apart, and it’s almost like some fucking apparition comes there. Anyone with a fucking brain in their body has to feel dark moments or depression. Look at the world; it’s so all over the shop. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
“It’s a sign of intelligence usually, if people get upset or freaked out, you know, there’s different ways around it. I don’t believe personally in happy pills – but that’s for me. I think it just anesthetizes things. If there are dark thoughts or moments in your head, they’re always going to be there until you challenge them and fight them and deal with them and understand why.”
Have you slain your inner demons?
“I hope so. I don’t really know. I’m human. I think I’m in touch with my feelings. I’m very excited about life. I see a lot of people as they get older not being excited by life and by being challenged. I think I haven’t even started to articulate myself which excites me. It frightens me too.
“There’s a terrible fucking thing – you can do anything in rock ‘n’ roll but they don’t like you getting old. But you turn around, and who’s great at the moment? It’s the old fucking guys! I mean, one of the best live shows in the last few years has been Cohen. Dylan’s fucking 70 and he’s got more fucking attitude than most young bands.
“But you do get this fatality thing where you go, ‘will I be able to fucking perform when I’m in my 60s?’ So I’m going, ‘shit’. Now, I always believe in acting your age, not your shoe size. You know, there’s nothing worse. I call it ‘Mick Jaggerism’, running around with fucking hairdos. I go, ‘would you fuck off and be your age!’ Dylan, the grace of that man and he looks like some Las Vegas fucking Vincent Price doing rockabilly. Fucking cool. Or Leonard Cohen with his trilby getting down on his knee. The last gig I cried at was that. And it was, what was it? The song he narrated, ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’, one poem and I was…I just started bawling crying and I went, ‘fuck off, he’s 70 odd and he can do that’. But I just have so much to prove to myself. So I’m a hungry bastard that way.”
Gavin made his acting debut in 2005 in Jordan’s Breakfast On Pluto. Did he enjoy the experience?
“I didn’t think I would, but I did,” he nods. “I know Neil years anyway. Cillian Murphy and Liam Neeson and Stephen Rea and the fucking cast were so fucking brilliant. And it was just a very special moment. You know, Cillian, and I learned so much from working with these guys. They were so encouraging. And then, I knew the essence of the script. So, I ended up getting off on the whole thing, really liking it. It’s fucking hard work.”
You haven’t made a movie since.
He pulls a face: “I got lots of offers but they all saw me as some fucking IRA fucking bully, like, sort of Ray Winstone goes fucking IRA. I sort of went, ‘why the fuck are they all making these bad IRA films?’ I’d like to do it again. But I’d have to believe in it. There’s a perverse side to me that would love to play a
In the recent RTE Arts Lives
documentary former Virgin Prunes band mate Strongman still seemed quite emotional about your decision to leave
“I actually did nothing on that documentary. I actually said, ‘do what you want’. I’m a control freak when it’s my own work, but I actually left it there and I wanted more about the music and shit. They only showed me the documentary two days before it went on air. The producers brought me in so I wouldn’t sue them or something. And I was quite like, ‘whoo!’ But if anything happened to Strongman… I care about him and I care about the Virgin Prunes as people because we were very close and I’m very proud of the Virgin Prunes. I thought they were being a bit manipulative, the TV people.
“I know that Guggi spoke to Strongman about it and he felt really embarrassed, and he said, ‘Jesus, you know they didn’t put in the context, there’s all this pausing’. But he also says, ‘I was pausing all through the whole fucking thing’. But I didn’t mean hurt. And Mary occasionally contacts me so there’s no bad feeling. There’s maybe pain.”
I got the impression that there was a fairly cataclysmic end to the Prunes.
“It was really heavy. I was being really honest. And they weren’t. Because it had gone. The essence of what the Prunes were was so spontaneous and so fucking unique that when it started to crumble… I remember me and Guggi looking at the audience once and suddenly there was a load of Gavin and Guggi clones, people looking like us in the front. And I went, ‘this is wrong’. Strongman took it really badly. I’ve apologised over the years, but I had to do what I felt was right.”
In the 1990s, Gavin co-wrote and produced the Baby Woman album for supermodel Naomi Campbell. What the fuck was that about?
“Naomi? I loved it. It was like three weeks of insanity. You see, I like pop music. When Naomi came into the picture – she’s an extraordinary creature. That woman walked into the room in 1992 when I met her via Adam: it was just like, you know, the black panther meets some sort of Ethiopian queen. I really got on with her. I’m still mates with her. Like, she is a Brixton gal, you know, ok, she’s the queen of fucking Africa in another way.
“But we got on and when they split up, she used to cling to me, she used to call in, I was recording In The Name Of The Father with Tim Simenon. She came to me, she says: ‘I love this song, will you produce it?’ And a little bit of let’s say glamour interested me, but also that little bit of, and I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but almost in the way Andy Warhol would take a star and sort of turn it this way or that way.
“And I passionately went in. Me and Maurice wrote Baby Woman. It’s about her. It’s almost a critique of that world. ‘Little Black Dress’ on Shag Tobacco is a critique. It’s about her as well. I just went with that moment, and the truth was she wasn’t fucking prepared to go with the moment. The girl actually can sing, if she wanted to. She’s a better singer than J-Lo and look how successful that girl is. But she thought, I’ll do this and then she realised, it’s all this work. But Naomi’s great. I like full-on women.”
Speaking of which, last year Courtney Love told me she was scared of you.
“She’s scared of me?” he laughs.
She said that she found you intimidating when she played at your fiftieth birthday party/concert in Carnegie Hall.
“Unbelievable! She’s like a machine gun. But she’s so fucking smart. And so learned. I mean she fucking quotes Shakespeare, Yeats, Joyce, fucking you know Scorsese scripts’d be flying out. She is full-on and she’s fucking great. She really is what she is. Like, she wears her heart on her sleeve and shoots herself in the foot. I mean, there’s a similar thing there. I tend to really like full-on women. I think that’s why I got on well with Naomi. Naomi suffers no fools. She’d fucking box you out of it. And I get on really well… I say, ‘fuck off, no, we’re going out’. And we have that boxing match.
“I didn’t get to know Courtney until ‘94. I know that she saw the Prunes and was here in Dublin, and I think I’ve a vague memory of this American girl who used to write for the Hot Press and hang out in Trinity and drive us all mad. I didn’t know that was Courtney Love, but I had this image and then I meet her with Michael Stipe in Las Vegas at a U2 show and we got on like a house on fire. But I give her stick.”
What’s happening next for you? Are you going to tour the album?
“Yeah, well I can’t take any of this for granted. Eh, I’m in touch with what’s going fucking going on in music and it’s very different. The whole business. I mean, I don’t even know if rock ‘n’ roll has the same poignancy to youth as it did when we were growing up. It’s all shifting, but I believe there’s always great music being made. But, we’ll see, we’ll see. I want to tour. I’ve missed that. So I’m going to do
You’re playing at Electric Picnic.
“Yeah. I’m going to do a whole load of those bespoke ones around Europe from June, July, August, September. But it won’t be a catholic thing because I don’t expect anyone to walk into a tent and they’re all having a fucking party there and I’m sitting there singing ‘Blame’ or ‘Lord I’m Coming’ (laughs)
“So it’ll be a little bit of me boxing and flexing me muscles. So I go out there because you’ve only got 30 fucking minutes at a festival, really. So I go out and flex my muscles and then in September/October, I’m going to perform a catholic show and tour it. I can’t wait. I’ve always liked gigging. If they could just beam you into the venues rather than the fucking, I hate, I mean who likes airports, traveling? Or even buses? It’s hard and you don’t have the excitement of a 20-year-old going to Amsterdam or Germany for the first time. But I’ve just come back from a week in Europe and I was quite surprised how enthusiastic they were. It’s mad, it’s always been a bigger market for me
Hot Press snapper Graham Keogh approaches and announces that it’s time for us to go to church (Whitefriar Street Church has been booked for the photo shoot and there’s only a short window between masses). As we gather our things and prepare to leave, I ask what’s his driving ambition in life now?
Gavin Friday barely pauses before replying, “to create… create… create.”
Amen to that.
catholic is out now on Rubyworks. See hotpress.com for archive interviews.
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