When a child is born

Jerry Fish – or if you prefer, Gerry Whelan – is what you might call a happy man right now. In fact, if the guy were any higher, the boys in blue would probably stop him on the street and ask him to piss into a cup. Not only is he preparing to close on his most successful professional year in a decade, he’s also received a rather momentous early Christmas present. Some 28 hours before our meeting, the singer’s partner Niki had given birth to a baby boy, their second child. Mr Fish, as you can imagine, is coasting on cigars and brandy and goodwill to all men.

Jerry Fish – or if you prefer, Gerry Whelan – is what you might call a happy man right now. In fact, if the guy were any higher, the boys in blue would probably stop him on the street and ask him to piss into a cup. Not only is he preparing to close on his most successful professional year in a decade, he’s also received a rather momentous early Christmas present. Some 28 hours before our meeting, the singer’s partner Niki had given birth to a baby boy, their second child. Mr Fish, as you can imagine, is coasting on cigars and brandy and goodwill to all men.

A very youthful 40, Whelan is a rakish character, apt to veer from talk of the primal nature of the birth experience to the satisfaction of seeing Be Yourself, his first album with the Mudbug Club, sell an outlandish amount of records in Ireland this year. Gone is the broody young rock god that fronted An Emotional Fish over their three album career. These days Whelan seems rather more comfortable in the tinker’s wedding garb of a latter-day song and dance man, ravenously investigating the musical possibilities now opening up to him: lounge bar blues, big band jazz, Dino style dipso ballads, Spanish inflected country songs, classy chanson card tricks, seminal rock ’n’ roll funk and grind. Plus, he’s just landed a job fronting the second run of Phillip King’s Other Voices series. Like the song says: It don’t get much better than this.

“It’s beautiful,” he grins, sipping black coffee in the National Gallery cafe. “I mean, it’s great to be back in a fraternity of creative musicians and be involved in the, if you like, revolution of independent Irish music at the moment, meeting the likes of Glen Hansard and The Frames and Mundy and Damien Rice. We’ve just signed a deal with RubyWorks to release the album internationally next year – that’s great because it’s another independent label. If somebody wants one of my records I don’t have to go out and buy it to give it to them; I can just take it out of my stock. It just seems a lot more honest than what I was doing before.”

So, Gerry’s back in the game, and Be Yourself – with its favouring of roots music pizzazz over rock Esperanto – has lifted him out of a personal and professional slump that set in at the end of his Emotional Fish days.

“For me, being nominated for Best Album in the Meteor Awards was great because of the amount of work that went into it,” he says, “but winning the Country & Roots thing, I have to say my head tilted a little bit. ‘Bob & God’ is a pure country song, and I suppose ‘roots’ is a good description of the record I’ve made. I think with An Emotional Fish we were always searching for that lost chord, and there’s nothing so fucking boring really, because I think the found chords are pretty fucking good. I mean, I’m now listening to more music than I’ve ever listened to before because of the Mudbug Club and people saying to me, ‘This sounds so like Dr John’ – jazz records, Louisiana funk records – whereas before I was closed off. I could never have put Mingus influences into An Emotional Fish; I didn’t know how.”

For those born too late, a quick recap might be in order. Back in 1987, right in the middle of the great A&R fools gold rush to find the next U2, An Emotional Fish lucked into an extremely lucrative international record deal with Warners via the Mother label. From the womb untimely ripped, as it were: the band did well to swiftly evolve into an impressive live unit, but were dogged with jibes about their ability to pen a tune, not to mention their speedy rise to prominence.

Still, ‘Celebrate’ was one of the Irish singles of the era, a sizeable hit in Italy that also came tantalisingly close to the UK Top 40. Taken on face value, AEF were a sort of collision between Doors-y darkness and INXS hi-gloss, with Whelan cast as a classic shamanistic lead vocalist in the Jim Morrison/Bono mode. Yet there was far more lurking under those shiny surfaces, a rogue gene that compelled them to record with Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes and cover Tom Waits songs like ‘Raindogs’ and ‘I Don’t Wanna Grow Up’.

“Our original demo had two songs on it,” Whelan recalls. “One was ‘Grey Matter’ and the other was a song called ‘Cry Like A Baby’, which was a really a sort of blues-rooted tune. Enda Wyatt, the bass player, who is also playing with the Mudbug Club, he quite correctly said we were signed for ‘Grey Matter’, that pop element. I suppose we struggled with that. There were always more left-field things going on, but there was a lot of confusion too within the band. We were four quite diverse personalities with different musical tastes. And that, coupled with an absolute democracy, made progress difficult at times, meeting upon meeting. I think that’s the big difference between An Emotional Fish and Jerry Fish And The Mudbug Club – The Mudbug Club is simply run by me, the final decision always rests with me. It’s yes or no, just do it. Whereas you tend to hover if you’ve got four people.”

The band hovered a little too long over their lavishly produced second album Junk Puppets. With people like Dave Stewart, Alan Moulder and Clive Langer hired to coax a hit single from the sessions, the record would’ve had to shift Nevermind scale numbers in order to justify the investment.

“You hear the cliché of this difficult second album, but it’s the truth if you’re signed to a major that wants to recoup a million quid,” Gerry admits, “That was a circus, it really was. I mean, the record was called Junk Puppets; I don’t know how we even got away with that. We felt like we’d become this factory. I mean the whole line with the major label was, ‘Where’s the hit single, where’s the radio track?’ But on the second album, they’d spent so much money . . . I mean, I left that thing thinking that artistic and financial control are the same thing. If you’re controlling the budget, you’re controlling the art you’re making.

“In a way you might call us naïve for a band that signed one of the biggest record deals ever in Ireland, but money wasn’t really what drove us. But the thing that happened after the second album was we then had enough funds to put into an independent record, which was Sloper. I don’t think it was a very well produced album, but we were independent, we’d done what The Frames were doing back there in ’95.”

Ironically enough, Sloper received perhaps the warmest reviews of the band’s career, particularly with regard to their song-writing prowess. So how come the Fish didn’t continue as an independent band? What went wrong?

“We licensed it to a European label who didn’t honour the agreement,” Gerry explains. “They didn’t push the record because one guy left and another guy was sacked. So we put ourselves in someone else’s hands yet again. Really, there’s only one term for it – bad luck. I suppose it was the knockout blow. It was like, ‘Why the fuck should I bother? I’ve tried every angle now, thought I’d learnt a lesson.’ For me, ‘dropped out’ is probably the best expression for it. I really had no interest in being part of any of that anymore.”

These days, Whelan wryly acknowledges that as CEO of his own Mudbug label, he has a rather more pragmatic approach to art versus commerce.

“I’ve changed so much,” he admits. “What used to infuriate me about major labels, I now insist to myself in my own company: ‘Where is the hit single?’ I’ve completely turned around. But I think the difference is when someone’s telling you to do it, it’s a completely different situation. I mean, to me ‘True Friends’ was a hit from the day it was written, I just thought, ‘I’ve really put it down, it’s got a beautiful melody and lyric, it’s got it all, no matter what age you are, it works. I love that song, that’s a hit.’ And I think because I’d been out of the loop, I didn’t bother knocking on any doors ’cos I don’t think I would’ve got any response. I think that’s why we have an independent scene in Ireland now – it’s called survival. We have to do it ourselves.”

Following the Emotional Fish implosion back in the mid 90s, Gerry came down to earth with a thud. For a start, he was stuck in the same spot for the first time since leaving home.

“I grew up in England as an Irish kid,” he explains, “and then I came to Ireland to become an ‘English bastard’, moved to Scotland, became a ‘Catholic bastard’, I’ve been described as every kind of bastard there is! And I think that affected me, I just developed the travel bug; I couldn’t stay still. I left home when I was about 16 and a half, just took to travelling, never really found a reason to stay put in Dublin. The only time I did stay was to be part of An Emotional Fish, and then when we were signed to a label we continued to travel. After An Emotional Fish stopped working I wasn’t travelling anymore, so I felt really lost and I left the partner I was with.”

Did his career going down the tubes precipitate the collapse of his personal life?

“I think I never kind of separated the two at all. As a child I would have had dreams of being a rock star, and achieved that to an extent, and then I realised, ‘This is not what I want’. I used to say, ‘I always wanted to be a rock star until I met one!’ It’s probably down to insecurity.”

As a performance addict, did he go through cold turkey when it was over?

“Yeah, definitely. I think the height of it was undressing on my 30th birthday in front of 50,000 people in the south of France on the Zooropa tour. That was fantastic – that was like Geronimo on the mountaintop! You do come down off that shit, y’know? That was something that, years later, on a shitty day in the rain, I’m thinking, ‘What the fuck happened?’ unhappy ’cos that kind of birthday isn’t happening every day of your life.

“I think depression set in; it was quite a down time. There are bands who’ve received therapy and counselling for that sort of thing. I think I really missed the whole creative process of making records, and I suppose I’d had the time off to think about the people I’d worked with and maybe go over the steps and realise how much knowledge I had.

“But I’m quite proud of the fact that when I didn’t want to make music I just stopped,” he continues. “I deconstructed everything I’d done with my whole life (in order) to reconstruct what I am now. To me, I think everything’s driven by passion, and I just didn’t have the passion for music. Now I’ve kind of gone full circle, I’m privileged to be, in a way, back where I was with An Emotional Fish at the peak of their career in Ireland, so I can look more articulately at the gap, the period where I didn’t really do anything.

“And perhaps the birth of my daughter was the thing that I needed to fill that gap, because being an insecure person, having the unconditional love of a child, all of a sudden you’re fixed. And I felt the only obligation or duty to that goddess for saving me was to be happy and grateful. And the one thing that makes me happy is creating music.”

Francis Ford Coppola once advised students at the Actor’s Studio in New York not to use their careers as an excuse to put off having a family, reasoning that the responsibility of parenthood can actually drive the ambition. Gerry Whelan can see the wisdom in this. Walking back along Nassau Street after our interview, he admits that before his daughter was born, he squandered a lot of time sitting around procrastinating. With the onset of fatherhood, he learned discipline and the value of actually producing work rather than sitting around pretending to be an artist, drinking absinthe in a garret.

“I think there’s a lot of those absinthe-drinking artists around, but they rarely produce quality work,” he laughs, “and that’s really what it’s down to. It’s one simple word; it’s work. Basically I had a child two and a half years ago and I had to get a job, and I decided right, I’m going to give myself a job.

“For the making of Be Yourself I rented a small studio in Dublin, Loop Studios. I said, ‘See ya later Niki,’ every morning and went into work. And you do get things done. There were definitely times when I was going, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’ but listening to the track ‘Be Yourself’, that was written as an encouragement to kind of be myself, mistakes and all, as in, ‘You’ve fucked up along the way, but how else would you be who you are now had you not made those mistakes?’ And to me the accident is a beautiful thing, it’s probably where the birth of the universe came from.”

In other words, it’s the bit of dirt in the oyster. Yet, Gerry suggests that his own drive towards positive thinking is in spite of rather than a product of his own personality.

“My kind of perfect day is a little bit darker than other people’s,” he says. “I’m a very optimistic person, but that possibly is because if I have a pessimistic thought, I fall into the depths of absolute gloom, so I need positive energy flowing through me, it’s vital for my existence. I think my music always had a dark edge: even if it was a pop song, it was always a wry lyric.”

Thing is, they’re not necessarily contrary impulses. There’s the old chestnut about comedians being depressive by nature.

“I’ve only learnt that recently, just drinking with a couple of them,” Gerry chuckles. “I was in shock and horror, I always thought it was just a cliché that wasn’t true! But I’ve met a couple of comedians, guys singing a song and crying before they reach the end of it. But it’s always amazed me travelling India and Asia where you’ve got the most abject poverty, probably the poorest people I’ve ever seen, and the happiest, y’know? All you see is teeth and smiles. And I’ve a few friends in Switzerland, I’ve played there quite a bit, and I couldn’t get over how many people were depressed! They had their reasons, but they had everything. I’m just fascinated by that strength in the struggle. That’s probably why music has always been a bit of a therapy for me, I can only store so much and then I start to go crazy.”

And going off on one is something Jerry Fish excels at, at least on stage. During live shows, he has a tendency to not so much breach that invisible fourth wall between artist and audience as clamber all over it. The guy seems to take immense pleasure in disrupting the formalities of the concert scenario. Just this summer on the Witnness main stage he could be spotted balancing on the barriers and eliciting ragged but spirited singing from a hungover midday crowd.

“When I’m on stage it just seems to me a little absurd that you’ve got somebody on a box and other people that are down there,” he considers. “You could be a TV set. But you’re not. And I did think a lot about the Mudbug Club and what I wanted it to be. I went to the Jim Rose Circus show in Vicar Street every night it was on; I first saw it 12 or 13 years ago, thinking, ‘Wow! That guy’s gonna drink the contents of another guy’s stomach!’ You go there and you’re thinking about it a week later. Or Mister Lifto, that his penis actually split! That is something you’re never gonna forget! That’s entertainment.

“I suppose with Jerry Fish and The Mudbug Club, there’ll be no swinging mickeys, just dangling saxophone players. But a live show to me, it’s very important that people come away with a one-off experience. I mean, the thing is, it’s entertainment. I get a bit pissed off watching bands that don’t even bother their hole to entertain and who think that by simply just getting up on stage, that means they’re great. And you know, it doesn’t fuckin’ mean you’re great. People buy tickets to see you, and you’ve got a job to do. I just love it to be full on and take it somewhere else.”

Jerry Fish & The Mudbug Club round off an extraordinary year with a show in the Ambassador Theatre, Dublin on New Year’s Eve


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