- 12 Jul 23
As part of our special tribute to Christy Dignam in the current issue of Hot Press, we're revisiting a classic 1988 interview – in which his Finglas roots shone through...
Originally published in Hot Press in 1988...
Christy Dignam of Aslan has never been one to pull his punches and, as a result, controversy has dogged the band with every new public utterance. Now as their debut album, Feel No Shame nestles at the top of the Irish charts, he sets the record straight, on his attitude to U2, poverty, drugs, groupies, his personal life – and the macho implications of the band’s image and music.
Sceptical Eye: Cathy Dillion
Probing Lens: Colm Henry
To an outsider the social division between the North and South sides of Dublin is so pronounced that at first you feel as if there must be some unwritten system of apartheid of which everyone who lives in the city is aware, but which somehow has been kept a secret from the outside world. What other possible explanation could there be for the fact that when you cross O’Connell Bridge into Grafton Street, it’s like stepping across an invisible border into another, more affluent world.
To those who have followed Aslan’s career from the beginning, their achievement in reaching the No. 1 spot with their debut album Feel No Shame seems a triumph of endurance. Their past struggles have always been connected to the fact they are a very Northside band…
In the flesh Christy Dignam is tiny. He has the sort of natural charm that breaks teenage hearts at fifty paces. He talks at the rate of knots. We begin with being from the Northside – how big a part of Aslan’s makeup is it?
“People from the Southside tend to deny it’s there, but people from the Northside tend to be more aware of it,” Christy reflects. “It affects you in subtle ways. Like if you live on the Southside you tend to drink in the ‘right’ pubs, where you have a higher profile with people who matter. I mean, we could swan around the pubs on the Northside for the rest of our lives and never meet somebody from RTÉ, but if you go into the Bailey or the Pink Elephant, you’re going to meet these people. One of the things that got us the deal was that we did an Evening Extra thing with Billy Magra. One night we happened to be in the Pink Elephant after a gig and met him and he said we could do it. After that we hounded him, and I think it was out of embarrassment that he gave us the show in the end. It helped our profile and enabled us to do country gigs and get money together to do singles and demos and get the deal.”
What about the other angle that’s been widely touted, of Aslan as working-class boys ‘from the most deprived area of Dublin’, as their EMI press release put it?
“When we started off in music, we couldn’t… like I could never pretend to be an Oscar Wilde type character. We hadn’t that intellectual quality in the band. We couldn’t contrive anything, so we decided that we would just be as we were. And that sincerity sort of endeared people to the band. But then they started saying that it’s the ‘working-class’ angle, and we don’t particularly want that.
“I think that the album we’ve made is as good as any debut album that has ever come out this country and that’s not because we’re from the Northside or the Southside, it’s because we’re musicians.
“At the same time, obviously, your background has a bearing on what you write and the way you write it – and sometimes you feel bitter,” Christy continues. “But the anger I grew up with, about not being as well off as I could have been, is gone now, because it’s a futile thing.”
The ‘issue’ is still causing controversy, however. The most recent example was an interview in the NME in which Christy accused Bono of claiming to be a ‘working class hero’ when he comes from a middle-class estate on the Northside. It was picked up by the tabloids who then ran a ‘Young Guns Aslan Slam U2’ story.
“At the risk of it sounding like a cop-out I can honestly say that it was taken completely out of context,” he insists. “I hope that if U2 read this they’ll realise about any Irish band, the first fuckin’ thing you’re asked about in an interview is U2. ‘What connection have you to U2? What do you know about U2? What skeletons have they got in the cupboard?’ And you really get sick of it.
“So, we had about a two-and-a-half-hour interview with this guy. He tried to get us to talk about U2 during it, but we blacked it as a subject. Then the next day when we were driving him to the airport, I was showing him the flat Tony lives in, in Ballymun flats, and then I took him down and showed him the house Bono used to live in. He took down those few sentences and based the whole thing around them and forgot about the two-and-a-half-hour interview we’d done the previous day.”
Switching to social matters, and Dignam is critical of the police and their attitude to drug abuse.
“There are things that happen in this country that would never be allowed to happen anywhere else,” Christy states. “Like the Concerned Parents Against Drugs thing. Now while I agree with what they are trying to achieve and I know they’re genuine, I disagree with their methods, and I can’t understand how the police can let lynch mobs go around and throw people out of their houses. Because a lot of people who are dealing drugs in this city are junkies themselves and they have families.
“I have friends who have grown up in situations where there was no hope for them in this world. They’ll never get jobs, or maybe they’d get really bad menial jobs. Years ago, people were ignorant, and they weren’t educated, and they hadn’t got televisions and things. But now people are looking at Dallas and Dynasty or whatever and they’re seeing things on television and it’s a totally alien world to them and they’re saying, ‘Fuck this! Why should I live in this slum?’ And they think, ‘Well, nobody’s helping me out so I’m going to grab what I can.’ That’s why you get people dealing drugs and robbing Post Offices. They’re usually people from working-class areas. They have nothing else to go for. Some of them just don’t give a fuck if they’re caught – because it’s either a life of hell in prison or a life of hell out of prison.
“When they’re screaming on Today Tonight about the drugs situation in this country, people in Finglas and Ballymun are living in absolute squalor. Not just partial squalor, absolute squalor.”
What’s his perspective on religion?
“I have no time for it. It’s torn this country in two. If you look back through religions, usually they’re just used to keep people in check so some people can get on and make loads of money and other people can get on and starve.
“Take my father. He hates the clergy. He got married when he was twenty-one, had eight kids and he’s worked every day of his life. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke and his one vice is that he likes to go greyhound racing. This is a man that has nothing but goodness in him. He’s never done anybody any harm; he has no malice in him at all. But will he go to hell coz he’s missed Mass every Sunday for his whole life? No. It’s wrong. That’s where religion is just out the window.”
But apart from being vociferous, where exactly is Christy Dignam at?
“First of all, I want to be able to sing to people and for them to appreciate that I can sing. Also, I want to be saying something in my songs. Most of the ones we’ve written up to now have been a cry from where we come from. We’ve been saying, ‘This is how we live and it’s not fuckin’ nice! Right?’ We do have songs like ‘Loving Me Lately’ that are just sex songs. Everybody has songs like that, but at the moment I’m screaming at the top of my voice: ‘I’m Christopher Dignam and I was born in Ireland, in Dublin, in a working-class area and this is what I am, and this is how we live, and it’s not right.’ I just want people to hear me saying that. Whether they care or not is neither here nor there – I want them to know that I’ve said it”.
Boys who like to have a good time, Aslan have a devoted teenage female following and screaming and knicker-throwing are par for the course at gigs.
“That’s just part of the game,” laughs Christy. “It’s just the way rock’n’roll is, y’know? I love all that, I’m mad into it. Everything I ever tried in life that I enjoyed was always bad for you, bar sex. It was either expensive or bad for you or expensive and bad for you. And sex isn’t”. Does he see himself as a sex symbol?
“Nah, not at all,” he insists. “When people see you on stage, you’re living their dreams for them. When I’m on stage in the Olympic or somewhere they look up and see the lights, and maybe they’ve had a few drinks on them and they’re not totally together, and they see you as somebody who just wakes up at five to eight, jumps on the stage at eight o’clock and goes to sleep again at nine o’clock. Or maybe parties all night and then goes to sleep.
“They don’t see that you wake up with a pain in your arse somedays and you don’t want to do a gig – maybe you’re having problems with bread at home coz you’re getting a mortgage bill or something. They don’t see all that. They just see this totally pure figure up on a stage and that makes them throw away all their inhibitions and for the hour-and-a-half that you’re onstage they go into a frenzy.
“That’s all I ever really wanted to do with music – to be on a stage and get that sort of return. The best feeling that I ever get in my life is when you walk off the stage and into the dressing-room and the crowd are still clapping and you can hear the cheers. Nothing will ever give the buzz that that gives you.
“And a lot of our crowd, probably because of what we say in our songs are working-class people, and if we can take their minds off their everyday lives for an hour-and-a-half and forget about everything and enjoy themselves that, to me is what it’s all about.”
What does his wife, Kathryn, make of him fronting a band that gets all that adulation – much of it from adoring females?
“I don’t think she’s very comfortable with the fact that the job I’m in focuses women’s attention on me,” Christy admits. “I don’t think she’s mad about the idea. But I started going out with my wife when I was thirteen or fourteen, so we were childhood sweethearts who grew up together and kinda graduated into a marriage as opposed to meeting her one day and falling in love. I’ve never gone out with a girl in the way a fella would go out with a girl and meet her under Clery’s clock or whatever. I’ve never done any of that ‘coz I’ve been going with her constantly over those years. So, she knows the story. She knows what I wanted, and she’s got her own business, a hairdresser’s. So, she’s got a life of her own and a career of her own. The way we look at it is, we sit down every so often and say, ‘Okay, let’s look at what we achieved in the last month, or whatever…’ Everything I do financially in the band is for them, my wife and child. But y’know I’m still a man! I’m still a boy!”
Suppose the situation was reversed though, and she had men crowding around and giving her attention, how would he react?
“Well, if it happened overnight, obviously it would have an impact on me, but if it was a gradual thing the way it has been for her, I don’t think it would. She’s a person like and to be honest I’m quite flattered when other men fancy her and it’s good for her as well. If I thought she was sleeping around I’d be upset, but I’ve said to her on occasion that she can do what she likes, as long as I don’t know about it! I think if she knew I was sleeping with other women she’d kick me out! So that’s why I don’t do it! I’m just a bragger… it’s all lies!”
What would Christy say to allegations that Aslan are just another ‘macho’ band?
“Well, it is boys’ music as opposed to girls’ music. Coz, we grew up in a way that if someone clattered you in the face, you’d just hit them back y’know? We didn’t negotiate it; we just knocked the bollocks out of each other. So obviously that influence is still there.
“But there aren’t any lyrics on Feel No Shame that are sexist. The band don’t see women in the way that a lot of Irish men see women. Like I’ve a sister who’s gay, right? And I never used to think that I was sexist, and like if I went over to her place for dinner, I’d be absolutely trying not to be sexist, but still, they’d be pulling me up all the time about it. And then I realised it wasn’t me being sexist, it was the stereotyping I grew up with. And that was more sinister to me than someone sitting in a pub saying, ‘Oh mots should see to things like cleaning the floor and the kitchen sink.’ That’s blatant sexism, but the subtle sexism I had freaked the shit out of me.”
Finally, what’s so special about Aslan, Christy? Why should we care?
“Because we’re not trying to be something we’re not.”
Read the full Christy Dignam tribute in the current issue of Hot Press: