Roots, Radicals and Rockers: Jake Burns of Stiff Little Fingers
It’s been busy year for Stiff Little Fingers—they’ve completed their latest album, No Going Back, toured the world, played the Rebellion Festival, and are about to hit the salty shores of Salt Lake City as a part of Offspring’s “Smash 20th Anniversary” tour. How are things going for the gang? Well, according to Jake Burns, “Fantastically well, actually. Everyone’s been incredibly helpful—very, very friendly. We started at a bit of a disadvantage, in so much as our backline guy had a problem with his visa. He’s actually still stuck in England. We haven’t managed to get him across. When we turned up, in our first show in Florida, suddenly the guys from Pennywise, who we know (we had toured with them earlier this year in Australia), their crew just all jumped in and said, ‘Oh, we’ll help out.’ In fact, every night, I’ve been in the slightly bizarre position of having my guitars tuned by Jay Bentley of Bad Religion, which is kind of weird.”
According to Burns, they had already planned a tour for the U.S. later in September to promote the album. However, getting a call out of the blue fast forwarded their plans. It was too much of a good opportunity to play with groups who seem like a good fit, and Stiff Little Fingers decided to hit U.S. shores. But this was too soon for bass player Ali McMordie, who was under the impression that he had more time to work his other gig as a tour manager. To make this work, Stiff Little Fingers had to temporarily swap McMordie for Dummy’s Mark DeRosa.
No Going Back, which was released on Aug. 11 in the UK, has yet to see a release date here in the U.S. When asked about a U.S. release, Burns says, “In fact, I was trying to get a hold of our management, ‘cause it was supposed to be released here on [Aug.] 19. But I noticed that Amazon are still only listing an import copy at the moment, so I’m not sure exactly what’s happened with that. It should have been out here by now, obviously. Like I said, we were putting them under a bit of pressure, because these shows came up out of the blue for everybody. So we were all caught on the hop.”
Though it may be a minute before No Going Back hits shelves in the U.S., it sounds like it’ll be worth the wait. In 2008, four years after the U.S. release of Guitar and Drum, Burns wrote nine new tunes with the intention of releasing a new record that year. However, after celebrating his 50th birthday, an occasion he usually does not pay much mind, he had a change of thought. “Like I said, normally I wouldn’t have paid any attention to birthdays,” says Burns, “but because it was made to be such a big deal, it was still in my mind. I came home after the tour and listened to all the songs that I had, and just realized that they kind of sounded like I was writing Stiff Little Finger songs by numbers. None of the songs actually excited me, and I kind of think, ‘You know, this is the sort of thing you could have written when you were 19, and you’re not.’ I didn’t feel like I was doing the 50-year-old me any justice by releasing these songs.”
Switching gears, Burns scrapped the already written material, minus a few exceptions. He set out to write something more relevant and from the heart. When asked if the new album had a particular theme, Burns says, “Not as such—I think, in the past, our attacks were kind of scattered. But I think that’s in the nature of being an angry young man.” Rather, he suggests that this album has a bit more personal meaning.
Despite touching on a more personal tone, Burns still knocks out socio-political tunes like “Liar’s Club and “Trail of Tears.” “Liar’s Club” takes direct influence from being stuck in a traffic jam in front of a bar with same name in Chicago. While stuck in traffic, Burns was listening to the radio, which had then U.S. President George W. Bush and then U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair going on with certain audacity trying to defend the Iraq War. Not surprisingly, by the time he arrived home, the song had pretty much written itself.
“Trail of Tears,” on the other hand, was inspired by Arizona’s controversial SB 1070, wherein if someone looked to be foreign, they could be stopped and required to provide proof of identification. When hearing the defense for these fascist laws, Burns couldn’t help but appreciate the irony that America is a nation founded by immigrants and that the people implementing these laws clearly haven’t watched enough World War II films, where the catchphrase is “Show me your papers.”
Taking a chance to note earlier work, this year marks the 35th anniversary of Stiff Little Fingers’ debut album, Inflammable Material. The album heavily commented on the troubles of Northern Ireland through tracks like “Suspect Device” and “Wasted Life.” When asked if Burns thought things had improved since the troubles had officially ended in Northern Ireland, he pointed out that they had, with programs like the Integrated Education Fund. The Integrated Education Fund is a charity that seeks to integrate both Protestant and Catholic children into the same school. This is done in hopes of creating an opportunity for both sides to understand and respect each other’s cultural and religious background. Stiff Little Fingers has helped raise money for this charity by donating 5 percent of profits from the new album. However, Burns notes that the tensions are still there, just below the surface. Things don’t change overnight.
Speaking more on the past, I ask Burns to give some insight into punk, then and now. I cite an interview with the Los Angeles Beat on Feb. 3, 2014, where he mentioned that punk has become about fitting in with the right accessories and songs being about drinking/fighting. He points to a time where there was a certain excitement, positivity and freedom with punk—a time that people weren’t limited to a certain haircut, style or having the right number of piercings. He does point out some commonalities, à la leather jackets and drainpipe jeans. However, all walks of life could participate, and all kinds of bands like The Ramones, The Damned, Elvis Costello and even Blondie were considered punk.
“Now, like I said, punk has kind of driven itself into a small ghetto, and that’s what I was saying when I said that thing about the drink, fighting and screwing or whatever,” says Burns. “I was saying it from a point of view of sadness, because there was so much more that you could write or sing about. If that’s really the three most important things in your life, that’s a pretty sad reflection on your day, when you get out of bed in the morning.”
He further says, “I just think if you’ve got the confidence and the courage, and it takes an amount of courage to actually get yourself up on a stage in front of people and sing something that you hope means something to you. Why don’t you make it something a bit more important that just getting drunk and having a fight?”
When asked what readers can expect from a Stiff Little Fingers set, Burns says they will play some well-known numbers like “Suspect Device” as well as a track off their new album. I’m told it’ll be a quick set, since they are on first. So it’ll be a 37-year career in about 30 minutes. I’ll admit, the price to this gig, being a whopping $35, seems imposing on the wallet, but it’s an all-star cast, and not to be missed. So get there early, grab a pint and enjoy.