A few weeks ago, the Summer Nationals Tour finished up in Mountain View, CA. The tour was headlined by The Offspring (who were celebrating the 10-year anniversary of their record, "Smash"), and featured performances by none other than Bad Religion, Pennywise, The Vandals, and Stiff Little Fingers, all punk rock legends in their own way. I had the pleasure of interviewing Jake Burns, the lead vocalist of Stiff Little Fingers, the day after the Mountain View tour stop. Check out the great interview below!
The band has been around since 1977. It’s gone through countless lineup changes and numerous albums. What would you say is one of the biggest lessons about the music industry you’ve learned from being in this band?
Good question! (laughs!) I guess the biggest thing that I’ve learned is that nothing is actually written in stone. The industry actually changes incredibly quickly. A lot of the time people get caught by that, you know? We’ve been very, very lucky to have our fans that have stuck with us through numerous personnel changes. When we started, there was kind of a career path that you can follow, if you wanted to do it. You’d play a few shows, hopefully pick up some good reviews, get the attention of local media, get some airplay, and then off you go.
I think that since then, there’s also been numerous changes in the way that music is consumed. I think when CDs came in, we didn’t really see that coming. Record labels now are pretty much, I wouldn’t say obsolete, but they’re nothing like the important tool that they were in the past.
I think that as long as you’ve got a loyal fanbase, you can pretty much run your entire career yourself. You don’t exactly need the outside help, if you like. That’s probably the one thing that you’ve learned, that you should never underestimate your own ability. Also, never take your audience for granted! Like I said, we’ve been very, very lucky that they’ve always stuck with us. I’ve sometimes felt that we’re more like a sports team than a band, because we’re their band, and that’s that. They stick with us through thick and thin, which is very flattering. If you treat your audience with respect, and they adopt you like that, then it doesn’t really matter how much the industry changes. Record labels come and go. As long as you’ve got that bond with your audience, that’s the most important thing that you can have.
No Going Back is the first studio album from the band in eleven years. What was the writing process like for the album this time around?
Well the reason it took so long, to be honest with you, is that I had a bunch of songs written about five or six years ago. Almost the entire album. We were on the verge of going in and recording that. It coincided with my 50th birthday. I know we don’t make a big deal with birthdays, but wife decided that because it was my 50th, she was gonna make a big damn deal of it! (laughs) She asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday, and I said “Sweetie, I don’t want to do anything big. I just want to go down to the local bar with my pals, and have a drink. That’s all.” So she basically took my word for that and invited my friends from all over the world. It was like an episode of “This Is Your Life”. Every time the door opened, it was like another part of my past walked through (laughs). It was incredible surprise, but it also fell within like a day of us going on tour. We kind of had this party that stretched over the weekend and then I got on a plane and went to the UK to tour. At the end of the tour, the band were like “Okay, go home, write the last couple of songs, and hopefully we’ll be in the studio at the summer”.
I came home, sat down and listened to the songs that I’d written. I think then that the whole thing about it being my 50th was weighing on my mind a bit, not in a bad way, but I was aware that I’m not 21 anymore. I listened to the songs and, to be honest, they kind of felt… weak to me. I felt like I was writing a record because I needed to, and not because I wanted to. The material wasn’t strong enough. I felt that it didn’t show any kind of development in myself as a song writer. I think that, and it’s really hard to put this into words, but I think it had to do with the fact that I had turned 50.
I scrapped a lot of the songs. Those that survived got re-written, and others just bit the dust all together. I think it was worth it. I took a lot more care with the songs. I took a lot more time with them, and I think that it shows in the record. I showed the band the material and they thought, “this is a lot better than what we had”. I think there was a renewed enthusiasm after that. I think we did the right thing.
How would you say that the material on No Going Back differs in comparison to any of the previous Stiff Little Fingers albums you’ve worked on?
I think in terms of the actual inspiration behind the material, I think it’s always what we’ve done. We’ve written about things that offend my sense of justice. I think from that point of view, from the actual lyrical content, they’re actually very similar to some of the things that we’ve done in the past. Where it changes is that I’m taking the time, I’m being aware of the fact that I’ve been writing songs professionally for the good part of the past 30 or 40 years. There are certain little tricks that you pick up over the years, but there were also things that I was trying to avoid. When you’re writing songs, there’s certain section (for example, I wrote a lead section), where there’s always an obvious minor chord in the key that if you go to, it will sound right, and it will sound great, but everybody on the planet does it (laugh). I was trying to avoid that, and throw a few curveballs into the melody side of things. That took a bit more time.
The lyrical content, even though the subject matter was pretty much following straight into what we’d done in the past, I wanted to take a bit more care over the actual words. I don’t need to be a clever dick or a show-off or anything, but I just want to try and reach a bit above the level of “I don’t like this, it makes me angry.” (laughs).
What kind of message would you like fans to walk away with after listening to your music?
I think, basically, hope. All the subjects that we’re writing about are pretty dismal events in anybody’s life. I think that the subjects on the album range from a corrupt politician, to the bank’s collapsing and taking your home and savings with them, to institutionalized child abuse in the church, so these aren’t laugh-a-minute subjects, but I like to think the way that we approach them is with a “this is happening, this is what I’m trying to tell you, but it doesn’t have to be like that”. We can’t offer solutions. If I could offer solutions, I’d be a politician, not a musician. But what I hope we do is actually make people aware of if they’re not aware of it, or highlight people of it, even if they are. Hopefully, we can show them “this is what’s going on, but it doesn’t have to be like this.” Between us, we can actually change it and do something about it. Like I said, I really hope that hope is the one thing they take away from it, and that we’re an inspiration for them to try and do something about it. I’m starting to sound like an old hippie. (laughs) Be the change that you want to see.
What does music mean to you?
That’s a difficult question, because you could probably talk all day about that! I find that really hard to put into words because, to me, it’s just as natural in life as breathing! Even if I didn’t have the band or we didn’t have an audience to play to, I know I’d still be sitting at home and playing guitar, because that’s what I do. I’m a songwriter. It’s just as natural to me as breathing or having lunch (laughs). It’s just something that I’ve gotta do. It’s just such an integral part of who I am.
Stiff Little Fingers' new album, "No Going Back" is available now!
This has been another Shameless Promotion.