This interview with Alistair Hulett was conducted by Brian Gillespie of the fanzine Shite’n’Onions in January 2005, just before Alistair’s trip to the Antipodes. Many thanks to Brian and Shite’n’Onions for allowing us to reproduce it here. (AC)
First of all, I'd like to thank you for your time, Alistair. I'd like to ask a couple Roaring Jack questions, if you don't mind ... Is Jump Up Records still planning on releasing an album of Roaring Jack's unreleased and live tracks, and if so what exactly will be on them?
The album of live recordings and studio demos is still in the pipeline and Jump Up still want to release it. It's not them that's causing the hold up, it's me I'm afraid. There is a mixed down collection of live tracks, a couple of radio sessions and some rough demos that got left off albums, that Bob our guitar player and Rod, one of the drummers put together. They sent it to me a few years ago, and I suggested we put out all our proper albums again first, on a double CD, then use what that fetches in to pay for producing the out-takes album.
Since then we've got The Complete Works Of Roaring Jack out via Jump Up Records, and the working title for the roughie is Ever So Humble. I keep meaning to get onto doing a cover and booklet, work out a running order and also to add some more tracks that have surfaced in good nick since Bobby and Rod put the first version together. Somehow, what I'm involved in now keeps pushing Ever So Humble onto the back burner. It will eventually get done, honest. The unreleased stuff is quite good, but it was rejected first time round for one reason or another, so I find less enthusiasm for doing this than getting out something current. I'd imagine the rest of the guys would feel like that too.
Your old band, Roaring Jack seems to have a whole new generation of followers worldwide, 13 years after breaking up. (Myself included!) Any plans for another reunion?
No, there's nothing like that afoot. Rod Gilchrist our last drummer died suddenly a few years ago, as did Steve Thompson, who he took over from. Any real reunion would need to involve playing what we did back then, and the notion of rehearsing up a drummer for one gig seems kind of unlikely to happen. The drums were a big part of the arrangements, and anyone dong the job would need to know all the accents and stops and feel changes. I don't see a reunion on the cards anytime soon. Actually I haven't spoken with anyone from the band in years, till quite recently when I began chatting on the Internet with Steph Miller. He's got a new solo album out, or coming out soon, so I sent him a note to wish him luck. Out of that has come a joint gig in Sydney during the tour I'll be doing around Australia in Feb/March. That's not us getting back together or anything, just a shared billing for old times sake. We hope to do a few songs together at the end, just acoustic guitar versions of some of the old songs from long time back. Veranda stuff. Pickin' and grinnin'. We did invite Bob and Dave to join us but they didn't fancy it. I'm sure they've got good reasons not to do it, but I don't know what they are. Probably best that way. If Steph and me heard the reasons we'd maybe agree and not do it either.
Roaring Jack were one of the first celtic-folk punk bands around. Who were your influences back then? What do you think of the celtic-folk punk bands of today?
Most of the RJ band members were people who had always liked folk music but we were not really involved in the folk scene. I got into folk when I was just a kid in the late sixties. All sorts of folk music, everything from blues and country to traditional Scots and Irish ballads. Dylan was a huge influence of course. Davie and Steph and Bob were probably coming from the same melting pot I’d guess. Back then the Communist Party was heavily involved in organising venues for this music. There was even a folk record label in Britain called Topic Records that was set up by the CP. Most of the leading lights of what they called The Folk Revival were communists or anarchists, people like Woody Guthrie, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, Leon Rosselson. All these wonderful singers and writers and players were active in left wing politics to some degree or another. This was the folk music I knew and followed as a nipper, alongside all the other stuff that was happening then. For me, the music and the politics came as a single entity. Even though I kept on listening to these musicians and buying their records, the folk scene they were working in got kind of side tracked into becoming part of the antiquarian movement, part of the Heritage Industry. I got less involved, and when I met up with the other guys who went on to form Roaring Jack, it was like discovering fellow fugitives, meeting other refugees from a folk scene that had been taken over by beardy tankard wavers. I guess it was really the Pogues and Billy Bragg who brought it back to life again for me. They brought the fire back into the belly of folk music. The Clash had kind of showed the way a few years earlier with ‘English Civil War’, and then all that punk blues and rockabilly stuff on London Calling. But a whole layer of bands emerged in the early eighties that were fusing the political wing of the folk movement with that DIY ethic from punk. In Australia there was Weddings Parties Anything in Melbourne, Roaring Jack up in Sydney, songwriters like the Koori singer Kev Carmody, and a whole mob of other folk-based bands at the time springing up around Australia that were in there mixing it in the punk and indie scene. In America too, Jason and The Scorchers were doing it with country music, an English band called the Mekons as well. Shambolic English country and western. Sid Griffin had a band called The Long Ryders that sounded like the Clash doing country rock. Every so often there needs to be a bit of a shake up and we were part of that process back then.
I couldn't say I listen to much of the current punk folk stuff. It’s very flattering that someone today thinks enough of what we did then to want to try and adapt it as a useful influence. I do think things need to move on and develop though. I sometimes go over to Germany and there's loads of young kids there with Mohawks and Crass tee shirts, kind of doing a retro-punk thing. This is not the point, in fact it’s exactly the boring hippie conservatism we were trying to get rid of at the time. I don't want to say that there's anything wrong with liking music that's been around a while, I mean I like ballads that were written several centuries ago, but whatever art we make today should have something to say about the world we live in now. For me to go resurrecting Roaring Jack would be daft, it’s my past but I don't live there any more. On the other hand if a young kid today hears what we did fifteen years ago and finds something in it that speaks to them, and makes something new out of it, then of course I'm delighted. Especially when there's a royalty cheque involved.
I know your current recording partner, Dave Swarbrick has been ill, how's he doing? Any upcoming tours? Any possible US gigs?
Swarb has suffered from a lung condition called emphysema for many years. Its one of those things that get gradually worse as time goes on. Three months ago he got put on the list to have a double lung transplant, and a few days later the hospital called him in to get it done. Since then he's been wearing them in and getting used to breathing without a ventilator again. It’s going to be a long recovery but he's on the mend and given time there's no reason why he won't batter on for years. He got let out of hospital on Xmas Eve and knowing he's home and tucking into plum pud and turkey is very reassuring. Hospitals are no place to be without an immune system, and his has had to be switched off to stop it going for the new lungs. We set up a website and a support network called Operation Swarb Aid that has regular updates on how he's doing, with a link to his official website as well. www.swarbaid.org gets you there.
For the foreseeable future I'm a solo act, unfortunately. Swarb will be back as soon as possible, but there's a lot of recovering and resting up to be done first. In the meantime I've got a tour of New Zealand and Australia kicking off in a few weeks, and a UK and European mainland tour to follow later in the year. The elusive US tour is still on the wish list for now. A tour promoter needs to be found who can be plied with intoxicants and persuaded to do me a tour of Canada and the USA. Santa wasn't listening this year it seems. Maybe a couple more candles for St Anthony.
Your last solo album, Red Clydeside had plenty of Glaswegian history, and being that my entire family is from Glasgow, it really struck home. What subjects are you currently writing about? Any new solo album plans?
I've never been a compulsive kind of songwriter. Some people write everyday, it's their release, their outlet. For me song-writing is a difficult, uncomfortable thing to have to do. Songs turn around in my brain for ages before they finally get written down. There has to be a lot of gestation involved. So I tend to turn the writing on when I need songs and off when I don't. Getting started and stopping are both tricky for me. Since I finished Red Clydeside I haven't written much at all.
This set of songs called Red Clydeside was my anti-war statement, but instead of looking at the current war in Iraq I used the history of the anti-war movement in 1914-18 to say what I wanted to say. John Maclean, the leader of Red Clydeside said in 1914, 'It is the task of socialists to build class patriotism to convince workers not to slaughter each other for a sordid World Capitalism.' For me that is still the central principle for our anti-war movement today. Ordinary people in Britain and the US have everything in common with ordinary people in Iraq, and nothing in common with warmongers like Bush and Blair, and the rich thugs they represent.
Most of what I've been working on since Red Clydeside has been songs of a personal nature rather than overtly political songs. Red Clydeside covers that aspect of my world view well enough to be going on with for now. At the moment I'm midway through recording an album of traditional ballads and some fairly non-political songs of my own. It should be out soon, but the songs seem to be calling out for more instrumentation than I originally expected to use, so there might have to be a band again.
I've been listening to a lot of early 20th century American music, blues and hokum bands from the thirties like the Mississippi Sheiks, bluegrass players like the Stanley Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, stuff like that. I want to see if there's ways to use that kind of loose way of arranging to back traditional Scots music. Once I find the sound I want I'll try writing more songs of my own to carry it forward. Right now the balance is fifty/fifty between traditional songs and original compositions, but that might have to change. So far it's me on guitar and whistle and Gavin Livingstone on bottleneck slide guitar. There's going to be more though, I fear. I can feel it in my waters, as we say in Glesga.
Speaking of Glesga, how's the folk scene doing nowadays? Any local political news?
Glasgow rocks along as it always does. Edinburgh is the place where the folk scene situates most of what it does. A bit like a huge Tartan Theme Park really. Glasgow is where the gritty side of life gets lived. We just had a festival here in Partick on the west side of the city. The first Partick Folk Festival, and right good it was too. I got to be on a concert with my good mate Mick West and a wonderful band from the '60s called The Clutha. My all time favourite Scots folk band, The Clutha so they are. The concert was called Glesga Belangs Tae Me and it was great! There's a review of the gig on a website called Roots Review.
The Celtic Connections Festival kicks off in Glasgow just before I head off to Oz, so I'll miss that one this year. That's a massive event, acts from all over the world on a string of concerts that runs for nearly a month. Shane MacGowan is one of the headliners this year. But I'll be over bronzing the limbs in NZ and Oz. Still well worth checking out the Celtic Connections website though.
The big upcoming political event on the horizon is the G8 Summit in Gleneagles. This is a meeting of the eight major capitalist states, right here in Bonnie Scotland. Its in July, from the 6th to the 8th, and the eyes of the world will be watching. I'm helping organise the acoustic music stage for the G8 Alternative. Some big names are already down to appear, and the expectation is that around 30,000 anti-capitalists will be heading for Gleneagles this July. Lovely!!
I'd like to talk about the pre-Roaring Jack days, could you tell us about the time when you lived in New Zealand and Australia?
Cor, you don't half give the old memory bank a good working over, do you Brian? I emigrated to New Zealand in the late 1960s, in my teens and a somewhat reluctant little camper I was. I spent the mandatory two years in NZ, (that was one of the conditions of receiving an assisted passage), then high-tailed it over to Australia in about 1970. I was playing around the folk clubs and festivals in NZ, and continued the habit in Oz for a few years, till the lure of better drugs and sex sent me off on the Hippy Trail for most of the rest of the decade.
You had a couple of "nomadic" years for a while there, what exactly were you doing in India?
To the degree that anyone was doing exactly anything at that time, I suppose I was trying to find the meaning of the universe and subsidising the exercise by peddling drugs around Goa. I played a lot of music and met a lot of interesting people. Eventually Mother India put me in touch with some members of the Communist Party Of India, and they set me on the road I'm still travelling down today.
How was the early Aussie Punk movement when you returned?
Well, not entirely thrilled to see me, initially. At least not until I got a decent haircut and lost the flares. Actually, the punk thing didn't make a great deal of sense to me in 1979 when I first got back. Australia was in the middle of a prolonged economic boom that continued till Paul Keating put the brakes on it in 1985 with 'the recession that we had to have.' The punk revolt in Britain was a reaction to the winter of discontent in 1976, followed by the onslaught of Thatcherism. All this didn't start to bite in Australia for a few years, so early Aussie punk seemed more like a dress code to me than a gut reaction to the news that the future's been cancelled. All that changed in the mid-eighties though. Yellowcake Bob and his ACTU lackeys saw to that, thank you. I seem to recall that's where Roaring Jack came in.
For people interested in your work, are there any websites, publications, events, etc. that you'd like to promote?
Okay, self-promotion time is it then? There's a website called Folk Icons that regularly updates what I'm up to. On the Roaring Jack side of things, there's a site called the Roaring Jack Archives which can be located at www.angelfire.com/folk/roaringjack. My UK agent is AMP World Music and that's where to go for bookings etc. That's at www.ampworld.com. For anyone who wants onto the email newsletter mailing list, The Gallows Rant, send me an email to email@example.com. There then, that's more than enough of that shite.
Alistair, thank you so much for your time! Is there anything you'd like to add?
I'd just like to say thanks to Shite 'n' Onions for helping keep the flag flying for the music we love. These days there's so much good stuff flying about, and no one really knows what to call it anymore. Punk Folk was always a totally inadequate label, but even more so now that the influences are coming in from all directions. If folk music means anything these days, it's music that belongs to the people who make it and the people who listen to it, and the line between those two groups should be kept as blurred as possible. Keep the corporations out and we stand a chance of keeping creativity alive.
Bonus question: What the hell is wrong with Scotland's football squad?
A serious question at last!! As the great Jock Stein once said, 'Fitba's no' a matter of Life and Death, it's much more important than that.' What's wrong with Scottish fitba is what's wrong with Scotland all together. Massive under-funding in health and education, totally inadequate training facilities at every level, a disparity between rich and poor that almost beggars belief and turns huge swathes of our young people into junkies, and so on and so on. Even Celtic, who finished last season a few seconds short of winning the UEFA cup don't have a proper indoor training facility. There's some great young players coming through in spite of this though, and I'm delighted to say that most of them play for Celtic. Sean Maloney, Aidan McGeady, John Kennedy to name but three. McGeady has come in for a huge amount of sectarian and racist abuse from the Hearts and Rangers fans because he has elected to play for the Republic of Ireland instead of the Scottish side. Given the ongoing bigotry against Irish Catholics in the West of Scotland, I think McGeady's decision is perfectly understandable. It also highlights why as socialist and anti-nationalist I don't support the national side. Scottish nationalism has only ever existed as an aspect of British Imperialism. Even disengagement from the British Union would not alter the fact that a huge number of the pillars of the Establishment are in fact Scots, and this has been so for the entire duration of the Union itself. But that's a story for another day.
Thanks for your time Alistair, Happy New Year!
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