“We’re working harder now than we ever did”
“I love talking about this band. I would talk the hind legs off a donkey anyway!”
Billy McGuinness’ passion is clear. For the guitarist of Irish rock band Aslan, the last 35 years have served up many surprises, stories of turbulent times, dispiriting lows and euphoric highs.
“It comes down to one thing; we all love the music,” McGuinness tells me with a youthful enthusiasm that embodies the band’s clear desire to carry on after all these years.
“You know the old saying ‘if you find something you love doing you’ll never work a day in your life’? That’s what we have found. Now it hasn’t been easy, we’ve had so many ups and downs. It’s like the chorus of [debut 1986 single] ‘This Is’ goes – ‘Everybody hits you, everybody knocks you down’. And we’ve had a million and one reasons to knock it on the head, but we’ve also had a million and one reasons to keep it going.”
Formed in 1982 in Dublin, Aslan have blazed through three decades of sold out shows and bestselling records, notably capturing fans in Ireland and beyond with songs like ‘This Is’ and ‘Crazy World’.
The support of the fans, McGuinness assures, remains the other main reason for the band’s longevity.
“The support… it’s unreal,” he says unequivocally. “Without the fans we’re nothing. The Irish people aren’t fools. To go to a gig now, especially if you’re married and have kids, it takes a lot of organisation. It’s a big expense.”
“The fact that people are coming back to us again and again tells me that Aslan are a great live band. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t have the support we have or have been able to sustain it for as long as we have.”
“When you get onstage and you see that connection with the people there… it’s better than sex! It’s just unbelievable.”
In between the singalong live shows and triumphant successes, there have been well-documented bumps in the road. In 1988 the band sacked their charismatic frontman Christy Dignam due to the Finglas native’s well-publicised issues with heroin.
McGuinness tells me he believes Dignam to be a rare breed of musician, but says his removal from the band was simply the only solution at the time.
“It had to be done. And I don’t think Christy would be alive if he didn’t get that wake-up call. It was a shock and I think spurred him on to get clean,” he contends.
“I think with Christy Dignam we have one of the best frontmen and vocalists that Ireland has ever produced. When you hear him you instantly know its him, and there’s very few singers that you can say that about. The way he puts the song across, he puts everything into it, gets the emotion across.”
57-year-old Dignam, who recounted his troubled life in the recent ‘This is Christy’ documentary, is respected as much for his character as for his music, McGuinness adds. In addition to his drug problems, Dignam was raped multiple times by a neighbour as a child and was diagnosed with amyloidosis, a rare blood cancer, in 2013.
While the beloved frontman is currently steady having previously been diagnosed as terminally ill, McGuinness knows time is not on the band’s side. Realistic rather than morbid, he says:
“We’re actually working harder now than we ever did. We recognise that the time we have is precious. There’s a sense of urgency with us now. We’re going into the studio in November with Philip Magee [producer of work by The Script and Kodaline as well as Aslan’s last record, 2012’s ‘Nudie Books and Frenchies’]. We’re recording new material and we have a new single ready to go for release in January. We’ve a lot of gigs planned.”
Times haven’t gotten easier for Aslan in 2017, either. Not long after the band’s sell-out gig in Cork Opera House last April they lost their keyboard player Patrick ‘Fitzy’ Fitzpatrick to liver cancer. This was followed by two more tragic losses; their manager of seven years Svenn Braamark was killed in May while trying to put out a fire near his home on a farm in Norway, and social media manager Grace McDermott also died this year in a tragic house fire in Galway.
A lyric in Aslan’s ‘Rainman’ repeats ‘If I should lose my faith in God’, something surely no one would condemn the band for doing after the dreadful string of tragedies over the last 12 months.
Reflecting on the band’s turbulent year, McGuinness says: “ has been such a weird one. If you were to say to me last year that someone would die in the Aslan camp, you would have put your money on Christy. I hate to say it, but it is a fucking crazy world, it really is.”
The terrible reality of losing close friends cut particularly deep at the launch of the band’s reissued ‘Made in Dublin’ LP earlier this month in Tower Records.
“One of the last things Svenn did before he died was organising the re-release of ‘Made in Dublin’ on vinyl”, McGuinness explains.
“So when it actually happened and we launched it in Tower the other week, it just felt so surreal, now that he’s gone.”
Despite all the hardship that has plagued the band over the years, Billy McGuinness is not a man who dwells on negatives, and our conversation is never far from taking an optimistic turn towards a happier Aslan memory, or an amusing anecdote. Simplicity is something he says has always been a pillar of the band’s success:
“You can pick up a guitar and play any Aslan song, and I think that’s the true test of a song. That to me is what a song is about. There’s a lot of bands you can’t do that with these days, you need a bank of computers, keyboards, this that and the other…”
“We were doing Rose of Tralee years ago and this guy was supporting us. He came in with a guitar on his back and had his leads and everything in a little trolley basket he was pulling behind him. He told us he was recording an album in his bedroom and we thought ‘that’s brilliant’, you know…
“That guy was Damien Rice and the album was ‘O’. I will never forget that story, and I always tell it to bands. What an album, just fantastic songs. It just shows what you can do.”
McGuinness also recalls 2013’s ‘A Night for Christy’ gig, where bands came to sing Aslan’s music to show their support for Dignam following his diagnosis, with particular fondness.
“We’re only a Dublin band, we never realised the respect we had from other bands until Christy got sick,” he says, seemingly shocked at how the band could have possible amassed such a following from their contemporaries.
“We had so many artists wanting to play, The Riptide Movement, Bressie, Horslips, Mary Black… U2 were in New York at the time and, we didn’t know this, but they recorded a version of ‘This Is’ which ended up being shown at the gig that night. That was such a massive buzz knowing they took the time to do that.
“Bono called to Christy while he was in Beaumont afterwards and gave him a book of poetry by Seamus Heaney which, you know… he didn’t have to do that. From one singer to another I thought it was a lovely thing to do.”
McGuinness says the array of weird and wonderful guests that evening made it particularly special for fans:
“The list of musicians interested was incredible. Gavin James did a version of our song ‘Chains’, Paul Brady sang ‘We Did’.
“We even had Jedward doing ‘She’s So Beautiful’ and it went down a storm… it was fucking brilliant!!”
A crazy world indeed, then.
Aslan play Cork Opera House on Saturday 24 February 2018. Tickets are €28 and are available from corkoperahouse.ie.