Stiff Little Fingers’
Ali McMordie,
The TVD Interview

One album that is an essential for any collection is Stiff Little Fingers’ Inflammable Material. Released in 1979, Inflammable Material introduced the world to a quad of high energy boys from Belfast, Ireland who had something to say about their home during a time of major political conflict which was often violent and lasted three decades.

Songs like “Wasted Life” and “Law and Order” revealed frustrating and angry realities for Irish youth. Though Jake Burns and Ali McMordie are the only two original members still touring and recording as Stiff Little Fingers, the spirit and rawness of Inflammable Material will always carry through to old and new fans of the band.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the honor and pleasure of talking to Ali McMordie, the bassist who rejoined the band in 2006 after having been away for about 10 years. McMordie gave me an earful on working in the music industry for over thirty years, playing Chicago’s Metro for the first time, and a bit about getting back into the studio to record STF’s excellent new album, No Going Back.

As soon as I reminded him that this interview would be published at The Vinyl District, he immediately launched into how much vinyl plays into his life everyday.

I buy vinyl records, I always have done and I still have the records that I started collecting as a kid—some of which are still in storage in Ireland. But I bought a lot of them over here. Now I’m based in Brooklyn and I still occasionally DJ roundabout a dozen or so gigs, about a dozen or so pubs and clubs in New York. It’s old school. It’s all vinyl and it’s great because I get to play a lot of all my old records which I have to say are a lot of old punk rock 45s from the late ’70s and early ’80s.

It’s great to be able to get out there and share the love. Sometimes I even get paid! You’ll find that because vinyl is all mechanical you know, it’s all turntables and cables and sort… half the time I spend my time fixing the various rigs that I’ve come across because they are never looked after.

Getting paid to play you’re favorite records, on vinyl no less, sounds like a lot of fun. 

Outside of that, it’s a labor of love and I really enjoy it. I’m glad you’ve found it! One of the great things about traveling is that I get to sniff out various record stores and I still like record browsing which, at one point, I think us record browsers were a dying breed.

It’s good to see that it’s on the comeback. You know, you just go into the store without any particular idea of what you want to get and you just pick something up because it has a nice cover or something you know, because vinyl, that 12” format, is really the best for the artwork—and CDs never really cut it, or digital downloads of course. I was amazed to see that places like Urban Outfitters for example, like clothing stores and accessory stores, are stocking albums, and even stranger than that, a lot of kids that are buying albums—some of them don’t even own a record players. They are buying them as collectibles or just for the artwork to display on your wall—and that’s fine! That’s great, and then use the MP3 download to listen to on the iPod.

Lately [that’s] made me realize how lazy we’ve become. Sitting at home and playing a record and then after 18, 20 minutes or whatever, you have to get up and turn it over. It’s kind of a shame that we’ve come to that. Maybe it’s just me who is lazy. [Laughs] You know, it’s good to get focus and sit down with a good system and it’s really such a warmer sound than any of the digital kind of parts.

I know that from playing vinyl to fans, I can crank it and people remark and sort of say that it’s so much warmer and there’s so much more detail. Drums particularly are much better you know, cymbals and some of that… The main thing that digital re-production suffers from, unless you’ve got like really expensive equipment, the high-end of drums and percussion and cymbals and so on, and the high end of vocals and guitars, kind of suffer from the distortion or not really being that clear enough… I hope I’m not rambling here too much! It’s just something I really like talking about.

It’s great. I’m kind of new to vinyl, so it’s really awesome to just hear other people’s opinions, musicians especially. I think everything you’re saying about vinyl is true. Do you feel like because younger people like me who buy vinyl and probably just do the digital download to listen to it either because you don’t have a record player or you are lazy you don’t quite get it, do you think that’s…how do you feel about that? Is there something that young people are missing?

No, as long as you’re getting the part of keeping vinyl alive whatever you do with it afterwards. I’ve done the same thing myself. For example I went to Rough Trade Music in Brooklyn—their new flagship store which is all new stock. It’s actually a very dangerous place to go into because you find yourself spending a fortune, but really considering how much you’re spending and… vinyl is expensive. Not much in the store there under 20 bucks most albums are about $25 or $30 and up.

When you get into special editions or whatever, those releases are a special audio file. You get masters, but when I was in there, I got the [new record from] Thom Yorke and Flea’s Atoms for Peace. But I only played it a couple of times and just went for the mp3. But it was just nice to have it there to sit and look at it. I really like the idea of the artwork on it. Just for that you know? Before you didn’t get the same on a CD format…I got Explosions in the Sky just because of the artwork. It’s incredibly powerful and striking and really makes a statement.

There’s so much out there it’s hard for anyone to keep up with new music…

And people talk about how the record business is in disarray and on the way out and sales are suffering but there’s still so many great bands out there. Everywhere I go I’m finding new music and whenever I go back to Ireland, I go back quite a lot sometimes for work or to visit family or friends, and I’m amazed at how many bands are coming out of the North [of Ireland].

In Belfast, it’s an industrial city, it’s very working class. Moreso say than Dublin. Dublin I’ve found tends to be more sort of avant-garde, but in Belfast, there are a lot of goths in Belfast for some reason, I’m not sure why that is but there are a lot of great rock bands that come out of the city and I’m amazed at how many are still going.

You know, there’s so many good bands out there it’s difficult to survive whenever you’re not backed up by sales and in a situation where bands are releasing records to support the live performances that can still generate income instead of the other way around—which is traditionally, you go out on tour and tour to promote albums without a complete return in that respect.

How live music is performed and marketed today is so different from how it once was with all the festivals popping up in literally every city and town. You’ve been in the industry for a really long time. What is it like to play festivals and these big shows now after reuniting with STF?

The experiences over the last 20 years or so have been amazing—to play in different bands that play different genres of music. [It’s] basically what makes life, to have that variety and to be able to use that experience and come back to Stiff Little Fingers, and I realize when I came back that this was really the guts of what I am all about and there are moments on stage and connecting with the audience.

The live shows, they really are great and the audience totally makes it for us because the reaction we see from them and the enthusiasm and what the songs mean to the audience within the environment of the concert experience—that is really a magical time. It feels like this is the best of times. It’s the best period of the band’s existence.

It’s great to hear that, even after all of these years, now is really the best of times.

I’m always wary or nervous or aware of the fact that so much time has gone on and from what I understand—this is a young man’s game. It’s not like we are sitting around on stools and playing the blues, or jazz, oh god. This is live, energetic, driven music that is physical and whenever I’m playing, I can’t keep still you know?

I’m very aware of the fact that there are times marching on and I keep thinking, how long am I going to be able to do this? But every time I get out on stage, once I hit the stage, you just forget all that and let the music take over and it becomes a totally enveloping feeling and totally enveloping experience. And it feels right. It doesn’t feel like we are desperately trying to recapture previous glories, though this does feel just as fresh as it’s ever done, particularly that we have a new album out after, oh my god, after ten years. Mustn’t rush it! I really didn’t know how it would be received but it had great reviews and we are very grateful for that.

I’ve been listening to the new album and…

Does it sound ok?

Aw, yeah!

We actually had a great mixer in there who is credited on the sleeve of course because he was Irish-American, he could understand us ok. There were no language communication issues in the studio and we worked really quickly and I think it sounds ok.

How was that getting back in the studio after about 10 years?

It felt ok. It didn’t feel strange or odd. It didn’t feel like a fish out of water. It felt pretty natural and we just went about it the easiest way possible. The only thing that changed is that, whenever we would go into the studio years and years ago, we very much approached it as a live performance. Everybody would be playing together in the room and if anyone fucked up then we would start again until we got it right. But we changed that this time and we would all be in the room playing together the same as we used to, in that one room, and then we would keep the drums and then overdub guitar and bass and so on.

We were using a mixture of Protools and analog discs so we got the warmth of the discs but had the efficiency of Protools so we could drop in and out whenever it was necessary, but still keeping that live feel which was very important. And it was kind of a quicker way of working because whenever—we are not professional players …we play, we make mistakes, and some of the mistakes are still on the record we just left them in. Because there’s no such thing as perfection and anyway, it just meant that it was a quicker way of working because if we screwed up, we didn’t have to all stop and start again. It was like doing it all in one take, if you like. So it was kind of like going back to the way we used to do it, but just using a modern approach and using the modern technology that wasn’t available back then.

Do you feel like that was a different element that made things more complex for you? Because I would imagine when you were recording your first few albums, vinyl was pretty much the only medium available. 

Yeah, that’s right, vinyl and cassettes, that was it. You wouldn’t remember but the record companies who were as prickly as ever back then about recording music second-hand, they had a campaign where they would have a picture—sort of an imprint of a cassette that was printed on the paper sleeves and inserted in vinyl records, and in the middle of this cassette outline there’d be a skull and cross-bones and the slogan was “Home taping is killing music.”

Even back then they were trying to resist, which obviously didn’t even make a dent really in sales, but they were so resistant to any kind of change even back then that it’s no wonder that the traditional record industry died as we know it. They have always gone for the wrong target. They lobbied successfully actually, to have digital audio tape almost banned for home products. I don’t know if this happened in the US but it happened in Europe. In Japan for example, people were driving around with digital audiotape players in their cars which weren’t even marketed in the UK, I remember. The players were priced out of the market to the extent where you would only find them in studios or you’d only find them for professional use and there was nothing available for under $600, $700. Because digital audio tape was the best format of the time and still is a great lossless way of reproducing music.

But the record industry at the time was concentrating on lobbying the government to keep the digital audio tape product out of the domestic market and the home music market, ignoring the massive counterfeiting and bootlegging that was going on in eastern Europe and Russia. There was a time where almost 100% of their music was totally counterfeit. That’s what they should have been doing at the time, and that was making a huge dent in their sales.

Wow, I didn’t know all of this. I feel like I’m getting a music history lesson right now.

Glad to hear it! I never thought of myself as a history teacher. [Laughs]

Do you think that you maybe would be a history teacher or something? Is there something you might be doing different now if not for music?

I’ve always been fascinated by lighting and maybe would have drifted into that side of the business if I was involved in live music. Before that, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a pilot but I don’t think that would have lasted.

Do you have especially good vision to be a pilot?

I don’t know if I do or not, but I know you can make massive changes just using light and how you use it. And whenever we were advancing shows, I’m always the one calling the local production contact or the promoter and trying to get extra lighting into the show… I’ve been involved in touring more so than the audio side of things.

I think I might have ended up being a home designer. [Laughs] You know, those high-end apartments in LA or something like that with mood lighting. When I’m working outside of SLF on other productions, I worked closely with the lighting technicians on whatever he’s doing or planning like doing—video as well or lasers. Stuff like that I work on closely because I can see it. With audio I can just hear it, and I’m really not up on the technical side of things, but with lighting because I can see it and at least see a result. And I can interpret that easily so I find kind of an affinity with that.

That’s great that you have an affinity for the visual experience in addition to just getting up on stage.

It’s um, …I think part of it is the time that is spent in production and producing live shows—seeing the big picture if you like, seeing everything that goes into making a show and using that knowledge to try to make the SLF experience on a very limited budget more enjoyable.

You’ve toured with a wide variety of people, everyone from Katy Perry to Moby. Can you tell me more about that?

Yeah, working with Moby …I started playing in his band about ’94 to ’95. He always wanted to be a punk rocker and he would go into most of the set—which was techno—he would go into these short metal outbursts every so often and then he would do a complete turn about-face and did a whole album of pretty hardcore metal called Animal Rights with no dance tracks at all, which was kind of commercial suicide. But then of course he bounced back with Play.

I really enjoyed playing the rock songs that he brought out because he’s a great songwriter and playing the rock stuff was more fun than the techno because that was more rigid. It was a backing track as well, so we didn’t have too much flexibility, but whenever we did the rock songs it was a lot more freeform. There was more spontaneity in there and that’s what I liked. But not long before that, before SLF got back together (the band split up from 89-92), during that time I ended up working with Sinead O’Connor. That was a very interesting time. We’re still friends.

What was that like to work with her?

We actually never toured together, it was all studio. It was working on demos more on the songwriting side and we went with a song on the first album. Her first husband, John Reynolds was in a band that I was in immediately after SLF broke up called Friction Groove. No one’s ever heard of it. Spectacularly unsuccessful. We signed with Atlantic Records, we shipped out 20,000 albums only to have about 19,000 shipped back. It didn’t go very far. But for people desperately trying to track down any copies of Friction Groove because it was a vinyl only release, and of course is long deleted, so there are no digital copies around anywhere.

Woah. So, if I get my hands on one…

You’ll laugh! You’ll laugh your ass off that Ali McMordie would be in a band like Friction Groove. It’s more to do with Peter Gabriel than public image. It’s totally non punk rock. Although the lyrics were fairly political. But if you ever come across a copy, good luck. You’ve been warned.

Are there any particular venues in Chicago you like to play?

The Metro. Obviously that’s a great venue. Been there many times. In fact, it was at the Metro in Chicago that I started playing bass with Moby because I was just looking after his production and all the power went out on the PA, but there was still power to the back line so while everyone was trying to fix it, I was standing at the side of the stage with the electrician and Moby just called out, “Hey Ali, why don’t you come out to play bass.”

So, we launched into a cover of “Dazed and Confused.” And that became a feature of the show—to play it as the encore—and then I joined the band from there on out and I stayed very busy playing bass with Moby as well as other musicians touring.

Ali McMordie Official | Facebook
Stiff Little Fingers Official | Facebook | Twitter

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