Cáit O’Riordan,
The TVD Interview

PHOTO ABOVE: JOHAN VIPPER | March gives way to thoughts of St. Patrick’s Day and the raucous annual gigs from the premiere Celtic punk band The Pogues, who supercharged traditional melodies even as frontman Shane MacGowan crafted songs as indelible as any from the Emerald Isle on classic albums like 1985’s Rum, Sodomy & the Lash. The band was active until 1996, reunited in 2001, and continued to tour yearly until they called it quits in 2014.

But in 2011, Peter “Spider” Stacy, who was living in New Orleans and working on a Pogues musical with the team from HBO’s The Deuce and The Wire, saw a set from the Lost Bayou Ramblers that had a familiar verve, despite a wholly different background. Stacy, who handled tin whistle for The Pogues took over vocals when MacGowan was fired from the band in 1991, sat in with the Ramblers for a few gigs and the Cajun musicians learned some Pogues songs.

Adding original Pogues bassist Cáit O’Riordan last year boosted the authenticity of the group which adopted a touring name Poguetry from the 1986 EP “Poguetry in Motion.” The group is on its biggest US tour to date, blending the sound and fury of The Pogues with some Cajun fervor. The Grammy-winning Ramblers open the shows with their own set as well.

We caught up with O’Riordan, 55, over the phone from New York. shortly after the first gig on the tour which continues this weekend in Philly, DC, Brooklyn, and beyond.

You just played the first gig of this tour last weekend at Tipitina’s in New Orleans. How did it go?

It went great. It’s an amazing venue. And it was Friday night in New Orleans. But it was the Friday after Mardi Gras, so we weren’t sure what state people would be in. But people just wanted to dance and have a good time, which is everything that you could want from an audience.

How did it all get started?

Spider lived in Louisiana and he went out one night and saw this band, the Lost Bayou Ramblers, and he just immediately amazed by them and introduced himself and they all got along great and they started writing together. Spider was a guest on the Ramblers album that won a Grammy last year (for Best Regional Roots Music Album), Kalenda. They tried out a few gigs.

And then me and Spider met up in Dublin at a big concert that was celebrating Shane MacGowan’s 60th birthday at Ireland’s National Concert Hall [in 2018]. Spider and I were in the house band for that and that went great; and we just got to talking, and we started talking about Louisiana, and he said, “You should come out and do some gigs with us.” So I did. We did some Christmas gigs and they were great. I just had the same reaction to the Ramblers as he did. I thought these guys are incredible. It’s such a pleasure to work with them.

They seem to come from such a different background—Cajun rather than Celtic.

Obviously it is, it’s a different background. But there’s so many parallels. It’s that thing of carrying a culture inside you, but being surrounded by a different culture, a much different culture that is trying to crush out your own culture. When you’re put under that pressure, you either crumble or you get stronger in your own culture, which very much happened with the London Irish under Thatcher. And I see these guys, the Cajuns, cause they’re working really hard to keep their music alive and their language alive—there’s a lot of parallels there.

Were they even aware of The Pogues when Spider first met them?

I don’t know. I couldn’t imagine why they would be. In my world I’m pretty urban, my life is pretty much Dublin, London, New York, Boston, LA. In that world—people my age—everybody knows “Fairytale of New York” at least. They all have an image of, if not The Pogues, they’ll see Shane in their mind’s eye and have a whole idea of what goes on with that—mostly drinking and the rowdiness and the green beer. I just love the opportunity to just iterate always that Shane is actually one of the great Irish poets. I always encourage people to listen to the lyrics. But if they do just want to dance and yell, that’s good too.

Have you played this music much in the intervening years since you left the band?

I didn’t at first. I was very ill for about 20 years, I didn’t do anything. But once I started to get better, I started to work with a guy called Phil Chevron, who I had worked with in The Pogues. We connected back in Dublin, I think around 2003. He wanted to get his band, called the Radiators from Space—which was the very first punk band in Dublin in the ‘70s—he wanted to start giggling and play the old punk songs again. They had some problem with their original bass player, and Chevy said to me I could take the gig, so I started working again. We jammed a few Pogues tunes for auld lang syne.

And I’d do a few gigs with some local folk trad musicians, and we’d always play “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day” or “Sally MacLennane”—all these Pogues tunes. And every year, whoever was gigging in town, would call up and say, “You want to come up and do ‘Fairytale of New York’ with us?” So I was always keeping my hands in The Pogues’ music. It’s great to be able to play a full set with a rocking band.

And you’re back playing bass.

It’s the only thing I can play. I can handle four strings and that’s it. Anything more than that, I’m just confused.

Is that the only instrument you ever played?

Yeah.

And how did you come to it?

I was a homeless teenager in London—I was living in a hostel, and there was a guy that started a kind of community center for teenagers. The idea was to keep us out of trouble. I remember, it was like a big garage, really, on the outskirts of Notting Hill, when Notting Hill was quite a rough area around 1980-81. He got this lock-up and got these instruments that punk bands would donate or community services would donate. Just, you know, 30-40 of us kids hitting things, and sort of learning to play. I just picked up the bass. And I just loved it immediately. I loved the noise you could make with it.

Then when I met Shane, I mentioned I had a bass guitar and I played it. It was after he’d already done a gig with Spider and a couple of the other lads, a proto-Pogues acoustic band. I met them the day after their first gig, and he said, “We’re not loud enough. We’re going to need to add electric instruments and amplification.” So he said, “Come to our rehearsal and you can be our bass player.” It sounded so casual, and it just totally affected my life ever since. It was like a miracle that’s given me this incredible life.

The Pogues music has held up over the years, for young and old. Who was in your audience at Tipitina’s, for example?

It’s a mix. I can’t see a lot from the stage but I could see people singing all the words. And there’s some deep cuts in the set now, for people who really, really know their Pogues, and other people who come out just to see this thing that’s happening. We don’t charge a lot, even though it’s a big band. It’s a good value.

We did a gig in Brooklyn last year, and I recognized people who used to come to our set years ago. It was like everybody who loved the Pogues from the 1980s and missed us showed up. And it was amazing. Every hair on me was just standing on end when I recognized, oh my God, this is like the original Pogues audience and they’ve come to see us in 2019, it was an incredible feeling and a tribute to what Shane created in his songwriting. It’s jaw-dropping, such talent.

You’re singing “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day” in every show?

Yeah, it’s been a real way of connecting with people down the years. Anywhere I’ve gone, if there are Pogues fans around, everyone knows me through that song. If I get introduced, “This is Rocky from The Pogues,” they’ll say, “Oh, ‘I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day!’”

That song didn’t have to be on Rum, Sodomy & the Lash—there are other songs. But just the fact that it went on there, and it turned out to be such an important album, it’s a great way of people connecting with me and me connecting with them.

And you’ve brought out the duet “Haunted” as well.

We wrote “Haunted” for a film called Sid and Nancy, and we were doing the soundcheck for Joe Strummer, so we just recorded this song “Haunted,” and it was produced by Craig Leon who was Blondie’s producer.

I can’t remember why Spider or Louis [Michot] from the Ramblers called that one. I’d done it a few times with some friends, ‘cause it’s really easy to play and sing. There’s a lot of songs that I can’t play and sing because the baseline is syncopated against the vocal and it’s like trying to pat your head and rub your tummy. It’s just really difficult. But “Haunted” is really easy to play, and it’s just getting bigger and bigger every time we do it. The Ramblers really add amazing layers to it.

I see you’re doing “London Calling” in the set as well. Is that to honor Joe Strummer and his connection to The Pogues when he stepped in to briefly front the band after Shane was fired?

Yeah, and it’s our roots, too. The Clash were our roots, our punk roots. And Joe was an important friend to the band. He kind of saved the band when Shane was fired [for unreliability]. And the fact that he’s gone [Strummer died in 2002 at 50] is so head-spinning. But the Cajuns love the song. Again, we take this song that you think you know and the Cajuns just go wild on it. It’s very exciting.

Do you only do “Fairytale of New York.” at Christmastime now?

It would be really ridiculous to do it any other time.

I remember seeing The Pogues doing it in March. If there’s one Christmas song that could be played year-round, it’s probably that one.

Even if they tried to put it on the list, I would refuse.

Are there some old songs you would like them to add to the setlist?

We were just talking about this. Because Spider is a proper musician, a really gifted musician and songwriter, his thoughts about the gig are: How good can we make it musically? How will it be as a music performance? Whereas, I’m really not a musician. I’m very much just someone who just goes to gigs all the time. My point of view: I kind of think more like an audience member than a musician. Is the audience going to enjoy this? Is the audience going to have a good time?

So we balance each other very well. But it does mean that for me—if I was in charge of a setlist—I would literally just look at a Pogues Greatest Hits album, and say, “Let’s just do this.” You know, I’d say, we have to do “Sally MacLennane,” we got to do the big idiot ones that I love and make me pogo around with a big smile on my face. But fortunately Spider just has much better taste and a much bigger vision for it than that. So it’s good—there’s a tension between what’s on the list and what could be on the list.

I guess you saw Shane at his 60th birthday. Are you in touch with him very much?

Yeah, but not enough. He’s in a wheelchair, and he’s been in it for a few years. It’s really upsetting. It’s horrible to see. I try not to dwell on it, but people are always thinking up projects or ways they can use Shane’s name. Like, people will book an entire festival, and they’ll say Shane’s the headliner, when what that really means is they wheel Shane on at the end to do one song.

Or they’ll say, “We’re going to make a film about Shane MacGowan.” Again, that doesn’t actually help Shane. That doesn’t help Shane’s health. It’s just one of those things. It’d be great if everyone interested in Shane were directed into trying to get Shane healthy and out of the wheelchair again. But I just keep lighting candles for him and hoping.

Are you doing later Pogues when you weren’t in the band? Are you learning some songs you’ve never played before?

Yeah. There’s stuff off an album called Peace and Love. I’m not entirely sure where it comes in the oeuvre. But yeah, they’re fantastic songs. There’s a song called “USA” and “Cotton Fields,” and “Turkish Song of the Damned.” They’re really exciting to play. Tipitina’s was the first time I ever performed them.

You co-wrote about a handful of songs with Elvis Costello when you were with him, on albums like King of America, Blood & Chocolate, Spike and Mighty Like a Rose. Are any of those songs close to you or songs you’d like to perform?

No.

What of another band you were in for a while, PreNup?

Oh, that was a long time ago with two of the guys who are in an Irish band called the Hothouse Flowers. I think the Flowers were on a sabbatical for some reason and two of the lads wanted to keep playing and keep working and they’d come up with a bunch of songs. They said, come and play bass on these songs and we played a few gigs. But once the Hothouse Flowers went back to work, that was the end of that.

Are there other musical projects you’re involved with or want to do?

Yeah. In the States with my work visa, I work with a band at the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan in Hell’s Kitchen. We do a gig there once a month. I’m in a folk band, Avon Faire, it’s a kind of funk harmony group and they bring me in for some louder songs because they’re proper singers. So sometimes when they need a bit of a rougher voice, they let me in. I’m really good at sea shanties. That’s my superpower! I go and sing sea shanties with some folk singers. There’s all kinds of random things popping up in New York.

Do you have some strong memories of vinyl from your life that you can share?

Oh yeah, just the age I am—I was born in the beginning of 1965. It was like the very first week of Generation X. Landmarks in my life used to get marked out by records. Like, I remember the first record I bought with my own pocket money, which was an Elvis Presley single in a secondhand shop near where I lived. It was “T-R-O-U-B-L-E.” Not an Elvis classic, but I loved Elvis when I was a kid.

And that was the first record I bought with my own pocket money. And then when I started my first grownup job, even though I was 14 or 15, my first wage packet from the waitressing gig I used to do after school, I went and bought Boy by U2 at the record store. But it wasn’t long after that CDs kind of appeared, and the artwork got so small and the cases would always break. I hated those fucking things.

And then when Neil Young said digital music is like taking a photograph of music, I just couldn’t listen to it the same any more. I’m glad vinyl’s back. I wish it wasn’t so expensive, though.

Yeah, I don’t know what makes it so expensive these days.

Because people will pay for it.

Right. Well, what do you expect to imagine with Poguetry in Motion? Are you talking about recording some new stuff?

I couldn’t imagine it. I mean our posters literally say “Poguetry: Songs of the Pogues.” So it is what it is. But the Lost Bayou Ramblers are a going concern. They won a Grammy last year, so they’ve got big plans and the world’s open to them. My thing is that I’d always like to be available so we could do St. Patrick’s Day gigs and Christmas gigs.

The Poguetry tour with the Lost Bayou Ramblers plays the City Wineries in Philadelphia March 6, Atlanta March 12, and Nashville March 13. It also plays the The Black Cat in DC March 7, Rough Trade in Brooklyn March 8, and the Ready Room in St. Louis March 14. Poguetry also plays NPR Live Sessions from Philly’s WXPN Friday, March 6 at noon EDT.

PHOTOS ABOVE: ZACH SMITH

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