I had the great fortune of meeting and interviewing Larry Kirwan, the lead singer, primary songwriter, and the spiritual leader behind Black 47 just prior to their live, loud and raucous rock and roll performance at Finnigan's Wake in Philadelphia on March 1, 2001.
The band arrived in Philadelphia very late, and I thought there would be no time for our conversation, but Kirwan sent a Finnigan's Wake employee to summon me upstairs at 10:30 where we would talk. This was only 45 minutes before show time. The conditions were not ideal for an interview. The music of the opening act, and the din of the crowd below us, often made conversation difficult. Listening to the tape I made of our chat for the writing of this article was even harder. Larry's words were often buried in the noise of the tape, and were sometimes barely audible, but I was still able to quote him accurately.
Unfortunately, after more than 10 years of recording and performing, Black 47 remains an unknown entity to most of the radio listening and music buying public despite their deserved accolades in high profile magazines such as Time and Rolling Stone, and TV appearances with David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Conan O'Brien.
I hope what is printed here adds you to the growing army of Black 47 fans, or gives you a greater appreciation of the band's music.
CR: It seems you are very attached to your native Ireland. So why did you come to America?
CR: Do you ever go back?
LK: Yeah, I go back once a year
CR: Is all your family back there?
LK: Yeah, a lot of them.
CR: Are you an American citizen?
CR: How long have you been here?
LK: Over 20 years now.
CR: What gives you more satisfaction, composing, recording or performing with the band or writing or producing plays?
LK: I like them both. When I'm doing one I kind of long for the other sometimes.
CR: Do you act?
LK: No, never acted.
CR: Where are most of your plays produced?
LK: All around. Most in New York, some in Ireland, one's been in Liverpool.
CR: The Philadelphia area has over 40 radio stations that play music but Black 47 is never played on any of them. I only heard about you because I went to a Borders and listened to your album at one of their listening booths.
LK: XPN plays us occasionally.
CR: I listen to XPN** all the time and I've never heard you played.
LK: Yeah. They don't play us very much. We were on The World Cafe** there last year.
**Editor's Note: The World Cafe is a Nationally syndicated radio program featuring adult alternative music which originates from WXPN, 88.5 FM, Philadelphia, a non-commercial alternative music radio station owned by The University Of Pennsylvania.
CR: Oh, were you? I missed that one. I listen to that show all the time.
LK: Micheala Majoun plays us occasionally.
CR: Yes, she's the morning DJ.
LK: We don't get played because we don't fit in anywhere.
CR: Well, that was my question. Obviously, the lack of exposure stifles you from being more successful. Are you happy with this large cult following you have or do you really desire the mass success?
LK: Well, we don't change just to suit the way people think. So if that's the way it is, that's the way it is. You know, you're not going to change yourself. I don't think about it. Things like that would drive you crazy. We're happy with what we got. We get new people all the time. Is it different if you're liked by 20,000 people, 200,000 people or 2 million people? It's still a huge amount of people.
CR: How popular is Black 47 in Ireland?
LK: Not popular at all.
CR: Do they know you at all over there?
LK: Very little, because our records have pretty much been banned over there.
CR: Oh really? Why?
LK: Our records get released over there but the record companies never get behind them. We're too political.
CR: But you're pro Irish!
LK: Yeah, but not everyone in Ireland feels that way. They like the status quo. They don't like political music.
CR: Are songs like "Funky Ceili, Maria's Wedding" and "Bodhrans on the Brain" autobiograhical?
LK: Parts of them.
CR: Parts of them?
LK: Yeah, I'm not confessional. I take something that's happened and I embellish it.
CR: I think "Bodhrans" is hysterical.
CR: Actually, my favorite Black 47 song I've heard so far is "Touched By Fire." I really like that song. That one really got to me. That's why I e-mailed you and asked you about the Countess. I looked her up on the Web like you told me & there really was a lot out there about her
LK: There was a lot? She really was a remarkable woman.
CR: What kind of music do you listen to for personal enjoyment? It seems to me two obvious influences are reggae and Irish folk music.
LK: I listen to some reggae & I occasionnally listen to Irish instrumental music but, I listen to classical and jazz mostly. I listen to Miles Davis a lot and Chopin and Mozart.
CR: Do you like much rock and roll?
LK: No, not really. I've heard it all before. What's new about it?
CR: That's one of the reasons Black 47 is good. You're different.
LK: Yeah, I like the old rock and roll. I like rockabilly. I like Gene Vincent and Buddy Holly. When it started. It's like we're on the 5th generation of it and there's nothing new that turns me on. Now if I hear something new I'd like it.
CR: Are you a Beatles fan?
LK: Yeah, who wouldn't be?
CR: Too many artists that are politically oriented tend to take themselves too seriously. Black 47 has a sense of humor to go along with its political fervor. Is this a conscious decision, or is this just how the songs come out?
LK: You know, we're an eclectic band. We have a huge sense of humor amongst ourselves. We take the music seriously but we don't take ourselves seriously. Who wants to come and see a show where you're being lectured to all the time. Even with the political songs. They're done from the character's point of view, with the character laying out what they are about but the character's not saying you've got to be like me. So even though one of my favorite bands is The Clash, you could never accuse The Clash of having a sense of humor, or of not being didactic and saying you should do something like that. To me, I come from a political background but I never try and make other people believe the way I do.
CR: Why is your new solo album entitled Kilroy Was Here?
LK: I'm from Wexford in the Republic of Ireland. Near my house in this old town was a galvanized doorway and it was daubed many years ago with Kilroy Was Here. When our car would return home at night we had to turn a corner and the lights would always illuminate the words. It stayed in my mind. I went back recently to see it but the doorway and door were all gone. I wanted to keep it close in my head -- thus the title. There's a mystery to the title also and a familiarity. I like to combine the two elements in my music.
CR: And my last question I had prepared is: Are any of the songs from Kilroy going to be adapted for stage performances with the band?
LK: You know, I don't know. We don't rehearse very much and it will take a bit of rehearsing. We're doing a new live album on St. Patrick's Day. We haven't rehearsed in two years. We have a rehearsal in two weeks, but we'll be doing... we're bringing back some old Black 47 songs. Maybe at some point. I'm going around, doing some live solo shows for Kilroy Was Here. I've got to write a whole new album of songs for Black 47. So at any rehearsal we'll be doing Black 47 songs. This is a side project. The boys would like to do one or two of them. If we do them they would turn out very different which would be great.
CR: I remember that Bruce Springsteen did an album called Nebraska which was just him and a guitar and he would take some of the songs from that album and play them on stage with The E Street Band.
LK: How did they sound?
CR: Very different. They fit right in with the band's stage repetoire.
CR: Well, that was everything I had. Thank you very much.
LK: Great. I hope you got a good interview.
The following day I sent an e-mail thanking Kirwan for the interview. He apologetically replied that if he did not seem forthcoming enough it was because he was having trouble with his voice and he was trying to save it for the concert. I never noticed.