Wayward Q&A: Interview with Philip Chevron of the Pogues

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This Sunday, semin ... no, wait. Legen-- nah. Fucking righteous Irish rock band the Pogues is playing its first concert ever in Kansas City. Brief history: The band formed in the early '80s in London, forcing punk and traditional Irish music together like opponents in a drinking contest who both end up on the barroom floor, talking to God and hugging. Beginning with the trio of singer and songwriter Shane MacGowan, tin whistler Spider Stacy and guitarist Jim Fearnley, the group first called itself Pogue Mahone (Gaelic for "kiss my ass") and began adding members, releasing its first album as the Pogues, Red Roses for Me, in 1984. The album caught critical attention and established the band as the most exciting group in the UK working with traditional folk forms. But it was the 1985 album Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, produced by Elvis Costello, that broke the band as a worldwide phenomenon. The Pogues continued their run with 1988's masterful If I Should Fall from Grace with God, but by the time the following year's imperfect but solid Peace and Love came out, things had gotten rocky.

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MacGowan's reputedly titanic overindulgences were taking their toll. Stacy and banjo player Jem Finer sang most of the vocals on LP no. 4, Hell's Ditch, and shortly after, MacGowan was out altogether. The band soldiered on, recruiting the Clash's Joe Strummer to sing on tour and recording the final Pogues album, Waiting for Herb, with Stacy at the mic. Meanwhile, MacGowan returned on his own with backing band the Popes. Neither MacGowan nor the Pogues fared well without each other, however. The first reunion tour was in 2001. Since then, the Pogues have hit the road intermittently over the years to play their classics: songs about joy, drunkeness, working-class rebellion, the Irish immigration experience, love and being in a band. "Young men's songs," as Philip Chevron calls them.

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Guitarist Philip Chevron (born Philip Ryan) joined the band just before Rum, Sodomy & the Lash. His best-known contribution is the immigration ballad "Thousands Are Sailing," off Grace. He's also known (mainly in the UK) for his ongoing punk band the Radiators. At 52 and a cancer survivor, Chevron is articulate and forthcoming. Constantly interacting with fans on the Pogues fan forum, Chevron is circumspect about the Pogues' tumultuous career and seems just as ready to debate politics -- he has a vehement dislike for the Westboro Baptist Church -- as remember old times. We caught up with Chevron on the phone from Dublin a couple of weeks before the beginning of this fall tour. Though it was a long, fascinating interview with a generous and entertaining man, we don't even want to think what our phone bill's going to be for the international call. Please, folks, savor these words. Keep them in your heart. Or at least buy us a beer on Sunday at the Midland.

Wayward Blog: How did you get the name Chevron?

Philip Chevron: I can't remember. It's a long time ago, and I've been Chevron a lot longer than my original name. I suppose I wanted to impress American hotel concierges or receptionists that my father was a big oil millionaire or something. And maybe I thought it would get me a better table at restaurants, and if that's the case, it certainly hasn't worked. [Laughs.]

How did you feel overall about the dates you played earlier this year?

They went pretty good, actually. It's sorted of worked quite well for us, splitting America up into March and October, as it were. It means we can get to the East Coast in March and the West Coast in October. The shows have been pretty good, and we also did some shows in Europe over the summer that were good. So, it still works for us, I guess, and the audience.

What does the band do to prepare for going on tour?

At this stage, because we've been at it for so long, we just do a minimum of rehearsal in whatever the first city is. So we'll rehearse in Seattle a day or two before we do our Seattle gig. I guess if we don't know the songs by now, we'll never know them.

How's your health?

Thank you, I'm very well, actually. The danger seems to have passed, at least for the time being, so I'm feeling very good, quite strong again. That was a scary moment while it lasted.

Your struggle with the disease [throat cancer] took place over two years, right?

Yeah, pretty much. It takes almost that long just to get the fucking chemotherapy out of your system, which is the big problem everybody has who gets treated for cancer - it's not so much the cancer that wrecks you, it's the treatment that wrecks you. And if you don't have the treatment, you're leaving yourself wide open for even worse. But it does take a long, long time to get it out of your system, and I got pretty heavy doses of it and simultaneous radiation as well.

Were you covered by the Irish health care system?

My main home is in Britain, so I'm covered by the NHS. That much-reviled NHS that the American right are pointing to as a faulty mechanism for health care [laughs], without which, I wouldn't be talking to you.

You support the NHS, then?

Well, absolutely. They saved my life twice, why wouldn't I? I basically believe in the principle that societies deserve to do what it takes to make sure they're the healthiest they can be, if only because healthy societies are also productive ones. It's very disconcerting to see that so many people in America have financial issues and bankruptcy issues and just let their health deteriorate because they can't afford health insurance. It's just a no-brainer to me. The British basically gave themselves health insurance as a gift for helping to win the Second World War, and it was just the greatest social gesture of the 20th century, really. And every society that's emulated it since has found it works.

Don't get me wrong -- it's faulty. It will always be faulty, because as long as you've got an aging population who are getting sicker later and living longer and so on, it's going to be economically problematic to keep people covered health wise. But nevertheless, to me it's one of those irrefutable principles that, you know, there aren't any two ways about it. You have to keep your society well and you have to work as best as you can toward keeping them well even if it does create burdens of taxation or whatever. Because it can't be healthy to live in a society when there's that degree of uncertainty about health. But, anyway, I didn't mean to talk about the national debate [laughs].

Is all well with the rest of the band?

As far as I know, yes. We're all getting on a bit, obviously, so we have all the sort of, uh [laughs], usual minor ailments and creaking bones that come with advancing age and receding hairlines and all the rest. But as far as I can tell, everybody's in pretty good shape. Shane had a recent bout with mild pneumonia, but apparently it's pretty much gone now.

On this tour, you're coming to some American cities you've never played before?

We've certainly never been to Kansas City before. And we've not been to, let me see, where else? We've not been to Tempe, Arizona, or Denver, for that matter. So all that section of the tour is quite exciting to us because there's always that joy of first discovery when you go anywhere for the first time. And even after all this time, there are still many places we've not played. We're just inveterate explorers. We feel the need to observe new surroundings and report on them, if you like.

What do you like to do when you're visiting a city for the first time?

That's a good question, but I'm not really sure what the answer is. Personally, if there's something I know that I want to see there in advance, if I've researched it, I'll aim to go to see that -- like in Madrid I went to the Prado Museum and things like that. But if it's somewhere that I don't particularly have a great consciousness about, you kind of just tend to let your instinct dictate where you go and what you do and respond to your surroundings. That's what we've always done as a band, anyway. Rather than go out and find things, they find us. So, I don't have any particular things I want to see in Kansas City, but I hope there will be things that will draw me to them nonetheless. And after that, we're in Texas for about a week, which is great because it's been a long, long, long time since we've played Texas, and I've always liked it there. I visit Texas frequently, just as a visitor. I have friends in San Antonio, which is nice. And then we finish off in Halloween in New Orleans, which has gotta be the best time to be there.

What should fans expect from the upcoming shows?

We try to concentrate on pretty much what people would expect us to play, I think, which I would consider to be the best stuff from our best albums and best-known things as well. We do vary things a bit. We shake it up a little bit and add one or two new songs every tour during the tour and drop a couple of things for a while, give them a rest. So it tends to be a Pogues greatest hits set, except obviously outside of Christmas, we don't play "Fairytale of New York."

It seems that a lot of people would come to the show mainly to see Shane. How do you feel about his role in the band, personally and professionally?

Well, it's a moot point. They come to see Shane, but basically, they come to see the Pogues. Because Shane's attendance figures didn't have the numbers when he was on his own, and neither did ours [laughs]. So it's the combination that people want to see, rather than going to see just Shane or just to see the Pogues. I think without a shadow of a doubt, it's that combination of those eight people who are considered to be the classic Pogues lineup is what people come to see. And obviously Shane is a huge part of that -- he's the focal point of it.

I don't know, I can only speak for myself, but I really enjoy working with him. It's been a bit of a kick to watch him and the band grow into the songs as we've gotten older. They are young men's songs, but because they have a wisdom beyond their years, from the writer's point of view -- from Shane's point of view. It's been fascinating to watch him grow into the characters he's written about, in songs like "The Old Main Drag" and "Pair of Brown Eyes," and just as he's gotten older and we've gotten older, the texts of the songs come to life in a different way. And I think that's what keeps it fresh for us, is that the songs, although people might have nostalgic feelings about some of them, if they know our catalog, they're living organisms. They exist as things that live and breathe in the moment that they're performed, and they're different now in that respect from how they were 20 years ago, say. And that's what I like about it.

I think it would be very dull if we were just playing a mechanical greatest hits set that we were playing by rote. People bring different things to it. They're the same people, but they're older, they're wiser, they've seen a bit more of the world. You feel all that being applied to the material. I certainly do. You feel how other people have responded to life, really. It sounds dreadfully pompous, but it's actually true. It's not meant to be pompous -- it's actually a very small point, but it's what keeps you doing it. You begin to feel the changes in the work over the years, and that is what keeps it interesting for us, if not for the audience. For all I know, the audience may hear it exactly as they did 20 years ago.

You said that they're "young men's songs"...

They are in the sense that they were written by young men. Shane and myself and whoever else was writing at the time were all in our late 20s. In that respect, they're young men's songs. But I suppose what I meant to indicate by that was that they, in many cases, especially in Shane's work, take an old man's point of view in the song. So, you've got the verse in "The Old Main Drag" where the guy is looking back on his life -- he's a down-and-out, a bum, and he's looking back on how his life used to be and how he thought it was going to be. And where I think the theater of it comes in, is that you've got Shane now singing that song, and that hasn't been his lot. His life has been alternative to that, but it so easily could have been the character in the song. That tension is always interesting to me. So that's what I meant about them being young men's songs -- they have the arrogance of being written by somebody taking a point of view that's older than the person who wrote them, and it turning out to be the case or not to be the case as you catch up to the age of the song itself.

Are you surprised at the foresight you had as songwriters?

I don't consider it foresight. I think it's just, whatever position you took back in 1985, whether you were right or wrong, it's still interesting in 2009. You don't pat yourself on the back and say, "Ha, wow, I was prescient about that." That's not what makes it interesting. What makes it interesting is what the results of that is, whether it's negative or positive or interesting or completely dumb. The results are what's interesting, the outcome is what's interesting. Because that's not something you can predict. You wouldn't dare to have been prescient. I don't think any of us were writing songs in the hope that they would stand the test of time. You just write songs. And the next thing, you wake up and you've been singing them for 30 years, and people still like hearing them. And that's not something you can ever predict or allow for or account for. If you did, you'd go mad, and you'd never write another song again. [Laughs.] I still get royalties from the first song I ever had published, with my first band, and I wrote it in half an hour, and I always think if I'd known that I'd still be getting paid for it 33 years later, I would've written it better. But then again, I might not be getting paid for it 33 years later had I written it better.

What song was that?

The Radiators' first single, "Television Screen." It's something you don't reckon on when you get into this business that at some level your catalog's always going to be ticking along [laughs]. Even at a purely bottom-feeder sort of level, it's still ticking along, people are still buying it, it's still out there, it's still part of the great mass of music out there, it's still being accessed. When you stop to think about it, it's surprising because that's not why you did it. It may be why somebody today might do it. I think things have changed in that respect. People now sit down and plan careers in the music business, and, you know, get their accountant and their lawyer in place before they learn to play the guitar. That certainly isn't how I started or how anyone I know started, because there wasn't a career to be had, especially not if you were in Ireland. It was a foolish hobby at best. Because it didn't pay, and in order to make any impact at all, you had to leave and go to England.

Even with music, immigration has always been the story of Ireland, and at that stage, Thin Lizzy and Horslips and Rory Gallagher and Van Morrison had all earned whatever international fame they had by leaving Ireland. It wasn't until U2 changed the paradigm a bit that Ireland became a place you could actually base yourself in and make music. So it was a foolish career move [laughs], thinking that you might write songs that other people might listen to. But nevertheless, it wasn't a career move because it was something you just had to do. And I often wonder if people's motives are different for starting bands nowadays -- not all of them, but some of them. There will always be people who just need to do it because that's their mode of expression.

So many bands your age touring now market themselves on nostalgia from the '70s or the '80s, but Pogues songs seem more classic and timeless and not part of any trend that was happening at the time.

I suppose what it is, is that we're not part of any genre except for one that we ourselves invented by accident. So, you know, we're not like anything else except what came after us. There are bands that sound a bit like us who are inspired by or influenced by what we did [...]. When you go and see Duran Duran or somebody, you can't escape the fact that it's a heavily limited, compressed sound they have that was invented in recording studios in the early 1980s. In contrast, what we did was just that we got Elvis Costello to record us pretty much au naturel. So it wasn't that sense that we belonged to a decade, because we were already, in one sense, old fashioned when we started.

At the same time, it was exciting because we weren't old fashioned, because were doing something that hadn't been done before, but its roots were ancient. Its roots were ancient, but they were in the culture somewhere but just hadn't been identified before. So, yeah, if there is a nostalgia factor about the Pogues, it isn't what makes it tick, it isn't what's important about it, and it isn't what makes it still important for us all these years later. It's just that the material was good, and it was individual, and nobody else had ever done it quite the same way. Or even attempted to. [Laughs.] There's always an element of serendipity about what a band like the Pogues does. Some of your finest moments can be created out of horrible mistakes or errors of judgment, lapses of taste [laughs], and that's what makes it work.

Any moments like that in particular?

Well, there's one, it's not a terribly well-known song. There's a song called "Sit Down By the Fire" on the If I Should Fall from Grace with God album, which we've never been able to play live because there's a technical error in it about halfway through that we all slipped into. We all slipped down a crack while we were recording it on backing tracks -- we did all our backing tracks pretty much as a live band. But we were never able to reproduce it. It was just one of those mistakes that sounds like jazz [laughs], in the purest sense. It just sounds like you've left the bar temporarily, you've left the measure, you've left the time signature ... It's just a wonderful mistake -- you need to accept that you did it badly and that's why it works.

I did that with my previous band, where you argue with the drummer to have another go at it because it's just fucking wrong. But it's not wrong, it's just different, it's just not the way you meant to play it [laughs]. And we were quite good at recognizing when we fucked up like that, that it was a fuckup that worked. So there are some Pogues songs that the Pogues can't play. And that may account for some people's frustration at trying to be the Pogues and not quite managing it.

You're very active on the official Pogues forum. It seems unusual for a musician in a famous band to interact with fans so closely. What do you get out of that?

First of all, it's not remotely unusual to me, it's just something that I enjoy doing, and I notice that Christy Moore does it and a few other people do it. I would put the question to you the other way: "Why don't more people do it?" It seems perfectly natural to me that in an Internet age, you would engage with people who like what you do and are interested in what you do. And I think the reverse is the strangeness, is that people don't do that. What are they holding back? What are they withholding from their fans? What are they trying to keep private that can't be told? But I just generally like communication.

I mean, first of all, it's not even my forum. It's not an official Pogues forum. The fact that we're tolerated as guests there is very generous of them. They might have been, "Look, this is a Pogues fan forum, you're not allowed here [laughs], because we want to say nasty things about you." Which they do sometimes, and that's fine. But, you know, initially people will come on and notice myself or sometimes Spider or James Fearnley posting, and they kind of go "Is it the real one?" because they think it must be somebody posing as us. But once they get used to it, they immediately just start telling us what they think of us and, you know, how awful our ticket prices are and et cetera. And if you do get a degree of distance or respect, I always put it down to the fact that I'm just older than them, and they're the sort of people who would just be gentler to a 52-year-old man. Because actually there are a lot of younger people in there who couldn't possibly have seen us the first time round and have picked up on us because their mom or dad had the records or their parents met at a Pogues gig. One of the nice things is that it has kind of been generation gapless. Whatever we do, right from the beginning, appeared to appeal to everybody regardless of what the record companies thought their target age might be. And that has remained the case, which is kind of nice.

You recently posted to the forum about the Westboro Baptist Church, which, unfortunately, is based closed to here.

Oh, right, it's in Missouri is it?

It's in Topeka, Kansas.

Oh right, OK, OK.

You realize that if they find out you've been talking about them, they'll probably come picket your show.

That would be great! Perhaps they'll put a counter on us to see how many days we'll be in hell. I'm always going on about them. I've even written a song about them for a Radiators record a few years ago. I just find their hatred so vile that they must be challenged, and it always astounds me that they're not challenged more often. They seem to get away with murder. I think there's an element where the First Amendment can be taken a bit too literally in America [laughs]. You know the Westboro Baptist Church website has a counter on it of how many days Matthew Shepherd's in hell, in their opinion. Which is great for his mother to know. And every day it counts off another day. It is unbelievable. These people are completely nuts. And what I was trying to point out in the forum is that if you don't challenge these people, suddenly you turn around and hatred gets a degree of normalcy. And if you're an ordinary Baptist, you find that you've been tarred by the same brush, and overnight you've become a fundamentalist lunatic because you haven't bothered to challenge people who have [tarnished] the name Baptist.

So, it's not a big issue, it's just something that every time it crops up, it's something I respond to because they irritate the hell out of me. They're fucking lunatics. I've absolutely nothing against them parading around the streets saying what they want to, I just wish more people would say, "We don't agree with you. We think you're nuts. We think you're completely bonkers." But there's an aspect in America, where rather than say that people say, "We'll just ignore them because we don't agree with them, and anyone with a shred of sense wouldn't agree with them them." But that doesn't stop them, and it doesn't stop the hatred and the erosion of the human spirit which is the only counterbalance we've got against that hatred.

Why do you think so many Americans don't follow world politics?

Well, American politics are world politics. It's the superpower, the sole superpower. Even on just the level of soft power, America is just so very powerful, and there are aspects of America and Americanism that people aspire to and are probably right to aspire to. But there isn't any country in the world apart from America where, if the American president makes a political or military or economic decision, it doesn't stop at the borders of the United States. It affects the whole world. Which is why people like me feel entitled to comment on American current affairs because the knock-on effect hits us and sometimes hurts us equally. And when things are going well there, I think it's important to lend your support. I don't have a vote in America, but I do have a voice, which I express whenever possible about what I think about what's going on. There just isn't another country that has that effect in the world.

And I understand that there's a degree of resentment in America when people who aren't Americans comment on what's going on in America. But those are Americans who don't realize there's a world outside of America, and they don't count. Because if they seriously think that's the case, then their opinions aren't worth much anyway, and they certainly aren't going to become opinion formers.

I think there's a lively engagement between what we'd call progressives in America and progressives in the rest of the world, that there's some sort of common cause that's worth pursuing because we recognize it's a smaller world. It's a tiny world, it's ever dwindling thanks to the communications and technology advances that have been made in the past hundred years. No country is an island anymore -- especially the United States because of the degree of power, the degree of economic clout. [...]

I think it was good for some people in America to get feedback from the rest of the world that people broadly approved of President Obama while he was campaigning. Especially after the naked hatred there was for the last guy all over the world, I think it must've been helpful to know that, at the very least, this guy was broadly approved of and there wasn't going to be a repeat of the hatred factor. [...] I think that's where the genuine engagement between progressives in America and progressives elsewhere came about -- that sort of feedback was helpful. You know, because I probably have seen more of America than most Americans have, and that's the nature of my job and the nature of my curiosity and the nature of my habitual travel. I don't think that qualifies uniquely me to speak about America, but it does give me a voice that is at least worth hearing, if people care to listen to it. If they don't, that's fine as well, you know, I don't care. It won't stop me. [Laughs.]

Have observed any differences on your travels this year since the election?

Well, I suppose you get inured to that to some extent because if you're spending most of your time in San Antonio, Texas, or New York City, you're not going to bump into a lot of gun-toting Bush fanatics very often -- well, sometimes you do, but not often. And it's been a while since we've been down south [laughs]. So, ask me that question after this tour, and I'll be better equipped to answer it. Though, in saying that, some of my fondest memories of older Pogues tours are in fact in the southern states, with some amazing gigs we did in Austin. And in Birmingham, Alabama, in particular, there was a very good one we did in 1989.

Any hope of new songs or a new record?

I honestly don't know. For a while we were saying "Let's keep an open mind about that." And we meant that. [...] This eight-piece lineup is now around for twice as long as it was the first time around, which is an achievement in itself, given that it was the touring that destroyed us in the first place. A couple of years in, we did give it serious consideration, and we bounced around a few ideas. But it never really ignited in a way that made it something that we just had to do. There were reasons for doing it that struck us as not particularly the right reasons for doing it, which would've been that we had a burning desire to make a record, and we found we didn't.

We found that over the years, we've all taken on different projects that operate outside of the Pogues to hugely varying degrees of theatrical and musical interest. And I suppose so much of one's urge to keep creating new material is eaten up by those projects that it doesn't leave a great imperative for the Pogues to continue -- mainly because, as I was saying at the beginning, in a sense, we're still working on these songs, we're still learning them, we're still learning from them. They're still telling us new things about themselves. So, we're not standing there playing songs that we've played a hundred times or a thousand times before, necessarily. Each time we play it, it seems, I think, genuinely to us like it's a new performance. It's a new challenge each time. Occasionally you go on auto-pilot, but not very often -- rarely, in fact. And I think that eats up such a huge chunk of what the Pogues is that there appears not to be a great deal of room left for new material.

So, I'll just have to say what I always say, which is that we've never closed the door on the idea, but neither have we felt wildly enthused about it. So that remains the case. It could be that one day Shane comes to us with a half dozen songs that absolutely must be recorded. Albums take on an imperative of their own, I suppose. But the seed of that imperative, it hasn't ever grown into anything other than idle speculation, for ourselves and for other people. I suppose people today have written it off as never going to happen, but, you know, that's always unwise to say that with the Pogues. [Laughs.] Always.

The Pogues play Sunday, October 25, at the http://www.pogues.com/forum/search.php?author_id=158&sr=posts">Midland by AMC with guests the Detroit Cobras. Tickets are $45.25.

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