Forming amid The Troubles in 1977, Stiff Little Fingers were one of a handful of Irish punk bands that rose to prominence at the height of the genre’s dominance over the UK independent music scene, their homeland arming them with enough artillery to create some of the most arresting and potent punk rock records of the time.
Fast-forward to 2014 and SLF frontman Jake Burns is sitting in a recording studio in Los Angeles, putting the final vocal tracks on No Going Back, the band’s tenth studio album. The album was entirely crowdfunded through PledgeMusic, the band hitting their target within twelve hours.
“Thanks to it we are now completely independent again,” says Jake. “We really don’t have anybody to answer to except ourselves…but something I became aware of very quickly is that you’d go into the studio, not that anyone ever sets out to make a bad record, but you would take longer or you’d go wandering off dark alleyways and at the end of the day you’d think, ‘Well, it’s EMI’s money.’”
“This time, we’ve very much aware that it’s our audience’s money that we’re spending and they’ve shown a huge amount of faith in us,” says Jake. “I mean, they’re basically all pre-buying a record they’ve never heard a note of!” Jake, however, makes it clear that their faith is justified.
“It’s not like I’m short of subject matter these days,” he says. Jake had previously stated that his songwriting starts with something that gets him angry, but, he says, “it’s not so much things that make me angry as things that offend my sense of justice.” Listing the subjects tackled on No Going Back he cites the Bernie Madoff investment scandal, “the collapse of the banking industry,” and the Catholic sex abuse scandal, which Jake says hit close to home.
“We happened to be in Ireland at the time that came to light. I saw guys being interviewed and to see these people come out and actually be brave enough to talk about that, particularly in a society as patriarchally based as Ireland where the church has so much control…it dawned on me that they were pretty much exactly the same age as I was.”
The No Going Back process began when an older Jake, now living in Chicago, celebrated his 50th birthday. “I’m not big on birthdays, but because it was the fiftieth my wife was determined to make a big deal of it and I said, ‘Look, I just wanna go down to the pub with a couple of pals and have a beer.’ So she took me at my word and basically flew in as many pals as she could find.”
“It was a bit like an episode of This Is Your Life,” Jake quips. “And I think because she made such a fuss about it, the fiftieth thing kind of stuck in my head…and I came home after the tour and sat down and listened through all of the songs that I’d written and I kind of realised that I could’ve written these when I was twenty.”
“They sounded a bit like I was writing because I had to, not because I wanted to,” explains Jake. “I kind of threw them out. I kept bits and pieces and tried not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I did want to go back and rewrite the songs in I guess a more grown up way.”
Looking back on Stiff Little Fingers’ catalogue, Jake is reminded that the songs he had indeed written 40 years ago are still, sadly, very relevant. “I was obviously hoping that by now the situation in Northern Ireland would have settled itself down and those songs would almost be like folk songs of ‘Do you remember the terrible times in the past?’”
“It’s obviously a much safer place than it used to be,” he concedes, “it’s a much more stable place than it used to be, but you can still tell that there’s still a certain amount of tension just beneath the surface, so when we go back, there are still reminders that the songs are all still sadly relevant today, albeit not on the scale when we wrote them.”
It’s this awareness that drove Jake and the band to donate a portion of the album funds to the Integrated Education Fund, who encourage integrated schools in Northern Ireland. “When [bass player Ali McMordie] and myself were growing up in Ireland, the school you went to defined where you came from, it defined to a large extent, even if you weren’t religious, what religion people at least assumed you were and it was always the case of ‘And never the twain shall meet,” says Jake.
Jake will soon come face-to-face with his Australian fans as part of the forthcoming Soundwave tour and he’s already formulated the Stiff Little Fingers mission statement for the tour, saying, “Even though we have been to Australia once before, we’ve really only scratched the surface.”
“I think we’ve gotta approach it that these people have never seen us before and we’ve probably only got a limited amount of time to play for them…but for a band that never had a hit, we’re basically going to be playing the greatest hits.”
“We’ve always tried to be honest with our audience,” says Jake, attempting to dissect the band’s longevity. “I’ve always written songs that have meant something to me and that have offended my sense of justice and I seem to share a lot of the same concerns that our audience do and I think that’s another reason that people have stuck by us.”
“I’ve spoken to many audience members,” he says, “and occasionally we get into why they like the band and a lot of people have mentioned those sorts of things, and then you get other people who say, ‘No, I don’t care about all that. I just like that you play loud and fast.’ Well, that’s fine too.”