On the forefront of punk

POLITICAL ROOTS: Irish punk rock band Stiff Little Fingers arose from Belfast, Ireland in the 1970s and the conflict shaped the band musically.
POLITICAL ROOTS: Irish punk rock band Stiff Little Fingers arose from Belfast, Ireland in the 1970s and the conflict shaped the band musically.

Ahead of their three New Zealand shows, Stiff Little Fingers frontman Jake Burns tells Vicki Anderson about recording classic album Inflammable Material, the band's new found independence and the time he autographed a dog.

Irish punk rock band Stiff Little Fingers arose from Belfast, Ireland in the 1970s and the conflict shaped the band musically and politically.

Alongside The Clash, Sex Pistols, The Jam, Buzzcocks, Undertones, Sham 69 and Stranglers, et al - Stiff Little Fingers were at the forefront of the punk movement.

Their songs were snapshots of their personal lives, growing up at the height of Northern Ireland's troubles, which have political and religious roots that are centuries old, giving context to songs such Suspect Device and Wasted Life.

Stiff Little Fingers, including original members vocalist/guitarist Jake Burns and bass guitarist Ali McMordie, perform three shows in Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland.

Initially started as schoolboy band Highway Star, they became The Fast before the Stiff Little Fingers name was eventually chosen from a line in a Vibrators' song - ''. . .if it wasn't for your stiff little fingers nobody would know you were dead, '' says Burns.

''We had to drop The Fast [as in BelFast] because there was a United States band of the same name.''
The band is in its 37th year with perhaps their most well known album being 1979's Inflammable Material. Burns cites such inspirations as The Stooges, Lou Reed and Ramones.

He tries to recall recording Inflammable Material through the haze of distance.

''Spaceward Studios in Cambridge was the studio and I don't have too many memories from that time apart from remembering it was cold and we were all living in one room. Tempers flared a couple of times but we were just generally gobsmacked we had even got that far as to actually be recording an album.''

He describes 1982 album The Now Then as their most ambitious.

''Musically it was the most ambitious album of the band's career. Fell flat a couple times but overall the songs worked and the playing was well tight. We were always trying different arrangements and approaches and trying to improve our playing and looking back I think we had a bit of a chip on our shoulders from the days in Ireland when older more conservative musicians would rubbish our punky efforts.''

The band split up after six years and after releasing four albums, before reforming again in 1987. Despite lineup changes over the years they have consistently toured and are still recording.For an upcoming album, Stiff Little Fingers have returned to their independent roots, using crowd-funding site PledgeMe and Burns is pleased about their independent status.

''It feels like the only way to go so we were able to record the album we wanted to do rather than the one we had to. If I had been able to look into the future back in 1979 I wouldn't really have been surprised at this.

''As for the recording process, instruments went through a 70s Neve desk before being digitally recorded so we had the warmth of the analogue desk plus the flexibility of Pro-Tools.''The songs are about experiences over the last 10 years. A political odyssey, there's still plenty of issues to get mad about.''

Wellington fans can expect to hear such classics Alternative Ulster and Suspect Device alongside new additions.

He recalls their first live performance for which he says they played ''nearly all cover versions''.

''We played for over two hours to a few disinterested punters in east Belfast who threw beer mats and pennies at us. I guess they didn't realise it was supposed to sound like that.''Other live gigs were conducted around bomb scares in Belfast.

Championed by revered BBC Radio One DJ John Peel, Burns cites hearing their record for the first time on his show as one of his ''best'' musical moments.

Then there was the occasion when a fan asked him to ''autograph a dog''. He doesn't elaborate. But this punk legend has a softer side and occasionally even dabbles in karaoke.

''The last time was last year when a friend of mine in London who owns the Queen's Head in Brixton dragged me up to warble Country Roads . . . and if anyone posts it on YouTube they're dead.''


Stiff Little Fingers play Churchill's in Christchurch today, Bodega, Wellington on February 19 and the Powerstation on February 20.

Fairfax Media