Eoin Butler: writer, journalist and Mayoman of the Year

Tripping Along The Ledge


Published: Mongrel Magazine, December 2007


Straight talkin’ with Mumblin’ Deaf Ro

mumblin deaf roMumblin’ Deaf Ro is a bona fide cult hero. Reedy voiced and unassuming, the Dubliner has penned some of the most startling and original lyrics you’re likely to hear. Songs about amorous mental patients, doomed boxers and disillusioned monks. To date he has released just two (self-produced, home-recorded) albums: 2003’s Senor, My Friend and this year’s follow-up The Herring & The Brine. He plans to record just one more album. So should we be expecting it around 2011, I inquire? “Oh no” he laughs. “It works on a kind of logarithmic scale. So it’ll probably be more like 2015.”

Let’s start with a pretty general observation. Your songs don’t cover the usual singer-songwriter territory.

I think a lot of the problem with pop music is that it’s stuck in the mindset of a twenty-something male. Vague existential angst, a bit of woman trouble and that’s usually it. It’s never really matured, or broadened, the same way as cinema or literature. If you go into a bookshop and take five books off the shelf, or go to the cinema and choose five films, they could be about almost anything. Whereas if you pick five albums at random that’s not likely to be the case.

Hank Williams used to buy trashy women’s magazines with true-life stories to pick up songs ideas. Do you have a particular method like that or do you wait until an idea lands in your lap?

The latter, I think. It’s one of those things you don’t want to push it too much. A bit like a hard-on: if you try and manufacture it, it won’t happen. So I work slowly. There are usually a few false starts, where I’m writing about the wrong thing or from the wrong perspective.

What do you mean?

Well, in the song Trouble Under a Murder Moon [a sort of acoustic pop whodunit – E.B.], it took me a long time to figure out who the narrator should be. Is he the local sheriff, a family friend, another family member? In the end I decided to leave him unidentified. You always have to tease it out that way. I described it to a friend recently as like trying to pull a tapeworm out of your arse without breaking it. It can be hard, tricky work.

How much of your own personality goes into your songs?

A lot. Gustave Flaubert said that a writer “should be visible in his work as God is in the universe: present everywhere and visible nowhere.” That’s kind of the way I feel about my songs. The scenario might be alien to me but, without taking details from my own life, I can’t help imbuing the characters with aspects of my own personality.

You’re also a civil servant. In your spare time.

I’m Assistant Director of the National Parks & Wildlife Service. I don’t really tell too many people there about the Mumblin’ Deaf Ro thing. If they know you’re doing music, they might assume you don’t take the job too seriously – and I do take my job seriously. But the Irish Times used my real name in a review so a lot of people found out that way. They even got me to write a piece for the staff magazine, just a few paragraphs. You know, someone’s had a kid, someone’s got married, someone’s done an album.

I’m not sure why I find the fact that you’re a civil servant is fascinating. Billy Bragg had that album called Talking With The Taxman About Poetry… It’s that odd juxtaposition, I suppose.

There’s a long tradition of public servants as writers or artists. Cervantes was a tax collector. Gauguin was a civil servant, Herman Melville. It’s not like I’m sitting in a dusty room stamping form, bored off my head either. It’s actually a really interesting job. I’m a guy from the northside of Dublin dealing with farmers, tourism interests, the whole heritage sector: people from different backgrounds, of different ages and with different interests to me. From a creative point of view that’s fantastic. I honestly don’t think I could write if I were a fulltime musician. That mindset is too insular.

Probably the most egregious example of what you’re talking about there is that Smiths song where he’s complaining about his record company putting out too many compilations of his songs.

Paint a Vulgar Picture.

Yeah… Like who the fuck cares?

Exactly. My job provides a wide range of experiences. Sometimes I have to be outgoing, sometimes I don’t. Quite often I have to be the bad guy. Other times I have to defend people. That’s part of the whole rough and tumble of life. Even my vocabulary. In What’s To Be Done With El Salvador? [written from the point of view of a deposed El Salvadorian president – E.B.] I had to figure out how to voice the guy. You know, instead of a pantomime villain, having him speaking in broad macro terms like a politician. Unable to help drawing parallels between himself and great men. You know, like the county councilor who brings a biography of Napoleon on holiday. You get familiar with so many different types of people, and how they speak and think.

We tend to assume that every actor secretly dreams of winning an Oscar and every musician wants to headline Slane. But you seem genuinely content with your lot.

I don’t have any yearning for great success or fame or anything, no.

One of your songs, Ox in an Open Door tells of the frustrations of a writer toiling in obscurity. Anything autobiographical in that?

That song is more about the petty vanity of writers. It’s more about the contradiction in people who claim they’re doing what they do for pure and honest motives. Whereas in fact there’s a very obvious human failing, in that the ego needs nourishing. I would suggest that that’s the wrong motivation. As well as the ego thing, people who are talented artistically are given such latitude to behave badly. You can read as many biographies as you like about actors, writers, musicians…

Norman Mailer, for example.

Yeah. So these are people who are supposedly interested in the pursuit of truth and they don’t really take care of the people in their own lives. Art is supposed to be about seeing other people’s perspectives, empathising and connecting with people in some way. So if you’re a prick in your private life, that doesn’t sit right with me. To get back to your question, that song is about the vanity of the writer and the gradual realization dawning on him that what’s really important is to take care of his wife and kids. You know, that it’s more important to be a good person than a great artist.

Do you really believe that?


Photo credit: Laura Creamer