Eoin Butler: writer, journalist and Mayoman of the Year

Tripping Along The Ledge


Published: Irish Times, December 4 2009


Guitarist and songwriter and guitarist discusses the trials and tribulations of being in The Pogues.

If someone had predicted that the Pogues would still be touring in the year 2009, what would you have thought?
I’d have thought it was extremely unlikely. In fact, I’d have thought it was extremely unlikely even ten years ago. But over the course of a lifetime, I’ve learned to expect the unexpected.You’ve just completed a pretty extensive US tour.
That’s right. We went down the west coast – from Seattle to Los Angeles – then across through Arizona, Colorado and Texas, finishing in Louisana. We do a regular east coast tour every year around St. Patrick’s Day. But on this tour, we hadn’t played some of the cities in twenty years, other we’d never played at all. So that was exciting.

How were you received?
Oh, it’s always fantastic in the States. Initially you think it must be Irish America. But then you get to places like Portland, Oregon or Phoenix, Arizona and you realise it has nothing to do with us being Irish. They just consider us a rock and roll band – albeit one with tin whistles, accordions and banjos.

Is it true that your Portland gig was your second in that city, but that none of you could remember the first?
(laughs) No, it turned out that we were right all along. The person who wrote that we’d played there in the Eighties had gotten their information wrong. But still I’d keep an open mind!

Now obviously there are some particular challenges associated with any Pogues tour. Is that something you’ve come to accept?
(slightly frosty) What challenges are you talking about?

Well, there were reports that Shane went missing in New Orleans.
That was only because he didn’t know the name of his hotel. Usually there’s someone in his entourage who knows the name of the hotel, but on this particular evening that person disappeared. Fortunately, a fan bumped into him, looked after him and brought him along to the gig. As I said, when you’re in the Pogues, you learn to expect the unexpected.

Has the group dynamic changed much over the years?
It’s always been a kind of good natured ship of holy fools because… well, it kind of has to be. Certainly our partying days are long behind us – almost no one in the band even drinks anymore. With the possibility ever present that something will go horribly wrong in the lead singer department, the rest of us tend to compensate by being scrupulously responsible. If someone’s going to get lost in New Orleans – it’s not going to be us!

Does the band rehearse before going on tour? Watching you play, I always get the impression your grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be born knowing the chords to Streams of Whiskey and Sally MacLennane…
(laughs) Well yeah, at a certain point those songs become muscle memory. But we would like to be able to rehearse more than we do, because we’ve got such a vast songbook – we’ve hardly skimmed the surface of it in the last few years. But getting everyone to turn up at the same time has been a perennial problem with the Pogues.

Your own best known composition, Thousands are Sailing, seems to have a new relevance with the spectre of emigration rearing its head again.
Well, I thought it had grown a new subtext when migration was coming the other way. But that proved a relatively short-lived phenomenon. On the surface, it’s a song about two waves of emigration – the post famine emigration and the emigration of the 1980s. But it’s really about a search for a sense of community and a needing to belong. The whole world is on the move now, probably more than at any other time in history – whether they’re escaping wars, natural disaster or economic circumstances. I think that’s why that song has an emotional clout for people who don’t necessarily have the experience of emigration in their DNA.

Finally, and for obvious reasons, the Pogues are inextricably linked with Christmas in a lot of people’s minds. Do you look forward to this time of year with anticipation or dread?
I genuinely look forward to these tours. We’re treated with such respect and decency these days, we can just go out and do our job and not have to worry like we had to when we were younger. It’s a funny thing really, to be almost a part of Christmas, to be Bing Crosby in a sense… Apart from anything else, this is when the mortgage gets paid. The annual success of Fairytale of New York is always a nice little Christmas package for all of us – a whole new reason to party… with mineral water!