Pogues' publicist when I requested a chat with the venerable Irish/English band's famously capricious frontman. Lucky for Gambit's Voodoo coverage, guitarist Philip Chevron does do interviews, and he does them uncommonly well. Over 40 enlivened minutes, the sharp-witted and equally sharp-tongued Dubliner detailed his 25 years (give or take a few breaks) on tour with the inveterate boozers. What was worse, babysitting the orbital MacGowan or battling advanced throat cancer and chemotherapy? Read on.
Its been a long time since we played in New Orleans, so were very much looking forward to it. We played in Tipitinas a couple times, must have been 1988, 89. We made two or three visits to New Orleans, the Grace of God tour or just after. I love New Orleans. I was there earlier this year as a private citizen, as it were. I was actually checking out the Treme district, because a friend of ours, David Simon, was making his new HBO thing down there. We know him and George Pelecanos. They used Body of an American and a few other things in The Wire. One thing led to another, and we kind of hooked up and discovered we were mutual fans. Myself and Spider in particular were early adopters of The Wire.
I bought Faubourg Treme to have a look at it. And I was fascinated! That tells the story we really dont know, that New Orleans existed almost as a parallel entity, really, even during the Jim Crow days. Its a really good film, that. The way they got those narratives from people, and stuck with the same people throughout, was really brilliant. My response when I saw it was absolutely the same as David: Ive got to find out more about this. This is too good a story not to know.
Im fascinated by the city, always have been. Im fascinated by how it kind of exists likely at an angle from America. Of course the whole business of Katrina revealed so much of what mainstream America, Main Street America, felt about New Orleans. It really did have a quite extraordinary effect outside of America, because it was a bit like looking at pictures of Calcutta. It was hard to believe that there was a Rhird World country within the United States. Im very much aware that the political ramifications and fallout of Katrina are still not sorted, and nowhere near resolved. I think thats a huge shame. But its the same old story. The vultures will descend and try to turn New Orleans into a theme park version of itself, if they can. People have continued to fight it. But if anyone can fight it, New Orleans can fight it, because its had such an independent history in the past. Ive always been fascinated by the mixture of elements, in a way. It was in part a great Irish immigrant city and port, and had its own part to tell in that story. So, a fascinating place. I cant wait to get back.
We probably would do this more often, if only we could pin Shane down to rehearsal. I would consider it a problem if it were something that was solvable. But its not. He just lives under his own clock and schedule. He absolutely, 100 percent means to be there at the time that rehearsal is happening. But something happens that delays him. You learn early on when you have someone like Shane in your life that you have to accept that theres an alternative clock going on there. And that twice a day, if youre lucky, it will be set at the same time as you are.
Gosh, I remember that incident as well! The hotel was on red alert because nobody could get into his room. And the hotel security was saying, We cant interrupt Mr. MacGowan. We must respect his privacy. We were saying, Let us in! Give us the fking pass key! We need to get him out of there! Im sorry sir, we cant do that. Mr. MacGowan has left strict instructions that hes not to be disturbed. (Laughs) Eventually, God knows how, they did eventually get him out. We got him on the stage only 10 minutes late or something. This doesnt happen very often. Usually it will occur because something quite innocuous has happened. If he picks up on a new film he got into Brokeback Mountain in a big way for a while, and he was watching nothing but Brokeback Mountain, incessantly. Youve got 20 minutes before its time to go to the gig, Shane. I cant! Im still watching the movie. You shouldve thought of that and put it on a bit earlier, maybe. Thats a logic that never quite works for him. The logic that works for him is, Ill be there when I finish watching this movie. (Laughs)
The thing about it is, you find ways around all that. It doesnt come unstuck very often. Of course, I can talk merrily about it because its not my problem; it is the problem of tour managers and other people who are paid for it to be their problem. (Good stories from them?) I bet they have. Theyre all taping them for their books, I think.
I kind of skimmed through it. I enjoyed the bits that I caught in it, but I cant say I read it cover to cover. I also felt a little irked by the editorialization that was going on with Victoria. Theres a sort of secondary narrative going on about her. Which, while shes a delightful woman and perfectly charming, I wasnt very interested in reading that book. So there was some curd of doubt about whether this was Shanes book or her book. And the book slightly got lost in the crack between those two points of view, I think. I never felt inclined to read it all the way through. The bits that caught me eye and looked like they might be an entertaining, 10-minute read, I read and enjoyed. And of course, it being Shane, a great deal of it is 3 oclock in the morning, excessive nonsense, that is his own false recollection of what actually went on. Because hes one of those people that when he actually decides that something happened a certain way, that is the way it will have happened forever more. There is no such thing as contradictory evidence; contradictory evidence is just simply flawed. So there is that element where, if you were to take a book like that seriously, it might hurt you or offend you.
We both worked in kind of parallel sister record shops. Mine was Rock On; his was Rocks Off. They were both in London, and they were both run by Irish people. My history, such as it is with Shane, goes back even before the record shops. He was one of the first people who came to see my previous band, the Radiators. We came to London. And he was in the Nipple Erectors, or the Nips as they became. We had shared history, shared contacts. The same sort of shared contacts that ran record shops also ran Chiswick Records, which was home to both the Radiators and the Nips at various points. So we had a shared sort of hinterland of Irish people in London. We knew each other quite well from that sort of tangential part of the London punk scene in 1977 and so on.
What we did was remove the things that made it so unbearable the first time, which is essentially that we were just overworking. We were working for agents and managers rather than for ourselves. We found ourselves on these endless roller coasters of tours, and there never seemed to be any way of getting off. Every time we tried to call a halt, there would be just one more tour we had to do because we were contracted to do it. Then there would be something else at the end of that tour. We have to go out and do this tour, because we lost money on the last one, and we have to make up losses on this next one. It was a constant battle between common sense and common decency, with the reality we actually faced, which was we were on this constant treadmill and in the middle find time to write songs and make an album while all that was going on. Very often the tours werent particularly expertly routed, either. At the level we were working at, with the sort of pressure we were under to deliver commercially all the time as well, it was really unhealthy for all of us.
It was an extremely uncomfortable position to be in, but it had to be done, and I think we were all very glad that it was done. It was in Japan, in a hotel room. And after the meeting, we just all went out and had dinner together, and remained friends. Thats the thing: Although Shane got a lot of valuable mileage out of the whole thing The fkers sacked me! Those bastards, they sacked me he got a lot of press and a lot of sympathy. It wasnt true, and he knew it wasnt. So there were never any wounds to heal when we got back together. All we did was, we recognized it had been a few years since wed seen each other, expressed how wonderful it was to see each other again, and got on with the job.
You ask Shane a question, he will think deeply about it before he answers it. There isnt a part of his brain that files away not so much stock answers but a kind of reservoir where the answers come from which I have and which Spider has, which we can draw on to tell you the truth, but nevertheless with the confidence that comes from knowing that you have the answer in your head. Shane doesnt work like that. He rather sort of thinks, Why did you ask that question? What sort of person are you to have asked that question? Why could you possibly want to know? And then, when all thats footworked through, What am I going to tell you instead? That in itself is exhausting, and I understand perfectly why he doesnt do it very often.
Well, we never really played pubs in Ireland. It was London Irish pubs, because thats where all the sort of immigrant Paddys ended up. Theres a culture in London Irish pubs that isnt in Irish pubs. Different attitude, different atmosphere, different preoccupations, a different sort of melancholy. But also, the pubs we played in were specifically music pubs. They werent just London Irish pubs, although there were a few that were. We progressed very slowly from pubs to small concert halls and clubs. At the same time, we were moving outwards: We were playing in Germany, in Norway, playing in places that didnt necessarily have Irish bars. They did later, but they were prepackaged, sort of Irish bar in a box affairs that people bought and set up like franchises in every town in Germany and Norway and God knows where. The McDonalds Irish bar, which became a very frequent occurrence the world over. But the only real Irish bars are in Ireland, New York and London.
Yeah, there is that. I think thats a danger. You leave yourself wide open for that if you go down the stadium rock route. Were canny, but we werent calculated about it. We just said, Look, if we keep doing what were doing, and more and more people come to see us, we will know if were doing it right. But if we start getting it wrong, well also know. We have sort of tempered things as weve gone along. There are certain places where they wont tolerate us playing a large venue. In London, at a certain point when you get big enough, you play Wembley Arena rather than playing three nights at the Brixton Academy. But when we did that, we found we didnt like doing that, and the fans didnt like seeing us there. It wasnt the same atmosphere. It was a massive gig, and it was a hugely successful gig on every level, but it wasnt right; it wasnt what we wanted to do. So we went back to doing the three nights in a row at the 5,000-seater venue. Weve never found a happy medium in Dublin. So were doing three shows at a theater there this Christmas, instead of trying to win a losing battles against hopelessly acoustic venues that seat 8,000 people at a time. There are some places where we can quite happily play to 8,000 people at once. Its just nicer to scale it down to something thats more manageable for the audience and for the band.
I think that remains true. Inevitably people want to know if youre doing new material; its a perfectly natural question. But its never one that weve particularly given a great thought to ourselves. Certainly its been discussed and broached by management, and we looked at the possibilities there. But I think the only way we can really do it is to allow ourselves to kind of get back on the hamster wheel, to an extent. Because you cant just put out an album now and hope it will sell a certain number of copies that will allow you to make another record. The music business doesnt work like that anymore. It doesnt allow for honorable failure; it doesnt allow for modest success. I think its become a point of major angst for all the major artists in the world today who do make records still. Because if they sold nine million of the last one, and this one looks like its only going to sell four million, they become like a company trading on Wall Street: They become negative equity. Thats very damaging for them, and very damaging for the record company. The corporatization of the music business has been very damaging to music in general, I think. Fortunately it has gone parallel with an alternative culture thats found its voice through the Internet and so on, so it hasnt been all bad. But it does mean that we would have to compete, and I dont think we feel like competing.
This eight-piece lineup is now together twice as long as it was the first time round. That kind of crept up on us, and it surprised the hell out of us to realize. Because it feels like a lot shorter than it did the first time round. It seems like were nowhere near halfway through it. It will last as long as it remains fun, as long as people stay healthy enough to do it, I think.
It was a pretty ropy two years. The worst thing about getting cancer is not so much getting cancer as getting treatment for cancer. It took me two years just to get the fking chemo drugs out of my system. All sorts of things happen to your body that have never happened before, including in my case going deaf for three months. It affected my whole life: going to the theater and not hearing anything. My lifestyle was removed from me when I went deaf. Not just the part of it that accounts for me being the guitarist for the Pogues. It was an enormous relief when that turned out to be just a side effect of the chemotherapy. Im already deaf in one ear anyway, since birth. For all intents and purposes, I was totally deaf. I was able to work on the box set while all that was going on because I was using a laptop with really heavy-duty headphones turned up full. And I was still just hearing the faintest amount of music. But enough to get the box set done. It was one of those moments in life where you think, Fk this! Im not going to let this near deafness stop me from doing this box set. (Laughs) I think ultimately thats what gets you through shit like cancer: just a determination that its not going to slow you down. The determination to carry on, regardless, is what got me through. Its quite a trip, fking hell.