We speak to Irish rockers' guitarist Billy McGuinness
Celebrating their 30th anniversary this year, Aslan claim to be Ireland’s second longest-running band – after U2. But, fittingly named after the lion in CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia books, it’s been a roaring struggle. Following early hits ‘This Is’ and ‘Please Don’t Stop’, both in 1986, the band split two years later after kicking out lead singer Christy Dignam for problems with illegal substances. Reforming with Christy five years later, they’ve continued to tour, releasing seven albums and enjoying a latter-day career crescendo in 2012. New album Nudie Books and Frenchies – their first new material in five years – went straight to number one in Ireland. Meanwhile the 30th anniversary has seen a commemorative book, film documentary Please Don’t Stop, and a huge celebratory tour – which brings them to Dubai next week. We asked guitarist Billy McGuinness, 52, how they’ve kept it up so long.
How have you managed to stay together for 30 years? Because we all grew up in the same area of Dublin, we were friends before we were musicians – when I joined the band I couldn’t play an instrument! Whenever we’ve gone through rough times – and bands that say they don’t argue, that’s [rubbish] – the friendship is there underlining it all.
What’s been the hardest time? The hardest part for any band is when you lose a record deal. You have to start again. We’ve been dropped twice, and it takes a lot of strength of character to pull together. If they’ve dropped you, it’s because they don’t think you’re good enough, so you have to have this inner belief in what you’re doing.
What about the break-up? In Christy we have one of the top five Irish frontmen ever, up there with Phil Lynott and Bono. The low time was when Christy got involved in [illegal substances]. We actually sacked him. The record company said, ‘You can’t do this.’ We said, ‘He’s sacked – we need to do this.’ It ended up with him going to a monastery in Thailand – Pete Doherty went there but left after three or four days.Christy did eight weeks there and he came back a brand new man.
So he’s harder than Pete Doherty? I’m not saying he’s harder – I’ve never met Pete Doherty – but we are an unusually hard band. We grew up in a working-class, hard area. There were a lot of skinheads and we got a lot of abuse.
So do you think you turned to music to escape? If you think about the ’80s, there was a recession then, and when there’s no jobs people tend to get into music or football. The amount of bands to come out of Ireland in the ’80s – The Cranberries, The Corrs, U2… for such a small country we deliver the goods musically.
If the band had never hit the big time, where do you think you’d be today? I was originally a baker, so I suppose I’d still be doing that. But we made a purposeful decision to go on the dole [aka unemployment benefit] when we started. We thought if we had jobs it would rob us of the hunger to succeed. When you have nothing to fall back on, you have to succeed.
Do you ever wish you’d made more of an impact on the rest of the world, outside Ireland? We’re kind of an Irish institution, not in a bragging way. I think if we’d gone down a different road, if we were like The Script or whoever, I don’t think we would still be going.
So how long will you keep going? I don’t know. The answer would be if we release an album and it didn’t do well, and the single wasn’t played, and nobody came to the gigs.
We have to point out that you’ve played at The Irish Village four times now, and now you’re playing at rival McGettigan’s… The first thing we did was ask The Irish Village manager if he had any problem. He said, ‘No way, go ahead’.
Be honest: which one would you rather go to for a pint? We haven’t seen McGettigan’s yet so I can’t say! The Irish Village is great because you’re performing outside by the pond on that big stage. I think McGettigan’s is a bit smaller, and it could lend to a better atmosphere.
Irish pubs abroad have become a bit of a cliché. You can never recreate the genuine Irish pub in another city – you just can’t. Even the pubs in Dublin aren’t real any more. Aslan play on Thursday November 22 at 9pm; entry is free. McGettigan’s, JLT (04 356 0560).