July 17, 2009
S’n’O: We’re here with The Rumjacks from Sydney, Australia. First of all, what are you up to?
Rumjacks (Will): This is Will Swan from The Rumjacks here. I’m currently just south of Brisbane, where we play tomorrow. I think that Johnny’s in Brisbane now. The others turn up tomorrow. We’re playing shows around the place and getting some new songs together for our next EP. Which neatly gets me to the fact that we’re looking forward to our debut EP getting released through the Shite’n’Onions/Mustard Finnegan’s paddpunk label of distinction.
S’n’O: A lot of the Shite’n’Onions readers and fans will be familiar with the world of folk punk and Paddy punk bands. What’s an Australian take on the roots of this thing?
Will: Well, traditional Australian music is a branch of Irish & Scottish music, the same way that spoken Australian English is a branch of English-English. That ceilidh music was transplanted, and played on the goldfields in the ‘roaring days’of the goldrush, and of course there were songs that got adapted to the colonial setting, etc. And all this is a musical history of its own, which runs parallel to Irish and British folk music. So you’ve got a variation of the music being played and adapted a wee bit in the 19th Century. This is all before the whole diaspora world of the Irish session, to be found in pubs in the cities, etc.
Many tunes were just directly transplanted. In Australian bush dances, or woolshed ceilidhs, ‘The Rakes Of Kildare’, for instance, IS an ‘Australian’tune, if that makes sense? But there is also a distinct Australian sound, and it’s hard to describe, but the best example I can give is the early Pogues instrumental ‘The Battle of Brisbane’. That really sounds like an Australian tune, although MacGowan wrote it. Just another example of his class.
Nobody who hears The Chieftans or DeDannan is going to think for one second that they are playing anything but Irish music, but Australian folk music, especially the dance music, is a branch of it all. If you boil if all down, Appalachian music came out of Scots-Irish music, of course, and this is a similar-but-different music to what was being played by migrants at sessions in the big American cities in the twentieth century.
S’n’O: Although you are very much a punk rock band, do the members of The Rumjacks have folk backgrounds at all?
Will: Although we didn’t know each other at the time, Frankie and I were the sort of people who loved the music but didn’t necessarily get our lovin’ nourishment from a folk context. Anthony is coming out of a seriously punk background and Johnny is a (melodic) punk rocker who has played in a rockabilly band, but it is important to note the lifelong bond to Celtic music going on here. Johnny’s parents are from Northern Ireland, he’s probably Australia’s No.1 first generation Ulster-Scots punk bassist. The point is, go around to Johnny’s family home and you’re likely to find Van Morrison & The Chieftans on the stereo. Frankie was born in Glasgow and has always had a powerful love of The Corries and of old Scottish ballads. My first memories kick in with Dubliners LPs in a Sydney flat – I can still SMELL those records – and songs like ‘Maids When You’re Young Never Wed An Old Man’ & ‘Rattling Roaring Willie’on in the background. My old man is a highland piper and used to play tin whistle in bush bands when my family lived in the country here. I used to listen to songs like the Australian ballad ‘The Lachlan Tigers’and think to myself “wow, amp that up and it’d really kick”. And then I almost forgot about it all, but heard The Pogues and never looked back. What I’m saying is, The Rumjacks aren’t some bunch of local pissheads who suddenly decided we’d play music because Flogging Molly took off, (though Drunken Lullabies was a godsend when it appeared, but that’s another story).
S’n’O: How does a sense of place, if at all, influence The Rumjacks?
Will: Well, that’s an interesting question, because we realized that we’ve never really talked about themes or ideas, simply what we DON’T like. As it turns out, we can sing songs about pretty much anywhere, simply because some of them – the trad covers – are set in another time and place. It’s a bit pompous to go on about our breadth of song writing at this stage, with so few songs out, but as I know what’s going on behind the scenes, I might as well. The thing is, Frankie might want to write something set in the Glasgow of his childhood, and that will strike a chord. Or I might write something with a rural setting, simply because I want to, and that’s different again. ‘Paddy Goes To Babylon’ was deliberately written to be in ANY city and EVERY city where Irish migrants might have gone, and it’s set in the age of steam, but it could just as easily be set in the age of sail. It’s a fantastical sort of steam age cityscape, and there’s drug sub-culture references in their and various weird things, but it’s not specifically a Sydney song. Frankie’s got these sort of universal, bloody, raw folk songs he’s writing. We’re up for writing about anything. We’ve got a new song about the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. We’re not going to spend half a set on trad standards. It will be interesting to see if we develop any themes. So far we’ve got sex and death, so that’s alright by us. And leaving stuff behind, I’ve noticed that comes up a bit. We’ve got a song called ‘Shadrach Hannigan’that’s about walking away, or drunkenly running away, from the shackles of domesticity, or at least that’s how the protagonist sees it. Probably won’t win any awards for family values, but he jumps a rum-fuelled train to freedom, far away from wifey and the nappies (diapers). ‘Down With The Ship’is about walking away from destructive, pointless, bullshit scenes.
S’n’O: Not that we’re presenting you with an award or anything, but would The Rumjacks like to acknowledge anyone at this stage?
Will: Well, I can’t speak for the others, I’m just the one rattling away here. By the way, this is the first band I’ve ever been in, or even come across, that doesn’t have a central figure. The core of Johnny, Frankie, Anthony and myself all weigh in equally. So I’ll just acknowledge them.
And if I’m going to thank anyone else for even being able to write this here and now, at two a.m., an hour south of Brisbane, it would have to be Greg from Mutiny for being the first person – deep down in dank and haunted old Melbourne Town – to put me onto Against Me!, to Flogging Molly for Drunken Lullabies, which I bought in England and was immediately reminded that Roaring Jack had it right all along, and to my mum, who in playing our pre-mastered version of ‘I’ll Tell Me Ma’about thirty times in a row, made me realize that The Rumjacks were … listenable