Johnny Piper answers some question on the loudest band in Celtic-punk.
Can you give us some background on the band? Your musical history, who is in the band and how did the band come together, what release have the Alternative Ulster put out?
In January of 2015, I met our original bass player for the first time at Ulster County AOH Pipes and Drums practice. He was a student piper and we got to talking. When the talk turned to why we started piping, I made reference to Dropkick Murphys, The Real McKenzies, etc… I told him it was my goal to start a bagpipe punk rock band. To illustrate my point, I pulled up the YouTube video of Pipes & Pints performing The Gael. Another AOH piper, Jerry McCluskey, was also a long-time guitarist in punk rock bands. Jerry joined and recruited his friend to play drums. Jerry came up with the name “Alternative Ulster” which tied Old School 70s era punk, ala Stiff Little Fingers, together with our home, Ulster County, NY.
When the original line-up dissolved in early 2017, I still had about two dozen songs that I had written that I wanted to record. I figured I needed a drummer and a vocalist and I could do the rest. I was also a piper in the Hudson Valley Regional Police Pipes & Drums. A fellow bandmate, Todd Henry, also played drums in a rock cover band. He agreed to meet me to record a demo. Luckily, he could sing as well and his voice, which Smash The Discos called a “selling point for me with this band. His voice reminds me of a buzzed up bar brawler shouting over the jukebox; a quality that makes the music ‘tough’”, suited our 1916 meets 1977 style of bagpipe punk rock perfectly.
When Todd and I started rehearsing, it became obvious I knew almost nothing about recording and mixing which led us to Jay Andersen’s Operation – Audio recording studio in Saugerties, NY. Jay’s very hands on, and the more we laid down tracks, the more he took over the guitar and bass duties. We released the Pog Mo Thoin album in late February 2018, and followed up with the Boobies, Banjos, Bagpipes & Beer album that September.
I’d worked out on the bagpipes how to play the melodies of Fairytale of NY. To cover that song, we needed a female vocalist. Todd’s sister, Wendy, joined us in the studio and we were blown away by her voice. The Christmas CD, Merry Feckin’ Christmas, grew out of that experience and Wendy became a full member of the band for the recording of the Craic Agus Ceol album which was released in March of 2019.
When we decided to gig live, we recruited Steve Hoelter to play bass. Steve left town one day under mysterious circumstances. We’ve still had no word from him. Our third bass player, Keith Gottschalk, tragically passed away. Between Keith’s passing, and Covid-19, we’ve put things on hold. Not to make light of the situation, but being the bass player in our band is like being the drummer for Spinal Tap.
Are Alternative Ulster SLFs?
No, we’re not SLFs, but our sound is like them but with bagpipes. I’ve often described it as 1916 meets 1977, to wit, Irish Rebels meet punk rockers. We did cover their song “Alternative Ulster”, twice, on Craic Agus Ceol. The song’s chord progressions sound cool played on the bagpipes.
Being from upstate New York have you played out of state? Have you discovered fans in odd parts of the world?
We’ve played NYC, Boston, Danbury Connecticut, and Northern New Jersey. Locally, we’ve played the big Irish pub in Poughkeepsie, Mahoney’s, down the street from the Civic Center the day The Dropkick Murphys were playing, acting as the unofficial opener and were scheduled to officially open for Celtica at the Civic Center this past March 20, but the show was cancelled due to Covid-19. We’ve played the Hope Rocks festival. Who knows when live shows will be permitted again? Even before Covid-19, most bands would tell you that the live music scene has been dying for years. I’ve always got straight up bagpiping gigs, what with weddings and funerals, but live rock & roll is not in demand like it was in the 70s and 80s.
However, digital streaming does make it possible to reach a worldwide audience. As of this writing (June 10, 2020), according to Spotify we’ve had 458 unique listeners in the past 30 days, with 12 in Atlanta, GA, 10 in Toronto, 7 in Phoenix, 6 in Glasgow and 6 in Montreal. In the past 30 days, we’ve been played in 30 countries, including the USA (233 listeners), Canada (62), UK (41), Germany (22), Australia (21), Sweden (13), Brazil (8), Italy (4) and Turkey (4). The ease of releasing music online these days has shifted the music industry paradigm from a dozen bands making millions of dollars to millions of bands earning dozens of dollars, but it’s not about the money. It’s very satisfying to know that month in, month out, we’ve got worldwide listeners, albeit on a very modest scale. They’ve got millions of choices, but they’ve chosen us. I dig that and am grateful.
When I listen to Alternative Ulster I’m reminded of an early quote about Motorhead from Lemmy, “If we moved in next door your lawn would die“. Is this a fair comparison?
That’s a cool quote, and it’s an honor to be compared to Motorhead. We love fast and loud punk rock. The bagpipes are a loud, proud emotional instrument, meant for battle.
The band has been pretty productive over the last few years with multiple eleases. What have you planned for the future?
As for the future, I’ve got dozens more songs ready to record. Some of them were recently covered by my cousin in Ireland’s band, Chucky Arla & The Petrol Bombers, but they make use of the banjo for that Irish feel, where I’d play those same lines on the bagpipes. The banjo and bagpipes actually go quite well together and I like to utilize both. The internet allows for worldwide collaboration, and we’ve got a joint project underway with New Zealand’s Sean O’Hooligan of Hair of the Dog, known as Shaken Souls. Remote multitrack recording isn’t so difficult these days. A while back, I contributed the bagpipe tracks to In For A Penny’s “Your Claddagh Heart” while the band recorded in Savannah, Georgia and their singer forwarded the vocals from the Carribean where he was away for work. We’re doing something similar with Shaken Souls, a NZ / NY joint. Next up in the studio for Alternative Ulster is a cover of DKM’s Kiss Me I’m Shitfaced as a single, with the next album of originals to be released around Christmas. Thank you for the interview. We greatly appreciate the attention and support from a cornerstone of the Celtic Punk community, Shite’n’Onions.