As a multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter, Andy Irvine has been a part of some of the most influential Irish music recordings and a member of Sweeney's Men, Planxty, Moving Hearts and Patrick Street.
(This interview was recorded in Perthshire in 2005)
I've met with Andy Irvine and we're sitting, on a lovely, sunny morning, overlooking the banks of the River Tay. And it's just a great opportunity to stop for a moment with you on your travels and talk a little bit about what you've been doing all these years. So thanks for taking the time to meet up with me.
A great pleasure, great pleasure Fiona.
When I think back on your journey and I think of Sweeney's Men and up through the years with Planxty, and on with Patrick Street and all through that your solo work, it’s been a long road, and a long journey. What leads you on?
Oh, well that's a difficult one really. I'm trying not to be lead on quite as much in future. I haven't started my new regime yet, but, I don't know, I kind of complain all the time and say 'Oh, I'm not going to do this. I'm going to cut down on my touring etc.' and I never do. Maybe I can't say no. 'I'm just a boy who can't say no,' or maybe it's just that I love it, you know. Also it's my life, it's the way it is, so what else would you be doing?
Yes, I suppose it does become a lifestyle, doesn't it, being on the road. And maybe the more you do it, the longer you've been doing it, in some ways the easier it gets. You know what it takes to get up and go, you know what's needed, you know how long it takes to get you from A to B to C to Y to Z. And you become an old hand and that's an asset for someone who travels as much as you do.
I think that's true. I learned the ropes many, many years ago but there are still new things happen to you but it's a bit like asking a bank manager why he continues to be a bank manager. It's my life and my job and I can't imagine any other. You know, sometimes at the end of a long tour, I think 'Thank God I'm going home' and if I have any length of time at home I get really kind of itchy and bad tempered and kind of look forward to the next moment when I’m hitting the road again.
Even people who are not deeply familiar with Irish music or Celtic music in general, will have heard of Planxty and anyone will be able to tell you of the tremendous influence the band has had on the course of this music. And when you think of the original members of Planxty -- yourself Andy Irvine, Donal Lunny, Christy Moore, Liam O'Flynn -- as well as the legacy of the band, the individuals have gone on to make quite an impression upon the music. When you listen to Irish music today, or as you’ve been listening to it evolving through this time, are you able to measure the impression that all these individuals have had on the shape and form and direction of the music?
I'm not really able to. When I listen to modern young bands I'm always quite interested if they say in an interview 'We were much influenced by Planxty,' because I do sometimes hear it. But not really, maybe I just don't listen to it. There are things, like for instance the style of bouzouki playing that Donal introduced, I think is very much copied today. And you can usually hear one of the big instrumentalists in the fiddle playing or the uilleann pipe playing, but you'd expect that. It's the more subtle influences, if they are there, they elude me. But it was a great time and you never know, we might do something again. Certainly that era, which Planxty was a part of, re-awakened an interest in Irish music and it could be said I suppose... before that there was the ballad boom in Ireland and there were various kind of little jostlings with the tradition, and the tradition being popular. But it wasn't quite the tradition, like Sweeney's Men for instance, didn’t play that many traditional dance tunes. So I think Planxty and its era could be said to be the kind of part of the beginning of the re-awakening of Ireland and by extension Scotland to traditional music.
Now you took an early detour, on your long journey, to Eastern Europe and in particular into the musical traditions of the Balkans. And that's something that has had a lasting impact upon your music through the years and also upon Irish music in a broader sense. What draws you to those musical traditions? It's been a lifelong love of yours.
Hmm... I think the rhythms were the main things. Playing music in odd time signatures is something which I still don't get tired of, you know. My latest piece is a song put in to 5:8 and I just love those rhythms. Somebody once said of me that my natural time signature was 7:8 or 7 beats to the bar, and in order to play in 4:4, I just had to add one more, so there's a deal of truth in that. I'm not all that happy with 4:4 or 3:4. I mean all the songs that I wrote that were essentially in 3:4, none of them maintains the 3:4 rhythm throughout. They have extra beats and drop a beat somewhere. I don't know why, I just, maybe I have an odd sense of rhythm.
Yes, you could sprain your ankle dancing to some of those dance tunes. But when you brought some of these tunes into Planxty and other of the bands that you've worked in, it gave the music a kind of an exotic flavour and moved peoples' expectations beyond the usual reels and jigs. And that’s been good for the music too.
Well I think there's an excitement to playing in these rhythms and I think people realise that. I mean, back towards the end of Planxty in, whenever it was 1981, '82, we played this tune called Smeceno Horo which is in 9:16 basically but it has bars in 15, 16 and it was the biggest number we played. And it became logical to finish with it which we never did actually because it seemed to be kind of selling ourselves a little bit to finish with a Bulgarian tune when we were playing Irish music. But if you listen carefully to the piece of music Bill Whelan wrote which is called Riverdance, (I think it's called Riverdance, it was the initial piece he wrote), it has bars of 11:16 in it. And people didn't realise this, but it still excited their blood. So, I mean, I think that was very clever of him to write a piece in a normal time signature but go in to these bars of Bulgarian rhythm which were just not too much to take peoples' eye off the ball, but enough to make them go 'Oh yeah, wow, what's going on here!' When we made that album "East Wind," Bill Whelan, Davy Spillane and myself, with other people, and it did not find its niche. It was music that people would look at. They'd pick it up and say 'Oh, here's one, I haven't seen this' and then it would say 'Balkan Music' and they'd go 'Oh, Balkan Music, no, I don't think so.' So it didn't sell, it was really a musicians' album, musicians loved it and everybody else didn't buy it. And I'm sure they didn't buy it either! Anyway, and of course the next thing was 'Riverdance' which sold out everything. I mean, God that sounds awful, which sold all its stock. And it's certain to me that 'East Wind' had an influence on Bill when he wrote that, which is great. I was sitting at home watching TV when Riverdance first came on the Eurovision Song Contest and I was as gob smacked as everybody else was. It was tremendous. But just the lack of sales of 'East Wind' and the multi-mega sales of Riverdance has always been a slightly sore point. But now I have a new band called Mozaik. Not the m-o-s-a-i-c version of 1985 but the M-o-z-a-i-k version, and it's kind of exciting. I put the band together for a tour of Australia about a year ago and it was a huge success. We recorded a couple of gigs and we have a live album which is musically ready to go. It's mixed and mastered and we look now for a record company which is something we all dread because we don't have a clue, any of us, about record companies. I mean this is me, Donal Lunny, Bruce Molsky, Nikola Parov and Rens van der Zalm and between us we have a fair amount of experience of the world in general and the music world too, but record companies: not an idea. All I know about record companies is they rip you off. So I hope that we'll be able to find a decent outfit and the album should be out in a couple of months I hope. (Mozaik's Live from the Powerhouse since released on Compass Records.)
Although you've enjoyed and been a very important part of these collaborative efforts you are essentially a solo artist. Am I right?
You are right in a way. Even as a solo musician in a band I learned quite early on never to go in to a band rehearsal without knowing how to play, how to accompany the song yourself so that once the band wasn’t there you could still do it. And I love playing with bands; I love the interaction with other musicians. I even play as a duo with my old mate Rens van der Zalm, which I'm going to do in America next week. But essentially you're right. Being solo, driving through the world, that's how I see my heavenly state.