Archive Interview: 2004 – ‘Guest of the week’ on the Mandozine

March 9, 2004

Andy Irvine has been hailed as “a tradition in himself.” Musician, singer and songwriter, Andy has maintained both personal integrity and highly individual performing skills throughout his 40-year career. From Sweeney’s Men in the mid sixties to the enormous success of Planxty in the 70s, to the Irish super group, Patrick Street, in the 80s, Andy has been a world music pioneer and icon for traditional music and musicians.

Irvine occupies a unique place in the musical world, plying his trade as archetypal troubadour, with a solo show and travelling lifestyle that reflects his lifelong influence, Woody Guthrie. Few others can equal his repertoire, Irish traditional songs, dexterous Balkan dance tunes, and a compelling canon of his own material that defies description.

In his two years with Sweeney’s Men, the group ignited an interest in traditional Irish music that survives to this day. Their successful singles, “Old Maid in the Garret” and “The Waxie’s Dargle” landed at the very top of the Irish Hit Parade.

Andy left the band in 1968, and made his first trip ‘way out yonder’, travelling by ‘the sunburnt thumb’ in Bulgaria, Romania and Yugoslavia, earning his living as a street musician and absorbing the musical traditions of the Balkans. Returning to Ireland, Irvine united with Christy Moore, Donal Lunny and Liam O’Flynn to form Planxty, fanning the flames of Irish Traditional Music well into the next generation.

Planxty took a break in 1976 and Irvine worked and recorded with Paul Brady, making the classic album “Andy Irvine & Paul Brady”. After a brief time with De Dannan, he rejoined the reunited Planxty from 1979 until its breakup in 1983. . Andy’s his first solo album, “Rainy Sundays … Windy Dreams”, followed, as well as “Parallel Lines” a duo album with the great Scots troubadour, Dick Gaughan.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Andy formed Mosaic, a pan-European band that included Donal Lunny and Hungarian singer Marta Sebestyen. After one blissful summer travelling through Europe with this band, Andy returned to solo and duo work. This work soon grew into Patrick Street, featuring Kevin Burke (Bothy Band), Jackie Daly (De Danaan) and guitar maestro Arty McGlynn.

Patrick Street, originally billed as Legends of Irish Music – one of the few times such hoopla was accurate, recorded three albums from 1987 to 1990. Andy then recorded his second solo album, “Rude Awakening”, and created the hugely influential “East Wind”, an album of Balkan music, produced by Bill Whelan and featuring Davy Spillane on Uilleann Pipes. Patrick Street regrouped in 1993 with Kevin, Jackie, Andy, and Ged Foley. To date Patrick Street has released eight recordings, all on the Green Linnet label.

Early in 2002, Andy drafted some long-time musical friends and formed his “dream band” for a one-off tour of Australia. Calling themselves Mozaik, reminiscent of the earlier cross-genre group, Andy was joined by Donal Lunny, Dutch guitarist Rens van der Zalm, Hungarian bagpiper Nikola Parov and American fiddler Bruce Molsky. The response was so positive that they might well have another go at it.

October 2002 saw the release of Patrick Street’s Street Life, arguably their best ever. It showcases an ecumenical approach, while never letting go of the tradition that binds these amazing musicians, all at the very top of their game. Although an integral part of the finest Irish bands of our time, Andy Irvine continues along the road he set for himself so long ago – a vibrant career as a solo artist in the old style, a teller of stories and maker of music.


Q – Andy, I have loved your playing ever since I discovered it in the early ’80’s. I was fortunate to see a solo show of yours, many years back, and was astounded by the fact that you seem to have two brains – one for singing and one for playing. It’s the only explanation I can think of to see such rhythmic ambidexterity. Can you talk a little about rhythmic phrasing, from Irish music to Balkan, and perhaps a few tips for people wanting to break away from even meters and phrasing?

I’d also like to offer my sympathies on your having to deal with the issues of crossing the border as a non-US musician. I know it has been increasingly more difficult under the political conditions of this country, and that there have been some horrible and ridiculous trials for musicians!

A – Thanks. I always wanted to be a one man band! So I learned how to play one line and sing another. Takes a lot of practice. If you concentrate too hard on one or other of the lines, you’ll blow it. You need to be able to think about something else entirely..!

I’m afraid I have no tips for phrasing. Just do it! As for meters, you have to listen to odd time signatures carefully. Take 7/8. If it’s 2-2-3, it’s quite a good idea to think in half that time so instead of counting one, two, one, two, one, two, three, start by counting one, two, three and in half the time.

The US visa situation has always been a pain. I get so angry when I see US musicians parading their talents around Ireland, having had no problems at all. Unless things change, I’m calling a halt to mu US career next Spring after the second Mozaik tour. 


Q – Thanks for being CGOW. I have enjoyed your playing for many years now and it’s great to get the chance to ask some questions. The following is going to read a bit like an exam paper – but not all need be attempted!

Am I right in thinking that in the early part of your career you were playing a Gibson A-style but that, by Planxty, you had moved onto a Sobell? Presumably you find the Sobell preferable for Irish music – what characteristics make it so? Do you use the large or small bodied Sobell? Maple or rosewood? When you play less traditional material (eg on Rude Awakening) do you still use the Sobell or do you have another preference? What strings/gauges do you like to use? How well do you find mandolin holds up when played next to bellows blown pipes?

A – I started off, way back in the 50s with Italian mandolines which you could buy second-hand quite cheaply at that time. Johnny Moynihan gave me my first Gibson after my Italian mandolino had an accident at a Fleadh Cheoil in Boyle, Co. Roscommon in 1966. It was an A3. Nicest Gibson I ever saw! It was stolen from my car in Paris in 1978. I was devastated as it had been all over the Balkans with me in the late 60s. I played it in Planxty and another one, a Gibson A model. When Planxty came back in 1979, I played the A model and a Gibson Mandola H-1 that I had also acquired from Johnny Moynihan. I only got my first Sobell in about 1981. It was – and still is, his smaller body. It is two frets longer than a mandolin, based on the Gibson Mandola. It always seemed to me that a Gibson mandola sounded pretty crap with big thick strings on it and tuned CGDA, so, quite logically, I think, I put mandolin strings on it and tuned it down a tone. That’s what I do with my Sobell too.

Playing solo, I mainly play bouzouki these days. I play one made for me by Stefan Sobell about 12 years ago. It has a guitar-shaped body. On the mandolin I use D’Addario J74. On the bouzouki I use nickel wound 42, 32, 18(w), 12.

When I play tunes, I like to decorate notes the way I learned from Paul Brady – using the plectrum. It’s difficult and sometimes I just use my left hand.


Q – Do you have any favourite ways of ornamenting tunes? What sort of approach do you take to playing harmonies on reels, jigs and polkas? When accompanying songs, it sounds (on After the Break) as though you tend to play a chord at the start of a bar or phrase and then single notes for the rest of the bar (or phrase) – is that right? Do you tend to stick to the main chords or do you use altered or extended chords at all (the way some Shetland guitarists or the Easy Club have done).

A – No, I don’t think I play a chord and then single notes. It depends. These days I’m a little less complicated than I used to be. I’m more chord based but I like to favour notes that I’m not singing, so I change chord/inversion a lot! I use altered chords. Coloured chords I would call them. A lot of add 9s and 7ths sus 4. I also like to play “Lounge” chords. Major 7ths, 9ths Minor 7ths. I don’t play too many jazz chords or extended chords because the instrument only has four courses! I like this. If you play a 9th, you are only playing 1-5-7-9. Even a 13th can be a nice passing chord if it’s only 1-3-7-13. It’s hinting at chords instead of playing them full-blown.


Q – Do you use a pick-up in your mandolin? If so, which one? Do you use a pre-amp and/or any other electronics between the instrument and the board?

A – I use sunrise magnetic pick ups generally. On my Sobell mandolin, I have a magnetic pick up which is not great, so I use a condenser mic more with it. If I am travelling by car, I would bring a Mackie mixer and a Roland Guitar effects board. Small amounts of delay and sometimes chorus on the bouzouki.


Q – Have you any plans to play in Edinburgh?

A – Expect to be in Edinburgh in September. 


Q – Has Andy been collaborating with Paul Brady as of late?

A – No, Paul doesn’t often revisit his traditional music days. We did a series of concerts in Dublin in October 2002 with Donal Lunny, Liam O’Flynn, Paddy Glackin and Noel Hill which was great. We also played it in Glasgow at the Celtic Connections festival. No further plans, I’m afraid. 


Q – Your mandolin and bouzouki style sound so different to many other players. Can you tell me what makes your sound so different to many other players? Can you tell me something about your style of playing and your approach to waiting?

A – My playing sounds different because I didn’t copy anyone. I followed my own muse! My style of playing is the same for both instruments when I’m accompanying myself. Chord based, using harmonies and counterpoints within the chord, trying to play bass notes that I am not singing. I’m largely a down up down up player with a scratch lick and arpeggio thrown in!

Writing is also something which is hard to describe. I do it mainly when I’m driving a car. I just make it up!!


Q – You have so many highlights in your musical life so far, what is your personal highlight?

A – No, I can’t think of one highlight that would be head and shoulders above the rest. Travelling around Ireland in the red Sweeney van with Sweeney’s Men in the 1960s, Off on a blow in the Balkans in 68-69. Planxty at the Hangar in Galway in 1972, Planxty in Ennis and Vicar Street, Dublin this year, Mozaik in Canberra at Easter 2002. All great memories! So is my last gig in Whelans on Monday….


Q – You have achieved so much musically in your life. What is next for Andy Irvine?

A – Planxty will play 12 more gigs in Ireland at the end of the year. Mozaik are about to tour the States. Both bands have new live CDs coming out. It’s all happening for me! 


Q – When exactly did the jump from mandolin to bouzouki happen?

A – I didn’t play the bouzouki much in Planxty in the early days. I had a car crash in 1977 and spent three weeks in hospital in Dublin. When I came out, Diane Hamilton gave me a Bouzouki made by Andrew Manson. While I was recuperating, I got more and more into the bouzouki. Mind you, it was probably my main instrument before that. When did I first play “Plains of Kildare”? Probably about 1976. Somewhere around there… 


Q – Which of your recordings do you believe best represents your talents as a musician? I love the recent version of Arthur McBride available as an MP3 on your website – a great combination of driving bouzouki and voice (with a bit of harmonica, to boot).

A – I suppose I would have to say “Rain on the Roof” as it is the most solo thing I ever recorded. Or do you mean which song? I really don;’t know.


Q – Would you please tell us more about your new band, Mozaic? Is a CD yet available? How was the lineup of musicians chosen? I must confess I don’t know much about Nikola Parov or Rens van der Zalm. I am a fan of Bruce Molsky’s fiddling, and especially like his newly re-released “Warring Cats.” I’m looking forward to hearing his contributions.

A – Mozaik is a band that I dreamed up for a tour of Australia in March 2002. I wanted to tie in the three strands of folk music I have always loved best, Irish music, American Old-Time music and Balkan music. I was just lucky enough to be on good terms with some of the best musicians in these fields! And they said yes.

The CD which was recorded live in Brisbane, Australia is called “Live from the Powerhouse” and will be available on Compass records immenintly. In time for the tour which starts on 19th March, I hope.

Yeah, I’m a great fan of Bruce’s too. And I also loved his “Warring Cats” tape/CD. At the end of a Patrick Street tour in the US about 15 years ago, we went to his house after the last gig. he lived in Atlanta at the time. He played “I truly Understand” and I was totally blown away! As the night wore on and spirits rose to higher and higher degrees, I asked him to sing it again…and again…and again. I think he must have sung it about 12 times for me that night. I couldn’t get enough of it. 


Q – Could you tell us a bit about when you first used a bouzouki in Irish music, and what you think of the evolution of that instrument since then?

A – I used Johnny Moynihan’s bouzouki when we were in Sweeney’s Man. I played it on “Johnstone“. That was my bouzouki debut! It took quite a long time for me to fall in love with the instrument though. I bought one in Greece in 1969 and gave it to Donal Lunny in 1972.

I think it has evolved pretty well. Donal is probably the most responsible for that.


Q – Do you use a picking pattern for jigs? Which one, if so, and what do you like/dislike about it?

A – Down up down up. Would be happier if I had Paul Brady’s technique for such things….! 


Q – Andy, I have to say that your music has been a significant influence on my interests in music. My first listen to Patrick Street (Brackagh Hill & Forgotten Hero) as a 19-year old that drew me into Irish Music as an adult, which lead to “discovering” Planxty, The Bothy Band – just following the lines from you – and opening up a whole world of music that is now a very important part of my life. Anyhow, enough blather.

To start, I’m happy to hear that there is a new Planxty recording coming out!

A – Look for it this Summer! 


Q – Have you ever entertained the idea of an instrumental traditional Irish album?

A – No. I leave that to better players! 


Q – What are the personal influences in the Irish instrumental tradition?

A – I don’t really specialise in playing Reels and Jigs. As a mandolin player, I think Paul Brady was about the best I ever heard. He was an influence on my style. 


Q – Did you grow up playing Irish music etc…?

A – No, I started with Woody Guthrie, moved into Old Time American music and song and only then into Irish Music.


Q – Do you still take in the odd session? If so, what is your session instrument of choice?

A – I’m afraid I was never a great presence at sessions. If I find myself at a session, I am more inclined to sit and listen than join in, I always found it hard to hear myself as a mandolin player. And if I can’t hear what I’m playing, I can’t play! 


Q – It is clear from your music that you have certain interests in human rights and social justice. What are your involvements in such issues outside of music? I am a Union man. I am a card-carrying IWW. How do these influences affect your direction as a musician, your choice of songs etc…?

A – They affect my songwriting. I am most interested in writing songs about forgotten people who dedicated their lives to attempting to better the lot of the working people. 


Q – Your album with Dick Gaughan seems appropriate. I think that your material seems to have some “personal relevance” makes your music very genuine and shows a continued social relevance for traditional music as a whole.

A – Thanks! 


Q – ‘ Rain on the Roof ‘ is your best solo album to date, in my opinion. A wonderful mix of songs and Balkan tunes. Why did you decide to record it with only you, the bouzouki and the mic ?

A – A lot of people would ask me at concerts if I had an album that reflected my solo show and I would have to say No. So I decided to record one. There were also some songs that I had recorded over the years with bands that I was not totally happy with and it gave me a chance to record them again. 


Q – Do you have any plans to record more in this way in the future ?

A – Quite probably. What with the Mozaik CD coming out this week and the Planxty live CD in the Summer, I’m not sure that I will be putting out a solo CD till next year. Though I do fancy getting some old recordings together and putting out a retrospective! Might do that this Summer along with my Bouzouki book…. 


Q – It seems over the years you have played every variation of the mando family. Italian mandolins, flat back mandolins, mandolas, portuguese mandolas, waldzithers, greek bouzouki, flat back bouzouki, bass-bouzouki and even a guitar-shaped Bouzouki……………..( excepting your current guitar-shaped sobell ) what was your favorite and why? Would you record with a greek bouzouki, or portuguese mandola today?

A – I never realised till you listed them, how many different versions I have played! The Italian mandolin was superseded when I got my first Gibson. I don’t think I would ever go back to an Italian job. The Greek bouzouki is still a viable instrument for me. The Portuguese Guitarra had a convex fingerboard and I find it hard to imagine how I played that for so long. The Waldzither was a nice instrument. I’m probably happiest with my Sobell guitar-bouzouki.


Q – Have you played much with Octave strings on the bouzouki, or have you always used unison? What are the advantages or disadvantages to octave strings?

A – I quite liked the effect of octave strings on the Greek Bouzouki. However it would get on your nerves after a while! I have a Fylde guitar-bouzouki with octave strings. I rarely play it these days but it was lovely on things like Baneasa’s Green Glade. 


Q – Do you bring a hurdy-gurdy with you when you tour? What model do you play and often do you use it? Is there any chance you’ll make another “homemade” record like “Rain on the Roof” in the future?

A – I rarely play the Hurdy-Gurdy these days. My instrument was made by Peter Abnett in 1972. It had a perspex wheel and spring-loaded jacks, all of which totally bemused the H/G community in France and Germany! It’s a hard instrument to maintain. The number of times it has turned into a squalling howl in the middle of a slow song doesn’t bear thinking about.

I pick it up every now and again. I would like a new and better one but the price is high and doesn’t seem justifiable for me.

>> “I took a speed reading course and read “War & Peace” in twenty minutes. It’s about Russia.” — Woody Allen

Love that! Got a great laugh with the other lads in Mozaik here on the road in North Carolina…. 

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