“The whole issue of identity is the major driving energy behind the whole Sons of Southern Ulster (SoSU) collaboration. As older guys, with real jobs and families, we've no real interest in making music for its own sake, but wanted to try document our experiences of the world we grew up in which is fading rapidly,” says David of 2015’s ‘Foundary Folk Songs’.
With opening track ‘The Pop Inn’ hailed as The Irish Times’ ‘Song of the Week’, SOSU’s name and chosen album cover however managed to cause brief controversy upon release across the Irish Sea. Featuring Justin's grandfather as a member of an old IRA flying column, it stumped the music media who subsequently struggled to pigeon-hole the band as something they weren't.
David says the band name reflects the rich vibrant culture of the Ulster’s southern counties quite often gets overlooked, and quickly rules out that the band are in any way politically driven.
“The name challenges that stereotype. It’s remarkable that as you move south, people tend to raise an eyebrow at the name and assume there is some political message,” notes David, who works as Professor of Psychiatry at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick.
Formerly half of The Panic Merchants, who in the ‘80s regularly featured on Dave Fanning’s Rock Show, David and Justin formed SoSU in order to, as guitarist David says, “scratch a growing itch” to document the heady days of their youth, embellished by insight garnered from life experience.
“The sense of generation and place in time is an important part of the identity of the songs, and as SoSU we inevitably look to our fathers’ example for guidance – something that sadly so many of the current generation of young men cannot readily do,” muses David. “In that sense, you could say we have father complexes! In my case it’s so severe they say I became a psychiatrist to try and deal with it!”
The upcoming gigs see David and Justin rekindle old onstage friendships with fellow founding Merchant members, now scattered across the globe. David and drummer Noel ‘Skinhammer’ Larkin live in Ireland, also play together in a Joy Division tribute band, but Justin lives in Boston, while bassist Paddy Glackin will fly in from Australia only the night before the band’s first show, August 3. The hectic nature of this poignant coming together is treated almost gleefully by David, who describes the Merchants as the “punkiest and most chaotic” of acts to emerge from Cavan ‘80s music scene.
Coinciding with the filming of a documentary by Nicki Fennel about the band’s revival, SoSU are pencilled in to play Bailieborough Arts & Cultural Centre on Friday, August 4. The gig is sandwiched between a lunchtime show at the World Academy of Music at University Limerick (August 3) and the Washerwoman Bar, Ballina (August 5).
The first seed of SoSU’s return was planted when jamming together after Justin’s mother’s funeral some years back, with the prospect of performing gigs flowering as the perfect foil to re-engage a full set of band members.
“It is going to be great and probably a little strange,” considers Justin. “I’ve been away a long time so a lot of the places I remember and people I knew are probably gone. There'll be a touch of sadness too as my parents have passed on and I know that they would love what we are doing now and would have been in their element in the Arts and Cultural Centre,” he tells the Celt.
Justin recalls the band’s first gig at St Anne’s Park during the local festival, circa 1986: “We were bottom of the bill to Brush Shiels and Celtic Warrior. I remember the nerves and then a calm onstage followed by relief that we’d played our first gig. The next night we played our second gig in the same venue. Support to Tweed. Brush was a gentleman. Tweed were less accommodating. Jesus, we'll get them back on the next album,” broods Justin, who flags SoSU’s activity in working on a follow up to ‘Foundry...’, potentially part of a trilogy of albums.
“Thematically the songs are a natural follow up. Without getting all Spinal Tap, I like the idea of having a concept as it keeps things focussed. Of course, there is always the danger of becoming repetitious, or worse, a cliche. Let’s hope not. I also like the idea that everything has a beginning, a middle and an end.”
While applying ‘artistic license’ to some of their writing, SoSU have consciously and contentiously focused their lyricism on a shared experience of growing up in Bailieborough and its environs.
Combining the edginess of punk with the storytelling of folk music, influences are gleaned and honed from the likes of The Fall, Billy Bragg, and the atonal clamour of The Clash and Sex Pistols. SoSU’s songs meanwhile act as echo chambers resonating with hindsight, steeped in Kavanagh-esque imagery deftly compacted with observational witticisms.
‘£24 that was the prize on the fruit machine at the Pop Inn, where you covered your chips in sauce, red and brown - as much as you like because it’s all watered down anyway,’ drops the opening line to ‘The Pop Inn’, the borderline scornful rhythmic delivery mopping up the tanginess of every last sweet salt and vinegary remnant.
As for ‘Neil O'Brien who sold dead men’s suits from Glasgow, picked up from Dublin’s docks by Josie in a green flatbed borrowed from Frank Clarke, on a journey punctuated by half-ones, in Moynalty, Kells, Navan and Clonee', Justin confirms: “Yes he did exist. He had a second hand clothing operation on the Green in Bailieborough, and he and Josie did indeed travel to Dublin’s docks in the borrowed green flatbed to pick up the aforementioned dead men’s suits. While I cannot definitively swear on the provenance of the suits, Glasgow seems to stand out but it could have been Liverpool or some other British city.”
David chimes that O’Brien’s clothing emporium became the go to place during the early post punk era with its stock of original Crombie coats, popular among fans of Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen. “I think poor Mr O’Brien didn’t know what to do with all these morose Ian Curtis wannabes coming in and out of his shop!”
David meanwhile recalls those formative pre-internet days, living off news scraps gleaned from trips to Dublin and borrowed copies of NME and Melody Maker. “Getting to actually hear bands was an even bigger challenge as Irish radio was deadly conservative – as the pirate stations started we finally got to hear all these exotically named bands, and we listened with an intensity that I think the easy-access throwaway generation of today possibly don’t. Like all teenagers, we felt that we wanted something else but weren’t sure what it was – the punk and subsequent music scenes helped us work that out!”
Justin shares his own opinion on the state of the current music industry, though admits while there is a tendency to lament the so-called golden ages, if it were still 1985 he firmly believes there might not be a SoSU.
“Technology has been a godsend for artists who want to explore their own ideas. I remember making demos thirty years ago - the price was astronomical and you’d invariably have a disinterested ex-musician with a chip on his shoulder manning the controls. You’d end up disappointed and because of the cost involved you'd just have to live with it.”
He notes too with ‘Foundry...’, the band started out not having to please anyone other than themselves, and subsequently have been left both surprised and delighted to find an audience to appreciate their music.
“You could probably argue that the Ireland from which we are drawing inspiration no longer exists as the country has changed so dramatically over the past 25 year. That said, I’d like to think the songs speak to universal themes basic such as loss, perspective, regret, and joy that will always be relevant,” says Justin.
David concludes by adding that SoSU has always been about trying to tell a “coherent story”, even if it turned out as “impenetrable” for others. “It’s been really pleasing how well the stories of Foundry Folk Songs have connected with people from all parts of Ireland and beyond and the upcoming gigs will be a great chance to share the stories with people at first hand.”