Hell is a comfort zone
Currently touring Frúgalisto, the eleventh album appearing on his own Label Big Sky, Irish singer, songwriter and guitarist Luka Bloom returns to Berlin. Comfort zones, thinking inside the box and standing still are not his thing, and the idea to change the world with a song seems pompous to him. Luka Bloom on the sometimes life-saving power of music, personal memories of Berlin and our common humanity.
Interview: Irish Culture Events Berlin, Franziska Kast
(Q) Bob Dylan has finally been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature – a long expected vindication of his merits as a poet. Your own last name is a reference to James Joyce’s Ulysses. What does literature mean to music and vice versa, and how much literature is there in your music?
(A) Ulysses has no relevance to my stage name. I wanted a name to go with Luka that had a connection to Dublin. I read and read and read. Sometimes it has relevance to my songs and other times not. I wrote a song recently about the native American political prisoner of 40 years in the US, Leonard Peltier. I needed to read two books before even beginning the song; just to understand his case, and a little about the man. Other times reading has no relevance whatever, because the song just emerges through the voice.
(Q) You played gigs in Berlin as early as 1974, returning to the city pretty much every year or every second year. There are few other cities in the world that have changed so dramatically since then. Do you have any particular memory of the city you want to share?
(A) When I lived in Berlin for a few months in 1974, it was freezing and fantastic. There were other Irish musicians there then. I remember playing a lot on Bleibtreustraße. The Go-In, the Bleibtreu Café, the Banana Club, the Leierkasten; these names are a blur to me. You would play for 20 minutes, get 20 Deutschmarks and a beer, move on to the next club and do the same again. But my favourite memory of Berlin is from Wabe in the East in 1992. It was freezing in February, and the atmosphere was still very raw. I remember this queue outside the venue in the freezing cold. Everybody was so polite and patient. Getting through the box office took forever, and the gig felt deeply emotional for me. I’ve never experienced anything like it since. I felt so privileged. I think of that night every time I visit Berlin.
(Q) Your new album, Frúgalisto, is a journey spanning several decades, too. One of its songs, ‘Wave Up To The Shore’, addresses transcience and the cycle of life and death. It was recorded for Frúgalisto, but you wrote it as early as 1971, at the young age of 16.
(A) ‘Wave Up To The Shore’ is the only song from previous decades on Frúgalisto. The rest are all from the past year or two. Regarding ‘Wave’, I wrote all my old songs when I was very young. Around 35 I began to remove myself from my own rear end. A painful struggle, but a great relief in the end…
(Q) You’ve created an impressive body of studio albums during your career. With music being distributed digitally and people picking individual tracks rather than complete works. What do you think will happen to the album as a coherent piece of work?
(A) I choose the record, whether CD or vinyl, to manifest my work. I am still a believer in the tactile experience of holding the product, which reflects a period of time spent by an artist/band preparing for and realising a body of work. I soldier on and fuck the begrudgers.
(Q) What prompted you to become an independent artist although you were signed with major labels? How did the decision influence your music and your career?
(A) My last experience with a record deal was with Sony for Salty Heaven in 1998. They destroyed me for a year. I was devastated by the cold and calculated way they just dumped me. There was no conversation, explanation. They just vanished, after two years of my life for a record I gave so much to. They did me a great service. I swore to never ever again surrender ownership of my work to a record company. The really big ones are evil. The McDonald’s of the music world. Since 1999, I’ve released 11 albums on my little label Big Sky, via www.lukabloom.com. I love everyone of those records, and I own them.
(Q) Your recommendation to Frúgalisto listeners is “just hear the songs, and see what they mean for you”. For me, ‘Lowlands Brothers and ‘Australia’ are two of the most compelling and haunting songs of the album. Would you share with our readers what they mean to you?
(A) Regarding Lowlands brothers: my mother’s only uncle Joe Sheeran died in WW1. I was asked by an organisation commemorating WW1 in Flanders to contribute some songs for concerts in 2014. I wrote Lowlands Brothers for my mother’s uncle and for all the Irishmen who died in WW1. I love Australia. Apart from Ireland, it is the only place in the world I ever miss. Been going since 1992, every 18 months or so. I have many friends there and feel a deep bond with the country.
(Q) Speaking of missing. You left your native country and lived first in the Netherlands and then in the United States. How would you define Home today? You published ‘Homeplace’, a collection of snapshots and notes on your life on the road…
(A) ‘Home’s a place inside, I take it with me. I meet my tribe, wherever I may be’. From the song Tribe. When you are a singer, you meet your tribe every night you sing. My home is my song now. I love living in Ireland but nationality is irrelevant to me now. We are all in this together. I am bored with Nationality and religion and anything that distracts us from our common humanity. If we take away religion and nation, we are left with each other. And the Earth. There is too much work to be done.
(Q) You have recorded covers as diverse as ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’, Bob Marley’s ‘Natural Mystic’ and LL Cool J’s ‘I Need Love’, thus embracing musical styles as wildly different as pop, rock, reggae and hip hop. A lot of good music is brought about by artists’ healthy disrespect for the idea of “genres” and their refusal to fit into a “box”…
(A) I’m not offended by the label folk singer, but I don’t want to be defined or caged within it. When your chosen orchestra is a six string guitar, it is a challenge to be fresh. I never stand still. I never listen to singer songwriters. My concept of hell is a comfort zone. I listen to mad shit that nobody ever heard of, and seeking that out keeps me fresh and scared. I have to be scared. Otherwise I’m bored.
(Q) A really simple question: what was the last album you bought? Can you recommend it?
(A) Don’t remember. I mostly buy ECM records. It is the best label in the world for me. the Keith Jarrett records, Anouar Brahem, so many artists I’d never have heard of. I LOVE this label, and in a funny way it makes me love Germany even more, because I know that loads of Germans buy ECM records too. I buy records by people I know absolutely nothing about. About 50% of them I can’t stand; but the ones I love, I love for life.
(Q) You wrote a song that was banned, ‘Section 31’. What’s the story with that? And, to address a very old dispute among artists: is songwriting a political art? Should it be? Can songs change the world?
(A) I wrote Section 31 in the 1970s to protest the bizarre decision by the Irish government to ban all Republican activists and politicians from the national radio and tv stations. Actors were used to quote them for the News. It was nuts, and a little fascist. My brother Christy recorded it, god bless him. The only responsibility of a songwriter is to be true to him-/herself. There is nothing worse than a songwriter writing something political because they think they ought to. It is usually transparent and rubbish. If something really hurts me because it is simply wrong or unjust, I will try my best to respond. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t see songs as having the power to change the world, and I often feel this is a pompous notion. However, songs can save the life of individuals. They probably saved mine. If one person’s heart is touched by a song I wrote, then that is a political achievement beyond my wildest dreams.
Luka Bloom: The Frúgalisto Tour. Sa, 29.10.16, 20:00 Uhr: Columbia Theater,
Columbiadamm 9-11, 10965 Berlin. More about Luka Bloom on www.lukabloom.com.