There are few more divisive figures in modern Irish music than Fionán Martin Hanvey, better known as Gavin Friday. As a member of the Virgin Prunes (read State’s feature on the band here) and as a solo artist, his single-minded pursuit of artistic expression has caused him to be hailed as vitally progressive in some circles and derided as hopelessly pretentious in others. As the subject of an RTÉ documentary last year, his personal life was laid open to scrutiny in a new way, allowing the public some considerable insight into the complex and multi-faceted life of Gavin Friday; writer, musician, artist and actor. Dealing with the death of his father, his divorce from his wife, the details of his friendships and relationships, it allowed the singer to be seen in a new light. It is on the back of this that catholic arrives, Friday’s first solo album proper in 16 years.
“I think that was the same week they signed the Sugababes and it sort of symbolised something.”
Tell us about the album, how did it come about?
“After about ten years making albums with Island Records, solo albums and touring everywhere, I became very tired with the music industry, a bit pissed off at the way I felt it was going, I wouldn’t be worried about having hit singles or shit like that. After the last album I did, Shag Tobacco, after I toured that around the late ’90s, I just felt something was wrong and everything felt really bad within the music industry. Then Island Records dropped me. It was around the same time they dropped Tricky, and Tom Waits and Marianne Faithful. I think that was the same week they signed the Sugababes and it sort of symbolised something.
I just said, you know what? I’m just going to go underground for a while and I’m going to find out a little more about this thing that really fascinates me, like soundtracks and scores. Really to understand what it’s like to work with an 80-piece, really understand how to sculpt that sonically for me. I went underground but the underground was going to Hollywood and working on big movies and eventually collaborating with people like Quincy Jones and the like, which was extraordinarily educational.
At the same time, a lot of your life is happening too, personal things happen. I got quite ill for a while with my back, my wife decided to leave me and go away to Scotland and that can have a bit of an effect on a person, if you know what I mean? Then my Da died, which was quite a turbulent relationship, we didn’t see eye to eye most of my life and with him gone, it had quite a profound effect. You really get perspective on what your parents and your friends are when they go. Especially something that’s sitting on your back like a black dog and then it’s gone and you go, I’ve had that fucking feeling for 40 odd years now. That happened about five years ago and that was when I decided I wanted to write again.
So I started writing, I wrote for fucking ever. But when we recorded it, I didn’t know which songs would be the final ten or eleven songs. We just said let’s get lost in the music, just go there and see where it brings us. One song became the kernel from which everything else came. You see… albums usually tell you what they want. It was ‘Lord, I’m Coming’, the last song on the album, and we built everything else around that.”
How about the album title?
I didn’t even know I was going to call it catholic. I felt the lyrics were almost like prayers or mantras and if you just listen to it there’s some sort of dreamscape to it… a sort of a religiousness to the music. It isn’t a religious album at all, it has nothing to do with the Catholic church. The word ‘catholic’, if you look it up, the true word with a lower case c, is universal for every man with wide sympathies. No bias. I mean everything Pope Benedict isn’t. I quite like taking the name back, because that is one institution that definitely helped fucked this country up but it’s also one of the institutions that basically formed me as well. So, it’s so easy to spank the Catholic church for all their evils, but there was some good. Though we haven’t really seen much of it…”
It’s much easier to report the bad than the good though…
“We’re very good at moaning aren’t we, the Paddies? It’s relentless, that’s actually why people are turning to bad music, just to get away from all the moaning!”
What do you mean by bad music exactly? Do you find it difficult to get into bands now?
I do find it difficult to get into some bands, I think it’s to do with reference points. Take The Strokes, that first album that people are calling one of the best albums of the last ten years and I’m like, ‘Huh? Really? I can mention every bass line and riff is ripped from Iggy’s ‘Lust for Life’.
I have a little bit of that boring old fucking cunt who knows too much in me, but sometimes then I get a surprise.My favourite band of the last couple of years would be The Knife, I love The fucking Knife and Fever Ray. So I see all those references but I love it, I mean I’ve played that xx album to bits.
There is great music out there, and I sound like a fucking boring old fart, but I did see Joy Division three times, with Ian Curtis, when I was young. And then Closer comes out as a movie, and suddenly I go, it’s not even that they’re listening to Unknown Pleasures or Closer, they’re looking at the movie and all these bands, and it’s great, it’s a good representation of it, but I have a real weakness for that doom and gloom shit. I mean I embrace what’s going on, I even fucking bought ‘Bad Romance’ by fucking Gaga, because it’s a fucking good pop song. I don’t think much of her latest one but that one’s a classic. I wouldn’t be a snob.
“Go to fucking Holland and play your moany fucking song there, see if it relates to a bigger picture.”
Do you feel any connection to Dublin any more? Or Irish music? All those bands you’re talking about are international bands.
“I never really felt a total connection to Irish music, and if I did it would end up being fucking O’Riada or fucking Martin Hayes…off the wall shit. I think if you want to generalise about Irish music – and I am generalising here, I’m going to get a fucking hammer to the head when I walk down Grafton St – but a lot of it, to me, is dosed in the singer-songwriter acoustic thing and there’s a pint of Guinness and a spliff in the back pocket. And I don’t drink Guinness or do spliff.
It’s the whole heart on your sleeve thing, I’m saying you could put a mask on, and lipstick, and actually be telling the truth bigger than you are there with your acoustic guitar and your pint of Guinness and your bare feet. We tend to get a bit stuck doing the circuit around fucking Ireland. Go to fucking Holland and play your moany fucking song there, see if it relates to a bigger picture.
I think the Irish are a bit lazy. I went out of my way, then fucked off, and challenged things. I was angry then, maybe a lot of people aren’t angry anymore? Yeah, there’s some great singer-songwriters, and I think that album by that Villagers is a really great piece of work. I can big up Irish as much as I can knock it down but nothing’s really doing it for me. I like elements of Cathy Davey, I love the fact that Neil Hannon exists and is this kind of little old school parlour boy, playing piano in the parlour. I can big up that as much as I want but it all needs a little bit of a slap in the fucking head. If you look back, and I’ll shoot my own shot here, if you look back at The Virgin Prunes right? We were pretty fucking out there for our time right, and no one has followed that.”