When you listen to the cabaret vibe of Jerry Fish And The Mudbug Club’s new album, The Beautiful Untrue, you could be forgiven for thinking Mr Fish was always a lounge lizard. While it’s true that he’s woven many magical elements together to create a colourful tapestry of sound that conjures up images of carousels and carnivals, this Fish has a somewhat grimier, grungier past, having grafted a successful career in Irish rock band An Emotional Fish.
When we meet, words like -recession’ and -unemployment’ are buzzing around, and as neon-clad fashionistas parade their voluminous tresses by the window of Dublin’s Metro Cafe, the late -80s/early–90s don’t seem so long ago. Not just a time of economic disaster, questionable fashion and dodgy hair-dos, this era saw the meteoric rise in popularity of hard rock: indeed, State finds itself sitting opposite a man who has met and toured with acts like U2, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Iggy Pop and Sonic Youth. So, what does one think of when reminiscing about one’s time as a rock band front-man in those heady days? A bus, apparently.
‘Really,’ Jerry avows. ‘Being on a tour bus going around America. I think I was very, very lucky. We toured the world for five years. People work hard in bands. People may not realise that. It was hard work and there were highs and lows but my fondest memories would be touring America.’
On the festival circuit, An Emotional Fish played on the same bill as many of the biggest bands in history: ‘We were very grounded. We were an Irish band and we were kinda good for everybody. We were these inner-city kids.’
With a little encouragement, a talkative Jerry recounts some memories of his former musical incarnation.
‘The -90s was one of the most exciting times for rock bands. We played a festival in 1990 and Nirvana were on two or three bands before us. It was about four months before they became the biggest band in the world. Nirvana were touring with Sonic Youth,’ he recalls. ‘The Happy Mondays, the whole Manchester scene was happening. It was very rock -n’ roll. The Pogues were still playing their legendary gigs and you still had the remnants of the likes of the Ramones. Those hero bands were still around. The punk bands were still relevant: Eddie Vedder used to tape himself up with gaffer tape and then just fall into the crowd.
‘I hate to sound a bit old, and it may sound a bit strange as well, but when Kurt Cobain died, the arse fell out of everything. Something happened and then you start to get these reality shows and you’re not sure if a rock band is really a rock band. So [that was] a really great time to be in a band. You were surrounded by fantastic bands. I was getting to see people I idolised through playing festivals.’
When An Emotional Fish broke up, circumstance prompted Jerry to return to a less than rock -n’ roll lifestyle. After the birth of his first daughter, he provided for his family by working as a painter and decorator. The urge to make music never dissipated, however: ‘I was trying to be happy but I was miserable. I was never happy being dirty or freezing on a building site. So I decided to make another record.’
With a supportive partner and equal measures of ambition and talent, Jerry embarked on a musical career for a second time. This round, however, saw him emerge as the polished, Waits-ean Jerry Fish, with a troupe of like-minded musicians in tow.
The risk paid off in spades, with Jerry’s army of Mudbugs gaining both commercial and critical success. Indeed, the week we meet, the first single from the new album, (-Back To Before’, featuring Carol Keogh] is number one in the Irish download alternative chart. Former Plague Monkey and Tychonaut vocalist Keogh is not the only collaborator, this time around: newer kids on the block like Imelda May also add their talents.
‘I’m such a perfectionist. I’ve had people lose interest in working with me because it can take so long,’ Jerry admits, ‘but when it’s right, it’s right. I didn’t just go -Yeah you’re right, just put it out’. I hung on in there and went -No, no, wait, wait, something’s going to happen any minute that’s going to make this amazing’. Like the piano on -Back To Before’. The song was there but something was missing: then the piano came in and -Wow! That’s the chorus, that’s magic!’ It’s great but you still don’t want to put it out, but then Carol comes and sings a verse and then it’s like, -Let it go: I can’t do better than that.
‘It’s really that struggle for, not so much perfection, because it’s probably as much as a struggle for imperfection: I suppose it’s just looking for magic.’
The Beautiful Untrue is released on Jerry’s own Mudbug Club label and he acts as his own manager. But this hands-on approach was borne out of necessity, rather than a need for more control or freedom.
‘You just have to do what you have to do to survive. When Be Yourself  was released, we didn’t have the structure around us. iTunes wasn’t there. Music is in a better position now. The giant’s feet are in the air. He’s dead and David is standing there with his sling,’ he smiles wryly. ‘It’s kinda over for the majors. Of course, we’ll still have Lilly Allen, which is great. Pop is getting better but I do feel very lucky that my pop music was Blondie. Blondie was like what the Pussycat Dolls are when I was a kid.’
Jerry Fish & The Mudbug Club play Oxegen on Saturday 10th July.
Here’s some classic Mudbug Club to be getting along with: