With his second album White Lies due out next week (September 12th) State sits down with self-proclaimed “grumpy ‘aul bastard” Mick Flannery for a chat about his past, present and future.
When we meet, Mick is slumped in a chair in the EMI office conservatory. Despite the array of junk food and sweets on the table, a hungry Mick looks tired and withdrawn. A quick glance at his schedule confirms it is packed with meetings with various media types and State is fourth on the list. Meetings, interviews, photo shoots – this is a very different working day for the stonemason.
Down-to-earth Mick is the type of bloke you’d like to get to know over a few pints in his local but this is ordinary guy with an extraordinary talent. His voice, his lyrics and his coy demeanour altogether makes for one very charming package. We learn quickly that Mick is rather shy and not well acquainted with the media. State finds his honesty, in his lyrics and answers to our questions, quite refreshing.
You seem quite shy. How does it make you feel dealing with the press?
It kinda makes you worried about the bad press you’re possible gonna get. If there’s too much good things written about someone, someone has to say something bad. People get tired of hearing the same thing about someone, so they pick a hole.
You’re still quite young and you released your debut album Evening Train when you were just 20. How did you become involved in music so young?
I was 20-21 [when I released Evening Train]. I must have been 21 -cause when I was leaving school I did this Post Leaving Cert music course and that’s when I did that album. I was always interested in music.
Did you grow up in a musical household?
Well, my mother’s side were all musical. She played guitar and sang and all her brothers and sisters would get together at parties and this bar in Killarney, get locked in, and you kinda had to do a party piece. It was good craic. I was only about 15/16 when I learned guitar. It was good fun. They were all playing Tom Waits, Dylan and Joni Mitchell.
How old were you when you wrote you first song and can you remember it?
15 I’d say. I had loads of music songs like but no real lyrics. I remember the first one I finished the lyrics to. It was about the road I was living on. Cause I heard this story like, this spooky story, about this man who killed this woman who lived on the road. It was the first time I’d heard it and I was living there 15 years and no one ever told me that the road I lived on all this shit took place.
There were more and more stories. It was called Mad Man’s Road like. World War I veterans or World War II veterans, one or the other, used to walk up and down it from this asylum that was half a mile down the road. They used to walk up the road and walk back down the road. It was called Mad Man’s Road -cause they were all a bit shell shocked, like. I hadn’t heard all this stuff. Then there was the murder story so it was easy enough to write that one like. It was just spooky music and tell the story of this guy. That was the first one.
Tom Waits was a judge in the US Song Writing Competition that you won in two categories. Can you tell us a bit about that.
Well, I’m not actually sure. He might have judged it but I dunno. You see, I sent CDs off to them, you’ve to pay 30 quid to get judged by them. When I think about it, I think it was a bit hypocritical like. I always go on like ‘Oh I don’t want any attention’ and ‘I’m shy’ and stuff but then at the same time I’m sending stuff off to a competition for an ego boost or something like that, you know. So it wasn’t a huge deal really. Nothing much happened afterwards- it just looks good.
I tried to send him [Tom Waits] a letter actually. Like a fan letter but I don’t think it ever got to him though. I sent it through the competition. They sent me some stuff, prizes and stuff, pretty much shit gear and I sent back saying ‘Can you please send on this letter.’ I can’t remember what I wrote now but it was definitely stupid anyway. I got two prizes, so I got a double prize. I got two crappy guitars. One I gave to my brother the other I sold at a gig for a hundred quid or something like that.
It was grand like. I think they gave me cash as well so I used it as an excuse to go to the States for a holiday.
You were based in NY for a while…
Did you get that press release where said I was there for years? Well, that was a lie. I was there for 3 months. It was my first time going way on my own. I was looking to do music actively but I ended up having too much fun, drinking all my savings. Great place to do it though.
What was the music scene like there?
Strange like, I was not what I expected. I was expecting like the big romantic Dylan-’60s bohemian-everyone being all hippie-ish and stuff like that but it wasn’t. It was totally different.
Apparently, 20 years ago New York was rougher than it was now. The mayor, Giuliani, got rid of all the homeless people out of Manhattan and shipped them off to the outskirts like The Bronx, Harlem and Brooklyn so like it’s all a bit too safe in Manhattan.
The music scene is a bit up its own arse, to be honest. They call it Anti-Folk now. That’s the scene, that’s the click you have to be in. I dunno, I didn’t really fit in anyway. I went over with my buddy. Two of us were working together in stone masonry. I spent most of my time just hanging out with him, trying to get in to as much trouble as we possibly could. We went to these open-mic night where I was going to play like but they were packed with like 80 or a 100 people, all waiting for their turn to play. It all seemed a bit pointless. It wasn’t a really gig. Nobody really gave a fuck, ya know? They were all kinda crawling all over each other. It was weird. So I spent most of the time there drinking out the bar waiting for my turn. It was a weird, strange set up.
How do you find the scene here, compared to the anti-folk movement over there?
Mmmm…it’s pretty good. I don’t know much about Dublin you see, I don’t go to Dublin a whole lot to play gigs. Cork is alright. There are a couple of new venues that are pretty good. Fred are doing well now here. I hear Fred on the radio all the time. It’s good I think. It creates a bit of a buzz if some bands are getting played on the radio.
I’m not much of a ‘scenester’ like I wouldn’t kinda be hanging round with other songwriters that much or other bands. I usually socialise with work buddies. [in Stone masonry] Not that we’ve a load of work at the moment, the recession has hit us in the face… But yeah. Actually, the guys I hang around with were in the first band I was ever in. We were more friends than a band. We used to say that the music part interfered with us getting pissed. The name of the band was ‘Music Interferes’ …with our social life. I still hang around with them like.
You mentioned Dylan and Waits, would they be your biggest musical influences?
Yeah, Cohen as well. All these depressing oul fellas. I listened to the Arctic Monkeys recently, I like them, well I like yer man’s lyrics… Sometimes I get sick of the music.
Did get see Leonard Cohen in Kilmainham?
Mick: Yeah – Some old crooner isn’t he?
Mick: I’d say he’s ri…Is he going out with the singer? There’s a bit of chemistry there. Dirty aul fucker.
He’s cool though [Mick treats us to an impression] ‘Thank you friends’.
I went to Waits in the Phoenix Park and I thought Cohen was better even though I’d listen to way more Waits but I thought Leonard Cohen was more personal. With his ‘Thank you friends’. He mentioned Dublin, he said ‘it’s an honour to be accepted in the city of poets and writers’…or something like that. With Waits it was a theatrical, impersonal show. You felt like you were watching TV or something like that. There was a separation. I mean you can’t blame him. If he’s doing it for so many years he can’t feckin’ be having a one on one with everyone.
You’ve been signed to EMI recently, has that affected your social / personal life or your music?
I don’t think so anyway [looking around at the EMI office] I’ve only been here a couple of times like. I don’t really know every one that well. I’d say I’m like small potatoes, like you know. Even though there’s a bit of a buzz cause there’s an album. It’s their job to promote the album but I mean they’ve big things going on with Coldplay and all that. It doesn’t change a whole lot of thing you know? They’re not involved with gigs really. It’s up to me and my manager
Has it put pressure on you to increase productivity?
I didn’t get much pressure. When I had signed the thing [record deal] last year I had everything ready to do an album, I had enough stuff. I didn’t feel much pressure. I was kinda hoping things would actually move faster you know? But things didn’t work out that way. Sometimes things actually go slower – Don’t say that actually!