Q&A with Philip Chevron of the Pogues
This week's preview of the Pogues' show this Friday at the Ogden Theatre only scratched the surface of our interview with guitarist Philip Chevron, who also talked at length about Just Look Them Straight In The Eye And Say... Pogue Mahone!!, the five-disc box set of b-sides, outtakes and live tracks released last year that's currently only available as an import. We spoke with Chevron, who was in Seattle to rehearse a few days before the tour started, about working with singer Shane MacGowan again, touring with Joe Strummer, plans for recording again and MacGowan's teeth among other things.
Westword (Jon Solomon): How have the reunion shows been going in the last few years?
Philip Chevron: Well, great. The shows tend to be more consistently good now than they were back in the day, I suppose, probably because we do less of them. They tend to be pretty good. We all enjoy playing together. It's a good atmosphere in the camp.
WW: How is it playing with Shane again?
PC: Really good. When he's on form, he's the best person to be on stage with. When he's not on form, he can be a bit of a nightmare, but we get around it. We get through it. He's more often on form these days than not by a significant margin. We don't really have much cause to complain. He's very good. That fact that we've all survived, really, but him in particular, that we survived to tell the tale and to do so at an advancing age, is kind of what makes it still interesting -- if you get to think that when you were in your twenties that you were going to still doing this when you were in your fifties, or you get told that your plans never stretch that far. I suppose were all kind of pleasantly surprised to find that we're all still here, still doing it. And playing new places all the time. We never played in Denver before.
WW: Yeah, I thought it was strange that you guys had never come to Denver before.
PC: We tended to concentrate mostly on the left and right coasts and occasional forays down south, mainly because that's where or sort of college radio -- our main audience -- was. As we've been doing it again this time, we tended to be a bit more adventurous. But agents figure out all these things, and we just go wherever they send us. But I don't really have an explanation why it's taken us nearly thirty years to get to Denver, but it has.
WW: Are there are cities on this tour that you havn't played before?
PC: There are, actually. We're not quite sure if we've played Portland, Oregon, before. There's some confusion over that. We think we haven't, but some other people have evidence that we have. That must've been a good gig. We haven't played near Pheonix; we're playing in Tempe. We haven't played in Kansas City. We're doing almost a week in Texas, where I think we've played in Austin and in Dallas; I'm not sure if we played in Houston. Anyway, in all those places it's been like 1989, where we played those places that we have been in before. So San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego are kind of familiar territory to us, but not the other. And we finish up in New Orleans, where haven't played since, I don't know, I'd guess 1989 also. So all that's really exciting, because we don't know what to expect. You just hope that go out there and do your job, and you hope that you do it to the best of your ability and people dig it.
WW: The only time I saw you guys was in LA in '91 when Joe Strummer was singing. How was your experience with Strummer, when he produced Hell's Ditch and did that short tour with you?
PC: Well, it wasn't all that short of tour with him. Joe was with us for almost a year because he did some British, European and Irish dates with us, as well. So it was fairly long temporary stint. It was great. I really enjoyed playing with Joe. It was just so different than Shane. They both have their unique qualities. Joe did something really interesting to the Pogues, which is, he sort of, to some extent, freed up the music to be more improvisational, I think. There were times where I felt like I was a sideman in a jazz group. Joe just had that ability to lead people off into strange, stray directions and also being able to pull it back together when necessary, and that's a particular talent for a frontman to have. It was the first time, in my experience, that I'd actually worked with somebody like that. It was fascinating, because we didn't realize that Pogues music would lend itself to that, and of course it did. So it was a very instructive year working with Joe.
WW: Is the box set, Just Look Them in Eye..., going to be released in the States?
PC: Well, I don't know. You'd have to ask Rhino that. I'm never quite sure or not what the record companies think, in terms of territories. I suppose the reality is that if they want the box set they have to go to Amazon to get it.
WW: The import version?
PC: Yeah, Rhino has released some of our things over here. They released things that weren't released in Europe, like the 180-gram vinyl versions of the first two or three albums. I assume they just respond to other market forces than they do in Europe. But I don't really pretend to know what they are. I don't even pretend to know what the difference is. I know if you put out a box set, the unit costs of it are probably quite high. So you want to be sure you're going to sell a fairly high minimum number, and maybe they've already reached the target with imports. These days, the record business is such a fucking mess. I don't know if anyone knows what they're doing any more. I suppose that it's just a lengthy process re-positioning how people sell records. It's been pretty interesting to watch from afar, because apart from our box set and our catalog, we're not really part of that circus any more. But it's interesting to see how people are dealing with it.
I think it might come down to a thing that, in the end, people will just have to give away the music free and sell the package. Make the package such a must-have that people want to buy the package and they get a free CD it, which they've already downloaded legally or illegally. So it's a funny thing where you're sort of ultimately having to try sell the artifact, which I think is certainly not the first time, because we all have fond memories of album sleeves, and that was certainly part of the reason for buying vinyl albums was that the whole package was desirable. I think, unfortunately, the CD revolution changed that, and maybe we went to far in the wrong direction of making CDs. I mean, they're getting better. Digipaks and things like that are all making them more attractive. But I think there's a whole new audience out there who aren't really interested in paying for music, and I think the record companies may have well lost the argument to that. They have to.
WW: I read that you and Shane worked together at a record shop before you started playing with the Pogues.
PC: Well, that's not strictly true. What happened was that we did work in record shops, but we worked in sister record shops, or cousin record shops. Mine was called Rock On, and his was called Rocks Off. And they're both in London. Rocks Off was an offshoot of the people who opened up Rock On in the early '70s. The people who worked for the original Rock On bought out that part of the business and changed the name to Rocks Off. But it's all part of what I considered to be this sort of North London Mercia, really, of Irish people in London who owned record companies and record shops. It was great. I worked there for four years -- among the most happy four years of my life. I loved selling records. I loved listening to all the records. Working at a records shop like that is the best possible way to get a handle on heritage music, on some good jazz, on good rock and roll, good soul, good R&B, good country, good everything that you don't hear on daytime radio. So it was a real education as far as I was concerned, and I was getting paid for it as well.
WW: Speaking of records, do you guys have any plans of ever recording again?
PC: It appears not. We haven't ever closed to the door on the idea, but there doesn't seem to be a huge amount of enthusiasm for it, or it might have happened by now. So there's no good reason. We haven't sat down and said we're definitely not doing it. Nearly everything we've done in the past thirty years has all come out of some sort of organic need to do something. Even if the band's early existence was sort of an organic response to a need that we saw in music. I don't really see that we've got any strong compulsion to make a new record. We've still got great songs that we haven't played on stage. There's still seven albums worth of songs.
Also, I do, actually, believe that the quality of the repertoire is, kind of, almost, in a class of its own. It's not that you don't want to add to that, it's just that there's still so much to explore in what's already there. It's only because you're a different person now from when you wrote them or when you first did them. It's kind of what I was saying in the beginning: You get a different perspective as you get older. The songs lend themselves to that because they're timeless and because they don't feel like they're part of the '80s or any era at all, really. They have that sort of timeless quality. Every member of the Pogues has written for the Pogues, and they're all very good writers. Some of them are extremely good writers. And on top of that, you've got Shane, who's in a class of his own. So there's a lot of good material there that hasn't even ever reached the public, because, while we sold a fair amount of records, we certainly never had massive hits with them. So, our sort of mission is to remind people there's still good songs there they haven't bought.
WW: Was that one of the reason's to put out the box set.
PC: That's something that had always been vaguely on the cards. But mainly, it came out of a thing like you reach a point where you think, "If you don't curate your own music, somebody else will do it for you, when you no longer have any control over it." One of the nice side effects of the band getting back together was that an entity called the Pogues then existed again, which could have some sort of meaningful relationship with the record company, where they could say, "We're thinking of doing this? Will you cooperate this, and so on?" And if you're an entity, and you're out there, and you're a band, then you can say, "Yes." If you're not, they can do it with or without yourself. You know what I mean? So it's better that you've got an involvement in the thing and that you curate it and you put it together yourself, and make sure that it is pretty much how you'd want it to be. Because if you take your eye off the ball, the record companies -- it's not their fault -- they're just so big unwieldy that they can't do close work.
We've had best-of albums in the past that have had raw mixes of things on them, because there wasn't time, or they didn't have the inclination to have the band check the track listing, or something. And with a corporation like Warners and Rhino it can easily slip from your grasp. So the box set was an attempt to sort of tell... I do believe that most bands, all good bands anyway, have a kind of alternative history that you can tell from their b-sides and their side projects, and the things they do for movie music and so on. I had a hunch that the alternative history of the Pogues would be almost as interesting as the real history. So putting the box set together was almost like a personal experiment to figure out if was going somewhere, if it had legs, than it would be worth bringing to a record company and saying, "Why don't we put this out." It never occurred to me that there would be five CD's worth. I began thinking there would be two or three CDs.
It comes back, because you put together your own domestic CDs of stuff that you've forgotten about and that the band had forgotten about, and you pass them around the band as Christmas presents, saying, "'Rain Street,' remember this?" And things that we did for whatever reason that didn't end up on releases probably for any number of reasons. Most of the time, most of the people don't realize all the stuff that's out there. I tend to remember most things, because I have a sort of an archival streak in me that always manages to, eventually, sort of always, file these things away. One thing that this sort of came from, "it might just be interesting enough to release because it might sell." It might just shed light on the existing catalog for people who already have the existing catalog and would quite like to have some more Pogues music. And especially considering, at that point, that it was clear that we weren't rushing to make a new album.
WW: How are you guys getting along now?
PC: Well, fine. Something inevitably happens to a group of men as they get older that sort of.. I suppose, they just chill a bit more. They become more worldly wise. The testosterone levels sort of drop a bit -- all those kind of nice things, where it becomes a great group of guys to be with. And we have a lot of shared history that's a little bit private, that's a little bit public, but all of it's shared and in some ways that's something that now looks like has been an enormous portion of our lives. That's not something you anticipate when you get together in the first place. You don't know how long it's going to last. You don't know if you're going to stand the sight of each other after three years, never mind three decades.
I guess the fact that we're still around and still enjoy doing it and still enjoying each others company means that we've done something right, because if your life is fucked up and your music's great, you're not doing your job properly. There has to be some sort of correlation between your personal happiness and the music you play, or else it would be a torment. Because our history started with torments great and small, the whole thing, of getting over them and getting through them and getting to the other side of them, is part of that, is all part of that shared history. So the fact that we're still doing this and still enjoying it and still very much enjoying each others company, is, I think, some sort of triumph for hope over adversity. But also we have our moments, like any group of people. It's not always sunshine and light, but it's pretty good. Of all the groups of people I've known in my life, I'm very fortunate that both bands that I've worked with have been, and continued to be, my friends, as well. You, kind of, can't really ask for more than that.
WW: One last question: I heard that Shane got a new set of teeth.
PC: Well, there seems to be some doubt about that. It needs a question mark over it, really. My own feeling is that he got fitted for new teeth and then it was just too uncomfortable to wear, but I don't know that. Certainly he's been photographed with new teeth, but they look like they're somebody else's teeth, not his. So he may just have made the decision that the path of least resistance is to stay how he is. I'll have to ask him about it. Seriously, it's his business.
The Pogues, With the Detroit Cobras, 8 p.m. Friday, October 23, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax Avenue, $49.50/$55, 303-832-1874.
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