Saturday, 28 March 2015

Interview: Frank Kearns of Cactus World News




Cactus World News, 'Years Later', 1986


Info: Cactus World News were formed in 1984 when founding members, guitarist Frank Kearns and front man Eoin McEvoy, met up in a flat in Cabra and wrote 'The Bridge' (below) together. Shortly after their inaugural jamming session, Wayne Sheehy (drums) and Fergal MacAindris (bass) would complete the band's line-up and Cactus World News were ready to set off on an incredible musical voyage together. It could be said that the seeds of this journey were planted years before however, Kearns attended Mount Temple school in Clontarf at the same time as U2, who needless to say, had a shared passion and whose musical paths would cross time and time again over the coming decade in particular. All four band members already had 6-7 years experience in various bands behind them before CWN got together which prepared them to a degree for tours of the United States, supporting The Cult on their U.K. tour in 1985 and their appearance at the epic 14 hour long, 1986 Self-Aid concert at the RDS in aid of the 250,000 unemployed in Ireland at the time. 

The more I've researched the band in the last week and especially following my conversation with Frank, the more I've come to the realisation that the story of Cactus World News is a fascinating one, a treasure trove of rock music history from the 1980's and a new perspective of the scene in my home town from that era, here's their story as told by Frank Kearns himself;


To start off I wanted to know more about about Self-Aid in 1986, the benefit concert held in aid of the unemployed when there were 250,000 people out of work in the country, with over 350,000 on the live register at the moment, (admittedly with a larger population), were things worse back then than they are now?


I think things are pretty much the same except we have the benefit of more advanced technology and also we have a lot more people from different backgrounds in the country now, it was such a monoculture back then, other than that it's pretty much the same. With regard to Self-Aid, you have to remember, back in those days you obviously had U2 starting off and they were actually doing really well, and that was kind of inspiring, and everyone felt 'Well hold on, people actually like us somewhere else, like in America'. There was very little to be proud of, there was nothing in fact to be proud of. Coming from that background, it was a breath of fresh air that in America, people were very receptive to music in Ireland and the whole story, and obviously U2 benefited from that. Ourselves in Cactus, we were happy to appear on stage that day and play, it was a real sense of coming of age, 'this is our music, this is what we do', Irish music didn't have to be just diddly-eye any more, that wasn't something I was ever into, having been raised on rock music, especially The Ramones, for example.

Around the time of Self-Aid and the endemic unemployment, expectations were lower, we've just gone through a huge Celtic Tiger false economy boom based on house prices, people thought they had this piggy bank and their house was giving them all this money, but the whole thing was built on sand, when the rug was pulled away people went into shock. I think back then we didn't have that, we weren't coming from having something and then losing it, we never had it to start with, we had nothing and were coming from nothing. Emigration was the only real answer, I emigrated to London with my band Blue Russia for 2 and a half years, and I really didn't want to do that but we felt we had to do it because there was nothing really happening at home, when I came back to Ireland in 1984 to form Cactus with Eoin, the guys (U2) had just done the War album. 

I felt things were looking up for Ireland, you could feel the energy growing, we just got our head down and worked our asses off. To go on stage at Self-Aid and to look around at all the PA and equipment and the organisation, just so shortly after Live Aid was amazing, this was our Live Aid, you kind of feel proud, you know, yeah we can do this and put this stuff together, because we're always putting each other down. You have to remember as well back then that RTÉ and 2FM, with all their bollocks about supporting Irish music, didn't support Irish music, they didn't play the bands, or if they did there was the usual comment of 'Not bad for an Irish song', I actually remember hearing that lots of times, there were exceptions to the rule of course, but that was the national inferiority complex in full swing.



It seems that things haven't changed that much in terms of Irish bands getting airplay, shows that focus on unsigned or independent artists are rare and seen as a novelty, with the big stations almost looking for a pat on the back for featuring such acts for an hour here and there per week.



Some of the programmes are just vehicles for advertising, but there are good ones, Fiachna Ó Braonáin stood in for John Creedon I think on RTÉ radio there recently, he was great! Playing Robbie Robertson, The Sex Pistols, it was great to hear that. 



Going back to Self-Aid, there were some incredible acts in the line-up like Thin Lizzy (minus Phil who passed away four months previous sadly), U2, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Chris Rea, The Pogues and it was also The Boomtown Rats last performance, it must have been amazing to be around such musicians, do you have any particular memories that stand out at that time and how did you perceive your own status back then?



We were compared here obviously with U2, because we were of the same era and no matter what we did, we were never going to be as successful as U2 were in Irish peoples eyes, we sold over 250,000 albums which would be unheard of nowadays, we toured the States and were signed to the Mother label, but when we did Self-Aid, that gig gave us a sense of pride, here we are, we've arrived to this point, that yes, everyone needs a role model to look up to, a sense of if they can do it, we can we definitely do it. I'm actually working on a book at the moment, it's not an ordinary music book, like a timeline or anything, a memoir if you like, my own life from the very beginning, I have so many anecdotes from that period, people say 'you should write this stuff down'. It got me thinking that, you know I've never actually talked about my early days with U2, my background, I was in Mount Temple with the guys, Larry was my best mate, I formed Frankie Corpse and the Undertakers, which is what the Killing Bono film was about, I was played by the actor David Fennelly, it's not War & Peace but it's kind of a comedy, it's a funny, interesting movie. After Frankie & The Corpses I formed The Fast, a Ramones cover band, then Blue Russia and finally Cactus.



Cactus World News, 'The Bridge', Self-Aid, 1986, RDS


Another musician who performed at Self-Aid was Rory Gallagher, he was a special talent to say the least.


You know what, I totally agree, he's like Stevie Ray Vaughan, he always had that energy coming through his hands, Stevie Ray Vaughan had really heavy gauge strings, and so did Rory, and that's how he got the tone, when myself and The Edge were in school in Mount Temple in 1978, The Edge was a big fan of his, songs like 'Bullfrog Blues', and all his solos, Rory Gallagher had a lot of respect around the country, everyone just knew he was coming from the heart, he spoke through his hands with his music. I think you couldn't have picked a better artist to be into, it's like food, you are what you eat and it's the same with the music you listen to. Thin Lizzy were our icons growing up, we just loved Lizzy, they were a proper rock band and rock stars. I was lucky enough to have Phil Lynott produce one of the songs on my band Blue Russia's single release 'Russian Around / She Never Came', in Lombard studios, and we toured around Ireland with him at the time back in 1982 which was an experience in it's own.



Blue Russia, 'Russian Around'


How did Cactus World News start off and can you tell us a bit more about Bono's involvement with the early days of the band?

I remember returning from London on the boat, and rang Larry (Mullen) as soon as I got back, and he told me that this guy, Eoin McEvoy is interested in forming a band with you, because he knew I was pissed off in London. Larry gave me his number and I called Eoin and we arranged to meet in a small flat in Cabra, and I brought my white Strat, a small amp, overdrive peddle and a delay peddle and he had an acoustic guitar and I was like 'What the fuck is this? Buddy Holly shit! This is not going to work', but then I heard him sing and I was like woah hang on a second this is a really good voice, and we basically came out with 'The Bridge' there and then, and we thought, how could this be so easy? Then of course the electricity went, because back then you had to put money in the meter, so he said 'Look, I can give you lunch or we can continue to jam?' and I said 'Fuck the lunch!' and he put the money in the meter and we kept going. 

We ended up writing a good few songs together and Eoin knew Mark Coleman, who was an engineer in SCS studios, who went on to be PA for Bono in the 80's, but before that he was the engineer at SCS and we went into the studio with him and had a really enjoyable demo session, 'The Bridge' was called 'Night Tide' at that stage, we finished that and then Bono was asking 'Eoin how is your demo getting on?', and then he listened to it and thought 'this is incredible', he got really excited about it and insisted on coming down to the rehearsal studio. At the time we were the loudest band in the country, we used to cause earthquakes in that place, I was using octave pedals, Fergal was doing his big bass and I was using feedback as well, 15-20 years before anyone else was doing it, we used to have this amazing sound coming out and top that off with the vocals and acoustic guitar. 

Shortly afterwards Bono came into this absolute storm of a rehearsal one day, in the middle of December in '85, it was snowing heavily as I recall and Bono came down and we played him 'The Bridge' and went over the arrangements and he said he wanted us to sign to Mother. We were thinging 'Great but shit, what are people going to think?' (because of our close relationship) but Bono said you know it doesn't matter what people think, it's either a good song and people will like it or it's not. So we ended up in Windmill Lane at a weekend in the office upstairs where the drum sound was much better, the police were called because of the noise and it was manic, Bono kept telling us to get more and more into it and it got crazy. He brought up a load of U2 fans who'd travelled all the way from Germany into the room which was mad and they loved it, so we thought, well, if the Germans like it.....! 





It was the 6th of January, 1985, and we got into the car with him after and listened to a few mixes and then he said 'Look I've got to go to the States, I don't want anyone to listen to these tapes, we've got 6 mixes, I'm going to listen to them myself, and I'll phone you from over there and we'll choose a mix.' So two weeks later he phoned me at home and said 'What number do you like?' I said I liked 5 and 6 and he said 'Yeah I like number 5 the best', so I said I'd ring Eoin and the others and call him back, and we agreed we wouldn't let anyone hear the tapes. 

He had to head off again for a month, but in the meantime, someone in Windmill had leaked a copy off the tape and gave it to a London record company, who went absolutely apeshit over it, and started calling me every hour on the hour after, saying (cockney accent) 'Listen mate, come on over, we've got a limo ready for ya', I remember telling Eoin and the rest of the band that this guy wants to put a limo outside the studio, drive us home to get our passports and fly us over to London! But we knew it was not something we wanted to do. From that time on things started really hotting up, more phone calls, making copies of the cassette and handing it around, and then we had our first gig. I think it was in the Iveagh Rooms, and the place was just packed with about 30 A&R label men from the UK, the place was like a feeding frenzy, they wanted to sign us immediately, we got a manger and ultimately agreed that MCA records would be the one, and then it all really took off. 


The 1980's is a neglected era as far as my generation and those a bit younger are concerned, and people would know very little about the bands in Ireland from that time, apart from Thin Lizzy, U2, 
Boomtown Rats etc. I always think there must have been so much more going on just underneath the surface. I only heard about The Blades, for example, in the last few years. What are your thoughts on exposure for bands back then versus nowadays?


They (The Blades) were huge back then, neck and neck with U2 at one stage, it was a different kind of music, for me the guitar playing wasn't overly interesting, but what I didn't get at the time was what a great song-writer he was. My whole thing is sound, whereas Eoin might be more into lyrics, like a French person listening to REM, they may not understand the lyrics but they get the message from the sound. With regard to your question though, back then you only had RTÉ1 and 2 and maybe BBC 1 & 2, if something came on the radio or tv that was it, 'Bam!', 5 million people might see it, there was no fragmentation, huge exposure immediately. We also had an ultra-conservative, ultra-Catholic country at that point, anything could be shut down and suppressed and the old guard were still in power. But at the same time, the monoculture created a very definable sound, if you try to limit things in creativity you actually often end up with more creativity. 

What I find today in the studio producing albums for bands is that people have too many choices of music they can listen to with the advent of the internet, they don't know what to do with it, they get paralysed, and when they do finish it they end up with anxiety. It's like if you go into Xtravision and can only rent 1 of 10 films, you're content with your choice, but if there's a thousand films to choose from you pick one and walk out wondering was there a better one you could have chosen, it's overwhelming in a sense. Ultimately you've got to write the music that's in you, not what you think other people will like, the result of that is happiness, whereas if you pander to what you think others want to hear you end up with all the worst parts of it.


You're currently on the cusp of releasing previously unheard and rare materials from the Cactus World News archive on Pledgemusic.com, titled Found, tell us more about the release?



It's been great in helping to reconnect with people, I've always been pissed off we never got our legacy sorted out, we've been busy doing different things over the last 20 years or so, but now it's great for people to get to know the band again and find out what we're all about it. The thing about Found is that it's not just a bunch of B-Sides, it's really quality stuff that we were writing towards the end but just never got to release. We were totally passionate about our music, that first album Urban Beaches is a classic album, it just never got the respect it deserves over here, there was just so much politics at home at the time, people thinking we got a leg up because of our connections with U2, and disregarding the fact that we'd all been in bands for numerous years before Cactus. This was 1986, and a lot of the stuff on that album was way ahead of it's time and that never seemed to be acknowledged for some reason.




Cactus World News, 'Urban Beaches', 1986


Finally Frank, what local bands were you a big fan of at the time CWN were starting out in the 1980's, and are there any Irish bands today that tickle your fancy?

Two that stand out are Into Paradise and Blue In Heaven (both from Churchtown). Blue In Heaven went off to the Compass Point studios in the Bahamas to record and signed with Island Records, we were both coming from a rock background, and we were kind of at the same level in Ireland at the time. Who I love right now? I like Future Islands, that's my kind of music, I feel something when I hear their music, it's not all over the top trying to be clever, that's to say, over-thinking and up it's own arse, it makes you move, it's life-affirming, and that's what I want from music.


A huge thanks to Frank for taking the time to share some of his memories with the blog, you can check out a load of cool Cactus World News merchandise and music at the Pledgemusic page http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/cwnfound
and more info on the band's discography and previous releases here http://www.irishrock.org/irodb/bands/cactusworldnews.html





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