A catholic Education: Gavin Friday Interviewed

Mature lensman Gentleman Jim Dyson talks to former Virgin Prune Gavin Friday about his new album catholic

It has been a long time coming – 16-years in fact – but former Virgin Prunes frontman and post punk visionary Gavin Friday finally released his fourth solo studio album catholic this summer, a sublimely orchestrated return to form.

The man Friday has always remained a unique talent, ploughing a furrow far removed from that of his boyhood chums who went on to form U2; the confrontational seminal art-punk of The Virgin Prunes was the antithesis of Bono’s anthemic political pop. catholic is an emotional reflection on death and the loss of his father but also a celebration of love, life and the future. The album acts as a confessional and is cinematic in feel and inspirational in breadth. Friday’s distinctive, Guinness-like velvet voice is captivating and sensual, but tempered by the maturity of years. The theme of loss may not just refer to his father but to his youth.

What does the ‘c’ word mean to you? Were you raised a Catholic and do you suffer from ‘guilt’?

Gavin Friday: The true meaning of the word catholic / catholicus / katholikos is universal / liberal / inclusive. Yes, I was born and bred a Catholic and a survivor of a Christian Brother education. Naturally, like most born and bred decent Catholics, a little bit of guilt does one no harm.

Tell us about Perry Ogden’s haunting and provocative portrait on the album cover.

GF: Perry Ogden photographed the album cover inspired by the Sir John Lavery painting Love of Ireland. A beautiful painting of Michael Collins laid in state, which we painstakingly reinvented. The homage to the Lavery painting seemed fitting and, with tongue firmly in cheek, the coincidental fall of the so-called ‘new’ Ireland was very much in mind.

By drawing on the iconic image of the death of Irish revolutionary leader, Michael Collins, can this be considered a politically motivated or religious record?

GF: The album is not politically motivated, neither do I see it as religious. There is a religiousness, musically [speaking]. The ‘soundscape’ of the album is very much ‘catholic’, what I would call a ‘velvet mass’, the central theme being ‘loss’, the dealing with and coming to terms with ‘loss’.

How has the recording process changed in the last sixteen years?

GF: Very much so. The recording process has changed hugely and for the better too. Most of catholic was recorded in my South Dublin home. A truly inspiring and freeing thing to be able to record without the financial pressure, stagnant atmosphere and time limitations of expensive studios. Of all the things the ‘digital’ age has brought, the freedom to create/record spontaneously and cheaply is by far the biggest plus, especially when there’s no fucking money anywhere.

Do you enjoy it as much now as you ever did?

GF: Well, making an album is a struggle, a labour of love, and I love that struggle, that not having a clue but knowing exactly what you are looking for, following that mad vision in your head.

You’ve certainly not spent the last 16 years idle, having collaborated on numerous projects. Why has it taken so long to put yourself back into the studio and make another record as a solo artist?

GF: In the late 90s, after I finished the Shag Tobacco tour and I was dropped by Island Records, I felt very ‘out of sync’ – not that I ever was ‘in sync’ – and I didn’t want to relate to what the music industry was becoming. ‘Pop will eat itself’? Well, it had, and I wasn’t comfortable with hanging out with its regurgitation so I more or less decided to go underground; well, in fact I went to Hollywood. I decided to work on scores and soundtracks. I wanted to go out and learn / dabble / create. I didn’t want to be part of a rock & roll conveyor belt. In retrospect, what I’ve been doing the last 15 or 16 years has been taking on and working in the areas I touched on in my earlier career: scores, and, in theatre, acting, spoken word and musicals. There was no plan, I shoot from the hip and follow my instincts, and I love it that way.

The last decade has also been a turbulent time for you personally. How has this informed the writing of catholic?

GF: Naturally, what life dishes us up has a profound effect on what we are and do. The personal upheavals have been huge touchstones in the writing and creating of catholic, with the death of my father being one of the main instigators. I see catholic as a positive. Yes it deals with loss, love and death but in a gloriously melodramatic and redeeming way. As I have said earlier it is almost a requiem for the fallen, but I am very much here, alive and well and raring to go.

Ken Thomas has had such an illustrious and varied career in production – what attracted you to him and what did he bring to catholic?

GF: I deliberately chose a producer I hadn’t worked with before. I didn’t want it to be a comfort zone. And it was beyond a comfort zone working with Ken, he is such a true spirit, he gets into the essence of what the music and songs are about and creates the ambience for musicians to ‘get lost’ in the music. He is music, it’s his life and love. A true Producer in the old school way but with a mad and beautiful brain, a sonic spiritual ‘diviner’ is Ken Thomas. Not to mention him being an utter Gentleman.

Was there ever a fear that the record buying public at large may have forgotten about you, or that some of your more impatient fans may have moved on after a long absence from the public arena?

GF: Fear doesn’t really come into it. I just do what I have always done, follow my instincts and do my own thing.

Have you embraced the digital age as an artist and consumer?

GF: Personally I would be old school, as in I prefer the ‘physical’ formats such as CD and vinyl, but yes, the computer and iPod have become close allies.

Was your 50th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall, organised by friend Bono, (which included appearances by Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Courtney Love, Scarlett Johansson, Rufus Wainwright and Lady Gaga) a shot in the arm for you?

GF: Very much so, a profound evening of music with a cast from heaven and hell. Unforgettable and spontaneous, a rare thing in this day and age, especially with such a high profile cast. It was after the Carnegie Hall show I went in and started recording the album and decided to concentrate on my own music and work towards playing live again.

Is this the start of a period of renewed vigour for you? Are you rediscovering the joy of performance?

GF: I am about to start performing this September and am very much looking forward to it. It’s the place where I weirdly feel the most at ease, when I am in the Music, or should I say lost in the music.

Are you touring or playing any summer festivals? Where and when can we hope to see you?

GF: I play Electric Picnic in early September and do Crossing Borders, a Dutch/Belgian festival, in November, and we are also currently setting up various shows in Europe for October and November.

You tweeted recently bestowing birthday wishes upon former bandmate Guggi; how do the Virgin Prunes look and feel nowadays?

GF: Well we look and feel like 50-year old men, we are all in excellent physical and emotional health, I think…

Members of the Virgin Prunes even returned to the stage together at Carnegie Hall, how did that feel?

GF: Myself, Guggi and Dik along with Jim Thirwell and a backing band to die for performed two Virgin Prunes songs. It was not a reunion, we couldn’t reform. In true abstract form we tipped our hats and tripped our heads to a band and a time that is no longer… It was wonderfully chaotic and intense. Properly so.

One of my favourite lines from Shag Tobacco is ‘I am the art in your party’. Does this describe your younger self or does that still apply to Friday today?

GF: I would very much say it applies to the Mr Friday of today as it did years ago. A lot has changed over the years but I am still in essence the same man, not a ‘twist cap sniffing bore’.

Will it take 16 years for the next record?

GF: No. There will be another album in the next year most definitely, among other varied projects.

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