The Restless Godfather of Irish Punk
We've been fans of The Mahones as long as they've been around. Makers of the finest Irish Punk since 1990, their albums have become a soundtrack to Irish music and culture both in America and around the world. Epiphone spoke with founder Finny McConnell in between recording. Look for their new album, The Hunger & The Fight, this fall.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us before your session. What are you up to?
I just got asked to write the theme music for a new sci-fi show airing in both Canada and the United States. I've done lots of film and television stuff in the past so I said 'sure.' I wrote it and recorded it and sent it to them that day. When you're dealing with the movies, you don't mess around. They liked it so much they asked me for another one. And then they asked me to write for the whole series. Yesterday, they asked me to be in the show, so Katie McConnell and I went and played for the show. So, it was nice--it all happened very fast.
Is that a different songwriting process for you--having to write, record, and get it out so quickly?
It's completely different but it's really fun. Because I play Irish punk in the Mahones, I'm in a bit of a box for what I can write for the band to please the fans and keep in my genre. I do step out of it to please myself. But with this kind of thing you write what they ask you to write. You might do a big epic number or you might do a small acoustic number--jazz or Americana--and that's a whole new challenge. In the film world, they turn things around very fast. The song I recorded for the tv show, I recorded in my hotel room last Saturday (laughs). I made it on a mobile recording unit. They asked for it the next day so I built a studio in the bathroom of my hotel room and it sounded great.
There's a punk aesthetic to that--making do with what you have.
Oh yeah. I didn't have an acoustic guitar so I plugged my Epiphone Les Paul into a processor that made it sound like an acoustic guitar. It was a good challenge. And I got to explain to my wife why I needed one more guitar.
Speaking of guitars, I usually see you with an Epiphone Les Paul.
That's right. My guitars of choice have been Epiphones since the early 1990s. Right now, I use a Les Paul PRO--a black one and a white--one because they're so big and loud. I'm the only guitar player in the band and so I need to make a lot of music. I use those through a stereo amp setup. I have an Epiphone G-310, too. They're lighter. A Les Paul can be heavy all night long but you'll never get a tone like that anywhere else. The PROs get great sustain, really dense sounds, which is what I love about them so much.
How did you get into playing Epiphones?
This goes back to childhood. When I was kid, I loved The Beatles and they played Epiphones. So I got a Casino and then I moved to England in the 80s and I was in a band. We did covers and played the bar circuit. Instead of going to university--I was the lead trombone player in orchestra and could have gone to university--I went to London since I was a big fan of the Clash and The Beatles. I wanted to see what was going on there. I stayed there for 5 years. I had to audition as a bass player because everyone needed a bass player since there were so many guitar players. So, I bought an Epiphone bass--a hollowbody--a Rivoli from the late 60s. I loved it. Then I switched back to guitar and played a Casino.
When I got to London, I had been doing covers--R&B based songs. I realized when I got there that to get a gig you had to have original music. I learned my craft there and by the time I came to Canada in 1990 and started the Mahones, I was a full-fledged writer. And here we are 12 albums later and touring the world. I'm still stuck on the Epiphones. I love the styles and all the selections.
You talk about keeping a punk sound. What is punk to your audience?
When I started in 1990, I was listening to Husker Du and the Replacements and I realized I was no longer influenced by the London scene. I was more inspired by the Minneapolis scene. So I should get my ass back to North America! And so I merged that sound with the sounds of my hometown. The only other band that was close to Irish punk was the Pogues but they were mostly acoustic. What I did was plug in and played power chords over Irish music. A lot of people didn't like it at first. There was a big Celtic scene in Canada in the early days from the east coast. And we were excluded from a lot of that.
How quickly did you get fans when you started?
We were emptying some bars. But I stood strong and I remember some promoters telling me: "Oh this Celtic thing is dying Finny." Yeah--I told them--but there's a new genre growing, an Irish punk scene. I could feel it even then. People started showing up wearing bomber jackets and Doc Martens and kilts. There was a scene brewing and I could see it coming. We struggled right from the gutter of the Irish pub. I get a lot of nice praise from the scene now for being one of the guys who originated it. I was digging the trenches.
What's the age range and how are they hearing about you.
The industry has changes so much but the Mahones have changed with it. We always kept on the cutting edge of technology and keeping close to our fans on the internet. For us, we see 8-80 in the audience. Everybody likes us. We play punk festivals, hardcore festivals and people love us because we can adapt to the crowd. I'll see a bunch of hardcore kids in the crowd and I'll plug in the Les Paul PRO and turn up the overdrive and just slay them. And if I see a bunch of old folks on blankets, I'll strap on my Epiphone 12-string or my Epiphone hollowbody and turn it down for them a bit, you know? And still play the same songs. I don't make a set list until I see the room and the people in it. It's different every day. I adapt it to what's going to happen that night.
What are you working on now?
I'm doing the first double Irish punk album of all time. I'm halfway there and it's the best thing I've ever done. It's a loose concept album about the history and the struggle of the Irish coming from Ireland to America. And I can tell you I used exclusively Epiphone guitars on this record. I used a Les Paul PRO and I borrowed a Riviera Custom P93--I love that guitar--it's so beautiful. Now I have to explain to my wife why I need that guitar. I used the Les Paul PRO for the heavy stuff and the P93 for clarity. There are levels of density on the album. And, I used the Epiphone 12-string and an M-30S mandolin. It's a time travel of the musical sounds of Ireland from traditional to R&B to punk--the entire history of the Irish people. Everybody with us thinks it's the best thing I've ever done. The album will be finished this month and hit the streets in October. I'm really proud of it. I can't wait for you to hear it.
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