Big Think Interview with Gavin Friday
Question: What was it like growing up in Ireland?
Gavin Friday: Well I was born nearly 50 years ago, so I was a child of the '60s basically, which is a real blank. I really started growing up, I think, in the '70s. I'm a glam-rock kid. But Dublin, Ireland in those days was a very dark place, as in it was a very poor, almost third world. Economically, the whole world is going through a recession at the moment. In the '60s, '70s, and the '80s in Ireland was a real recession. It wasn't a pleasant place. It was massive unemployment, we had huge political problems with the north and it was dull and gray. So I formed a band and tried to escape it all.
So it's a great country; a really beautiful, great country, but it's had its troubles. The last 15 years we had one of the biggest economic booms. We became -- overnight, we became almost the wealthiest country in Europe. And last year, the bubble burst. But I think a few bubbles have burst in a few countries. So we are all going through the same things. But let's say Ireland, in the '70s and the '80s was tough, but if you grow up with a tough background it makes you strong.
Question: How has Irish Catholicism influenced you and your work?
Gavin Friday: One of the biggest problems I found with Irish politics and the economic thing was after the war, after World War II, most of the European countries started to develop economically and socially, but whatever way the Catholic church they took a grip and they almost governed the country. I mean, we were almost like a dictatorship. There is good and bad, but we experienced an awful lot of bad, especially from the institutions that taught children the Christian brothers, etcetera. All those stories are all coming out now; not just in Ireland, in Canada, and all over the world. So it was pretty intense. The Catholic church [was] like our Edgar J. Hoover if you know what I mean. They ruled the roost. But it had a huge profound influence on me in that as you get older you realize that you can't blame everything; that there is good and bad, and things get misdirected. So I would call myself a black Catholic. I still have this attraction to it because all religions I'm not a fan of. I'm a fan of sort of belief in spirituality. So I would be into Christ rather than the Catholics
Question: What were your main influences as a child?
Gavin Friday: I was a very shy child. I didn't like football. I didn't like the usual stuff that was shoved at. Sports were always down you and the Gaelic language, which I've actually disliked as a kid but as I grow up I quite like it. My real name isn't Gavin. I was given Gavin Friday by my friends. I'm christened Fionan Hanvey, which is Gaelic and there is no actual English translation. I hated it as a kid but as I grew up I sort of went, "Now I like it."
My main influences - I loved art. I sounds a little pretentious to say I was into art but I liked drawing. I liked music; music was my outlet from day one. I was giving you an image of Ireland being this dull, grey, massive unemployment, not much going on and the future was the dull queue or - and, for me, the window of hope was music and books. So I fell in love with sort of T-Rex and David Bowie very young. They sort of said, "Hey. You don't have to live in this north side of Dublin that's all grey and depressed. You can be a spider and go to Mars." So music and books too. I read avidly as a kid. And that's the beautiful thing about books and music and even movies, is that you can actually escape. You can go into other worlds.
Question: What was Lipton Village?
Gavin Friday: Lipton Village was an imaginary place really. It was a group of young guys that grew up around the same area. I grew up on a street called Cedar Wood Road and by coincidence my best friends that are around the age 10 became a guy called Bono and another guy called Guggi. And we just -- it was music again. The fact that -- that pulled us together. I lived at the bottom end of the street and they lived at the top end and I was quite shy as a little kid, but they found me quite interesting because I had the right albums underneath my arm. Those days where you carry the latest Bowie album or Roxie music album as you go to school. I mean you can't play an album at school but you were being cool just showing, "Look what I got." And I'm not into Meatloaf; I'm into Bowie. So I attracted their attention and I long hair and earrings when it was quite a risque thing to do in Dublin. We didn't have the liberation that America and Britain in the '60s but I did always look to England and America, mainly because of the music that came from there. But we became friends through music and we had real names, Fionan Hanvey and Derek Rowan -- what a dreadful name. And Paul Hewson. We gave each other nicknames just the way most kids do, but the nicknames had more to do with how we physically looked or our essence and I had quite square features as a young kid.
Almost like there was this surge, this ad on the TV as surge pipe, called Wavin and it used to go, "Wavin Piping." And this big square pipe would come. I can be full on at moments, so I was called Wavin for awhile, but I'm a bit softer -- I'm a little softer than a surge pipe so they changed that to Gavin. I didn't chose it, it was Bono and Guggi who gave it to me. And then Friday was added because I have a talent of getting on with most people. So it's a bit of a man Friday thing. We gave each other these nicknames and then we didn't -- we had similar interests; we were into -- it sounds really pretentious at 12, 13 year old kids were like into art and poetry, but we were. We weren't into football, we were into making music or being into music and painting and stuff like that. And we called this sort of little gang Lypton Village and we made up imaginary games and this is one day we'll form bands and one day we'll make movies and one day we'll do this and one day we'll do that. But I think a lot of kids do this in their own way, except 25, 30 years later legend happens because some of us have become quite well known.
So the myth becomes magical. So I tend to sort of see it very practical for me. When I go out for a drink, Bono can buy the pints because he has more money than me. We're the same guys, do you know what I mean
Question: What comes first when you perform: personality or musicianship?
Gavin Friday:That's a tough one there. I've always -- I mean, as a performer on stage, I tend to sort of throw myself into the character, whatever I've written about, so it depends on how I'm writing or what I'm writing about. A lot of singers don't really know who they are. They have this massive insecurity and this massive ego and they are sort of pulled between both. I mean, why do you want a lot of people to look at you all the time and listen to you? There is something going on there, there is sort of need to express and attention. It's not just ego, it's some sort of complex thing and sometimes you create characters to say something you want to say and then you just throw yourself into that. In the last couple of years, I've been acting a lot more. I've done one or two movies; I've done a lot of work with the Roy Shakespearian Company and that's been intense, baby I can tell you that.
I love the way an Irish man -- they can hardly speak proper English -- is doing Shakespeare. So I find that extraordinary as I get older. But I always see music, live shows, performances as moments and to really get there you've just got to actually get into the essence, flesh and the blood.
Question: How did you benefit concert at Carnegie Hall come to be?
Gavin Friday: It had nothing really to do with me. I was -- I think it's going back years. I think it was on some TV situation ****. A lot of people think, "Oh, what's he at now. He's doing this..." So what are you going to do next? And I say, "I don't know." What do you want to do? I say, "I don't know. I just want to get better." Who do you want to ****. "I don't know." And **** says, "Well where would you play?" I says, "Look. I'd love to play somewhere classic, somewhere legendary. A place where music was when music was; at Carnegie Hall." I just said it like that. So it became this sort of -- between my friends and different people -- oh Gav's going to play Carnegie Hall or Gav's going to play Carnegie Hall. Blah, blah, blah. Oh maybe he'll do Shakespeare in Carnegie Hall and it just became this thing over the years. Like a joke almost. And then my friends, as I was talking about, were all turning 50, slowly or quickly. And Guggi turned 50 in May. A gang of us went to a really nice hotel and had a beautiful weekend and we had a few drinks. My good friend Bono says, "Hey. You know what you're doing for your 50th?" I said, "Do you know what? I don't really care. Whatever. I want somewhere with my friends and loved ones and whatever. And he says, "I know what you're doing for your 50th." I says, "Really?" He says, "Yeah. You're going to be working. You're going to be making a show and you're going to be working for Red." When I have a few drinks on me, I can talk but I shut up for the night. So I was a little taken aback and it was sort of out of my control. I went, "What's this about?" But the guy who is putting the show together, Howell ****, I've worked with since 1988 and he's a little bit of a genius, well that's an understatement. He is a genius, in my mind. I've done many of his collaborations and shows and he says, "Let's just see who wants to play with you and let's throw the dice up in the air and see what comes down. I mean you've seen the cast. It's pretty extraordinary."
From Joe Grey to Rufus Wainwright to Martha Wainwright to Courtney Love to Marie **** to Eric Mingus and Lydia Lunch to U2 as you've never seen U2 as it's Bono, it's Adam, it's Larry, it's Edge. To some ex-Virgin Prunes, Guggi and Dick to actresses, the incredible Elizabeth Ashley, Chloe Webb and more and surprise guests. Laurie Anderson and after I leave this interview, I go to rehearse with Anthony **** for a few songs. So what I am most excited about is a lot of music today is so over-rehearse, so worked out, so un-spontaneous; these events, we've got three days rehearsal and there's been a lot of preproduction and thought and e-mails and letters and conversations, but you're getting a group of musicians, almost like a workshop, that love music, that are like pushing it out there and spontaneously doing something. That's a rare thing in these days. This -- I don't know what's going to happen and I love that because in these days and age everything is so ordered and anal and music is about spirit and spontaneity. And that's what we're going to do on Sunday night.
Question: What do you want to achieve in your next 50 years?
Gavin Friday: Do you think I'm going to live until 100? I'll have to -- maybe Bono can arrange that. That would be interesting. Hey Bono, thank you for my 50th, can you make me live another 50 years? It's just such a pleasure to be -- and an honor. And you know what's so great is that we're making money for AIDS in Africa. There's a lot of love and spontaneity, we're doing something creative. That's what I love about Red. It's not just a charity, "Give us money, give us money." It's being innovative. Like here's a show that you won't see anywhere else and you can come and whatever you pay for your ticket it's going somewhere. You can go and buy a pair of Armani shades, like Bono, but the money goes to Africa. It's quite cool. But I'm actually quite modest. All I want is a nice car. All I want is a drink at midnight on Sunday night and I'll be a very happy man.
Question: Why do so many successful artists come from Ireland?
Gavin Friday: That's a tough question. We don't have a long of natural resources as a country; we have a very beautiful country. Visually, I mean, everyone goes on about it's green, it's the mountains and the rivers and it's clean and it's not that populated. It is stunningly beautiful, but we've no oil. We've no coal. We've no money. We just have Ireland. But a weird theory I have is we come from a suppressed culture. We're one of the most invaded countries ever. I think the British started it very early, it could be like 800 that decided to come and show us out; and the Danes in the north. We've had a tough time and pretty much a similar culture would be the Jewish culture; they had a pretty hard time. They were being kicked around for a long, long time.
So when that happens, and when people try to take your culture away from you, your essence of your culture becomes stronger. It's like even in Africa. When you see African-Americans, they're stronger because of what they've gone through. It's even subliminal; I think it becomes in their genes. But our language was even taken from us. The Irish Gaelic language was outlawed and the religion was outlawed. Hence the religion later being stronger; stronger to a negative point of view. But our venge was -- I mean if you listen to Irish language, it's very complicated but it's very poetic. To say hello in Ireland is ****, which translated means "Sunshine of God on you." That's a lot nicer than "Hello". Do you know what I mean? And goodbye is ****, which means "It's a wave and may the road rise with you," which is a very well-known phrase. That's a really nice way to say goodbye.
So there was engrained poetry and then when you look back at our history and in the 20th century, the last century, probably the greatest writers of the 20th century were Irish. You go from Beckett to Joyce to **** to Shaw to Oscar Wild; you just go "Jesus, what's going on here?" All these guys and the most famous book in the world could be Ulysses, after the Bible. But that was almost like our revenge on how dare you take our culture from us. So it became our only weapon, was our poetry, our music. And if you listen to Irish music, I think we've -- they say that kilts came from the middle east. So really I'm an Arab. If you listen to the way they -- listen to the way someone like Sinead O'Connor sang. It could be Muslim. You know that angst that sort of ****. That wail. I think it's in our genes. I think certain stuff is in our genes, like nobody can dance like a black guy. It's in their genes. So we don't have oil, but we have poetry.
Question: How has the Celtic Tiger economy changed Ireland's art scene?
Gavin Friday: I am not a huge fan of the Celtic Tiger; I was so glad that you could see people being prosperous, that you didn't see people begging, that the city started looking good, that people had jobs. But it was almost like if you have such a hard time for so long, then you turn around and give a kid a check for a million quid, they're going to go nuts. And we went a bit nuts, we went up our ass. Suddenly every one started sounding very American which freaked me out. The "Oh my God" syndrome kicked in really quick and I got a freight. The bubble has burst. Time tells; time tells everything. We blew it too quickly, but it wasn't totally our fault because the big boys that run those banks they messed up America, they've been up Europe, they've messed up the world. Really it's the start of the 21st century. We've got to re-think things.
Socialism and Communism don't work, but neither does straightforward capitalism. We've got to get a new way of thinking and working. We blew it so there was good and bad about the celtic tiger. But we're tiny. There's four million in the country, do you know what I mean? We're tiny. Four million in a country, how many is in New York? Seven? Ten? But we're strong, so hopefully we pull through. And you never really know until you get perspective a couple of years away. But I really disliked the fact that our culture is what make us and made us and will make us. And when money came in, we rejected it so quickly. Not even rejected, we didn't think. We just got lazy and all the girls started getting fat and that's not good is it
Question: What is alcohol's role in creativity?
Gavin Friday: Alcohol. I mean, I like a fine wine. Who can beat that? I'm not drinking this week because it messes with my throat. But I can drink for Ireland if I wanted to. I don't think it helps writing; I think it's a hinderance. It helps numb you. If you've been working your ass -- like I tell you, I will be having a few drinks next Sunday after that show is over. So it helps bring you down and chill you out and have a laugh. You've got to use alcohol and not let it use you. I come from a country that's been doomed by alcohol. The Irish could drink; they could drink Europe. And they'd have a good go at America, too. I mean, you guys -- your alcohol is like not good, it's weak.
So I don't even think any stimulants really help writing. You talk to most guys and they say, "Hey. I wrote this." And they're out of their head or they had a few beers or a bottle of whiskey. You wake up the next morning, it's usually pretty crap. But you know Dylan Thomas wrote some great poetry. Brendan Behan. You never know but ultimately I'd say you have to get up early in the morning and you're usually sober when you write your good stuff; it's hard work. So alcohol, keep it for chilling out, fun, and having a good time. Not for work.
Question: Had Ireland's alcohol problem lessened with the Celtic Tiger economy?
Gavin Friday: Nt. We've got wars. Imagine having more money, you could buy more beer. Have you been to Dublin in its heyday like in the boom heyday at like 4:00 in the morning on a Sunday or Saturday? It's like beyond New Orleans. It's like St. Patrick's Day every day. It's not good. I don't even like pubs anymore. I like going for a meal and having a bottle of wine. Be more gentle. You can't go to a pub when you get old; well you can, I suppose, but you know what I mean?
Question: What advice to you have for young people entering into music?
Gavin Friday: I like the way that you said entering into music. There is a terrible thing that's been happening probably for the last 20 years or so and it's called the music business. And music isn't really business; it's work and you got to pay and you've got to buy your guitar or go into the studio. So there is a business side but when people say, "I'm going into the music business," it's not. It's about expression. It's about creativity. You don't join music, in my mind, to make money. You join it because it's in you; it's in your blood stream. So if you want to be Justin Timberlake, go for it. But if you want to be somebody else, go for it but it's usually very hard. You just got to believe in yourself, work hard. I've no advice, I did everything the right and wrong way. You make it up as you go along, but it has to be in your blood stream and it's not a job. It's a way of life.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Gavin Friday: Alcohol. If I open that bottle, I can stay up and then I love that if you go out and you have a great meal with friends and then you go home with a few friends and you have a late night disco. I mean, you're not dancing on the table, but you open another few bottles of wine, you've great friends, and you're playing music and talking rubbish. That's a great thing on a weekend. So that keeps me up late. I tend to -- in the last couple of years, because I used to live right in the city center, I've moved out to the sort of not the city center: county Dublin, near the coast. So I tend to get up early now. I'm known to get up at 7:00 in the morning. I like swimming because I have a bad back. I have no choice there. I write and I sometimes go to bed at 11:00 and then sometimes I go to bed at 5:00 in the morning. That's when I go out. But worry, I get anxious but worry doesn't really do any good. If something is broken or in trouble, you've got to bend down, pick it up and fix it. Worry just makes us get wrinkles. So try not worrying.
Question: What is the biggest career mistake you've made?
Gavin Friday: A mistake? I have shot myself in the foot so many times, I'm crippled. Look, I am not exactly Mr. Great Career Guy. I shoot actually what I think. In a weird way, I used to think that was really messed up. Now I think it's okay. Mistakes, once you don't repeat the same mistakes, have no regrets. Live and learn. We mess up, so what. But know why you messed up and don't make the same mistake.
Question: Who are your heroes?
Gavin Friday: They're all dead. I've lots of heroes. My mum is a hero. She had to put up with me and my dad. She is one of my heroes. Some of my friends are heroes. There are so many. But heroes usually let you down, don't they? There is people I admire, people I respect.
Question: If you could choose, who would you have dinner with?
Gavin Friday: Oh, most definitely Mr. Oscar Wilde. I'd say the conversation would be mind-blowing. So Oscar Wilde followed by Groucho Marx. The two of them together and me would be interesting.
Question: Who are you wearing?
Gavin Friday: What am I wearing? I'm wearing a very funky pair of shoes. Shall I show you them? Even the cameraman here beside me commented. Can you see them? Yeah. As I'm getting older, I'm getting funkier. So that's what I'm wearing. Funky shoes.
Recorded on: October 1, 2009
A conversation with the Irish musician.
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