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Sienna: What was your inspiration for getting into music?

Alan: I suppose it’s a cultural thing in Ireland.  It’s a big part of family there, in my case, especially on my mother’s side of the family.  We went to mass every Sunday, and then we’d go back to my grandmother’s house, just down the road. There would always be music, and if you could sing, and they found out you were any good, you’d kind of be in trouble. You’d have to sing every time you were there.  So, if you were a teenager, embarrassed and didn’t want to sing, it was kind of tough.  “Hard nails, mate”.  You had to do it.  

There was also great joy in that, though.  It was kind of contagious, you know, because my parents and all my aunts and uncles were pretty passionate about music, but they had busy lives, just trying to pay the mortgage and bills and all that.  So they didn’t get together like that as often as they would have liked.  When they got to do it it, the joy was immense.  I think that rubbed off on me from a very early age.  

S: How did the band begin?

A: The Barleyshakes started out as three people playing acoustically in a local pub, on a Friday evening, just for fun, really. Then the pub started to slip us a few dollars to make sure we would show up every Friday, cause it started to get popular. One of the players was particularly into Irish folk music, I was kind of into indie, punk, and folk rock. So that friend Ray, taught me a lot about Irish music, really just by hanging out with him.  Out of that we formed The Barleyshakes.  We started off as a 3-piece band.   We toured Sweden and parts of Europe, then we started to play in another hotel on Sunday afternoons back in Dunlaoghaire. That got very big, and people started to join us, coming in as guests on percussion and other instruments. All of a sudden, we were a five or six-piece band, with quite a big sound. From there we got spotted by an Irish music enthusiast, who was a manager of Waltons Music, a big Irish folk music school and retail shop. His name was Conor Long, and he came out and recorded us with his little 8-track dat tape recorder machine, which was very advanced for those days. I’d never seen anything like it. Conor made an album for us, a live recording. He just gave it to us as a gift.  So, out of that we got invited to a festival in France called Interceltique Festival in L’orient, in the Northwest of France, in a region called Brittany. Then we started getting invites to everywhere from there. The band really took off then.

S: Who writes most of the songs? What’s your songwriting process?

A: Well, I write all the original songs in the band. My main process is, I just kind of get bitten by the bug, and I’ve got to do it, there and then. So, sometimes it’s three in the morning, I’ll wake up and I just have to write. I go downstairs, and I don’t wake up anyone else. I’m lucky in the house with a quiet room downstairs that I’ve turned into a little home studio. Or, sometimes I might be on the road, so I might have to go off into the bushes, under a tree. All of a sudden, inspiration, y’know. I’ve learned over the years there’s great benefit from songcraft as well. So now I usually do a quick sketch of a song, and then I need to work it close to its full potential. Next, I might gig the song on my own at solo or duo shows, whatever. From there it gets even more complete, as close to its finishing point as I’ve written it. Then I’ll play it to the band and they often have some really great ideas for arrangement. They’ll come at it from a totally different angle to me. It’s a great thing to collaborate, I have collaborated in songwriting quite a bit over the years too, and I do really enjoy it. 

In fact, one of my favourite songs I’ve written was a protest song about the treatment of refugees in Australia I wrote with your dad, Jay Bishoff. We called the song ‘Sad Destiny’. That was a really great process. Your mum actually helped us with the lyrics, too, I remember. She was making us tea and she was in ear-shot. She steered us in the right direction when we were going off course. So, it was kind of written by the three of us, that song. 

S: Who is in The Barleyshakes?

A: The band has had a lot of members over the years. Remember, we started off in Ireland with 6 guys, and I wasn’t married. Kristin joined when we were touring our first album, and she featured a lot on our second album, becoming a full-time member then. Now our kids are in the band. Rory is 21 and he plays saxophone and Irish drum, and he’s just taken up the whistle. 

Our daughter, Mocara, is also in the band. She plays fiddle and sings. Of course, my life-partner, Kristin, also plays fiddle and sings. Multi-instrumentalist, Steve Cook, mainly plays mandolin in our band, but he also plays banjo and fiddle and guitar, bass and keyboards. Joe Morris, from the USA, plays bass, and Belinda Tucker plays flute and whistle, as well. So that’s our current lineup. Occassionally, we’re lucky to get Tio Kurun Warun , an indigenous friend of ours, on didgeridoo, always special. 

S: You have featured for years, in different formats at Woodford Folk Festival.  

A: We’ve been running the music camp there. We’ve done it 3 times now, and I think we’ll do it again next year, which will be great. It’s an opportunity to teach people how to play Irish folk music, or just folk music, in general.  It’s not always Irish, I mean. Our speciality is Irish, so we kind of use that as a guide, although I included a bit of bluesgrass and Scottish music last year for the first time.

S: What makes The Barleyshakes uniquely Irish? 

A: Well I wouldn’t describe it as something uniquely Irish, cause I’m the only Irish member in the band. Steve’s got Irish heritage, so does Kristin, but I’d say we’re more Irish-Australian. That’s what makes us unique! To be honest, there’s some really great Irish-Australian bands here now. I suppose we were one of the earlier ones, ‘cause we’ve been together over 25 years, based in Australia for maybe 23. I have definitely been influenced by Australian music since I’ve moved here.

S: Who are your favourite artists? 

A: That’s like trying to catch a slippery frog in a pond. That’s an impossible question to answer, cause I’m always shifting. I can be moved by any genre of music. 

S: How about a ‘big influence’ song?

A: Yeah I’ll put it down to a couple of artists: Christy Moore and Shane MacGowan. Their songwriting has really, y’know, pinned me down and touched my heart more than others. 

S: What is it about their music?

A: I love the courageous simplicity of their approach to songwriting. You try to learn some of their songs, again which sound really simple, and then you go, wow: that’s quite tricky to pull off. I love learning my favourite songs written by other songwriters, too. I learn Fleetwood Mac, I learn Foo Fighters, you know, anyone, really. I love all sorts of music, as a musician should.

S: Any exciting upcoming gigs?

A: Well, I’m looking forward to March.  We’re doing a Saturday evening concert at Sunshine Beach Surf Club. They have a really cool, new venue upstairs, with a beautiful view of the ocean. This will be a different one for us, as it’s more cabaret style, with a two-course dinner. We’re including dancers in the show, too. It will be on Saturday, March 16th, the day before St. Patrick’s Day. It will be a celebration of everything Irish that night. We sing a lot of really well-known Irish songs that people love. We won’t be doing many originals that night, but that’s alright. 

S: For those who may not know, what is the historical origin of St. Patrick’s Day? 

A: A lot of nations have their day, the English have St. George’s Day, Canada has its own day in June. St. Patrick’s Day is just a chance to celebrate everything Irish, all Irish culture. St. Patrick was famous for allegedly banishing all the snakes out of Ireland, ‘cause Ireland doesn’t have any snakes. Even though, England does, right beside us, we don’t have any snakes.

At age 16, Patrick was kidnapped and taken to Ireland, but he escaped back to Britain. He returned to Ireland years later to help spread the Christian faith. When he came to Ireland he made popular and because of him Ireland has got a very strong history of Christianity.  It has kind of dropped off in the last 30 or 40 years, but before that it had a real stranglehold on the culture. So St. Patrick’s Day had once had a big sort of Christian element to it, but now it’s more of a cultural celebration and a lot more inclusive , which I’m happy about. 

S: What part of Ireland are you from?

A:  I’m from County Dublin, a place called Dunlaoghaire about 10 miles outside Dublin City. It’s a beautiful area of Dublin, right by the sea. It’s got a James Joyce Tower there, where he used to lived, in the tower, for part of his time. A lot of our playwrights and poets have lived out that way. Members of U2 currently live there. The Coen Brothers and Neil Jordan have houses there as well, at times. I think even Sting has a house there, I mean they’ve turned it into something like the Rivierre.I grew up inland, away from the coast, in more kind of a lower-class area, where all of the houses were packed in tight. 

S: If you were to describe The Barleyshakes music in one sentence…

A: A celebration of joy with the help of Irish culture. We like to create a party, and we’re pretty happy when we play music. Thats always been our mission, really. We definitely like to be artistic about it as well though. We work hard on our arrangements and  compositions, but once we get on stage, we like to create a big, joyful atmosphere.  We are definitely a dance band. As we’re getting older now, we’re learning slower stuff, we’re slowing down a bit. So, catch us while you can, while we’re still kickin ass, ha ha. 
But there’s some really great Irish bands out there at the moment in Ireland and in Australia. There’s some really cool young bands, too. One of my favourite bands at the moment is a band called Austral. They’ve played the last 3 or 4 Woodfords. They’re superb, a lot of fun, but they’re not the only one. I like Amadi, the Gathering and the Munster Bucks. Sasta are also an excellent band in Australia. There’s a thriving Irish folk scene in this country. In Ireland, I like Aldoc, KILA, Lunasa and Glen Hansard.

S: Where can fans listen to The Barleyshakes?

A: I would put them toward YouTube, because I just don’t currently agree with the politics of the Spotify CEO. Spotify currently pays the smallest fee possible for every stream, meanwhile the CEO is investing in weapons, advanced Ai weapon technology. You can’t really support that, can you?  So I have removed Spotify from all my devices and have moved on to others. There’s Apple Music, there’s YouTube, Deezer. So many ways to listen to music. So if everybody moved to other forms that are you know, more ethical, you wouldn’t be giving money to the devil, let’s say – ha ha. 

Obviously, it’s annoying to spend a few hours setting up a new platform – but you know, you do it once, and that’s it. Let’s show ‘em what we’re made of.