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The Coalboat Kid – A Conversation with Pat Larkin

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Pat Larkin has been in the Irish music scene for over 30 years, starting his career with Mod heroes The Blades and moving through many successful bands since. More recently he has moved into film; writing, producing and directing his own short films. Irish News Review caught up with him recently ahead of the premiere of his latest short “The Answer Machine” later this month.

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IrishNewsReview: So, The Blades, I suppose we should start there and work our way on. What was it like being in the music scene in the 70s/80s?

Pat Larkin: When we started in 1979, it was just after the Miami (Showband) had been shot, and we were starting out. We used to be up the north and playing the venues they used to be playing. We were so stupid really because we were young lads from the south, all had tight haircuts, we were travelling in an ex-army van we had bought and we were using CB radios to talk to others on the road and we had a load of petrol cans in case we ran out. Problem was, the I.R.A were using radios to stay in touch, and it was a dangerous time back then, and of course they had tanks of petrol for petrol bombs. We were mad. At the time we thought it was great fun but there’s no way I’d do that now.

INR: Sounds like you were living on the edge Pat?

PL: Yeah but we were 19 or 20 and we thought it was great fun, it was great craic to us at the time. We’d be stopped at checkpoints and be laughing at soldiers. We thought nothing of it but now it’s clear how naïve we were.

INR: So you found The Blades had success up in Northern Ireland, was there a polar contrast between the north and south from a music scene perspective at the time? Were they ahead in Northern Ireland while we all played catch up?

PL: The funny thing is, we were travelling up, to Derry I remember particularly and we were dressing like The Jam and bands like that, and everyone around wore flares and Rory Gallagher type gear, like they were stuck in a time warp. But they were listening to Stiff Little Fingers at the same time. They were ahead in music in some ways, but culturally they were a little behind.

INR: From a genre perspective, The Blades have a Mod branding on them but at the time, was that a goal or is Mod a loose genre that people throw onto in between type bands?

PL: Well at the time we were trying to lean more towards the likes of Elvis Costello and The Police, we thought we were more New Wave.

INR: So do you become Mod or do your fans turn you into Mod?

PL: Turned into, completely. We dressed New Wave, looked up to New Wave bands but then along came Quadrophenia and Mod just became so much bigger and more bands got branded with it. Around the time I was moving towards leaving the band, the Mods in Dublin started to latch onto The Blades, and the band started playing the TV Club and embracing the Mod fans. We sort of got lumped in with Mod, but we were happy to embrace it.

INR: You mention the fact that you left The Blades, what were the origins of the band and what led to your departure?

PL: Well the band started out with the Cleary brothers, Lar and Paul, and myself. We had some other members come and go but we were the originals. It’s funny, our biggest problem when we started out was having nowhere to rehearse, and I was working for a gas company at the time so I had this tiny little van. Lar and Paul would write songs and record them on a tape recorder, then they’d give it to me and I’d rehearse with two drumsticks in the van. There were times we’d play a song at a gig and it would be the first time we’d ever played it together! We got a manager, posh English accent so we of course thought that means he must be good, but I never really got along with him, that was the start of me thinking of leaving. But we started winning awards, the IMRO awards and that, and the next logical step was Top Of The Pops. U2 had just been on it, Dave Fanning was already the guru for UK scouts asking what’s big and he would say U2 and The Blades. It was all going to plan. We had a Top Of The Pops slot lined up, but then our manager headed over to  organise it and came back to tell us it didn’t work out. So I politely told him to “go f**k yourself” because that had been our in, there was an Irish producer working on TOTP and that bridge was now, not burned but spent. There has to be a natural progression in a band, single, gigs, album, TV and I didn’t see it happening now so I left. But it was all amicable.

INR: How does it feel to have left the band at that point? Especially to see that they did go on and achieved somewhat larger success than you had experienced with them?

PL: Well they never played Top Of The Pops (laughs). No I thought we had gone as far as we could in Ireland, so when the first step to the UK went backwards I got a bit disillusioned. It ended well though, Paul Cleary was my best friend, and he was best man at my wedding, my daughter’s Godfather. We stayed friends, which was great. I even let them use my drum kit until their new drummer got one himself! I went on to join a band called The Peridots and from then onto a band called The Temps, who ended up supporting The Blades one night! I went on to a load of other bands through the years, The Subterraneans, a Rockabilly band called The Handsome Devils. I love music, and I was just always happy to be involved in it.

INR: It’s certainly a storied career Pat, and one that’s still going, but in your opinion, you’ve talked about how much fun the band used to have. For a young band nowadays, do you think that’s still there, and is it easier or harder for new young bands to try and make it all happen?

PL: Well, a band now without any money can make a record and make a video. That was impossible in the eighties. You can do it all on your bleeding laptop now. But it all reminds me of the eighties when drum machines came in and everyone said “that’s it, we don’t need drummers anymore” and then synths took off in a big way and people said the same about guitarists. Bands nowadays need to be good, which is obvious. But there’s too much scope for anyone who wants to record and publish themselves today, so the good bands need to stand out even more.

INR: It seems that there is a new level of fame today, anyone can be famous via the internet. If your video goes viral or you have enough hits. Now you need to have a group of people attach themselves to your star as it rises like the Blades with the Mods…

PL: …Well you’ll never make a living now playing for the Mods because there all too bloody old now and have kids and babysitters to arrange. They don’t go to live gigs every week. They do run a lot of gigs for charities though. I’m still in touch with the Mod crowd. A new generation has to take over now as an example there is a band around at the moment, GANGS, and they’re doing the well dressed Mod type look, but they’re not Mods. Yet the genre is embracing them, and that’s great. But they’ll have their sights set on a bigger audience, without leaving these guys behind and they’re good enough that they can and will do it, but it definitely helps them to have that early level of fame from dedicated fans.

INR: You’ve certainly been through any and every avenue of music in your career..

PL: …and every genre except jazz, I never liked jazz. To me, jazz drumming is about showing off and letting everyone know how versatile you are but drumming to me is all about keeping rhythm, keep it simple and just keep the beat. My drum kit, after my first two years of playing I only played with a snare, bass drum and floor tom, never had toms. I never did a solo! My belief is the drummer should just be a rhythm section, he and the bass player should just be tight as f**k and that’s it. Drummers now can try show off too much, it’s an egotistical thing. We won’t name names!

INR: Moving on from music, you’ve found yourself in the filmmaking business now, how did you end up behind a camera instead of a drum kit?

PL: First of all, I was writing short stories, and I got a job driving the playwright Conor McPherson when he was shooting a movie. I got chatting and told him about a short story I’d written, about a bunch of kids growing up in Ringsend, fairly autobiographical of myself. He encouraged me to write more and eventually I ended up with a collection of short stories that I put together as “The Coalboat Kids and Other Stories”. From there I continued driving actors on sets for a living and then I joined a co-op in Filmbase called “The Attic”, basically a bunch of creative like minds who want to make film and TV. They helped me film a fifteen minute pilot for a potential “Coalboat Kids” series. I went raising funds and got it done, it didn’t get picked up unfortunately but it started me off on this journey now, I’m on my third short film now (The Answer Machine) and I just love it.

INR: And how does the lifestyle compare to the music days? Anything like the Northern Ireland escapades?

PL: Here’s an amazing random thing that happened. I was driving American director John Schultz when he was filming over here (The Honeymooners) and he had been in the band The Connells, and funnily enough he had left the band a few years before their massive hit “’74-‘75” so we had plenty to talk about. I had written a feature script and usually when you’re finished driving someone you get them a gift for your time together, well he was a massive U2 fan so I arranged vinyl copies of all of U2’s singles for him and brought him to Windmill Lane Studios and everything so as a thank you he offered to bring me over to Hollywood to stay with him and see if we could shop the feature script around. So off I went and I stayed with him in his house in the Hollywood Hills for a month! I thought he was joking but sure enough the tickets then arrive in the door! I wrote a diary while I was there as well and I had arranged with the Irish Times to be a correspondent documenting the trip, so everyone over there then knew me as “Irish Times correspondent Pat Larkin” so they were all mad to throw sessions and parties, it was one of the best months of my life! Unfortunately nothing came of the script in the end, though I did meet with a production company but I didn’t agree with the vision they had for it. But there you go, a completely random chance event.

INR: So what is next then? Film the feature yourself or continue the short movie scene?

PL: I’ve no money to fund that kind of scale unfortunately, but my next plan is to make an animated film, which is still extremely expensive. But I’m 58 this year, I’ve finally accepted that it’s time to give up being a rock star…

INR: That’s comforting so, that’s the cut off age for rock and roll dreaming?

PL: …I was still playing in a band called The Mosquitoes up to about four or five years ago, waiting to be discovered! But I got fed up waiting to be discovered…and carrying drum kits up stairs. But I’ve just decided that now I have no restrictions. With a roof over my head I can write a book, I can make shorts I can write stories, whatever I want and it’s great. I’m about to publish my second book. I’m extremely happy to be able to do all of this.

INR: And do you look for reward from these projects? Film festivals, book circuits?

PL: I’ve submitted to film festivals but I’m happy to see myself learn with each project. I think festivals have been ruined now, like the music and internet argument, there’s just too much. Every single person in the world that fancies their chances can submit their film and it’s just flooded now, when a lot of what is submitted isn’t worth it.

INR: Do you think there’s a bit of a clique in the market?

PL: Definitely, in the sense that it just seems to be far too difficult to get any sort of foot in. It’s a tough business, same as music, but it doesn’t need to be as tough as it is. I approached the Irish Film Board for development funding, basically a bursary to help you finish your script, and the response I got was that my script wasn’t developed enough! I’m happy to work with just the friends who I have willing to work with me, for free, and help me. I’ve an absolute genius of a cameraman, I use a composer called Mick Kiely who’s fantastic with scores. Everyone is extremely serious with their commitment and I just have fun doing it all.

INR: Back to music briefly, anything today that in your opinion compares to the scene from back in the time of The Blades?

PL: It’s not necessarily what I like, but folk is definitely in. The likes of Little Green Cars, Mumford and Sons and others they’re all cleaning up at the moment, I’m off tonight to see “Inside Llewyn Davis”, all filled with folk music of course. I mentioned GANGS earlier on, I’m enjoying what they’re doing and there’s other bands on the scene that are doing things right, but the scene is on the opposite side at the moment, so for these bands not jumping onto the folk band wagon they’ll need to be exceptionally good to stay alive on the scene, so they can break through.

INR: Finally any advice for youngsters today wanting to start a band?

PL: Definitely play in a band. Can’t say anything else but that, I was the shyest youngster you could meet, I only played the drums because I could hide behind them. I’d never been into town before, I’d never even been out of Ringsend and next thing I was in every town in the country! It’s an experience you can’t beat.

Pat’s latest short is “The Answer Machine” and you can find out more information on his production outfit here www.miseryhillfilms.com.

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  1. Nice one Mr Larkin.

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