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'If you look at U2... they kind of belong to the world at this stage, where we still belong to Ireland'

After over 35 years in the business, Irish rock band Aslan are still going strong.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

IT’S HARD TO explain to someone new to Ireland the space that Aslan occupies in the national consciousness.

The longstanding rock band – first formed in Finglas and Ballymun over 35 years ago – have been a mainstay of Irish culture since they released their first album Feel No Shame in 1988.

The album – and in particular iconic track This Is – showcased the band’s unique sound and frontman Christy Dignam’s powerful vocals.

It heralded them as a fresh new feature on the Irish music scene at the time. One with strong working class Dublin roots.

As is often reported Feel No Shame was written and put together in a pigsty next to Dublin Airport, and catapulted the young rockers to instant fame. They became a regular sound on the radio and in the charts and seemed to be on the cusp of widespread international recognition and fame.

But that widespread international fame never properly came, and the highs and lows (from sellout shows to battles with addiction and the band splitting up at their peak) of Aslan’s journey from then to today is well charted.

But the group has never lost its appeal to Ireland.

Over the years Aslan’s music has hit home with different generations of Irish people. Their main standout tracks (This Is and 1994′s Crazy World) are deeply felt and loved by Irish people.

This year, Aslan is going on the 30-year anniversary tour of Feel No Shame – the album that started it all.

Today the band is little changed from its early days:

Dignam on lead vocals, Joe Jewell is lead guitar, Rodney O’Brien on bass, Billy McGuinness on harmonica and guitar and Alan Downey on drums and percussion.

They will play the first of two gigs in the Iveagh Gardens tomorrow evening. In between rehearsals this week, Dignam sat down with TheJournal.ie to reflect on the group’s enduring success.

“I try not to analyse it too much,” said Dignam.

“We couldn’t sustain ourselves if we were just to rely… on our age group to sustain us because a lot of our age group have stopped going to gigs, they’re rearing families and stuff like that.

So we’re getting a younger audience as well coming in and I don’t know why that is.

Aslan have often been compared with the world-famous U2, who were hitting their stride at about the same time and whose members grew up not far from them (although in a “posh enclave”, as Dignam once called it).

This comparison has frustrated Dignam at times, as he sees the band as something completely different from Bono, The Edge and the gang. For Dignam, especially today, Aslan are first and foremost an Irish band.

“I think because of that we always remained an Irish band, a true Irish band,” he said.

“Because if you look at U2 or somebody like that, they’re an international band at this stage. They kind of belong to the world, they don’t belong to Ireland anymore.

Where we still belong to Ireland, you know? I think that might be what it is.

Belong to Ireland 

Dignam has a point.

Anyone living in Ireland over the lifetime of Aslan has probably had numerous opportunities to see them play live – wherever they are based.

Over the years, the group – often dubbed Ireland’s hardest working band – have gigged in venues big and small up and down the country.

From local GAA clubs, to Vicar Street. From a bar in Ballaghaderreen, to the Point Theatre.

Dignam links this willingness to play to all crowds at all venues to the band’s continued success.

“We’ve done GAA clubs in every corner of the country, you know?

“And every little village and every little town all over the country. And I think people appreciate the fact that you’ll go down Ballaghaderreen, or Ballybunion or wherever – Connemara or Donegal.

Because you go to these little towns people appreciate it. So then when we’re doing gigs like the Iveagh Gardens people come up to those gigs, because I think they appreciate the fact that you’ve come down to their small town.

History 

Aslan’s tracks inspire a nostalgia in people who grew up in the 80s and 90s in Ireland.

The country was on the brink of change when they hit the scene – emerging from decades of a weak economy and living under the grip of the Catholic Church.

The journey from their initial success with Feel No Shame is a part of the lore of the band: instant fame, the potential to hit international success, a break up at their peak, a reforming years later and constant touring throughout the years.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

It is a story of fighting and music, of drug addiction and closeness and bitterness and illness, but overall it’s a story of a love of music and performing and of a lasting unity.

What did it feel like when the band first hit it big?

“It was amazing,” said Dignam.

Because when you come from a place like Finglas you think that success and things like that happen to other people. You never think it’s going to happen to you, you know?

“It was amazing buzz and it was something that we weren’t expecting.

And I think we’ve always tried to be honest in what we did, musically and in every aspect of the band and I think people like that.

In 1988, Dignam was kicked out of the band as his heroin addiction spiralled out of control and became unmanageable for the rest of the band. The split was acrimonious, and the band and Dignam both concede that it could have been handled better.

Both went their own ways, before getting together for a benefit gig in Finglas in 1993. The band wrote some new material for the show, and the gig went so well that they got back together.

What followed was 1994′s Goodbye Charlie Moonhead – the band’s most well-known album. It’s standout single – Crazy World – would go on the join This Is as one of the iconic tracks of Irish rock music.

Touring, new albums, dropped by record labels, singles released – the story goes on from there. The band has released seven studio albums in their time together and close to 30 singles.

But it’s their energetic, powerful live shows with Dignam as the frontman that many people associate Aslan with.

“We always felt that although we were happy with albums and stuff. We felt that our live performance was where our strength lay,” said Dignam.

And we could never capture that on record. It was very hard to capture the emotion and the dynamics of a live gig on a record.

Realising this, the band self-financed and released a live album and DVD, Made in Dublin – Live at Vicar Street, in 1999 which shows them at their best. It went on to be one of their best selling records.

Source: AntonioTheGrace/YouTube

Illness

And so the story of the band continued into the 2000s and beyond – with highs and lows, moments of recognition and continued hard work.

“When you’re in a band, you’re never famous forever. You’re famous for a period of time,” as Dignam put it.

In 2013, Dignam was diagnosed with Amyloidosis, an incurable blood cancer, and has undergone extensive treatment – including chemotherapy since then.

“There’s nothing is going to focus you more than a terminal illness,” said Dignam.

He said that his perspective changed with the diagnosis, that he found a renewed appreciation for his family (Dignam is married and has a daughter and three grandchildren) and being close to them.

2005 Meteor Ireland Music Awards - The Point Depot The band accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award back in 2005. Source: Haydn West/PA Archive/PA Images

He retained his desire to keep performing and making music, but found the first year with the illness very tough.

“Because of the illness and the nature of it I was in hospital for a year and then I was in a wheelchair for a year when I came out of the hospital,” he said.

“So for a two-year period we didn’t do anything at all and I started getting really depressed. Because for me, gigging gets all the demons out of me, it kind of exorcises all the fucking badness that’s in me.

 And it was only when we started gigging again that I started to feel kind of normal again.

Dignam is currently on a round of chemotherapy to try to keep the illness at bay, but as the condition is terminal he says it’s just managing it.

“I feel grand but it’s just one of those things I’m trying to manage at the moment,” he said.

Gigging into the future

Once he felt healthy enough the band continued doing what it has always done – play gigs.

As well as the 30th anniversary Feel No Shame, the band recently released their first new track in years – Now I Know.

Source: Aslanire/YouTube

Dignam is happy with the track but frustrated at the lack of airtime it has received. He’s also not impressed with the current state of pop music being played on the airwaves.

“There’s so much crap going around at the moment,” he said.

“We’re kind of doing it now for the same reason that we started to do it years ago.

When we started to do it years ago it was because there was so much crap, we were listening to all this crap and saying ‘we can do it better than that, let’s get a band together’, and now it’s gone so crap.

But while they may not be getting played on the mainstream radio stations, it’s impossible to deny Aslan’s continued appeal and their place in the history of Irish rock music, and in the Dublin and the Irish consciousness.

For Christy and his bandmates, as long as they’re well and able, and as long as people keep showing up to their gigs and their popularity is sustained, they’ll keep doing what they’ve done for over 35 years: making and performing music.

“I think we all still love doing, you know?,” he said

“In this business you’ve got your two hours on stage and then you’ve got 22 hours of bullshit you have to go through to get those two hours on stage.

And I wouldn’t be able to tolerate the 22 hours if it wasn’t for that two-hour period that you’re onstage where it’s just you and the audience.

“We’re not solicitors that do this in our spare time, we’re musicians, we’re a band – that’s what we do.

So to me I can’t see any other way of going, this is what I do, this is what I’ve dedicated my life to. So I’ll keep doing it until I don’t think it’s cool to be doing it anymore.

Aslan play tomorrow night and next Saturday in the Iveagh Gardens in Dublin. Saturday’s gig is sold out, but you can get tickets for Friday’s show from Ticketmaster. 

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About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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