Voice of the people
Any self-respecting Mayo citizen worth their salt will feel a surge of pride when they hear the stirring words of that timeless ballad. What is easily forgotten, however, is that they were penned by a bunch of lads from…Tuam?
The Saw Doctors have been on the road for a long time now, and it is no exaggeration to say that they are one of Ireland’s most consistently popular bands, with a huge and dedicated fanbase both at home and abroad.
Their story began in 1988, when Leo Moran (pictured) and Davy Carton began gigging around Galway with a clutch of self-penned rootsy-rock tunes. First taking the west of Ireland by storm, they were thrust onto the national stage with the huge hits ‘N17” and ‘I Useta Love Her’. They have barely paused for breath since then, growing their popularity in Ireland and building a huge following in Britain, America and beyond.
Leo Moran is sitting in the plush surroundings of the TF Royal Theatre, Castlebar, tucking into a plate of food with the evening’s gig fast approaching. Still in a state of excited agitation after a brilliant, rollicking sound check, he talks a mile a minute about ‘The Docs’, their career, their latest album, and, of course, their love for the county Mayo.
“We love Mayo, love it!” says Leo. “I remember gigs years ago on Clare Island, or in the Westport Town Hall, or on the back of a truck in Ballinrobe, and this gig in the TF is always brilliant. We’ve had great times in Mayo; I love it!”
The Docs are as busy as ever: after the Friday TF gig, they headed to the Midlands festival on Saturday, before returning to Galway on Sunday to play a triumphant free concert on their home turf in Eyre Square. This month, they will be in the US for three weeks, and soon thereafter they are playing at the massive V festival in Britain. Tough going for a bunch of forty-somethings!
Though The Saw Doctors are well-known for their energetic gigs, Leo concedes that the band is finding a new maturity. Their latest album, The Cure, attests to this: poignant, reflective songs such as ‘Me Without You’, ‘Out for a Smoke’, ‘Vulnerable’ and ‘If Only’ appear to betray a new introspection for Messrs Moran, Carton and co.
“As normal human beings, you change when you reach a certain age. I had just turned 40 when I started writing the songs for The Cure, and I suppose you do start to think about your mortality and all that.”
He stresses, however, that although this album seems more mature and ‘serious’ on the surface, they have always had a serious element to their music. “A lot of people think that we’ve always been trivial and frivolous, but on every album we’ve had songs that are a bit more serious than our best-known work.”
It is also true to say that the band has evolved in tandem with the country. Whereas once, long before the era of broadband and SUVs, they felt the need to ‘sing a powerful song’ warning against those who would ‘ruin our province just to turn it into gold’, their songs have since had to come to terms with the new realities of wealthy, affluent Ireland. Leo mentions that certain songs on The Cure, especially ‘Out for a Smoke’, reflect the downside of Celtic Tiger Ireland, and those that are left behind, “It seems like there’s an awful lot of money around now,” says Leo, “but people don’t have much wealth.”
Still, The Saw Doctors have maintained their popularity, boom or no boom. Successive generations discover their music and find something to identify with in their songs. In his biography of the band, Johnny Black described their enduring appeal thus: “Their unswerving commitment is to write and sing about the things they understand which, by extension, are also the things that audiences around the world understand. In a Saw Doctors’ song, you’ll listen in vain for the usual swaggering rock cliches. Instead, continuing the tradition of all-time greats from Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, their songs range from bringing in the harvest, to running away to join the army; from the plight of Ireland’s unmarried mothers to the effect of strong religion on a nation’s youth; from playing Gaelic football against a neighbouring village to loving the prettiest girl in town but lacking the courage to tell her…The Saw Doctors are the very definition of the people’s band.”
Leo is adamant that the secret lies in the songs. The emotional honesty of Carton’s voice coupled with the simple eloquence of the lyrics continues to strike a chord among music lovers everywhere. “I’d like to think we’re representing ourselves honestly and properly and people see that and connect to the music. We’ve found a distinctive type of song that no other band in the world seems to write. That’s why people like The Saw Doctors. Anyone can put words and music together but unless there’s something more behind it, it doesn’t work.”
The Saw Doctors have carved out a unique niche for themselves in the Irish musical landscape but since their foundation, they have had to rail against accusations of being ‘uncool’ and ‘a bogger band’ from the trendy powers-that-be in the notoriously fickle music industry. Leo is bullish about this fact and his eyes take on a steely expression behind the trademark glasses as he expands on the subject.
“I couldn’t care less about what those people think,” he says. “They can look down their noses all they like in Dublin at these eejits from the west who only represent a shower of culchies, but none of these ‘cool’ bands will sell out the Nokia Theatre in New York or play the V festival in England. When you look back at all the Irish bands that haven’t done anything abroad, it makes you realise that what you need to make it in this business is to be distinctive, to find your own unique sound, and The Saw Doctors have done that.”
Leo Moran speaks with the conviction of a man who knows his own strengths, and the strengths of his band, He seems to be remarkably in tune with what The Saw Doctors represent, who they are, where they’re from, and what role they fulfil in Irish music.
“We’re never going to be U2,” he says, “but we are what we are, and it works.”