Interview by: Mike Farley
here for Mike's review of Absolutely, the latest album from The
The Young Dubliners have been around for about a decade now, having been through a few record labels and currently residing on Higher Octave, an offshoot of EMI. They've been crafting some great rock songs with a Celtic influence and have been touring incessantly. I recently got to chat with Keith Roberts, the Dubliners lead singer and songwriter, about the music biz, projectile puking and life in general.
Mike Farley: Where are you guys from?
Keith Roberts: I'm from Dublin, Ireland. Our bass player is from Dublin, and the other three guys are from different parts of America.
MF: For some reason I was under the assumption you were all from L.A.
KR: It's funny, either everybody thinks we're all from Ireland or from here. It's equally detrimental -- if they think we're all from Ireland, they can be real dickheads to the guys that aren't. People come up and say, "What part of Ireland are you from?" And we say "I'm from Michigan" and they say "Oh, where's the Irish guys?" When they write us up in the paper they'll say "this L.A. band." I don't really care either way but it's one of the unique elements of this band and why we sound different from any other Celtic rock band out there is because we've blended American rock and Irish rock and put a Celtic influence over the top of it. Everyone's chipping in with their own background and that's why we have songs that sound Americana/Celtic.
MF: How long have you guys been together?
KR: The band originally formed in '92, we got our first deal in '94, but it's been through various rebirths, as I've had to replace band members due to a heavy touring toll and stuff like that.
MF: Are you still with the same label?
KR: No, we started on an independent called Scotty Brothers, then we went to an independent called Cargo, then we finally signed with Higher Octave, which is an EMI label. The last two albums have been on an imprint owned by a major.
MF: Absolutely is your latest record and you're touring in support of that. How is it going so far?
KR: It's going great -- we've been out since May so it's gotten to that point where you don't know what day it is or where you are. And I, for the first time in the history of the band, halfway through a show said, "It's great to be back in Minneapolis" when we were in Milwaukee. It was a Spinal Tap moment, but I'd already said "Hello Milwaukee" a couple times so they forgave me. It's kind of indicative of all the moving, especially when you get caught up in Wisconsin with all the "M's" you kind of forget where the hell you are for the moment.
MF: When I listen to your stuff, I hear U2 and Big Country. Who would you compare yourselves to the most?
KR: It's funny, not many people get it but you hit two bands that were a big part of my whole thing. U2, being a bit of an obvious one -- it's more pride with me since they're from the same place as me. The idea that they became a leading world act from a little town like Dublin is pretty incredible. And I think the way they did it was very honorable with constantly trying to update themselves and never really pandering to radio. It just sort of happened for them because of their live shows and that's kind of how we've been all along. We've been trying to do this based on our live shows and we write songs that we think are good songs and whether they become radio material or not is always out of our hands. We have had some radio hits in the past and we're hoping to again but it's just impossible to write for that when you're in a unique format. But Big Country were a huge influence on me, because even back then when I was in my early days of college I was blown away by an electric guitar being used in a Celtic way. It was almost subconscious because I don't remember then thinking, "That's what I'd like to do," but when I came to America (I originally came here to be a journalist in 1988) I was doing an internship at a PBS station and I was starting to get itchy for playing again. I was trying to form different bands and I couldn't get it together because I just didn't know enough people. Eventually I met another Irish guy and we started doing ballads in a pub. I'd never learned Irish ballads before and all of a sudden I was playing Irish ballads like I was "Mr. Ireland," where all I'd ever been in was rock bands in Ireland.
And then I started missing the music from home and started listening to a band called the Horselips, one of the original Celtic rock bands. I started listening to them and the Water Boys. And that's what started me on this course, that I'd love to blend the two styles.
At that point I was really looking to do something I'd like to do and something I thought audiences would find exciting. And I never really thought it would be a record deal.
That was another element, we had to then be commercial, sell records and listen to other people's opinions. That was tough, figuring out our style, but we ended up having a very distinct rock side and a very distinct Celtic side and merged the two together.
MF: If someone's never heard you, and goes to see the Young Dubliners for the first time live, what should they expect?
KR: The overwhelming reaction is "This is one of the best live shows I've ever seen," and I'm not saying it is, I'm just saying that we manage to pull that off. We're very into doing what we do and when we're on stage we're very passionate about the show. I think people get their money's worth -- if you come to see us you're not going to get a bunch of guys staring at their shoes, that's for sure. The style of music we write is definitely more uplifting than doom and gloom. We always look at it like, "we're having a party and you're all invited." It's a good indication of how the shows go that a lot of friendships develop at them. Fans write to each other and get groups together to follow the band. That's a sign that people are having a good time at the show.
MF: When I hear your music I get the impression that the live show would be fun. It's not like a lot of the crap that's on the radio.
KR: That's the thing. I sort of hope that radio is starting to open up a little bit just because of the variety. But unfortunately it's a variety of shit. You do have a singer/songwriter on the same station as Britney, but at the same time I don't particularly like the singer/songwriter or Britney. Now, we're compared to the Celtic version of Dave Matthews. Whenever I hear him on the radio I think, "How the hell did he ever get on the radio?" He's great and I love the band but the songs are so non-commercial. But besides them, it's, "Get a band you like and sign seven others that sound like them" and cram the radio with it. It'll be my nemesis till the end of the day, why radio doesn't react to what the public's into. We just did the Uprooted Tour, where I put two other Celtic bands with us and we did a national tour, seven weeks, all our own idea. All booked by our agent in big sheds. We had many sellouts but for the most part we did at least 80 percent in these big rooms. If you look at Pollstar it was one of the most successful tours of the entire year. August was the worst month in the history of the music business, and we were still doing 800 people at the Fillmore in San Francisco on a Tuesday night, and it was like "Doesn't anybody give a shit about that?" What does that tell you? All your bands that you've had on the radio, you're putting six of them together, and putting them on tour and they're still not filling rooms.
MF: And the labels wonder why they're losing money.
KR: Maybe once in a blue moon ask yourself what the fucking public wants, that's something all us Celtic bands share. We all try to write good songs and make good recordings, and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars making sure they're right.
They can't say it's not up to par with some other stuff. It's way above par. We've managed to make a career without radio but it sure would be nice to get some airplay and I think there are some good radio songs on this last one. They are doing a single push.
MF: Which song?
KR: It's up in the air. Personally speaking, the band would like to see "Scream." Some of the people at certain formats think "These Days" would be a bigger anthem for radio.
We're still sitting back to see what happens but we're also gonna stick our noses in. How we poll our albums is we ask people what their three favorite songs are, and when one song is on every single person's list, then that's the single.
MF: What's in your personal CD player now?
KR: It's funny, I'm the type of loyal fan that all bands wish they had, like I've been a fan of Oasis from the beginning and I actually bought their new record. But the CD I still listen to all the time is Radiohead,
The Bends. To me, it's one of the best song and vocally performed albums ever. I just listen to it over and over. But I've been getting into
the new Coldplay and a lot of the time I listen to CDs that bands give me on the road -- a lot of opening acts or festival acts.
MF: Any funny stories from the road?
KR: We had to cancel a show last night and it was the first time in our career that we cancelled a show on the day. Our managers or agents have double-booked us or done stupid shit where I've had to pull out of a gig. But two days ago, we had a day off. Let's just say I'm someone who likes to go out at night and have a good time. I'm not the "straight back to the hotel" type. That night, it's a day off and we're in Columbus and I decide I'm gonna take it easy. I'll have an early night, go get some nice food, a glass of wine, watch some HBO and go to bed. I go up, get some Chinese food, and come back. Had a glass of wine, went to bed early, great night's sleep. Then I woke up at 8:00 am projectile puking -- food poisoning like I've never had in my life. At show time I was shivering, I had a fever. The tour manager comes in at 9:30, the show starts at 10. He looks at me and says, "I gotta pull it." I was like "No, put a stool on stage and a bucket." He said "No, Keith, you need to sleep for like 12 hours and get this out of your system. We have seven shows in a row after this." And to be honest, we do good shows and I didn't want to do a half-ass show and run off stage to puke or something. It was terrible but as soon as we cancelled it I felt better because the stress of it was off.
MF: So no Chinese food for a while?
KR: And it's terrible because I was on the phone with my wife and I said to her, "I'm standing at this intersection and I see Chinese, Mexican and Boston Market." She said, "Whatever you do, don't eat Chinese." And I didn't listen. It was a fancy Chinese restaurant. But I had a feeling even as I was eating it, like there's something weird about it. What do you do? You're in a hotel room and you're hungry.
MF: Who have you toured with or opened for that's been a special experience?
KR: We've had a few. Up until the Uprooted Tour I would have said Jethro Tull because they took us all over the world. It's been an unusual and very happy marriage. Their fans have reacted phenomenally to us. And we sold more records touring with Tull than at any other time. But their demographics are a little older, they tend to be family people, and it's tough for them to come to clubs late at night. So we found when we went back to those cities and played late night rock clubs we didn't get the same fan base even though we'd had a 4,000 person standing ovation three months prior with promises to the crowd that we'd be back. So we realized the only way to monopolize that crowd was to play 8:00 pm shows in small theaters. We love Jethro Tull -- the band, the crew, they're all best friends of ours now and that'll always be there. But the Uprooted Tour was where I put two other bands that I would go see, Great Big Sea and Seven Nations, and we rotated the headliner. I can honestly say it was the most fun any of us have ever had and it's been a letdown ever since.
MF: Are any of you guys sports fans?
KR: Yeah, our fiddle player, Chas, is a lunatic sports fan. Our stage manager, Jeff -- they're both from Kansas and watch Kansas City football every minute.
MF: Our site is a big sports site.
KR: Oh, he'll love that -- we did an interview with a sports show in Fort Collins and they hired Chas on as a reporter. Any time he wants to go to any event he just has to file a report. It was supposed to be an interview about the band and we ended up talking about basketball. I have a fleeting interest; since coming to America I've gotten into things I never thought I would. I love basketball and I love football. I like watching soccer too -- I got to meet the Los Angeles Galaxy on the plane the other day, which was kind of cool.
I was talking to Alexi (Lalas) for a long time and found out he was already a fan of the band and had the CD and had seen us. But Chas is an in-depth guy. He can tell you who got injured last year and how their recovery is going.
MF: He's a big Chiefs fan though?
KR: Yes, and he's also a golfer and his brothers were pro tennis players.
MF: Any special tour dates or appearances you'd like to plug?
KR: Obviously the Cleveland Odeon show (October 12th). There's a couple of bands of lesser talent that do very well there.
(Laughs) We're really hoping that we can get the fans to come out -- it's a Saturday night, we finally got a Saturday night in Cleveland at a good venue. We know it's a town that will be into our stuff. And basically we're on tour all the time, so no matter who's reading this, look up our Website at
www.youngdubs.com. I should also mention that we're sponsored by Killian's Red and they've been unbelievably cool to us. You can't miss us because we're on a 45-foot monstrosity bus with "Killian's Red presents Young Dubliners" on it. It's been a pleasurable experience working with young, enthusiastic sponsors like these guys who show up at all the gigs and are the rowdiest audience members in the place.