James Fearnley chats about The Walker Roaders, which features members from The Pogues, Dropkick Murphys, and Flogging Molly
Editor's note: The debut album from The Walker Roaders—feat. members of the Pogues, Dropkick Murphys And Flogging Molly— is now out! In celebration, we look back at our recent interview with James Fearnley, co-founder and long-time accordion player in the legendary group The Pogues about the new band.
James Fearnley has been around the block. The English-born accordion player is probably most famous for his role as the accordion player in The Pogues, but his latest project, The Walker Roaders, sees him taking the spotlight.
The Walker Roaders is a new “supergroup” consisting of members from a sort of trifecta of Celtic rock. James Fearnley of The Pogues, Marc Orrell of Dropkick Murphys and Ted Hutt of Flogging Molly are joined by Brad Wood, Kieran Mulroney, and Bryan Head for the new project.
Ahead of the release of the group's self-titled debut LP on August 23, James Fearnley chatted with IrishCentral about the group's formation and future. To understand how The Walker Roaders came to be, it's important to look at the origin and evolution of Celtic rock.
Speaking from the UK, Fearnley says of the forthcoming debut album: “I’m glad it’s coming out, it’s not been long in the making, particularly, but it’s time for another kind of…”
He trails off, remembering an email he received from Spider Stacey, The Pogues' tin whistle player, who told him: “Enough with the Celtic punk thing, you’re not Celtic punk. You’re actually just a pogue.”
Fearnley says: “I think Celtic punk is really the territory that Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly occupy. I’m not saying that there is anything the matter with that, but I think The Pogues were a bit more varied.”
“The Pogues started out as, as Billy Bragg once said, taking Irish music and throwing it down the cellar steps. And that’s basically what we did, we tore it up.”
“I think Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly and the like, I think they really injected punk into it, that heavy backbeat, lots of electric guitar, which we only used as a bit of color, it was never based on electric guitar.”
“Shane [MacGowan, frontman for The Pogues] wanted to put electric guitar in and we fought him on it - well I did anyway - on occasion, because I thought it was best to try and get that sort of punk attitude through the instruments that we had, which at that time was just acoustic guitar, banjo, tin whistle, accordion, bass, and a drummer that we forced to stand up.”
“When the next wave of Celtic punk came up, I think it was, I want to say, American punk as opposed to English punk.”
When asked if Fearnley is trying to keep The Walker Roaders in any sort of genre, he explains: “I’ve learned everything through Shane MacGowan, Jem Finer, Spider Stacey, Andrew Ranken, Phil Chevron, Cait O’Riordan, Teddy Woods, Darryl Hunt and all those guys - each one of them brought something to the rehearsal rooms. I think Walker Roaders kind of follows that honor; I don’t think it takes it a step further, necessarily.”
“As far as I’m concerned, singing and songwriting, which I never did in The Pogues, it’s like, here’s a dog having it’s day basically and that’s what I’m doing, I’m a dog having its day.”
The Walker Roaders on tour
The Walker Roaders already have a few shows under their belts, but Fearnley is looking forward to more after the album’s release.
“We opened for Dropkick Murphys in New Hampshire and The Hollywood Palladium, and we played Molly Malone’s [in Los Angeles], the sort of stomping ground where Flogging Molly came about. We played The Hi Hat in Highland Park; just a smattering of gigs really.”
“When we come back together in September we’re going to start doing gigs around Los Angeles through November, December. And then we’re sorted to an agent, the old Pogues agent in London, and he’s looking at January and February in the United Kingdom.”
Fearnley later adds that he’s hoping that New York stop will be in the band’s future: “The Pogues are sort of intimately connected with New York because of ‘Fairytale of New York;’ I think we’re honorary New Yorkers by now.”
The Walker Roaders fanbase
Anyone even peripherally familiar with Irish music knows that Dropkick Murphys, Flogging Molly, and The Pogues have diehard fanbases. Fearnley says he’s looking forward to a “happy mix” of each of the group’s followings, as well as new fans.
“The Pogues, when we first started out, we got our following playing around London and then out across the United Kingdom, and then abroad and the ‘western world.’”
“Then we let Shane go in 1991 and took a break for nine years. And then came back, and in the interim, we allowed our fans to have children, so we’ve kind of doubled our audience.”
“It was a good move, it was all strategy,” Fearnley says laughing.
“I would hope it’s a mixture of Pogues fans and their kids, Dropkick Murphys fans and their kids, and Flogging Molly fans and their kids.”
Of the band's new music, Fearnley says: “I think it’s got broad appeal. I don’t think the music is alienating. In large parts, although it’s kind of sorrowful, it’s nonetheless uplifting, the melodies are transparent.”
The Walker Roaders inspiration
Fearnley reveals that he had a “core of songs” he had been working on ahead of the genesis of the new band.
“I’d meet up with Ted Hutt - he’s a great editor and a great musician and a great composer so we moved on to composing, Ted and I. It was like a conversation, but with instruments.”
“Then we brought Marc [Orrell] in, who’s a great guitar player in his own right, and a great songwriter, too. So he brought good structures and a sort of map for a couple of songs.”
“Then I said, when it comes to lyrics, I think we should have one voice to sing them, and one ‘voice’ by way of style and vision and attitude.”
“Then I’d go away and I’d write lyrics inspired by the music we were doing.”
Interestingly, Fearnley speaks of hearing a Korean melody one day and really liking the “openness and pentatonic scale” of it. He later found himself down a “rabbit hole” online learning about Korean fairy tales. Inspiration can, indeed, come from anywhere.
The Walker Roaders' songs
Ahead of their album’s debut, The Walker Roaders have teased their fans with the release of two singles: ‘Lord Randall’s Bastard Son,’ as well as ‘Will You Go Lassie Go,’ which Fearnley says is his favorite tune from the album.
Of course, 'Will You Go Lassie Go' takes its name from the Irish / Scottish folk song (which is sometimes also referred to as 'Wild Mountain Thyme.') Fearnley says: “I had heard a Van Morrisson live version of that in the ‘70s and really like that song, and as it turns out, Shane [MacGowan] sang the song at his 60th birthday party a few years ago.”
“I like the patience of a song like that, of a guy being out with his community and he wants a companion, and if it’s not going to be you, then it’ll be someone else hopefully.”
Fearnley says he thought of the original song as "a starting point, but the actual inspiration was an adolescent relationship that I had when I was in school. I was in boarding school and I was surrounded by fields, and agriculture and hills and things, so that’s where I went with the inspiration for that.”
“And I just like ‘Will you go lassie, go?;’ I find it such an uplifting, not prurient at all, sort of urgent in a young love kind of way.”
James Fearnley as a songwriter
Fearnley says that writing songs has been "rewarding."
" I never wrote songs with The Pogues except one on the last album that I played on. And here I am - after all that’s finished - here comes another iteration of me as an artist, or as a musician anyway. It’s really rewarding at the minute.”
When I asked Fearnley if this feels like it’s his second life of being a musician, he laughed. “Probably like my third or fourth or fifth,” he says as he glazes over his more than a three-decade-long career that includes stints with The Pogues, Cranky George, The Circle Jerks, Thelonius Monster, and The Low and Sweet Orchestra.
“This is another chance to express myself with guys that fit in with whatever jigsaw I’ve managed to fashion with my career.”
“It’s great; it’s fantastic to be able to dominate a room, as well,” he says with a chuckle. “Be in the middle and sing and play the guitar and be the sort of focal point - it’s sort of fun.”
What’s next for The Walker Roaders?
“There’s plans for a few other songs because of the writing team we’ve put together. That’s really exciting.”
Noting how much he enjoys playing with his new bandmates, Fearnley says: “I can’t see Walker Roaders being a one-off, I think we’ll go for a bit, just because of the attention that we’re getting and how great the symbiosis is at the moment.”
“It is what it is if it’s just going to be one, but I don’t intend it to be. I love performing, I love making music. It’s going really well at the minute.”
If you want to hear more about Fearnley’s story, he encourages fans to pick up ‘Here Comes Everybody,’ his book about his journey with The Pogues.