Irish Times: Whip it up and start again

Steve Cummins, November 5 2015

Whipping Boy: the once-future kings of Irish rock’n’roll remember 'Heartworm'

‘Heartworm’ is one of Irish music’s most acclaimed albums but it brought Whipping Boy little success. Twenty years on, the former band members reflect on its complex legacy.

Myles McDonnell sighs at each passing compliment feted upon Whipping Boy’s second album, Heartworm. It’s not an impolite gesture. The former bassist couldn’t be more proud of the esteem in which his band’s 1995 album is held. His resigned response is borne out of years of frustration – years of thinking, what if?

Released just over 20 years ago, Heartworm is a record beset by what-ifs. A relative commercial failure on release, it has since become regarded as one of the great Irish rock albums. From the menacing disdain of We Don’t Need Nobody Else to the inebriating nostalgia of When We Were Young, how Heartworm didn’t spark a career beyond the band’s split in 1998 remains, for many, incomprehensible.

Two decades on McDonnell, guitarist Paul Page and drummer Colm Hassett pore over the past with a sense of pride tempered by melancholy. Singer Fearghal McKee is also proud but still emits a certain wildness.

In 1993 Whipping Boy were into their fifth year and had two independent record deals and a failed debut album, Submarine, behind them. Holed up in a damp and dingy Dublin rehearsal space, the band began to feel any optimism dissipate.

“The circle of people around the band were starting to disappear,” says Page. “We were asking, ‘was it really worth it?’ Then we wrote We Don’t Need Nobody Else as a kind of defiant thing and that seemed to be the catalyst that triggered something.”

The song signalled a new dexterity. Where previously they had mimicked contemporaries such as The Jesus & Mary Chain, here they honed an emotional intensity all of their own that led to songs such as Blinded and Personality. McKee’s vocal, previously lost in a swirl of frequencies, was now to the fore, showcasing his lyrical prowess.

“The best of everybody came out,” says McDonnell. “It felt honest. It felt like we had something to say and that there was some substance to Fearghal’s lyrics.”

Unreal honesty

In McKee, this direct approach brought out challenging lyrics that touched upon domestic violence and mental health. Although coy when pressed on individual lines, he credits his bandmates for facilitating such sincerity. “The fuckin’ honesty among us as a band was unreal,” he says. “Pure honesty. And it was safe. It was safe to write that.”

These new songs instigated a change in fortune. Sony’s Columbia imprint gave them a two-album deal in May 1994 and recording for Heartworm began that November.

“As soon as we signed the thing, I fucking had sparks,” says McKee, whose experience of Sony is at odds with his bandmates. Where he says the label “interfered all the fucking time”, the others disagree. “They didn’t interfere in the recording of Heartworm at all, which even the producer Warne Livesey was surprised by,” says Page. “We got to make the record that we wanted to make.”

It would be nearly a year after recording finished, however, before Heartworm emerged. By then the musical landscape had shifted. The UK music press’s obsession with the derivative Britpop movement – at its peak in mid/late 1995 – effectively torpedoed Heartworm.

Although the album entered the Irish Top 20, it failed to make the UK Top 40 and sold 80,000 copies worldwide, catastrophic as far as Sony was concerned. Whipping Boy were out of step with the prevailing wind.

Had Heartworm been released in early 1995, as was The Bends by Radiohead – and not three weeks after Oasis’ all conquering (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? – it may have fared better.

“We played Jools Holland in April or May or something like that,” McKee remembers. “Really fucking early. And the album wasn’t released until maybe six months later. The album should have been released three weeks later.”

These seemingly innocuous decisions grate.

Silly decisions

“We made some silly decisions and were advised, probably badly, by our management that cost us in the long run,” says McDonnell. “One of the biggest regrets is that we never played the US.”

“That killed us really,” adds Page. “We went over to New York to meet the US label and they were hugely enthusiastic. They had all these plans for the band and signed us up to support [Illinois rock act] Stabbing Westward on a six-week US tour.

“Then we got offered a support tour with Lou Reed in Europe. So our manager Gail Colson advised us to pull out of the US tour. The American label didn’t want to know after that. They literally went cold overnight.”

“We didn’t do enough touring,” adds Hassett. “Sony’s process was to use promo tours to break a band, so we were going around Europe doing interviews and not really playing gigs. That was a big mistake. We weren’t building a proper fan base.”

whipping BoyBy mid-1996 a change of management at Columbia saw the band frozen out. They were advised to leave with a settlement rather than insist on a second album. “Our manager felt that there would be any number of record companies interested in signing the band,” says McDonnell. “So it seemed, at the time, like a win-win for us.” However, no offers came in and Colson cut her ties shortly after.

An under-appreciated third album, Whipping Boy, was self-funded in 1998 but, by the time it surfaced in 2000, the band was over. “The truth went after that third album because we all had different lives,” says McKee. “There was no falling out but we were all having families and kids. Life – the other life – was taking over.”

“Ultimately the lack of success of Heartworm cost the band,” says McDonnell. “It meant that we were on a timeline. The funds were going down. The morale was going down. And it’s hard to keep those things up when it feels like things are on the downslide.”

The band reunited for a run of shows in 2005, but things petered out. “I knew our time had passed at that stage,” says Page. “Bands have a certain time when they are vital and our time had passed. Even if we had written anything new, the chances are people wouldn’t have been that interested.”

Hassett and McKee toured again as Whipping Boy in 2011, this time without McDonnell and Page, who felt the band should only return with new material. They took “huge offence” when Hassett and McKee carried on regardless.

“It was something that myself and Paul would never have done,” says McDonnell. “I felt that we were genuine to ourselves when we did the 2005 shows. There was no room to play those songs any further than just cabaret, and I never wanted us to be that. I felt that we could have done something new. At the time, we were both very hurt.”

No reunion

That hurt has since passed, but McDonnell says the band has no future. An offer of a 20th anniversary show last month was turned down. “I would never play again with Whipping Boy on the basis that once anyone went out as Whipping Boy, without all four members, that would be it for me,” says Page. McKee and Hassett similarly see the band as finished. “Whipping Boy is gone now. It can’t be called back again,” says McKee.

Heartworm and the band’s final eponymous album were the mark of a band that had something inherently special. For McDonnell the big regret is about lost potential.

“That’s the real tragedy – where we might have taken it. I genuinely felt that our band would have matched anyone pound for pound. I don’t think Whipping Boy ran its course.”

McKee, however, is reluctant to endorse any hard luck story. “We were fucking successful. We were a band that was never supposed to be heard. Whipping Boy is not a name for a band chasing success. Yeats always said never let a mood escape you. And that’s what we did with Heartworm, we never let a mood escape each other.

“We captured something beautiful; something true. That’s fucking success.”


Hot Press: Whip it up and start again

Olaf Tyaransen, September 8 2011

They blew Smashing Pumpkins off-stage and, with a little luck, could have been as big as U2. Now the great lost band of 90's indie rock Whipping Boy are on the reunion trail. From his new home in the depths of Leitrim, frontman Fearghal McKee talks about the group's colourful past and their future ambitions.

“It’s like fuckin’ Woodstock here, man!” It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon in lovely Leitrim and, talking to Hot Press on his mobile, a somewhat croaky-sounding Fearghal McKee seems to be in flying form. So much so that the Whipping Boy frontman is a lot more interested in talking about the free music festival he’s just helped put on than he is about the recent resurrection of his band.

Having decamped from his native Dublin to Ballinamore a few years ago, McKee is one of the organisers of the town’s Free Fringe Festival that’s just winding to a close today.

“Over the last four days we had a total of 80 bands coming here to play for nothing,” he enthuses. “And I have to cook all the food and feed the whole lot of them. And we organised free accommodation with the town. It just really took off, you know.”

The cooking won’t be a problem. When Whipping Boy split at the end of the ‘90s, having almost but not quite made it internationally on the back of their acclaimed sophomore album, Heartworm, a disillusioned McKee spent periods on the dole and working as a chef.

By the sounds of things, though, the 44-year-old has definitely got his musical mojo back. “I was pissed off about the band, but that’s the way it goes,” he says. “I’m now really enjoying the approach of my middle-age. The world can fuck off! There’s the ninth wave coming. Everything’s gonna change. And we’re gonna fuckin’ play with that change. It’s energy, man! It’s probably the best energy humans have had to live on. And it’s coming from the earth, it’s coming from all around you.

“Like what’s just happened here with the Free Fringe is amazing. It’s after waking up this town. All the locals have come on board and everyone’s been helpful. It’s been mad craic. Bands jamming in the street until 4.30 in the morning!”

Whipping Boy have been on the comeback trail for the last two months, playing pubs and clubs around Ireland. Even 16 years on from Heartworm’s release, there’s still an audience willing to pay to hear such classic tracks as ‘Twinkle’, ‘We Don’t Need Nobody Else’ and ‘When We Were Young’ live.

Now, as then, they’re a musical force to be reckoned with. McKee’s proudest moment with the band came in the mid-’90s: “I’ll always remember blowing The Smashing Pumpkins off the stage in the SFX in ’94 or ’95,” he laughs. “We supported them and we just fuckin’ annihilated them on stage!”

Although all four original members reunited for a gig in 2005, only McKee and drummer Colm Hassett are in the current line-up. “Well, there’s two of the old line-up, really. Cillian MacGowan (guitar) was always there, but was never given accreditation, shall we say.”

The band are working on new material – “They’re fuckin’ roaring out of us!” – and there are three new songs already in the can (including the wonderfully titled ‘Fuck Off Bad Energy’). He’s just not expecting them to be played on Irish radio any day soon.

“We need to drastically change the radio-play in Ireland bigtime,” he says. “There’s a lot of Irish bands making great fuckin’ sounds. Why aren’t they played on the radio? There’s a band up here called Sister Lovers. You’re talking about Television meets Magazine meets Gram Parsons. The most perfectly structured songs! Are they being played? Not a chance!

“They have to go back to at least 80% Irish music played on the radio to 20% foreign. Just do it for a year or two and see what happens. We’re making loads of music and it’s just as good as the American or English stuff. We’re not allowing ourselves to be heard.”

He says that Whipping Boy have no particular interest in signing a record deal. “You don’t need a deal these days unless it’s gonna be huge. But that’s actually a young lad’s game. We’d love to make an album or just keep on releasing songs. But we’ll be playing live anywhere we can. We’re hopefully going to the Czech Republic in the new year. So we’ll be concentrating on eastern Europe and Russia.”

Now that he’s back on a rock ‘n’ roll, McKee says he has no regrets about all those lost years. “You can’t dwell on these things. Karma always comes around. You’ll always find money or a way to keep going. There’s a chap I was talking to here this morning. Came down from Dublin, broke and off his tits, played the greatest gig of his life, off his tits, and wakes up this morning with €40 in his pocket. He thinks it’s raining money, man!

“That’s rock ‘n’ roll. That’s the essence of the spirit. When you just don’t give a bollocks, and just go out and do it. You’ll always find good receptive spirits there when you take that plunge and just go off and do it.”


Losing Today - Autumn 2000

"We Don't Need Nobody Else" by Tenebre

Losing Today has always carefully followed the most underground of phenomena on the alternative music scene. We've had the chance to meet both young bands still on their first demos as well as bands with significant pasts, but an uncertain future who are perhaps neglected by earlier fans. Fame has never been a certified guarantee of quality to us - there has to be real artistic potential in order to justify our interest. This time we're on the trail of the Irish band that some years back graced the covers of half the magazines in Europe, presaging their rapid sales success: The Whipping Boy.

Unfortunately, the band that produced 'We Don't Need Nobody Else' (a song I could have sworn would consecrate them into the indiepop firmament) no longer exists. Their album "Heartworm", didn't sell as expected, and no exceptions are permitted to harsh discography marketing laws. Ideas and talent are unfortunately not enough... The change of management inside Columbia (the major that signed them five years ago), combined with certain problems within the band, led to a certain dejection. However, that did not stop them from continuing to work together and consigning to memory this last precious work. A magnificent album that is, to all intents and purposes, released posthumously following the band's separation. Hearing of its release, I immediately contacted guitarist Paul Page, with the hope of discussing tours, singles, and juicy titbits about the band, and was met with something entirely different than expected. In spite of this, a somewhat nostalgic space is reserved here for these significant artists - almost a farewell to the ex-Whipping Boy, as they set out on new paths that we hope will prove equally fulfilling. Unfortunately this last work is only available by mail order or in Irish record shops, but I strongly recommend you try every way possible to get hold of it. It's a wonderful collection of melancholy tracks; a perfect product that brings to mind great artists like Velvet Underground, Nick Cave, and the TIndersticks. A genuine masterpiece of narcotic music.

LT: You've been gone some time now. "Heartworm" came out 5 years ago and it was a great album. What's happened in the meanwhile?

Paul: After Heartworm failed to achieve the commercial success that Columbia and ourselves hoped for, we started recording demo tapes for a new album. In the meantime, the people who ha signed us at the record company moved on. It became apparent very quickly that the new regime at Columbia had little interest in the band. We decided to negotiate a settlement to leave Columbia. At the time, relationships within the band were not good. Some members of the band saw little point in carrying on, but we decided to record on last record.

LT: That's bad news. Can you tell me more about this final CD?

Paul: It's taken a long time because it is only now that we had sufficient funds to release it; we finished recording it in Sept 1998. We knew that it would be our last record and in truth we had a difficult time recording it. We always felt that the songs stood up in comparison with "Heartworm", although at time we felt all around us had lost confidence in the band. In many ways I am more proud of this record as it was made totally independently, and we poured everything we had into it, knowing it was our final record.

LT: When do you think the CD will be in the stores?

Paul: At the moment it is only available in the shops in Ireland; anyone who wants a copy can order it by e-mailing me at It is not important to us that it sells loads of records; it is more important that it is available to anyone who wants to find it. There is not a huge motivation to find a label, given that we have split up but if a label came along and were willing to release it abroad, we would be interested.

LT: Do you think it's difficult for an artist to contact magazines, radio stations, mail orders, stores, distributors and so on directly in order to reach the public?

Paul: It is difficult, but word does spread quickly and I have had a lot of interest from people who heard about the record on various Internet discussion boards.

LT: What do you think about the power of buying over the Internet and allowing fans to download music directly from the web-site?

Paul: It is inevitably moving towards the day when music will be more widely distributed in this fashion. Record companies are hugely concerned by the implications of distributing music on the Internet; it represents a loss of control for them and they don't like it. It has advantages and disadvantages for artists; it opens your music to a wider audience but an artist can be exploited by people blatantly pirating their music.

LT: Could you briefly summarize the stages of your career? "Heartworm" was a departure from your debut album; "Submarine" was more guitar-orientated (with MBV and Sonic Youth influences). What do you feel when you listen to that first CD nowadays? How do you think your sound has evolved from the time you released "Submarine" to the present?

Paul: For me, "Submarine" is a record I find it very difficult to listen to now. It is very generic, I mean the bands that influenced us are very obvious from listening to that record. I think we have evolved to a state where it is harder to categorize us. Hopefully, when when people hear the new record, they will recognise it as the "Whipping Boy sound" and not a record influenced by current musical trends.

LT: Still on "Submarine". As you probably know, it's impossible to find a copy of it these days as it's become really rare. Have you ever thought of re-releasing it?

Paul: We have thought about as we get a huge amount of enquiries about it. It may be available to download over the Internet in the near future; again because we've split up, there is not the motivation to do these things as they are time consuming and cost money to set up.

LT: Your lyrics have always been very personal. Do they come from real-life experiences?

Paul: Certainly with "Heartworm", the lyrics began to reflect things that had taken place in all our lives and the new record continues to some degree in this vein.

LT: What does 'We Don't Need Nobody Else' talk about?

Paul: 'We Don't Need Nobody Else' has a number of different themes, primarily it is a statement of defiance as it was written at a difficult time for the band and it was our way of stating it is "us against the world".

LT: "Heartworm" was produced by Wayne Livesely. Were you satisfied with the final product?

Paul: Yes, we were very satisfied. We did not always see eye to eye with Wayne, but the album sounds exactly as we would have wanted.

LT: In the past you had some problems with Liquid Records. Can you tell me more about that experience?

Paul: Signing to Liquid was the biggest mistake we made throughout our career. They were a new Irish label who were signing indie type bands but they didn't have any idea how to market that type of music. They were a disaster and it took some time to get out of our contract with Liquid.

LT: A little later you signed with Columbia, a major label. How did you get along with people at Columbia? Were you satisfied with how "Heartworm" was distributed throughout the world and with its reviews?

Paul: With Columbia, it was totally different. At the time, we really needed to sign to a label who would invest some money in the band as we literally did not even have our own musical equipment. I have nothing negative to say about our time with Columbia, they did their best and we got on really well with the people we worked with there. Certainly, the reviews we received were excellent, but the record just did not sell the massive quantities required to justify us staying on a major label.

LT: Did you have a large following in Europe? And in the USA?

Paul: We do have a following in both areas and we constantly get letters and e-mails. I suppose it is more of a cult following, and Heartworm is destined to become one of those albums that was loved by those who heard it but did not sell as well as it should. We sold particularly well in France.

LT: You're been compared a lot to bands such as the Velvet Underground, Cameleons, Echo and The Bunnymen, The Smiths. Do you think there's any truth in those comparisons, and do they bother you?

Paul: Well we did grow up listening to the music of the eighties, and some of that is bound to influence what you do. Certainly a band like the Bunnymen were for me personally one of the reasons I wanted to be in a band. It is always interesting to hear how people perceive your music; sometimes they can be close to the mark and sometimes I feel they get it totally wrong.

LT: Do you think that attitudes of people, magazines, radio stations, towards music is better than previously in the UK? Do they follow trends less and would you say there's more freedom of expression?

Paul: To be honest, I have not read a UK music magazine in years. I really got tired of them during the whole Britpop thing and stopped reading them. They were constantly creating these exclusive scenes, and if you did not conform to a certain ideal, you were excluded. Music should be about diversity and free from labels and trends.

LT: What do you think of the current indie scene in Ireland?

Paul: The music scene in Ireland is pretty poor at the moment. There are very few venues to play in and dance music is extremely popular over here. Teenagers now no longer seem to be listening in the rebellious side of music and are listening to very safe, sanitised pop music from bands like Boyzone and Westlife. It is ironic that they listen to music that their parents enjoy which is a far cry from the mid nineties when grunge and particularly Nirvana were so popular.

LT: Currently, what kind of music do you listen to?

Paul: At the moment, I am listening to the 3 albums Joe Pernice has been involved in; they are all superb. I really like the new Grandaddy album; Elliot Smith new album is great and I have just got the new Calexico record which I really like.

LT: What are your future plans?

Paul: Myles the bass player and I are working on new material for a new band and we hope to record very soon.


RetroActive Baggage - March 1996

Whipping Boy are being hailed in some quarters as a possible next big thing out of Ireland. Nathan met the band before their Birmingham concert. He would like to apologise in advance for any quotes attributed to the wrong band member, as it's a pain in the arse differentiating between similar Irish accents on a Dictaphone.

How did the four of you get together?
Ferghal (singer): The first time we met was the first time we played, out in the country at an old time waltz. A 21st birthday with an old time waltz band.

And that was 7 years ago, now?
Paul (guitar): 8 years. We were all introduced by this girl, to play at this party. We'd never met before - so we just decided we'd do some cover versions. The first time we met was playing at the gig. It was a bit of a disaster, but we thought it was great. We were dragged off after 2 numbers, but we thought that was good encouragement.

And 'Heartworm' is your second album, isn't it?
P: Yeah, the first one was called 'Submarine'. It's very hard to get now. It came out 3, 4 years ago now. It came out on a small independent Irish label, called Liquid Records which folded almost immediately after the band signed. The record was never really available anywhere. It came out sporadically, in tens, here and there, every so often. It just never had a decent release.

How's the UK tour been going so far?
Myles (bass): Very well. The crowd's have been really encouraging. It's been a big surprise from the last time we came around. It's been a big difference for us - we're putting on shows, and all the venues have been packed out. It's been great - really encouraging.

A few of the songs on the album are fairly intricate, with strings involved. Do you just not play those songs live?
P: There's two songs on that we don't do at the moment - but we've done them live in Dublin with a string quartet. Depending on how things go, we'd like to bring around a string quartet.
M: The important thing is - the songs that are played - there's a different energy that goes into the band when we play live anyway. It's a lot more aggressive and in your face. There's different priorities for the live show as opposed to recording. Recording is more about timing. You're trying to represent it as best you can on record - forever. It would become very stale if you went out and played the record every night. People might as well stay at home.
P: A lot of spontaneity goes on in the live show. We don't inhibit ourselves on stage. We just write out a set-list and see what happens to it.

It appears from the sound check that you've expanded to a five piece.
M: Just for the live show. Because there were a good few guitar overdubs on the album - to represent the album to people as best we could, we needed an extra guitarist as part of the live show.

The last single, 'When We Were Young', was heavily promoted over here, and it received a lot of airplay. But it didn't do the business in the charts. Were you disappointed with that?
P: It got to 46, which is as close as we've got so far.
F: It's only our third single in
P: We can't really worry about that too much. The job of selling the record is the record company's.
F: The most important thing is the album.
P: It's very disappointing when you see a lot of shit that is in the charts. From that point of view, it is a disappointment. We're interested in having some success because we need it to continue - to continue at a level that we like existing on as a band. Saying that, you can't really get too many headaches about it, 'cos it's not really your job. Out job is to write the songs. We know they're great songs, and we know they could be up there in the top 10 - any of the singles we've released are good enough when you see some of the songs that are in the charts.

So the success to keep going is more important than world domination.
P: It's always been the bands goal just to have another album
F: It's been packed at the gigs, it's going down fine at the moment.
M: There's different ways of success, the chart isn't the only route.
F: Sales are not the be all and end all of things when it comes down to it. The music's the be all and end all.
M: Plus also, we haven't been over here doing anything. In Ireland the records about to go gold, and obviously it must have charted or what have you. In France the album came out last week, and sold something like 8 or 9 thousand copies in the first 4 days. Different places have different...there's a whole scene going on with the whole Britpop thing and we don't really sit into that. Maybe we'll find it a bit difficult because of that.

Ferghal, do you write all the lyrics?
F: No.

Is it a collective band task?
P: Yeah, it's a band thing.

How well does 'When We Were Young' reflect your adolescence?
F: It's just the four of us together, sitting round a table basically.
P: That's probably the most co-operative of all the songs on the album, where all four of us got down and pitched in with little ideas from our youth and growing up.
It's a fairly good representation - as good as you can expect to get in two and a half minutes
F: It's a good balance in two and a half minutes
M: You have to try and make a song that's interesting to the people who are listening to it. They're just little captions of things that we remembered. Wherever we
go, it seems to be the common denominator between people we've met and ourselves, in that we can relate to little instances in some of the songs.

One of the other songs on the single is the music to 'When We Were Young', but the lyrics are different, credited to Phil Lynott. How did that come about?
P: We were asked to do a Phil Lynott tribute gig two or three years ago. We were never big fans of Thin Lizzy, but we had this book of his poetry, and one of the poems is called 'Shades Of A Blue Orphanage', so we made our own music and put the poem to it. And after that the music is actually , as you know, the music is to 'When We Were Young', that actually inspired us to write 'When We Were Young'. The poem, 'Shades Of A Blue Orphanage' deals with his youth in the 50s, growing up in Dublin, so we kept the music, wrote 'When We Were Young', and just decided to put that on the b-side. It kind of throws a different light on the whole song.
F: Dublin in the 50s was like Dublin in the 80s
M: (Comments completely drowned out by Black Grape blaring over the bar's stereo - which has to be turned off).

So what did you think of the Thin Lizzy 10th anniversary thing, did you see it as exploitation of his legacy?
P: We actually played there - we played just that one song.
M: It's not really exploitation. The only exploitation might have been in the fact that a lot of Irish bands, local bands kept that going for 10 years and all of a sudden there was a call for international acts. Some Irish bands that have been good supporters of the event for the last 10 years might not have got to play there. That was the only kind of downside. It was a good celebration, everybody turned out in their droves, and everybody seemed to be having a good time.
P: I think the whole point of it, you could see afterwards there were a lot of people who became friends during the time of Thin Lizzy, who got to meet for maybe the first time since then. It was good from that point of view.
M: It's not like the Sex Pistols getting back together. It was very much a one off.
F: It's been going for 10 years.
M: To understand it, you have to kind of understand the esteem that Phil Lynott is held in.
[Colm the drummer arrives]

Do you feel any affinity with the Irish music scene?
M: No, not really. We've never felt any affinity with any scene. We've always kept to ourselves and done our own thing, although there's some really good Irish bands at the minute, doing their own thing.
P: That's the key word, doing their own thing. We want to do our own thing, and at the moment in Dublin, there's a lot of bands doing the same thing, just making CDs. It's very diverse, the music isn't all the same.

Ferghal, you've been critical in the press of Bill Gates [head of Microsoft] which seems an odd target, is their any reason for that?
F: No, I just don't like Bill Gates (laughs all round from the band).

Fair enough. And you've condemned the Pistols reformation, twice now.
M: I condemned the Pistols reformation - but that's cos I was asked. It seems to be very much a money thing - what has it got to say?
F: It's exactly what you described it as though.
M: I said it was, erm...

Jaws without the shark?
M: Yeah. Colm: For a lot of people, Sid Vicious was very much the Sex Pistols.
F: Can you imagine John Lydon saying "have you ever got the feeling you've all been conned" again, a second time?

You think it's all just one big, final scam?
F: Yeah
M: A lot of people hold the Sex Pistols in great esteem.
P: It was the same with the Beatles. Just that whole thing, they should leave it alone.
F: It's a part of history. Let fucking history lie. Don't let it repeat itself. That's why I hate Bill Gates.

Can you explain you're concern with Ken Saro Wiwa?
F: He was a bloke from Nigeria, who got hung because of his beliefs. Shell Oil was fucking enslaving the whole tribe, and basically using them for their labour, for cheap labour, and destroying the environment as well.

Is that something you feel very strongly about?
F: Very much so. And the man - his own government killed him - because Shell Oil armed all the fucking police force, private armies and all that sort of thing. It's very dangerous.

What exactly is a Heartworm?
F: It's a disease which, erm...
M: Dog's get.
P: We just made up that title.
M: We sort of made up the word Heartworm...
F (interrupts): It's in a medical dictionary.
M (ignores Ferghal and continues): and we needed a name, we wanted to give people an indication of the type of songs that are on the album - what the songs deal with. A lot of the songs are about relationships, and a kind of bitterness.
P: Maybe the more melancholy side to relationships. We tried to give people an impression of the emotions that were going to be on the album, and hopefully what it would mean to us. We found out afterwards it was actually a dictionary word - a disease that affects the intestines of dogs.

Is there anything new in the pipeline from you, for 1996?
P: There's always something. The band's always writing.
F: We've got to tour America now, and tour Europe - and that's going to take up 3 or 4 months. And then we go back and do a bit of writing.

So writing and touring is an ongoing process.
M: Very much so.

How do you feel you've been treated by the Press?
F: Fine.
M: As well as can be expected. I think it's better than most.
C: We've been very lucky in the reviews that we've got. It's been very flattering.
M: The purpose of the press for us is informing people. It's the people that we want to get the message to. There's a lot of people that don't know Whipping Boy exist. As long as we can get the message to them, that we're out there, that's fine. That's the most important thing, giving people the opportunity to hear us. So that they can make up their minds rather than people making up their minds for them.

There's a lot of record industry people due to be here tonight - do you find that at a lot of your gigs?
P: It depends on the place. This and London will probably be the only two so far where this is the case. In Manchester...
F: It's because they all have to see us, you know what I mean, because we've never played over here before. They're all as curious as you are.

Looking around, you seem to have your own rider now. Does this mean you're on the way up?
P: It seems to be on this tour. It's the first time we've had anything. (band collapses into hysterics, muttering things about the support band).
F: Saying that, its a small rider. Basically just lemonade and stew.
P: A couple of times when we came over, we slept on floors, so it's great - we're very lucky.

So is it a lot of swank hotels now?
Scott from Sony: Do you want to come back and see the one they're staying in now.
P: What a lot of bands forget about when they tour is that it's all their money. The record company will pay for the tour, but in the end, you pay it back - we're not going to go out and spend all our money on expensive hotels. A bed is a bed really.
F: No matter who's sharing.

©1999 RetroActive Baggage


Whipping Boy interview

Whipping Boy, who consisted of Paul Page on guitar, Fearghal McKee on vocals, Myles McDonnell on bass, and Colm Hassett on drums, may be no more, but the staggering music they left behind is timeless. Their second and third LPs, 1995's Heartworm and the recently released Whipping Boy, are melancholic pop masterpieces, full of heartfelt melodies, crashing guitars, and sheer atmospheric brilliance. Paul was kind enough to give us the full story.

Ben: Could you tell us a little about your background?

Paul: Myles, the bass player and I both grew up in Dublin whereas Fearghal and Colm were from a place just outside Dublin called Kildare. They have pretty much lived in Dublin since their late teens. We formed in late 1988 and our coming together was a complete accident. At the time we were heavily influenced by U.S. noise bands, such as Sonic Youth and Big Black, and bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine in the UK. But the defining moment in actually wanting to play music was (at least for Myles and I) a concert by Echo and the Bunnymen in Dublin, 1986. I was completely awestruck by the sheer power of their music in a live context and that really opened our eyes.

Ben: Cheree Records, a British label, released your first singles. Were any Irish labels interested at the time, or did you have to turn to the UK out of frustration? It seems like it's really difficult for Irish bands to build up recognition in Ireland when they first start out. People seem to have to make it in London before anyone really notices them in Ireland, examples including U2, The Cranberries, and The Frank and Walters.

Paul: Well Dublin at the time was really in the grip of the emerging U2 and that whole stadium rock thing. All the bands either wanted to be U2/Simple Minds or R.E.M. We were pretty sure that we did not want to go that route and possessing a certain incompetent charm, just wanted to make a huge racket! We built up quite a loyal following in Dublin because the live shows were just so unpredictable and edgy. Cheree was a perfect label for us in that they were really well respected in the UK and Nick, who ran the label, had a really laid back, fair minded ethos. There was zero interest from Irish labels mainly because there was literally no indie scene and all the majors were too interested in finding another Simple Minds.

Ben: Your debut album Submarine isn't unlike some of the material by popular UK shoegazers of the time such as Ride, My Bloody Valentine, and the early Boo Radleys. Why do you think Whipping Boy were more obscure in comparison? Do you think it's mostly due to the fact that your label went out of business? What went wrong with Liquid Records?

Paul: You would be surprised by the awareness of the band in the UK then. We were never flavor of the month like bands such as Ride but in the course of designing a web site for the band I was amazed at the positive reviews that record got in the UK. That label was a complete disaster and it was the single biggest mistake we ever made in signing to them. They were dabbling in a genre of music that they knew nothing about and were probably responsible for dragging down one or two other bands signed to them at the time.

Ben: Despite all the hassles with the label, how do you feel about Submarine now? Did you make the record you were hoping to make at the time? Do you own the rights to Submarine now?

Paul: We certainly made the record we wanted at the time. I vividly remember leaving the studio on the final night thinking we had made a record unlike any other Irish record around. We recorded it in 11 days. The session was marred by a fight, a break up, and the kind of shit that was to become a feature of later sessions, but we were pretty happy. Now, I can take or leave Submarine. It's pretty generic but it is an accurate reflection of where we were at then. One of my favorite quotes from a review of that record said "buy Submarine and get Sonic Youth's Sister and EVOL free. That never fails to make me smile. We do own the rights to it now and we get so many enquiries that we may be making it available to download through a company in the UK.

Ben: How did you end up getting signed to Sony UK? What were you doing prior to that? Was there ever a hiatus with the band or were you actively seeking gigs and a new record deal?

Paul: After Submarine we retired to a tiny dingy rehearsal room where we drew a real strength and defiance out of the whole label collapse. It helped that we could still draw an audience around Ireland and the live thing kept us going. We wrote a lot of Heartworm in that room and just started demoing material. We did not actively seek a major deal but one of the engineers of those demo sessions played a tape containing "We Don't Need Nobody Else" to a Sony rep and from then on they pursued us relentlessly. They paid for some further demos and then EMI got interested and things got a little hectic! But we went with Sony mainly for their enthusiasm and they offered a two album firm deal.

Ben: Heartworm is a definite progression from Submarine, both musically and lyrically. It was also a record that went very much against what was going on in the UK at the time with the whole Britpop scene. What was your vision going into the studio? Were you reacting against the musical climate of the time or was it just a case of you being true to yourselves?

Paul: We had a very clear idea of the record we wanted before we entered the studio. After Submarine we really stopped listening to much of the contemporary indie music at the time. We wanted to make a record that did not owe a debt to any one band or particular scene. It also became important to write about things meant something real to us. While it was not a reaction to Britpop, I think it is fair to say we found that whole thing really tiresome and somewhat amusing.

Ben: The most amazing thing to me about your records, especially Heartworm, is the way that the instrumentation and lyrics work so well together; the mood of the music really captures the message of the words. Which came first, the music or lyrics, or was it a concurrent process?

Paul: Usually we would come up with the music and present it to Fearghal who would then work on the lyrics. On songs like "When We Were Young" and "Morning Rise" there was collaboration between the four of us on the lyrics.

Bob: Exactly how did you come up with your highly original guitar work, such as the haunting playing in "The Honeymoon Is Over," the blasting "We Don't Need Nobody Else," and the incredible performance on "Tripped," which is every bit as good as anything Johnny Greenwood has done?

Paul: I have never been a fan of music top heavy on screeching guitar solos and that real fast 200 notes a second guitar work. It just never held any fascination for me. I've always preferred more textural playing, which creates a mood. I'm a huge fan of Echo and the Bunnymen's Will Sergeant, particularly the early material, and I was influenced by the Kitchens of Distinction's guitar sound.

Ben: You generated some controversy in the UK due to the lyric about domestic violence in "We Don't Need Nobody Else." Were you surprised by the reactions to the song? What inspired the song in the first place?

Paul: The reaction to that song was just crazy. We even had some real gutter, tabloid stories in the press in Ireland. In a way, lyrically the new album is a reaction to that whole thing. Fearghal, particularly recoiled from the constant questioning and the new album has a different lyrical slant because of that. The song is not about domestic violence per se; there are a number of themes running throughout that song but people always focus on that one line.

Ben: The lyrics on Heartworm have really strong narrative themes, examples I'm especially thinking of include "We Don't Need Nobody Else," "Twinkle," and the U.S. bonus track "A Natural." As a band, are you fans of literature and film? Heartworm has a very Bukowski-like vibe going on, the way that a lot of the characters seem to be down on their luck but are still striving to survive.

Paul: Yeah we were all heavily influenced by literature and film. Fearghal is a fan of Bukowski, Will Self, Patrick McCabe (amongst others) and films like Blue Velvet were hugely influential when we formed. We also have a love of movie soundtracks and I think there is an element of that in the music.

Ben: Heartworm is also a very emotionally honest record, ranging from romantic desire on "Morning Rise" to painful loss on "The Honeymoon Is Over" and on other songs, various other facets of relationships. Is it difficult to be so open on record? I'm guessing it must be, because most bands shy away from those themes or write about them in really obvious clichéd ways.

Paul: I suppose we approached Heartworm in a very naive and innocent way. We reasoned that if we wrote in an open and honest fashion people would respect it and take it at face value. We figured that if the writing was as exposed as possible, there would be less need for explaining the songs but in fact, the opposite was true. Like I said before, the endless reference to one particular song, (one particular line in fact) became really tiresome. That said, I am proud of that quality of honesty and I am always attracted to music that has that side to it.

Ben: One of the things that impresses me most about Heartworm is the fact that you were able to crack the UK singles charts with songs such "We Don't Need Nobody Else" and "Twinkle," which were hardly typical mainstream singles. It seems like you had the potential to crack the UK market more, considering that non-compromising groups like Radiohead, The Verve, and Spiritualized were able to generate strong record sales. Do you feel like Sony UK mismanaged you to some extent? For one thing, you never toured the U.S.

Paul: We only really made a small dent on the UK charts. You know Sony put a lot of effort into breaking the band in the UK and I have very little negative to say about them. Not touring the US was a huge mistake and personally one of my greatest regrets. We visited New York for a week just before the album was released to do some promo stuff and found the people at Sony to be really positive. We were scheduled to do a support slot with Stabbing Westward and three days before that was due to start our manager pulled us off the tour. That really pissed Sony US off and basically they did not want to know after that.

Ben: Why did you leave Sony UK? Were you dropped? What motivated you to carry on and make another record despite not being signed to a label?

Paul: Basically, as happens regularly in the music business, the whole team of people involved in signing the band moved on. Their replacements, inherited a band they did not sign and a significant debt. However, we had a two album firm deal and could have insisted on having a new album released but to us that was pretty pointless. So we negotiated a settlement and left. We had demoed a lot of the songs that form the new record and really believed in them and when our manager subsequently jumped ship, we were determined that we would make the record.

Bob: How many copies of Heartworm were sold worldwide? Assuming this is a decent amount, shouldn't you expect some significant percentage of these fans to want to buy the new one? With that in mind, will the CD be available in the UK "mainstream"? Do you expect to be reviewed in major publications such as NME, Mojo, and Q? It would be a shame for you to have to depend on word-of-mouth sales when I'm sure you would get a good UK response if people only know it's out there.

Paul: The album sold 80,000 worldwide, which means something to us, but to a major is nothing to get excited about. The record will be released in the UK, albeit with minimal promotion but we do expect it will be reviewed in all the major magazines. To be honest, I am not at all concerned about sales on this one. The record is out there and I have a strong belief that fans of the band will hear about it and it is available to anyone who wants it.

Ben: What was your vision, if any, going into the recording of Whipping Boy?

Paul: The making of the album was difficult. We knew going into the studio that it was our last one. To be honest, we saw very little of Fearghal during the recording of it. It was the old revolving doors syndrome. We would arrive and he would leave and vice versa. We had no other agenda going into the studio other than to make a record and pray we made it to the end without things blowing up, which we just about managed. The album is called Whipping Boy mainly due to the fact we couldn't agree on the title. Yeah, things got that bad.

Bob: What is the story behind "Pat The Almighty"? Is it directed at one specific person, or rather, a cross section of these types of people?

Paul: The song is about the typical musician you find in Dublin. They achieve some limited success in their own local area and suddenly they act as if they are stars and they start appearing at all the right hang outs and parties—really laughable stuff. We have known a few like this in our time and this song is just our tongue-in-cheek look at this kind of thing.

Bob: Is the colossal closing track "No Place To Go" meant to be an autobiographical statement on the breakup of the band? If so, how could you all not change your mind after such a superb performance? Was it the last song the band recorded?

Paul: Yeah, there is definitely that side to it. A lot of our songs have that dual thing going on. While "We Don't Need Nobody Else" attracted a lot of attention because of the domestic violence theme, the song was written at a time when we were really low and found that a lot of our "friends" in the business had deserted us. The chorus in that song was a real defiant statement of intent and it was us just saying we will not give in. Unfortunately, "No Place To Go" was written when we realized that it was all over and that's why it is the last track. There was no real sense of looking at things after the album was made and saying this is too good to give up on. We were all really sick of the whole process of disintegration that had went on. The last song we recorded, ironically enough, was "Suspicious Minds," for an alternative Elvis Presley album, released for charity here in Ireland. It's a fairly radical reworking but the lyrics are very appropriate given the band's situation. There is a further irony in that long ago we got bored of answering the question "how did you form?" and so we started inventing stuff. The best and most widely believed scenario was that we met at an Elvis convention, so there is a strange symmetry in that the first and last thing we ever did is related to Elvis. And with "Ghost Of Elvis" on the album, the whole thing gets even more bizarre.

Bob: Is anyone managing/promoting the band for this release, or is it 100% indie?

Paul: We do have a couple of guys working on getting it to press and radio in Ireland but I don't think that it could be termed anything but 100% indie. For me it makes the release that much more special and while I don't know whether it is better than Heartworm, I know I am prouder of the new record.

Bob: You recently stated that the album is receiving some airplay. Which song(s) are being played? Has this airplay been across the entire UK or limited to Ireland thus far?

Paul: We released a promo of "So Much For Love" and "Pat The Almighty" to radio and "So Much" is picking up a lot of airplay. It's confined to Ireland at the moment, as we are not releasing it in the UK just yet.

Bob: If the CD does meet with some sales/critical success, is there a chance that the band could reform? If not, do you plan to take your intense dive-bomb guitar work and form another band? Does Fearghal plan to continue in music?

Paul: To be honest, there is a slim to none chance of this happening. A lot of stuff went on in the last couple of years of the bands existence that has left a really sour taste and I for one, have no intention of going back to that. The record has started to pick up a lot of interest in Ireland and we have been offered good money to do gigs, but money is not a good enough reason alone to do something when you know the heart of your band has been ripped away. At the moment, the bass player and I are getting something together and have quite a lot of songs written. It will not be Whipping Boy part II, however, but it will hopefully retain the spirit inherent in the way we play guitars.

Bob: What will be included on the Whipping Boy website you're working on? Will there be updates on the members' future musical endeavours, even if non-Whipping Boy?

Paul: I will have a lot of reviews, photos, info on early releases that most people would not have seen. It is very time consuming, however, and I am working hard on trying to have it finished within the next month.

Ben: Who are some current groups that you are impressed with at the moment? How do you rate the current music scene in comparison to how it was at different facets of Whipping Boy's career?

Paul: At the moment I am listening to the Eels new record, which I think is superb. Wilco's album Summerteeth is one of the finest records I have heard in years and I am a fan of Mercury Rev, Elliott Smith, and Sparklehorse. I think the music scene is pretty healthy at the moment but it does lack a little excitement. There has not been a band since Nirvana who would make you feel that you were witnessing something that could really shake things up. I think there is and has been for some time a huge lack of decent UK acts and that is something that has changed since we formed.

The new Whipping Boy CD can be ordered directly from Paul. - May 2000

An e-mail correspondence with Paul Page of Whipping Boy...

Whipping boy are chiefly remembered for their 1995 acclaim-soaked album "Heartworm". They were later to be dropped by Sony records, made a third record and broke up in such a low key fashion that they were described in some sections of the media as having simply 'disappeared'. The third album saw its release this month two years after it was recorded on the 'Low Rent' label. Rumours soon circulated that the band were reforming and flyers were issued in cork Cover of 'Heartworm' by Whipping Boy saying that they were playing in Elroys at the end of the month. All very exciting for fans of the band but there was another twist in the tale when, on the Dave Fanning show, Paul Page (guitarist) revealed that the "band" now only contained two of the original members (neither of whom had written any of Whipping Boys' music) and angrily claimed that such a venture was nothing more than a "Whipping Boy tribute band". The gigs were subsequently cancelled and Page says the whole series was everything that happened in the last two years of the band coming to a head.

Both out of personal interest and service to CLUAS readers I wrote to Paul Page asking him to clarify what actually happened with the breakup of the band, the current controversy and his memories of the band. He was generous in his answers and some of what he had to say contradicted the opinions expressed on their third record (admittedly that is probably a bit of a simplification) confirming the idea that there had always been two Whipping Boys. In fairness he has maintained an honest dignity and respect for Whipping Boy's work throughout the whole affair. He also revealed that himself and Myles McDonnell may form another band in the future so, along with Fergal McKee's new project we could see two bands descended from Whipping Boy, anyway here's what I asked over email and what Paul answered.

Kevin Fitton: As far as I can make out Whipping boy broke up in late 98 and the Whipping Boy that were going to play a national tour contained only two of the original members. Is that true?
Paul Page: I am only aware of one gig - the Elroy's gig in Cork - that has now been cancelled. Yes it is true it consisted of only two original members.

Would that have been McKee and Myles McDonnell or was it McKee and Colm Hassett?
McKee and Hassett.

Would you agree that this was perhaps a bit underhanded the way that the gig was organized? Underhand not only to the original members of Whipping Boy but to the fans because the first news of Whipping Boy in two years was a news report in Hot Press saying that they were considering reforming? Then at the start of May flyers were in circulation and there was a lot of excited people in 'an Brog' (pub in cork) that weekend when in fact Paul Page, whose guitar work was fundamental to what made Whipping Boy great, had nothing to do with the project?
To say it was underhand is an understatement. The first Myles and I knew of the gig was when I read the news on a Cork website. By then, posters and flyers had been issued. Obviously, passing it off as a WB gig was unfair on fans of the band and this was one of our main motivations in bringing the facts of the matter to light. We put a huge amount of effort and love into WB; we wrote all the music and we were not going to stand idly by and allow the name to be hijacked in that fashion.

Had Killian McGowan any connection to (to quote you) "the Whipping Boy tribute band"? What exactly was his original position in relation to the band circa Heartworm and your last album?
Let me clarify things further. Killian is part of a new band Fearghal and Colm are forming and as such was part of this WB effort. Killian was brought in after Heartworm to play additional guitar and keyboards in a live context. He played no guitars on either "Heartworm" or the new album whatsoever, and was not involved in the writing process at all. He played some keyboards on the new album. In addition, Myles composed the string parts on the new album and Killian wrote the parts down.

Are you still on good terms with the members who tried to reform the band?
What do you think? In truth, I had not spoke to either since the album was finished. A lot of stuff happened in the last two years of the bands existence that I would rather not go in to. The funny thing is, this whole episode with the fake gig seems to have brought things to a head. I really wish we could close the door on WB with a little dignity and leave things less sour. In order to do this, it has been suggested that we do a few "farewell" shows and leave things on a less bitter note.

Were you happy with or should I say proud of your last record? Are you proud of the other records? Do you have a favourite Whipping Boy record?
I am particularly proud of this latest album. Because it was done in a completely independent fashion and because of the huge effort it took to finish, it means a lot more to me now. To be honest, I don't care how it sells; the important thing is we went out with our heads held high. My favourite is still "Heartworm" for obvious reasons.

Ferghal McKee comes across through his lyrics not so much on 'Whipping Boy' but on "Heartworm" and the earlier material as not exactly the nicest person on earth to be around, was he hard to work with?
I have nothing to say about Fearghal.

The band broke up in 1998. What were factors in the breakup? The fact that ye had been given the run around with record labels? Not getting on so well with each other? Musical differences or lacking the drive of youth to go and tear peoples houses down?
I have absolutely no complaints about Sony. Bands have to realise if they sign to a major, they will not receive sizeable advances and all the benefits being on a major offers, and be allowed sell zero records in return. In fact they will be expected to sell considerably more than zero records or they will be let go. Sony did their best with us, and even though we sold approx. 70,000 worldwide, it was not enough. The main cause of our break up, in my opinion was an element of self doubt that crept into the band. Suddenly, things were not going so well and inevitably the first thing to look at was the music. There was a suggestion that we needed to incorporate a dance element to the music, that it needed to be more edgy; all kinds of things but the reality is you make the music that you enjoy making. I think the new album is a vindication of the belief Myles and I always maintained in WB's music.

The theme of ' Ghost of Elvis' (track on the new WB album) kind of contradicts the question of 'lacking drive' doesn't it?
"Drive" is something that setbacks and disappointments can knock out of you, and I think it is fair to say over the course of the bands existence we had plenty of those. But I still think there is evidence of the spark that still existed between us on this album and that is the sad part of the split.

Do you have any particular favourites off the third record.
My own favourites would be "One to call my own", "Ghost of Elvis" and "So much for love".

Are you in non-musical employment yourself now or what are you doing? If so how does it suit you?
Yes after we finished this record over a year and a half ago, we all realised that we would have to go back to work. Unfortunately, there is a tendency in a band situation to live a cocoon- like existence and to forget that life goes on outside the band. You grow older, maybe have a family and they look to you and become your main priority. How does it suit me having to work? I have no problem with it. I would rather be making music and make my living that way but the reality suggests that is not feasible at the moment.

Any further musical aspirations yourself?
Myles and I have a lot of material that we have written in the last two years, we are hoping to demo it soon with a view to setting up a new band soon. I am excited about music again - there is so much great music out there undiscovered. Recently I heard Joe Pernice's records and they just blew me away. We will always make music, even if it is only for the pure joy of making it, you cannot just stop after putting so much of your life into it.

JJ72 are getting much the same treatment from the British press as yourselves did in 1995 or so. Would you have any advise for a young band in that position?
I am loathe to dish out advice to anyone; I firmly believe in allowing people to make their own mistakes as this can actually have a positive effect long-term. One thing I would say is everything you do in music you should do with your eyes wide open and try and control your own destiny as much as possible.

Finally, looking back from "I think I miss you" to "So much for love", it's a massive and consistent legacy. You must be very proud?
I am proud of a lot of what we did. I regret we did not get to make more records or play in the US but there you go. I do know that our records touched some people and that is as much as you can hope for in making music.

Thanks to Kevin Fitton and Paul Page for the above.