‘I think there’s a need for people to do something creative, something positive, that the idea has tapped into‘ – Niall McGuirk spoke with Joe Solo about his music and next month’s We Shall Overcome events
I originally did this interview for my radio show as a way to assist with the publicity around We Shall Overcome which I’m helping out with. As they say themselves, We Shall Overcome is a simple shout out to the people who make our culture happen – the musicians, artists and promoters. For one weekend, let’s do what we do but let’s do it under one unified banner – We Shall Overcome. Let’s do it together to show our solidarity and send a message that we don’t agree with austerity politics. Let’s all work for free that weekend and encourage our audience to bring food for foodbanks or make donations to homeless projects. Sometimes, when things feel hopeless it’s good to sing, laugh and be around people. It’s just a gesture, it won’t change the world but it may just change someones? Want to join us?
Joe was in Lithium Joe, who the Hope Collective helped with some gigs in the 90s. Whilst these gigs weren’t the best attended of the many Hope put on, the band were on of a cohort of groups that got what we were doing. They were happy to be in Ireland, enjoyed playing music to people who were interested and enjoyed the whole d.i.y. aspect of it. Since the band ceased paying together Joe as released a lot of music (15 albums), all acoustic with some help of pots and pans and whatever’s lying around. All are self released and completely independent.
Just want to give a broad outline of your background so can we start way back, was lithium Joe your first band? What music were you listening to at the time?
Lithium Joe was the second band I was in. I started a band while I was at school banging out punk covers so I was playing Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers and Clash songs in 87/88. I started writing my own songs but the band folded. I did a couple of years of busking. I cut my teeth learning folk standards, Elvis Costello and Steve Earle and then started Lithium Joe in the 90’s and did that for ten years, great fun.
What inspired you to pick up a guitar?
Roots, Radicals, Rockers and Reggae by Stiff Little Fingers – crash bang wallop that was it – never been the same since.
Lithium Joe released their own records, was there a specific reason for this? Did you try and get a deal? Have you ever sent tapes to record companies?
At the start I wasn’t really aware of how to do it any other way, so we started making tapes in 92/93 the same way that everybody else was doing but it soon became apparent as our peers got signed that it didn’t seem that it would be right for us. They were locked away in London, being told to do this and more or less being told what type of songs to be playing. It struck me as something we didn’t want to do. By then the Punk DIY scene was on our horizons and we thought this is the way to go. We can do it ourselves for buttons and we got the freedom of expression. The sort of thing that when you listen in later years this was what Joe Strummer and John Lennon were pining for. They both felt they’d sold out and it could have been so different and we decided to tread our own path. I’ve never regretted that, it was the right thing to do. We could do whatever we wanted to, we could make our own mistakes, I wouldn’t dream of doing it any other way now.
The band played some gigs in Ireland which I was involved in as part of the Hope Collective, can you remember how it started? Where did you hear of Hope Collective?
It was Rick from Smile and Be Happy records, after we put out an EP with them, we became acquainted with yourselves, and it was roughly around that time. We played 4 or 5 dates and had an absolute whale of a time, the rest of the time around the UK we were booking our own, it was hard work trying to hold down jobs to earn enough money to hire vans to go out there and do our thing and still save enough money to put our records out. The experience of going out and doing it for yourself is very empowering. You can’t beat it.
Everything I have done in music has led me to where I am now; it’s taught me loads of lessons, maybe slow ones. I still feel I’m on top of my game and some of my peers have either given up or they’ve become jaded by playing that other game. Because I never have done that, everything feels fresh, exciting and new to me. I don’t have the albatross of a hit record I have to play every night dangling around my neck. Everything is open. I literally feel as if I can do anything in music because I haven’t been chained down. I think that’s what Lennon and Strummer were alluding to – that sense of freedom and possibility was lost to them. They had to work within a series of boundaries that they had chosen to embrace to become stars and they were always tied by them
Even though your music tells stories of issues affecting people’s lives there seems to be an air of positivity around you, how do you manage to stay upbeat after twenty odd years?
I like to keep it that way; I don’t need to force it. I genuinely do feel positive about things. I always think there’s hope out there, I always see the good in people and see the possibilities in what happens. It’s how We Shall Overcome was born, not sulking about an election result, it’s “What can we do about it?” I’ve always tried to move forward like that. There’s no point in sulking. My Mam always taught me that, she wouldn’t speak to us if were sulking and we soon learned not to. I always feel positive about things, there’s always something you can do, always some angle you can approach, always something you can try that you’ve never tried before. It’s the only way forward
What music did Lithium Joe release?
There were 52 different Lithium Joe songs recorded, 7 or 8 demos, 4 eps, an album and mini album. There was plenty out there, looking back we didn’t always get it right. I don’t think you do though, you’re experimenting and making mistakes as you go. You don’t always see it for what it is until much later on. I’m still proud of it, I think we did a good job and made a decent fist of doing our thing. Some of the things I was writing about strike me as being wise from time to time even though I was twenty years younger, normally you would expect to be wincing at your own arrogance or sense of self importance. I think some of the things I was trying to get across I’m still trying to get across now, in a different way. It’s less about me and more about telling it through different characters.
Why did the band stop?
It became a little bit difficult to carry it on. We were all partnered up and were having kids. The drummer Adie moved to Wales, he’s in Southampton now. It made it very difficult we tried with the early advent of internet to rehearse on line. We still haven’t ruled out doing anything like that. We spoke about it last year, I don’t think there was an official split in the band, there was no point where we said “I hate you” – there was none of that. We’re still good mates and we did speak about doing an ep last year but time has kept us away from one another as it does as you get a bit older. I would watch this space as I ain’t ruled it fully out
How come the switch to playing acoustic? Was it a big deal for you? How did it go down initially?
I didn’t really notice it, I spent 18 months not picking up a guitar at all, I didn’t think I’d do it again and then songs started coming and I got itchy feet and started again. I think that 18 months meant that people had gone to look at something else so when I came back there wasn’t any “What are you doing it like this for?” I didn’t have that, people seemed to accept it for what it was, the punkier elements ignored it and went off listening to something else and I carried a few with me but the rest of it is just new. I didn’t make a big play of reaching out to our old mailing list I just thought people would join me if they wanted to – I’m not gonna beg them to come, it’s up to them whether they follow me or not. It wasn’t sticking two fingers up at anybody, it’s just that I thought if I’m doing something completely different I can’t expect everybody to follow me so I’ll leave it up to them
Do you get people coming to see you know who know you from your previous background?
Yeah I do, you get the odd person going “Blimey” and I’ve reached a stage with the sons and daughters of some of the old fans thinking I’m some sort of legend which is very flattering but it just highlights how old I am
Before we go into solo stuff what about family life? You were in a band, what about your domestic situation? How does that fit in to what you’re doing musically, time wise – not just your spare time but you’ve a commitment to other people?
It kind of fell into place accidentally – I’ve got a very understanding wife, I’ve got a job fixing washing machines so I spend an awful lot of time on my own in the van, so that’s head time and from a songwriting point of view that’s perfect. I’m a songwriter 4 hours per day and I mend washing machines when I stop driving.
In all honesty I found the lack of time liberating, because I have to do that in that ten minutes or this in this 15 minutes, I found amazing as it suits the way my brain works, whereas before we’d just be sitting around, “should we have a rehearsal or not?” with the band, now I’m like “I have to do it in that time because it’s the only time I’ve got” and for me it’s bish bash bosh, that’s how I work, that’s how my brain’s worked and I think if I look back over the years of being in a band was the most frustrating part of it. My head worked faster than the band was able to. I’m not going to say they were holding me back or anything as stupid as that but the way that a band works is much slower.
As a solo performer you can say I’m gonna rehearse this I’m gonna try this and if it don’t work it’s only taking me ten minutes, for a band to cut that up it might have taken a week before you throw that out. Getting your ideas across to other people and having to slightly compromise the way you originally wrote it in order to accommodate that. All that costs time only to find that eventually it’s no good any more. Now I can try stuff and bin it, I can work much quicker and be more prolific, even though I’ve got much less time.
Now though the fact is that bills have to be paid. Does that have any implications for your music or what gigs you can play?
No, I’ve gone about it logically. The mistakes that were made in Lithium Joe I’ve not repeated. I didn’t create a centre, I didn’t start off as part of a scene and do all my gigs as part of my home town, I started playing them here there and everywhere and as word got around I was ok at it if anyone asked me to go a little bit further away they offered me my diesel money. It has spread out organically whereas with Lithium Joe it was like we will do a gig in Birmingham, we’ll do a gig in Carlisle. There was no logic to it, we were sporadically taking what we could get and it was costing us a fortune. I sort of learned from that and I’ve grown outwards. The gigs pay for themselves and my job pays for my bills and never the twain shall meet kind of thing. I wouldn’t like to make a living out of being a singer though. It’s like a hobby that pays for itself
Do you get to gig much?
About 5-7 a month depending on what I’m asked to do. I’m out there more than we were in the band. Social media being such an amazing thing, if we’d have had that back in Lithium Joe days who knows what we could have done? It’s such a leveler when it comes to getting word out there. If you’ve got a way of communicating that people latch on to then you can speak to quite a lot of people every day and get the word out. It’s terrible thing in the wrong hands but used correctly it’s brilliant.
It’s been a great way to push your solo records. How many of these have you done?
I think it’s 13, with 14 on the way – I’ve lost count. 5 I did DIY, burned them on the PC, photocopied some sleeves and banged them out for a quid. Then I thought hang on that’s just paying for themselves, if I charge 2 or 3 quid I can save up for them properly, I did 5 like that. The next cd will be my tenth cellophane-wrapped, official CD that looks like other peoples CD. I try and do one a year
Have you tried to get distribution?
I’ve got Four Dogs Music who are really good, they’ve taken a handful. The rest is all done on social media sites and word of mouth and gigs. It’s proper DIY – it might not be the old black and white photocopied sleeves but it’s as DIY as you can get. There’s nobody pushing it, no-one milking you for money it’s just me and my songs and wherever you can get them.
2004 was first Joe Solo album so 15 in 11 years. It will slow down naturally but while my brain was buzzing and the songs were coming I thought I might as well get them out there. You’re a long time thinking to yourself “wow, I could have made that record”
Now the inevitable question. We Shall Overcome – What’s the raison d’être?
The day after the UK election I was on facebook and it was wall to wall slagging off and complaining and bitching and I thought “We’ve called the Tories names for five years and all it’s gone and got us is another Tory govt so clearly it’s not the answer, is it?” So I thought what can we do that’s positive?
I was sending messages out for most of the day saying now is the time to build not to moan quoting Joe Hill “Don’t moan, organise”. Stephen Goodall from Widness and I did a food bank gig together last year and he commented on one of the threads saying ‘what we need is a night of musical defiance all over the country‘ and I thought this is possible as we’ve enough contacts between us. So we decided on it and gave it a name and picked a weekend October 2-4. We sent the idea out to the world, contacted every left leaning musician and venue we knew and it has gone boom. Within a week we were going ‘oh my god this is massive’ and it’s carried on from there.
It is gathering momentum? Has it inspired you?
There is a positive version of when you get yourself into a vicious circle, a downward spiral – the more energy you put in the more you get back out and we’re thinking oh my god look how far we’ve come. It was hammered home today when Everton Football Club get involved, it’s incredible. Couldn’t have dreamed of that in the first week of May when everyone was sulking after the election. The distance we’ve come in that time is incredible.
We’ve tapped into a need; people have to do something positive about it. I know lots of political activists and it’s almost like they burn themselves out with the shouting. They go on an A-B march in London and there’s a catharsis of waving a banner and shouting. Then they come back home and sulk again. There’s no real positivity comes out of that, we are bemoaning the people who aren’t making the changes and yet going back into the same old status quo afterwards. It’s not enough to just do that, on the one hand we wanna hold a placard and the other we want to hold out a hand. We want to both highlight the things that are wrong and try and do something about it in our own small way while we are at it.
I think there’s a need for people to do something creative, something positive, that the idea has tapped into. It was a complete accident, I didn’t realise it was there but clearly it is. It’s wonderful to see and inspiring in return.
People are happy to get involved. Have you found that people are still looking for a hierarchy as that seems to be the stumbling block here?
There’s definitely some of that. The Jeremy Corbyn thing with Labour over here, you can see people’s energy being put towards that with more hope. Without being too cynical and I do hope we get a more leftwing voice in mainstream politics really the higher you build these people up the higher they fall. The state compromises these people, the whole system compromises them. A pure idea can get bashed around to nothingness.
It’s that whole 1984 thing “If there’s hope it lies with the proles“, there’s something in that. It’s we who are gonna change the world, it’s not them. It’s us by saying we create a new society, a new way of thinking and they have to reflect that. They have to move with what we do, we don’t have to be dictated downwards. We change it. That’s what it’s about.
Has it become too much of a chore? It must take up huge amount if your time?
It’s not a chore; it’s just squeezing it into the time I’ve got so I’ve had to move things away. I’ve been doing a bit less rehearsing and seeing less of the wife and kids. I owe them an awful lot of Daddy time after October 4. It’s never a chore; it’s got that natural ebb and flow to it as it moves forward. You take some disappointments with the good stuff.
Being at the centre of it all it’s very hard to see the big picture, I take my inspiration from the feedback I get rather than what I’m doing myself. I’m snowed under with the beurocracy of it and I’ve got the gigs at the weekend. I probably won’t see it for what it is until it’s been. I know that I think exceptionally independently. I’m not looking to join anything else; I’m not looking to make a name for myself or my fortune. I trust myself to steer it straight and the other guys in WSO think the same. We are a campaigning group we are not an institution we are not part of that system. We wanna work to help and not just be another voice in the mainstream.
Any time for your own music?
I’ve got an album coming about the 1984/85 miners strike. I’m mastering that on the Tuesday after We Shall Overcome.
Have you told your family?
It’ll only be a day. I think my last gig of the year is end of November and I won’t be back out again til February so I’ll get a couple of months with them.
It was pretty much written when We Shall Overcome took over so I’ve been phenomenally lucky in that respect. I almost had it ready and I’ve slowed things down. I may slip back from an album every year to 18-24 months but there’s no need for an album a year, I just set that target because it kept me going, kept me fighting towards something rather than getting sluggish and bogged down and thinking “I’ll do that tomorrow”. If I have to have a record written by October then I can do that.
If We Shall Overcome continues as a going concern, which I hope it will do, I think the musical output will slow down but on the other hand…..maybe not. I just love it; it gives you a fresh perspective so there’s something new to write about. It’s not so much the writing of the songs or their inspiration; it’s the mechanics of actually getting in there and recording them that might slow down. There won’t be an end point, not until I can’t do it anymore or my voice gives up or my hands don’t work.
Maybe a deep breath on October 5 and say how did that happen.
Either that or I’ll be arrested!!!!! It is properly magical to see how much we’ve got going on out there and how excited people are by it.