Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Francis McPeake IV, uillean piper for the Irish folk band McPeake, about the mystifying allure of the pipes, growing up in a musical family and paying homage to tradition.
CP: Your family has a long history of association with uillean pipes. Growing up, was it just a forgone conclusion that you would play, too, or did you come to the instrument of your own accord?
FM: Basically, whenever I was growing up, there was so much music around me that, to be totally honest from you, I couldn't have been further from wanting to play music myself. I grew up in such a way that I was brought to rehearsals with the family. As a result, I think I developed a sense of the music, which is why I despised it. I'd be sitting in rehearsals and they would do a piece of music or a song and then stop and say, “No, we need to do this.”
My idea of the music was very disjointed. As a result, I really disliked the music; I had no love for traditional Irish music, whatsoever. The last thing I ever wanted to do was to play Irish music and play the pipes.
My father brought me away whenever his students would playing, and in the 15-year-old age group, all of a sudden, my world changed. I saw kids my own age playing. The big thing was that I'd be plying soccer with them or hanging out with them, and all the sudden, my dad would call a rehearsal. They would stop what they were doing, lift up their instruments and play, and I was on the outside of the circle.
There's nothing better as a motivator for a wee child than being on the outside of a peer group. My world changed. I was 12 years old. Then, I picked up the tin whistle and played the flute for a few years before moving on to the uillean pipes.
I was never pushed into music. I think that someone who is pushed in to the music doesn't develop a love of the music that lasts the rest of their lives. How many times have we heard of people being forced to pick up the piano, and as soon as they have an opportunity to drop it, they do. If I hadn't gone along to the fleadh, I would never have been playing music today.
CP: Did you ever wish your ancestors had played a less-complicated, less-frustrating instrument?
FM: You wouldn't believe it, but that is the most important question I have ever been asked about the uillean pipes. I can genuinely say that there are so many days that I wish that my family had been fiddle players, guitarists, flute players - anything but the uillean pipes.
It's an extremely frustrating instrument. It is an instrument you have a very love-hate relationship with. Especially on tour, you can tune up at a gig and they just aren't playing right. You don't know what it is, whether it's the temperature of the humidity. Especially the reeds - I would love to take a packet of strings out and put them on, but we can't do that. I'm very envious of Sean and Mairead. They take out their instrument every night, and it's in-tune, and they are worry free for the performance.
CP: What keeps you coming back to an instrument that is that difficult to make cooperate, much less play well?
FM: Genuinely, I don't know. So many times, I've said, “That's it. I'm going to play tin whistle the rest of my life.” The strangest thing for me is to think that I'm a fourth generation, and I don't know what my children are going to do in their life. Thankfully, they're starting to play music now, but I didn't know when they were younger if they would develop a love of the music.
If you think about it, every Francis McPeake has developed a love of traditional Irish music and a love for the uillean pipes and has kept playing those pipes the rest of their lives and been performers. It must be genetic. It must be an unseen gene that we have in our bodies that we love torturing ourselves. Or maybe we suffer from a bit of depression and love the feeling of the pipes going bad because it makes us feel better. (Laughs.)
At times, you could lift up your pipes and throw them across the river. I wasn't expecting the instrument to be this difficult. Never in a million years would I know the answer of what keeps me piping.
CP: What instruments are your kids playing?
FM: I have three girls down to my wee boy, who is just turned five last week. My oldest girl turned 15 the week before. My two oldest girls are on guitar and singing. The next daughter is on fiddle.
The wee boy, at the moment, every time I start playing the pipes, he comes over and bands on the regulators and switches the drones on and off. I really do have two choices, which is to turn to him and say, “Leave that alone” because it's my instrument that can be easily broken, but I feel that if I do that, that will create an impression that the pipes shouldn't be touched. So I let him bang on the regulators and stuff. Often what he does is push his two arms into the bellows and the bags.
I think maybe he may pick up the pipes, but for me, it's not necessary for them to play traditional Irish music. What's important is for them to have a love of music in their lives and hopefully become performers themselves, if they want to.
I think fundamentally what it is is that my wife writes songs for the band, and I'm on tour and playing music. At the end of the day, they see music as a way of life, possibly. My oldest daughter wants to be Taylor Swift. So I don't know. I think if they just keep playing music and develop a love of music, it's a hard life to beat, if you get paid to do what you love to do.
CP: It seems like many of your band mates, Mairead and Sean, at least, were from the McPeake School of Music. Did that make it easier for them to play with since they were familiar with the school's approach to music?
FM: [The singer,] Peter [Wallace] also came along to the school. I think, from a melody point of view, with me teaching Sean and Mairead how to play the tunes, they have developed a style that, whenever we play together, we're literally note for note and express the music in a similar way.
Also, the school creates musicians who want to be performers. There has never been a school that was focused on Ceili bands or a school that just focused on getting musicians to perform in theaters to an audience. Those are two completely different types of music.
With Mairead and Sean and Peter, they definitely have a hunger to express their music on a concert stage, just like myself. That's exactly what the McPeake tradition was, to bring Irish music to the largest audience possible and show the diversity of that music.
So many people, I think, today see the music, to use a derogatory term, as “fiddly-dee stuff,” just this music played by old people in the back of pubs that nobody listens to. They don't see it as real music, as opposed to Lady Gaga.
I think that is a very stereotypical view that people have been given by the press about the music, that all Irish musicians have beards that hang down to their chests and wear sandals. That couldn't be further from the truth. Irish music is young and vibrant and commercial. Within Irish music, as with any style of music on the face of this Earth, you'll have music you like and music you won't like, songs you like and performers you like and performers and songs you don't like.
There's a view given within the press that it's not commercial and it's not trendy. If you think of Riverdance, that has totally destroyed that point of view. Irish music is commercial. The only thing is, people need to give it a chance.
CP: Listening to you play the low whistle in an air I heard online, it sounds very much like something written by Riverdance's composer, Bill Whelan. Was he at all influential to you, compositionally speaking?
FM: To be honest, no. My great grandfather wrote that air. I think, from our point of view, as a band, people ask me, “Oh, you play 'Rakish Paddy.' Do you play 'Rakish Paddy' like your great grandfather or your father?” The answer is no.
If you listen to recordings from the '20s and '30s, it's completely different to listen to the same tunes played in the '50s or '70s. That's because each individual musician can only play the music as they feel it in that time. That musician could play that tune completely different within his own lifetime because of the music that is influencing him.
We, as a band, are no different. I cannot perform the music the way the McPeake Family did in the '60s. I don't believe they could have performed it how my grandfather performed it in the '40s or how my great grandfather performed it in 1915.
So I grew up listening not only to The Bothy Band and The McPeake Family and Planxty and Moving Hearts and all those bands that influenced me, but also to Aerosmith and The Beatles and U2. Through us listening to all that music we listen to today, it influences how we want to perform our own music. That's how I came about with that slow air.
CP: When you founded McPeake what were you looking for in the musicians you surrounded yourself with?
FM: McPeake would have been first formed in order to do a performance I wrote way back in 2002 or 2003 for a musical based on The Titanic. Basically, then I started getting phone calls to perform at different places. I would call this band together in order to do these performances.
What happened was, a guy came over from L.A. and asked us to perform for him. He was a music supervisor for the movies, and he was in the studio recording. He was doing demo work, and he wanted to experience different types of music. He came along to one of our performances.
At the time, we weren't called McPeake, we were called North because we're all from Northern Ireland. Slowly but surely, the band came from an eight-piece band down to a seven-piece and now a five-piece. The reason I changed it to McPeake was not only because I'm Francis McPeake but because the main players in the band were influenced by the Francis McPeake School of Music, just as I was.
A few people turned out and said, “Look, forget about this 'North' stuff. You've got such a heritage because you're all from that background. Why don't you call yourself something to do with your McPeake-ness, for lack of a better world.”
Not in a million years would I have called it The McPeaeke Family because that's what they were in the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s. So, McPeake seemed to be the appropriate name.
CP: There is so much diversity in Irish styles throughout the country. Did coming from the same stylistic region in Northern Ireland make it any easier to meld, as a band?
FM: Definitely, definitely. To be honest, the main point and the main focus and the main factor of us working as a band is that we came from the Francis McPeake School of Music. Because of the way we were taught to express our music we were always brought up with the idea that, if you're playing as a solo musician, you have a certain duty to perform.
Say if you play “The Colliers Reel,” for example. You play it the first time around as traditionally as you can. Then, for the second and third times around, you put in as many variations and ornamentation as you want, but at least once a performance, you play it traditionally as possible so you make sure to keep the music alive. Second, you always spay tribute to the musicians who came before you and taught you the music because that keeps them alive as well.
In the expression of the music, we were taught to play not just as solo musicians, but equally understand the principal of what it means to perform as a band. The bottom line is, the egos are left outside and you make the band sound as best it can for everyone in the band.
There are certain musicians within certain bands who always try to outperform everyone else in the band. That's not what a band is. A band, as we were brought up to know it, was performing the best music possible. Growing up in Northern Ireland and coming from the school and having the environmental influences we share means we, I think, are on the same wagon going in the same direction.
CP: You mentioned the band is down to five people, but there are seven people listed on your website. Does the site just need to be updated?
FM: Basically, there are four principal players in the band: me, Mairead, Sean and Peter. We pick up a guitarist here in the states from Pennsylvania whenever we're on tour and we use another guy when we're home. The seven people on the website was basically the first incarnation of the band. Even this new recording that's coming out now has Mickey Scott on it.
With economics at the moment, it's far easier to bring five people on the road than a seven-piece. Primarily, we're a five-piece band at the moment, but on the album, you have Mickey Scott.
CP: Having started as a seven-piece and now traveling as a five-piece, does that make it harder to perform the arrangements as you originally developed them?
FM: It doesn't change it that much. We put all the arrangements together as a four-piece band. Whenever we bring in a percussionist or a bass player, the added piece is more icing on the cake. Peter plays percussion, sings lead and plays guitar, so that takes care of the rhythm section. I'm on pipes and whistles, Mairead is on fiddle and Sean plays accordion and keys. That holds down what I believe we are. That's where all the arrangements come from and the sound comes from. That's where all we do comes from, that four-piece fundamental band.
CP: Many of you also write your own compositions, if in a traditional style. How is the music you're creating in 2011 received by other traditional musicians in Ireland? Do they tend to accept it?
FM: (Laughs.) To be honest, I don't know. I think that the best way of me putting it that would be politically correct is that there are certain people within Irish music who would accept it and certain people within Irish music who wouldn't accept it. There are certain people who would see it as destroying the tradition and there are other people who understand it as developing the tradition and bringing it forward.
At the end of the day, if you worry about it, you would stop performing and writing. At the end of the day, all we do is write music, write songs, that we enjoy. Ninety nine percent of all the audiences we've performed to have responded to it. I don't know what we're doing, but whatever we're doing, we'll keep doing it because we enjoy making the music and the audiences seem to enjoy listening to it.
CP: Watching a video online, a member of the band said they heard McPeake described as Ireland's first soul music. Is that in keeping with what you want to achieve, musically speaking?
FM: That was actually Van Morrison who said that. Do I want to keep doing that? I think the answer is “Yes.”
What I take out of soul music, basically, is music that touches people - music that reaches out and touches people in a way that opens them up to the music. For me, I think that is one of the primary goals of every single note of every single song or tune we do. We try to reach out and touch people with our music. I'm not saying we do it. What I'm saying is we try.
It's not about us being on stage showing the audience how good of musicians we are. It's about us being on stage and people leaving saying, “I enjoyed it. I enjoyed listening to the music. I enjoyed the performance, and I'm going to tell other people to come listen.”
If we can help grow Irish music, it does nothing but keep Irish music alive. That's the sole principal I grew up with from my father and grandfather and what I know of my great grandfather. We need to keep traditional Irish music alive and bring it to as many new ears as possible. Therefore, I think we still perform soul music because we want to touch people's souls with our music.
CP: How are your set lists split between tunes and songs?
FM: I would say very, very, very simply that it's 90 percent 50/50. We are a band that loves to perform songs, but we equally love performing instrumentals.
At no time do we feel that it should be one or the other because that's what we are. We're not a vocal band, and we're not an instrumental band. We enjoy doing what we do. Of all the set lists that come out, if there are12 numbers we play, it's six and six or five and seven. Ninety percent of the time, it's a 50/50 combination. It's not something we sat down and deliberately developed; it's just the way it is.
CP: Do you ever play traditional numbers or is it all original compositions?
FM: Out of, say, 12 numbers and six songs, five would be original and the sixth would be “Wild Mountain Thyme.” That automatically gives us a 90 percent rate of songs that are original.
The sets? I would say there isn't a set we have that we don't have one or two original compositions in. I would say it's 75-80 percent of the instrumental sets would be original as well.
CP: What are you working on, recording wise?
FM: We're just finishing off mixing an album at the moment. We've started getting mixes in in the last couple of days. I'm hoping that that recording will be finished on Tuesday of this week and will go to the manufacture. We're hoping it will be launched on iTunes and everything by the end of September. Then? Global Domination.
It's going to be called “These Days.” We've been working on it, on and off, for a year now getting it to where we wanted it to be. We recorded 90 percent of it, and after listening to it, we went in and did a couple of changes, a couple of harmonies. Then, we let it mature for a while. If you know recordings, you can listen to something and it sounds fantastic and then listen to it two weeks later and it just doesn't have that sparkle. We wanted it to be something we didn't have to make any excuses for, and I think we have achieved that.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...