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17 May 2022

EXCLUSIVE: Aslan's Christy Dignam on life, legacy and 40 years ahead of Carlow gig

EXCLUSIVE: Aslan's Christy Dignam on life, legacy and 40 years ahead of Carlow gig

Joe Jewell, Alan Downey, Christy Dignam, Billy McGuinness, Rodney O'Brien

"When I'm gigging, say there's a thousand people in the room and 999 are cheering and there's one person sitting there who's not, the whole gig is geared towards them, and I'll think 'I'll get this f****r by the end', and that's the type of thing that keeps you on your toes."

Christy Dignam has been around the block a couple of times. From playing to packed out shows in the Olympia in Dublin to small intimate venues like Scraggs Alley in Carlow, Christy knows the value of an audience.

How they can make or break you, how they can elevate a show into a magical, unforgettable experience or how they can dissipate the atmosphere the artist is trying to cultivate in a matter of seconds.

Fortunately for Aslan, they have little to no experience with the latter.

Skyrocketing to fame in the late 80s (with a few crashes here and there), Christy Dignam, Alan Downey, Joe Jewell, Billy McGuinness and Tony McGuinness (who was replaced by Rodney O'Brien in 2008) have enjoyed all the highs and lows that have come with being in one of Ireland's most beloved rock bands, and now in 2022, on their 40th anniversary tour, they show no sign of slowing down.

“I can't f*****g wait,” said Christy (61) speaking to Carlow Live

During the pandemic, live music was off the table, along with a lot of other things, but one can understand how hard it could be for a band like Aslan who relish playing live venues up and down the country to get to grips with playing to an empty room, staring down the barrel of a camera.

"We did a gig in Killarney during the pandemic, that was going to be sent out on a YouTube channel, and in between songs we'd look at the cameras and say 'thanks very much', but there's nobody there.

“So they send that out and then about a month later our manager sent it out on Facebook and I rang her immediately and said 'get that f*****g down'.

“I've always appreciated how important an audience was but I never realised how integral they are to the whole thing, they are as important as the drummer in the band, because when I looked at that, without an audience, it was just shit.

"And then we did a gig in the Olympia in Dublin, and we do this song, the first song where the band walk out, start the song, then halfway through I'll walk out and join them, and the crowd were cheering that much, I couldn't hear the band so I didn't know when to start.

“It was just the best vibe because they were like us, so thrilled to be back."

Christy has always been very vocal about his life, his struggles and his health, but one thing has always remained a constant for him, his love of music.

“When we were starting off, I'm obsessed with David Bowie, we were with EMI records and Bowie was with EMI records. He was coming over here to play Slane, so I said to the manager, 'listen, we don't give a f**k if you never give us another gig, get us Slane, we have to play with Bowie', so we got the gig.

“You can imagine how excited I was.

“I remember walking out on stage, and this audience member was about 30ft away and I remember how difficult it was to try and get a vibe and I kind of learned back then, music at its purest form is... you know when we were kids, and your Da would come home with your auntie from the pub and we'd have a sing song in the house, that's music at its purest form.

“The further you get from that, the more insincere it becomes, but when you get gigs in the likes of Slane or the 02, they're good for ego and financially, but artistically, they're shit.

“I'd rather play to 100 people in a little room.”

Speaking of his performance on the Late Late Show a few years ago with Finbar Furey, where the pair sang a stunning duet of 'The Green Fields of France', Christy seemed surprised and humbled by new fans that he and the band have gained since.

“What was huge was, in my career ya have a goal, and you say to yourself, I want to get to that point, and on the journey to that point.

"For example, the Late Late Show with Finbar Furey, they asked me to do that, it was originally going to be a 20-second piece, and when we were doing the rehearsal, Ryan (Tubridy) was saying to me 'keep going, keep going' and the stage manager was going 'Ryan we only have 33.5 seconds for this' and Ryan said 'shut the f**k up, keep going Christy' and that's how we ended up doing it and because of that, a whole new audience started coming to the gigs.”

“It brought us in a different direction, some little incidental thing, and all of a sudden it takes you in a totally different direction, that you wouldn't have anticipated.

“For years, people used to see Aslan as a kind of thuggy kind of band from the suburbs of Dublin. In between robbing cars we wrote the odd song, that was kind of the attitude.

“And I remember growing up, it was nearly impossible to get on RTÉ, but I think now that's all changed, because of things like the Late Late Show and the Tommy Tiernan Show as well, and doing the Lucy show (Living with Lucy) people see how you're living, it just brings a whole different audience.”

The Dublin band have had six number one albums in Ireland with all but one of their 10 releases landing in the Top 10.

Unsurprisingly, one of their most well-known hits 'Crazy World' has stood the test of time over the years, as relevant today as the day it was released, but the band never envisioned the success it would have.

“When we were releasing our album 'Goodbye Charlie Moonhead' we had three singles on it.

“When you're releasing singles, you release your worst single first, and that might get top 30ish, second-best next might get ya top 20, and so on, so it looks like you're growing and getting better.

“We had three songs, 'Crazy World', 'Rainman' and 'Where's the Sun'. So we said well, 'Crazy World' is the worst song.

"So we put it out and obviously it was a huge success, so I said jaysus if ye like that wait until you hear 'Rainman'.

“Have you ever heard 'Rainman'?

“So ya never know what's gonna click with an audience and it's not about what you think is technically the best song, it's about what people can relate to.”

Asked if he ever gets sick of playing their most popular tunes he said, "No, I love playing them, particularly 'This Is'.

“When we released it, it was getting loads of air play, and people were starting to know who we were, but as an individual, you don't really notice that because you're living your life and you don't really see it.

“We were asked to play this gig in Cork and it was called Lark by the Lee, and we were the opening band at it, and when we started playing 'This Is', this was our first gig outside Dublin.

“The crowd went mental and started singing along with us and I remember thinking 'Holy f**k'!

“That was our first kind of experience with that kind of thing so I still love playing it and those songs have brought us around the world.

“I get Joe (Jewell) to play something on the guitar, when he's playing, whatever emotion that evokes in me I try to get the lyrics to match that.

“I think that's why the songs have lasted as long as they have. Take the 'Feel No Shame' album released in 1988, that could be released tomorrow.”

Speaking of his inspirations over the years, starting off, Christy would take influence and inspiration from many different artists.

“When we were gigging around starting off they said to us if we want to get to the next level we'd have to release a single, and I knew the songs they were advising us to release weren't good enough.

“When we wrote 'This Is' initially it was a real rocky, fast song, and I liked the lyrics of it but I didn't like the melody, so we kind of shelved it.

“Then another year or so later I heard 'There Must Be An Angel' from the Eurythmics and I just thought it was amazing.

“Annie Lennox is an amazing singer and that's where the idea came from for the chorus in 'This Is' because you soak up all those influences.

“When I was younger and doing singing lessons I started to build up a vocabulary of other people's idioms, like Bowie and Mick Jagger.

“I liked the way they said certain words, but my teacher said to me 'If you imitate anything, you'll only be a pale imitation. The only thing the world hasn't heard is Christy Dignam, get rid of all those idioms and just be yourself.'

“So the biggest compliment I've ever gotten from people is when they say they heard the song and they knew it was me, and that's a huge compliment and I try to take that with me as I go."

Christy's solo album, The Man Who Stayed Alive was released at the end of 2021. Dubbed his 'legacy solo album,' it was a personal triumph for Christy, one that shows his unwavering talent for delicate but powerful songwriting that carries the emotional weight of his unmistakable voice, that hasn't changed since the 80s, for a poignant yet uplifting listening experience.

“I'm hoping to tour it next year.

“The song for Kathryn at the end of it, the reason I did that was, I was doing an album a while back with Finbar Furey, and the pandemic happened and Finbar had a few health issues, so the whole thing kind of fell apart and I always wanted to do something with a traditional feel; that's why I put that one in.

“When people are listening to songs, normal people don't care what drum rolls are or what guitar riffs are, they just want to hear a good vocal.

“I see music as a foreign language and the singer translates it for the audience. Songs that are simple are more successful.

“Sometimes I'm in the car and listening to the radio, and a song will come on and I don't know who it is because they all have that same kind of sound. So for the album, I wanted to concentrate on the singing in the old traditional sense, no effects just voice.”

Aslan has played in venues all over the world, but Christy always maintains, “the smaller the better.”

“I love Vicar street, we play there every year but we used to play in Scraggs Alley in Carlow.

"I used to love playing there because the audience were nearly on the stage with ya, the smaller venues are always the best and had more intimacy.

“It's not the venue you play in, it's the artist that makes it, and it's up to us to win the audience over.

“That's what gives you character, that's what makes you as an artist.”

The Aslan 40th anniversary tour will be in Carlow on April 2 at the Woodford Dolmen Hotel.

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