You Can Sleep When You’re Dead
A Q&A with Brendan Power Of The Kilmaine Saints
By Geoff Gehman
Brendan Power is Irish-American or American-Irish, take your pick. He was born in 1976 in County Mayo to a Mayo mother and a Philly father. Four years later he settled with his family in the States, where he grew up listening to blues and soul, classic rock and classic Celtic. His first unforgettable song was “The Town I Loved So Well,” Phil Coulter’s haunted, haunting lament for Derry, his Northern Irish hometown troubled by war with British soldiers. Years later Power fell hard for a powerful version by Luke Kelly, the lusty-lunged co-founder of the Dubliners, one of the Power family’s musical saints.
It was a fine foundation for the lead singer of the Kilmaine Saints, an irreverent and a reverent traditional-meets-punk band named after a Mayo village. United in 2009 by two pipe-and-drum alums, Power and his mates perform stalwart, sterling renditions of Irish folk standards (“The Rakes of Mallow”), conscientious originals (“Painting Paradise Square”) and unconventional covers (House of Pain’s “Jump Around”). Power surfs waves of pipes, fiddle, electric guitar and bouzouki with hearty, fiery vocals inspired by the likes of Roger Daltrey and Ronnie Drew. He’s especially tough and tender when singing of tender, tough folks from Mayo, where in the late 19th century an imperious English land agent named Charles Cunningham Boycott was punished by an old custom with a new name: boycott.
On March 17 Power and his fellow Saints will return to the Mauch Chunk Opera House, a favorite venue in a favorite Ireland-steeped town on a favorite day, the day the oldest of Power’s three children turns 17. During a recent conversation from Mechanicsburg, where he’s an estimator for a supplier of plumbing fixtures and HVAC units, he discussed some of the things he loves so well: singing and telling stories about family and history, misery and ecstasy.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that blasted the cobwebs from your brain?
A: Phil Coulter’s “The Town I Loved So Well.” I was probably 10 or 12 when I first heard it; my grandmother was a big Phil Coulter fan. Years later I heard Luke Kelly sing it and I just couldn’t get his version out of my system. Kelly sounded bigger than he was. He sang every single song with amazing emotion; he never mailed anything in, even if he wasn’t in the best voice. Listening to his version, I really understood how Coulter felt when he wrote about his town [Derry] being brought to its knees [by violence]; any child in any war-torn place can relate to that. To this day I can’t hear [“The Town I Loved So Well”] without getting goose bumps.
Q: Who were your early musical heroes and mentors? What was the sound of your young musical map?
A: I listened to a lot of traditional Irish musicians growing up: the Dubliners, the Clancy Brothers, the Rovers, the Wolftones. In college I played with bluegrass musicians who had a lot of Celtic influences; in fact, one of the songs I played with them was “The Town I Loved So Well.” I listened to a lot of blues–I’m definitely into B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton—and a lot of older classic rock. I always loved the Who; Roger Daltrey is such a good singer and front man. And I always loved Queen. I was an athlete growing up and before a wrestling match I always listened to “Another One Bites the Dust”—that always kept me pumped up.
I picked up a love of Motown from my dad, who was a drummer in a band; in Ireland he drummed in a ceili band for a short time. I loved soul music; I loved the raw emotion of singers like Percy Sledge and Otis Redding. I’ve always been a huge fan of Jim Croce: talk about a blue-collar poet. Of course one of my favorite movies of all time is “The Commitments” [the tale of a band’s mighty mission to integrate Dublin with soul music]. Ah, the Commitments, “The World’s Hardest Working Band.”
Q: You joined the band that became the Kilmaine Saints after answering an ad on Craig’s List. What do you remember about your introduction to your new musical partners?
A: Liz Mallin, our fiddle player, and I auditioned the same night. At this point the band hadn’t even played a show. The first song we practiced was “The Leaving of Liverpool.” I began sjnging the lyrics—“Farewell to Princes’ landing stage…”–and Mike McNaughton, who was our drummer (he just left the band for work reasons), stopped me.
“What the hell are you singing?”
“’The Leaving of Liverpool.’”
“Those aren’t the lyrics.”
I was singing lyrics I had learned from listening to traditional musicians like the Clancy Brothers. Mike was used to hearing lyrics from radical musicians like the Pogues. I like the Pogues but, again, my heart lay with traditional musicians. Anyway, we got over that hurdle and I liked what I was hearing, and feeling, during our first practice. It was really raw but there was great energy, great promise. Except for Liz everyone was good but not exceptional. From the start we were thinking: What the hell is she doing with this ragtag bunch of tinkers? [laughs]
I had never really sung in a band before, so before our first show, at this brewery in Mount Joy, Pa., I had a little liquid courage [beer] to calm my nerves. You hear yourself singing into a microphone for the first time and you think: Oh my gosh! By the third or fourth tune the adrenaline took over and everything was fine–although I probably sweated off 20 pounds that night. I still get the jitters before we go on, no matter where we play, so I have a pint or two to steady myself.
Q: How have you put your stamp on the Saints?
A: Putting a stamp on a band is exactly what you want to do. You want everyone pulling on the same rope, but sometimes you need someone pulling in a little different direction, or everything will sound the same. Mike [McNaughton] was good at rock-oriented, harder, faster music. Liz is good at different melodic sounds, at changing direction. I wear my heart on my sleeve. That’s who I am: I was raised that way; I was that way as an athlete. I sing with a lot of emotion; my goal is always to make you feel the way I’m feeling. As Luke Kelly said: You can hit the notes exactly right, but what you really need to do is make everyone feel what you’re feeling.
It’s especially important to make people feel what you’re feeling in a song like “57,” off our album “Drunken Redemption” [Kilmaine Saints, 2012]. It tells the story of the 57 [Irish immigrants] who died while working on a railway outside Malvern, Pa. For the longest time it was thought that they all died of cholera. Then two brothers, one a priest and the other a professor, did an archeological dig and, lo and behold, they found that the 57 were murdered. I wrote “57” as if it’s told by an old man to younger people while sipping on a pint around a fire. It’s a ghost story.
Q: Another seesawing, sawing original you sing in the Saints is “Gold and Guns (Will Get the Job Done),” which you wrote with Liz Mallin. It contains three examples of universal greed, the eternal lust for money and power. [Sample lyric: “Thou shalt not kill for it is God’s will, a crusade for conformity/Spare not the man nor woman nor child who’s not on bended knee”].
A: The first verse is basically about the Crusades. The second verse is about the Irish Famine. It’s still hard to imagine that a country lost two million of its three million people: one million came to America; one million perished. The third verse makes the case for Native Americans suffering a similar fate.
Making connections, and crossing borders, is what you do when you’re an Irish storyteller, a seanchai. That’s how all true Irish folk music is written: you pass down tales, pass down lessons, keep the traditions alive. That’s what you did before TV. The pub would close and you didn’t want the evening and the entertainment to end, so you went to someone’s house and drank and told stories and played tunes and laughed. The Irish have been through so many troubles, but they’re such a resilient, and funny, people. The one thing they will do is laugh; they have a way of making everything comic, even when it’s tragic. They can always see “the fly on the shithouse wall,” to coin a phrase.
Q: Singers, even famous ones, constantly listen to singers for inspiration. What vocal wells do you dip into for emotional, spiritual refreshment?
A: I really like Dave King from Flogging Molly. We played down at the [National] ShamrockFest [in Washington, D.C.] with them and I had the opportunity to stand at the side of the stage while they were performing and watch closely how Dave really commands an audience with his singing and his presence. I also admire Luke Kelly and Ronnie Drew—he has a voice no one will ever match. If there’s a singer better than Ronnie Drew, let me know.
Q: You and your band mates are booked to begin St. Patrick’s Day at ShamrockFest in D.C. and finish the day at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. Have you made other mad dashes on St. Patty’s Day?
A: Well, we were once on a [parade] float in Philadelphia and then drove the same day to Connecticut for a show. We played in Manhattan for several years at a brewery near Madison Square Garden. It’s a great place to be on St. Patrick’s Day, although it’s always a hassle because it’s the day of the Parade and traffic is terrible. We liked playing at the ABC Brewery in Harrisburg because the crowd was full of our best friends and family and it was always sold out. Going from Washington to Jim Thorpe the same day is a little crazy but it’s like my grandfather always said: You can sleep when you’re dead.
Q: Warren Zevon wrote a fine, feisty song about the virtues of sleeping when you’re dead.
A: He also wrote a song where his doctor tells him: “Let me break it to you son,/Your shit’s fucked up.” I really like Zevon: he’s a guy who just didn’t apologize for who, or what, he was.
Q: The Saints like to toast whiskey in tunes and promos. Even your latest record is called “Whiskey Blues & Faded Tattoos” [Kilmaine Saints, 2017]. Are you all whiskey connoisseurs?
A: The other members are Scotch drinkers. I’m not a big fan of Scotch. I like whiskey but I’ll tell you I’m a pint man. Give me a pint and I’ll be as happy as I can be. Although I have to admit I like Jameson’s Caskmates. The story goes that the Jameson’s people were running out of regular barrels so they got some extra barrels from a brewery, stored whiskey in them, and came up with a stout whiskey with a smooth finish.
I’m not a shot guy. Put one giant lump of ice in there, water it down a little and open it up, and it’s a nice finishing drink. Oh, and if you hand me a pint ice cold, it will be the last pint I’ll have from you.
Q: You know, I’ve never had a pint of Guinness in the States that tasted nearly as zesty as a pint in Ireland. Have you?
A: It’s my mission to find a pint on this side of the pond that doesn’t get seasick. The only place I’ve found a truly decent pint of stout over here is Tellus360 in Lancaster city, [an Irish pub and music venue] run by Joe, a really good man from Dublin himself. It’s a four-story place with a rooftop bar, a back room called the Temple for bigger shows, a whiskey bar (you have to be at least 12 to drink whiskey in our family) and a basement-level speakeasy where you have to put your phone in a basket. Joe doesn’t like to see all those little glowing screens in the dark.
Q: So, Brendan, what tops your Bucket List?
A: The greatest thing would be to go back to Ireland with my band mates, who have become my best friends, and our families. I’d love to have my kids see where I was born [in Castlebar, Mayo], where I lived [in Charlestown, Mayo], where their grandparents are from. There’s a cultural center in Charlestown where we could play and then we could go back to the family house and farm in Sonnagh and have an evening session. We’d have some good craic [ton of fun].
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: Wow, that is a question. I’d like to do away with all politicians. They’re the ones who are going to colonize Mars; if they can see their way to screw that planet up, so be it. The media can go to Mars, too. They’re a big part of the problem; they’re hounds who often get it wrong. They’d have to shower and bleach before I’d let them in the house.
Brendan Power: The Scoop
As a youngster he traveled with his family to Jim Thorpe from their home in Nottingham, Lancaster County.
He lives in Lititz, Lancaster County, a small town with a large reputation for making and supplying equipment for rock concerts.
He and his fellow Kilmaine Saints will host the fourth annual Celtic Craic on Sept. 22 in Harrisburg, a benefit for preventing suicide by veterans. He’s concerned about the welfare of former soldiers partly because his wife serves in the Pennsylvania National Guard.
His song “Long Walk to Sonnagh” was inspired by two-mile treks he and his brother made from a pub in Charlestown, Mayo, to the family farm in the townland of Sonnagh. “Half the story in the song is true; the other half is not. As my grandfather used to say, puffing on his pipe: “Ah, never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.”
His personality is steadfast whether he’s entertaining fans, colleagues or customers. “I’m a storyteller. I’m lighthearted and funny pretty much all the time. I indulge my co-workers every day with whimsical stories and inappropriate jokes.”
He is not Brendan Power, the esteemed harmonica player from New Zealand.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He plans to meet Brendan Power at Tellus360 in Lancaster for an honest-to-goodness Guinness or two. He can be reached at email@example.com.