Stiff Little Fingers' founder Henry Cluney lives in Rochester, rocks everywhere else

Mark Wheat with Stiff Little Fingers' founder Henry Cluney
Mark Wheat with Stiff Little Fingers' founder Henry Cluney, a resident of Rochester, Minn., since 1997. (Jesse Wiza | MPR)
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Interview with Henry Cluney, former Stiff Little Fingers, now XSLF
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Having Henry Cluney, founding member of the seminal punk band Stiff Little Fingers, in our studio is a very special occasion for me, particularly as a musichead growing up in the 1970s in England.

I was of course influenced by a lot of the punk music that was coming out back in that day, but I have to say I was impressed and amazed at the bands that came out of Northern Ireland at that time, because when we were growing up, The Troubles, as they were called — the violence between the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland — was a big part of our life. It was on the TV pretty much every day, but that was for us in England. For people in Belfast, it was like living in a war zone 24/7, with the British Army continually there, and a lot of violence happening. And to be a punk band starting in that situation is, to me, absolutely extraordinary. So I'm really, really pleased to be joined in the studio by one of the founding members of Stiff Little Fingers, Henry Cluney.

Adding more interest to this story is the fact that Cluney, like me, chose to relocate from his hometown to Minnesota. Cluney has lived in Rochester, Minn., since 1997.

Listen to our interview using the audio player above. You can also read highlights below.

Interview Highlights

MARK WHEAT: Could you take us back to that time when you were forming that band and what it was like for you just to get a band together and do what you did with the surrounding atmosphere?

HENRY CLUNEY: Problem used to be, in the '70s back home in Belfast, was finding places to play. And at that time, specifically, there was still a hangover from what they called the "show bands," where it was all cover versions and they were all wearing matching suits and all doing the Top 30 or whatever it was. We had a band at school, [Stiff Little Fingers lead singer] Jake Burns and me formed a band which became Highway Star, named after a Deep Purple song—

That's right! And you did covers in that band, right?

We did indeed! We used to do some Deep Purple, some Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top — as we called them, "zed zed top," because we hadn't heard anybody from America say it the way they say it!

Then what had happened was, I had heard Eddie and the Hot Rods and I thought, "This music is so much better." I remember we did a gig at a place called Mooneys in the center of Belfast, and I just was so bored playing this stuff — we did a lot of blues and things — basically what I did was I just sat on my amp and thought "I'll just play this." Anyway, through time, that became Stiff Little Fingers because I basically beat Jake over the head with the Clash and the Damned and the Jam and Eddie and the Hot Rods.

How did you guys hear about that music?

The weirdest thing about it was my mom, somebody at her work lent her a cassette, and it was just chart stuff, but the last four songs on it were Eddie and the Hot Rods: Live at the Marquee. And that's where I first heard it! I remember hearing "Get Out of Denver" and "96 Tears" and thinking, "This is great stuff!"

So I started listing to [BBC Radio 1 DJ] John Peele and heard the Clash, the Damned, and seeing bands, the Sex Pistols. And I just knew this is the music — corny as it sounds, that was meant for me — but I just loved it. And like I say, Jake wasn't into it, but I started beating him over the head: "You have to listen! You have to listen to this!" He was like, "That music's rubbish!" But finally I got him to see sense.

You became a punk band. There were a half-dozen punk bands in Belfast at the time, but correct me if I'm wrong, you were the ones that broke out who were singing about The Troubles, and that was the big difference.

The way we looked at it was, to me, real bands sing about things they know. And I mean, we could sing about what it's like driving down the freeways in L.A., but I wouldn't know! I'd never been outside Belfast.

So we basically had five songs on [Stiff Little Fingers' debut album] Inflammable Material that are about The Troubles. People always remember and say, "You're the band that sang about The Troubles!" Yes, but there's more to it than that, but at the time, yes, it was one of the first things that actually addressed it head on. We were on TV, and they interviewed us on the six o'clock news. For weeks, Jake and me were walking about saying, "Yeah — do you think anybody'll see us?" It's Belfast! You don't know what anybody's going to say!

Exactly. The Sex Pistols were physically attacked on the streets just for being a punk band. You guys could have been physically attacked because of what you were singing about.

And being attacked in Belfast usually meant a bit more than being attacked in London, you know?

Yes, it did.

Inflammable Material is the album you just mentioned, which was your debut in 1978. It's now celebrating its 40th anniversary. I was stunned to discover that it was recorded just down the road from where I used to live in Cambridge in England. So how did you punks from Belfast get to be in Cambridge?

Well, we put out [our debut EP] Suspect Device on our own label. We recorded it at a radio station in Belfast. And Rough Trade had been selling it. And they got in touch with us and said "Would you like to record for us?"

At that time, Rough Trade were going through a really sticky patch; the shops were going to close. We did a deal with them and said, "Whatever royalties we get, we'll split them 50/50" which is unheard of now. Who gets a 50 percent royalty?!

[Rough Trade] knew the guy that owned Spaceward Studios in Cambridge. And we booked it, went in on a Monday and 10 days later, came out with a finished album!

You left Stiff Little Fingers in 1993. Soon after, you moved to Rochester, Minn., and you've been a resident ever since. How did that happen?

Back in '95, I met a woman online — which was really early to be doing that; now people do it all the time. She came over to visit me, and she asked me to come over to Rochester for a visit. I came over for 10 days or something.

I've always loved America; I mean, we came here first in 1980. My dad was a big — I don't know what the American version of an anglophile is — but he loved everything American, all the detective shows and all. So he got me, since I was 10; I loved it. I thought, "Ach — I've got to go there someday."

The first time I came here, I thought, "I just don't want to go home." So I moved over here then. It was the first of January, 1997, that I moved to Rochester.

Did you know anything about Rochester or Minnesota?

Not a sausage! I knew Bob Dylan, Prince, the Vikings, the Twins, but…

So all of those years, '97 until now, have you been able to survive playing music? How has that been for you as a career? Because that's a tough era to do that in.

The problem with Rochester, with smaller places, is there's not a big market for original music. So I played for 15 years in bar bands, just doing cover versions. I did enjoy it; it's not the same as doing your own music, but it's still better than getting up in the morning and going into an office. It paid the bills.

In 2009, I got a call from the manager of the Damned asking me if I wanted to come over and support them on a U.K. tour. … I was like "I haven't played an original piece of music in 15 years!"

I thought, "All right, I better put a set together." So I dug out Inflammable Material and Go For It and Nobody's Heroes. It was so strange because I hadn't heard them for so long. It was like, "I don't remember this bit! Or the changes to this!" — even though I recorded it.

So I went over and supported the Damned and the Alarm.

With a band?

Just me myself! I'd walk out in front of the Damned audience by myself with an acoustic guitar and go, "Hello…" But people really enjoyed it, and I thought, "I'll keep doing this."

And I've been doing that, the solo stuff, ever since. And then we put together XSLF, which features Jim Reilly from Stiff Little Fingers on drums.

Do you do Stiff Little Fingers songs?

We do. We do a mix of Stiff Little Fingers and our own songs. The whole way we look at it is we won't do any Stiff Little Fingers songs that Jim and me weren't involved in. … I say, if we're not on them or Jim's not on them, we're just a tribute band.

You've got to get a full-band show in the Twin Cities.

We're trying. Our problem is contacts. What makes me laugh is, I've lived here for 22 years; I can't get gigs over here, yet we're just back from doing a tour of Australia! It's like, "How does that work?"

You choose to live in Rochester and rock everywhere else.

Exactly!

But you are going to rock pretty soon, later this week on July 5, Friday night at the Warming House in Minneapolis. It's a small and sedate venue; what are they doing letting a punk like you play there?

I came up to see my friend, Leslie Rich, from Belfast. He was doing a gig there last year. Because of the intimacy of [the Warming House], I thought that would be a nice place to play and tell stories about the band. Tell stories about music and play the stuff. Because you're not there to make people dance; people sit and watch you. So it's a case where I can take my time, explain things, tell stories. Hopefully people will enjoy it. My idea is to play songs that I was into growing up, so it'll be T Rex, Slade. I've got a list already made — the only one I can't play is Gary Glitter; it's not the done thing anymore.

It's called a "solo acoustic set," but it's not really. It'll be me by myself, but it's going to be noisy!

Henry Cluney of Stiff Little Fingers plays Friday, July 5, at the Warming House in Minneapolis. It's an all-ages show.

Interview transcribed by Luke Taylor

External Links

Henry Cluney - official site

XSLF - official site

The Warming House, Minneapolis

4 Photos

  • Henry Cluney, founding member of Stiff Little Fingers
    Henry Cluney, founding member of Stiff Little Fingers, as pictured inside his album with XSLF. (album artwork)
  • Henry Cluney of Stiff Little Fingers with Mark Wheat
    Henry Cluney, founding member of Stiff Little Fingers with Mark Wheat (Jesse Wiza)
  • Henry Cluney, founding member of Stiff Little Fingers, now of XSLF
    Henry Cluney (far right) with his XSLF bandmates Ave Tsarion (left) and Jim Reilly (center), as photographed inside their album, 'Arrup Bang.' (album artwork)
  • Downtown Rochester is experiencing a construction boom.
    Downtown Rochester, photographed on July 14, 2018. The southeast Minnesota city, home to the Mayo Clinic, is also home to Stiff Little Fingers founding member Henry Cluney. (Jerry Olson for MPR News)