Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with legendary uilleann piper Paddy Keenan about why he decided not to attend a meeting with The Beatles in the ’60s, the stress of being under his father’s tutelage and his constant struggle with his instrument.
CP: When you were growing up, you were pretty much surrounded by pipe players, since your father and grandfather played. Did picking up the pipes yourself feel like you were upholding the family tradition?
PK: Do you know something, from the very beginning, from the first time I heard my dad play them, I fell in love with the instrument. My granddad was dead at that stage, but my dad played, and he had some old recordings of Patsy Touhey and people like that.
Just hearing them, I don't know, I liked the instrument very much, and that's the reason why I got to playing them, them being such a difficult instrument and my dad being such a strict teacher. None of the rest of my siblings would go near the pipes, even though they all played them.
My dad was hoping to get a piper in the family, and I played them near the first time I took them on. I had been playing the whistle for some time, which was no great achievement since the music was around me before birth and after birth until I was eight and I took them up. The music was there and the tunes were there; it was just a matter of learning the scale of the instrument and applying that to the tunes. I did, I loved the instrument until I was 16 or 17.
CP: Did being the one child in the family willing to take on the pipes end up causing your father to place more pressure on you, as a student?
PK: Definitely yeah, he did. As I said, he wanted to have a piper in the family, and he was a traveler (an Irish gypsy). In the traveler community, the person who was teaching you approached like that you were going to be the best or … . He saw that I was doing well from a very early age, and I suppose that gave him reason, as a friend of mine once said, “To beat it into me.”
He was pretty tough on me, and he knew what he wanted. What he wanted was all good, but that was his way. Back then, it was the way of discipline; it was everywhere. If you came back from school and told your parents you were slapped at school, you might get slapped again. Obviously, you had gotten into trouble. The teachers were never questions; you were the one who was at fault, and you might get slapped again.
He had me record an old reel-to-reel tape to take into the piper's club in Dublin. He wouldn't take me in there, but he took a tape in there, and he got a great response from the people in there. They were guessing it was somebody twice my age. Some people thought it was the great piper Johnny Doran. He was delighted by that, of course. Some years later, a pupil of mine said some years later that they didn't actually believe it was his son of 14 years old who was playing, but when he left, someone supposedly said that “Oh, there's a traveler. Not only does he have a tape recorder - which most settled people don't have - but he had tapes of Johnny Doran we didn't know existed.” (Laughs.)
He did well in teaching my all the stuff that was handed down to him - technique and whatever else - but you get to a certain age when that all changes, and you use what you learn to express your mood. That's where I'm at, at the moment.
CP: Do you think your family's association with traditional music affected your perception of it?
PK: The only place this music was played and the only place I heard it, was on the radio. We didn't have TV back then in Ireland, and even if we did, very few people had it. The radio was only turned on for football matches or the news or the ceili house or whatever traditional music program might be on.
I got an odd feeling about it because this was an alien type of music to most kids, and I thought that if I came out and played it, they would just laugh at me. This was after a while of playing it. I'm sure most kids go through that, at a certain age. My daughter is going through that at the moment - wanting to give up music and stuff.
It was a combination of the kids, my friends and growing up and coming of age that I started to believe that it wasn't the music the kids were talking about. Whenever my dad would go out, my brother and I would sit around with the old dinosaur radio and turn around and get to going through all these different stations to find pop music. I eventually got into listening to music, in general, from there.
In the very beginning I was in love with the music and with the pipes. Then, I moved off. I moved away to London when I was 16 or 17. I busqued around London. Most of the Irish back then went into the construction direction, but I went in the hippie direction. I lost the pipes all together for three years or something like that.
I don't think I would have taken them out, even if I had been asked. In actual fact, there was a meeting set up to go to a studio to meet up with The Beatles in the '60s, and I refused to go there at the last minute. It might have been nerves - I was 18 years old.
That's when I believed the pipes were hick, and I just didn't feel comfortable with them.
Strangely enough, after spending three years playing guitar and singing and busking around London, I took the pipes out one day in the park and was just playing with them. Somebody had kept them from me - a friend of mine had been been keeping them for me in their attic - and that was the reason why those people organized the meeting with The Beatles.
They thought it was a great opportunity for me - to popularize the instrument and for me to get work from it and get me back on the pipes. It didn't happen, but when I brought them out in the park, people were crowding around me, and I couldn't believe the interest in the instrument. I felt better about it, about playing them again. I felt more in control of the instrument after being off it for a few years. It's possible that I just refreshed everything, and the Irish music sounded so much better to me, so much more live and interesting. That's what got me back to the Irish music again.
CP: Did that sense of control have anything to do with being out from under your father's instruction?
PK: I'd say there was a lot of that. Being away from my dad, it was a conscious decision to go back and play them. With my father being such a strict teacher and looking for something, I don't think I could ever have been everything he wanted or was looking for.
When a person reaches a certain age, they develop a way of expression, and the music is used for that, as opposed to trying to impress. I remember going to my first and last competition with my brothers. I got the All Ireland Under-18 for piping. Pipes and banjo was just unheard of as a duo of instruments back then, and we got first on that as well. The whole family came out with medals and certificates. My dad was stoked, of course, and we all got ice cream, and we were all happy, but ever since then I never entered a competition. I was never into that side of it.
There were a lot of kids back then fighting to get medals and certs and such. Today, there's a lot of competitiveness and racing and fast playing technique. It doesn't really interest me anymore. All the stuff my dad gave me, yes, I used it, but very sparsely. I really use it to excite an audience or to manipulate a little. But to say I would sit down, play that way and feel that it was best for myself? No. The music needs to have a mood and depth and soul.
CP: You've been playing pipes now for 50 years. Do you still discover new approaches to the instrument? Do you have them pretty much figured out?
PK: You never really figure out the pipes. They're the most complicated and awkward and difficult and temperamental instrument in the world.
You're forever fighting with climate - weather - and reeds that move in all directions with heat and cold. You play here, and you're playing inside with cool air and the reeds will dry out. You're fighting with man-made stuff. You're fighting with nature. You're at the mercy of the weather.
Unlike the Scottish pipes, which you blow with your mouth and thus have moisture going in there in certain amounts you can control, with the uilleann pipes, whatever goes into the air goes into the bellows and the reeds. Whether it's too wet or too dry or whatever, there's always a problem.
The reeds are never really exactly in tune. If they are, it's only for a short while. What you've got to do is constantly be pushing them. You're tuning them as you play them to keep the reeds in whatever tuning you get.
There's been a huge jump in the popularity of pipes over the last few years. There are so many pipe makers, and they've got all these orders, but where the pipes are going, they don't know because when they leave Ireland, they're going to parts that may be desert or whatever. Whoever takes those pipes away is going to have problems with them.
CP: How often would you say you're completely satisfied with how your pipes play?
PK: Very rare. It's very, very rare. I can play a trip for three weeks and play for most of the time, and if I get one or two nights out of that when I feel happy, I'd say I'm lucky.
What's most important to me is if the people enjoy what I'm doing. If I can sit on stage, for example, and play my mood or try to express my mood as I'm sitting there, musically, I'm happy.
You might play something where you purposefully play with a lot of technique, and you can leave them thinking you're brilliant. Of course, you can break your heart playing with the height of feeling, and people might not be interested at all in that as they would in a little bit of technique.
There's always something within the concert that I'm not really happy with, whether it be a few tunes or the reaction from the audience. Most of the time, I'm fighting with the instrument to keep it in tune. That's a hard distraction from the mood you're trying to express.
CP: When The Bothy Band was together, did any of you have any conception that your interpretation of traditional music would leave such a lasting legacy on future generations?
PK: I honestly didn't. I didn't ever believe it would have such an influence on two and three generations down, and it is. Kids and grandkids of my generation are listening to it. That's huge. I never did see that far ahead.
At the time, when we played, I knew we had something special. Because of the people who were in the band like Matt Molloy and Tommy Peoples and Kevin Burke, as we played along together on stage, I don't know how to describe it, but we never had to think about each other on stage.
You could do whatever you felt like doing, and the other person would pick up on the accompaniment and compliment it. That gelling together made for a very nice sound and a sound that was different.
Plus, you had that backing system, with Dónal (Lunny) and Tríona (Ní Dhomhnaill) and Mícheál (Ó Domhnaill). That was very, very different. The three lead instruments, pipes, fiddle and flute, held onto the pure Irish music and played it with the height of feeling, and respect, yet with the backing system that was there, it changed the face of Irish music from then on. Of course, you can look at it and say, “Oh, it's gone too far in the wrong direction,” but some great music has come from there as well - bands like Dervish and Solas with the same kind of arrangements and great musicians.
I did believe there was something special about it, but I didn't think it would be so huge and be such a universal influence on people and kids today.
I have a very mixed audience. I'm very lucky, I suppose. They range from children up through older people. It's very nice to see that, especially with the instrument I play. I consider myself lucky that I have an audience like that.
I see a lot of young kids becoming interested in the instrument. Whether that be because of the fact that they're difficult or the challenge or whatever it is, young people are interested in this strange instrument. In actual fact, many of them are taking it up and playing it and playing it well.
When I was talking about the difficulty, it's difficult to keep them in tune, especially if you don't make your own reeds. Many people who play, even some professionals, some big names, don't make their own reeds. I'd hate to be in that situation. Difficult as it is for me to tune my own reeds, I know exactly what I need to do, if they go off, to get the best from them. I'd hate to have to rely on reeds that were made by someone else.
CP: There are some pretty famous quotes in reference to your playing, such as Donal Lunny's quote referring to you as the “Jimi Hendrix of the uilleann pipes,” among others. Does having your peers hold you in such high regard put additional pressure on you?
PK: Just recently, I did a concert in New Hampshire, which was to do with environmental stuff, and I was the only one who had their name up in lights outside this theater in Concord. That was a bit embarrassing. I was the most-famous unknown, because they believed I had gone into hiding. I'm sure a lot of people think I made a lot of money playing with The Bothy Band and whatever else.
It used to put a lot of pressure on me. I used to feel much more scared and insecure about sitting in front of audience. I'd sit there and say nothing. There were a couple of times when I was younger when I walked off stage, told them I couldn't do it. I told people they could have their money back, that I'd have a (jam) session in the corner, and they were welcome to join me. They honestly loved it. They didn't want their money back, but they loved that they could session with me as opposed to seeing me on stage. So it worked to my benefit.
Once you get to a certain age, that stops. I'm not saying I don't feel nervous - sometimes, going on stage, I do, and I probably always will - but it's nothing like it used to be.
If I only do one thing, that's go on stage and play my music, and if I can feel good about what I'm doing, and people like what it is that I like to do, that makes me feel good and also gives me reason to not feel nervous or insecure, or as nervous as I would feel.
It's getting better. I think I'm settling more and relaxing more with the music. I'm beginning to write a bit more and compose and stuff. That is helping quite a lot.
I don't session a lot anymore. It's rare that I go to a session anymore, and if I do, I'll bring a banjo or another instrument to play. The reason for that is that, years back, when I was younger and was feeling nervous and insecure, people would put you on a pedestal. As soon as you walked into a session, the music would stop. As soon as you took out your instrument, you would sit down and try to join in, and they would look at you. It would make you nervous with them being nervous themselves. That was a killer, so I gave up going to sessions because of that.
In one way, it harmed me because you forget tunes when you're playing professionally around with a guitarist, who is charting the music. If you have someone living in Ireland who has a certain amount of your tunes charted, when you go playing, it's really only those tunes you can play, really, unless you're with somebody who can just follow you no matter what you do. That becomes boring, because you're playing the same stuff.
At sessions, you play music you wouldn't normally play at a gig. You play what you want, what you like or what comes to mind. There's a lot more practice concerning the tunes that are in there in your head, and you're learning more tunes from the people around you.
When you stop doing that and start playing professionally and only have a certain amount of tunes in your program, which you play until you wear it out, you're forgetting tunes or pushing them into whatever that room is in the back of your head. They're all there, I've realized, because it's just seconds after you hear them before you're playing them again.
That is giving me the incentive to compose a little more. There are a few tunes I have for the next album, which I've been talking about for two or three years. That should be coming out this spring.
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 ...