"If someone starts thinking they’re a rock star, they’re shot down. Maybe that’s a Derry thing?"
Towards the end of NME‘s conversation with Derry’s most promising new punk band, TOUTS, the sun disappears ominously behind a cloud… and never returns.
“It’s because you mentioned the DUP” quips the band’s Jason Feenan without missing a beat. “They’ve been doing that in Northern Ireland for years.”
It’s an insight into the dry humour that drives all of TOUTS’ output so far. Perhaps its their hometown that has won them comparisons to Stiff Little Fingers and The Undertones in the past, but tracks like ‘Political People’ and ‘Bombscare’ also career forward with similar punkish bombast, wrapping frustration with the system in a gnarled nest of storming, marching guitars.
TOUTS’ latest single ‘Can’t Blame Me’ has a fitting title. With everything going on around the world right now, it’s hard to really blame young people for the anger they’re feeling towards those holding the most power. And being from Northern Ireland – with the final deadline for Brexit ticking ever closer – you also can’t blame TOUTS for feeling genuine worry about the future.
We’ve got the first play of ‘Can’t Blame Me’ here on NME – TOUTS’ drummer Jason talks us through the track.
How did you lot first meet, then?
Derry’s not a big place – there may be one hundred thousand people, but there’s only a few schools. I was playing in a jazz big band with our bass player, and he introduced me to Matthew, our singer. We jammed together a few times, and started out doing old rhythm and blues covers. I actually met Luke in school. He walked up to me in the canteen, pinned me against the wall, and started whispering in my ear the words to ‘Golden Brown’ by The Stranglers. Bit of a strange introduction, but now he’s a man I spend half my life with in the band.
I hear you’re all banned from The Crown Bar, in Belfast. Why?
I don’t wanna trip myself up here, but someone may or may not have scored the name of our band on a wall in The Crown Bar. The word Tout, in Northern Ireland, is one of the worst things you can call someone. It’s a no-go, you’d almost blank it out in a newspaper. It’s a super-grass, an informant. If you were in an organisation, say the UDA [Ulster Defence Association], and you went to the cops or British Army to tell them what was going on, you were labelled a tout.
So it wasn’t for punching Nigel Farage when he tried to go there for a pint?
We were banned before that, we didn’t have a chance.
What’s ‘Can’t Blame Me’ about?
People say they don’t understand us, or the way we talk, but you can’t really blame me for where I’m from. We wanted to show Derry off a bit [in the video], y’know, this is where we’re from, and you can’t blame us for being who we are, and having a chip on our shoulder about things because this is what we grew up with.
“If someone starts thinking they’re a rock star, they’re shot down. Maybe that’s a Derry thing?”
What’s the music scene like where you’re from?
It is brilliant. It’s class, but it can be temperamental; good for a couple of months, and then not a lot going on. When we started out it was class, a couple of bands are starting to get out a bit more. SOAK, for example, she’s been about for years, and just put a new single out which we’re all liking very much. It’s a scene where everybody knows everybody, they’re all people I go out for pints with. It’s not segregated, if you play punk music you’ll still go to see a funk band, cos you want to be supportive. That’s what I love about about Derry.
You songs cover a wide scope of topics. You sing about mars bars, pub brawls, sex toys, and yet you’re so often dubbed as largely political. How does that one sit with you?
We like the political label, but it’s not all we are. We are human beings, we have a lot to say, and it’s not all about the left and right of politics. Being from the North, it’s inescapable, particularly for young people, and especially being from Derry. It’s a place where people can’t even get the name right [Derry’s legal name was changed to Londonderry by British colonists in 1613, and it remains a point of contention in Northern Ireland to this day].
You don’t take yourselves too seriously as a band, either…
I think that comes from the fact that me and Matthew are both teenagers, Luke has just hit his twenties. We’re young, and feel lucky to be doing what we’re doing. If someone starts thinking they’re a rock star, they’re shot down. Maybe that’s a Derry thing, an Irish thing? That way it stays fun.
What’s next on the agenda?
We’ve got a tour with Ratboy, and two shows with Blossoms in Belfast and Dublin. Some recording plans, and maybe some big news at the start of next year. Keep your eyes peeled.
Politics are a shambles right now across the world, and where you are, the devolved government collapsed over a year ago. Would you say that’s one of the biggest issues Northern Ireland is facing right now?
It is the biggest issue we’re facing. It’s not a functioning democratic state at the minute, because we don’t have a devolved government. We have something called a mandatory coalition government. If you think about the coalition government with David Cameron [of the Conservatives] and [former Liberal Democrats leader] Nick Clegg, it was almost impossible, and they weren’t even polar opposites.
We have two parties forced to get along and go into government together. DUP [Democratic Unionist Party] and Sinn Féin, they agree on virtually nothing, and it was the same when the SDLP [Social Democratic and Labour Party] and UUP [Ulster Unionist Party] were on it as well. This isn’t the first time our government has broken down. The government is built really strangely, and two polar opposite ways of thinking have to get along. It’d be like Labour and the Tories having to form a coalition every time. Instead of having politicians we now have civil servants filling roles, so it’s unelected, faceless officials governing how the country’s working.
We also have nobody to negotiate for us in Brexit. Well, [Secretary of State for Northern Ireland] Karen Bradley’s supposed to be doing it, but she’d never been to Northern Ireland before she was elected. It’s a place that’s almost impossible to fully understand unless you grew up in it. There’s still bits I don’t get.
How would your life change in Derry, if there was a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic?
I’m standing in my living room at the minute, and I can see the border. That’s how close Derry is, I’m in the North, but I can see the Republic from where I eat my breakfast. If there’s a hard border, there needs to be border police, customs checks, a full border. If I want to take the dog for a walk now, I can just walk over, free movement.
During The Troubles… Boris Johnson’s father – and he’s only famous because he’s Boris Johnson’s father – he came out and said there was never a hard border in Ireland, and that exemplified a lot of English ignorance about it. It’s mad that they’re governing what’s happening next. If there was a hard border, there would be riots. I’m not trying to exaggerate that. My dad would talk about how, when he lived in Belfast, he would have to go through six checkpoints if he wanted to go up to town for a cup of coffee. Six military checkpoints with armed personnel. It would be seen as an occupying force, and it’s having that right outside my door. Like, say I wanted to do a gig in Dublin? It’s not been spoken about in Brexit, and it’s getting scarily close.
Are you hopeful that things can change for the better?
Look at the abortion referendum in the South [in Northern Ireland abortion remains illegal unless there is a serious threat to a woman’s life or health]. It shows that young people can actually influence change. Look at the way the Brexit vote went; if 99% of young people had voted, it may have ended up remain. In the Republic of Ireland, that referendum was one of the highest turnouts for young people voting, and in the end, 25 counties out of 26 ended up voting to repeal the 8th amendment. In that instance young people made change by getting out there and voting.
And as young people, we will arguably be dealing with the consequences of things like Brexit and constitutional reform for the longest time…
Well, there’s no argument in that! We are going to live with it. So many people who voted for Brexit have since died. I found that mad, it confused me a lot. Decisions they made have been forced upon me, but I was too young to vote. I was only 16 or 17 at the time. Now I have to grow up with it.