By Eileen Murphy
Galway-based rockers The Saw Doctors have forged a distinctive sound in a career that has spanned two decades. The spiritual heirs to seminal celtic rock bands like Horslips and Thin Lizzy, they infuse smartly crafted pop tunes with an irresistible Irish beat.
But enough quasi-Rolling Stone-ish analysis. The band that recorded classics like "I Useta Lover" and "N-17" is hardly resting on its laurels. They’re in town to kick off their third U.S. tour this year — a flying visit to New York, Boston and Washington, D.C., to test out some new material (and maybe find a new record label).
We caught up with guitarist and occasional singer Leo Moran to find out what they’re doing, where they’re going, and what the heck that name means, anyway.
So, you’re back again. Have you no homes to go to?
I really missed not being in the city on the last tour. New York City’s definitely my favorite. We don’t have a label in the States at the moment, so we’re hoping to attract a few people to come see us. And we’re working on a new album.
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You’re coming over with some new members this time around, aren’t you?
In addition to the core Saw Doctors lineup, we have Derek playing keyboards. He used to play with The Stunning, but he’s been playing with us now for the last four or five years. And we have two brass players now. We have Anthony Thistlethwaite, who used to play with The Waterboys, and we have Danny Healy, who’s a fantastically talented very young musician from Galway who plays trumpet. So we’re making a lot of noise this time.
You’re playing Irving Plaza in New York City just a few nights before U2 plays the same venue. How are they going to fit in the dressing room is what I’d like to know? Is it that small?
Yeah. They wouldn’t be used to that size dressing room for a few years now, I’d say. [laughs] But there’s only four of them, of course.
Best thing about touring the States?
I just love to go bar hopping — I love the bars in New York. It’s fantastic social life. It’s so friendly, you meet so many people. And there’s always somebody saying this is a good bar here, but there’s something else happening down the road. Popping in a cab and keeping going all night and going for breakfast at 5 in the morning down in the meat-packing district and then not getting up again until 2 or 3 in the afternoon.
Ah, New York, New York . . .
I like Boston for hanging around as well. I like a lot of the bars again. It sounds like I’m a mad drinker, but I’m not. I like being out and socializing with people and hearing stories, that sort of thing.
Before we go on, I have to ask, where did you get the name Saw Doctors?
It’s an old trade where people used to go around from saw mill to saw mill sharpening the saws. It’s a very skillful trade. It’s not a simple thing to do. You set the teeth. I don’t really know how it’s done. But it sounded good, it sounded important. We give ourselves titles of false importance.
Do you come from a musical family?
We weren’t very traditional, really. My grandfather was a great singer, but as a kid I didn’t take to it much. Although I took to it more than I thought because I found that when I took out the old Clancy Brothers albums that were in the house, I could sing every word of all the songs. So I suppose it was in the house when I was a kid.
What made you want to perform?
My adolescent music was punk — it was the Sex Pistols and The Ramones. They’re the people who made me want to get a guitar and make some noise. That’s my real background. That philosophy, the idea that everybody could go up and make some noise for themselves. And just sing songs about ordinary things. I suppose that was my main inspiration for wanting to own a guitar.
When did you decide to pursue it professionally?
I was 23 or 24 before the Saw Doctors started in to play. At that age, your rock star ambitions aren’t what they used to be. I just wanted to play a few songs in a band. Prior to being in a band, I was in Macnas — it’s a street theater group.
Finish this sentence: If the music hadn’t panned out, I’d be . . .
I don’t really know what I would have done. I had done a qualification in college to be a second-level teacher. But I knew I would never do that.
Why not? Did you hate kids?
From my practice year, I didn’t like it, so I was never going to do that. I was just laughing at the jokes, really. You can’t do that. When the teacher laughs at the jokes, you’re in trouble. A good teacher doesn’t smile until after Christmas.
Were you the kind of student a teacher would want to have in his class?
I was the pain in the ass, the smart aleck. And I got it all back in one year, during my practice year. And I thought, I liked it better on the other side. I probably deserved more, but I got a bit of it back, anyway.
Take me through the songwriting process in the Saw Doctors.
Sometimes somebody will come in with a whole song and verse and chorus and melody. Sometimes, somebody comes in with a poem or a bit of a tune. Everybody has been writing songs lately — some recorded, some not.
I’ve heard Davey say that the band rarely rehearses. Is that true?
We find that one show, and one run of songs in front of people is worth about 20 rehearsals. You can find out more about the songs and what’s good about them and what’s weak about them by putting them in front of an audience than from getting involved in your own judgment in a rehearsal situation.
If everybody’s writing, both separately and together, how do you decide who sings what?
It just seems to fall naturally. Certain songs just suit certain people. Davey will sing most of the songs, since he’s the main singer. So if he puts a melody to words I wrote, or he comes in with his own songs, he’ll sing them. If Pearse writes lyrics or a tune, he’ll generally sing that. There’s never any problem about it — it’s always so obvious that there’s never a decision to be made, really.
Ireland’s changed a lot since the Saw Doctors started back in the 80s . . .
"N-17" has become a piece of history rather than something that is a current issue, hasn’t it? I don’t like the phrase Celtic Tiger — it doesn’t mean anything to me. But I can see a change — it’s just about happening in Tuam now. In Galway [City] it happened earlier and to a much larger degree.
What effects are you seeing down in Tuam?
Generally people have more money in their pocket, but a lot of people have seen very little benefit from it. Inflation is getting dangerous — people are buying houses that they may not be able to afford in time. Traffic has become a terrible issue. The Ireland of driving around the roads at a leisurely pace has disappeared, really.
So what do you do in your off time?
I go fishing. But it’s offseason now. I have a son, Jimmy, who’s 9, so I tend to be a responsible parent most of the time. And there’s always something doing around here. I never have a problem finding something to do — it’s finding the time to do all the things that are possible.
I bring my son to movies now, which is an interesting experience. I find that the ones that I like he finds too childish, and the ones he liked then I didn’t like for some reason.
Name one you disagreed on.
Well, I liked the Spice Girls movie and he didn’t.
Well, you’d be watching that for different reasons, wouldn’t you say?
Well, no . . .
You mean it had nothing to do with their low-cut tops?
No, it was very courageously tongue-in-cheek about the music industry, I thought. (Laughs) It kind of painted — as artificial as it was — it kind of painted their situation onscreen to some degree, so it was very interesting.
So it was sort of a quasi-documentary?
Yeah, it was strange. I thought it was interesting.
So who’s your favorite Spice Girl?
Oh, Sporty, definitely. Always was.
So we’ve determined that you’re a Spice Girls fan.
A deep, dark secret. But I thought their first single was classic pop music.
The last album you bought?
I don’t buy a lot of albums. I guess the one I’ve been listening to a lot lately is Bruce Springsteen’s "The Ghost of Tom Joad." I love his craft, his songwriting craft.
Do you socialize a lot with the other guys in the band?
We do a lot, but not as much as we would have if we were young and didn’t have responsibilities. Everybody has kids now, so it’s not as if we can come home from a tour and sa,y oh, we’re going out with the lads for a few drinks and a few songs. It’s not like we’re 18 and totally free to all that kind of stuff. So we don’t get to do as much of it as we’d like or as I’d like, but we do still get an odd night out and a few songs and whatever.
Let’s end with a prediction: who’ll win the presidential election?
I have no idea — I find the whole thing a bit comical, really. I can’t distinguish between the two men. I don’t see a lot of difference, really. But I’ll say Al Gore because Pearse met Al Gore. (Laughs)
That will have an impact?
(Solemnly) Pearse is our political animal in the band, so I’m sure that Pearse’s endorsement of the Al Gore campaign will probably swing it for him.