Leo Moran of the Saw Doctors talks to Gavan Reilly about hay, Bebo, and that pesky N17
“If Leo doesn’t answer, don’t be too alarmed,” warns the manager for the Saw Doctors. “They go out on the porter in Tuam on some Sunday nights so he might just have slept through. Leave him a message and send him a text and he’ll call you straight back.”
Thankfully, when otwo calls Leo Moran, Galwegian guitarist with the Saw Doctors, at the ungodly (!) early hour of 11am, Moran doesn’t take long in answering. As it transpires, he’d spent the previous night taking it easy in front of the TV. After twenty-three years touring the world – and Connacht – with the Saw Doctors, he can hardly be blamed for taking the occasional early night.
Founded in 1986, making the band older than most of otwo’s readership, The Saw Doctors are probably Tuam’s best known export, who gained local prominence when they released a parody of U2’s Rattle and Hum, cheekily titled Crackle and Buzz, 1988 – two years before their second single, ‘I Useta Lover’, hit number one for nine weeks in September 1990, becoming Ireland’s biggest-selling single ever, a title it still holds nearly two decades on. Thereafter, a re-release of debut single ‘N17’ made it to Christmas number one, and debut album If This Is Rock and Roll, I Want My Old Job Back entered the album charts at number one the following summer.
While the notion of slogging around provincial venues earning a reputation as a formidable live act might seem romantic, Moran is unconvinced. “I think it was good for us, because doing that amount of gigs in a row makes you better. There’s no shortcuts to getting to be a better band, you have to do all the gigs but at the same time we weren’t really thinking about romance; we were thinking, ‘someone’s left their job, someone’s left college… we’d better try and make something of this and do it as best we can.’”
I put it to Moran that making the choice to quit whatever lives they had, in search of fame, must have been a difficult one. “One of the major discussions we had at the time was that we didn’t want to be sitting in a pub in twenty years’ time telling our friends about the opportunity we might have had or what we might have done if we’d only made the brave decision at the time, so I think that put us over the edge and decided [for] us – whatever happens, we’re not going to do that, we’re going to have a go at it for the time being.”
In a curious way, the Saw Doctors’ output has oddly mirrored almost every aspect of Irish life in the last two decades – a life that has seen pretty mammoth changes in the society they portray. The Doctors’ seminal work of their earlier albums encapsulates life in rural Ireland as few other bands have ever managed. ‘Presentation Boarder’, for example, deals with fancying a girl in the local school, ‘Broke My Heart’ with missing a chance in front of goal, ‘Will It Ever Stop Raining?’ touches on the dreary Irish summers, while ‘Hay Wrap’ – the band’s third single, also a number one – is a classic encapsulation of rural farmers’ banter, namechecking Mayo footballing hero Willie Joe Padden for good measure.
Moran recounts that the feelings of such works are largely derived from the band’s own youth. “Everything in the songs [grew from] something we had touched directly; everybody at the band at the time grew up in the town, but everybody had had families with some direct link with land, or owned some land out the country, so not alone had we the townie background but we also had the little bit of farming experience […] there were two different kinds of interest, and that shows up in a lot of the songs I think.”
Much of the material, as the setting would suggest, deals with rugged, hard times. Songs like ‘Same Oul’ Town’, ‘Sing A Powerful Song’ and ‘To Win Just Once’ all deal with depression and desperation; quite a few others (including, obviously, ‘N17’) deal with emigration. Were those negative parts just as fundamental a part of growing up for the Saw Doctors? “Of course,” responds Moran, “but you like to try and tackle them anyway and see if you can make any more sense of them, or celebrate them, or share them with other people… that’s what songs are aiming to do anyway, share emotions and experiences and ideas with the listeners; and I suppose only then has a song has any use in the world, if it has any relevance or resonance to the listener.”
Twenty-three years on the road has been steady on the band either; the five-piece has seen a total membership of fourteen since inception. While some left more amicably than others, one departure was on a particularly happy note: Tony Lambert, accordion player and keyboardist with the band, won the Lotto – and a cheque £852,000 – in April 1993, enough to see him move out of his bus and into a mansion in Thailand. As luck would have it, the win came shortly after recording ‘To Win Just Once’.
The band’s ability to stay on the zeitgeist is not limited to the older times; more recent material like ‘Out For A Smoke’ deals with the building of new motorways over ancient burial sites like Tara, while ‘I’ll Never Go on Bebo Again’ tells its own story – despite some of the members ironically still having well-trafficked profiles. “We’re always trying to be up to date with things,” elaborates Moran, when asked whether it’s a struggle to stay on the pulse of modern culture. “If you’re in the music business you’re constantly trying to think about how music is sold and how it gets to people. Bebo is obviously now a huge gateway to an awful lot of people […] We were trying to dig at the culture where you go out and sing a song in a pub and it’s terrible, and you’re drunk, [and] the next day it’ll be up on the internet. God, you know?”
Does the advent of the digital age and the death of the physical CD, I ask, impact on more established acts like the Saw Doctors, who don’t need to fight for name recognition as they once might have had to? “Everybody has to think about getting out there, because if you don’t people just assume that you’ve died or given up or something!” Moran laughs – a hearty, assured laugh.
“Musicians in the last century had to learn about gramophones, and then they had to learn about 78s, and 45s, and 33s, and then the cassette… it’s not unusual really that technology is changing. In three years time it might not be social networking sites at all, it might be something totally different.”
The advent of the digital age, to a degree, has forced the band’s hand. Not knowing if the concept of a physical CD would still be valid in a year’s time, a Best Of album will hit the shelves at the end of this month, so as to ensure that the compilation will forever remain in physical form. “Because of our age, we like the idea that it would exist in a proper physical way, being presented with a proper sleeve and all that kind of stuff,” Moran remarks. “It might be too late to do all of that in a couple of years time so we thought we might as well do it now.
Meanwhile, the band will continue their never-ending tour – “It’s part of a sporadic policy to play a few colleges whenever possible”, Moran interjects, on the topic of their recent UCD gig – and persist on their quest for newer and bigger audiences. “We like to get out to new people as much as possible – particularly when we go abroad, we try to play the types of venues where Irish people may or may not come to, but they’re quality venues that would be renowned for having good bands in there.” His chuckle returns. “Any kind of type or audience is a good thing, I think!”
The Best of the Saw Doctors is released for download – and on old-fashioned CD – on October 27th.