INTERVIEW: ‘We always had this determination that nothing was going to stop us...’

Story by Gavan Becton

Wednesday, 5th September, 2018 8:40pm

INTERVIEW: ‘We always had this determination that nothing was  going to stop us...’

Billy McGuinness on Bettystown strand. PHOTOS: Paul Jones

Billy is already waiting in the foyer of the Village Hotel when INSPIRE arrives. Dressed in de rigeur rock star jeans, t-shirt and biker-style leather jacket, he’s all smiles as he takes us through to the hotel’s Bull and Tide Gastrobar. He literally lives across the road and loves the smart new addition to the neighbourhood.
“We actually played at the first wedding reception here when the hotel opened. It’s a lovely place and badly needed,” he says, as the coffees arrive.

Fresh from two epic sell out gigs at the Iveagh Gardens where they played to a combined 10,000 people, you’d be forgiven to thinking he’s enjoying some down time but that’s definitely not the case. Our chat came ahead of the Fleadh Cheoil in Drogheda where Billy was lined up to play a number of pub gigs with Aslan bass player Rod O’Brien, while the full band reunited for a major show in Earth nightclub. There were also gigs to be played in Galway and Listowel. 

And did he mention the Vicar St gig announcement? Two shows on 27th and 29th December as part of the ‘Feel No Shame’ have just been added.
“It’s found its own way,” begins Billy. Christy (Dignam) and Joe (Jewell) do their intimate little shows were they reflect on the songs and albums and then Rod and me have our little thing going but the one thing we are all insistent on is that Aslan comes first, so if an Aslan gig comes in next week we just cancel what we have individually and the band takes priority.”

The life of Aslan changed irrevocably in 2013 when lead singer Christy was diagnosed with Amyloidosis, a rare form of cancer. Now on his third round of chemotherapy, the Finglas-born star continues to bravely battle the condition and keep the Aslan show on the road albeit not to the extent that earned them the reputation for being the hardest working band in Ireland. It would be hard to argue against them currently being the hardest working musicians in Ireland.

“Since Christy was diagnosed with cancer there might only be one gig a week. The days of us doing four or five shows a week are gone. Even the travel end of things is difficult. We were offered a gig in Las Vegas to coincide with the Conor McGregor fight in October but the doctors won’t give Christy permission to fly because the long haul altitude would interfere with Christy’s medication and increase his risk of stroke, but we can go to UK and short hops to Europe.

“So, all these things come in to play but think of the alternative. Christy could be gone. The fact that he’s gigging at all and sounding so well is nothing short of a miracle. I really mean that, because when I went up to see him in Beaumount in 2013 and he was wired up to all the machines, I didn’t think he was getting out of there.”
Christy’s diagnosis and the shuddering halt of the Aslan rollercoaster not only hit the band members hard emotionally, it also left them in a precarious position financially.

“When Christy got sick, everything stopped, all work stopped. Christy was in hospital and everything just came to a complete halt. Here I was thinking ‘this is the end of Aslan’. I always wondered what was going to stop us because we had been through so much together. We always had this determination that nothing was going to stop us, no matter what, wether we got dropped by a record label or whatever came at us, we would always find a way to keep going. But when I went up to see him in hospital, I said ‘this is the way Aslan finishes’.

“There was no money coming in, the mortgage had to be paid. I went down to the dole office and the girl said ‘howaya, you’re in Aslan’. I said: ‘I am, but I’m unemployed, our singer has cancer, we’ve no work’. She said: ‘You’re self employed so you’re not entitled to anything.’ I was raging I didn’t have my phone recording the conversation. She told me just to worry about putting food on the table for my two boys and don’t worry about the mortgage. Could you imagine me going to my bank and telling them that. ‘Here, the woman in social welfare told me not to worry about paying you?
“Rod and I were wondering what the hell we were going to do and he just said did I fancy picking up the guitars and going out and gig. And that’s what we did. I needed to pay bills.

Billy and Christy on a recent Late Late Show appearance

“We’re so fortunate, Christy’s on his third round of chemotherapy. We were worried when he told us he was going to have to undergo the chemo that his hair was going to fall out or affect his voice but the only thing it has really affected is his energy levels, his voice is as strong as ever. I wasn’t sure about us filling out two nights at the Iveagh Gardens - you’re talking 5,000 people each night - but we did it and it was unbelievable. It couldn’t have worked out any better. Christy sang like a lark, his vocals were incredible”.

Billy’s move to Bettystown with wife of 25 years, Adreena, will strike a chord with so many Dublin couples who were forced to look further afield in order to get a foot on or maintain a hold on the dreaded property ladder in the early noughties.
“I’m here 17 years and still very much the blow-in. I was living in Lusk for eight years prior to that. Adreena used to have to get the train to work every morning in Dublin at 8am. Then the population of Lusk started getting bigger and then she started having to get the train at 7am and the population got bigger again. She had to get the train at 6.30am and then some mornings she couldn’t even get on the train because it was arriving full. We looked out here 17 years ago and I just loved it. I love the village vibe but sure look, half the accents here are Dublin accents anyway,” he says with a laugh.

“We had our two boys and they just loved it out here. The schools were fantastic, Colasite na hInse is just down the road where Jake (19) and Liam (17) went, so it was because of them that we based ourselves here. And do you know what, I wouldn’t move back now. I’ve blended in here, the people are fantastic, there’s loads of work here, so its great for me.”
 The Iveagh Garden gigs were a particularly proud moment for the McGuinness household with son Jake playing guitar with The Valves acting as support and drawing a wonderful reception too.

“It was really great and The Valves are four local lads who came together in Colaiste na hInse right here in Bettystown. They are going to put the place on the map,” says Billy, a big smile spreading over his face. “Aiken promotions have just taken them on and they’ll play their first headline gig in the Workmen’s Club on 12th October which is also my birthday (his 58th). I can’t make it in because I’m gigging.”

'Just when you think things are going well you stop to think ‘what’s coming around the corner?'​​
Billy was photographed by Paul Jones / at the Village Hotel, Bettystown.

Given all they’ve been through over an incredible 35 years, it’s no surprise that Billy isn’t looking too far into the future.
“That has always been a theme that has always run through Aslan. Just when you think things are going well you stop to think ‘what’s coming around the corner?’"
He recalls 1988 as a case in point ‘When Feel No Shame’ was at No 1, the option for their second album had been picked up and they were about to embark on a US tour. Then, crash! At the height of their popularity the band sacked Christy (57), as his drug problems overpowered him. Billy believes lesser bands and lesser people would have caved completely at that setback.
“I think it made us. Most bands last now about four or five years and break up at the first obstacle they come up against. If they sign a record deal and then got dropped after a year they tend to forget why they got signed in the first place and that its just one person’s call in a record company that makes that decison, there’s no resilience.”

Billy and Christy out front at the Boyles of Slane gig in 2016

But to answer the question. As long Christy feesl up to it , there’s no stopping Aslan. Whatever lies around that corner will have to wait.
“We’ve a new single out ‘Know I Know’. I could see us getting back in doing some more recording, as long as Christy’s up for it. The gigs are all sold out, the support has never been as high as it is now, but look, it doesn’t matter if its 20 people or 20,000 if you’re playing a gig where you’re up close to the fans where you can see the whites of their eyes, then that’s all that matters. Long may it continue.”