David Keenan talks The La's, waking dreams and fortunes of the future

"It’s been like walking through a waking dream," David Keenan says as he wipes his brow in that famous Rice Street establishment, Ye Cracke.

It was early afternoon on Friday, February 8 when Chris Parkes and I managed to sit down to talk to the Irishman about his return to Liverpool, the city, that he says, shaped him as an artist.

The night before, he had performed a gig at EBGBs an underground venue on Seel Street, for those who are not familiar.

Chris and I met him beforehand upstairs in Heebie Jeebies. It had been a long time since we had seen David. The last being in his new home of Dublin at Grogans, a quirky pub just like Ye Cracke with art adorning its wood-clad walls.

It was an evening to ghosts of the past. A celebration of what's to come.

Faces David has only dreamt of meeting again ever since leaving Liverpool's cobbled incestuous  streets.

People such as Lomax stalwart, Frank Hedges attended, someone we're very glad to see back in the fold.

It was an emotional journey for David, who made his return to the land he refers to as home.

"I have had dreams about a lot of the people who were there that night (EBGBs), in those six years, especially in the years after I left, vivid dreams.

"You see people, you hear their voices again because you forget what they sound like, their speaking voice, some have aged more than others, some have settled down and I've never had that before.

"Unless it’s my hometown where I grew up and people I went to school with but I have never had a place where I can distance myself for six years and observe the changes with me and changes with the people I know."

Originally from Dundalk, David travelled over on a ferry to Birkenhead with just a week's wages at 19.

With nowhere to stay, no friends, no foes, no job, David took a risk, one he is forever grateful for.

"This city sculpted me as a 19-year-old kid who had never been away from home before. Who left home to find a home.

"It all happened so sudden, I remember coming in to Birkenhead on the ferry and thinking 'where am I going to stay tonight?' It was only then when it hit me the nature of what I was doing.

"I was just a boy when I was here and I didn’t have a clue.

"My mind was just a sponge and I absorbed everything. I absorbed the whole experience.

"From sitting at people’s feet in practice rooms, staying out for days, going to gigs, busking, going hungry - it was the good stuff, it was all such an education for me as a songwriter.

"Busking broke down all the inhibitions that I had, I had to busk to eat and to pay for a hostel so there is no time for second guessing. That really helped that graft.

"It was here when it dawned on me that there is nothing else that I’m ever going to play myself to, this is the path. It is beautiful to be back."

We sit in Ye Cracke's War Room, the oldest part of the joint, the place which holds such history and memories for many movers and shakers in the city.

It was his first time in the public house famous as it was frequented by John Lennon and his girlfriend, at the time, Cynthia when they attended the Liverpool College of Art around the corner on Hope Street.

We chuckled at the paintings on the wall and admired the names etched into it's wooden facade.

Earlier that day, we ventured to the Dylan doorstep, near to where our ancestors lived and worked. David's work is a reflection of those times, that hardship so many faced and still do today. In some cruel twist of fate.

Later we lost ourselves around St James Cemetery, absorbing the history, talking about former MP of Liverpool William Huskisson - the first person to lose their life after being run over by a steam locomotive in 1830, the romanticism of death and the wonders of the foreboding cathedral that dominates Liverpool's skyline.

For David, this city called his name and he came running.

"I’ve only been in Dublin for two years so it's Liverpool and Dundalk and it was beautiful to come back as a man y'know because I was just a boy when I was here and I didn’t have a clue.

"It all came about in such a strange way, because I left school when I was 16 and I was living with my grandfather.

"I tried to do a year in college and it wasn’t for me y'know. Living with my granddad and then I was on the dole and they put me on a computer course and it’s funny because I had a job, working in a bar picking up glasses and I lost that job but I was paying off an electric guitar.

"It was an Epiphone, a hollow body electric guitar. I remember going into the guitar shop and saying 'listen man, I can’t pay this off.'

"I think I had maybe like £150 or something but it was like £400 to £500, I've lost my job and I can’t. And he said, 'well i’ve got something here which may be of interest to you.'

"It was a Danelectro guitar.

"I was just getting into The La’s and I remember seeing a video of (Lee) Mavers playing a Danelectro guitar a week before this happening at the guitar shop and the shopkeeper had just pulled this out from some pile of guitars so I knew it was a sign y’know.

"I began researching like a mad man, Mavers, Danelectro guitar y’know and I came across Diaries of a Rock’n’Dole Star by Chris Parkes. I was just entranced.

"I read and re-read all of the articles, I couldn’t believe it and I refreshed everything then I got onto The La’s forum.

"I was looking through all of that - getting no work done and getting told off for skiving.

"And then that was it, the course finished and I just had my week’s wages.

"With £70 in my arse pocket I came over.

"On the second night we went to see Barry Sutton playing on Smithdown Road.

"We found out he was playing there and it was like he’s one of the fucking La’s and I thought that’s it i’m never leaving. So a part of me has never left."

Will you come back? "Yeah I will come back,"

To live?

"Yeah, maybe, who knows what tomorrow knows. My heart's open."

After reminiscing we look forward, to the future of David Keenan. His work is very much a slow process of collecting from his memories, "In April I’ll be recording my first record which will come out in September.

"It has all led up to that. From the kid in the hostel on Everton Road to me now at 25 and it really has taken that long, nothing was rushed.

"There were times when I flew too close to the sun and a fell but now I am present, the songs are there, the band is there, the vision is there in terms of my art and what I what I want to tell.

"In terms of a gig, I have a vision there to cultivate this thing, it’s not just a gig, people feel like they’ve taken part in something.

"It’s taken me to grow as a person, to self-educate and get to that place where I feel okay, let’s make an album."

The album will follow on from his most recent work, Evidence of Living, of which a video to the leading track - produced by Gavin Glass, filmed and directed By Rob Benson - was released earlier this week featuring his grandfather.

It lands just as he embarks across the Atlantic for a set of live dates in Canada and America.

"I have never been to Canada before, I went to the east coast of America last year, I went to Chicago.

"You hear a lot about the Canadians, I’m looking forward to walk around Montreal - If i can, the snow is meant to be baltic there but just to walk the streets were Leonard Cohen lived, I have a real romanticised vision of Montreal.

"I love New York, there is a muse on every corner.

"The people who turn up have an understanding and it's cultivated in the venue - they aren’t there just to catch one song.

"They are there to catch the stories, the in-between parts. They are there to interact. They are down, they are up you know, they ccme with me every step of the way.

"I had never been to America before January of last year.

"Y'know the pre-conceived visions you have of a place naturally, immortalising all you see as a child, the 'American dream', the consumerist nature of it all.

"But I found it to be very interesting.

"New York is quite a sad place as well and Times Square was quite sickening but i’m looking forward to getting back, it’s an interesting place to be.

"It's lovely to be going as I have a network of people there now - friends. When you’re in a place at first, you feel like the loneliest boy in the world but I have a few bases and families that I can go to and that’s what it feels like. It’s great to tap into that."

Wherever he goes, David finds a family. A group of people he calls his own. There is something very special to be had being apart of it.

"I am just back from Portugal, a place called Chaves, it was amazing you know the similarities they have with the Irish in terms of traditional music, community and the welcome.

"I played a couple of secondary schools but that was by choice and some people don’t want to partake in those happenings but for me, the gig is just the crooks or focal point and you interact with the people around you.

"As an artist I have to be observant and soak it all up. If I just went to the venue and went off, I’m not into that.

"I want to really feel the place.

"I’m only going to be here the once in this form so I want to absorb it all the best I can while i’m about.

"I’ve been very lucky that I can’t remember thinking that I couldn’t wait to get out of there, maybe some heads at my gigs but certainly not me.

"I’m just enjoying the adventure."

You may be mistaken in thinking David has a wild bohemian lifestyle, he is formulaic and keeps time for himself to find new experiences, "It's a strange one, I formulate things in my head, write them down, maybe tac them to the wall and then it’s parallel thing really because I set out what I want and and it allows me to roam free in the day.

"If I had no structure, I’d be falling out of bars and nothing would be done.

"So I need to kind of put a plan in place then I can spend a couple of hours somewhere.

"Rushing is a sin. There’s nothing worse than racing to catch a train.

"But everything is important, I have an idea for everything in terms of an aesthetic for the gig and how I want people to feel and see it when they’re there.

"I don’t just fall in there.

"People in the band understand I have a vision and the way I want to put myself across.

"I live in the day with my heart open and if somebody walks through the door and they’re meant to walk through the door then it’s a beautiful thing."

His recent UK dates were solo-acoustic, but David does regularly perform with a band of maybe eight to nine members.

A recent performance aired on RTE's The Late Late Show hosted by Ryan Tubridy showed the versatility in David as an artist.

"It’s a beautiful to have a wall behind you.

"There was a moment when I was on a tour in December and I was on stage and I’d open my eyes and look around and i’d see all my best friends with their eyes closed just on another plane.

"They’re in that place and it's a beautiful thing. The band consists of my generation of Irish artists that are all coming from the same place and then the electric band The Unholy Ghosts are the last generation really and it’s a beautiful balance.

"For me to front that has been an education for me because you’re dealing with eight or nine people so trying to curate that has been a great challenge and I love that really.

"But to be on my own, it’s been great to be on my own, travelling by train on this state of contentment looking out the window, being able to write and have head-space.

"Especially before I go to Canada and America. I don’t use a set-list and if I want to speed up in a song, take it down, stop, I can do that but trying to do that with a band on stage when there has to be some sort of structure there, can be quite inhibiting for me at times it allows me to put the guitar down and channel it in a different way.

"When I’m on my own, there is no rules at all and I can bend and elasticate the song, I can change the lyrics, I can do whatever I want.

"Whereas if I do that on stage, i’m likely to throw somebody off. It’s like that with James Brown, if you watch James Brown (clicking) he was docking them £10 every time he made a mistake y’know!

"But I love it and it’s been great to get these days to say okay and breathe."

Stepping on to that stage at EBGBs, there was a moment. David took a breath and took one look around the room before closing his eyes and channelling his art, he says musicians and boxers are one of the same.

"On stage the song can be the bus pass to get to that ultimate flow so I just want to get performing.

"A friend of mine recently made a comparison between musicians and boxers they’re just liable to be really taken advantage of because they don’t care about the numerical side of things.

"They just want to get into the ring, you need that fight, whatever you have to prove.

"For me, that kind of symbolises getting into that place between songs, that stream of consciousness, the song is your ticket to get to that place.

"Time is nothing when you’re there.

"So it’s usually calling all the bards in, saying a couple of words to set the tone and getting out and flowing.

"Like Joyce said, shut your eyes and see."

David will once again return to Liverpool for Feis 2019 on July 6. 

For more information visit www.facebook.com/davidkeenansounds or www.davidkeenan.ie

Words: Lauren Jones 
Pictures: Chris Parkes


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