From Bob Dylan to Kylie Minogue, Aslan’s Christy Dignam tells Ellie O’Byrne about the eclectic mix of music that shaped him over the years.
It's been 25 years since Finglas rockers Aslan released their chart-topping Goodbye Charlie Moonhead album.
Back on the road again to celebrate this milestone, it’s hardly surprising that frontman Christy Dignam is in the mood for looking back on his life in music. It’s been a life punctuated with battles that the singer has always fought in public view: first, his struggle to overcome heroin addiction, and in recent years, chronic ill-health.
The 59-year-old was diagnosed with amyloidosis in 2013. Bouts of chemotherapy can only keep the chronic condition at bay. But despite his ill health, Dignam is delighted to be back out gigging; “I can’t jump around quite as much as I used to,” he says with a shrug. His own life in music aside, he says he’s eternally grateful to the other musicians whose work has inspired him down through the years.
FIRST ALBUM BOUGHT
“Self Portrait by Bob Dylan, at 14. The next album I bought after that was Ziggy Stardust. I always wanted to be a singer-songwriter as a kid, but up until then, all I’d heard were pop songs on the radio.
The songs were laden with social commentary, and he wrote about things that other people wouldn’t have written about. It was a huge eye-opener for me. Bowie was the polar opposite. When I think of back then, the diet of music we had, the variety we had to listen to, I don’t think we really have that anymore.”
BEST NEW DISCOVERY
“Fontaines DC. Our guitar tech from the band played them for me, and I thought they were great. I haven’t seen them live yet, but everyone says they’re amazing. The fact that Fontaines are something different, something fresh, warms my heart. Prog rock was big when I was a kid but then punk came along and changed everything; you didn’t have to be a virtuoso on your instrument to go out there, you just had to have something to say. I was big into that ethos and I think Fontaines DC have that. Music needs to be stirred up, because for too long it’s been too contrived and homogenised.”
LAST LIVE GIG
“I went to see The Rolling Stones last summer and it was amazing. They’re still incredible. How old is Jagger, 75 or something? And he could still teach a lot of young bands out there how to do it. One of the best things I ever saw was Tom Waits in the Olympia for Frank’s Wild Years. That was a few years ago, though.
"It was amazing. I went to see Peter Gabriel once and at the end of the gig he came back on with a suitcase and opened it on the stage. Then he introduced the band and as each band member was introduced, they walked up and stepped into the suitcase and disappeared; there must have been a trap door underneath. When he did it with the whole band, he shut the suitcase and walked off the stage alone. It was brilliant. I like anything that shocks me; If it doesn’t, what’s the point?”
MUSIC FOR THE DARKEST DAYS
“You know the way when you wake up from a nightmare you say, ‘Thanks be to God, finally I’m awake,’ and then everything is ok?
"When you’re a heroin addict, it’s the opposite. You’re grand when you’re asleep and dreaming, and then you wake up with the sickness, it’s often the withdrawal symptoms that wake you.
“When I was coming off the gear, I knew the first moment of every day was going to be bad. I used to have a record player right next to the bed and as soon as I opened my eyes, I would put on Peter Gabriel’s ‘Don’t Give Up’. Every single morning. It was one of the things that got me through the withdrawal.”
“I love Verdi and Puccini. I love Opera. Opera voices are Formula One voices but you only ever use your Ford Escort voice in the field I work in. Singing in a band every night, having trained still saves me after all these years. When I grew up, my da used to make the dinner on a Sunday and he was a big fan of Caruso and John McCormick.
"I think a lot of singers now don’t do that. But the voice is an instrument; people think anyone can sing, but I wanted to be the best singer I could be. I was pursuing excellence. I never even got close, but it’s still worth trying.”
“I do have cheesy tastes. Kylie Minogue is shit; she sounds like a mouse when she sings, but millions of people are getting something out of it, so I’d listen to go, ‘What’s in there? What are people getting out of this?’ Years ago, I would have looked at Westlife and gone, ‘What a load of bollocks’. Now they’ve gotten back together and I’m like, fair play to them. You have to hand it to them.
“Take That are amazing songwriters. There’s texture and orchestration in what they do. Of the boy bands, Take That are in a league of their own because they wrote their own songs and they’re very good. You get a song that’s a worldwide hit and you go, ‘we’re going to get five lads who can sing a bit, and a great producer.’ How can you go wrong? It’s very contrived, but it’s successful.
“I’m not into snobbery and elitism in music. Once I went to see Rigoletto in the Opera House in Dublin.
"I went in to the opera and it was shit and all these people were going on about how great it was, and I just thought, ‘There you go; that’s elitism at it’s worst’. They were all proclaiming it as amazing, but it was actually badly done, and I knew more about it than any of them. That’s all just bullshit. And being anti-Westlife is bullshit too. It’s all music. It’s injecting a bit of pleasure into people’s lives, and that can’t be a bad thing. In this f***ing world we live in.”
Aslan and Damien Dempsey play Live At The Marquee, Cork, on June 8