I have spent the last 8 hours wracking my brain, trying to figure out how to tell you exactly how awesome KMRIA – Portland's Pogues tribute band – is. The band, which consists of some of the best musicians the Pacific Northwest has to offer, will kick off the Saint Patrick's Day weekend festivities tomorrow (Thursday, March 15) at the Olympic Club.
The Pogues are not your normal band, and this not your normal tribute band (after all, what tribute band can boast members of the Decemberists, the Eels, and Dr. Theopolis, among others?), and so I feel compelled to get the message out. And the message has gone through all sorts of fancy permutations in my head, borne of panicky questions: Do people know who the Pogues are anymore? Do people know what an amazing band they were? Do people understand the level of talent that's in KMRIA? Do people know what “KMRIA” stands for? Why am I talking to myself so much?
And then I decided: Screw it, let's just strip the whole thing down to its simplest elements, and then let one of KMRIA's members spell a few things out. So I compiled this short primer, and then rang Chris Funk (of the Decemberists, dontcha know), who plays banjo and other things in KMRIA, to get his perspective on the whole deal.
First, the essentials (Funk Q&A follows immediately):
Who the heck are the Pogues (if you know the answer to this, skip to the Chris Funk Q&A below)?
The Pogues are a band that began in 1982 in England. They have been through various lineups and such, but have reunited fairly intact today. They play what is most easily described as music that melds Irish folk and punk. A lot of bands do that today, but the Pogues were the first to do it and the best to do it. They are raucous, touching, harsh-edged, genuine, raggedy geniuses.
They are the perfect St. Patrick's Day band. Seriously, an army of Leprechauns dressed in four-leaf clover loincloths singing “Danny Boy” while dancing a Riverdance jig couldn't beat them.
Who the heck is Shane MacGowan?
Shane MacGowan is the legendary lead singer of the Pogues. He is an interesting man, sadly perhaps more well-known for his drinking prowess, bad teeth, and unintelligible singing than for his brilliant songwriting and various other sorts of genius. If you haven't listened to the Pogues, give him some time. He will grow on you. And then you will love him. You can read more about him here.
Who the heck is in KMRIA?
Ezra Holbrook (ex-Decemberists; Dr. Theopolis)
Jenny Conlee (Decemberists)
Chris Funk (Decemberists)
Casey Neill (Minus 5; Norway Rats)
Hanz Araki (quintessential world musician)
Jesse Emerson (pretty much every Portland band ever)
Scott McCaughey (Minus 5; Young Fresh Fellows)
Derek Brown (The Eels)
Four or five of them switch off singing duties. They pretty much only play on and around St. Patrick's Day.
What the heck does "KMRIA" stand for?
Kiss My Royal Irish Arse
*** And now on to the Chris Funk part of our show. ***
I chatted with Chris briefly and got his thoughts on the Pogues, and what KMRIA is all about. Here's what he said:
JONANNA WIDNER: How did y’all even get started with the idea for a Pogues tribute band?
CHRIS FUNK: It started with Ezra and Jenny Conlee, It was their bright idea [laughs], and Colin [Meloy, of the Decemberists] was originally going to do it too. At some point we were talking about how much we love the Pogues and about wanting to play their music and explore their music, because when you get into it, as punk as it is, it’s also very intricate and lyrically very profound. Some other [KMRIA] members have played tribute nights, so we've all found that when you play other artists' music you can get really get inside it.
And now it’s also fun excuse to annually get us all together. So it's kind of turned into a family reunion. Of drunks.
JW: Speaking of drinking, Shane MacGowan might be best known for his booziness, but he really is so much more than that. What are your thoughts on him as an artist?
CF: His lyrics are among the best out there. You could go into the James Joyces of the world and he could stand among people like that. It's a shame that what's arguably his alcoholism is part of the appeal, but that comes with punk's ethic, sadly. It’s a tragedy that that's a byproduct of music sometimes.
His lyrics are incredible – he had his vision for melding Irish and punk aesthetic before anyone else was doing it. All this was pre-Decemberists, pre-Arcade Fire, and nobody was doing it. Nobody was mining folk music in the late-’70s and ’80s, when it was all punk and new wave. The fact that he was doing that was a vision in itself. It speaks to what an artist he was.
JW: You mentioned that the Pogues' music is much more intricate than you’d think, considering their punk veneer. Could you go into that a little more?
CF: A lot of what we call the “tunes” – the fiddle, the tin whistle sounding things – are from a lot of traditional songs they stole (and they admitted all this) or that they borrowed from other traditional Irish songs. That stuff's not easy to play. Thankfully we have Hanz Araki in the band --he's an actual Irish music musician.
It's funny, [playing in KMRIA] smooths out my banjo playing. I really got my chops up. All their arrangements are very strange, and it's a lot to remember; the tunes can be incredibly complex, and if you're not a straight-ahead Irish musician it keeps you on your toes.
I feel bad for our singers [laughs]: The lyrics are dense, and “Waltzing Matilda” is like “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” It's complex through and through. Fortunately our audience is there for a party, and so they're very forgiving.
JW: What kind of crowd do you get at your shows?
CF: There’s some younger punk fans there that wanna mosh it up on Ireland’s big night, and a lot of older fans that saw the band way back in its heyday. Some Decemberists fans, some Casey Neill fans, Minus 5 fans, and some of our friends along the way.
JW: Has your following gotten bigger since you started a few years ago?
CF: It’s definitely grown. When we started we did the Doug Fir, which was about 300-400 people, in Portland. Now we're playing the Wonder Ballroom, which is about 700-800 people.
JW: What can folks expect, atmosphere-wise?
CF: If people wanna go there and get crazy, the music is definitely loud and rehearsed – more of a rock show than folk. And we play for 3 hours straight through.
JW: Whoa. Do you feel like you’ve played a football game by the time you're done?
CF: Yeah, it's exhausting, and we have three shows: Seattle, Portland and at the Olympic Club. We'll be wiped out after our Pogues mini-tour [laughs]. But we're gonna be on fire.
Here's KMRIA doing one of the Pogues’ best tunes, “Fairytale of New York.” Hopefully, you'll get to see them do it live on Thursday.