When I call Paul McKenzie, singer/songwriter/battle charge captain of Vancouver based band The Real McKenzies, he sounds at peace.
“You know what I’m doing right now?” he asks. “What?” “I’m out in the middle of the ocean.” “What? Really?” “Yeah” he says. “But my engine just gave out so I’m rowing in, and I only have about ten miles to go. I have to row now, or I’ll miss the tide. But that’s ok, that’s what we get for being sailors.” “Would you like to reschedule?” I ask. “Oh no. I’m rowing port to starboard with one hand and talking to you with the other. I’m fine.”
And that’s Paul McKenzie for you. Punk rocker, Scotsman, salty dog.
For over twenty years The Real McKenzies have been blasting their catchy form of celtic punk music for the masses. And as one of the founders of the second wave of celtic punk, they have amassed a large and loyal following around the world.
While Paul rowed in that last ten miles out in the middle of English Bay on the Pacific Ocean, I spoke with him about the history of celtic punk, the history of The Real McKenzies, including their new album Rats In The Burlap, and the state of political upheaval, both in Scotland, and here in North America.
First of all, I have to say, I love the song ‘Who’d A Thought?’ on the new record. It’s fast, hard, has some great rabble rousing lyrics. Where does the inspiration lie for that track?
Paul: Well, I’ve always loved the MC5. As a matter of fact, those were the guys that got me into my political awareness when it came down to the bullshit of the North American government. And I’d like to say that we as Canadians have got sovereignty, but we don’t. We’re living in the shadow of the giant down south. But everybody knows that. But what that song’s about is to awaken us enlightened individuals as to what exactly is going on, and who would’ve thought, etc. But it’s going to be exemplifying itself in the future. With all those FEMA camps and stuff in America? It’s really frightening. And you know who’s going to start doing that stuff over here?
Paul: The Harper government. I remember not too long ago, in our local newspaper, ‘ten things to look out for if there are terrorists in your neighbourhood.’ And guess what? I was guilty of ten of them. It’s really funny the way they’re able to take your average individual and successfully instill them with paranoia. But anyway, that’s what that song’s about. Not all the songs on the record are political though.
No and that’s what’s endearing about the band. On every record you’ve got songs about girls, life, government, funny stories and drinking and sailing.
Paul: We just write about our lives. And because we do a lot of touring, it gives us an opportunity to really experience rock n’ roll. So we try to exemplify it…oh, you know what’s happening to me right now?
Paul: I’m coming in on what’s called a ‘lee shore.’ You know what that is?
No I don’t.
Paul: It’s a shore that is windward. If I were in any other kind of boat, I’d probably be worried right now (laughs). But I’m not. Anyway I’m going to put the phone down for a minute when I hit the rocks.
Okay. (Silence) Did you make it?
Paul: I made it. Now I’m beached. Right on. I don’t have to worry about rowing until the end of the interview (laughs).
Do you go out on the ocean much?
Paul: As much as I possibly can. Whenever I’m not working. And why wouldn’t I? It’s expensive, but what else am I going to spend my money on. Beer?
Actually, I wanted to ask you about beer. Your love of good beer and good whiskey is well documented.
Paul: Don’t forget good wine
Yes. Good wine as well. What’s your favorite Vancouver area beer?
Paul: Well, I’m going to have to say the Bowen Island is the one that really gets me. Because it’s incredibly inexpensive. It’s something like $8 a six pack? At that price you can afford twelve. But I’m married now and I don’t really have time to drink whiskey anymore. I’ll have a dram every now and again of course, but gone are the days when I’d put back a bottle at a time. Unless it’s a party, then it’s no problem. But the other guys in the band say that I’m a better person when I’m not soused out on whiskey all the time (laughs).
That’s often the way it works. You know a lot of people don’t realize that you guys were actually one of the first bands in the celtic punk wave of the 90’s. The Mahones were doing their thing on the east coast, and The Pogues had come and gone, but you really helped spearhead this thing that’s quite a large subgenre now. Was there any sense at the time that you were doing so?
Paul: The Pogues, yeah. But they didn’t really offer a bagpipe, did they? Of course, they did offer the Irish political thing, the IRA stuff. And rightfully so. I don’t believe in their violence, but I believe in their plight. But no, all I was doing initially was trying to keep it alive. Because the kids were saying we don’t like this and we don’t like that. So really, it was taking the spirit of Robert Burns and saying ‘hey kids, guess what? Here’s something new.’
People seem to have responded.
Paul: Yeah, but I’ll never forget, one time we were playing the Scottish Cultural Centre. And this old guy comes up and says ‘you’re ruining our music.’ And I grabbed him by the collar and brought him in tight and said ‘come here. You see those kids over there? They’re pogoing to Robert Burns music. And when you’re dead and gone, they’re kids will still be pogoing to Robert Burns music. So it’s our music now. Get the f*ck out of here.’ Needless to say, we never played the Scottish Cultural Centre again (laughs).
But that’s ok. One thing that really pisses me off is the old school, Presbyterian Scots, you know? How many old school, Presbyterian Scots does it take to change a lightbulb?
Paul: Change?…And that’s the joke. I mean the changes that are going to be coming in the next ten or twenty years, if they’re still alive, are going to be kicking them in the ass. So it’s really important to remain resilient, and stick to your guns. And that’s what we’re doing. We were playing in Saskatoon with Reverend Horton Heat not long ago and this girl comes up and she says ‘aren’t you too old for this game?’ And my back was turned, I was working on the stage, and it was like a stab in the back. So I lifted up my kilt, and turned around and started pissing. Didn’t give a f*ck who it was. And she says ‘waa, what are you doing?’ And I said, ‘sorry, must be my age’ (laughs).
Well, I can’t say she didn’t deserve it.
Paul: I don’t take kindly to that kind of shit. I mean, granted, I’m pushing 54. And I’m burying all my pals. I wrote a song many years ago called ‘Dropping Like Flies.’ And it’s for them. It’s for all of them. But I’ve got some excellent genes. My granddad and his father lived to be about 115 years old. So at 54 I guess I’m just about reaching middle age.
Do you think touring helps or hurts that longevity?
Paul: If you don’t do it properly, it can kill you. But if you do it properly, it adds years and years onto your life. And I don’t spend my time in bars anymore. When I’m not on tour I’m on the ocean or with my family.
Are there any other songs on the album that exemplify your current mindset?
Paul: There’s a couple of songs on there actually that I feel really strongly about. As a matter of a fact, it took a little while for me to sell that mindset to the band. Because they’re always afraid of litigation and stuff and I’m saying “f*ck the litigation, let em sue us.” But there’s a song on their called ‘Yes’ that I feel really strongly about. It’s about the Scottish referendum. They totally duped it. Look at it on YouTube. There are yes votes put into the no votes and you can see it! It’s all over the place. So they took the George Bush ‘hire me again’ routine when it came down to that. Total cheaters, all of this new world order bullshit. Including the Harper government. And they think that we don’t stand a chance, but we do. All we have to do is take a stand. And it’s kind of disheartening the way people say ‘oh, don’t rock the boat, don’t rock the boat. Don’t sing a song about this and that..’ F*ck you! One of the things that my father left me with was ‘there’s always going to be an enemy. Know your enemy.’
Paul: No, neither would I. ‘Catch Me’ is about, well, me (laughs). I submitted a love song about my wife to the label and Fat Mike says ‘no love songs on Fat Wreck Chords!’ And I thought ‘goddamit! Now my wife is going to kill me.’ So the Bone wrote this as a replacement. A lot of people don’t know it, but when we’re on tour, I put a lot into it. I do a lot of the driving and what not, so after the show, I’m ready to sleep. And if I don’t have a place to sleep, I can sleep anywhere. I can sleep standing in the hall. So I’ve got this thing where watches don’t run on me. Me and my sister are the same way in this respect. Watches don’t work on us. It has something to do with an electric charge we generate. I can put a magnetic hotel key in my pocket for three hours, and it demagnetizes. So people will sometimes finding me standing, passed out upright in the hotel hallway, with a beer in my hand. So the song goes ‘catch me if I fall’ (laughs). So the Bone wrote that based on his own experiences with me personally over the years.
I’m sure he’s got lots of material to cull from.
Paul: Yeah. Hey, that’s rock n’ roll. There’s another one on there about a cat I had that passed away last year. The Robbie Burns day before last, I had a really nice party going and I opened up a nice bottle of Scotch and my friends and I were getting good and blot, and we go to eat the haggis and the cat had jumped up on the table and taken the haggis down onto the floor. And this was an eight pound haggis. And the cat wrestled it down to the floor and had half of it consumed by the time we noticed anything had happened. So we called the song ‘Bootsy the Haggis-Eating Cat.’
I loved Westwinds but it was a slower tempo’d record. This record is really quite fast and heavy. Was there any reason for that? Did the content dictate the musical shape?
Paul: We made up for Westwind’s pace on this one. There are a couple of laments though. Like ‘Dead or Alive’, which is about all the friends we’ve had that have passed. It’s crazy really. When I think about it, I’ve had, well, three that were famous, and seven that aren’t. And they all passed on this year. So it has it’s slower moments, but most of all it’s just a fast rock n’ roll album. And I like it.
You mentioned Fat Mike, I know he helped out on the album, playing guitar and whatnot. Are there any other guests on there?
Paul: Well, Little Joe (Raposo, from Lagwagon) was helping us out as well. He used to play in The Real McKenzies. It’s always a pleasure to spend time with him, he’s a really nice guy. The only Portuguese guy I know that can’t eat fish. He’s allergic to fish. Can you imagine being Portuguese and allergic to fish?
There has to be a good Joe Raposo fish story from one of your tours.
Paul: (Laugh) Yeah I’ll tell you a wee story. We were on the road in France and none of us were allowed to eat fish, because of how allergic to fish Joe is. Like even the smell will make his nose explode, it’s that toxic to him. So we stop at a gas station in the middle of France and I see this tunafish. And it’s on special. These little cans of tunafish for the equivalent of 25 cents each. So I bought four of them and I hid them. So McNasty and I go on to the roof of this place that we’re crashed out in. And I’ve got my little swiss army knife with the fork on it that I like to take everywhere. So I eat my two tins of tuna and throw them in the roof gutter so nobody can see them. But Matty McNasty eats his with his hands. So he goes down and opens up the door and leaves all this fish oil on the door. The next morning Little Joe gets up and grabs the door handle and then he wipes his eye. And all of sudden his eye is inflamed and his hand is inflamed and everyone was freaking out. So I wanted to get rid of the evidence. So I go up and grab the cans and I see it says ‘pour chat’ on it. Which means ‘for cats.’ So we ended up eating cat food and poisoning Little Joe. But it was really good cat food. French cat food is gourmet cat food, you know.
Wow. Well, tasty is tasty I guess.
Paul: You bet.
For a while there you had Alan McLeod playing the war pipes in the band.
Paul: Oh yeah. And everything having to do with Raven McLeod has to do with war.Canons, swords, whiskey. That’s what he’s all about. But he was a guy who would start something and then run away under the table and let us take care of it. He could start it but couldn’t finish it. And I have the scars to prove it. So I wish him all the best, but I don’t miss him. At all.
There have been a lot of ex members in The Real McKenzies.
Paul: Well, people have to run off and start families and get real jobs and stuff. We’re not a Top 40 band. We can’t pay a lot of money. So you’ve got to try and find a job in between. The economy’s not getting any better and the jobs get more scarce. Take me for example. I haven’t worked in a month and a half. And it gets difficult. But we don’t begrudge any of it.
It’s good that you’re sticking it out. I just wanted to talk about the cover for a minute. I know the image is meant to represent a whiskey label, but as a drawing. Who drew that?
Paul: It was drawn by a fan of ours in the Czech Republic. A really cool cat and accomplished artist. And she just one offered it and we loved it.
What does ‘Rats In The Burlap’ refer to?
Paul: Well, we were at a Celtic festival in California last year. And before we hit the stage the promoter said ‘you can see that there’s a lot of children around, so we want you to relax on the profanity.’ And I said ‘relax on the profanity? What do you think we are, a bunch of rats in the burlap?’ So it was just something that slipped off the tip of my tongue. But as it turns out, it was a wonderful show and really the first time I had a prepubescent mosh pit. There was no one in the mosh pit over ten (laughs).
And with that, Paul and I said goodbye and I left him to the turning tide. “I’ve only three more kilometres to row” he says, “but the tide has turned.” I apologize, but he says I’m not to blame. “If anyone’s to blame, it’s the moon. Goddamn you moon!” he yells. And he’s off.
Be sure to grab their latest album ‘Rats in Burlap and to catch The Real McKenzies on tour!