The Playhouse Theatre in Artillery Street was packed out last Wednesday when Derry singer/songwriter Declan McLaughlin walked on stage with his long-time friend and fellow ex-member of ‘The Whole Tribe Sings’ Dougal McPartland.
“We’re more used to playing in places like Mailey’s and the Castle than supporting Damien Dempsey at the Playhouse,” joked Declan.
Declan went on to treat the crowd to a handful of his own songs all about Derry but the meaning of his songs is also universal in the sense that you don’t have to hail from the Bogside, Creggan or the Brandywell to know what Declan is talking about.
“I just write from the heart and try to tell stories through my songs,” he said.
Declan was born in February 1969 and grew up in Newbuildings with his sister Tina and brother Johnny. His father Hugh was a musician and his mother Christina (nee Harkin) was a hairdresser.
“I lived in Newbuildings until I was 17 years-old. We, along with many other Catholic families, were intimidated out of the estate but my childhood was just a typical housing estate working-class childhood really.
“My father was a musician so when I was younger I would always have been climbing over gear to get into the house and going to band rehearsal with him. My father played bass so it’s no surprise that I ended up playing music too,” smiled Declan.
“The band my father was in would have played a lot of the music that was in the charts at the time. I can remember to this day sitting at home on a Sunday night with a cassette recorder and I would have to tape the top 20 for him and edit out all of the talking in between.”
Declan started school at Rossnagalliagh P.S. before it closed and he then went to St. Columba’s P.S. in Newbuildings before finishing off his education at St. Brecan’s High School in the Waterside.
“I didn’t really like school if I’m honest,” admitted Declan.
“School just wasn’t a place for me. I was at St. Brecan’s during the hunger strikes in the early eighties so you can imagine how tough it was.
“I knew a few boys who were killed at that time and my friend Paul Witters was killed when he was struck by a plastic bullet.”
Declan left school. His family moved to Derry.
“My parents moved to a house in the Foyle Road but I set-up camp in Lisfannon Park in the Bogside and that’s where I spent most of my time.
“I was glad to get out of Newbuildings. A lot of families at that time were intimidated out and it had a massive impact on my mother. My mother was from the country near Ardmore while my father was from Creggan. She didn’t know what to expect when she moved in to the town.”
Soon after moving to Derry, Declan went in search of employment in London where he worked for a brief time as a labourer on building sites. It was in London that he first became aware of the International Voluntary Service (I.V.S.).
“The I.V.S. really opened my eyes to the world. I visited places in England, Sri Lanka and Germany. When I started to get involved with politics I also visited places like South Africa and Libya for political conferences,” he said.
Declan was heavily involved in the setting up of the Nerve Centre in 1980s. The project first started to gather momentum in Bogside community centre, Dove House.
“I’m really proud of my involvement in the setting up of the Nerve Centre all those years ago because it’s such an important part of our culture now.”
He continued: “When I was younger I would have listened to a lot of heavy rock and punk but when I was 18 or 19 I saw Christy Moore perform on stage and things changed for me big time.”
The first band Declan was in was called ‘The Tain’ after the Irish epic ‘Táin Bó Cúailnge’, which means ‘the Cattle Raid of Cooley’. ‘The Tain’ performed predominantly Irish folk music.
“I was through ‘The Tain’ that I started to write my own music. I was never any good at performing other people’s music. From that, I went on to perform on my on my own for a while before I helped to set-up my next band ‘The Screaming Bin Lids’.
“‘The Screaming Bin Lids’ did fairly well - we toured all over Germany - but then after a few years we knew that if were to develop the band even further we would have to become a little more mainstream so we became ‘The Whole Tribe Sings’.”
Declan explained the story of how ‘The Whole Tribe Sings’ came to be offered the chance to tour America when a merchant seaman from North Carolina walked into an Irish bar in New York and heard one of their records playing over the speakers.
“It was a guy called Clinton McKay Cox who walked into this Irish bar in New York called Rocky Sullivan’s. Clinton McKay Cox was from North Carolina, he was a merchant sailor but he also ran a small record company called Brass Booty Records.
“There was a fella working behind the bar called Liam Nelis, and Liam was playing one of ‘The Screaming Bin Lids’ cds on the jukebox.
“McKay Cox asked Liam who the band was and Liam told him that ‘The Screaming Bin Lids’ were a band from Derry in Ireland. Liam told him that we were playing in Derry the following Saturday night and you’ll not believe what happened next.
“McKay Cox got on a plane and flew to Ireland. He walked into Sandino’s and by pure chance that’s where we were playing. He told one of the staff that he was looking for ‘The Screaming Bin Lids’ and he sat and watched our gig.
“Clinton spent a few days in Derry and we looked after him when he was here. We took to him Donegal and places like that but we couldn’t believe that a man with a record label had flown all the way from America to meet us.
“On the Sunday night, we took him to Sandino’s for a pint and he produced two big wads of cash. There was seven thousand pounds in English money and about one thousand five hundred in U.S. dollars.
“He told us to book ourselves into the studio and record a few songs and take it from there. He went back to America to get on a boat to go back to sea again.
“We were sat in Sandino’s with all of this money, not knowing what to do,” he laughed.
Declan and the rest of the band never signed a contract with Clinton McKay Cox. The American set up a tour of the US for the band and told them that all he wanted them to do was make the money back he’d given them.
In between times, ‘The Screaming Bin Lids’ became ‘The Whole Tribe Sings’ when Belfast trumpeter Tomas MacSeain joined the band.
Declan and the others left Derry and moved to America where they found a house in Hartford Connecticut on the Internet and proceeded to tour up and down the east coast and parts of the west coast for best part of three years.
“They were brilliant times. Guinness had heard one of our songs - it was called ‘Happy’ - and they decided that they wanted to use the song to promote Harp in America. It was mad because we’d be driving along to a gig and the next thing we’d hear on the radio is ‘Harp are pleased to introduce The Whole Tribe Sings, drink responsibly.’
“We played up and down the I95. We played as far north as Manchester in Maine and Jacksonville in Florida. We played in every place, university and Irish festival you could imagine along the I95 - it was an amazing time.
“We had a record company called Bally Entertainment behind us, we played the 9:30 Club and the Kennedy Centre in Washington. We played alongside ‘The Cowboy Junkies’ but then September 11 happened. Before September 11 the record company wanted to release ‘Happy’ in the States and they said they thought it was going to be a massive hit but because of the way the country was after the attack they pulled the plug. Things started to get stale after that and we all went back home. We were contracted to do one more tour so we came back to Derry, licked our wounds and went back out for the final tour.
“Tomas is still out there. He met a girl, got married and has three children. He lives in Hartford - the place where it all began for us in America.”
It took Declan several years to find the music bug again and when he first returned to Derry he got a job working in a call centre before he went to work at city centre hostel.
“I bought some recording equipment with the money I’d made in America. I started recording in the house and from that, myself and Dougal McPartland who was in ‘The Screaming Bin Lids’ and ‘The Whole Tribe Sings’ started to perform as a two-piece in bars all over Derry. I like to think of my musical style as Brandywell Delta Blues,” he laughed.
Although ‘The Whole Tribe Sings’ is in the past, Declan stills goes to America once or twice a year to perform gigs in places like Boston and New York.
Two years ago, Declan recorded his first solo album called ‘No Big Deal’ and hopes to make it available to download from his website in the near future.
More recently, he recorded an E.P. There are five songs on the record and only 300 copies were made.
“Every single copy of the E.P. has been sold,” he said happily. “But if anyone wants to have a listen or download they can go to my website and get it from there.”
When asked for his thoughts on Derry’s up-and-coming year as UK City of Culture in 2013, Declan said that he found it difficult to weigh in behind it.
“I think because of my beliefs and opinions and because of the kind of music I do I would be a hypocrite if I was to get involved. But there’s a lot of talented people involved and I don’t see anything wrong with celebrating cultural identity but it’s not for me to use someone else’s flag.”
For further information on Declan McLaughlin visit http://declanmclaughlin.bandcamp.com/ or on Twitter: @decmclaughlin or on Facebook: declanmclaughlinmusic