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Too Close To Heaven: The Unreleased Fisherman's Blues Sessions(2001)

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John Dunford was involved with The Waterboys as live sound man and sometimes studio co-producer throughout the sessions that produced Fisherman's Blues and Too Close To Heaven. For his unique perspective of this period of Waterboys history I recently asked him about it.

DAVID BILLSON - John, many fans will recognise your name from the Fisherman's Blues album, the second side of which you co-produced with Mike. What did you do before you worked with The Waterboys ?

JOHN DUNFORD - I worked as a sound engineer for Irish groups such as Planxty, Clannad, Moving Hearts, and De Dannan. I also had some experience in studio production with some of them.

DB - How did you get involved with the Waterboys ?

JD - I'd been working with a band called In Tua Nua of which Steve Wickham was a member. The Waterboys' live engineer had just left and they needed someone to engineer the next show, which was Rock-am-ring in Nuremburg, Germany (Summer 1986).

DB - What role did you play in The Waterboys, and over what period of time ?

JD - I worked from '86 to '90 in various roles: live engineer, production management, location scout, studio coordination, co-producer and friend.

DB - What was going on with the band at the time you began working with them ?

JD - There was some turmoil. The band had just finished with its (American) management. Mike had re-located to Ireland and was undergoing musical changes as well as rediscovering his Celtic roots.

DB - You were present at most of the Windmill Lane recording sessions. What were they like ?

JD - The sessions were incredible, ranging from the hilarious to the very intense. I heard some of the greatest music of my life at those sessions.

DB - Do any of the sessions in particular stand out in your mind? Any particular song ?

JD - Several stand out. Mike was continually introducing new songs and re-working older ones, very few of which appeared on Fisherman's Blues. So when I heard Too Close to Heaven for the first time I knew most of the words to the songs and instantly could recall several sessions. Custer's Blues takes some beating in my mind.

DB - The sessions in 1986 were interspersed with live dates. How was it touring with the band ?

JD - Touring with the band was always great. Never a dull moment. One minute we would be playing to the Glastonbury Festival audience and next in a small community centre in the Aran Islands.

DB - Mike has described you as his "west of Ireland guide". Can you expand on that ?

JD - One of my commissions from Mike was to scout the West of Ireland for a house for Mike to hole up so he could soak up the rural environment and write. He wanted a bolt hole away from Dublin and London, the recording studio and the whole business. I introduced him to a lot of traditional music and musicians and helped him to find the cottage he needed. I think we spent about four weeks at this task during which time we had great fun and became friends and allies rather than employer and employee.

DB - You were with Mike the first time he went out to Spiddal. That seems to have been a key moment for him. What was his reaction to seeing the place for the first time ? What was it like from you perspective?

JD - I think something in Spiddal re-awakened Mike's Scottish spirit. Physically it is more like parts of Scotland than most of Ireland. It is a very rugged landscape and offers spectacular views of the Aran Islands, the last landfall of Europe before America.

DB - So how would you describe Spiddal to someone who has never been?

JD - The Wild West. Spiddal is the gateway to Connemara - an Irish Speaking area of Co. Galway and has what you might describe as a cosmopolitan population : fishermen, writers, farmers, musicians, poets and artists both local and foreign all co - exist together. There's no bullshit there. Everybody is accepted for what they are, not who they are.

DB - Tell us about some of the music filled nights at the infamous Hughes Bar in Spiddal.

JD - What can I say ? Brilliant. Some nights it would be quiet and then for no earthly reason a spontaneous session would combust, generally when people like Alec Finn, Charlie Lennon, Mairtin O'Connor etc were in evidence.

DB - After a time Steve, Anto and Trevor came out to stay with Mike in Spiddal. What was the atmosphere of Spiddal House like with the whole band playing under one roof ? And how different was it recording in a house compared to a studio?

JD - Brilliant. The whole experience was so refreshing physically and spiritually. Gone was the dark usual studio environment - here sunlight came through the windows and we recorded outdoors, played football, swam etc

DB - What else was special about Spiddal House that set it apart from the other places you looked at to use for the recording of Fisherman's Blues ?

JD - Location-wise Spiddal House overlooked the Atlantic Ocean and the point of Black Head across Galway Bay on the coast of Co. Clare. It had its own grounds and was big enough to have space to rehearse, record and feed everybody. Also, and most importantly, it was the village where Mike had stayed for a couple of months and had got to know the locals.

DB - Can you tell us about Alec Finn, Charlie Lennon, Mairtin O'Connor, Tomas McKeown and others who guested with The Waterboys at Spiddal House?

JD - Fantastic musicians, singers and also great people. Certainly in the case of Tomas McKeown it was the ideal place for him to record sitting by the turf fire in the dining room drinking a pint of Guinness.

DB - Tell us more about those magical recording sessions that took place in Spiddal House. Are there any specific memories that come to mind ?

JD - Recording the Woodland Band - the "faery band" in the middle of The Stolen Child. We had gotten a terrific live recording onto a NAGRA 2 track machine in Mike's house of This Land is Your Land (on the end of the Fisherman's Blues album). It had a very authentic, old fashioned sound and we wanted to achieve this effect with the Woodland Band. The Woodland Band were Padraig Stevens (bodhran) Colin Blakey (bombard) Trevor Hutchinson (bouzouki) and Mike (bodhran). We recorded them on the roof of a wing of Spiddal House for the open-air effect but because the bombard was louder than all the other instruments Colin had to be put as far away as possible so he ended up half way up a nearby tree, thereafter called "studio tree" ("three").

DB - Why is the song on 'Fisherman's Blues' called 'Dunford's Fancy' ? Does that have anything to do with you ?

JD - It's called after my brother, Steven.

DB - How did you convince four sets of waltzers at Hughes Bar to come back to Spiddal House with you for the recording of Jimmy Hickey's Waltz ?

JD - Very easy. We asked and they said yes. In fact we press ganged one guy who just called to Spiddal House to say hello - Trevor Sargent (now an Irish Green Party politician) knocked at the door and we soon whisked him away to the dance floor.

DB - So what do you think of the 'Fisherman's Blues' and 'Too Close to Heaven' albums ?

JD - It took me a long time to listen to Fisherman's Blues - probably two years later because I was so close to it for so long, but I loved it and was genuinely moved by hearing Too Close to Heaven.

DB - How would you describe life with the band during this period ? Was it all a very wild time ?

JD - It was a healthy balance of a wild time and hard work. A good combination in my mind. Nothing was broken, nothing was stolen and nobody was hurt.

DB - How did Sharon Shannon join the band?

JD - I brought Mike along to see Sharon play at the Purty Loft in Dun Laoghaire. After seeing and hearing Sharon Mike said "JD, how do we get Sharon in the band ?" to which I replied "Lets ask her".

DB - At the completion of the recording sessions for Fisherman's Blues there was big party for the bands last night in Spiddal. How much do you remember from that night ?

JD - Because we were still trying to record a version of Saints and Angels I was at a remove from the party.

DB - When the recording was all over and time came to go your separate ways was it difficult ? Were you sad that the time was over ?

JD - After the Spiddal sessions I went fishing to Co. Kerry for a week and then we resumed in Rockfield studios, Wales until September.

DB - Can you share a few personal memories that capture the essence of that time for you?

JD - A trip to Inismor on the Aran Islands eating fresh lobster and drinking Poitín in Nannie Quinn's house and sailing back to Galway in a hooker the following morning in a force 6 gale.

DB - How did your time with The Waterboys come to an end?

JD - When I left we had just begun to tour the Room To Roam album (1990). Steve, Sharon, Colin and Noel had all gone and the band was moving more into a rock phase. Even though Mike wanted me to stay I felt that I had made my contribution and without the traditional or acoustic part of the sound my time was finished. We parted on good terms and still stay in touch. Mike guested on Sharon's debut album and we are in constant telephone and e-mail communication.

DB - What do you do these days ?

JD - I manage Sharon Shannon, have music publishing interests and a small record label (Hummingbird Records).