Brighton-based singer/songwriter Nick Burbridge and his musical vehicle named McDermott's 2 Hours slip easily from Celtic folk to folk rock. His songwriting is "a dark bugger but these things seem in need of saying," says Nick. "It's to articulate a genuine sense of disorder that permeates life at the margins."
How and when McDermott's 2 Hours came into existence?
Nick: I began playing Irish-influenced folk music more than thirty years ago, in pubs, sessions and folk clubs, as a singer, guitarist, mandolin and bodhran player. After a stint in Germany with a punk-folk band called Bluebell's Anus, gigging with the likes of the Fureys [-> FW#9] and Dougie MacLean, I teamed up with the O'Leary brothers, Tim (multi-instrumentalist) and Christy (ex-piper with The Boys of the Lough -> FW#23, FW#26) for a small scale recording. Tim and I went on to form McDermott's Two Hours, a folk-rock band named by The Levellers as their major influence. My music has mainly revolved round the band ever since, though I've played solo and in various others guises.
McDermotts came into existence, initially as The Bliffs, then The Crack, before settling on a long-term line-up in 1986. The impulse originated with a young lad who came into a pub session once and asked us to help him form an outfit like The Pogues [-> FW#22]. The trouble was, he was tone-deaf and had no sense of time! So I ended up as the singer. The style and sound developed from a genuine familiarity with, and respect for, the Irish idiom, and an excitement with the potential of using bass and drums to complement and enhance traditional-type songs and instrumentation. Their content evolved naturally as soon as I started writing from my other work: probing matters of conscience and sources of protest. As it happens, I'm an Irish citizen - both grandfathers were born and bred Irishmen - and my first long-term partner, mother of two of my kids, comes from an old Belfast family, the McCartans, full of musicians and dancers. But I'll admit, as with many folk musicians, at times playing Irish music might have been a flag of convenience. However, my background authenticates what I do, and, in songs like "Harry Brewer", gives me sources within my own family for material.
Between "The Enemy Within" (1989) and "World Turned Upside Down" (2000) there seemed to be silence. What did happen?
I backed out of the limelight just as we'd made "The Enemy Within" on vinyl, played some big festivals, been taken up by the Mean Fiddler organisation, and I'd got a publishing deal with Joe Boyd! Why? Some of the usual reasons - rigours of even limited touring, inter-band hassles, and so on - but mainly through my own temperament. I needed the space to write. I always do. I got into fringe theatre in a big way, BBC radio plays and stories, wrote a political thriller about Ireland, and a much more serious documentary book, with a former military intelligence officer there ("War Without Honour") about British dirty tricks in the North, which was launched at the House Of Commons. I needed to write poetry as well, and had a volume published. After my first relationship split I also had a lot of parenting to do alone, and I was trying to help my brother, who had a mental age of eighteen months, and was effectively allowed to die through negligence on the part of private health people taking over the duties of the state. In the end I had a major breakdown, which still has after-effects, even now. I've never been entirely stable, shall we say....
Your return on the scene was a collaboration with bass player Jeremy Cunningham and drummer Charlie Heather of the (folk)rock band The Levellers [-> FW#18, FW#19, FW#25, FW#26]. How come?
I've known Jeremy for twenty years. All the Levs used to bounce around at the front of our gigs. He said that, while Hag which used to be their label, had put out "The Enemy Within" on CD in the mid-nineties, he'd lost all the demo's he owned from our early days, and asked me if I wanted to go into their studio and put down some tracks with them, mainly for his benefit. It turned out a lot of other people wanted to hear them as well, so the first album, "World Turned Upside Down", was released commercially, and it all went on from there.
Did both contribute anything apart from the backing? One could imagine a promotional gag only.
Jeremy did a great deal of work, pulling things together, sorting out studio time, liaising with people, producing, playing bass, artwork. Charlie played a bigger role on the first album than the others. Though he's a mate too, we used to bump into each other with the kids in the local park sandpit. But, yes, there was a promotional element to it. Only without them, their studio, their network, their loyalty and respect, and the loyalty and respect of their huge fanbase, I wouldn't be back on the music scene in this kind of way at all.
The 3rd McDermott vs Levellers album "Disorder" came out this summer [see review in this FW issue]. Do you think there is any difference compared to the 1980s?
Lyrically, there's less cliche, perhaps - I don't know - I work harder writing the songs, that's for sure. "Claws And Wings" was, I hope, a good link between the two McDermotts vs Levellers records. It's very much an acoustic album, but, I feel, still bears some of the vaguely uncomfortable bridges between song and tune McDermotts sometimes suffered from, as if we hadn't quite managed to make contemporary songwriting mould with traditional tune-making. On "Disorder", Ben Paley has replaced Tim O'Leary on fiddle, and as a consequence I've also written the tunes that work round the songs, so I hope there are more through-lines, where lyric and tune follow one another, and the album has therefore more coherence. "Disorder" seems to stand or fall on its own merits - it doesn't feel derivative, or compromising, at all. That may not make it as popular. We'll have to see. One thing is sure, it's a dark bugger - they all are - but these things seem, to me, in need of saying.
Ironically, having said that, McDermotts reformed as a live band at a gig in Brighton in July, with full bass and drums, and as a live act, call to mind the old band much more than the new album! Judging by the responses on the alternative message board on the Levellers' website - if I can say so - we just took the Beautiful Days festival by storm! The repertoire is a mix of old and new, from "Darkness And Sail" to "Song Of A Quaker's Wife", rockers to prayers! Who knows where we'll end up? (Or not). The thing is, if the songs are meant to do anything, it's to articulate a genuine sense of disorder - political and personal - that permeates life at the margins. I don't choose to dwell there, but that's where I find myself. It often doesn't give you much room for manoeuvre. So let me tell you I can't express my gratitude that I'm still here, reaching people, and being reached back, through this music. It's a privilege.
McDermott's 2 Hours Discography:
The Enemy Within (1989)
World Turned Upside Down (2000)
Claws and Wings (2003)
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