Guitarist and veteran of the road Leo Moran talks about his love for the United States, how Saw Doctors albums are made and what it was like to record with England’s musical treasure Petula Clark.
Hardly a year goes by when The Saw Doctors – Moran along with Davy Carlton (vocals, guitar), Anthony Thistlethwaite: (bass/saxophone), Kevin Duffy (keyboards/vocals, Rickie O’Neill (drums/vocals) –doesn’t tour the U.S. As a band that has forged strong bonds with its fans throughout the years, The Saw Doctors are a hard working touring band delivering a taste of Ireland coupled with excellent musicianship and a large dose of fun.
Moran talked with Pollstar during the final days of The Saw Doctors’ most recent U.S. tour. During the conversation the guitarist described the impact American culture has had on his life and career, how difficult it is to get the band’s songs on the radio and why he feels he has a stronger connection with the States than he has with Europe.
The Saw Doctors play the U.S. almost every year. Does the band feel more at home in America than when you first toured the country?
We’ve always felt at home in the States. It’s the home of rock ’n’ roll and when you grow up so interested in rock ’n’ roll and pop music and everything else, and you drive around the states and all the highway signs have names of places that you’ve heard in songs all your life, it makes you feel very comfortable and at home.
What did you listen to while growing up?
I remember having a children’s album, Sounds For Little Saw Doctors. America was always very connected to our lives. My uncle went to Staten Island in 1956; he sent home albums. Television was dominated by American culture. We still talk about, when we’re driving around here, “The Streets Of San Francisco,” “Mannix” or “Columbo,” they were all touchstones and familiarities in our childhood. American culture and music was a big factor, the soundtrack of our lives.
The Saw Doctors have recorded several interesting covers over the years. Are those songs you and your bandmates grew up listening to?
That’s kind of it, really. At the end of the set we have the song “Hay Wrap” where we have snippets of songs that we love. Generally we might have a local reference or a time reference. For instance we’ve been doing “Daydream Believer” in tribute to Davy Jones. When you do songs like that you stumble upon ones that people really love, ones that have really settled into the pop music collective consciousness of people. We stumbled upon two of them. One of them was “About You Now” that was a hit by the Sugababes in Britain and Ireland. The other one was “Downtown,” the old Petula Clark hit. When we played a verse of that we could see that people had a serious affinity for the song. So we transferred that into a single.
You recorded your version with Petula Clark. Did you actually work with her in the studio or did she record her vocals separately?
We booked a studio in London. We did a whole lot of work the first day. She came in the second evening and we discovered that the song was in the wrong key. So we had to scrap all of the first day’s work and put down the backing track with Petula because she only had a few hours that evening and wasn’t able to come back the following day. It was exciting, exhilarating, scary and privileged … rolled into one.
What was it like work with Clark?
She was brilliant. She’s such a professional. She probably has been since she was born. Once she goes near a microphone or a camera you can see the star quality immediately … she’s magic.
Is it tougher to get a song on U.S. radio than it is in Ireland or the United Kingdom?
It’s actually tough on either side. But it’s almost impossible in the States. There are so many radio stations, to get a song into the mainstream in America is beyond an act of our level.
In Britain and Ireland, it used to be a little bit easier, but it’s gotten harder over the years.
How do you market your music, say, when you release a single or put out an album?
In Ireland we always hope to get a single on the radio but we don’t always succeed. In Britain, our target would be BBC Radio 2. We’ve tried numerous times to get a song on there. It’s not easy.
The Saw Doctors have released more than one live album. As a musician, do you have a preference between recording in a studio and recording a live album?
I like both. They’re two different animals completely. Obviously the live album is easy because it’s kind of automatic in a way. Whereas in the studio we’re a bit more persnickety. But that’s okay. There’s satisfaction in both of them. I don’t have a preference. They’re just two different things.
What makes for a great live album?
Well, the band has to play very well. You need a very enthusiastic audience. You have to record them very well. If you don’t, they mean nothing on a live album, you won’t hear them. That’s a big characteristic, to make sure your audience is mic’d very well. That’s what creates the excitement of a live album.
Are there Irish bands or singers that you and The Saw Doctors might feel a connection to?
There are a lot of acts we know and love and get on with really well. Christy Moore, The Undertones … There’s also a very healthy local music scene around where we live. We got a lot of local connections with very talented people that wouldn’t be national acts but are very prolific and very good.
Many people start bands just for fun, something to do at the moment. When did you realize music would be your career?
It was step-by-step. When we toured with The Waterboys in 1989 we had to take it seriously because Davy (Carlton) had to leave his job to do that and Pearse (Doherty) left college. That was a time when we had to think that we had to take it seriously.
What’s the creative process like? Do you and your bandmates bring individual songs to the studio or do you work them up while recording?
On the last album we had one-and-a-half songs by the end of the week. We generally come with three or four songs. That’s the way it worked for us the last time. Kind of like jigsaw pieces. We had a lot of tunes hanging around, trying to get enough words there to send them out.
What are some of the places in the United States that you look forward to playing?
I love New York. But really and truly I like everywhere. There are always nice people, good food and good drink no matter where you are. Sometimes you have to look a bit harder to find it but it’s always there.
People ask me about New York, I say, “Look, just go out walking. You’ll find things you love. Just take your time and try out things. If you think you know all about Manhattan, you can start on Brooklyn. You won’t be bored.
What are some of the differences between touring Europe and the United States?
There’s very little difference between countries. Once an audience comes in, they’re very similar. A tour of the States is very distinctive, it’s a backdrop to your childhood. When we go to Germany or France it’s very new to us even though it’s a lot closer. Ireland hasn’t had the same immigration connection or music or television connection, so in some ways they’re more exotic to us than the States.
What’s in the future plans for The Saw Doctors?
We start on a new album. We have a few gigs and festivals coming in for the summer. We’ll get started on a few new songs and play the summer out and see how we get on.
It sounds like you’re set to go into the studio, but you might not have all the songs for it. Is that how most Saw Doctors albums come about?
All except the first one, I think [laughs].
What would you tell a person who wants a career in music?
I’d say enjoy yourself and take it in baby steps. Trying to come up with a sound people like is the first step.
Upcoming shows for The Saw Doctors include Limerick, Ireland, at the Milk Market May 4; Waterford, Ireland, at the Forum May 5; Warrington, England, at Parr Hall May 25 and “Cragfest” in Skipton, England, May 26. With festival gigs scattered through the band’s summer schedule, The Saw Doctors are planning a return to the U.S. before the season is over. A U.K. tour beginning in late November caps the year for the band. For more information, visit SawDoctors.com.