The Rumjacks – ‘Reaction to ‘Hestia’ spurred us on to go and write’

Words: Miljan Milekić

For more than a decade, the Australian mob The Rumjackshas been making waves in the Celtic punk scene all over the world. With their solid records and non-stop touring, the band expanded its fanbase to every corner of the planet, establishing itself as a real live music force. But what happens when it all stops? When borders close and touring becomes impossible? For The Rumjacks, the answer is simple – two great records in less than a year. Just eleven months after their 2020’s album ‘Hestia,’ the band is back with the new eight-song EP ‘Brass For Gold.’ We caught up with the bassist Johnny McKelvey to discuss both releases, work dynamics with the new lineup, and much more. Check it below.

So, first all, thank you for doing this and how are you?
Johnny: I’m doing well, just getting ready for the tour in the US. We’re doing the Saint Patrick’s Day tour with Dropkick Murphys and The Bombpops. Trying to relax, even though it’s a very stressful time, and get back into the headspace for going on tour again.

Yeah, I believe that one will be amazing. I saw Murphys two times, and the crowd loves them.
Johnny: They’re a great band, and they’re great live as well. Luckily, I’ve seen them a bunch of times, and a few times on tour, we’ve been on the same festivals and whatnot. They’re a great live band, and we are super excited to be joining them in a couple of weeks.

And you will bring your new EP with you, eight new songs. Can you tell me more about it and how did it all come together?
Johnny: So, ‘Brass For Gold’ came out on the 11th of February through Four Four Records, which pretty much all our records are out through. Two summers ago, we recorded ‘Hestia,’ we did fifteen tracks on that one, and it came out, and we were super happy with it. And Mike is nonstop, with writing and ideas, and enthusiasm. So very quickly after ‘Hestia’ came out, which will only be twelve months in March, we had this handful of songs. Not quite a record, but there were a few, and we got together in the summer and were like – “Right, well, let’s do an EP. We got some songs, so let’s not let anyone wait any longer than they have to.”

You know, ‘Hestia’ was really well-received, so let’s just keep doing more music. Let’s keep putting more out. Then, we realized we had about eight songs, which is too much for an EP. Few more songs, and you got yourself a record. We knew we should pick four or five, the typical EP length, but we couldn’t decide. So, we just went – “All right, screw it. We’ll do an eight-track EP, and everyone gets their money’s worth on that one.”

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I actually find that quite amazing that you have a new EP less than twelve months since the record. It’s 23 new songs in less than a year. So, how did you find the drive for something like that?
Johnny: I think what happened, in our case, was Covid. We were used to be touring all the time. We used to be on the road nine months a year, and that was taken away from us. It completely changed what we normally did. And because we are normally so busy, we tried to keep that activeness up. So, we can’t play music live and go on tour, and our fans are very good to us – they come to our shows, buy our stuff, and we couldn’t do that anymore. But we still need to be doing something as a band. So what do we do? We write and record music.

I think the reaction to ‘Hestia’ really spurred us all on to go and write. People really liked it. They’ve told us they like it, and all the boring stuff with data and all that kind of stuff, it was all there. So, let’s not be that band that puts a record out and waits three years or whatnot. It’s weird times. It’s Covid, bands aren’t playing night in people’s towns. And we just wanted to keep working hard, like we always did. I think that came through touring and always being on the road, so when that didn’t happen, we recorded music.

‘Brass For Gold’ will be the second release with Mike, right? What do you think is his biggest influence on the band, and what is the most important thing he brought to the table?
Johnny: Yes, ‘Hestia’ was the first, and now the EP is gonna be the second release with Mike. Mike joining brought a lot to the band, not just one thing. He brought so much, but the first thing we noticed was his work ethic and his determination and joy for writing and playing music. He enjoys it and works really hard. And I think that was really infectious. For the first time, we started to enjoy the process of writing and recording, not just touring and traveling the world.

We started to enjoy music again, and we started to have the best time ever again, as a band. And I think that had a bit of a carry-on effect that we enjoyed recording and had good times together. We were positive and happier individuals. We wanted to work harder and have fun and do it all with a smile on our faces. He brought a breath of fresh air to the band that we needed so badly, and I think it was the best decision we made as a band – to bring Mike in. It’s been nothing but positive since he’s a hard worker, and loves music. He is very, very talented, and he’s great to get along with. So many things came together, and here we are, almost a year after ‘Hestia,’ with another release coming out.

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What I’ve noticed, first with ‘Hestia,’ and now with ‘Brass For Gold,’ is that you are exploring some more different influences. And that goes for both – your sound, as well as lyrics and stories in your songs. You incorporated a bit more of the ska sound, as well as elements of folk and ethnic music from all over the world. How did that happen?
Johnny: Well, it definitely wasn’t a conscious decision or a sat-down conversation. Throughout The Rumjacks, for the last ten or twelve years, the ska that you mentioned had always been there. ‘The Bold Rumjacker,’ ‘Roll Away Alone,’ ‘Kathleen,’ throughout pretty much every record, there has been some taste of that. And that’s because we all love that music. Adam used to play guitar for a ska band years before The Rumjacks. We all love different styles of music. What happened is that when Mike joined, the freedom, and the ability to try new things, weren’t a hard task. We could throw everything out on the table.

If it was a bad idea, someone would say it’s a bad idea. If it was good, we’d work on it. And if it worked, then we kept it. It was very open and very honest. So why not try some ska stuff? Why not boost some massive chorus? Mike‘s a huge Bouncing Souls fan. We all are – I’ve got my knuckles tattooed because of them. “Hopeless Romantic.” But Mike really brought in those big, straightforward choruses. Also, the ability to bring back a few instruments that have always been in The Rumjacks like banjo, bagpipes, piano accordion. That’s all been there, but it just started to take a little bit of a backseat, or we didn’t explore it too much. So, I think the introduction of Mike really helped us have no problem in trying anything. Absolutely anything – any style, any idea. It was all put out there, and that’s what’s come of it.

So we can expect some techno remixes for the next release?
Johnny: If somebody else does it! We won’t do it. (laughs) If someone else wants to do a techno release – go for it! But it probably won’t sound very good. (laughs)

So, I have to admit that I love only a handful of, let’s call them, Celtic bands. Most bands I’ve heard that go into that sound are usually kind of generic in the way that their music usually revolves around beer, whiskey, being drunk, and not much else. You have songs about that too, but you have also explored some deeper personal stuff, some life stories, as well as myths and legends. How did that happen for you, and how did it come to the point where a Celtic punk band from Australia writes songs about Ancient Greek mythology like you did on ‘Hestia?’
Johnny: Well, that’s the great thing about communities and worlds colliding, like the Greek thing you mentioned. Even very basically, we played bouzouki in the band, and it’s a great instrument. And it’s a traditional Greek instrument. The Irish took that, cut the back off it, tuned it a bit differently, then started playing it their way, you know? So, I think that’s super cool.

And if you actually listen to a lot of, you mentioned Celtic music, and I would say more broadly – if you listen to folk music, say, folk music of Greece, folk music of Ireland, folk music of Turkey… I’m not gonna say they’re all the same. They’re not. But there are certain things in there, so it’s not odd that they, kind of, blend into another culture or are adapted by another culture and done in their own way. Even something as simple as the bouzouki, typically from Greek folk music, being adapted and then put into Irish or Celtic folk music of that era. I don’t think it’s weird.

I would say it’s very, very easy in this day and age for Celtic punk bands, or Paddy bands, whatever they’re called now, to write a pop punk song, but then put a mandoline over it, and sing about whiskey, drinking, fighting, going to the pub with the lads. It’s very, very easy to do. A lot of bands choose the very easy option, and that’s up to them. They can do whatever they want. There are plenty of bands out there that do it. But if you write something with a bit more substance, you’re gonna hang onto people longer than the ones that picked up a novelty song about drinking Guinness in a pub.

Ironically, ‘Irish Pub Song’ for us was a piss-take of that, and it’s resonated with people, but they didn’t get the joke. The irony is not lost on us, trust me. Keywords like drinking, or Guinness, or whatever is mentioned in it, that’s like a go-to joke. If a band is doing it full-time, it has a shelf life. It’s got no substance, and it’s almost mocking an actual culture. But as long as people are enjoying it and having fun, that’s fine. Take whatever you will from it. But in terms of the longevity of songs and writing like that, it doesn’t last. I think with ‘Hestia,’ we touched on a lot of things. Mike wrote about some pretty crazy stories, like Lizzie Borden, a woman that axed her family to death.

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Like, who is Lizzy Borden? Someone might look that up and find a really interesting story. Who is Hestia? Oh, it’s a Greek goddess, but why would they be singing about a Greek goddess? However people want to adapt a song, listen to it, or make it their own, it’s fine. That’s not a problem at all. If there’s a direct message, we’ll probably be pretty damn clear on it. But I think ‘Hestia’ was really cool. Again, while writing, lyrically, we could go where we wanted with it. And I think that’s the difference between ‘Hestia’ and a lot of our other albums.

So, we mentioned Australia a couple of times, but that’s not the case anymore, since you guys live all over the world now, right?
Johnny: Yeah, it’s changed now. The band was formed in 2008 in Sydney, Australia. It originated from there, all the members are from there, and that’s where we met. But when we realized we were working as hard as we were and that there’s a world outside of Australia, which, unfortunately, I think a lot of Australian bands don’t realize, we knew we had to get out of Australia to make this bigger. Which is what we wanted to do. So we left to be able to tour as much as possible. Australia is far from everywhere. It doesn’t make a difference. If we can at least be located near Europe or whatnot, that’s fine, you know? Luckily we’re in a place where we can all live, where we want to now. So, the band kicked off from Australia, but to be able to tour as much as we want, go around the world as much as we want, and to see the countries we want, we couldn’t do that from there.

So, all of you guys have so many different roots and different backgrounds in both ethnic and cultural sense. Do you think that had any influence on your music as well?
Johnny: Oh, for sure. Always. I know personally, my parents are from Northern Ireland, from Belfast, where I’m currently located, and growing up in Australia, Irish or Celtic folk music, whatever you wanna call it, it was always there in the background. And as a kid, you never really pay attention. You’re just a kid, and it’s your boring parents’ music – you know, whatever. But then you grow older, and things change, and it’s still around you. And you have little memories of it, like when you’re trying to get to sleep, and mom and dad are having a party with music in the background.

Then bands like The Pogues, and Murphys, and Molly, it’s a bit like a breath of fresh air in there. But even before that, you have that around you. But then, you get into alternative music or aggressive music, punk rock music. And then you realize that that combination works pretty well. Other bands were doing it. We didn’t reinvent the wheel. So folk music and punk music growing up, for all of us – Adam‘s parents are Irish as well, that music was always there. And folk music in Australia is also very big. I mean, the broad sense of folk music. There’s a big bush country, Australiana folk scene, too. And they, kind of, grab from other styles, so I think it’s pretty easy to fall into liking it growing up in the situation that we are, and our parents, in migrant communities in Australia. It wasn’t really foreign. It was always there on your doorstep.

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And it seems like you all adopted Milan and Italy as your collective second home and made it your base for the band for recording. So how did that happen?
Johnny: Well, basically, because all five members live in five different countries, logistically, it makes the most sense. Our drummer is Italian, and he lives in Milan. Our manager is an Italian who lives in Milan, and he has a studio where we recorded these last few records. So we’ve got all our gears there. There are two people already there, and there’s a studio we can use and spend time in.

And if we’re all coming from somewhere, it made sense to go there. It wasn’t a conscious decision like – “Oh, Milan will rejuvenate our writing and recording skills.” It just logistically made the most sense to keep going back there. To start everything off, to record and write and do the preproduction. So yeah, we’ve all strangely taken to Milan, and Italy in general, which we never thought would happen, but we spend a lot of time there now because of those reasons I mentioned before. 

We mentioned it at the beginning, but you were the band that’s always on the road, and touring was your bread and butter before the pandemic hit. How hard was it to cope with not being able to play shows and do what you’ve done best up to that point?
Johnny: Very good question because it was such a strange situation for everyone. I remember we were in Germany, on tour, and it was near St. Patrick’s day, two years ago. Basically when this all kicked off, whatever it was. We were playing a gig, and then two days later, we were all on airplanes, back to where we lived. The tour was shut, venues were shut, live music was finished. And It was great for, maybe the first few weeks. Okay, time off. We’re all tired. We love touring, but okay, time to maybe sleep more than three hours a night.

But I know, for us in general, and definitely me personally, it took a while for it to sink in. That something you’re so used to doing, and it’s hard, but you’ve built these little tools to do it well and to cope with it and enjoy it, and get through touring for the large majority of the year, that it just stopped. It was a very, very odd feeling. I know for all of us, we struggled to make sense of it. It was having something so normal to you paused at no fault of anyone. We didn’t do anything. We didn’t decide to have a break. It’s like we were told – “Right, you can’t do anymore.” So it was very strange to get ahead around it. And we’re so used to doing music, playing music, touring, so what is it that we can do at the maximum capacity? Well, let’s write, demo, and record. Do the best we can without touring. So, very strange feeling, because we’re a very heavily touring band. But when it stopped, that doesn’t mean you stopped working – it just means you stopped touring.

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This will be my last one for today. How does it feel to get on a stage and play for half a million people like you did in Poland?
Johnny: It’s a very, very, very unique experience. We were all very quiet before walking out on that stage, I’ll tell you that. It was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life, and a lot of self-doubts kicked in, that’s for sure. But like anything, even on a smaller scale, if you’re a bit nervous – after you play the first note, it goes away. It’s an incredible feeling. It’s terrifying. It’s very hard to describe, to see that amount of people that you are playing for, and you assume are enjoying their time there and that they’re watching you. It’s a very unique experience, and I’m very grateful that, as a band, we were able to do it. So, odd, terrifying, but incredibly, incredibly fun.

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