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Maybe it's because they're part Irish. Maybe it's because the tear-jerking ballads and raucous Celtic-folk rock jigs just inspire audiences to have a few pints of their own. Or maybe it's frontman Shane MacGowan's disheveled appearance, horrendous teeth and spotty attendance to his own band's gigs.
Whatever the reason, The Pogues—and particularly MacGowan—have a reputation as insatiably thirsty boozers. And that rep, says accordionist James Fearnley, is undeserved.
"Shane has been completely blitzed at shows, but rarely nowadays, thankfully," he says via telephone from his home in Los Angeles. "But, also, I wonder if that's a misinterpretation by a lot of people. I've worked with the guy for nearly 30 years, and he's just that kind of guy—that that's what it looks like. The first impression that you get is that he's zonked. I'm not saying it's a performance: That's just who he is. He's from another planet, and I think people are very ready to assume that he's drunk. I think he was made that way. The cosmos gave us Shane MacGowan in that particular form."
Drinking has been a sensitive subject for Fearnley since the band first began getting attention—one he likens to racial profiling: Because the band plays Irish music, they must be Irish. And because they're Irish, they must be drunks.
"I've read heavy-metal biographies that would put ours to shame," Fearnley says. "So maybe I'm a bit prickly that we were assumed to be drunk all the time." He laughs. "Which we were!"
But a lot has changed since the band formed in 1982. Fearnley, now sober, has lived in Los Angeles since he left The Pogues in 1993, maintaining his California residency even after rejoining the band for its 2001 reunion tour and subsequent jaunts.
"So it's been eight years of this malarkey," he says, laughing.
Even after eight years of what Fearnley calls "a serial reunion," the band has been leery to seriously discuss the idea of recording again, he says.
"There was always talk of it, and it was never too far away, the actual possibility of doing it," he says. "I think it's cyclical, and every now and then, it spills out. But it seems to be a bit of a fraught one, that is. It's hard to think about how we would go about recording together. There's no question that the level of playing is up there with the best we ever played when we were together from '82 to '93, for me. We're all, for all intents and purposes, sober now. Except for one glaring exception, if you know what I mean."
"It seems like a shame to miss recording when we all are, for the most part, sober. But at the same time, it's like, 'Oh my God, how do we go about approaching the songs?'"
As for the question of what songs, well, MacGowan (who was not available for interview) has been the group's primary songwriter, though Jem Finer, Spider Stacy, Terry Woods and other members have contributed to The Pogues' catalog individually and as co-writers with MacGowan. Yet Fearnley—who is so awe-struck by MacGowan's songwriting gift that he didn't write for the band until MacGowan left in 1991—readily admits that "the onus is on the singer" for new material. And as far as new songs, says Fearnley, "I don't know what he's got, frankly."
Even without The Pogues going into the studio, Fearnley has kept busy with music-related projects. First, there's his alt-folk side project, Cranky George, with actor Dermot Mulroney, Mulroney's writer/director brother Kieran and producer Brad Wood. The band plays infrequent gigs at Molly Malone's, the same L.A. Irish bar that gave Flogging Molly its name. ("We're following in Flogging Molly's footsteps in the sense that we only play there," Fearnley jokes.). More importantly, he's at work on Here Comes Everybody, a Pogues memoir for Faber & Faber to be published in spring 2011.
"I'm only at chapter nine at the minute, and I outlined 20 chapters," he says. "But I think it's going to be more like 25 or 26."
Fearnley describes his prose-writing process as very different from the songwriting process. With his prose (which includes a handful of semi-abandoned novels along with the memoir), it's a matter of sitting in one place and hammering it out, whereas with lyrics he likes to compose out loud while walking.
Naturally, his process is different than that of the inimitable MacGowan. Fearnley remembers MacGowan scribbling and tapping his feet on tour buses, "as if he were going over something in his head."
"Usually he would have it all sorted out in his head, and it was a matter of Jem and I getting it to come out," he says. "And whether he refined it as it was coming out of him where it was more of just a model before, I'm not quite sure. That was my suspicion sometimes."
Collaborative songs—including perhaps the greatest Christmas song ever written, "Fairytale of New York"—were more of a melding or trading process, he says.