Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains: The Chiff & Fipple Interview
by Dale Wisely
It you were to set out to exaggerate the importance of The Chieftains on the current Irish Traditional scene, indeed on the preservation of Irish Traditional music, I am not sure how you would do it. Although criticized by some in recent years for their collaborations with musicians of other genres, these recordings and concerts have drawn in countless unsuspecting converts to Irish music. As they approach an astounding 40 years of performing and recording, The Chieftains are more popular than ever. Their current tour is selling out every venue and they were recently re-signed by BMG/RCA.
Piper/whistler Paddy Moloney founded the band and remains the leader. On March 3, 2001, I was able to visit the band at a pre-show dinner, at which the band had a spirited discussion about hoof and mouth disease. Go figure. I was able to attend the sound check and concert (row 7, center, thank you very much), and interview Paddy backstage at their performance in Birmingham, Alabama. This occurred through the interventions of whistle maker Michael Burke, Chieftains’ manager Yvonne McMahon, and a personal phone call to Chieftains legal counsel from Bush Administration National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, also from Birmingham. (Coincidence? I think not).
"I’ve been playing whistle since I was six years of age. My mother bought me one for one shilling and nine pence in Dublin."
Dale Wisely: Well, it’s a rainy night in Birmingham. You must feel at home.
Paddy Moloney: Oh, for God’s sake, yes. But I tell you what feels most at home: The pipes. (Points to his set of pipes). They love a drink, you know? The reeds, you know what I mean?
DW: Oh…the humidity, you mean…
Yes. We started out in Denver on January 14, it seems like a year ago now, and we went straight in to Denver and the air is so dry there. I couldn’t get a whisper out. Your throat is so dry. I had terrible troubles for a week after that. Then the moisture gradually comes back into the reeds.
DW: Well, it’s terribly dry and there is almost no oxygen in Denver, which people really need, don’t they?
Right! So, no…this is perfect here.
DW: How is the tour going?
It’s going extremely well. The first three weeks was with Natalie MacMaster and Joan Osborne. We had a great blast. And coming in to this part—we had never worked with Richard Wood (guest Cape Breton-area fiddler/show stopper) and had never done a whole tour with DADAWA (young Chinese vocalist). We had done a song together, of course, for Tears of Stone, a lovely song called Tear Lake. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the tour. The whole tour has just had great energy and vitality.
DW: When and where does the tour wind up?
As always on March 17th –at Carnegie Hall.
DW: Yes, I’ve heard of that little dive…
(Laughs). That wipes us out. Time to go home then!
DW: This band has existed for thirty…..
DW: Thirty NINE?
I started in November of ’62, exactly it was..
DW: I can’t think of an intelligent question about that. I mean, it is just astounding. I can only ask…how is that even possible?
It’s a miracle, there is no doubt about it. I started the group in my house in Dublin. Had ages of rehearsals. It took a whole year to get the first album done. That was in mono. The old days, the good old days, you know. We were adventurous even in those days. It was a small studio about the size of this room (a small dressing room). I brought in some hard board and put it down because I wanted to get the live dancing sound. It didn’t work—not in mono! We did it later on Chieftains 6 in the studio.
But, it was terrific, magical times and great memories of that. We all had day jobs, of course
DW: Well, yes, I guess you would have in the beginning.
We had recordings (sessions). I believe it took five evenings from 7:00 to 10:00 to record the whole album. We didn’t really go full time until ’74 or ’75, around then. Lots of things happened in between. The whole build-up—I became managing director of Claddagh Record, the record company that gave us the opportunity to make the album.
But even in the early ‘50s, it was all leading up to what the Chieftains became. I had quartets and duets and Ceili bands and all this. I even had a skiffle band.
DW: Really. A skiffle band?
You know? With the washboard and everything? The Lonny Donegan stuff.
DW: They recorded “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It's Flavor On The Bedpost Overnight” - Lonny Donegan & His Skiffle Group. I have no idea why I know that.
(Laughs). Yes. But of course the real music, my love, my forte, was the Irish Traditional music. That stuck with me. And, you know, pipes and whistles. And eventually we recorded and brought in our first album. It was really meant to be just a one-off thing because it was a limited market, and not at all certain, and we had no idea it would snowball into what it did.
But even up to the late ‘60s we had strange gatherings and admirers.
DW: Yes. Like the Rolling Stones. The Beatles....
Yes. People like that. I remember when we did eventually do the Chieftains 2 in 1969 I was looking for a place to cut the acetate, you know? And London was the best place. So we rang up Abbey Road. The Beatles had it for six months but gave us a morning there. And sure enough, they all rambled in. John Lennon and Paul.
DW: Most Chiff & Fipple readers are whistle players. Players at various levels of skill.
DW: You have played Generation whistles for years and years. And I wonder if that is a matter of habit or custom, or is there something you prefer about the Generation whistles?
I think perhaps you mold yourself into it. You know you get a good one and…I can’t really play every Generation whistle, you know…
DW: Right. Well. NO one can.
Right. In fact, the one I have now, I’m ashamed to show it to you, it’s out on stage now.
DW: I saw it. Your manager Yvonne showed it to me.
It is in three different bits. (It’s a red mouthpiece Generation brass held together by glue and black electrical tape-DW). It’s glued together. But it still has the sweetness I like of a Generation whistle. It was given to me 22 years ago by Mary Bergin.
I have been trying to get back to her since. She can always get me a good one.
But, I’ve been playing whistle since I was six years of age. My mother bought me one for one shilling and nine pence in Dublin. I taught myself but, unfortunately, I put my right hand on top. I had to switch later for the pipes, eventually..
DW: Oh, because you really HAD to put your left hand on top of the pipes.
Right. No one showed me in those days. But, I used to join in on the music in the house for the dances. We had these house dances. I took up the pipes when I was nine years old. We had all of these competitions in Ireland, of course. Very important in those days, through my teens.
I also played a Clarke C whistle. I loved them. You will hear them on the earlier Chieftain albums.
DW: The Clarke was only available in C for a long time.
In those days it was only C. It fitted in great because we had a concertina pitched in C. The Clarke was always good until the mouthpiece got wet, you know (laughs).
DW: Soggy wood, I guess.
But it is a terrific instrument. Not great for airs, but great for dance music. That was one thing about the Generations, when you get used to it you can bend the notes and do all kinds of wonderful things with it. Make it your own. You forget about the technicalities of playing and the music starts to flow.
So, Sean Potts and I were great friends and we had this great interplay between the two of us and we eventually did the album, “Tin Whistles.” That was done on the weekend!
DW: You know that CD was out of print for awhile but is now back in production.
Was it really? Well, yes, that’s right. It’s been good to see that back again.
But you know, the whistle is just a great instrument. You have it in your inside pocket and you turn up someplace—like, for instance, two weeks ago I was asked to play at the launch of Discovery…the space ship. I played “America the Beautiful” and then I went into a jig. I played “Lots of Drops of Brandy” to tell the truth (laughs)…
DW: Did you really, now?
And I used Michael Burke’s new whistle.
DW: Ah, yes. He is a good friend of ours.
Michael and I just met up a few weeks ago and the three or four whistles he made for me are absolutely brilliant. You know, the TONE is great! And I will always need those in the recording studio, because, we play in all of these strange keys and the D whistle is not the best thing to do.
DW: Did he show you the aluminum ones?
I have one, yes! I’ve used that. We were asked to play at the Paul Simon tribute concert. Joan Osborne and ourselves and we did “Homeward Bound,” and I used the aluminum whistle for that. And it is like a flute sound! It’s just beautiful. The crowd just loved it. The composite one I have, I just started using it about a week ago to play this piece I wrote for the film “Agnes Brown.” It’s an Angelica Huston film. I had been using just a regular C whistle for that. But now for the stage performance I am using Michael’s whistle. It’s just terrific.
DW: He’ll be delighted to know this.
Well, there are two good whistles he gave me that have already been played for millions.
"If you are new to music and new to any instrument, and you want to play piano, or fiddle, or flute, or whatever, a whistle is a great…it gives you great insight into the scale structures."
DW: Cherish the Ladies came through here in December and Joanie Madden….
See, Joanie introduced me to Michael Burke….
DW: Yes, she told me that she brought you several whistles by different makers and the Burkes were the ones you liked the most.
She gave me one of her best whistles, too. These people are great people.
DW: When Cherish the Ladies came here. one of their cars was delayed by weather. So, Mary didn’t have her guitar. Joanie didn’t have her whistles or flutes. She had to borrow a whistle. They delivered the instruments after a few songs.
Did she REALLY! Oh! Well, I’m glad the show was saved.
DW: People who are new at the whistle, do you have advice for them about the learning process.
I’ve said for years to people, they’ll say they want to take up the pipes and I’ll say, have you played the whistle? For ANY instrument, I honestly feel that the whistle is a great way to begin. If you are new to music and new to any instrument, and you want to play piano, or fiddle, or flute, or whatever, a whistle is a great…it gives you great insight into the scale structures. As an instrument to start, take up the whistle, it’s terrific!
DW: In America, at least, school children are often given recorders to start off with. I think whistles would be a better choice.
In Ireland, when I went to school, we had tinwhistle bands in the school. They were great, you know. They do that in Japan. I remember we played Japan and they had eighty youngsters and they had learned March of the Kings of Laois on whistle! It was wonderful. I couldn’t believe it. I brought out a whistle for “Fire in the Kitchen.” They marketed a whistle that had “Fire in the Kitchen” written on it. It was a great album, with all of those great musicians from Cape Breton and Nova Scotia on it. But, I didn’t particularly…I think it was a mistake in a way to put your name on something that.. because, the majority of them I wouldn’t play myself. I mean they are grand to start off on. Like, for example, I gave one to Derek (Bell). Sometimes we do an opening where everyone plays whistle. But there’s not one I’d be madly comfortable with.
I think Generation whistles have to be sort of “blown in” and tampered with. You’ve got to take that edgy business off. Reduce the aperture a bit so it takes less wind. Joanie, for example, blows very strong while I like to blow a bit easy. And Michael Burke took that into consideration as well when he was bringing down these whistles for me.
DW: What is next for the Chieftains? The band is more popular and busier than ever.
Busier than ever! Who would have thought…heavens! BMG has reformed our label. They’ve done away with some of the smaller labels and still we reformed. They’ve signed us for another five albums. So we’re going to be very busy. We have our big 40 years coming up. Which means at the end of this year we might be putting on shows and recording them—in Dublin. What form the whole thing will take, I’m not sure. There are a lot of people out there that we’ve often said we’d like to work with. James Taylor comes to mind. Sheryl Crow. We wanted her on “Tears of Stone” but it didn’t work out. And all of these other brilliant musicians—folk musicians from all around the world. I go to Japan in May for three weeks, and I have a flood of tapes from singers there…I was just listening to them today.
DW: What a great privilege to be able to play with that kind of range of musicians.
It’s marvelous. What comes to mind is, like, the Mongolian throat singers that toured with us last year. And their music and songs..the rhythms of the jigs were there! We were able to fit the jigs in perfectly. They are so much alike. Maybe it’s the mountains, there I don’t know. But, as you say, to be able to work with all of these people. The world is getting smaller through travel and technology and all. You’re able to communicate and, when you get there, you team up with some musicians, you know.
DW: Thank you very much, Paddy. Have a great show.
Not at all. Thank you. My best wishes to your readers.
The Chieftains most recent recording is “Water from the Well.”
Dale Wisely is the founder and editor of Chiff & Fipple (http://www.chiffandfipple.com ), an online community of whistle enthusiasts.
Special thanks to Yvonne McMahon (Chieftains management) and the staff of the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Alys Stephens Center for assistance with this interview.
Copyright 2001 by Dale Wisely & 3Fish Productions.