‘I’VE got about eight or ten songs of Ferg’s that I can sing, I’ll bring them, and I’ll bring whatever else happens on the night,’ Hansard explained when asked what people could expect from two very special concerts happening at Skibbereen Arts Festival at the start of August.
The concerts will recall the wonderful talents of two West Cork-based musicians and close friends – Fergus O’Farrell and Colin Vearncombe (aka Black) -– who died within days of each other, earlier this year.
‘Sail On’ will feature Dogtail Soup – a band which featured both Fergus and Colin – and special guests, including Oscar winner Glen Hansard who was a long-time friend of Fergus’.
‘When Maurice (Roycroft, another member of Dogtail Soup) asked me if I’d be up for being part of that band for those shows I said of course,’ says Glen, speaking from his current European tour. ‘It’s a great opportunity to remember these incredible songs.’
Glen says he probably first met Fergus in 1987-88 when Fergus was living in the Winstanley shoe factory in Dublin with the rest of his mates from Cork. ‘I was introduced to him by Maurice Culligan, who was the keyboard player with Interference then. He brought myself and Mic Christopher – we were busking at the time – up to Winstanley one afternoon and we met and saw the band rehearse. Fergus was really encouraging. He was only a couple of years older than us, but enough older for it to be quite a jump. He was doing some gigs with The Back Lane Boys, which was basically the acoustic version of Interference. They played every Monday night in An Beal Bocht. We then started a long apprenticeship with them because we opened up for them every Monday.’
Glen struck up a friendship with Fergus and the guys in the band pretty quickly and when The Frames first started he kindly offered them time in his studio for very cutback rates. ‘We would go there and he always offered a very helpful and kind ear,’ he recalls.
‘I met Colin Vearncombe for the first time in more recent years, through Ferg. The Swell Season were playing at Radio City Music Hall in New York. It was a very big deal for us and probably the biggest concert we had done at that stage. And I remember thinking, “the person I want here the most is Ferg, because this is part of his success too”. Once was an incredible success for us, and Ferg’s song (Gold) is not an unimportant song in that film. In fact it’s very important, and I wanted somehow to be able to introduce the New York audience to the man who wrote it. So we got him over, but in classic Ferg fashion, he arrived over with about 12 people, one of whom was Colin.’
Glen describes Interference as ‘enigmatic’.
‘They all lived together in a factory, and me being from Ballymun, I had never really known a bunch of artistic lads who all shared books and drank wine like they did. They all seemed very Bohemian and wild. But essentially what was really impressive was the music ... and at the centre of that was always Ferg’s voice. It was a voice to admire. He had so much breath control, and ironically it was his lungs that gave up on him in the end.’
Glen also believes there was a ‘kind of a prophecy’ to his lyrics. ‘I had never heard anything like them from anyone, except maybe Bowie. He was the first real example I saw of a living artist who was speaking about where he was, rather than speaking about faraway distant desires.’ O’Farrell, who suffered from muscular dystrophy, was, according to Hansard, ‘definitely a man speaking about the life he was living in and the body he was living in.’
Interference – the entity – changed a lot over the years. ‘The only solid member was Ferg. So in a way Dogtail Soup was Interference. He loved to improvise and he loved to just mix things up as he went along, whether it was in his own concert or someone else’s.
‘He was always in the music and he was always enjoying it, living it – so in a way Dogtail Soup made a lot of sense.’
‘The thing about Ferg that always struck me was he had a kind of monk-like commitment to a song,’ adds Glen. ‘Writing with him was a huge learning curve for me. He had an amazing aptitude for writing. He’d work on a lyric until he’d squeezed every bit of vagueness out of it. And then he’d sit there with it, and he’d go “you know, I’m still feeling a bump.” I’d go “what do you mean?” “Sing it again” “Do you feel the bump?” “Seems alright to me.” “No, there’s something I’m not believing in it.”
‘He only cared if you were singing true. If you weren’t singing true and were letting yourself away with lazy lyrics, he’d be all over it. He was totally into songwriting as a craft and the only other person that I can think of, or that I can imagine being like that, is probably Leonard Cohen in terms of re-writes and edits. Ferg would sit with just one line, for four or five hours, and the next day he’d come back and he’d just change a syllable and it’d all fall into place for him. When he sang it, it sounded so easy, but he really sweated over it,’ says Glen. ‘My attitude would be to go and play the song live and I would learn so much about it from playing in front of an audience, but Ferg would wait and wait and hone and whittle it,and get it to a place where he was absolutely sure of it, and when he played it live for the very first time, it would be a masterpiece already.’
So why wasn’t he better known than he was? ‘I think there are many answers to that question. Well we’re living in a time where if you’re not out there touring constantly, then it’s very difficult to make it,’ he surmises. ‘Ferg was one of these guys who recorded a lot, but he was such a perfectionist that he found it difficult to let things go. There is only one Interference record out there, and they were a band long before The Frames, so I’d say there’s 30 years of going-on there, and only one batch of maybe 12 songs to prove that they ever existed. It’s all well and good to be a genius in your bedroom or your studio, but you have to get out there and sing your song and get it into the world.
‘I knew Ferg well, and I knew that he was an ambitious man, but I think physically he was restrained and I think that really put a damper on his career. He was the best man to represent those songs. Anyone could sing them, and they might sound great, but it was his voice that really was “the voice” for those songs. He wasn’t always there to represent the work himself, and that’s the most important person.’
• ‘Sail On’ – a tribute to Fergus O’Farrell and Colin Vearncombe – takes place in Skibbereen Town Hall on Wednesday, August 3rd, Thursday, August 4th, featuring Dogtail Soup, Glen Hansard, and more. The shows are in aid of Bru Columbanus and West Cork Rapid Response. Tickets for Wednesday are sold out, but Thursday tickets are now on sale at the Riverside Café in Skibbereen and the Tourist Office in Schull. Also available from skibbereenartsfestival.com