Jerry Fish: “Even without Covid, the music industry is in crisis right now”
Jerry Fish is rarely lost for words. “I’m rambling,” the 59-year-old Dubliner tells Zoom, “and you’ll have to excuse me.” Not at all. There are artists who prefer to let the music do the talking, and then there is Jerry Fish, the beloved rock star from Ireland. Fish loves good chat – and he has a lot to say.
The man born Gerard Whelan has been there, done it, and has worn tons of T-shirts. He has been a leader (alternative rock mainstays An Emotional Fish released three albums in the 90s before calling it a day), a solo storyteller with a rotating team of musical buddies (Jerry Fish’s debut LP & the Mudbug Club, Be Yourself of 2002, made him a superstar on these shores) and a true conductor (the famous Jerry Fish Electric Sideshow – a traveling theatrical wonder combining carnival frolics with the magic of rock ‘n ‘roll – has its own stage at Electric Picnic).
Speaking from his home on Mount Leinster, Fish is considering his next move. A few days after our interview, the government announces its intention to reinstate restrictions on the hospitality sector, which means that all indoor concerts will now operate at a capacity of 50 pc. Indeed, Fish has been around the block and experienced all kinds of weather conditions in this game. No one needs to explain to this guy the precarious nature of the music business. Still, it was tough.
âYes, I think we’re back to uncertain times again, unfortunately,â he said. âI mean, I’ve been in the music business since the mid-80s, when I was a kid playing in bands and, you know, take Covid out of the picture completely, forget about the pandemic – there is a crisis in our business anyway with the registration.
âInstead of making an album, I’ve done, like, 12 singles in the last seven years, because albums, they don’t get the attention they used to have – there’s no sales, so it’s on a downward trend for the last decade. “
âThat’s why I focused on The Jerry Fish Electric Sideshow and the whole circus and creating a live show that’s very successful for me. [Performing] living is our only income, so taking that out really leaves us in deep trouble.
“I don’t have a solution, I think we all know that art is necessary, and that song and dance are necessary, you know, I firmly believe that song and dance is an original prayer, they come from a spiritual sense – whether they’re a commodity or not, they’ll have to exist, you know, I think they’re part of humanity.
The conversation turns to lock. Indeed, the mustached maestro has done his best to keep morale high throughout 2020. âMy wife, Niki, said to me, ‘When are you going to have another chance to take a year off?’ So, I thought it wasn’t a bad idea, so I kind of backed off.
âI’m very lucky, I live on Mount Leinster, I live very rural, near the Blackstairs on the Wexford / Kilkenny / Carlow border, so I’m in the middle of nowhere. This is the place to be, the air is very fresh and pure here, we don’t see anyone, and I have a huge barn that I turned into a theater, you know, I put seven tons of concrete in it. .
âI grew up on construction sites and I’m quite a handyman – so I got arthritis, actually, I did. I just finished working – I mean, I guess what I learned about myself is that I have to work or go crazy. I guess madness keeps me from being really mad, “he said with a smile,” it’s very good for my sanity so I’ll always stay busy no matter what. I think it’s just my nature, it’s what keeps me going.
The fish worked in his barn. He wrote songs (the appropriate title “Killing Time” appeared during the lockdown). He spent time with Niki and their four children. I ask if the children of Jerry Fish consider their old man “cool” and how they feel about having a rock star for a father. It’s a stupid question, really.
âI don’t think there is a cool daddy,â he replies, âuntil he’s kicked the bucket, maybe. No, they’re not pushed about it, really. I think they admire him. I mean, I see they’re all artistic, you know my daughter is at NCAD nowâ¦ âhe pauses.
âI don’t see myself as a musician per se, I’m just as much an entrepreneur. I lost a friend when he was 20, and I think that was a really poignant time, obviously, in my life. I was also 20, and I just saw that every day that I have is an extra day now, and my life is an adventure – it has to be.
âI don’t do the same thing every day – I do a different thing every day and I try to be as creative as possible in doing it, and that’s really all, is to be free. , I guess when [my children] find a job, maybe they’ll find out, ‘Damn, daddy was kinda cool, he didn’t work, how did he pay the rent?’ “
He’s kidding, of course. The inimitable showman insists he’s a hard worker, and you’d believe it. There is not a single person in Ireland who has not been affected by the Fish boat. Maybe you saw the Sideshow at the picnic. Maybe you shed a tear at True Friends. Chances are you’ve danced your butt to the timeless anthems of An Emotional Fish, Celebrate, and Time is on the Wall.
We know him as one of our most recognizable storytellers, but for his family it’s Gerard Whelan. So what is Christmas like at the Whelan House?
âI guess the main Christmas tradition that will be broken this year is that I usually break my balls to make enough money to get through Christmas. I mean, it’s usually when we do concerts.
âWhere I live I watch Graiguenamanagh,â he explains, âso there’s Mount Brandon over there and the sun is setting right over the mountain – it’s a wonderful time to be here, to being in the country with my family, we usually are just all together, and it’s a quiet time, I love how quiet it is on Christmas morning.
âWe live quite simply, really, and we usually have a simple Christmas. It’s just that little kernel, we don’t visit anyone, we spend the day – well, I try to spend the day in my pajamas, so it’s mini containment. Having the opportunity to do so is always welcome. You did all you can before Christmas Day.
Fish was especially waiting on December 31 when the surviving members of An Emotional Fish (the group’s drummer Martin Murphy, who died in 2017) were to reunite for a New Year’s Eve concert in St Stephen’s Green, alongside Cathy Davey, Greenhouse Flowers, Frances Black and Something Happens.
Sadly, this event has since had to be canceled, bringing back memories of the scaled-down events of last year.
âLast year I played a gig on TV in the Gaiety,â Fish recalls, âand I walked out, and it would have been around 12:30 pm, and it was dead, the whole town, I didn’t have never seen anything like it, let alone New Years.
âThen I got home, like a two hour trip, and I was the only car on the road – it was like the end of the world, so I hope that’s not one of the times. ‘between them. I thought it was pretty sad. You know, we’re built to celebrate – we’re made to come together.