By Conor O’Neill
Belfast singer/songwriter Acoustic Dan – AKA Daniel Gregory – has caused quite a splash in the Belfast music scene these last few years, and his recent record, Smick Folk, released in June is a culmination of a couple of decades of hard work and hard living.
The 41-year-old gave CulstureCrush NI a few minutes of his time to chat about music, writing, how to clear a pub, inviting chaos and his plans for the future.
Interested? Read on.
What’s your musical background, do you come from a musical family?
“No. My eldest sister played a bit of guitar when she was a kid but there’s no one really musical in the family. Saying that, the same sister is a visual artist and she’s definitely kept the creative thing going in me.”
So, when did you pick up a guitar?
“What happened was Oasis. I’d always really liked music but I never really thought about it. I liked Oasis at the time and I saw Noel Gallagher talking about writing songs. Some times things aren’t a reality until you hear somebody saying them out loud. It was very important to me that they were working class. I don’t like their stuff now but I would class them as the most important British band since the Sex Pistols.”
Smick Folk, is that a name/genre you’ve called yourself or did someone call you that?
“I would be regarded as a punk folk artist and I have referred to myself as that in the past, but I don’t like the term. Being a European, British or Irish artist, we’ve nothing to do with that genre. To me it’s an American term. I find it’s just a bunch of rich kids living in squats talking about how much they hate the cops. I had a load of different names for the album and I was just chipping away at them over the months to get something with a bit of style to it and was true to the music, that’s where the name came from.”
In recent Facebook posts you’ve said you hardly gigged at all and now you’re flat out, is that to do with the release of the LP?
“That must be some sort of confusion there because I’ve been playing a long time and have done thousands of gigs. In the last four or five years I’ve slowed down a bit. I set up about four or five Belfast gigs a year. I have a small but loyal following but you can’t expect people to come out every week. Some local promoters will get me a gig if someone is coming into town they think I will gel with, so I do some hired gun stuff, that’s where the last two gigs came from.
“You have to know who I am and pay to see me. It’s not fair on a publican if I walk into a bar and it’s just the usual crowd. I can empty a pub very quickly because there are a lot of things people don’t agree with or want to hear. People have to know what they’re coming to hear.”
I’m interested in your songs’ content and delivery. Take for instance Handicapped Hero, is Andy Gaga an actual person or a creation from your imagination?
“Yeah, he’s a real person, his real name is Andy *******. The song is quite self explanatory but he’s definitely a real person. I just hope the song never does well, because if it does his whole family will sue me.”
And then the likes of Cigarettes And Sandwiches, the way you shout ‘School’ puts me in mind of The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan’s style of singing.
“The Pogues are probably my favourite band. I try to sing the way I talk. Actually, when I was recording that song I was more worried that I’d sound like a friend of mine who’s an artist. He’s called Jinx Lennon. Me and him are comrades-in-arms in music, he’s a songwriter from Dundalk. I was concerned I would sound like him but I never even thought of the MacGowan reference myself, but yes, I’m a huge Shane MacGowan and Pogues fan.
Smick Folk the recording is quite lo-fi. Is that due to preference or monetary reasons?
“It’s both. I don’t have any money, I’m literally the epitome of the broke artist, I have no capital at all. I made some money from playing music online and paid my producer Chris Dickson, who’s a wonderful and underrated producer in the Belfast scene. Me and him are old friends and he basically said, ‘give me a token amount of money because I want to record this album’.
“It’s lo-fi, I wanted to be able to play it on my own, I didn’t want a full band. I didn’t want people turning up at gigs and expecting a full band sound. If I had’ve had more money and time I think it might have been a bit different . I’m lucky because I’ve been about the scene for aa long time and I’ve a lot of friends who will do things for me; there’s a couple of guys who play on the record, people like Dominic O’Neill and the Doone brothers, Sean and James. These people are respected artists in their own right and they just do things for me.”
Have you always been a solo artist or have you been in bands? If so what are the differences, are there restraints or freedoms and what’s your thoughts on collaboration?
“I started out in bands, then when I started writing the Acoustic Dan stuff I was in my early 20s I played on my own for a while. Then I played in a band called The Black Mountain River Dipsos, we did an album and it’s a really good record. The difference is that it’s much easier to play on your own because you’re not depending on anyone and have to listen to five other musicians, it’s just you. The stage can be a bit lonely, especially when things go wrong and the crowd gets volatile which has happened to me quite a few times.
But don’t you miss having someone to bounce ideas off?
“Well, I’ll certainly never write lyrics with someone else. People don’t really understand what it takes to get lyrics to the level that I’m bringing them to, to make a song sound like it’s me talking or saying things fluently and make it sound off the cuff. Some of my songs have taken a year and a half to finish, it’s all about fluency for me. I’m writing all the time and tidying things up, if I have a song and there’s a single word I’m not happy with or that makes me that one bit uncomfortable, then the song is not finished.
“As well as that, I think 99 per cent of people who write songs, well I think their lyrics are garbage. I think it’s a rare thing when people ask, ‘I want you to be really honest, what do your think of that [their songs]? and I tell them and it turns out they really didn’t want me to be honest at all. I just couldn’t be bothered. It’s a lot easier to work on your own.”
I want to ask you about the length of your songs. Apart from A Scene From The City and the two covers, She Moves Through The Fair and The Well Below The Valley, all the songs on Smick Folk are under two minutes, is that intentional?
“I write songs because I want to say something, though I don’t like the term ‘punk folk’, I really like the punk ethos and I don’t see any need for any nonsense. Saying that, I am changing all the time. The new stuff I’m writing is nothing like what I’ve been writing for the past 20 years. I’ve started to write about specific places and times and how they make me feel. I’m writing about walking to work and things like that and people seem to like it. I’ve carved out a style for myself and I do like short songs.
What sort of performer are you? Going by the record I imagine you to be animated and forceful?
“Well I don’t know because I’ve never seen myself. Unfortunately I’m not that animated as I’m not good enough of as a musician to dance about or whatever. I’m not above telling a crowd to fuck off, I hold my ground. Sometimes I have a mouth on me and on stage I say some crazy shit. At one point I think it got a bit masochistic where I’d go on stage and on purpose just say a load of shite before I’d even started the set just because it interested me to see if I could then win the crowd over. I done it recently. It was an open mic night and no one was paying any attention so I said some really off stuff just to make them react. There was one of two of my mates in the crowd and they just pissed themselves. I have no fear onstage.
“There’s this myth that the songs are really short and that’s not true. It’s only true of the last 60 years. Woodie Guthrie and a lot of the old folk artists would occasionally have a five minute tune, but that’s only if they have long, complicated stories that need to be told. Even at the start of rock n roll people like Buddy Holly etc. their songs were two minutes tops and even the Pixies had short songs.
Going by your lyrics and Facebook posts, I take it you’ve led quite a colourful life? Have you calmed down since your 20s?
“Aye, well, right up to my mid to late 30s. From about the age of 11 to my late 30s I was a bit mad. There was everyone else and then there was me, I was right up there at the next level. I’ve never really been happy, I’ve had mental health issues and always felt like an outsider and never felt comfortable in a lot of things. That might have helped at the start but then it made it worse later. When it did make it worse it was almost too late because it was a case of ‘You’re not walking away from this’. I ended up having to pay for private professional help. Saying that, I still booze regularly but there are rules now and I tend to keep it under control but I was heading for a short life.”
So, what’s next for your music and your musical aspirations?
“During lockdown I joined an online writers’ group which is led by a poet called Scott McKendry, he’s tipped to be the next big serious poet from here.. I started writing pieces for the group. There’s song from Smick Folk called A Scene From The City, there’s always one song from an album that tells what the next album is going to sound like, A Scene From The City is that song. As far as musical aspirations, my aim is to earn 30,000 pound a year from making music. I heard Stuart Lee [the comedian] say if ‘you’ve got 3000 hardcore fans from all over the world and release an album every year, that’s 30 grand’.
“It’s a weird position because I don’t want to be famous but I’d like to be admired for my work and I’d like my work to be taken seriously. I want to be able to provide for myself and my family through my music.”
To buy Smick Folk go to http://www.bandcamp.com
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