We interviewed Paddy Keenan, one of the World's most unique and masterful players of the Uilleann pipes, at a house concert in the West side of Santa Cruz on Saturday, October 27th, 2012. He comes across as thoroughly humble and it was a very special privilege to talk with him.
~Paul Edwards and Kasie Talbot
Kasie: Having been taught the pipes by your Father, did he treat you the same as he treated other students?
He was responsible for quite a few pipers, directly or indirectly—Finbar Furey for example, don't know if you've ever heard of him. Finbar came to live with us in the early years back in the late '50's, early '60's and lived with us for something around five and eight years and my Dad was tutoring him and he wouldn't let us play together, so he was tutoring us separately, and there were things that he was showing me, like technique or whatever it may be, phrasing or ornaments or whatever, that he might have a different way of showing another piper.
There was a lot of that going on way back in the '20's, 30's, '40's, where even you had pipe makers who were so envious and jealous of each other, and scared that their secrets may be taken by the next pipe maker down the way. There is a famous story where a guy pretended to actually go away knowing that this other guy would come to his workshop and steal his secrets [laughter] and he hid in the bushes, and supposedly stabbed the other guy with one of the reamers—didn't kill him—but stabbed him with a reamer. I don't think he cared if he did or not but I mean, this is the stuff that was going on back then. It was a very secretive sort of [trade]: reed making, where you got your cane, what stuff you used and all that stuff, and that sort of carries through with the travellers as well—the travellers in Ireland, which is the equivalent to the gypsies in Romania, but they don't consider themselves gypsies. A lot of them are people who were forced off their land through taxes and stuff.
But [my Father] did [show me certain ways to do things] as a favor to me. He'd been playing all his life. His father played, his grandfather played and not just the pipes but the flute, and fiddle and other instruments. That's why a lot of my siblings, they play different instruments. Another reason why they didn't play the pipes was I suppose because he was a little more strict with me. He wanted a piper, you know, and that was a sort of traveller tradition, to have a piper in the family.
Kasie: So, what was his teaching like?
Well that's another reason why my brothers didn't play the pipes or didn't take them up. I suppose they played other instruments because I would be held back where they could go out and play football or play ball or go to the cinema, but I'd be held in. He'd be spending much more time with me than any of the rest of them because his big thing were pipes and whatever you did, my Dad was the type of man that believed that it had to be the best, for him that is, and he was tough, and back then, I suppose discipline was very different because you might get a slap or something on the fingers or on the hand as you're playing if you didn't do what he'd been showing you, so you get maybe three or four times to try it and then if you didn't do it, he'd get terribly frustrated. It's like [being] a driver—you don't give driving lessons to your wife or to your kids, or to your brothers, or sisters...
Paul: [Laughter] Especially to your kids.
...it's the worst thing you can do. But he gave me everything he had and he was quite good, but he would spend much more time with me playing or rehearsing or teaching, than with any of the rest of the family.
Paul: At the time that he was playing, was he playing more in sort of a formal kind of thing or was he playing for example in sessions and stuff like that?
Sessions and much more informal, but later in life, in the '60's, '70's, we had a small band. Myself and my brother and Liam Weldon the singer, and a couple of other musicians put a band together and then my Dad came in and said, "I'm being the leader of this band," and he had a couple of folk clubs in Dublin, and every week we'd go down there and we'd have a little audience and—something similar to this—people would play in the bar, but it was very, very different. People came to visit home so it was a revival of Irish music and particularly the pipes.
The pipes were a dying instrument back then. There weren't very many pipers back then, so I'd say most of my technique—[my Father] wanted me to be what he wanted to hear, and he'd sit me down and he'd tape it and record it and I remember he brought a recording into The Piper's Club in Dublin with myself when I was fourteen, and that took about two or three weeks to have me play it, you know, before he was happy with what he was hearing and he had to get what he wanted and then he brought that in to The Piper's Club and they were very surprised in there to hear a fourteen year old play like this. They thought it was a much older person. In fact, they didn't believe him I don't think, but he was so happy, he was chuffed, he was over the moon.
He was good at what he did but again, that generation were very different, I mean, when he went to school, the discipline back then was violent really if you think about it. Kids were beaten and slapped around the place and the parents—it [may not] happen to be both parents, but whoever was the stronger of the two, they could be pretty strict and use that way of teaching and chastising or whatever. I remember a guy saying to me once—a very famous musician—he said, "If I sent my son up to your Dad, would he teach him like he did you?" "Well he'd beat the crap out of him." [Laughter]
In fact, when I was about seventeen I left for London and gave up the pipes altogether. I was in love with the pipes when I was a kid, from a very early age and I started off with the whistle and then I played the pipes for many years and at seventeen I went away to England. [When I was] sixteen we all went to the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil where you had all these All-Ireland competitions and the family cleaned up [the competition]. My Dad was chuffed again. We all got ice cream [laughter]. I was actually fifteen, or sixteen when I got the All-Ireland under eighteen. It was the only competition I've ever entered for, and that was my last competition. I just felt sorry for the other kids, but he was flattered and it was enough.
Kasie: The open fingering style—how many pipers use that and is it still taught?
Paul: What does that mean?
Well the open style is much more fluent and the closed is much more like [what] you get from the Northumbrian pipes where once you [cover all the holes] on the chanter it stops. It's like popping notes, or they call it staccato, and there are very many different terms for staccato [for example], crans, but I use everything. People say, "Paddy is famous for his loose finger style." It's not true at all. Maybe [my playing is] more fluent than a lot of other pipers who play in that staccato, tight style because I've been playing them since I was a child so I use the tight fingering, as they call it, staccato, or the loose fingering. It depends. It's a mood for me. As I'm playing I'm expressing whatever mood I'm in right there and then so I'm never sure myself which style I'll use the next time I play.
Paul: So, maybe out of earshot of your Dad, did you do a lot of improvisation, just trying a lot of stuff?
I did of course, yeah, and when I grew up and left home and then came back and started the pipes again, what my Dad didn't realize was that, you know, I was going to grow up and become a man and have a mood of my own and a mindset of my own, and that's what happens, and of course, it was a great start from him, a great foundation because I knew a lot about the pipes. I could make my own reeds and I even modified the pipes to fit myself—changed the whole make of the pipes and in fact some of the old traditionalists, the purists would come to me and say, "Oh young upstart," you know and, "You don't do this," "You don't do that," and, "You leave the pipes as they are, old fashioned, put the string over your shoulder," and I thought, well, if that's how you feel about it go ahead, create your hump[back], because you have to be [positioned] like this with the damn thing. It's difficult enough to play that instrument without having...
Paul: Oh yeah, it would sort of lead to repetitive stress syndrome in a way.
You've got to get rid of all the distraction if you want to play a mood because if it's an effort, it's very much more difficult to express yourself with the instrument, like playing piano out of tune or your guitar with two strings missing or something like that.
Kasie: What were the modifications you made to your pipes?
The setting, for example, the stock holds about six reeds. It holds the drone reeds and the regulator reeds, and it used to be up here so to keep it up underneath your arm, you had to have a string over your shoulder otherwise it kept weighing down with the weight of the stock, so what I did was I dropped the stock down to here [Paddy tied the stock lower into the bag], which left the barrel resting here and it straightens your body and your shoulders. Before it was like this, and now I'm much more straight. The other thing was making my own reeds. I tried to change the tone and the sound and the balance and all that stuff.
Paul: So you'd experiment with it.
I did, all the time. In the old days, the primitive days when we had no tools, I used the scissors or sandpaper to undercut the notes of the melody part of the chanter so the notes would roll out much easier and I'd have much more of an effect when I'd bend them, and with pressure of course, and tuning, and people are doing that today. Pipe makers are doing that today. Back then I could've just as easily ruined the chanter. I didn't have the tools and I don't think I was 100% sure what I was doing. I was experimenting, but it worked.
Paul: That's really good, I mean, that's the way things grow. It's like the low whistles where people would just hack something off and then duct tape it on to a...
Yeah, there are very many different ways of changing the tone on those whistles. We used to use a chewed piece of paper or dough, and put it on the side of the old Clarke's whistle and that would give a totally different tone altogether.
Kasie: What do you use guitar strings for?
I use guitar strings to bring the pitch down and people used to use rushes, and they would even slice them to get them to the right size to bring the pitch down to [match] the drones, or to concert pitch, or C, or whatever the pipes were in, and I discovered that they would rot and they would move around with the pressure of air going through, so it never really lasted, so now I use guitar strings. If I sense the chanter may be out above or below, I know from practice the thickness of guitar string [to put in]. When I was playing with the Bothy Band, [I had to be in tune with] five other musicians so you have to know what you're doing and be pretty exact when you take a reed out and move it. It could knock it totally out of tune or it might be too loud or horrible sounding so you get used to that from years and years of [practice].
Paul: So since you mentioned the Bothy Band, I have a really silly question. I came across a Youtube [video] of you guys playing and I think it was in '76, and Kevin Burke is singing "Mrs. Gilhooley's Party."
Is it the [song about the] hole in the bag?
Paul: The hole in the bag! [Laughter] And I was wondering what you were thinking while he's singing about cutting the hole.
I used to hate that song, man, because he'd slag me when he was singing that song and you can see [as] I'm sitting there [that] I was never really comfortable on stage back then but whenever he'd sing that song I'd be [feeling uncomfortable] all the way though it you know, and I knew the people were laughing at it and me and the pipes and all that. Well I thought they were.
Paul: Were you thinking perchance of his fiddle? [Laughter]
He's lucky. [Laughter] No, it was a fun song and I should have sat back and smiled after him and had fun with it but yeah, I was just play acting really. It's a song about the pipes and the pipe bag and it used to annoy me a little sometimes but it was all in fun really.
Paul: Yeah. So I was really interested to read in your bio that you got interested in the blues and went off to do that, and what instruments were you using?
The reason why that happened was, I played until I was about seventeen and then I just got tired of the strictness. I wasn't playing outdoors very much. I wasn't playing anywhere. When I was fourteen, I played the Gaety Theatre and some of the [other] big theatres in Dublin but I played other instruments as well, like guitar and banjo, five string and four string, and then I just took off to England. Most people [who went] to London back then were going for work and instead of going in the construction direction I went in the Hippy direction and got lost with the Hippies and so I didn't think the pipes were a cool instrument and in actual fact, people in England at the time wouldn't know what the hell [the Uilleann pipes] were, or that is what I thought. They'd never seen that instrument. [Even in] Ireland [back then], you'd have to play a tune the people could relate to before they would come and listen.
In London I tried to actually pawn [my pipes] and I couldn't. I knew if I put them in the pawn they'd be safe—I could always get them back out but they wouldn't accept. They wouldn't take them. I went as low as possible but no way. [They said] "What the hell is that!?" So I came outside and people laugh about [this] because I went out there and was dumping them into a bin outside the pawn shop and my friend took them and locked them up in his attic for me. I think he had them for about three years.
I got myself a guitar and I was singing and busking around London as a Hippy, but there was a friend of mine there and he is Grattan Puxon—he's now head of the Gypsy Counsil of Great Britain—and his wife, she decided that they should try to get me back on the pipes. I knew them from way back. We had met three or four years prior to that, and she decided that the best thing that could happen for me would be to introduce me to the Beatles, to the music of course, and the Beatles had stopped touring and they were looking for unusual instruments and stuff, and with John Lennon's connection with Ireland and McCartney's connection with Ireland, she believed that if she introduced me to them with this strange weird instrument that they wouldn't have seen before—and this is after George Harrison had come back from India with the zitar—and they were searching for new instrumentation and so she thought, great opportunity for Paddy, get him back on the pipes, great for the pipes, you know, advertise, popularize the pipes. She arranged it anyway that I'd go meet them in the recording studio. It could've been sometime between 1968 and '70, and I went back to the couples house with my Hippy girlfriend and I suppose I was ready to go see them. I don't know what happened, it was mad really, but the next morning I woke up really, really early and I got out of there. I left. I didn't go. I didn't go to the meeting. I was supposed to go down to the studio to meet them, and I left beforehand.
Kasie: Why didn't you go?
Insecurity, youth, feeling [the pipes] were hick. Whatever it was I just didn't go and I went back busking which is just... "You stupid idiot!" [laughter]. I would have loved to have met the people, John especially, George and them. Didn't happen.
Kasie: How are your new set of pipes improved over your old ones?
That's hard to say now because you're not really hearing them at their best but the old ones were—actually they were broken up as well, the springs were gone. I had elastic bands on them for the regulators and they were pretty old and I thought, well, you know—I had some money at the time—I'll have a set copied and whatever is not right with the others I'll try to correct it with this set, so that's what we did, and I had this guy build them for me and I'd come there and I'd be in the workshop while they were cutting the finger holes, moving regulator keys, moving holes, and we did correct quite a bit, you know, but, to be honest with you, a good set of reeds in the other set, the older set, might even be a nicer tone. If I went back to them tomorrow I'm sure maybe I'd stay with them because this chanter here is made from boxwood, the other one is ebony, and even though I got the boxwood to try soften the overtones, like the high A's and the like—that happened to some degree but then I've lost quite a bit of the resonance and I'd like to have that back so I'll probably move back to the blackwood chanter. I might even move back to the old set, although I was offered £60,000 for them in England a few years ago.
Paul: Whoo! What's your whistle?
It's made by Cillian Ó Briain in Dingle, [County Kerry, Ireland] and it's made of aluminum and it's in D, concert pitch. It's a low whistle. They're called low whistles.
Paul: And Kasie's last question was, so what's your new solo CD?
Ah! It's a mix. [Laughter] It's in a mix and it's a mix of all kinds. Actually it's not new—I'm putting this out while I'm recording a new CD but it's stuff that has been there for some time, like some of it's quite old and it's with various different people, like from different parts of the World, so it's a variety really.
Paul: Cool. Thanks very much indeed.