Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with traditional Irish multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan of the group Solas about how growing on both sides of the Atlantic shaped his music, how Solas benefited from Riverdance’s popularity and why he’s excited to share the lineup with bluegrass bands at the 3 Sisters Festival.
CP: How has the summer treated you this year?
SE: It's been actually a really nice summer. It's been a good and busy year. We had a little time off the last couple weeks, and we're going to have a handful of shows between now and the end of the year, but primarily, what we're working on is our new project, “Shamrock City,” which is our next album that will be out next spring.
“Shamrock City' is a name used to describe Butte, Mont., so the project is about a relative of mine who was a miner out there in the early 1900s. He ended up being killed by a couple of police. That was a family story that got me interested in Butte. The whole project is about him and about Butte. That's where the title came from.
CP: Have you ever been to Chattanooga before?
SE: Yeah, a couple of times over the years. It's been a few years. I think it was a Solas gig. I remember it being stunningly hot. [Laughs.] That's par for the course there. It has lodged itself in particular spot in my brain as being pretty unforgettable.
CP: You were born in Pennsylvania but grew up predominantly in Ireland? How old were you when you moved back?
SE: I moved back when I was two or three years old when I moved back to Mayo. The family moved back because my father's parents, who were from Mayo, had been living with us here in the states and wanted to go back home. They didn't want to die and be buried here in America. They wanted to be buried back home. They were getting up in years, and that's one of the reasons the family moved back.
Shortly after we were there, six to eight months, my grandmother died. Then, 10 years after that, my grandfather passed away. A couple months after that, we were back in the states. That was in 1980-1981.
CP: You returned to America in your early teens. Was there a lot of culture shock?
SE: I had very very few memories of being here before, so I guess it was a bit of culture shock, but it was a bit of an adventure as well. Being that age and moving to America was kind of exciting and scary, all at the same time.
CP: Was it difficult coming from Ireland, where traditional music was more common, to America, where it was more scarce?
SE: We moved back to Philadelphia. Where we were at the time in Ireland, there wasn't a tremendous amount of music, actually. It was at a time when the popularity of Irish music, particularly amongst young people, was not as intense it is today.
That said, when we came back here, I had no intention of continuing to play at all. My parents brought us down to the Irish Center here shortly after we moved back. That was a place that had been here for decades. It's where my parents met, actually.
There, I met Mick Malloney, who I had grown up listening to on radio and on records in Ireland. It turned out he lived here. I met him at the Irish Center, and that was a bit of a turning point. I spent a lot of time at his house, and I started playing concerts with him. That was the thing that got me back to playing here in the States.
To that point, there wasn't anything happening. In my mind, Irish music was something that was played in Ireland. I didn't realize you could do it here as well.
CP: How do you feel like living on both sides of the Atlantic has shaped your approach to the music?
SE: I think it must have. I don't think it's something I could put words to. I think it was almost like something that gets in your blood. Maybe it was around it a bit more so it was an osmosis thing, and maybe that is the difference between here and there. For the longest time, I didn't really think there was any other kind of music than Irish music. [Laughs.] When I came here, I thought, “Oh, there are other kinds of music?”
CP: Once you got here, what music did you begin listening to?
SE: Oh, god. Everything. Rush, Van Halen - a big world opened up. [Laughs.] It was anything and everything. Still to this day, I listen to just about everything.
CP: I read that you picked up the accordion first? Is that right? How old were you?
SE: No, it was the tin whistle. There was a music teacher who was coming to town once a week. My parents wanted me and my sisters to learn a little bit of music, so they sent us down to town hall once a week. They didn't know if we had any interest or aptitude to do it. A tin whistle was cheap, and it was a quick, easy and cheap way to see if there was any reason to continue. That's why most kids at the time started on the whistle.
CP: And your sisters went on to play music as well. Were your parents also musical? Was music just an expected part of life or did your parents allow you to come to it on your own terms?
SE: It was a bit of both. My parents weren't musical, but they always had music around us. They always brought us to concerts and sessions. Any interest we showed in music they somehow found a way to find those instruments way into our hands. The only reason I play those instruments is because of my parents' sacrifice to let me play them, both me and my sisters. Even thought they didn't play, they had a deep love for music.
It wasn't something we were forced into. Like any kid playing music, you didn't love practicing and had to be made to practice, but after a while, it was something that clicked over and you fell in love with doing.
CP: With two sisters who play music, it seems like a family band would have been the logical way to go. Why didn't that happen?
SE: We did play a little bit together. We made an album together years ago, but it seemed, for us, that it was better to go our own paths. The family band thing can be great, but it can be tricky as well. It just seemed to be better, all around, for everyone to go their own road.
CP: You've taken on many other instruments and are accomplished on them on an order many people probably can't comprehend. What instruments have you won All-Ireland distinction on? Flute and banjo, certainly, but what else?
SE: Flute and banjo, yeah. Also, whistle and mandolin.
CP: What drove your interest in tackling such a variety of instruments?
SE: I would just hear them and would like the sound of them. Whatever it was I was playing, whenever I heard something playing a different sound, I was just being greedy, I suppose. [Laughs.] To my ear then, a certain tune would sound better on the other instrument. I would just torture my parents until they found some affordable version of that instrument to see if I actually had any interest in doing it or was just full of crap. [Laughs.] That's how it came about. I was just drawn to the sound of these things.
CP: It must have been frustrating that you not only asked for the instruments but excelled so much they had to buy you better ones.
SE: [Laughs.] Yeah, it couldn't have been easy for them. I'll have to remember to apologize. [Laughs.]
CP: By the time you founded in Solas in 1994, you were 25 but already a well-seasoned veteran of performing and touring. When you formed your own group, what were your intentions for the group?
SE: To be honest, when it began, there weren't any intentions. The group came together haphazardly. It was just something we wanted to do. We made the first album, and we would have been as happy with just one album. We didn't think there would be much interest in doing a second one.
We were all involved in different projects and different bands and all that, but the reaction to the first album was really positive. We started getting offers to go do shows, and all the sudden, there was an agent and tours. There wasn't a plan for any of that; it just happened. Now, 15 years later, we're still trying to make a plan. [Laughs.]
CP: Now that you’re 15 years in, has the group evolved in ways you wouldn't have predicted? Are you happy with where you've ended up?
SE: Yeah, we've had some lineup changes over the years, so there is a natural evolution that occurs with that. To go through changes like that and to still weather it and be around for 15 years - we're pretty happy about that.
It's funny. Turning around, that 15 years just feels like a blink, really. To go from being the new kids on the block to being, “Oh my god, we've been here awhile.” [Laughs.] That jump happens frighteningly fast.
I'm just glad we're still here doing what we're doing. You can think things could always be improved, but at the end of the day, I'm very grateful we still have the ability to do this.
CP: To many people, their points of reference for Irish music are Riverdance and Celtic Woman, which isn't what Solas is about. Do you sometimes feel you're having to sell the music in its traditional form to audiences?
SE: I think people have their perceptions. Before Riverdance and all that, there was a different perception of what Irish music was. It just happens that what we've done has never been vague, as far as our perception of what Irish music is.
It's something I've quite honestly never paid attention to. One of the things about being around for a while is that you kind of make your own brand. Riverdance did what it did, both good and bad, for getting the word out about Irish music.
The fact is that Irish music was around before Riverdance and will be around long after Riverdance is forgotten about. We're just plugged into it, at the moment, doing our own thing.
CP: Solas and Riverdance started almost concurrently, then.
SE: Yeah, it was right about that time when things were starting to kick off. There was a time for about a year or a year and a half when it was all things Irish. It was kind of nuts. There were a lot of things going on at the time.
I did the soundtrack for “Brothers McMullen,” which won Sundance at the time. Then, there was Riverdance. There were was an Irish flavor that was hitting, more or less, mainstream consciousness. That hasn't happened in a while.
CP: Do you think that fervor contributed to Solas's early success?
SE: There certainly was. Clearly, there was a heightened awareness of all things Irish. We happened to be on the upswing at that time. We certainly benefited from the spotlight being on Ireland and Irish culture. Yeah, we definitely benefited from that.
CP: As with any band, there is a balancing act Irish bands must play between honoring tradition and helping that tradition change through their own contributions. In terms of where you fall on the spectrum, is Solas more about preserving the tradition or moving it forward?
SE: I suppose, in our own way, we're moving it forward. I think holding fast to the tradition - or whatever anyone considers traditional - has never really been that important to us.
In Irish music, what has been considered traditional has been a moving target anyway. One of the things that makes Irish music so vital is that it's something that is allowed to change and does changes. It isn't behind glass in a museum someplace. That's why it has the popularity it has. It is open to different ideas and the core of the music is strong enough to withstand anything.
I think we're less concerned about preserving the tradition because the tradition of it is about change. It always makes me laugh when someone gets on their high horse that, “That's not traditional.” It's like, “Well, explain to me what is?” Whatever your reference point is, a few years before that, it wasn't traditional. It's a funny thing. [Laughs.]
CP: You're being asked to play at 3 Sisters, which is traditionally a bluegrass festival. Does that happen often to Solas, and what do you play in these situations?
SE: It happens a few times, and we're always thrilled about it. We just do what we do. The fact is, what we do isn't wildly miles away from bluegrass. It's all in the same DNA strain.
I wish there was more of that, quite honestly, of the back and forth. Like I said, it's all in one family, and it's been oddly kept segregated from one another. For us, it's great when we get opportunities to come to festivals. I wish it was the same the other way as well, where more bluegrass was featured in Irish things.
We're thrilled when we see something like that come up on the calendar. We get to go into the other neighborhood.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...