Gaelic Storm:
surviving Titanic

An interview by Tom Knapp

To some people, they'll always be the high-spirited band who got Kate and Leo dancing in the steerage section of the ill-fated Titanic. But Gaelic Storm, who rocketed to fame on the heels of that brief appearance in the James Cameron blockbuster, has proven its salt after five years of aggressive touring.

Band leader Patrick Murphy (vocals, accordion, harmonica) still credits the 1997 movie with jumpstarting their professional career -- but he's still confident they'd have made it eventually.

"What Titanic did was gave us a huge step up," he said. "We would have done it. But it would have taken us longer."

Previously a part-time pub band in the Los Angeles area, Gaelic Storm leveraged their newfound fame into a main stage slot at the prestigious Milwaukee Irish Festival.

"It was terrifying, and we had to prove we could do it," Murphy said. "But now it's 3 1/2 years later, and we're busier than ever. We've proven our worth."

That year, the members of Gaelic Storm were able to quit their day jobs and go into music full time. Now with three albums under their belts and studio time for a fourth in the near future, the band is still working to hone its sound and stretch the boundaries of Celtic music.

That includes a greater quantity of original material. Murphy noted that their first album had one original tune, the second had three. Their most recent CD, Tree, has 10 originals.

"We want to keep it traditional, keep the sound that people like, but write our own songs as well," Murphy said. "We have more experience and we've grown musically over the past few years. ... There's a huge difference between the first, second and third albums."

That doesn't lessen his fondness for traditional music one whit, Murphy asserted. A native of County Cork, he wants to hold on to his musical roots while exploring new possibilities with the band.

"I've always loved the traditional music back in Ireland," he said. "When I came over here, I came to appreciate the Irish music a lot more. When you leave home, you always appreciate more what you left behind."

Gaelic Storm fills a niche, somewhere between a traditional ensemble and an Irish rock band, he said.

"We try to push the envelope," Murphy said. "Some people say we go too far, too rocky. But we try to keep a balance. And we're still chugging along."

A lot of people are tired of the "fabricated stuff you hear on the radio," Murphy insisted.

"People are crying out for good music. O Brother, Where Art Thou is proof of that -- they sold 4 million copies without any radio play," he said.

An Irish band can't expect the kind of marketing campaign afforded pop musicians like Britney Spears, Murphy admitted. Still, the genre gamely continues to build its core of enthusiastic supporters. "Celtic music or Irish music, call it what you want, but people don't put a lot of money behind it. It doesn't get a lot of radio play," he explained. "But with all of the different Celtic bands playing at the moment, someone's bound to cross over.

"It's not a fad. It's not like Irish music is popular for two or three years and goes away. It's always there."

That is owed in part to the Irish-American population's zealous, sometimes fanatical devotion to Irish culture, he said.

"It blows my mind -- you see everybody dressed up in green and in shamrocks, in 'Kiss Me, I'm Irish' and 'Irish princess' shirts," Murphy said. "Man, are these people mad or what? I didn't understand it when I first moved over here, either."

But people, who often can claim only one-quarter or one-eighth Irish ancestry, hold tightly to that heritage, he said.

"They're proud of their heritage," he said. "They're very passionate about it and proud of it."

Long-time Storm fans might be surprised by a new addition to the lineup. Sound engineer Tom Brown is joining the band onstage for several tune sets, Murphy said, adding Highland and Northumbrian bagpipes to the mix.

"He's only been with us since March," Murphy said. But Brown, a former piper with the Canadian Army Pipe Band, is fast becoming a popular part of the show. "We'd like to use him more," he said. "He gives us a more diverse sound, a broader range of instruments."

At the same time, Murphy said, the band wants to be sure they don't become imitative of other popular "bagpipe rock" bands such as Seven Nations and Brother. "We'll be a little bit careful not to go too far in their direction," he said. "They have their own following and their own sound. ... We don't want to end up copying anyone."

The last change to the lineup was about three years ago, when Chicago native Kathleen Keane replaced Zambian fiddler Samantha Hunt. Keane is a more versatile musician, playing fiddle, tin whistle, flute and button accordion. She also sings and stepdances. Others in the band are New Yorker Steve Wehmeyer (bodhran, vocals, didjeridoo) and Englishmen Steve Twigger (guitar, mandolin, bouzouki, vocals) and Shep Lonsdale (percussion).

With wives and significant others waiting back home in Santa Monica, touring can be hard, Murphy said.

"We're on the road for three weeks, then we get two off and we're back on the road for four," he said. Gaelic Storm tours primarily in the East and Midwest, which is a long way from home.

But the rush is just as strong when an audience reacts to their music, he added.

"It feels great. It's always great."

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 6 July 2002