Leo Moran, the lead guitarist and occasional vocalist of the Saw Doctors, is someone who peppers sentences with positives: he uses the word “wonderful” five times and “delighted” twice over the course of a half-hour chat that I have with him on the phone. Taking full advantage of modern technology he phoned me on Skype, from the car-park of the Black Box in Galway City – a venue where the Saw Doctors have often performed. (“An impressive signal,” he noted.)
Clearly Moran is a glass half-full type of person, and with good reason. He is a member of one of the most consistently successful bands in Ireland, which has produced 18 top-30 singles and three number ones. The band’s seventh album, “The Further Adventures of the Saw Doctors” will be released in the U.S. just before St. Patrick’s Day, on March 13; and next week they will embark on a U.S. tour.
Not bad for a group that describes itself as hailing from a “repressed, Catholic, conservative, small-town, agrarian, angst-ridden and showband infested society” – that is, Tuam, Co. Galway. Formed in 1986 the Saw Doctors have been responsible for some of the biggest home-grown hits to grace Irish radio through the 1990s and as recently as last year. “I Useta Lover” is their most familiar single, but “N17,” telling of a young man living in London who would love to be driving back to Galway, has a particular meaning for Irish people who live abroad.
That song has a new resonance at the moment. “Some of the songs we had written back sounded old five years ago but they sound new again,” Moran said. “Particularly ‘N17’; which is a good feeling, to see that they’re connecting with people in the way that they hadn’t for a few years.”
Their most recent hit is a cover of “Downtown”, featuring Petula Clark, who first sang it in the 1960s and in the video looks astonishingly good for her 79 years. After they’d decided to record the song, it emerged that their manager had a connection to Clark. “It turned out that she was interested in singing along with us,” Moran said. “What a privilege to work with a true global musical legend. And the song is fantastic as well.”
Perhaps because of its upbeat brand of nostalgia, the song reached number 2 in the Irish charts over Christmas.
Many of the Saw Doctors’ songs have commented on different aspects of Irish identity. When I asked Moran how he felt about the current crisis in the country, he was able to view even that in a positive light. He acknowledged that many people are seeing real hardship, but noted that the Tiger boom had damaged the sense of community that had been so strong in Ireland before.
“The prosperity thing that happened in the start of the millennium was very false anyway,” he said. “The more affluent they became the more removed they became from each other. There is more of a community spirit, which is something we all grew up with and know and love. So it’s not all a bad thing that we didn’t continue in that false prosperity curve that we were on for so long.”
In one of their most obvious references to Irish society and culture, the band recorded a song entitled “Michael D. Rocking in the Dail” in 1994, celebrating the man who now holds the Irish presidency. Moran remains loyal to President Higgins, who taught him when he was a student at NUI Galway. “Michael D. opened up our minds to ideas, concepts and parts of the world that we had never known before,” he wrote to me in an email after we spoke. “He’s the right man for the job, plus he’s also highly opinionated and he might speak his mind in some situations where it might not be in his job description – he’s a bit of a punk behind it all.”
The Catholic Church holds a more ambiguous place in The Saw Doctors’ repertoire. Moran is pleased that the worst activities of representatives of the Catholic Church have been brought to light. “I think the best part of our anger was directed in a humorous way rather than being straight on angry because we don’t seem to be good at being straight on angry.”
“But we did grow up in a very repressed and oppressive kind of a Catholic regime. And to see the bad parts of that blown away was very satisfying for us.” Irish teenagers are much better educated and open-minded than when he was growing up, Moran said.
Despite more than 20 years of performance, the band are ready for their tour of the U.S., which will take them across the continent, incorporating Chicago, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Florida, North Carolina and Iowa as well as Toronto.
And Moran had an optimistic view for Ireland too. “There’s all these macro vocabularies going around – economic crisis and all the words that go with it, all the media hype that it entails, our leaders are going to Germany, and we’re signing up for treaties and all this stuff. And that’s all going on and it’s quite real,” he said.
“But people have to eat their dinner and grow spuds and do a bit of work and meet each other and sing a few songs and have a few drinks. Maybe it’s hard; but people’s spirit and intelligence and creativity will always be there, and good things will always be going on.”
The Saw Doctors tour of the US and Canada begins Feb. 22. For more details see http://www.sawdoctors.com/index.php/gigs