Wednesday 19 December 2018

It's been emotional: Féile comes full circle for Jerry Fish

An Emotional Fish were a band on the cusp when they played the first ever Féile, says frontman Jerry Fish. Here he tells Celine Naughton what happened next...

Jerry Fish bringing happiness and joy with his uplifting music on the Monroe’s stage at Sea Sessions Surf and Music Festival, Bundoran, Donegal. Photo: Michael Donnelly
Jerry Fish bringing happiness and joy with his uplifting music on the Monroe’s stage at Sea Sessions Surf and Music Festival, Bundoran, Donegal. Photo: Michael Donnelly

When An Emotional Fish first blasted on stage at Semple Stadium in 1990 with their indie anthem Celebrate, the alt rock band did indeed have reason to revel. Having signed a major deal with Atlantic Records' legendary founder Ahmet Ertugen, they had just completed a world tour and had arrived home to a heroes' welcome at the first ever Féile, in Thurles, Tipperary.

"It felt good to be home, and to be part of the birth of the Irish music festival scene," remembers frontman Jerry Fish.

This year, three of the original band members make a return trip to Tipp with a wealth of experience behind them, if not in the ways imagined 28 years ago. Like most artists, An Emotional Fish didn't hit the dizzying heights of global superstardom, and in the mid-90s, after seven years of non-stop touring, the band broke up.

"I'd had enough of travelling and I gave up music for a while," says Jerry. "Then I met Niki, my now wife, and we had a child, Ella Joy. I remember looking into my daughter's eyes and it dawned on me that I didn't want her to grow up thinking, 'Daddy used to be a rock star.' My baby reminded me that you have to do what you love, so I went back to music. So really, Ella Joy is responsible for Jerry Fish."

Almost immediately, the single he then recorded with Jerry Fish and the Mudbug Club, 'True Friends', became a massive hit when it was picked up by Vodafone.

He and Niki now have four children, two boys and two girls aged from 10 to 17. To his kids he's Dad, and to family and friends he's Gerard Whelan, but at home at the foot of Mount Leinster in Borris, Co. Carlow, his alter ego Jerry Fish retreats to his studio in the garden where he has effectively reinvented himself as an entertainer of a different sort.

These days Jerry Fish is renowned as much for his showmanship as he is for his music. He's a carnival creator, circus ringmaster - complete with handlebar moustache - theatre maker, playwright, singer, songwriter and poet. Spawned from his Electric Picnic shows which became so popular that they gave him his own stage, now he takes his Electric Sideshow on tour, complete with aerial acts, pole dancers, burlesque artists, music, theatre and whatever else takes his fancy.

"Wherever Jerry Fish goes, the circus is not far behind," he says. "It's a monster, but I love that whole fraternity. My motto is 'unity through diversity'. In a circus, everyone mucks in. Even the prima ballerina tidies up elephant poo. My mother used to say, 'Nobody is better than you, and you're not better than anyone else'. I live by that philosophy to this day."

It's hard to pigeon-hole Jerry Fish, but it's always been that way. Gerard Whelan grew up a fish out of water. Born in Dublin in 1962, his parents moved to South London at a time when 'No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs' door signs had only recently left their mark. But when Gerard returned to Ireland as a teenager, he didn't settle here either.

"It was the bane of my life, people asking, 'Where are you from?'" he says. "I went back to London and started playing in bands, and in the 80s I went wandering. I worked in a kibbutz in the Middle East and picked oranges in the Greek Islands, and when I'd finished drifting, I got together with David Frew, Enda Wyatt and Martin Murphy, and An Emotional Fish was born."

Reunited specially for this year's Féile Classical, the band will play three numbers with the Irish Chamber Orchestra as well as a couple of rock anthems. Knowing Fish's penchant for spectacle, it's likely to be a memorable performance, but only three of the original band members - Jerry, David and Enda - will be there. Sadly, drummer Martin Murphy died in January 2017. His bandmates paid homage at his funeral by playing one of their biggest hits, 'Blue', and they have another lined up to commemorate their friend at Féile Classical.

"We'll be dedicating the song 'Julian' to him," says Jerry. "I wrote it for a friend who died at the age of 20. Martin would have loved it. Losing a band member is like a death in the family. It's a stark reminder that we're not here forever, but make no mistake, Martin will be with us at Féile."

The event is a far more sophisticated affair than the gig in 1990. The hang sangwiches and tea of old will be replaced by artisan food stalls and a pop-up Prosecco tent, not to mention a glamping site with luxury yurts serving strawberries and bubbly on arrival for those who want to sleep over in style.

"We've become Prosecco socialists," laughs Jerry. "I don't think people made sleeping arrangements at Féile in 1990. They didn't worry about it. There was a kind of 'Ah, it'll be grand' attitude. Thankfully, that sense of spontaneity still exists in Ireland today."

He's been around the block, and while he says the cultural landscape of the country has broadened in the last few decades, it's still not easy to make a living as a musician or artist in 21st century Ireland.

"It's not a career for the faint-hearted," he says. "There's no security, but there are opportunities. In the 80s and 90s, a band had to be signed by a big foreign label to make its mark. Today you can create your own fan base online. I like that ethic of doing it yourself.

"I've had to survive in this business, and while some people are motivated by greed, my experience tells me it's far more rewarding to be patient and kind. Kindness is a tool for human survival and I've been repaid in more ways than I could have imagined.

"I'm not an academic, I'm a dreamer with an inquisitive mind. As a child I couldn't figure out why schoolteachers insisted that heaven was in the sky. In my thirties, I met a Native American who told me, 'It's a magic trick. While you're looking at the sky, they steal the ground from under your feet.' The late Pete Postlethwaite told me, 'It's like trying to catch a snowflake.'

"I live in the now. We don't have to look elsewhere to find heaven. It's right here, and when An Emotional Fish plays at Féile Classical, our friend Martin will be with us onstage and catching up with old friends afterwards. It's going to be great fun and I'm really looking forward to it."

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