This interview posted via Matt Molloy took place on 26 September 1997, shortly after Molloy released his CD "Shadows on Stone," and was conducted by Sean McCutcheon, a flute player from Montréal.
Q: Your father and your uncle were flute players?
A: Yeah, my grandfather played as well. And it goes right back into the family on my father's side. They all played. My grandfather played around the turn of the century. They were all from the Sligo area, South Sligo, which is quite close to where I'm from myself. We're just across the border in County Roscommon, that's where I was born.
Q: You have a lovely description in the liner notes of the new CD of listening to the sound of the wind in the trees, as a child, and mixing it with the sound of reels in your head.
A: I soaked up the music as a child. That's the only way I can put it. It's like if you had parents, one who spoke French and the other English, and you hear the languages, you just pick it up. My father played. Well, he had given it up for a while, but once he saw that I was interested in it, he started to teach me. I started off in a fife and drum band in the National School. I just got interested, and started learning simple marches, you know, for the band. And my father started teaching me. He took an interest. He had sort of given it up at that stage. Next thing he dug the flute, from the old trunk he had brought back from America and oiled it up and started to play it and gave it to be to have a blow. It's as simple as that, now.
Q: Why the flute?
A: Well, whatever insanity is involved, I don't know; I just got hooked on it and I suppose my father did and my uncle and my grandfather. It's just the sound of the instrument that appeals to me. Well, if you like, I like the sort of expression that one can give. The flute does it for me. I can express what I feel best on that instrument.
Q: Did you go to a lot of sessions?
A: There weren't as many sessions as there are today. In the '50s there were families that were interested in the music and they associated with families that were of a like mind. You sort of got together once a fortnight or once a month. We were lucky in one sense. There was an Irish teacher; he taught the Irish language; and he lived right next door to me, and he played the fiddle. He wasn't the world's greatest fiddle player, but he was very enthusiastic about the music and very enthusiastic about the language. He was great organizer. He used to get people together for scoraiocht, from the Irish scor, to share) gatherings, musical gatherings, we used a room up in the school. Musicians from one town would come in one weekend, and musicians from another town would come in the next week. And we'd do it once a fortnight, or once every three weeks. In that way you'd listen to other musicians in a smaller scale than you do now, but you were meeting musicians, people of a like mind, and listening to different versions of tunes, and learning new tunes, great! - especially when you're a young fella like I was at the time.
Q: Is flute volume a problem at sessions?
A: Oh, I don't think so. I have a pub over in Westport, Co. Mayo, and I have music there every night. Session music. It's not geared for tourists by any means. Like, two fellas will come in and just play and people join in. I mean, I join in regularly myself. And my son plays there as well. He plays flute too. Ach, it's no problem. If you have a real rowdy crowd you're going to have a problem. Generally if I have a bunch of golfers in who aren't really interested in the music but they like the ambiance, I ask them nicely to move up to the other section of the pub. The room that we play in there was originally the kitchen. We just play away in that. Nine times out of 10 it's okay.
Q: You started playing on an anonymous German flute, with small holes and a sweet tone?
A: Yeah. I started on my father's flute. He bought it in New York, in Wurlitzers, the piano makers. My father was in the States for years. He went over in the mid '20s. He bought a German flute. It's exactly as you describe. Small holes, sweet tone. That was fine for solo playing, but for the rough and tumble of band work, or session work (I was in ceili bands) you really wouldn't hear it. I borrowed a Rudall and Rose -- I was presented with a Rudall and Rose to see what I thought of it. It was a beauty. A friend of mine gave it to me. I did all of the Bothy Band work with a Rudall and Rose.
Q: You played an Eb flute in the early days.
A: It became quite the fashion afterward for people to play in Eb, but I think I was one of the first people to do that. I was playing around with Tommy Peoples, the fiddle player. He liked to crank up, he liked to play sharp. But it was quite by accident. A friend of mine introduced me to a friend of his who had had an accident with his hand. He used to play flute in a brass and reed band; they played in Eb. I didn't know anything about that, but he wanted to sell me the flute, which he did. There was great tone off it, great bang off it. So I was thrilled with this thing. But I had nowhere to go with it. All the sessions were in D. But Tommy heard me play this. He used to love to crank the strings up into Eb and play, so that's how we got the whole thing started. And I made the first solo album with that flute.
Q: Who made your instruments?
A: What I play is a Boosey. It's called a Pratten's Perfected Boosey. It was made in 1861; I've got the original case and the original guarantee from Sidney Pratten. Sidney Pratten was the Rampal or the Galway of his day, and he tied in with Boosey to make a perfect flute, a perfect open-holed, simple-system flute. He says something like "This is perfect in every respect." That's the concert flute I play on with the Chieftains, and that I play on in the new solo album, The Wind in the Woods, whatever you call it. I was out late last night. Don't mind me.
Q: What's perfected about it?
A: You'd want to ask Sidney Pratten about that, but he's long gone. It's called the Pratten Perfected flute. Conceited in a way, I suppose. He tied in with Boosey, before they amalgamated to become Boosey and Hawkes. And they worked on getting the big sound. They opened the holes a bit bigger. It's a big-holed instrument, fairly wide holes.
Q: This is your favorite flute?
A: I keep going back to it. I'm playing it for the last 25 years now.
Q: Is it the design of the model, or a fluke of the individual instrument that gives it the sound you like?
A: It suits me, my type of playing. I feel it gives me the sensitivity when I need it. It's got power when I want it, and it gives me a rich woody timber sound, you know, that I need providing I'm in form. They're a difficult instrument to play, a heavy instrument, wind-wise and all that.
The other flute on the Shadows on Stone CD that I use is a Hawkes Bb, on four or five of the tracks. That's a beautiful instrument. I really like it. Made around the 1880s. Good old instrument, a lovely tone.
Q: What do you think of the contemporary flute makers, the evolving design of Irish flutes?
A: I'd say arguably the best of the contemporary makers would be a guy called Patrick Olwell from Virginia. He's an excellent flute maker. He plays the flute himself. He just understands the instruments. When you try to impress on him what you want in an instrument, when you start talking about ranges and colors and tones, he can interpret what you're talking about, and reproduce that, which is rather a serious talent in itself.
There's also a fellow in England, Chris Wilkes. And in Ireland there's Hammy Hamilton, Sam Murray, Brendan McMahon. They've all improved their technique in instrument making. It was hit and miss in the early days, but they've all evolved. They've all got excellent reamers. All making good flutes, all very acceptable instruments. It's incredible, for an art that was nearly dead.
Patrick Olwell, whom I would regard as one of the greatest, was up in my house in Westport two months ago. We just sat down and jawed through aspects of flute playing, blowing them, and checking stuff out. He had samples there and we were trying them out, and he was asking me, what did I think. I'd give him an honest appraisal of anything that he had there. What I thought was good or bad, and what could be better, that kind of thing.
Q: What would be the ideal flute?
A: I'm into boats; I have a boat. I was talking to my brother, who is into boats as well. Now you know, I've in mind the perfect boat. It's a 33 foot, I could handle this on my own, it's the right size. Couple of feet bigger than the one I have already, you see. That's it, [I tell my brother] I am going to get a really good one. I'm going to pay the money for it, and that's going to see me out, do me for 10 or 15 years, and I won't be interested after that, so that's it. And he says, "Well, you know what the perfect boat is?" "No, what?" "It's the one that's 2 feet longer than the one you already have." You never stop checking and trying.
I mean, I have an Olwell flute. My daughter is playing it. It's very easy to fill and play. I keep saying I'm not going to play this now for another 10 years. I feel I still have the power to crank out on the Boosey. I reckon when my wind goes, Patrick's flutes are so easy to fill, to blow. Twice as easy as the one I play now. He has it down to a fine art.
Q: Your technique: is it a gift from being steeped in music, or from practice?
A: I suppose I did practice, originally. In the early days. The area that I come from is steeped in fiddle playing and flute playing. There's a great tradition of flute and fiddle music in the North Roscommon-South Sligo area: Michael Coleman, Paddy Killoran, and all that. There's just a load of flute players. I suppose to set yourself among them you had to have something of character in your music to be noticed at all. I started chasing after and playing tunes that nobody played on the flute. Playing fiddle tunes, accordion tunes, piping tunes. Seeing what could be done.
Q: What makes a tune a fiddle tune, an accordion tune?
A: Ornamentation, as far as the piping is concerned. The technique can be quite difficult. When you're trying to nail down a fiddle tune, doing octave jumps and all the rest, or a similar thing on the accordion. Quite easy to do on those instruments, but a different ball game on the flute.
But just to try those things, to see if it can be done, I messed around with those. I am still messing. I just worked away at it. Suddenly it's not a problem any more. You have a whole line of flute players now that see this can be done, they're doing that and some more. But before, a lot of those tunes weren't attempted [on the flute] for reasons that are beyond me.
Q: On the first album, you pioneered some techniques in flute playing.
A: The hard D, that's hit and miss too. It's never going to sound like the pipes. You're talking about a reed instrument, as opposed to blowing across an embouchure. So you're never going to crack it as good as you would like.
Q: Is it [the hard D] in the embouchure or the fingers?
A: Well, it's both. It sort of has become an ornament that can be done on flutes, and some players are doing it quite effectively now. It's no big deal really.
Q: Do you note tunes?
A: I'm beginning to forget tunes, unfortunately. What I do is note down say the first few notes of a tune, of the different parts. I just file them away. In abcd notation. I never learned to read music properly. But I have my own way of strokes and dots and dashes. I can read it. Over the years I've developed this sort of thing, but it's very basic, just reminders. We travel so much [with the Chieftains]. I listen to tapes, session tapes, and whatever else, when I'm on airplanes. A notepad and a tune I am interested in, I just take down a few notes off it: "I must take a note of that now. For again, you know."
Q: There's a tendency for music to get speedy and excited these days. How do you feel about how the music is evolving?
A: I have no problem with it. That has its place too. I'm involved in the speedy music too with the band. The frantic pace of touring. I'm on the road 4-5 months of the year, with a very heavy work schedule. As you grow older, the pendulum seems to go one way. As soon as I get back home, I want solitude and quiet -- the exact opposite of what I'm involved with when I'm on tour. There's a wood abut 5 minutes' walk from where I live, and I'm looking out onto the sea and I like the rivers, I like the sea. I have a boat. I just like to go fishing and swimming, and I do a bit of scuba diving. I just get away with the dog. You get a bit more reflective. I think tunes related to nature have a special appeal for me. I think it comes across on the latest album. Maybe it's down to maturity, getting more reflective -- but I doubt it.
Q: If you want to understand dance music, should you dance?
A: Could be true. My problem, when I was starting off, there used to be ceili bands in the 50's and 60's, and every band that would come into town I used to volunteer to get up and play the flute with them. I was getting reasonably OK, and they were delighted to see me coming up which meant that the two flute players took it in turns to go and dance all night while I played me heart out up on the stage. I always seemed to be playing for the dancers. I never got an opportunity to dance. I don't know whether I would be able to put one foot in front of the other. There it is.
Q: Could you speak to your dedication in playing Irish traditional music?
A: It just gets very important. The more you research it and get into the music, the more you realize you don't know, I think. As long as you know you've got something to learn, you'll continue to improve. The way I look at it, by the time I reckon I'll be good enough, I'll be too old.
Q: Irish music has only a few modes and rhythms. It's unison playing, yet it has tremendous beauty and power. Limited means, rich expression.
A: The real art form, as far as traditional music is concerned, is actually playing solo, that's what it's about. It's the interpretation that you can give a melodic line, the basic line there of a tune. You stand or fall on your interpretation of that particular piece. It's no use playing it the same way I play it. Or me taking something and playing it similar to someone else. You have to put your own particular stamp on it. And be that good, bad, or indifferent, at least it's you. It's your personality. Ultimately that's what you stand or fall on.
We've got thousands, just thousands of tunes. Toying with a tune, putting a shape on it, trying to give it the expression you think it needs...sometimes it works, sometimes it won't. But having said that, the music is developed now. They put it into the rock modes, they put it into bloody devil knows what. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's interesting, but I can do without that, I can live without it. But I have no problem with it.
Q: Is the Irish tradition rich enough for you?
A: All I need is there. It's just part of me. It's just an extension of myself. It's who I am. What can I say: it's part of who I am.