Skip to main content
First Person

The Experience Questionnaire: Jake Burns

Jake Burns is a singer-songwriter-guitarist from Belfast, Ireland and the frontman for the punk rock band Stiff Little Fingers. The band is currently on tour in the U.S.

Where do you come up with your best ideas?
Always somewhere thoroughly impractical. Out for dinner. Walking in a park. Miles from a guitar or recording device. Elvis Costello once said he used to phone home in these situations and sing the idea to his answering machine. I walk along the street singing into my phone’s voice recorder, adding musical instruction on arrangement etc. and generally looking like a mad person.

What is the best non-material gift you have been given?
Love. Can there be another answer? Whether from my wife, family, or friends. From my previous dogs or even, yes, from our cats, it’s the greatest gift anyone can receive.

What is the best non-material gift you’ve given?
Same answer. To give love and have that love accepted and returned.

Elvis Costello once said he used to phone home and sing an idea to his answering machine. I walk along the street singing into my phone’s voice recorder, generally looking like a mad person.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced?
Hard to say, as in retrospect, none of them were insurmountable. My wife losing her job, us subsequently losing our apartment, and my having to borrow $10,000 from friends just to stay afloat was rough. But we came through it. 

If you had to choose a different profession, what would it be?
I really enjoy cooking, so I would say that, except I know the conditions and stress that chefs work under. If there were some form of low-stress cooking option, say teaching in one of those “Learn to cook while in Italy”-style vacation schools, that would be fantastic. Of course, I’d have to be a much better cook!

What is the most useful mistake you have ever made?
None come to mind, I’m afraid. If I think of something I will get back to you.

What is the strangest experience you have ever had?
Many years ago, we played the Ritz in New York City on Halloween night. They were pushing it as a “costume” event, so we played to an audience of Frankenstein’s monsters and Draculas etc. Unfortunately, we played terribly and afterwards I took refuge at the bar and got very drunk watching these costumes drift by. All the same — except one guy, who had come as Keith Richards. Closing time rolled around and I miserably went back to the dressing room to pick up my stuff. I was met by our manager who said, “Pity you mooched off, Joey Ramone came by. Oh, and Keith Richards was here as well.”

What opportunity do you regret passing up?
I’m not sure this qualifies, as I wasn’t aware of it until this summer, but apparently we were offered the opening slot on a tour of America with The Who in 1980. Our manager turned it down based on record company advice.

How do you relax?
Read. Watch (proper) football. Play an annoying amount of computer games. Drink beer with friends.

If you could go anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go?
Well, I’m on tour at the moment, so I have to be in Brooklyn tomorrow. But, if there were no restrictions, I would love to see the Pyramids. Egypt has always fascinated and slightly scared me. I blame Boris Karloff. Failing that, India.

What is your most indelible childhood memory?
Sitting on the pavement (sidewalk) in Belfast age about 11 or 12, reading a spread out newspaper showing pictures of rioting and realizing that it was heading our way. Eventually.

What is the most valuable thing you learned in school?
Always write what you know.

When you’re stuck, how do you get unstuck?
Forget about it. Go for a walk. Watch a movie. Immerse yourself in everything that isn’t the thing you’re stuck on. Then, when you don’t need it, you’ll find the answer to what was bugging you.

What is your proudest moment?
I don’t do pride. We’ve had nice things happen. Good reviews, awards etc. But I find that the brief pleasure I take in those things has always dissipated by the time I climb into bed at night. Maybe if I’d had children, I could take pride in them and their achievements, but I don’t.

What would you like to experience before you die?
Newcastle United winning a trophy. Any flipping trophy!

Published on

Photo by Lorne Thomson/Redferns

Stories in First Person