On a Zoom call with Finbarr Clancy and Brian Dunphy of The High Kings, the banter is flying. It’s great to see “new normal” interaction isn’t dampening senses of humour, around here anyway.
At one stage Finbarr is discussing the first instrument he played: “I started banging on the bodhrán at about four or five, but I wouldn’t say that’s playing music.”
“Hi,” Brian exclaims with a laugh.
“Brian plays the bodhrán,” Finbarr interjects.
“See ye. I’m going now, cheers,” Brian says in jest. He sticks around anyway for the rest of the interview, thankfully.
Finbarr and Brian, along with Darren Holden, are original members of The High Kings. The Irish folk band was formed 14 years ago. Paul O’Brien is the newest member, joining in 2019.
This time last year they were just beginning a US tour, 40 shows in 50 days. At this stage, you don’t need me to tell you how the story goes. Coronavirus struck and they had to come home half way through the tour. Like most artists, they’ve been out of live gigging since.
Despite this, they recall some touring highlights with vigour. Playing for former president Barack Obama in both the White House and Moneygall, is very notable. As is getting to perform at the Centenary of the 1916 Rising.
They also had a run in with the Secret Service in Washington DC, but thankfully it was a positive one.
“Remember the big gun made of gold, Finn?” Brian asks with a laugh.
Finbarr fills in the blanks for Irish Country Living: “The then chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, is a big fan of The High Kings. He invited us to lunch at the Pentagon. We were collected by the Secret Service in the black vans and driven around. We got a tour of the Pentagon and Arlington Cemetery and had lunch with him.”
Their latest album, Home from Home, is due out on 5 March – Finbarr’s 51st birthday. This latest release very much reflects their inability to tour at home and abroad of late. Recorded in Dublin last summer, the songs were picked based around countries the band would normally tour in or have a fan base in.
Both Finbarr and Brian come from very musical families. Finbarr’s father is Bobby Clancy of the famous The Clancy Brothers, whom Finbarr spent time touring with.
“My dad used to play the banjo with The Clancy Brothers, the five-string banjo,” Finnbarr recalls. “He’d disappear after dinner every night and you’d hear the plink-plonk of the banjo for a good two hours. Curiosity got the better of me and when I was about 10 years old, I stuck my head around the door and said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘Sit down and I’ll show you’.
“Every night after dinner I’d continue to go up and he’d show me three-cord tricks, finger picking and before I knew it, I was playing the banjo. It went from that to the classical flute at 16. I started playing the acoustic guitar at 17 and I joined a rock group then. I know it’s hard to believe it now, but I had long hair.”
Brian’s father was renowned singer Seán Dunphy. Growing up he would sing a few songs at his father’s gigs around the country. In his late teens he got into musical theatre, appearing in Aspects of Love and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
“I did all those kinds of things, then I got over myself,” Brian laughs heartily.
He went on to sing in Riverdance, travelling with the production. He and Darren both did Riverdance on Broadway also.
Despite the different ensembles he has been part of, a local choir, Brian feels, was the best musical learning experience.
“That really taught me how to harmonise and come up with some nice vocal arrangements. I was actually one of the youngest it in. It was, shall we say, an older person’s choir. Now when I think of it, they were probably actually only in their late 40s,” Brian jokes. “No. They were actually more like 60 plus.”
With such connections to the folk performers of the past, Irish Country Living wonders where they fall on the argument of purism in folk and trad music; keep songs true to those who went before you or make them your own?
“I think if it sounds good, sing it,” Finbarr says simply. “If you’re too precious about songs and put them up on pedestal, you take the fun out of performing them. The reason these songs have survived for so long is that they’ve passed through so many mouths.
“I understand the argument on both sides. If somebody wants to change something and the song totally loses its meaning, you don’t want that.
“You have to keep the essence of the song, but you have to inject a bit of yourself into too.”
With such a strong grounding in the past and a willingness to put their own stamp on things into the future, The High Kings are very much making their own distinctive sound, at home and away.
The songs on Home from Home reflect some of the countries where The High Kings have fans, who they can’t perform for at present:
1 Streets of London.
2 The Dutchman.
3 Wild Colonial Boy.
4 Summer in Dublin.
5 Farewell to Nova Scotia.
6 Streets of New York.
8 City of Chicago.
9 Green Fields of France.
10 Carrickfergus (featuring Brian Kennedy).
11 Galway Races.