Dan Sheehan, an American rocker with distinctly Irish roots, is currently on a mission to draw awareness to growing global issues through his deep-diving political album ‘Tales From Earth Incorporated’.
In it, Sheehan steps away from his pure rock background and instead dips into a more international sound, taking aim at the corporations that he sees damaging the world around him, and taking advantage of national assets. Green themes, from climate change in general to rising sea levels and an attempt to build a Wallmart next to a Mexican heritage sight fill his lyrics.
With his own musical heritage including a host of musicians who’ve toured alongside Morrissey, Pearl Jam and Yes, Sheehan doesn’t think he can change the world, but is happy lending his voice to an ever-expanding choir of discontent.
Let’s talk about the eco side to your music as, obviously, it’s a big thing for you. The world seems to be coming around to the idea that being green is really important, slowly. How did you come to write a whole album about the idea?
The album is more loosely about the effects of greed on the world, which inevitably brings up what’s happening to the environment. Over the last several years, I have been becoming increasingly aware of how greed is allowed to cause the air we breathe and the water we drink to become polluted and toxic, and I find it insane that we should allow this to continue, so I wanted to raise awareness about just how devastating climate change is, and we also touch on matters such as indigenous rights, which is an important issue in the Americas, and the American refugee crisis which of course also relates to the European refugee crisis.
Can you tell me about some of the people and places you speak about in the album?
There are two songs about Mexico, one called “Teotihuacan” which is an Aztec name for a town with famous Aztec pyramids, next to which Walmart (one of the big American chain stores) wanted to build a large store which was done despite historical zoning and environmental concerns via a massive bribing scheme . One is “Cross the Border” which is both about guns crossing the border from the U.S. to Mexico, and then people crossing over to the U.S. as they flee those very guns. The Pacific Island of Kiribati as while as the Maldive Islands and Bangladesh come up in the song “Wishing Well” which is about how these three nations deal with the rising sea levels from climate change. Two songs are about Africa – “Black Gold” is about Nigerian author Ken Saro-Wiwa and others who were scapegoated and hanged after protesting oil drilling off the coast of Nigeria in the ’90s, whereas “Kimberley” is about Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe forcing men, women and children to mine for diamonds to fund a counter-rebellion. There is also a song about the displacement of indigenous Brazilians currently occurring called “Dam That River.”
Touring and eco-sensitivity are difficult things to keep compatible. What can you do to keep a tour green?
For one, I am not traveling by car but by train in the UK, by ferry to Dublin, and by plane back to the UK. This also means we don’t have a dangerous American driving on the wrong side of the road! Also since this is a solo tour I won’t be drawing too much power to play a set!
There’s often been a lot of crossover between music and politics and it’s difficult to measure its real impact. Do many people talk to you about your music influencing their views on these matters?
A British radio presenter told me some of the songs on this album had him looking things up online about the subjects. Some folks who have attended shows emailed me to let me know they learned a lot from the show. I think most of the impact of socially conscious art is subtle but real, and seeps into the minds of its listeners or viewers to an extent. If many artists are putting out a similar message I do think it affects how people see things, how they act, how they vote. I don’t pretend to be saving the world single-handedly but I’m trying to participate in a movement that involves many other artists, activists, and ideally some of the more benevolent political leaders. I do a fair amount of radio interviews which gives the opportunity to discuss the songs (as I’m doing here!) which creates another outlet for raising awareness.
Your tours obviously give you a chance to view the world from different angles to the average person. Have you found being a touring musician highlights global injustices to you?
Well, I honestly don’t tour through the places that tend to have the worst injustices going on! (ha ha). However, touring abroad means I meet people that might have different perspectives than people I’d meet in America, and travel in general helps one see how the same things are going on around the world even if circumstances are quite different. So, it adds to the realization that many things are universal, that the same types of concerns affect people all over the world.
You’ve worked with a heap of huge names over the years. Has anyone stood out to you, and do you find you gain a lot from those experiences?
Of some of the people I’ve worked with, the best friendship I’ve developed has been with Patrick Moraz who played keys for Yes and the Moody Blues in the 70s and 80s and has many other great projects. I’ve had the opportunity to hear a lot of stories about the music industry and life in general from him which have been enlightening, especially to learn of those eras when I was just a kid. Similarly, Spencer Cobrin who played on The Dan Sheehan Conspiracy shared many stories of playing with Morrissey in the ’90s which gave me lots of insight into the British music scene of that time. I had some opportunities to sing the Doors with their drummer John Densmore a few years back, which was very surreal looking back and seeing him as my drummer! Opening for and hanging out with Kila in Oldcastle a few years back was also quite fun.
How different is your take on music compared to back in the Banter days?
In Banter, the music was straight ahead rock and I didn’t even want any keyboards in there. Since then I’ve become interested in many styles of music and instruments which you see sprinkled about on the two Dan Sheehan Conspiracy albums and really coming into the fray on Tales from Earth Incorporated which has horns, strings, and world instruments. However, I am a lover of rock and the power of rock music so that always is present! Lyrically this is the first album specifically focused on social issues whereas previous releases had their share of songs about love, lost love, and various other concepts.
I understand you have an Irish connection in your past – I guess the name gives that away! Is playing Ireland a special thing for you?
Well my grandparents are from the Beara Peninsula, but fortunately my entire family did not emigrate abroad so I still have loads of cousins in Beara and Kenmare whom I visit when I come to Ireland. So yes, Ireland is a special place for me to come to and play in. Even though there’s not a lot of original music being played in the Southwest, when I’m there I’ll tend to sit in with local musicians which is always a gas.
I understand you’ll be performing stripped back, acoustic versions of your songs for the show. Are they originally written in this way, or was this a process to produce?
Some of the songs were primarily written on acoustic guitar, so those are easier to translate over from the album versions which have lots of instruments. Other songs I need to do things to “make up” for the lack of instruments which ranges from using a looper pedal that lets me record live loops to play over, or just wailing out vocally to fill space!
Let’s imagine that you have only a song or two to introduce who you are to an Irish audience – sadly, the way of the world these days. What would you send them to listen to, and why?
If one song I would choose “Wishing Well” from Tales from Earth Inc, because it’s about climate change which the entire world needs to act on, and which especially affects Ireland as an island nation. Plus despite the subject matter, it’s quite catchy and funky and I know the Irish like funky music!
This seems a loaded question in view of your musical content, but we’ll go for it anyway. What are your hopes for the future?
That people will continue to make great music and art, that we’ll engage in a process that results in working on the world’s challenges together, that we elect better people to lead our nations who have the people’s best interest at heart.
If we’re talking about for me personally, to keep getting to make music, to engage and inspire people, to travel and meet people all around the world who can inspire me!
Thanks a million, good luck with the tour!
Thank you very much!
Dan Sheehan plays Whelan’s, Dublin on August 19 as part of Whelan’s Song Cycle.