Joel O’Keeffe, singer and guitarist from Airbourne, talks to Ash Edmonds about learning to smash a beer on his head, sausage fests, line-up changes and never selling your soul.
How would you describe Download festival?
It's just let loose, you know. People come here and they think, The world doesn’t matter at the moment; I’m just gonna get pissed and sleep in a tent. Everyone expected mud and rain, which they didn’t get, so everyone is just really happy. Download is just so long, so big and so ridiculous. There is always so much overblown stupidity - which is what makes it so great.
How do the festivals here differ from others around the world?
Well, I mean they are all pretty similar to be honest. You look out there and you will see German and French flags, then when we go over to Germany and play Rock Am Ring and Wacken or we play Hellfest in France, and we will see the UK flag, people travel.
In Europe you are lucky because you can just jump on RyanAir and fly for like an hour and you are in a brand new country! I mean there are those guys that swim across the channel, you could just swim to France! In Australia you will say that you want to go to the UK and then there goes two days of your life. European festivals are very much connected.”
How can live music scene retaliate to the attacks at concerts that we have seen recently?
It already is in a way. We were at Rock Am Ring this weekend and we were on the Sunday, but we saw a video from Friday and saw that they had to cancel due to a terror threat. They said that they had to get everyone out of there and then the entire 100,000 people all walked down together singing You’ll Never Walk Alone.
I saw somewhere online that heavy metal and rock fans have the best time at festivals anyway because we are just ourselves. We unite, and that is what we will always do.
It was the same in Manchester, our guitar tech and stage manager Adam Watts is from Manchester, and he was at the pub the night after it had all happened. He said that the Manchester community has never been so tight. Apparently the atmosphere in that pub was amazing - everyone was being friendly and buying each other drinks at the bar.
How do you feel when you play Donington, the home of rock and metal?
Growing up, I used to watch the VHS tapes of AC/DC and Iron Maiden live at Donington. I always think about that when I walk on the side of the stage and think, Okay… this is fucking serious now. Donington Park is a huge patch of grass that sort of has an energy that has been living there since the early 1980s, it is a big deal for us.
You get up to a lot of on stage antics, such as climbing up the stage itself and running through the crowd. How do you keep up the energy for that?
It really is just the crowd. All the people that come to see us have this energy. If you look out and see crowds of that size but just stand there and look at your shoes then you will always look like a cock. Give it to them; they want it! The crowd is like a load of angry dogs and you need to throw them the meat. In Scotland the fans will say: Play something faster! and we will always reply: Alright! We will fucking play something faster!
Airbourne has had a recent line-up change, with Harri Harrison is now playing rhythm guitar, how has this change affected the band?
Well, Harri was an old mate of ours anyway, we used to drink a lot together and just talk bullshit all the time. Now our buddy is in the band and it has been really great! That’s because he is a mate first, plus he was already a great singer and guitarist. Having that friendship first is what the band has always been about. (David) Roads is happy too, he’s out on the farm, doing what he loves.
People forget how long we have actually been a touring for and it isn’t all glamour, it can really be dark. I mean, look at the musicians that we have recently lost. Not saying that that is what he was feeling, but the road is a hard fucking place, and he just said that he couldn’t do it anymore. I was like, That’s all good man, you’ve got to do what you have got to do, and that’s great.
Do tours get easier now that you have been a band for so long?
It is always the same - you have just got to have a laugh. When the shit hits the fan and it gets dark and depressing you just have to start laughing about it!
How do you feel that the band has evolved since its inception?
Well I learned how to smash a beer on my head! We have more crew now, I guess that is evolution. I suppose we have more stacked amps now. We’re not really an evolving creature; I still don’t know how to use social media that well, I’m like, How do we do that posting thing with the Facebook? I mean, we are simple, we aren’t evolving much, rather just revolving!
What advice could you give to young, aspiring bands?
Okay, it’s hard. It is similar to when we started out, when that whole Napster thing happened. No-one makes money off records anymore. Picking up a guitar just to ‘get chicks’ doesn’t happen! It’s a sausage fest, get used to it! The thing is, you have got to love it. It is going to be tough and everyone is going to tell you that you are stupid or crazy, that it’s all just a pipedream. Those are the people who you have just got to give the finger. Get together as a band and say, Fuck everyone, we are doing this. When you get the right helping hand, have your bullshit detectors at the ready, make sure that they are for real, and shake that person's hand.”
Is music more about live presence now?
Yeah, when we started it was a little bit different than today, there was no YouTube or any real social media - use all that, get your message out there: tweet tweet tweet or whatever, let everyone know. Then get your fans and just play play play. Don’t just write a single because it sounds good on radio, write what you want to play. Only do what you love because there will be a point down the road when you might not want to play that song anymore. Don't sell your soul either, never do that, there will be those who will try and manipulate you, just don't ever give in, that is what will keep you alive on the road.
Words by Ash Edmonds