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The Chieftains celebrate 50 years: the Beatles, the Who and outer space

Andrea Warner

Paddy Moloney carries two whistles inside his jacket, and within five seconds of a face-to-face interview at CBC headquarters in Vancouver, he whips out the one that went on the International Space Station (seriously) to play a quick tune. What else would one expect of the man who founded the Chieftains, arguably the most successful and longest-running traditional Irish band?

The Chieftains have spent most of 2012 touring the world, celebrating their 50th anniversary with a brand new record, Voice of Ages, tapping a host of fresh faces including Bon Iver, the Decemberists, the Civil Wars and Punch Brothers. But, believe it or not, these bands aren’t the Chieftains’ strangest bedfellows. Moloney offers a guided tour through his personal highlights of the last 50 years, with a veritable who’s who of celebrity cameos along the way.

1963-1969: "The first album, The Chieftains, was a one-off, you might say. Then we made The Chieftains 2 in 1969. I was running the record company, Clara Records, and I couldn’t get a clean acetate to make albums, so somebody suggested Abbey Road in London and they rang up and they said, ‘The Beatles are doing Abbey Road at the moment, but we’ll ask them.’ So they did and they gave me half a day and Paul [McCartney] came in and John [Lennon] came in, all ‘Oh, Paddy, we love your stuff, we love your stuff!’ It was good fun and I got my acetate good and clean."

1970-1975: "We were still semi-professional until '75, and then we had a big concert in the Royal Albert Hall in London and it sold out in three weeks' notice, so that was a sure sign. There was no singing in the band, no dancing, no smoke screens, no flashing lights, nothing like that. Melody Maker, which was the number one magazine in Europe at the time, they voted us group of the year. I still maintain it was a terrible amount of madness going on. John Peel, who was the number-one disc jockey around that time, he was playing us in amongst the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. There was a whole thing happening, so it was time for the whole band to go full-time professional, pull up the stakes, you know, and we haven’t looked back since."

1976-2011: "It did [feel like a risk to go pro]. It was traditional music. Sure we had all these followers, like Peter Sellers and Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris, and who knew at the time, but Roger Daltrey and the Who, when they weren’t throwing televisions out of windows, they were listening to a few of our tracks! [Laughs] And then eventually he ends up on one of my albums, singing! Great times.

"And collaborations started to happen after we did 20 or 30 albums. We’d been guesting on other people’s albums: Mick Jagger’s solo album has pipes on it, Paul McCartney did a B-side of 'Ebony and Ivory' and he wanted some pipes, a Stevie Wonder song, and Mike Goldfield and Don Henley from the Eagles, all of that going on, but building and building. We did a film, 1976 it came out, Barry Lyndon by that Stanley Kubrick fellow, and the music won an Oscar. Little perks like that helped us along the way."

2012: "Voice of Ages ... there’s a track with the astronaut, Cady Coleman, who’s a flute player, and she brought my whistle up into space and it went 93 million miles on the International Space Station. And she recorded a great piece and sent it down on St. Patrick’s Day, which is on the internet, and she was floating around and her hair was everywhere, the whistle was going around and she plucked it down and played a lovely tune on the International Space Station. I got permission from NASA and took the track and brought it back to Dublin and put the Chieftains on it, so that’s what you hear on the CD.

"And then all these other great young musicians, going back a generation, great musicians you want like the Decemberists.... Three of them [Bon Iver, the Decemberists, the Civil Wars] won Grammys this year! I was very pleasantly surprised with the type of music that won: melodies and great lyrics and things. I was very impressed. To me, it was like bringing back good music, which I thought had been going down the tubes, to be honest.... We [Mumford & Sons and the Chieftains] tried but the geography and the timing — they’d just put on a brilliant album, I heard it was, but I have[n't] heard it yet — so we tried but the timing of it didn’t work. There were great possibilities. But if I’d held out for a year, I’d have a double CD."

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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