LEO MORAN: The music and the messin'
Feature by Tara King
The Sawdoctors are a western musical phenomenon and have made waves in many places throughout the world.
Tara King caught up with the enigmatic Leo Moran to learn about some of his adventures with the famed rock band and his own life and influences.
Bruce Springsteen tells a great story about how during the first flushes of fame, he decided to go to Graceland and hop the fence in a bid to meet his idol, Elvis. Call it karma or good old fashion divilment, but when two Saw Doctors, Leo Moran and Anthony Thistlethwaite, arrived in New Jersey last year, they decided a visit to chez Springsteen was definitely on the cards!
“Myself and Anto figured that because Bruce had done it to Elvis, then he couldn’t complain if we did it to him” Leo laughs. “We didn’t hop a wall or anything like that, but we did leave our CD in his postbox. We told that story at one of our gigs over there and one really serious person informed us that it was a federal offence for someone other than the postman to put something in a post-box. They didn’t find it funny at all!”
There may be something of a messer in Leo, but behind the Tuam wit and country banter is a gifted wordsmith with a love of French literature and poetry. Had life on the road not taken off, he may just have been destined for a life of teaching French.
He explains, “I did the HDip, and my speciality was French. I always found it very easy to learn in school so I carried it on. I never lived in France, but I had an adequate grasp of the language. I also loved French literature; French poetry sounds so beautiful.”
Prior to joining the Saw Doctors, Leo participated in a social employment scheme with Macnas which subsequently led to him enjoying his first foray in acting. The production, which he remembers very fondly, was a fully choreographed comedy football match. Their stage was a football pitch in Castlebar right before the 1987 Connaught Final. Leo’s role in the event was somewhat challenging for a Galway man to have to take on!
“I was the centre half back for Mayo!” Leo laughs. “The bishop threw in the ball, which was actually a helium balloon so when the ball went up into the sky, it stayed going! Then one of the players got fouled and his mother came on with her handbag and started belting the player that fouled him. People who had just arrived at the venue didn’t know whether it was real or not because there was a lot going on, fellas pretending to fight with one another and the likes. There was a great stunt where one of the lads had his sleeve pulled as he went in for a point, but he was wearing a joke sleeve so when the other guy pulled it, it started to unravel. The bloody thing was 15 foot long so as he was running away with the ball, the other lad was just left standing there holding this unravelling sleeve! The whole production was brilliantly funny.”
Leo explains that the suspicions of the GAA top brass meant they never made it to the All-Ireland.
“We always hoped it would be taken to Croke Park on All-Ireland final day but I think the GAA were wary of what it was about. Some of the things in it were very funny and almost making a laugh of what happens on a football field so I don’t think they fully trusted the idea. What was brilliant about it though was that it was very ‘Macnas’! It brought art and theatre to where the ordinary people were.”
When the time came for Leo to take to the road as a fully-fledged Saw Doctor, his parents did little to discourage him. Leo smiles as he recalls his mother’s words, “sure once he’s doing something he likes and he’s happy, let him at it!” .“That was always the attitude in our house,” he adds.
“We carried out the rehearsals in our house and a lot of it wasn’t very tuneful for a long time either, but we were put up with and even encouraged I’d say! My father was also quite musical. He used to sing at mass, and on the odd occasion if he thought I wasn’t in the house, he’d be singing away to himself while he was shaving.”
There’s definitely a prominent music gene in the Moran DNA. Leo’s 24 year old son, Jimmy, is also a music lover and according to Leo, “a better guitarist than myself at this stage!”
As we chat about his childhood and family, the conversation moves to the powerfully emotive song, ‘I Hope You Meet Again’, a ballad penned by Leo about his brother Frank, who tragically passed away before Leo was born.
Speaking fondly about the brother he sadly never got to meet, Leo describes him as “the real musician of the family.”
He adds, “Frank played the accordion and the tin whistle. One day, when he was around 7 or 8, the All-Ireland was on television and he pointed at it and said “I want to play there”. My parents said, “oh you want to play for Galway?”, and he said, “No no! I want to be in the band!” His favourite song at the time was ‘Rhythm of The Rain’. He definitely would have been a great musician, no doubt about it.”
Frank’s death was the result of a very simple accident. He had hit his head and impacted upon the part that controlled the breathing. Leo says his mother never fully came to terms with losing her 8 year-old son.
“No, my mother never got over it. Mothers don’t. She talked about him sometimes. Deep, deep down, she was heartbroken. I wrote ‘I Hope You Meet Again’ in the late eighties and when we recorded it and put it out there, a lot of people came up to say that something similar had happened in their family as well. It was a song that really resonated with people.”
Songs such as N17, and, I Useta Love Her are Irish classics; the kind guaranteed to prompt even the most stubborn of crowds into a fit of dancing. Having played those songs thousands upon thousands of times over the years, however, do the ‘doctors now roll their eyes when the audience calls for another rendition of an old favourite?
“No way!” Leo replies. “Sure isn’t it a great compliment? A song is only a medium to connect with people, and those songs connected with people very well. The connection is what it’s about more so than the tool. When you start writing songs as a young fella, your ambition is to write a song that everybody will remember. That would be beyond your wildest dreams, so when it happens, how can you complain about it?”
When the band played in Australia back in 2010, it was their first time to perform there in 17 years. The reaction on the night bordered on hysterical. Not much has changed in that regard. When the Saw Doctors took a break last year, Leo and his fellow band member Anthony decided to take to the road as a duo. They toured Russia and even though the crowd couldn’t understand a word of what was being said or sung, they went crazy for the music.
“Russia was an amazing experience. It was like doing gigs without lyrics. All the words were of no use because the audience had very little English. It was about being musical and theatrical. Anto went around the hall on his saxaphone, and there was a bit of clowning around, but all the gigs still worked because the music was the connection.”
Performing as a duo was a bit of a shock to the system for Leo and Anto as all the responsibilities for the tour fell into their hands. There was also the added uncertainty about whether or not their musical venture would work. As it turns out, their worries were unfounded as they ended up being invited back to every venue they played in.
“All we could do was just jump in at the deep end and see if it would work.” Leo explains. “We didn’t know if it would, but we figured if it was going to work anywhere, it would be in America. The American audiences are very easy-going and forgiving! When myself and Anto went touring, it was a big adjustment. Being on a tour bus when you’re in a band is like being on a school tour but with alcohol. It’s so much fun. You’re with people you like and everyone knows how it works. People think travelling by bus all the time is hard, but it’s an easy lifestyle. You travel overnight and you’re in a bed so you don’t even feel like you’re travelling. It wouldn’t matter to us whether the journey was two hours or ten, we would go to sleep and then wake up at the next venue. Half the time, we didn’t even need to know where we were going!”
He goes on, “When Anto and myself went touring though, we had no bus so we were doing all the driving ourselves! But we got to see all the roads and the bits in between. When we were travelling through America, we got to see so much of the beautiful countryside. When we’re on the tour bus, we wouldn’t see anything like that because we were always travelling through the night! I love travelling, so I really enjoyed getting to see the places properly.”
So can fans look forward to a return of the Saw Doctors or will the sabbatical be a lengthy one?
“No, we might start up again next year! You can be sure we’ll definitely be scheming up something!”
Leo and Anto will be playing Clare Island at the end of August.
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