A bigger fish
His band was signed by one of the legends of the music business and was promoted as 'the next U2'. But An Emotional Fish struggled to find an audience outside Ireland. Now frontman Jerry Fish has been reborn, as he tells EAMON CARR
Having guided the careers of countless superstars from Ray Charles to Led Zeppelin, Ahmet Ertegun, a founder of Atlantic Records, was one of the most influential men in music.
One night in 1989, he walked through Dublin's shabby Baggot Inn with a tray of drinks in his hand. "I thought Charlie (the owner) had a new barman when Ahmet came in," recalls Jerry Fish. Ertegun was in town to check Jerry's band An Emotional Fish. Impressed by what he heard, the mogul signed the act. Despite a hit, Celebrate, which spent four months in the Irish charts, the Dublin quartet struggled to stay afloat internationally. After three albums and years of constant touring, the group ran its course. "An Emotional Fish were marketed as the next U2," says Jerry. "Nobody could get beyond that."
Gerard Whelan, the band's frontman, soldiered on. Fans and friends knew him as Jerry Fish. The success of his debut album, Be Yourself, on which he fronted a bunch of musicians he called the Mudbug Club, established him as a solo star. The biggest of the four hit singles from that album was True Friends which embedded itself in the public consciousness as the theme of a Vodafone campaign.
Jerry's progress hadn't been seamless. It took time to perfect his musical mix of louche lounge lizard and swampadelic voodoo man. When Be Yourself was first released, it was a close-run thing between commercial success and obscurity.
"It was very hard to get off the ground by myself," recalls Jerry in his trademark husky growl. "It's almost like I created a monster in some ways. I put every penny I had into making the record and then the first week of sales was very slow. I met Neil Hannon in HMV and I was nearly in tears. I couldn't believe I had just three copies in easy listening."
The album had been out in Ireland for a year by the time it got a release in Britain, giving it another year's promotional life. But Jerry was never going to give up.
"One of the biggest reasons I'm still in music is because I was signed by Ahmet Ertegun all those years ago," he explains. "If you're signed by a legend like that, there must be some kind of talent there. That keeps me going."
As the Mudbug Club experience grew and grew, Jerry released a live album recorded in The Spiegeltent. It afforded him more breathing space to work on a new studio album, The Beautiful Untrue. But even that took longer than expected.
"There have been massive changes in the music industry since I released Be Yourself," explains Jerry. "So you have to take all that in. This is the first album I've completed digitally. I became a sound engineer under the tutelage of Dick Meaney (The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine). I got to learn how to make a record. This is a one-man show. I am the record company and manager and artist."
Imelda May, musical queen of the burlesque scene, is one of the guests on the new album. And the hauntingly beautiful first single, Back To Before, features a duet with Carol Keogh of Automata.
Oh, and Mr Fish has signed Mr Blonde to his label. Reservoir Dogs actor Michael Madsen is recording an album of his beat poetry. Among the roster of compelling voices Jerry has recorded reading Madsen's work are Iggy Pop and Harry Dean Stanton.
"I'm from a working-class background," he stresses. "In the music industry it was quite strange. I always thought every musician was working-class because of everybody pretending they were from the streets. Then, when you actually join and you are from the streets, you are quite isolated. Imelda May and I have a lot in common that way."
Fish admits to being a family man first and foremost. "This whole Jerry Fish and the Mudbug Club experience kicked off with the birth of my daughter," he says. "When she was born I didn't want to come back from a building site or from working in a job that I didn't enjoy and telling her I used be in a band."
Being a musician is what Jerry Fish was meant to be. "What would I be better off doing?" he booms. "I'm doing something I really love. It takes spirit to walk the path. What keeps me fulfilled is the comedy, the entertainment. That it's not so serious. It's not a life and death thing. I'm writing that. As Celebrate said, 'The trouble with reality is it's taken far too seriously.' I'm very lucky to have a licence to make up stories. You tell a better story if you've been somewhere." HQ