Hearts Larry Broke
The Punters are in the spotlight again.
They just hosted a golf tournament to raise money for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation, and, for the third year, are throwing the elaborate Punters and Friends in the Park concert. (That show is set for Bowring Park on Saturday, Aug 12.)
In the middle of all the shows, the tours, and the new album release, is lead singer Larry Foley. He handles all the swooning fans and attention like a guy who is used to it.
But nothing could be further from the truth, Foley says. He reluctantly opens up about the "sex symbol" status he has gained on the local music scene, laughing all the time: "I was a fat kid. And once a fat kid, always a fat kid."
He says this as he is walking down Water Street, heading towards O'Brien's Music Store with a roll of posters under his arm advertising The Punters and Friends in the Park. "I don't have enough self-esteem to think of myself as a sex symbol," he says, leaving it at that.
It is a couple of weeks before the Folk Festival (where The Punters will play Saturday night, Aug. 5) and their Bowring park show, an ambitious event that welcomes some of the most successful Newfoundland acts to the stage.
Have Java, where Foley is expected to appear to talk about his band, is busy. When he walks in, all breezy confidence, he is playing the role of Larry Foley of The Punters. His sunglasses are flashy and large. (His brother, a member of The Impalas, got them in Dublin, he says.)
But when he takes the shades off, his eyes suggest nervous energy, and probably a bit more emotion than he would like, or would be considered cool for a rock musician to show.
He laughs heartily whenever the word "sex symbol" is mentioned in relation to him. He blushes a little, more embarrassed than pleased about it.
"I'm stunned by the question," he finally says when he stops laughing. "I never see it that way. I'm playing the part of Larry in The Punters. I've drawn a line between the two to a certain extent."
Foley is fighting jet lag, and is shy talking about himself. He is most comfortable discussing his music, and yet is the first to say he's no rock star.
Sure, there are times he wishes he was. He even admits later that he would like to try his hand at acting on stage or in film. But today, he is still recovering from a just-completed promotional tour across Canada for the band's latest album, Will You Wait. He isn't sure what day it is, and isn't even sure when The Punters got back in town. But he is glad to be home.
Brenda O'Reilly, owner of O'Reilly's Irish Pub on George Street, is one of many people who confirms that Foley can be just as much of an attraction for fans as the music.
"They are very versatile musicians," she says of the band, adding "and [Foley]'s a cutie."
"They fill up the dance floor, especially in September," she says, nothing their huge appeal with the university crowd. Even when The Punters are not playing she says, "Whenever [Foley] comes in, there's always a crowd around him."
But since 1995, when The Punters came on to the scene, the group has been through upheavals that usually destroy bands - no matter how slick, good looking or successful they are. A drummer and bass player both quit during the recording of their new album, leaving the band to find replacement members.
"What fire doesn't destroy it hardens," Foley says, thinking about the near break-up of the band. "You end up coming out of an experience like that a way better player. It was a colourful time, needless to say."
Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the break-up of the long-term relationship Foley was in until recently. This also weighs heavy on his mind.
"Doing this can be hard on you," Foley says of being in the music business. "You put so much into it. It's draining. You tend to lose yourself in it, I find. That's the biggest challenge, I find, is staying focussed. What prize do I have my eye on, you know? It can get tangly."
"You can lose yourself in it, definitely, because it's so whimsical. You're all over the place. And then you're on the road. It's an interesting lifestyle, definitely. I'm single now," Foley says, saying the topic is hard to talk about. "It does take its told eventually.
"The beauty of it now, knowing now what I didn't know five years ago, is that you end up being pretty enlightened as to what goes on in the music business and what it's actually really about," Foley says. "Perspective is good. It makes you pretty wise to the business and how things work. You learn not to be disappointed, you learn not to get too excited, and you learn not to have false hope in stuff. You just sort of plan your work and then work your plan."
Growing up in Placentia, Foley say he was "the class clown," joking around and delving into music to hide the insecurities that seem hard to imagine today.
Although he went on to study political science, and did graduate work in Dublin, music always was - and still is - a real escape for him.
"I did drama when I was in high school. And that's probably what led me to play music in the first place," he says.
He lived around the corner from Star Hall in Placentia, and remembers being inspired by the music of Newfoundland blended with country and rock ‘n' roll - the kind of music The Punters would eventually make their own.
"I used to go (to Star Hall) Saturday evenings, and the bands would be setting up to play. And I guess because Placentia was right next to Argentia, the American influence was pretty big there, so country music and rock ‘n' roll were played by all the bands that played at the dances. But then also they'd break out the accordion and play a half-dozen Newfoundland tunes.
"So, early on I saw traditional music being played in a rock ‘n' roll kind of setting. I guess that stayed with me. That's why I get a kick out of people going on about how new Celtic rock was three or four years ago. They've been doing this in Placentia since the ‘50s!"
The Punters put a spin on traditional music, and make impressive strides - moves that have not been lost on radio hosts who play their songs, and fans who flock to their shows.
The first Punters in the Park show, Foley points out, had over 5,000 people in front of the Bowring Park bungalow the first year. By the second year, it had grown considerably. "Show of the century! Show of the century!" Foley chants into the tape recorder sitting on the table at Hava Java.
Foley thinks the band is stronger and closer than ever - a result of their rebuilding. "All of a sudden you've got two guys, a drummer and a bass player, and you have to go through every note of every song with them. You're re-evaluating songs you've been playing for a couple of years. Before, you're playing the song and it's down, and you've got it worked out. But then, to revisit the arrangements with new players, you find something different, it makes everything new again."
Making music can be addictive, Foley explains.
"You don't want to give it up because you always have that new song to get out there. You're always rolling the dice. All it takes is one song out of the hundreds that you do. Playing music is like the lottery." And you can't win if you don't play.
His creative process, he says, has led to a home strewn with scraps of paper with song lyrics written all over them. He scribbles ideas down and goes back and finds them later.
"I have such a passion for traditional music. But when it comes to creating music, the stuff I tend to write tends to be really poppy."
His influences, he says, are "The Beatles, probably. And Ron Hynes. It's almost cliché for a Newfoundlander to say. But it's true, I've listened to a lot of Ron's stuff, and seen him play a lot."
These days, Foley has been listening to a "fair bit of Wilco," Tom Petty's Wallflowers, and Andy M. Stewart. He has written 10 new tunes over the last three months.
"I used to get really frustrated when I was writing if I wasn't happy with the song. But now I don't. I know the ones that are going to work because they're the ones I remember."
He leaves the coffee shop with a bunch of posters for the Bowring Park show under his arm. Striding down Water Street, with his big sunglasses back on, he is no longer playing the role of Larry Foley of The Punters. He is now the former awkward kid from Placentia who non of the girls really noticed.
In that frame of mind he revisits the sex symbol question one more time.
"I can't believe that," he says, "That's hilarious."
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