High Hopes: The Bonnevilles – "The hard-ass blues musician in me was coming out"

The Bonnevilles

It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to work out why death is a dominant theme of The Bonnevilles’ album Arrow Pierce My Heart. “Lurgan is just a small town in Ulster,” singer/guitarist Andy McGibbon Jr says of his roots. “But when I was growing up, The Troubles were still on, and to me Lurgan represented death. This is where people died.

“Lurgan was part of an infamous thing called the murder triangle,” he continues. “There was a Loyalist kill squad that lived in the town across from us. I was only sixteen, and that was my reality. It very much frames me as an adult. Y’know, I write and sing about death and dying – which is a very Irish thing to sing about.”

Back then, McGibbon ran for his life. Now 44, his employment history makes chequered reading: he’s served in the navy, travelled across Europe picking fruit and working in bars, lived in Greece and has fallen through more no-hope bands than he can count.

But it’s The Bonnevilles, formed in late 2008 with drummer Chris McMullan, that has stuck. Trading in torn-and-frayed garage-blues with the palpable influence of US titans like Howlin’ Wolf and RL Burnside, they’ve slogged every step of the way. “We played one gig in Donegal where these fucking chavs were kicking our drum kit and spitting on us,” McGibbon remembers. “If we’d argued back we’d have got in a fight.

“It would have been the easiest thing in the world just to shut it down. But I went, no, we’re finishing this gig. The hard-ass fuckin’ blues musician in me was coming out, y’know? It was just stare them down, play louder, get the money – and leave.”

That heads-down attitude has paid off. The Bonnevilles’ debut album, Good Suits & Fightin’ Boots, was a no-frills affair, recorded to cassette on a portastudio (“We wanted a raw garage sound”). Their second, Folk Art & The Death Of Electric Jesus, went further, given an unexpected nod by the Northern Ireland Music Prize (“The whole backstage was full of whisky and craft beer – we just went fucking mental”).

Their third release, this years’s Arrow Pierce My Heart, looks like their big shot, its morbid spit-and-sawdust grooves backed by the infrastructure of Alive Naturalsound. “I can’t believe that one,” McGibbon enthuses of signing to the US buzz-label. “Alive is the label we always wanted to be on. It’s the Chess Records of its day.”

The Bonnevilles are clearly a band going places. So it’s interesting to note that McGibbon has returned to the town that formed him, for better or worse. “I spent fifteen years of my life trying to get away from Lurgan, but I live here now and I love it,” he says. “Lurgan is a good place now. It isn’t what it was. I don’t want to live anywhere else. But I still have that memory of the kill zone – that’s just what it was to me.”

FOR FANS OF: The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

“There was no new blues stuff coming out that was really blowing me away. But that album was a complete game changer,” Andy McGibbon Jr says of A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey by RL Burnside and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
“A few years after that we started this band. Without that album we wouldn’t be here.”

Henry Yates

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.