The Chief Talks About the Chieftains

By Ryanne Gallagher Johnson

“It never stops, I’m always on the go!”

Truer words than these may never have been spoken by The Chieftain’s founder and leader, Paddy Maloney. For over fifty years, that has been the way of life for the Donnycarney, north Co. Dublin native, who, between his musical talents on the tin whistle, uilleann pipes, Button Accordion, and bodhrán, has also written musical arrangements, collaborated with many famous artists, and lent his visionary talents to the creation of symphonies. All the while, he’s headed one of Ireland’s most notorious traditional bands through over five decades of international concerts, albums, awards, and media appearances, and has been regarded as having helped popularize Irish music across the world.

Kicking off their 55th Anniversary Tour this spring, The Chieftains already have a lifetime of accomplishments under their belt, and show no signs of slowing down. They’re associated with 52 albums, have won six Grammys, a Lifetime Achievement Award, an Oscar, have been awarded the honorary title of “Ireland’s Musical Ambassadors” by the Irish government, and they just keep going, going, going.

And at the heart of The Chieftains, the rock on which the band was begun, who has remained steadfast through any and all member changes over the decades, is Maloney, who says that the tour “is to celebrate 55 years, but it’s been way longer than that, really, because I started to think about (what would become) The Chieftains back in the late-50’s.”

Though, it wasn’t until he’d spent years playing around with different instrumental combinations and band members that he found “the sound” he was looking for – that elusive, perfect, well-mixed unity of instruments and vocals for which the band is now famous, that the group became what Maloney had envisioned for it. And what, you might ask, was the key component into reaching this audibly magical achievement?

“It was harmonics, ” Maloney explains. And then, in deliciously typical Irish fashion, elaborates beautifully, “There were tunes in my mind, having started playing music when I was six years of age, on the tin whistle, then the pipes when I was eight or nine, and then going to school (where) I was learning to do harmonies and sounds, and there were certain ones that appealed to me more than others. (I was) given tremendous encouragement from my peers, from all the people who loved my piping, (which had been) described as a unique style of playing the pipes. People would come with their tape recorders to record me when I was (young), and I won quite a few competitions. I had my own thing that came over my stomach, into my head, that I played into my pipes and my whistle.

“I was into all kinds of music. I loved the sounds of it. To me, I wanted to be able to match whistles, flutes, I wanted to be able to match those harmonics, those overtones happening, fiddle sounds and then percussion… but (mostly), I wanted to get those harmonics into the music… I’m a traditional musician, all those blending sounds and visionary sounds.”

Once he found that perfect sound, all the way back in 1962, with founding members Sean Potts, Michael Tubridy, Martin Fay, and David Fallon, The Chieftains became an unstoppable force, blowing through the introduction of every musical genre that has appeared since their creation, and remaining true to what they were from the beginning: a traditional Irish band.

Interestingly, the name of the band was very nearly something entirely different. With great humor, Maloney explains, “When we started doing the first recordings, I thought of a name. The Queer Fellas. In those times, it meant a “funny fella”. I thought the Queer Fellas would have been a great name for us! But John Montague (of Claddagh Records, where Maloney has worked and produced albums) got me on the phone and said, “what about ‘The Chieftains’?” and I thought that was great, so we stuck with that. And we’ve been going for 55 years!”

Since its beginning, The Chieftains has been comprised of a few different combinations of musicians and vocalists, including Peadar Mercier, Derek Bell, and Ronnie McShane. It’s most recent lineup includes (as always) Paddy Maloney, Sean Keane, Kevin Conneff, and Matt Malloy. Although, as Maloney says, “Once a Chieftain, always a Chieftain.”

In his personal life, Maloney married artist Rita O’Reilly, with whom he has three children, Aonghus Maloney, Padraig Maloney, and actress/producer Aedin Maloney. He also has a grandson, Fionn, for whom he is writing a symphony in some of his free time, entitled “Fionn”.

Whether its being asked to write musical arrangements for someone, touring with the latest iteration of the band he started five and a half decades ago, or performing “Moondance” with an astronaut live from the International Space Station (as they did with Commander Chris Hadfield in 2013), Maloney has no intention of stopping this wonderfully crazy life he leads anytime soon. As he puts it,

“I wish to God there were 48 hours in a day, and I wish I had 20 more years to make music because I have an awful lot to offer.”

As for right now, you can catch Paddy Maloney with The Chieftains on their 55 Year Anniversary tour!
More information and tickets can be found on ticketmaster, or through the band’s website, www.thechieftains.com

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