It is extremely hard to misconstrue the Celtic punk blue-collar clout and the literal political stance of the Dropkick Murphys, even if Wisconsin politicians seem to make the mistake twice over the last few years.
The Boston suburb Quincy-bred band have stuck true to their union hard-working roots since they began almost two decades ago as a four-piece, performing in Oi! and street punk basement gigs around their city.
In 2000 they found their signature sound as a seven-piece ensemble capable of playing incredible covers of anything from Bruce Springsteen to The Misfits, with the ability to reinvent old Dropkick classics live highlighting traditional Celtic instrumentation like mandolin, tin whistle and bagpipes.
Since then they never slowed down, touring tirelessly across the nation and globe, playing on average 80 shows a year since they released their Billboard No. 6 album, Going Out In Style, in 2011, according to setlist.fm.
Dropkick have remained a testament to the validity and magic of live music, giving audiences a taste of their authentic Beantown grit and Celtic flavor wrapped into incredible musical energy and versatility night after night, with the curious excitement that any song could be played during their set.
Dropkick Murphys were in Europe on the road early in 2015, and have dates domestically and in the UK into March, but they plan to record their ninth studio album sometime this year.
I had the chance to chat with a band member who has seen everyone come and go in Dropkick Murphys, drummer Matt Kelly. We spoke about the band’s outlook on touring and recording, the thrills of Dropkick music in Oscar-winning movies, working with Springsteen, and just how much crap they get when they come into Yankees territory.
The Dropkick Murphys tour constantly it seems like. What’s the approach to playing live shows, why perform so often and what does the hard work represent to the band?
Hey, there are bands that tour a hell of a lot more than we do! Last year was pretty busy though. As far as why and what it means: It’s what we do and we’re lucky enough to call this our job. For all the people who buy and/or enjoy our music, it’s kind of our obligation to them to play for them.
Music is meant to be heard in a live setting, and it’s our opinion that our gigs are meant to be audience-participatory and not a “spectator sport.” The hard work is our dedication to what we do and trying to do the best we can with what we have. Everybody else has to slog away at a job they hate and hope for a promotion or accolades from their bosses. We’re conscious of and grateful for not having that. We’re very fortunate to be in the position we are, so to do it “half-assed” isn’t an option if you have an iota of scruples.
Many people have transitioned in and out of DKM, and you’ve been there to see nearly everyone come and go. What does it take to be a member of the band, mentally and physically, considering the demanding schedule?
Yeah, I’ve seen every personnel change in the band… I hung around when Jeff [Erna, the original drummer] was leaving. He had no interest in touring, so the parting was understood and not ill willed.
Other personnel changes had more to do with, “Yeah, I’d love to be in a touring band and see the world, play every night!” But when reality sets in, this life just really isn’t for everybody. It’s a very fluctuating, soul-sucking lifestyle at times. To be a member of this band, you need a thick skin, dedication, to be OK with being away from home for weeks at a time, a strong mind and body for the one-and-a-half-hour gigs with setlists that change every night and the mental capacity for a huge repertoire of songs.
It’s a demanding lifestyle, but spiritually and physically, this band has been the most rewarding situation in my life outside familial rewards. It takes a lot out of you, but life is about giving, isn’t it?
You guys have a ton of material to dive into when you play live, but what are some of your favorite ways to spruce up the setlist and performance night after night? Does it involve covers, or rearranging old songs?
We love doing covers, and always have. Half the fun of it is to look at a song and see if you should, one, try and play it verbatim, or two, do your own thing with it. We’ve covered various AC/DC songs over the years and pretty much try to emulate it as well as possible, maybe trying to imitate perfection; can you get closer to it? But then on the other hand, we took The Clash’s “Guns Of Brixton” and made it different, or took Ed Pickford’s “The Worker’s Song” and screwed it ALL up, kind of making it our own.
We definitely also have rearranged some old songs, at least instrumentally, sometimes taking a heavier, electric song like “Citizen CIA” and making it almost a “cowpoke” song with a little swing to it, giving it a completely different feel. Also, we’ll sometimes do a medley of songs or a quick nod to one of our songs in the middle of, or at the end of, another one. Once in a blue moon, we’ll play the first album, Do Or Die, front-to-back in the set, much to the delight of some and the bewilderment of others.
Bottom line is this: The set is the most important thing the band does; it’s priority one. So yeah, a lot of attention is paid to making it something special.
Over the years listening to your records, I have found the band’s sound to transition from a punk rock vibe with Celtic rock influence, to much more of a Celtic rock with punk influence, letting the traditional really grab hold in the music. What sort of ways do you think the band has evolved, in ways other than just adding new instruments and band members?
Well I think that is only one facet of our sound. I don’t think a song like “Burn” is really Celtic rock. It’s verging on hardcore punk with Celtic flourishes. Again, to allude to earlier, and not to sound like I’m up my own backside, but, the live setting is THE forum to experience the band, and what the band really is about musically comes out in that setting. I think the production on an album is sort of a lens through which a band’s sound is captured for posterity, with certain instruments or sounds at particular levels in the mix that differ from the live experience.
As far as evolution goes, I think we’ve always had a somewhat wide range of sounds. From the first album, songs such as “Never Alone” and “Faraway Coast” are so different from each other, and there are others in there like “Caught In A Jar” and “The Road Of The Righteous,” which sort of fall in the middle of the two stylistically. Basically since those days, we kind of took off on all facets of our sound, so it’s incredibly wide ranging, but all our songs still manage to “sound like Dropkick Murphys,” This way, playing a 90-minute set isn’t so one-dimensional.
We’ve been doing this band for 19 years now, so we’ve been able to hone in on how to write the songs we do and to continue putting ideas down in a manner that is still interesting to the listener and us.
Speaking on the subjects of roots, Dropkick’s Boston pride is well known and has been the subject of some of your top songs. What is it about writing specifically about your home that resonates with fans?
Well, everybody comes from somewhere, and in this modern era of people feeling guilty or ashamed about anything positive, we’re telling you that it’s OK to be proud of where you come from and the accomplishments of your forebears and your city or region.
Now people will argue that one can’t have pride in something they didn’t do, but it’s a vicarious pride, such as the pride you’d feel when your little sister for dancing perfectly at a recital or your favorite team for winning the championship. Pride is infectious.
Your more Boston-oriented songs have also been featured in incredible films like The Departed and The Fighter, which each told gripping stories in the city. How do those kinds of opportunities come about, and what does it mean to you and the band to be in those films?
Between knowing people who have gone on to such things as film and production, and people in those industries sometimes having decent taste in music, as well as bands like us, we’ll get contacted for such things. We say no to a lot of them, but if the shoe fits…
Being a New Jersey native, I’m a big fan of Bruce Springsteen, and really enjoyed your collaborations with him both in studio and on stage. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with Springsteen, playing live and working in the studio together?
Thanks! It was quite an honor. Well, when it comes down to it, he’s a human being. What I think the “coolness factor” is, is that he’s so talented that he can step in pretty much unrehearsed and connects with our band in a live setting seamlessly.
Also, again in Springsteen’s case, how regular and down-to-earth people can be. That goes a long way with us. In both settings, it’s nice to see somebody of that stature taking time to help an infinitely smaller band out. He’s a rare breed who walks the walk as well as talks the talk.
Since you created your own label with Warner’s distribution, the last few albums have enjoyed more commercial success than ever before, while the music has continued to evolve, yet remain very much engrained in Dropkick’s sound. What is the band’s approach to recording albums, and has it changed over the years?
Thanks. I think it’s all the miserable weather! The approach really hasn’t changed all that much; we’ve always done it in various ways. It could be a lyric, a riff, a melody, or a basic idea, and any of those things could work as a catalyst for the creation of a song. It then becomes a collaborative effort, and that’s why our songs are “written by Dropkick Murphys.”
Dropkick has been a Celtic punk rock staple for nearly 20 years now. What things can you say about the endurance and relevance of the band now compared to when you first began?
Well “staple” could be a stretch, but thanks! I think that our approach is pretty much the same as when we started: on stage professionalism, egalitarianism in reference to band/audience relations, being, as a friend called us, ”the Marines of punk,” and not getting caught up in celebrity/rock star nonsense that so many bands seem to be enamored by.
Having been in the band since we were doing basement gigs, I can say that our outlook has been pretty much that all along. We’ve never said, “Well, we’d better not do this, because people might think that.” It has always been “Yes, and this!”
Starting out in the street punk/Oi! scene, because they were the only people who supported us in the beginning, we never really tried to fit into a scene or style, except our style. I think that in particular might be how the band has stayed relevant. Sort of the opposite of how somebody like David Bowie did it. He was constantly reinventing himself. I think we’re constantly growing upwards and outwards sound-wise, while making decisions based on the ethos we’ve had all along, and that’s what keeps us true.
You’re booked until the middle of March, and afterwards the band is planned to head into the studio to record a new album. Any ideas on new song inspirations, lyric material, or any sort of new recording approaches you haven’t done before?
We have roughly 15 ideas in various stages of being fleshed out. We’re very excited about the tunes. Even in their primordial forms, they feel very strong and anthemic. Approach-wise in the studio, I think we’re going to take time to get various guitar sounds to fit the feel of the songs, as opposed to one uniform sound. Other than that, it’s all top-secret!
Being avid supporters of the Boston Red Sox, what sort of responses do you usually get from crowds in New York City, and what are you most looking forward to when you guys play in the Big Apple in the beginning of March?
We’ve always done well in NYC. There’s a mutual love and respect there. Luckily most people realize that we are not the Red Sox, they’re just our team. We have been known to rub the team’s success in their faces before though!
I’m looking forward to playing the same venue three nights in a row and not doing the load in, set up, play, break down, load out thing every night. Plus, it will be fun to hang in the city and see friends.
Dropkick Murphys will perform at The Paramount in Huntington, NY on March 3 and 4, and three nights at the Irving Plaza in NYC on March 8, 9 and 10. The band is also set to perform in May at the Skate & Surf Festival in Asbury Park, NJ. For more information, go to dropkickmurphys.com.