It was only a matter of time before someone really put the rock into "The Rocky Road to Dublin." Though Boston's Dropkick Murphys have seen a number of changes, both in musical climate and their group's lineup, one thing remains constant; their penchant for marrying the themes of the Emerald Isle with the attitude associated with emerald hair --- their vibe that welcomes mandolins as readily as Mohawks.
"A lot of traditional Irish songs, you can turn them into punk songs easily," distills Dropkick Murphys guitarist James Lynch. "Musically and lyrically, they're not that far off from punk rock." The three-chord formula, the bite and charm of the lyrics, the soiling intoxication...the more one thinks about it, the more one comes to realize the natural relationship between traditional Celtic pub music and greasy, jagged punk rock.
Dropkick Murphys can't quite be credited for first promoting that kinship, but they certainly have brought the tenets of Celtic punk rock to new heights. This is most apparent on their forthcoming album, Blackout (Hellcat Records, due out on June 10th, 2003), the first album which features this seven-piece band writing as a cohesive unit.
Says James, "The whole experience as far as writing the record was cool, because although this lineup's been touring for three years, we've never written together, and that was a whole new experience."
The band --- which includes Lynch and Marc Orrell on guitars, vocalist Al Barr, bassist and vocalist Ken Casey, drummer Matt Kelley, tin whistle and mandolin player Ryan Foltz and recently recruited bagpipe player Scruffy Wallace --- is no stranger to the road. A big portion of their success is due to their work ethic which finds them touring almost relentlessly. In fact, their upcoming stint in California is just a prelude to their spot on the 2003 Vans Warped Tour, the traveling punk rock reverie that the band is no stranger to. Yet, even with all that time spent together on the bus, creating brand new music together as a group is still a new experience for Dropkick Murphys.
"It's a whole different animal than just getting on stage and playing together, because we had to learn how to work with each other. Everyone does things differently," says Lynch.
Prior to recording at The Outpost in Massachusetts, Lynch says the band would rehearse five days a week in their practice space, demoing new song ideas on their 8-track recorder. Their process of constantly reworking and restructuring the embryonic songs paid off, as Blackout blisters and bristles with Oi! defiance and angst, while at the same time showing a refreshing amount of diversity. Take, for instance, the healthy bitch-slap they give to the traditional tune "Black Velvet Band," or the excellently vehement backing to Woody Guthrie's 1942 poem, "Gonna Be A Blackout Tonight." Their smug ribbing is nearly palpable on the band's power-punk original "Walk Away" (likely inspired by the antics of former bagpipe player Spicey McHaggis, who left the band without notice and got married earlier this year), and soon-to-be classics like the anthemic acoustic bro-rock of "World Full of Hate" and "Kiss Me I'm Shitfaced," a definitive arm-around-your-buddy, pint-swinger, to rival the best of classic pub sing-alongs. Built upon double-barreled distortion, gravel-ground leads and fist-raising gang vocals, but with excellent bagpipe, mandolin and whistle accompaniment, Dropkick is a band that knows how to put the "Aye" in their "Oi!"
"A lot of kids come to our shows and ask a lot about the traditional songs that we do, and who originally did them. I think a lot of times that'll get people looking for stuff like that," James says.
Although reared on traditional Irish music, James says it wasn't until he was older that he began to really appreciate the sounds of his heritage.
"It was around a lot," he says, referring to Celtic music. "My father had it around more than I did, and it's kind of like, when you're young, you don't even want to hear it, and as you grow up you learn to appreciate it. It's funny, it's like I was almost made to be in this band: I grew up on punk rock and Irish music."
As perhaps the pre-eminent Irish-American punk group, the Dropkick Murphys have had the opportunity to work with a name synonymous with Celtic and punk: former and sporadic Pogues singer and mythical imbiber, Shane MacGowan. The volatile exploits of the two camps have been told and retold many a time, but for the benefit of the newly converted, the story involves DKM's founder Ken Casey nearly punching MacGowan's teeth out after the famed singer refused to sign Casey's Pogues singles. Eventually, the air was cleared and MacGowan was invited to sing on Dropkick Murphys' "Good Rats." But, apparently, either the band didn't make much of an impression on MacGowan or that impression was lost in one of Shane's blackouts. [I'd bet a pint it had more to do with the latter.]
"After we worked with him, like months after the record had been released, he called us up and was like, 'Hey do you guys still want me to sing on those songs?' Maybe we can just trick him into getting back in the studio and tell him he never did it the last time."
James laughs at the idea, but then remembers the most recent collision between Dropkick and MacGowan.
"Actually, I don't know how crazy he'd be about getting back into the studio with us. We played with the Pogues in London not too long ago, and Al got drunk and kinda threatened him."
However, the thought of their next meeting being equally likely to end in good-humored revelry as it is in bloodied brows and smashed pint glasses just seems to work within the constructs of the Dropkick Murphys' style. After all, another natural product of Irish music and punk rock merging is excessive drinking...not to feed into the stereotype at all, but let's face it, blood is thicker than water and Guinness thickens the blood. And although the band has played in Chico a time or two before, Lynch's memories of our Northern California borough are hazy at best.
"Every time we go [to Chico] we end up getting wasted. We always end up out-of-our-minds drunk by the end of the night."
On Sunday, June 15th, crowds of all ages will have the opportunity to witness the communal festivity that is a Dropkick Murphys show. And surprisingly, fans of all ages are just what Lynch and company are used to.
"We get parents with their children, and grandparents; I'm amazed by it every time I see it because the crowd is so different and the ages are so different, but everyone seems to have a good time for some reason."
That reason has to do with the energy, vitality and good times that make up their live performances. James explains that the audience is essentially the eighth member of the band.
"It's the way it's always been. It's vital to the live show with us. If we didn't have the crowd helping us out, it's not nearly what it could be."
Hard to imagine, but a Dropkick Murphys show may be the only concert where it's acceptable to take your grandmother and later dive off the stage.