Talks behind the scenes of the new record, the pride of Boston and the joy of giving back
Dropkick Murphys are kickoff a three month world tour tonight in Austria, having just released their ninth studio album on January 6th, the powerful –11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory. The eclectic mix of new songs touch upon all facets of the band — both as a united force and as individuals. With songs addressing intense subject matters like addiction and the Boston Marathon Bombing to songs poking fun at first class losers, the band does an incredible job of staying true to their signature style while also exploring uncharted waters.
Now turning the page on 20 years as a group, Dropkick Murphys continue to pioneer the Boston music scene. They lead by example — having a profound impact on local artists and helping countless individuals and vulnerable populations in their communities — thanks to the efforts of their fearless leader, Ken Casey and his Claddagh Fund organization.
Prior to heading overseas, I had the chance to speak with Casey about the inspiration behind making the new record in Texas, how hard it was to write “4–15–13” and exuding hometown pride by giving back in abundance.
If you can capture it in words, what does this new record mean to you?
It’s the first album on the other side of 20 years of band. We went through a lot of reflection, out on the road last year celebrating 20 years. There were a lot of “Wow, this has been going for so long” moments. To still have the opportunity to make new music is something special. For a lot of bands that are around for 20 years, there isn’t a request for new music. We’re very fortunate. People buy the album still and want to hear new stuff. We are also very proud of the output of nine albums in 21 years. We pride ourselves in our work ethic.
The story behind the band is that it started on a bet. I was going to school at UMass Boston, working construction during the day and bartending at nights. One of the kids that I worked with dared me to put a band together and open for his band three weeks later. I had never picked up an instrument before. We did it totally as a joke to win a bet. To still be doing it 21 years later has been incredible
Looking at the new record as an isolated piece of art, I’m super proud of it. It’s the first time we went away to make a record. We feel like we accomplished new things, broke new ground and focused more than ever. We’re really happy with the artwork and all the colors. We did a lyric book for the first time ever. It’s more in-depth with everything from hand drawn art to our lyric sheets to pictures from the studio down in Texas. We had the number one vinyl record this week. It’s crazy to see that come full circle. My daughter is 15 and she asked for a record player for Christmas. It’s nice to see that format have an impact again.
Being deep-rooted in the Boston area, how was it getting out of your comfort zone and going to El Paso, TX to record 11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory?
It was a tough decision. We are definitely homebodies. Heading out on tour, I feel like a kid going back to school in sixth grade. I get anxious. Normally studio time, you are in Boston, you are working very hard, sometimes 16 hours a day, but you come home to your own house and see your family. To add extra time away is something we avoided in the past. I think this decision was not wanting to rest on our laurels and we thought, if we’re going to keep making records, we have to raise the bar. One of these things would be to go away and focus. Between seven guys coming and going, arranging our busy schedules to go to the studio, sometimes doesn’t work. It would have been useless to remove ourselves and go to LA or New York where we can just go wonder and get a coffee. We went someplace where you could not leave the property. It was an amazing place, Sonic Ranch. You literally eat and sleep the record. You have your meals together, the dining room is a two minute walk from the studio, you sleep right there and you get a high volume of work done.
What is the process in writing a Dropkick Murphys song? With all the different layers, does it start with a simple guitar or piano riff?
We are all over the map with how we write. The model we go by is whoever has the idea, don’t take it very far because it’s probably going to change. I’ll be in the car and I’ll sing melodies into my voice memo all the time. I’ll then come in and sing a verse and a chorus and sometimes it’s just as I sang it and other times it goes on a ride I never expected. A song like “Paying My Way,” was just a piano and we built a song around it. Sometimes, Tim Brennan will write a song start to finish. I’ll hear a melody and I’ll put it over it. It’s everything from me coming in with a vocal melody to a piano riff to a banjo riff to Tim coming in with an instrumental song. Every way you can write a song, we do.
Did you have all of the new songs written prior to going out to El Paso? Or did you write a bunch out there?
We’ve never gone into the studio without an albums worth of material. Inevitably, something changes and you write more during the creative process. “The Lonesome Boatman” and “Paying My Way” happened in the studio. I’d say on every album, about one or two get written in the studio even though we go there with a lot of songs. Something we end up writing beats out something else. I’ve never really understood the process of going into the studio to write. We’d rather do that in our practice space than do it on the clock in the studio.
“The Lonesome Boatman” grabbed me right away. I thought having a musical interlude to start the record sets the tone for the journey that ensues.
We’re always thinking about a full album. I know people tend to put it on shuffle, but we are always thinking in terms of a complete, start to finish product. Conceivably you can say, when thinking like that, that the open and the close are the most important parts. I think we got it right. The closing song, “Until the Next Time,” is one of my favorites on the record. Matt Kelly, our drummer, wrote the whole thing. I think it has a very unique sound for us. That’s the beauty of having six guys in the band. You get to see a lot of everybody. It gives a less repetitive feel to it.
The record is very diverse. You go in a lot of different musical directions.
An album has to have peaks and valleys. There are a lot of serious subject matter songs on there. I think it’s very important to pace things out and lighten things up a little bit too. A lot of times that’s done on purpose. We want to show all the sides of our character. We are pretty lighthearted and like to have fun and enjoy what we are doing without being so wrapped up in ourselves and our career. It’s important for us to have songs like “First Class Loser” because it shows the side of us that likes to laugh and make fun of each other. That song in particular, I tell all my friends, “Hey, I wrote it about you.” Laughs.
Will Dailey actually brought “Paying My Way” to my attention. It’s a very moving song.
The lyrics are about addiction and overcoming. A lot of the songs are dealing with the opiate crisis in Massachusetts. “Paying My Way” was the hope of getting out of that. We do so much work through our charity with kids, especially teens that are fighting this. I wanted to give a nod to them. There’s a sober High School in Boston called Ostiguy High, we give scholarships to the kids that graduate. I meet a lot of them and they’ll tell me they got the scholarship and now they are married and have kids of their own. They have real lives and did those tough things with one foot in front of the other. They believed in themselves to get out of their problems. With so much heaviness, sadness and negativity, “Paying My Way” was a song about the possibilities of turning your life around. I think anyone can apply that to whatever diversity they may face in their life.
Then you have “4.15.13.” I’m sure that was not easy to write and there was a sensitivity there. How did that song come about? Did you feel like there was a responsibility to address that subject matter?
I went into writing that song thinking it would be this cathartic thing, but not thinking it would ever go on a record. If you are trying to write a song to express your feelings or emotions on something and it’s such a horrible thing, the song might be a downer. I didn’t want that. If it was going to be a song that was going to bring people back in a bad way we wouldn’t have done it. The main lyric we came with first was “We’re all just people trying to get along.” It set the tone for a different approach to writing the song, emphasizing — what the hell is going on? Why can’t we get along? That day rippled so far. The marathon is a family oriented day. It’s another song I’m very proud of. I have a hard time putting my finger on really what came out musically. It’s not the norm for us. It moves along in a slow ballad way and tells a story. It’s a direction I’d like to do more of. After 20 years, we thought to ourselves, “Hey, you know what? We are good enough to write songs like that.” It’s an area we wouldn’t have ever tried to operate in two or three records ago.
When I think of Dropkick Murphy’s the word that pops into my head is “pride.” In relation to being a band for over 20 years, your distinct style, being so faithful to Boston, the charity work you do and even being invested in the local sports teams. How important is being a representation of Boston to you?
It definitely was in the beginning stages. Back in our early days, we are playing DIY punk rock shows and nobody talked about sports. We’d go in and talk sports in a tongue-in-cheek way and people would go, “oh man, these guys are so Boston.” I always have to give credit to the fact that we would have never made it anywhere if it wasn’t for the punk scene was in the mid 90’s. Bands like the Ducky Boys, Showcase Showdown, Pinkerton Thugs, all these bands could fill the old Rat, which was our version of CBGB’s. Every band wanted to come play there. When we were still working day jobs, we’d put on all ages matinees where we would headline and give seven bands from seven other cities all the money we made from that night. They’d leave with money in their pocket and all go home and make sure that when we wanted to go to their city, it was going to be the best show. If they had to drag their grandmother to the show, they were going to fill that place. A lot of that had to do with the pride of how good the Boston punk scene was. It stems from that. We definitely wear our roots on our sleeves. As we’ve gotten bigger and people say we represent Boston, we like to think we do that well especially with the charity work, but it’s also a tag we don’t want. It’s too much pressure. We prefer to think of ourselves as the Bad News Bears of rock that started on a bet. We’ve fumbled through it, had success, had failures and have learned from everything while truly enjoying the journey.
Catch Dropkick Murphys on tour now! Dates here:
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Jeff Gorra / jeffgorra@gmail