Doing an interview over e-mail is not easy. The opportunity for real dialogue is often precluded by the great cyber divide. It is as if, with each question, you have just one shot, and woe betide he who asks a question that might be misconstrued. It is inevitable that words will be minced and questions will go unanswered, or answered half-heartedly. And there is no chance of asking follow-up questions. But so it goes. Bands need to tour if they want to recoup their recording expenses and making some kind of living, other than the standard nine to five.
The Dropkick Murphys are presently traversing America on the Warped Tour, in support of their latest record Blackout. The album’s title comes from an unreleased Woody Guthrie song that here gets the Mermaid Avenue treatment, Dropkick style. It should be no surprise that this band would want to give life to the lyrics of Guthrie. After all, they have brought his spirit in their own music for nearly eight years. Their music is about pride, community, and all things working-class. Originally the sound of the blue-collar enclaves of Boston, the Dropkicks attract a larger, more diverse audience with each release. From somewhere in America, bassist Ken Casey (the only remaining original member) took some time to talk about the band’s evolution and just what it means to be working-class.
How do you define working-class? What does it mean to be a working-class rock band?
I don’t know, it’s just how I was raised. I don’t offer a fancy definition of working class. But it’s something you’re born into. I have friends who have gone on to college and got great white collar jobs, but they’ll always be working class kids. By the same token, there are kids from rich families who move to a new city where nobody knows them, shave their head, get a job at a factory and go around talking about working class this and that; but they’ll never be. As far as we go as a band, working class rock band just signifies that we came from nothing.
You are the only original member of the band. Is this really the same band that started out in 1996? How are the Dropkicks different today than when they first started playing together?
Yeah, I think it’s the same band. We still have the same ideals and the guys that replaced the old members were friends and fans of the band, so everyone that joined felt like part of the family. We have changed a bit musically but nothing compared to lots of bands we grew up listening to, who all went from playing hardcore and Oi! to playing crap metal shit.
Are you concerned that your increasing popularity will alienate those who have been loyal from the start? Playing the Warped Tour must be quite different than playing a pub in South Boston, particularly considering the dynamic of the audience — a shift away from a largely skinhead following.
Whatever, we never played in pubs from the start. We were doing all ages punk matinees from the start. We’ve been on the Warped Tour in ’98, ’99, 2001 and now 2003; and the band only started in 1996. So people who would be alienated by us playing the Warped tour would have been alienated along time ago. Thirty bucks for over 30 bands seems like a deal to me. I’m sure the people who only wanna see us will just wait till we come back on our own club tour.
Any band that gains new fans loses some of the original fans, but we just make the music, we don’t check what kind of haircut you have when you show up at the door.
The theme of community figures prominently in what the Dropkicks are about — the music (especially live performances) exudes a sense of solidarity that is uncommon in rock music. What are your thoughts on this notion of solidarity? Why is it so prevalent in (essential to) your music?
Well, too many bands these days are full of themselves and at our shows we want everyone to feel equal; there should be no division between band and audience. We are all in it together. From a political stand point, worker solidarity is a common theme in our music and something we feel strongly about.
Is your music meant to be functional? There seems to be a specific political trajectory (“Do or Die” makes specific reference to the Reagan years), what is it? Do you find it imperative for your music to be politicized, especially since so much of this so-called punk dreck is so apathetic?
No we don’t want to really be considered a political band because bands that soapbox too much are eventually just tuned out by people. We believe in leaving it to the songs; if people identify with what we have to say that’s great and if not that’s alright as well.
Several of your songs pay homage to your ancestors, or past heroes of the working class, (“Boys on the Dock,” “Worker’s Song,” “As One,” “Forever,” etc)… why is this such an important theme in the Dropkicks’ music?
“Boys on the Dock” and “Forever” are both about family and it’s very important to us cause it’s all you truly have when it’s all said and done. Songs about important figures from the past are imperative cause it’s documenting the achievements of great people and god knows not enough bands do that. That style of song writing is probably a product our folk influence, cause that’s what all those old songs were doing: documenting history and passing stories from generation to generation.
The poignant “Buried Alive” (off Blackout) was inspired by the harrowing situation in which four Pennsylvania miners found themselves last summer. Why did you decide to write about them in particular, instead of say the fire fighters of New York City, who too were working-class heroes — only with a less fortunate fate?
Anything involving Sept. 11th we didn’t feel worthy to even touch. It was too devastating. And lots of people seemed to be jumping on the whole American pride firefighter thing so we just did a tour and donated the money to the NYC fire department instead. Sometimes it’s better to just go do something instead of just writing about it.
Blackout is very different than any previous release. It is certainly much more polished. Why the change? Is this merely the next logical step in the evolution of the band?
It’s not even that different, we recorded it at the same studio. If we put “Gonna Be A Black Out Tonight” first instead of “Walk Away,” people wouldn’t even think that. We just decided to take people by surprise and put an unexpected song first, instead of the expected bagpipe anthem. As far as production goes, we just cut back a bit on the high end and added a bit more low end. When the Bruins started playing our old records over the PA at the Fleet Center, they sounded like shit. We realized then that the old records were too bright and brittle. So basically we made this record sound better so it wouldn’t embarrass us at the hockey games.
The Dropkicks seem to be very proud of the fact they are American (in a jingoistic, not nationalistic manner). Waving the American flag while on stage seems a bold gesture, considering most punks have come to disdain everything for which it stands. Is this increasingly hard when seeing the continuous neglect of the working-class, and the masses for that matter?
We wave the flag because we believe in the principles this country was founded on. We don’t say we are proud to be American because we think America is a perfect society. We certainly don’t wave the flag for the White House. But we can’t let these people take away our ability too be proud of this country.
So “Walk Away” is about deadbeat dads… I actually thought it was inspired by Spicy’s sudden departure. How has Spicy’s departure affected the band? After all, he brought a certain, shall we say, “character” to the Dropkicks.
Spicy McHaggis was a name we came up with in 1999 when we were on tour in Scotland. We passed a McDonald’s that had a sign for the new Spicy McChicken sandwich and we all thought, “Hey this is Scotland they should have a Spicy McHaggis sandwich.” Then I thought, “Hey that would be a cool name for a piper, when we get a full time piper he’ll be called Spicy McHaggis.” Out of boredom we started concocting what his personality would be like. In 2001 we found Robbie Mederios from Cape Cod and he became Spicey McHaggis. So no, he wasn’t hard to replace cause he was more or less a fictional character. We miss Robbie Mederios; he was an okay guy. But Scruffy Wallace (by the way that’s actually his name, his mother even calls him that) is doing a great job filling Robbie’s shoes.
Why did you decide to cover “Blackout?” Is there a reason this particular song sounds so different than the rest of the album?
Well, it’s not a cover really. We wrote the music to go with Woody Guthrie’s unreleased lyrics. We wanted to make it hard so it would take people by surprise that heard we were doing a Woody Guthrie song.
It must have been quite empowering to do a Woody Guthrie song. Ironically, I always thought that the Dropkicks are more akin to Woody than they are to a band like the Clash. It must have been awesome just to be in the presence of the Guthrie archives.
I’d say it’s the greatest thing to happen to the band so far. A real honor.
Any chance of the Dropkicks doing more of this, maybe an entire album?
Yes, we actually recorded another song of his called “Shipping Off to Boston” that we are gonna put on a single or comp or something. And we still have 10 or 11 more songs that we hope to record eventually.