The Street Dogs have an impressive pedigree. Singer Mike McColgan was one of the founding members of the Dropkick Murphys; drummer Jeff Erna was also in DKM, as well as the Black Jax; bassist Johnny Rioux used to play with the Kickovers and country punk band Elmer; and guitarist Rob Guidotti was in the Bruisers. Their debut album, Savin Hill, was just released, and it fuckin’ rocks! Their music is gritty yet infectious, their lyrics are pure blue collar honesty. Seldom do I hear an album as refreshing as Savin Hill. This is how punk rawk is meant to sound.
I recently caught up with Mike McColgan to talk about his decision to leave the Dropkick Murphys and become a Boston firefighter. During this time, we also discussed working-class politics, the Boston Red Sox and all other things Boston — though, at the time, there wasn’t anything much more important than the Sox. There was something very real about talking with Mike, an honesty that is evident from the opening guitar riff of Savin Hill.
I guess I’ll begin with the most obvious question, why did you leave the Dropkick Murphys, and what have you been doing in the subsequent years?
I left the Dropkick Murphys to pursue being a Boston firefighter, and I’ve been on that job for close to three year now. I left the band in April of ’98, and between that time and now I have been channeling my energy on getting on the fire department and doing that job.
I was informally jamming with Jeff Erna, the old drummer of DKM and also of Black Jax fame. One day, out of the blue, Jeff called me up and asked if I wanted to come down and sing some songs that he and Rob Guidotti, our guitar player, had been jamming on at the time. I said, “yeah.” After a couple weeks, we did a seven song demo that generated a lot more interest than any of us expected. A couple of labels expressed interest, and Crosscheck was the one that was most willing to work with our vision on how things should be. So we signed with them, and so far things have been going great. Now we have our debut record, Savin Hill, out and it’s doing a lot better than we ever thought it would.
What made you decide to become a firefighter?
My uncle’s on the job, and I was always in the firehouse as a kid and saw how it was: the close ranks, and the camaraderie; the respect the job had. Then in 1994, I saw my neighborhood get transformed into one big a conglomerate of firefighters, like 15,000, when a Boston firefighter died in the line of duty. I just had a lot of respect and admiration for these guys and the work they do.
Isn’t this what “Jakes” (on Savin Hill) is about?
Yeah, “Jakes” definitely touches on that; it directly touches on what motivated me to become a firefighter, and how happy I am to be a firefighter.
It seems to me that there is a logical connection between this career decision and a prominent theme throughout your songs, that of brotherhood.
Yeah, it’s definitely a recurring topic.
What influenced Savin Hill, both ideologically and musically?
Well, it’s coming from life experience. I was born in Savin Hill, a part of Dorchester. There was a lot of formative experience there: a lot of hanging out, a lot hijinks and chicanery. It was the first place I ever lifted a lager and tilted it towards my lips. The song “Savin Hill” also deals with later on in life, with competition, relationships, work and hopes and aspirations. It’s real life experience on the record, through my own eyes and through the eyes of the other band members who also wrote some of the songs.
The songs on Savin Hill are, at the same time, gritty and infectiously melodic. The album’s relatively, eh, “accessible,” yet so honest. Was this something for which you were consciously striving?
Not really. We wanted Savin Hill to reflect what we like musically. We are hopeful that what we like, a few other people might like as well. But there was never a concerted effort to make it accessible to the masses; that was something never discussed or consciously attempted at. It was just a bunch of guys in a room with a producer and an engineer. We came at our producer with a bunch of songs and did some pre-production — and pre-production is just jamming on the songs and coming up with some ideas. We went into the studio once and came out with twelve songs. Then, we thought we should go back in again and we did another five songs. Savin Hill is just a reflection of where the band was at, at that time.
The honest aspect of it is that you have guys in this outfit with life experience, and who have gone through real tangible difficulties growing up. That comes out on the record. You’re not dealing with a group of people who just got out of the ninth grade. There’s a vibrant spirit, there’s an intense, in-your face spirit. It’s a well-rounded record; we even touch on folk. I certainly did not want to make a record where every song sounds the same.
The politics of “working class” have become associated with this record. Do you feel that this is a working-class record, and that the Street Dogs are a working-class rock band?
Well, I would say that this record is working-class. We weren’t in the studio with a $500,000 budget. We had a small five figure budget — just barely reaching five digits so you can probably figure out what that means. The guys in the band have jobs, they’re holding down rents and things like that. We have bills and responsibilities, and we struggle to get by. So yeah, that would make us a working-class band and make Savin Hill a working class record. We’re not singing about entitlements, we’re not singing about silver spoons. At the same time, we’re not dissing that stuff, or being anti-white collar. We’re just being who we are. I mean, I only got five bucks in my pocket for gas, and I’m pulling up on an Exxon station. That’s pretty damn working-class, if you ask me. And Christ, it’s almost two bucks a gallon! Maybe that’s lower-class. Who knows? (conversation with gas station attendant discernible in background)
Is your music political? When with the Dropkick Murphys, you wrote one of the band’s most politically charged songs, “Do or Die.” On “Don’t Preach to Me” (from Savin Hill), you seem a bit leery of politicized art. Yet, it seems that what you denounce in that particular song are the self-righteous lackeys of both the right and the left, who speak against malfeasance not out of conviction, but because it’s the “in” thing to do — and it’s “safe” for these individuals to do so.
At times it is. The song “Modern Day Labor Anthem” … when we were in the studio, we came up with an impromptu thing where at the end of the song I just kinda got strong in my advocacy of the labor unions because I’ve seen how they’ve benefited my family and people in my community — how they’ve given workers a fair and honest and equitable shot at good wages and decent conditions. I mean, not all labor unions are perfect. The labor movement is a personal choice for the people who get involved in it. I’m not saying the whole world should be that way, but personally I’ve seen the benefits it can bring to people, so I feel really strong about it. I’ve seen people on top of the hills slam labor unions, slam organized labor and say it impedes economic progress, or it’s too costly. I hate that bottom-line mentality, and I hate when workers are looked at as numbers rather than as human beings. That’s the point on the record where politics flood into it a little bit.
But, a song like “Don’t Preach to Me” has quite the opposite tone.
What happened with that song is, there’re times when I turn on the E! channel and I see hot little actors and actresses, and they’re advocating for all these causes. They put themselves on these pulpits, and it’s almost like they’re telling everyone how to think and what to feel and how to vote. I don’t back that. You know, give people more credit. There’s a thing called the First Amendment, but sometimes the people in Hollywood get out of control a little bit. So that’s what that song is touching on. Let me formulate my own opinion, let me have my own ideas. I respect your right to have your ideas, but you must also respect my right if it’s different from yours, and don’t try to cram yours down my throat. “Don’t Preach to Me” is a reaction to those feelings — like when I see certain actors and actresses on the red carpet, getting all self-righteous and to full of themselves. Freedom means freedom, have some perspective!
… Man, I’m gonna take a beating for that.
No, I definitely hear you. Do you feel that the whole working-class punk rock thing has become a bit contrived?
I think in instances it can be contrived, and that’s obvious. Then there are some bands that are legitimate. When it is tangible, it is unspoken and people will recognize that. It is understood internally by the people who can recognize that and appreciate that. But when it’s fake and contrived, people will quickly identify it and it’s not gonna last long. The music that falls under the working-class genre, and is real, will withstand the test of time and will stand on its own; it will have a crowd and will have loyal fans.
It’s not hard to tell what’s real and what’s not real. But at the same time, what’s real to you and me might not be what’s real to somebody else. It’s a matter of interpretation and what you believe. It’s like for me and you, punk means a lot to us. The new generation of kids these days, their version of punk is gonna be a lot different than ours. They need to be educated — here’s a Misfits record, here’s a Stiff Little Fingers record, here’s an early Social Distortion record. They’re not gonna know this on their own. It’s time for them to learn, and hopefully some of the new bands will turn around and embrace that. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are great for that.
The Bosstones immediately came to mind for me as well.
On their first major label EP, they covered SSD, they covered Slapshot, they covered the Angry Samoans. That was their first major label offering! It was to say to Mercury records, “this is who we are, this is what we believe, this is where we’re coming from and this is the direction we’re headed in, love it or leave it.”
Not only did that EP offer a history lesson in punk rock, but it also got kids interested in ska. For me, it was the Bosstones who got me into the Specials and eventually into the Skatalites, Desmond Dekker and Prince Buster.
Exactly. And they always gave credit to the opening bands and always took care of Boston bands. They didn’t forget where they’re from.
Speaking of Boston bands, what is your relationship with DKM?
When it comes to DKM, I’m gonna defend them until the cows come home because there is definitely a fraternal origin between my band and them. That’s a very deep thing. I’m still on good term with them. In fact, when we were working on Savin Hill, the first person we thought of for production was Kenny Casey. Unfortunately, he was busy with DKM. Point is, DKM live, breathe, sleep and eat what they say. They are the genuine article.
Last night, you sang the National Anthem at Fenway Park. How’d this come about?
I’ve sung the anthem for the Boston Fire Department at various functions, but it was always my dream to sing at Fenway. I sat down with Johnny Rioux, the bass player in our band, and said, “we ought to just record something and send it over.” We were still in the studio, writing songs — in that creative mode. So we banged it out and sent it. About three weeks later, they wrote back and were like, “yeah, we’d like to have you.”
It was a privilege and an honor. I felt like a little kid that just got handed a bag of candy. It was just a beautiful thing. When I walked out on the field, I touched the dirt and I looked around. I saw the retired number of Yestremsky. I could just feel the history on that field — though, mostly bad history.
And last night the Red Sox could have clinched the wild card. How awesome would that have been: singing the National Anthem on the night they make it to the post-season?
I know. I think I brought them bad aura. I don’t think they’re gonna be asking me back anytime soon.
Still, this might be their year. Though we say that every year in New England.
That’s what we say every year: “Maybe next year!” Same thing’s true with the Bruins and the Patriots.
I was hoping to catch you on NESN — imagine that punk rawk on New England Sports Network — but I guess they don’t televise the National Anthem.
I know. But, the park gave me a photo of me singing at home plate. So when I’m a grandfather one of these days, and when I got a big kangaroo stomach, I’ll have my grandkids up on my lap and I’ll pull out that picture and tell them, “this is when your grandfather was a somebody.”
Are you concerned that what you are doing with the Street Dogs will be overshadowed by your tenure with DKM? Is there a sense that people have certain expectations to which you will be held?
People have asked me that before. And, there was definitely a part of me that thought that might happen. But when we go out and play, people seem to be focused on what we’re bringing. No one’s really telling me to sing Dropkick Murphys’ songs. I don’t hesitate to talk about my experience with them, because I’m proud of it and I’m still friends with the guys. I had Kenny and Al sing on “Stand Up,” and it was a good time in the studio. There’s a fraternal relationship between both bands. But, we’re both different. Street Dogs doesn’t lean in the Celtic direction, we just stick to punk-influenced rock-n-roll. I think the Street Dogs are gonna be alright on their own. I don’t think my past experience will stand in the way of people enjoying our music, or even hating it for that matter.
So, if you were circumscribe your experience with the Street Dogs by one theme or emotion, what would it be?
I’d say intensity. We’re intense about what we sing about, be it relationships or work or life in general or even politics. We mean what we’re saying. It’s not a joke. We’re not trying to cash in. You know, we’re in this thing. We will make an impact, there’s no question about that. Sometimes life won’t leave you alone, and I’m getting another chance with this thing — I’m involved again, I’m making music and I’m happy.
Street Dogs: http://www.street-dogs.com