The best of times

More than a decade into their career, Dropkick Murphys accept success — and pay tribute to the people and the city who helped them earn it
September 7, 2007 4:10:06 PM

VIDEO: An excerpt from an interview with the Dropkick Murphys. Video by Rod Webber. Courtesy of Greyson Welch, Ketchabrick Productions.

Ken Casey and Al Barr...
On the importance of family and friends to the band.
On the difference between this album and the last one.

On why they founded their own record label.
On recording in Ireland with Dubliners legend Ronnie Drew.
On the Pogues’ Spider Stacy and Shane MacGowan.

On Boston Harbor’s Long Island, two miles out in Quincy Bay, the Curley Building stands hulking and decrepit. In the library, books tumble in piles, blanketed with dust and mold. The Art Deco auditorium is musty and rusted; holes in the roof illuminate a floor strewn with chunks of ceiling. It’s as if the place was evacuated in a hurry sometime in the 1930s and simply left to the raccoons, one of which decomposes unbothered in a corner.

Standing on a weatherworn stage framed by faded crimson curtains, the seven members of Dropkick Murphys are arrayed in stark tableau, black clad and casting long shadows on the piles of junk behind them. They’re here to film the video for “The State of Massachusetts,” the single from their new album, The Meanest of Times (Born & Bred, released on September 18), and as tall Tim Brennan plucks a tricky Celtic melody on his banjo, they lurch into motion.

Marc Orrell leaps and writhes, manhandling his heavy accordion. Guitarist James Lynch slouches stage left, unflappably cool. As drummer Matt Kelly roils with martial precision, adamantine Scruffy Wallace stands stolidly next to him, his bagpipes lacing the tumult with a piercing, mournful keen. Frontman Al Barr coils the microphone cord three times around his wrist and screams in bloody fury. Ken Casey, bass slung low, is the booming ballast.

It’s a mighty noise: the sound of seven men with an elemental, effortless working dynamic.

Nearby, a bunch of kids are playing. They chase each other in the shadows near the back of the auditorium and tiptoe trepidly into the maw of the stygian tunnel beneath the stage. Outside, they paw through a box of T-shirts, and grab at the McDonald’s trucked in for lunch. Given the dark decay of the locale and the deafening noise blasting from within, one might wonder what they’re doing here.

Dropkick Murphys are not your typical punk band. They’re a Boston punk band, an Irish one, with enormous families and armies of friends. And they always roll deep. Anyone who’s been to their mammoth, multi-night Saint Patrick’s Day shows and seen the stage ringed with mothers and fathers and daughters and sons and grandparents and godparents and cousins and friends of cousins knows this.

Those kids, scowling in scally caps and clip-on ties on the cover of The Meanest of Times? A pretty safe bet they weren’t hired from Central Casting.

In fact, Casey says, sitting in an air-conditioned trailer on a break from the video shoot, the theme of the record, woven throughout those thunderous chords, is family and friends — loyalty to them and loyalty from them. It happened almost by accident. “Al and I were talking one day [and realized] 11 or 12 songs on the album deal directly or indirectly [with] family.”

“We’re nothing without our families,” says Barr. “They keep us in check, and they keep us going.”

“If anyone ever got a big head in this band,” Casey says . . .

Barr finishes his thought for him: “They’ve got the sharp needles ready to pop it.”

Those families have also offered crucial support, since day one, a decade-plus ago. “When I started the band, I’d just gotten married,” recalls Casey. “Imagine going to the father-in-law [and asking] ‘Can we move in with you? I just started a punk band.’ If you don’t get the crap kicked out of you right then, that’s a pretty supportive family.”

Perhaps Dad-in-Law realized what this particular Boston punk band might be capable of.

Work ethics
On the back cover of their first full-length, Do or Die (Hellcat, 1998), the Dropkicks stand in front of the American Legion Post #327 on Mission Hill. There were only four of them then. Original singer Mike McColgan (now fronting the Street Dogs) seems tightly coiled. Casey crouches atop a mailbox. Kelly hangs back, arms clasped behind him. Then-guitarist Rick Barton is wearing sunglasses. It’s nighttime. They look mean.

And the music on that first album, bruising and brutal, suggests that one might not be wrong to be intimidated by them. McColgan’s Savin Hill accent is swamp thick. Barton’s single guitar sounds like 10. The songs are about steel-tough labor unions. About bottles of beer and buckets of blood. About skinheads and torn-up knuckles. About Ireland. And, yes, about families and friends.

It’s been a long 11 years since the Dropkicks first convened in the basement of a friend’s Quincy barbershop with the bright idea of taking the punk/Irish marriage consummated a decade before by the Pogues and supercharging it with the steel-toed kick of British Oi! and the guitar heroics of ’70s hard rock.

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