Dropkick Murphys: Deeds Not Words

Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Josh Miller

The band will play their first headlining shows at their hometown baseball temple Fenway Park in Boston on September 8 & 9. Tickets to the general public went on sale today, July 7, here. And you can read more about the performances and the charities benefiting from them here.

Dropkick’s Al Barr by Josh Miller
Some albums show up ready to brawl, and the seventh long-player from Boston’s beloved Irish-tinged punk rockers Dropkick Murphys jumps out with scabby knuckles and a fearless grin. The first verse on Going Out In Style (released March 1 on the band’s own Born & Bred Records) goes:

We waited together for the cowards to come
Outgunned and outnumbered
But we wouldn’t run
No mercy, no quarter
They’ll pay for their sins
Now lower the cannons the battle begins

Dropkick Murphys have been fighting the good fight since the mid-90s, and as evidenced by their latest record, they’ve gotten a bit more refined at their mixture of classic punk, traditional Irish textures and rowdy, anthemic tunes. They’ve even grown more complex over the years, braving a unifying concept for Going Out In Style, which tells tales from the life of one Cornelius Larkin, a lively strawman for the group’s collective imagination. It’s a wake in the grandest sense that just happens to touch on timely issues like union busting and the struggles of working class people. While the band couldn’t have planned it, fate it seems had them deliver a work that’s just what average folks - the ones barely scraping by and wondering if even that skin-of-the-teeth existence is gonna last - need at this moment.

We snagged lead singer Al Barr for a chat about Cornelius, earning Glenn Beck’s hatred, the difference between punk now and back in the day and other tasty topics that jumped up during our conversation.

Dropkick Murphys by Josh Miller
JamBase: It’s ballsy for any band to do a concept record in this age.

Al Barr: We call it more of a themed album, but whatever. With us, the way everything has worked in our career, we didn’t set out for it to be that way. When we wrote the first song, “Going Out In Style,” we just realized there was a character in there and decided to continue his story.

JamBase: A floating theme like that adds depth, where one is rewarded for treating it like an album and not just picking through individual songs.

Al Barr: People don’t buy records anymore. They buy a song, and they don’t experience that whole [album] thing. In a way, this may be what bands will have to do to get people to pay attention. If you want to find out what happened in the end you have to ‘read’ the whole story.

I didn’t realize initially it was a linked story but when I found out it made sense in retrospect. But the songs work fine on their own, too.

We’re very happy with it for sure. There are two different roads you can take when you’re at the point we’re at as a band. You can start putting out records that you think are better or you can put out records that are just clocking in at a time box, not worrying about the quality and ruining the legacy you’ve created.

You’re at the juncture where you can give the people what they want, so to speak, or follow a new muse. Even musically, the Murphys seem to stretch a bit, though it’s all still clearly punk inspired.

New Album
The backbone is definitely still the edge of the pen, and that’s what we wanted to maintain in telling the story of Cornelius Larkin. It’s still gotta be us. It can’t take a fan, new or old, and make them go, “What the fuck is this shit?” You don’t want to get too avant-garde.

Sure, sure, but there are places on this album where someone who hasn’t listened to the band at all before might connect with, say the folk elements or traditional instruments that could potentially bring a new audience.

That would be nice, for sure, but only time will tell. My experience talking to people who’ve gotten into us with the last few albums is when they go back and listen to the earlier stuff, they’re cool with it as well, unless you’re someone who comes in for one song, and who the fuck needs you anyway? [laughs]. Then you’re not a fan, in my opinion. You can’t like ONE song and call yourself a fan. You gotta at least like a record!

You guys create a really good experience for listeners, both live and in the studio. There’s a lot of uplift to what you guys do. So much music that deals with serious themes just weighs you down and I never feel like I’m beat up in this way with the Dropkick Murphys, who always make me feel like getting into the fight.

Dropkick’s Al Barr by Josh Miller
Granted, there are heavy subjects mixed in our music but one intention we have is for someone to never leave in a heavier space than they arrived. We do want to lift people up, that’s a good way to put it, but we’re not at a pulpit preaching the word of God [laughs]. We definitely want to lift people’s spirits in a jovial, ferocious way.

There’s a number of elements to your band that remind one of The Clash, who were a first love for many of us punks. They empowered us and not in that cornball, self-help kind of way. I think a song like “Take ‘Em Down” on Going Out In Style makes one think, “Hey, maybe I could do this. Maybe I can and should put my fist up and get into this.”

First off, to be compared to The Clash on any level is a huge compliment. The Clash were it for me, pretty much. I grew up on American punk and hardcore, but I discovered The Clash before any of that. The Clash were pretty much it and I keep coming back to them in my ripe old age now and still enjoy them as much as I did at fourteen.

You can’t consciously make music that’s timeless but you can shoot to make something that lasts.

Going back to “Take ‘Em Down,” that’s pretty timeless. Kenny’s grandfather [Ken Casey, Dropkick bassist-singer] started the first cold storage union in Boston. He was a huge union organizer and went up and down the East Coast battling everybody back in the 50s. So, there was a lot of inspiration in our family’s struggles, not just Kenny’s, stories from our parents and grandparents woven into the story of Cornelius. It was interesting to see the shit happening in Wisconsin just as this record was being delivered. It was a song written to talk about a time gone by, but look at this, here it comes again!

It’s great that you put out the t-shirt to benefit those battling against the union busting in Wisconsin.

Dropkick’s Ken Casey by Josh Miller
We’re donating the money from that shirt to help the worker’s relief fund. Even though they lost a lot of ground due to that asshole, we’ll see how it goes. We were on tour when the shit hit the fan with that, and somedays you have good internet service, somedays you don’t. So, we’re working with the news, and I learned more about [the situation] by watching Glenn Beck, who took the song and did a whole thing on it. Wow, Glenn Beck hates us! We couldn’t be more right-on right now! And he couldn’t have done a better job promoting a record that was delivered late and we worried it wouldn’t do well. Well, thank you, Glenn Beck. You probably sold a couple hundred more for us!

You couldn’t ask for a better enemy. It was cool to see you guys on NPR.

That was a trip and a half! I grew up with NPR in my house since I was a kid. It was a trip being in there and being interviewed. It’s not where you’d necessarily find a band like us. The band has always prided itself on being not so much a political band but one concerned with neighborhood politics. We’ve stuck to that, but we’ve always been pro-labor. So, when this shit happened we found many of our fans who’ve come on board with the last few albums surprised and asking, “Why are you getting involved in this?” Do your fuckin’ math, people. If you know the history of this band, you know we’ve always been in that corner and it’s always going to be one thing we’re gonna roar about.

It’s an interesting time in this country, and I try to be optimistic that things will get better. That whole “it’s darkest before the light” thing has some truth to it. And I think some people need it to get so bad before they wake up. You look at other countries and what’s happening after years of bad leadership. They reach a breaking point, and we’re seeing a lot of that now. Time comes to say, “Enough.”

Revolutions have a way of spreading simultaneously around the world. Look at 1968-1969 around the globe. It wasn’t just what was happening in America. That energy just moves things around. It’s challenging to make music that has that kind of subtext. You guys could just knock out party songs and collect a paycheck for being a drink-ready punk rock band with Irish accents. But the music is more substantive in the end if you take that challenge.

Dropkick Murphys by Josh Miller
A lot of music has those strains to it. Folk music, especially Irish folk music, is filled with sad, tragic stories but they’ve been told and retold against this jovial backdrop of music. So, you kind of forget that this one’s about a guy who drinks himself to death and this one’s about a lost love. Our early songs like “Barroom Hero,” well, people look at it like some ultimate drinking song but it’s about a character who got up every day and went about his business, and his business is murdering as many drinks as he could. He had his prime and now he’s this pathetic guy at the end of the bar. It’s definitely not glorifying that lifestyle by any means.

You’re a band worth sitting down with the lyrics booklet. And anyone who thinks the Dropkick Murphys have moved away from their punk roots should check out “Sunday Hardcore Matinee” on the new album. That brought me back to being a pre-teen at the California version of those afternoon punk shows.

That was my way of trying to educate the kids today that just download a song. I want to tell them, “You’re so lucky that you can just pop over to a record store and buy punk rock music or download it on your computer.” I grew up in a time where you had to order everything by mail. I did so much tape trading! I’d go to a flea market and search. I had this Jerry Garcia Cats Under The Stars tape that I popped the tabs off and I recorded over it with the Circle Jerks’ Group Sex and D.O.A. and Adolescents and all this fuckin’ stuff on there. I didn’t write what was on there; I knew what was on there because I’d listened to it so many times.

I grew up in the late 70s/early 80s version of that same thing in California. It really felt like you were part of something bigger than yourself, something with the potential to alter the world in a good way.

That era was special because it was all new and it would never be that new again. Looking back 20-30 years later that’s clear. But we’re still doing it and that counts for something, right?

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[Published on: 7/7/11]

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