The Dropkick Murphys don’t have a mainstream style, but they are constantly breaking barriers. This Massachusetts septet have built a diehard following with their relentless touring, DIY mentality and signature Celtic-tinged punk rock blend that is impossible to duplicate.
But nowadays, the alternative group might be on the verge of breaking into the mainstream and doing so without compromising their ideals. Just one week after their seventh album Going Out In Style was released, drummer Matt Kelly was shooting the breeze with his band mates on the tour bus when he found out that their new studio effort cracked the top ten of the Billboard 200 -- a feat they never accomplished in their 15-year storied career.
“In the early morning of the chart position, I got an email from the manager,” Kelly excitedly recalls in his classic Bostonian accent. “I was reading it out loud, ‘Blah, blah, blah … number six! Holy crap! What the fuck!’ This was beyond what we were expecting. We were hoping for top 15, top ten at most. Outta control, man!”
While Going Out In Style is their highest charting album to date, the Dropkick Murphys have accomplished another first: writing a concept album. For the past ten years, the seven-piece outfit desired to craft a prolific storytelling LP with compositions that had their own identity and intertwined with one another, but the group was always apprehensive about pursuing it. Traditionally, most theme-driven efforts keep artists limited in regards to sound and subject matter, and as a result, song transitions are either bumpy or non-existent.
Despite those fears, the Boston collective realized more than halfway into the album that the records correlated to one another and, with the help of bestselling author Michael Patrick MacDonald, they were able to pen a compelling tale.
“We fleshed out a character -- the character being an amount of our grandfathers, specifically James’ grandfather Cornelius Lynch, who came over from Ireland [after] fighting in the Korean War and met a sweetheart here. He was kinda the conduit, or the archetype of Cornelius Larkin, and we were just taking pieces from the past…taking part of his past, our ancestors and even our own pasts, and putting it into the songs, which fleshed out the character,” Kelly recalls. “So basically, we had the luxury of writing an album about the songs of whatever we wanted and piecing it together as the life of a person and his ancestors and children and grandchildren.”
The Dropkick Murphys strategically tell Cornelius Larkin’s grandiose story all throughout the 13-track collection with his journey beginning on the battletested war tale “Hang ‘Em High,” and escalating further into his life as an Irish immigrant settling into American life, which is masterfully documented like on the banjo-flavored pro union anthem “Take ‘Em Down” and the romantic love tale “1953.” Additionally, these Celtic punk rock juggernauts deliver a cover of “The Irish Rover” and drop several Beantown references throughout the effort -- especially on the title track, which serves as the leadoff single and features both Chris Cheney from The Living End and Fat Mike from NOFX. They also collaborated with Bruce Springsteen on “Peg O’ My Heart.”
Working with Bruce Springsteen
In fact, “Peg O’ My Heart” might hold the deepest meaning to the guys due to their admiration for “The Boss.” The Dropkick Murphys actually met Springsteen a few years ago when he brought his son Evan, a longtime fan, to one of their shows. The group mingled with the living legend and formed a bond -- a bond that saw the Massachusetts troupe attend one of Springsteen’s concerts, perform a few songs with him on stage and, during that set, saw guitarist Tim Brennan propose to his girlfriend (which, by the way, she said yes).
Even today, despite of their blossoming friendship, the Dropkick Murphys are a bit starstruck. At their recent St. Patrick’s Day show, Springsteen did a cameo and the band were beside themselves. “There’s a lot of hype behind it because he is ‘The Boss’ and he ended up coming up on stage and playing with us,” Kelly says. “We played ‘Peg O My Heart’ and we covered ‘Badlands’ with Bruce, and the city of Boston was unreal. Between the audience and our reaction to it, words can’t describe it.”
Although the Springsteen collaboration captivated the audience, the Dropkick Murphys have been doing that by themselves with their unique musical hybrid. The septet has a trademark style where they combine Celtic music with punk rock and subtle elements of folk, and plug in a powerful anthemic resonance that truly hasn’t been heard before.
Sure, there have been artists who have done something similar, but not to the extent or level these Bostonians have accomplished. “The Pogues,” Kelly starts, “they were like putting a punk attitude into traditional Irish music whereas I think we were taking traditional Irish music and fusing it into punk rock, so it’s a slightly different thing. Not tooting our own horn, but trying to be descriptive here, we have more of a muscular sound. We weren’t the first to do it, but I would like to think we have carved out our own sound from within our parameters.”
We’re out there giving it everything we have. It’s like we’re playing every night as if it’s our last show.
Also, it’s not like the Dropkick Murphys have come out of nowhere like some rinky-dink MySpace band and achieved overnight success. The group has spent the past 15 years traveling all throughout the country, gigging at small venues and slowly building a dominant fan base. As each album of their continued to perform better and better on the charts, their following grew and Going Out In Style is a testament to the hard work the Dropkick Murphys have put into their careers.
“The reason we’re so popular is – besides from luck and the Grace of God for crying out loud - we started touring in a van back in ‘96 and kept touring ‘til now,” Kelly explains. “We’ve been doing those tours and every time we’d go back, it would grow back a little more and we were busting our asses to make sure we play as hard and powerfully as possible every night. I think people were recognizing us as, tooting my own horn here, musical journeymen or something. We’re out there giving it everything we have. It’s like we’re playing every night as if it’s our last show.”
And that type of attitude will never go out of style.
- Lead Vocals - Al Barr
- Bass and Lead Vocals - Ken Casey
- Guitar – James Lynch
- Guitar/Accordion – Tim Brennan
- Drums – Matt Kelly
- Bagpipes – Josh Wallace
- Keyboards / Mandolin / Banjo - Jeff DaRosa
For more from Bear Frazer follow him on Twitter: @BearFrazer