Interview with drummer Matt Kelly, former guitarists Rick Barton and Marc Orrell, and current guitarist Tim Brennan
By Dustin Blumhagen
The Dropkick Murphys are celebrating 2016 in style. The year marks their 20th anniversary as a band, and their first order of business was setting up an American tour with 27 dates throughout February and March, including four hometown shows in Boston during St. Patrick’s week. After a short rest, fans abroad can catch them gallivanting around Europe throughout the month of June.
For 20 years, Dropkick Murphys have been playing their identifiable brand of punk rock with an Irish edge. With eight full-lengths, three live albums, and 18 EP releases to their name, the band have built an enduring legacy, centered on their homebase of Boston. Drummer Matt Kelly explains the connection between the band and the community, noting, “I think the ‘chip on your shoulder’ mentality of Boston was just in us from the beginning, and nurtured by the streetpunk/Oi! scene in Boston: a very blue-collar group of bands and supporters, numbering in the many hundreds.”
The lineup has evolved over the years, to the point where vocalist and bassist Ken Casey is the only remaining original member. The earliest incarnation of the group revolved around the trio of Casey, vocalist Mike McColgan, and guitarist Rick Barton. When McColgan left the group to pursue a career as a firefighter and eventually form the punk group, Street Dogs, the vocal void was filled by Al Barr.
Barton fondly recalls the first Dropkick Murphys practice in December 1995, reflecting on their time in a musty barbershop basement with a dirt floor in Wollaston, Mass. The then 35 year old musician shares that he “had no intention of making that kind of racket ever again, but my old buddy Ken Casey could be very persuasive. He asked if I’d simply be willing to show him and Mike a couple of songs. Next thing you know, I’m dropping my half stack through a hatch door in the floor of the barbershop, buying a new Les Paul from Daddy’s Junky Music, and ‘borrowing’ the family heirloom, my grandmother’s gold braided rug, to throw down on the dirt floor!”
The group lived out the rock ‘n’ roll dream many youth fantasize about in their garages, receiving their first record deal within a year of their formation. Kelly joined the group on drums shortly after their formation and recalls that they were “already really turning heads and blowing up in Boston and the Northeast for months before that. With only the power of the telephone and actual in-person conversation—pre-Internet—we were able to trade gigs and records with bands from other major East Coast cities—and Northern California thanks to the Swingin’ Utters and others—and get the band’s name and music out there. It was nose to the grindstone practicing, gigging, traveling, slinging our records and making our t-shirts, putting up flyers everywhere, and generally working our butts off to push the band.” The blue-collar work ethic of the band has informed both their music and their fan base over the years, elevated by their support of sports teams and union groups.
Their success continued from there. Through extensive touring, the band built a strong following, becoming the forerunners of the burgeoning Celtic punk scene, and growing beyond the scene in a way few of their peers ever have, sharing stages with bands as diverse as Foo Fighters and Mumford & Sons. Current guitarist Tim Brennan recalls his most surreal moment with the band, sharing that “getting to share the stage and some time with the Boss-man Bruce Springsteen was something that I don’t think I could have ever dreamed of as a young musician.”
Kelly also mentions recording and playing with Springsteen as a highlight, but also notes, “We played an open-air festival with Iron Maiden—I never thought a band I’d do would ever be anywhere but in the audience for Maiden!” However, all the great things the band have experienced over the years still leave them humble. Whereas some bands fall into the arrogant trap of rock stardom, the Dropkick Murphys consider themselves to be “the luckiest bunch of jerks out there,” according to Kelly.
Lineup changes altered the band and helped to create subtle changes in their sound over the years, but—unlike many bands—the Murphys seem more like a band than a business. McColgan’s Street Dogs have opened for the band numerous times, and Casey recently invited Barton to join the band onstage to celebrate their early years together.
Marc Orrell got his start as a guitarist for the band, before moving on to join Jim Lindberg of Pennywise in Black Pacific, and Orrell later forming Wild Roses. He doesn’t hold back his praise for his former bandmates, proudly stating, “Best fucking punk band ever! It was an absolute dream to join. They helped raise me from the kid I was to the man I am now. I glance at my DKM tattoo from time to time and always remember my family. Love to them all!” When stories come out daily about petty beefs between former members in other bands, it says a lot about the Dropkick Murphys that they are so fondly remembered by those who have moved on.
Despite two decades of hustle, the band show no signs of slowing down. They still tour extensively, playing everywhere from intimate clubs to massive European festivals. New songs are in the works, but the band are beyond the days where they feel the pressure to release music on tight schedules. Brennan outlines how the band approaches songwriting these days: “We’ve never been the type of band who goes into the studio with loose ideas and fleshes them out during the recording process; we tend to like to have more or less a button on the songs we want to record… We still give ourselves room to move once we get the songs into the studio, but we will almost always have a fairly concrete idea of what we want to get out of the recording of specific songs.”
Kelly also describes the evolution of their songwriting cycle, noting that expanding from a four piece to six piece group widened the parameters. He points out the changed role of traditional instrumentation in the music, which “originally was there to dress up already existing and fully formed songs, [like the] bagpipes on ‘Barroom Hero,’ [or] mandolin and fiddle on ‘Wheel of Misfortune.’ But then, you have songs like ‘The State of Massachusetts,’ which was basically written around the opening banjo line—an instrument integral to the whole song.” Kelly states that the band are intent not to follow the example of Black Flag, instead trying to balance tradition and experimentation rather than focusing too much on progress and alienating fans.
After 20 years of constant touring and recording, Dropkick Murphys are celebrating their anniversary by simply doing what they do best: enjoying being a band.