As the only surviving original member of a 17 year old iconic Bostonian act, Dropkick Murphys snarling vocalist Ken Casey has done a whole lot of things you might not expect. There’s millions of dollars in charitable funding for a start, raised through activities like tomato launching karaoke, or possibly the least offensive VIP packages in music. Then there’s the stereotypical Irish pub business in Boston, unintended riot incitement in Mexico, Christmas songs on a January album, and a determination to carry on until Dropkick Murphys become what they’ve always been inspired by: a form of trad. Three kids, a hectic tour schedule and an heartfelt hatred of neighbour Steven Tyler don’t seem to have slowed the the ex-laborer down one ounce.
Latest effort ‘Signed & Sealed in Blood’, in fact, is a less than typical Dropkicks album. Aside from that iffy Christmas song, it takes off in all kinds of assorted directions, through straight up rock and balladry as well as Celtic-inspired punk. For Casey, it’s simply an expression of interests: “Country and rap are probably the only two directions we won’t go. We’ve always had a bit of a 50s rock and roll thing, an Americana folk influence… we’re lucky to be able to spread ourselves creatively. We can write anything from an acoustic ballad to a straight ahead hardcore song. We have a lot of space to wander, as long as we don’t go so far that the fans throw us right back. I grew up listening to a lot of trad. Nowadays I tend to wander towards mellower music, sing-songwriter stuff, but not like coffee shop stuff but punk guys. One of my favorites at the moment is a kid from Boston called Brian McPherson, who plays just with an acoustic guitar, but there’s so much power and passion behind it. It’s pretty moving, it’s always impressive to me when someone can create that kind of passion and power with just an acoustic guitar. It’s something I could never do. Being one of seven you’ve got six other guys to share the success or take the fall with you.”
There’s a lot of history in those seven guys and their heavily-emphasized Irish roots, dating back to Casey’s childhood in Milton, not far from Boston. Recalling his upbringing, Casey finds his own Irish background flooding through his early days: “When I was growing up, the census bureau told us that Milton was the town with the most Irish ancestry in America. Growing up, it’s just what everyone was, you didn’t really even think about it. Boston is one of the few places in America where a lot of family patriarchs are of Irish heritage, so you still find a lot of Irish culture. It’s a ripple effect, my parents and grandparents were from Ireland. There’s a lot of pubs. I actually own a couple of pubs. I guess it’s a business we tend to go into.”
Later on, in true punk fashion, Casey emerged from a role in a factory to become one of his city’s icons, abandoning some admirable ambitions along the way. “I was a union laborer before the band, and also in college to become a special ed teacher and teach the troubled kids. I was special ed as a kid, and I wanted to give something back. I was a charity case myself. I think I could still finish, as they have online courses now. I said to my wife ‘I think I want to go back to school’. She said ‘why would you want to do that right now?’ I said ‘just for my peace of mind’. But I also said I’d have to pay someone to do it online. But I would actually like to finish, as I’m so close to finishing. We’ll see. If you’re around kids long enough as kind of the good guy, in the band, you’re kind of aware of switching to being the bad guy. We know success, popularity is fickle sometimes. We’ll take what we can get.”
Still, mixed reviews of the Dropkick Murphys in Ireland, be it the ‘plastic Paddy’ tag or more in-depth criticisms relating to influences on trad culture couldn’t – and indeed don’t – escape the singer’s notice. There’s a slight wince when we ask about the ‘sacrilegious’ view on his music, but Casey doesn’t unduly worry himself. “Tommy Makem moved over our way, to New Hampshire, when we starting out and someone took it upon themselves to suggest he did a song with us. Apparently he said ‘are they anything like The Pogues? Because The Pogues ruined Irish music’, Casey recalls. “Ronnie Drew, God rest his soul, before he died came to one of our Dublin shows, and he said ‘don’t let anybody tell you you’re doing something wrong. You’re doing what you need to do to get the next generation listening. If this is what it’s going to take to get the music thriving…’. It’s like anything, people have their opinion on what’s punk, what’s trad… who’s doing right, who’s doing wrong. We don’t listen to that, and we don’t think of ourselves as important enough to ruin something or to keep it going. We’re just having fun. It’s very cyclical anyway. Something goes and then it comes back.”
Even with the cynicism, though, Dropkick Murphys have seen themselves trickle more and more heavily into Irish culture, not least in the use of ‘I’m Shipping Up To Boston’ as one of the theme tunes to Irish rugby in recent months. The word had made its way back to Boston, but Casey’s beaming when we remind him. “That’s awesome, I’d love to see that. It’s both cool and weird when we get played at the Red Sox games. The last pitcher comes out, and he’s just got to get three people out and we win the game, and I’m excited for the moment, I’m a season ticket holder and a big fan, but I can’t be caught clapping along to my own tunes so I don’t know what to do with my hands. People at games – Boston sporting events – are probably more likely to recognise me than anywhere else. It’s like wearing your own shirt. You can’t wear your own band shirts. My cousin got married and the wedding band covered ‘I’m Shipping Up to Boston’ and they were trying to get me to sing it with them. I was like noooo. It’s all good fun until it end ups on YouTube!”
A Red Sox pitcher hit me with a tomato at literally 90 miles an hour, knocked me off my feet
In fact, the seriousness suggested by Casey’s self-awareness is a little more prevalent in the band than tracks like notorious drinking anthem ‘Kiss Me, I’m Shitfaced’ might suggest. The days of bar-propping are fading, for a start; it simply doesn’t fit in with the way Casey genuinely despises those abusing the kind of privilege the music industry presents. “‘Kiss Me, I’m shitfaced’ isn’t even close to an accurate representation of how we are on tour. We just don’t like to take ourselves so seriously. Everybody’s had one of those nights. If you want to have songs with a serious edge, it’s also important to have the other side of that. Then people listen when you’re serious and laugh when you’re not. If you only write angry political songs people’s eyes glaze over. They’re important to put a smile on people’s faces. We’ve never wanted to be the kind of people who think the world exists because we picked up a guitar. Steven Tyler lives not that far from me, and you see him at the supermarket from time to time with twenty people helping him shop. Last time I saw him he was out signing autographs and blocking traffic. I had my kids in the back seat asking what was going on. I just said ‘that’s Steven Tyler, we hate him’. I’m trying to bring my kids up right! We actually played with Aerosmith once at the height of their ‘back on drugs’ thing, and it was pretty dysfunctional. Security guards, strippers, limos, helicopters… I think it’s part of that whole image, but a few weeks earlier we’d joined Springsteen on stage, and it was like one security guard back there and we all had dinner with Springsteen and his mother. It’s the exact opposite.”
Instead of a rock n roll, binging stereotype, then, almost every gig is a chance to add to the huge charity fund pot that Dropkick Murphys have put together over the last few years, one that’s funding youth projects here in Dublin as well as plenty of community enhancing ideas back in Boston. “We’ve made over two million dollars. We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve always been involved in a lot of charity work, but we took the advice of someone very influential in my life, who said ‘you need to capture the imagination of your fans’. We got our fans behind all these charity events. Dropkicks Murphys fans are amazing. We might not have the biggest fanbase in the world, but the loyalty and dedication is something else. They’ve been getting hands on as well as giving money. The credit’s all theirs, being able to raise two million dollars in three years has focused me. I don’t think we’d have raised half of that if we’d been off running around trying to raise it for individual charities. We’ve done everything from donations at gigs to hockey tournaments, golf tournaments, parties in pubs, VIP tickets to gigs, merchandise… one guy donated $25,000. We had an event last year called Rotten Tomatoes karaoke, where we got a bunch of celebrities in Boston to sing karaoke and we got the crowd to throw tomatoes at them. I sang first, and a Red Sox pitcher hit me with a tomato at literally 90 miles an hour, knocked me off my feet. We realized after that we had to cut them in half; I took a softball sized one right in the forehead. Charity often means stuffy dinners, things like that. We wanted to do the exact opposite.”
If there’s a sense of fun to the charity fundraising one, it’s still more pervasive live. Dropkick Murphys are back in Ireland at least once a year these days, and bring with them massive, flag-bearing stage invasions that see the entire set-up lost in a sea of smiling, leaping faces. It’s an old tradition, and not one they insist on any more, but it certainly builds a pulsing crescendo. “We started out at this club called the Rat Cellar in Boston, and the stage literally was six inches high. We played the last song, the same last song we do now, ‘Skinhead on the MTA’, which used to be called Charlie on the MTA. The subway used to be free, and they raised it to a nickel. Then there was this mayoral candidate who’s big platform was that he’d make it free again. The song’s about a guy who was on the subway when they raised it to a nickel, and he could never get off as he didn’t have any money. It’s one of those songs that everyone knows back home, and we did to that what we’ve done to a lot of trad songs. The first time we played it they rushed the stage, and it became a tradition. Nowadays, with the internet, you can see how that would spread. Back in those days, it spread to other countries. I don’t know if people were writing letters… how the hell did they know to do that? that was always a mysterious element of the punk world, word just spread like that. It’s a unity thing, we want to show the audience we don’t think we’re better than them. But over the years, whether it’s an insurance liability thing or the stage isn’t strong enough… if we can’t do it I’ll be the sacrificial lamb and go into the crowd. We were in Mexico, and the club said not to let the kids on stage, as they’d literally steal our amps while we were playing. They were adamant, so I went in the crowd, and the crew were shouting at me to get back up on the stage. I was having a great time, arms around the kids singing. Someone had taken a video they showed me afterwards, and ten feet behind me the back of the club was a full on riot, cops running around with their guns in the air. I was there having a grand old time. I got lucky, but the connection between band and crowd is the important thing.”
Along the way there have been a lot of lost members, leaving Casey to string together a lineup he considers to be the best Dropkick Murphys have ever had, one that’s been in place since Jeff DaRosa joined in 2008. “I’m the only member of the band who’s been there the whole way through”, Casey tells us, “though our drummer Matt joined after three months, so I consider him an original member. We’re an all or nothing kind of band, and some old members just weren’t fully committed. Our fans sense that. It’s good everyone’s on the same page. Now we have a total of seven kids in the band, so though we tour a lot, we’re kind of homebodies. It’s not like the other halves are gypsies who want to be on tour all year. We feel lucky to get seven human beings all on the same page like that. This is our best lineup, because of the songwriting ability now. Jeff, our banjo player, his first show was one of our Dublin shows about four years ago. He’s a great songwriter. Everyone’s who’s joined the band, they’ve always been a fan first. I used to release Jeff’s first band’s 7”s, they were called Vigilantes. When Greg Lynch, who’s been in the band for thirteen years, joined, he was one of those kids in the front row. We’ve never wanted to get some guitar player from LA. A lot of the Boston hardcore bands I grew up with broke my heart, when they became heavy metal bands. I don’t want to break anyone’s heart, like what was done to me”
The infamous Spicy McHaggis, incidentally, said goodbye because the hardened banjo play fell in love, but not before a monster yet reluctant globetrotting trip. “Spicy met a girl, and the girl didn’t want him to tour anymore, so he settled down. If we knew we were going to get a guy who looked exactly like him, I don’t think we’d have ever told anyone he left. He would have been more a character. He was one of a kind, one of those guys who’s not meant to tour. He wants to sit on the same stool at his local bar at home, but we took him around the world, he never knew where he was. He wasn’t the most educated guy, a little rough around the edges, didn’t travel well. One time we were in France, trying to order a sandwich without French, and stressing out. All of a sudden he raised his hand and started speaking fluent French. That was just what the hell? A little known tit bit, Spicy McHaggis speaks fluent French. Three years we travelled together and no one knew that!”
Which all leaves the happy set of affairs surrounding this month’s release, which sounds like a whole lot of fun. “A Christmas song on a january album’s punk though, right?”, Casey laughs when we bring up ‘The Season’s Upon Us’ “It’s a little bit of a push for the record, as a single. Tim played the riff on the accordion when we were writing, and everyone just said ‘that’s a Christmas song’. We didn’t want to write a serious Christmas song, I think everybody’s got a few crazy people in their family, so it’s a song for the percentage that might not be thrilled about going home for Christmas. But of course all our families think it’s about them. These days, a lot of ideas fire around by email. Our banjo player, Jeff, he writes on a blackout at 3am. All his song emails come at 3 or 4am and he doesn’t remember sending them. But I’ll pick them up in the morning, add a vocal melody and we’ll have the elements of an idea to work with in the practise room.”
Even after 17 years, ’Signed & Sealed In Blood’ is unlikely to be anything close to a final chapter. “We’ll go until people don’t want us to anymore, and then hopefully exist gracefully. We won’t be doing a third reunion tour. But the music does lend itself to something that could mellow with age. Maybe we’ll go from the stage to the stool. But ask me in ten years!” Dropkick Murphys strumming through some of their heavier staples atop a barstool, stage invasion and all, is a hard one to picture, but so is the career of a half-qualified special ed teacher meets factory worker taking on the world of punk and coming out smiling. For all their shambolic appeal, it’s clear Casey and his Murphys are a tight and committed unit, one that believes actions speak more strongly than any cultural critique. To Ken, storming the stage and building that community are a natural combination, and despite our initial surprise, we really can see him teaching, too, one day. Even if he does pay his way through…
As published on State.ie, January 2013.