Dropkick Murphys

by Dan MacIntosh

Seven hard-working guys from Boston with a unique Irish-Punk sound, the Dropkick Murphys became Fenway Park's house band when they recorded the Red Sox anthem "Tessie" in 2004 - the same year the Sox broke the curse. (That's Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon jigging to the song a few clips down).

Matt Kelly is the group's drummer and, despite what you may have heard about drummers, he is one smart and articulate man, explaining their disdain for seats, his take on Irish music (it's OK not to like "Danny Boy"), and a few theories on how their song "I'm Shipping Up To Boston" got in The Departed. When we spoke with Matt, the group had just released the album Live on Lansdowne, and were working on their seventh studio release.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): I was kind of concerned because I'm in Los Angeles, and I'm a pretty die-hard Laker fan, and the Celtics didn't do too well last night. So I was hoping that I wouldn't catch you in a really bad mood.

Matt Kelly: I couldn't give a shit. I don't like basketball, man.

Songfacts: (laughing) Okay, good.

Matt: I root for the home team, but my heart isn't in it, like how when the Bruins completely blew the series making history against the Flyers. That was pretty ugly, I'm still mourning that loss. As far as basketball goes, three of the guys in the band are big, big fans, but I can't speak for the rest of us.

Songfacts: Why did you do another live album?

Matt: There's so many songs that haven't been heard live by fans, and some fans prefer the live albums. A lot of times a song will be new when you put it down to tape, and you hear it a couple of years later, like, 'Oh, man, I play that so much differently now.' A song develops a lot more when you play it live every night, and each live album shows the songs played slightly different, slightly quicker, or slower, or there'll be little nuances that weren't on the original studio recording that we think enhance the songs. So the live experience isn't just like listening to a tape of the studio versions.

Not tooting our horns, but the way to experience our band is in the live setting, because you get the crowd singing along and get bumped around; it's very three-dimensional – or I should say four- or five-dimensional entertainment, if you will.

Songfacts: The crowd seems to know all the words to the songs. It seems like more of an experience than a concert.

Matt: Yeah. We always dread playing seated venues. If I'm in a crowd, I don't want to see a band with a bunch of seats, like in an amphitheater, or whatever. I mean, seeing Iron Maiden or something like that would be great, but for a punk band it's nice to have a bit of interaction between the band and the crowd - people singing along and all that. That is definitely a huge, huge, part of it. You know, we say, "our stage is your stage," come on up, as I think is displayed by the DVD we have. I've watched it so many times I can't remember what it looks like, oddly enough. But at least part of our live show is kids coming on stage and singing along and jumping off the stage; just living the experience as opposed to being bystanders, or spectators.

Songfacts: Tell me about the song you did for Martin Scorsese's The Departed soundtrack, "I'm Shipping Up To Boston." Was that a Woody Guthrie poem?

Matt: Yeah. That was an unpublished lyric by him. We were bestowed the honor by his daughter of being able to go through his lyrical archives and pick out a song or two of unpublished lyrics that we thought would be kind of cool. (see what this is all about in our interview with Guthrie's granddaughter) I mean, we had no business even being able to look at those lyrics - there have been some big names that have been after those lyrics for decades. I know Springsteen's been after 'em, and then Elvis Costello.

It's just so amazing that we were approached to look at them, never mind have the approval of the estate to use them. And the reason why we used that was because it said "Boston" in it. (laughs) There's not a hell of a lot to the lyrics of that song, it's four lines of the verse, and then "shipping up to Boston." So it was pretty bare bones. And we'd had an instrumental that we started working on in Madrid, Spain in I think 2002. We recorded an older version of it, we just kind of did a demo of it, and it ended up on a Warped Tour sampler or something like that. And it sounds like a high school band, it's not very good. So we've been playing it live here and there, and so, like, what the heck, let's re-record this. The song grew a bit after recording it. And not many people knew it or had the recorded version, so I'm thinking what the heck, let's give it the real treatment and spend some time on it.

Songfacts: Did you ever find anything out about what Woody intended the song to be about?

Matt: It was literally just a fragment on a piece of notebook paper, so it was just mysterious. We thought it was a cool lyric to do something with.

Songfacts: Does it mean anything to you?

Matt: (laughing) Yeah, it usually means the show's almost over. Like my first beer. No, you know, on the other live albums we've had the Bosstones come up and play with us on the song, and those guys really gave us our first foothold as far as touring around the US and Europe. We didn't even have a full-length album out and they insisted on taking us on the road at the height of their popularity. Took us on a two-month US tour and a one-month European tour. They weren't as big as they were becoming in Europe yet, but it was still the biggest tour that we'd ever been on. We'd been in a band playing to like a bar full of people. So playing these big venues, big clubs, and then sometimes colleges and universities and stuff, was ridiculous for us. And it was great having them up on stage with us playing the trombone and saxes. They're big personalities, they're maniacs. So it was cool, it was kind of like things that come full circle or something, so that particular live version of "I'm Shipping Up To Boston" really warms the cockles.

Songfacts: There's a connection between the kind of music you play, which I guess is punk Irish music, and ska music, even though they have completely different roots.

Matt: Yeah, they're definitely both ethnically based. You know, the influence comes from outside of rock and roll. The Bosstones are rooted musically in the Jamaican gangster music, and somewhat rebellious music, and the same with our stuff. It's music of the people, if you will, to throw in that kind of collective BS term. It's the music of the downtrod, and it seemed to make sense to mix with punk, because it came from similar ideals with different approaches.

Songfacts: How did "Shipping Up To Boston," get in The Departed?

Matt: Well, there's a couple of different legends as to how Martin Scorsese got his hands on the song. Some stories say Robbie Robertson from The Band let him know about us, or then there was Leonardo DiCaprio, some say that he told them, "Hey, you should use this song." The song was already released on the Warrior's Code album. So unfortunately for us, it wasn't specifically written for the movie.

I tell you what, that song was instrumental in making us very popular in our own backyards. We've been touring since '96, and we've done Warped Tour shows around the country, playing festivals over in Europe and some big shows all around the world. But in Boston, they're like "Dropkick what?" Like "What the hell's that?" And I think being involved in The Departed definitely helped put us on the map and, for better or for worse, legitimized our band in Boston.

Songfacts: Wow. How interesting it took something like that to let the home folks know who you really are?

Matt: Well, it's because we've always done things very much on our own, very grassroots - hard work, touring, not kissing ass - basically living by example. There are a lot of shortcuts and quick fixes in the music industry; there always have been quick ways to the top. But those quick ways to the top are also called being a flash in the pan. You're successful for a brief instant, then you're done. Whereas we've cultivated a strong fan base since the beginning, because we're loyal to our fans. They know we're a bunch of dudes who just happen to play music, and we're guys who come from pretty regular backgrounds. It's kind of "if we can do it you can do it." And maybe our fans can relate to that and they stand by us for that, because we stand by them. We got popular not by accident, but by different means than how a lot of popular bands got their notoriety.

Songfacts: The song "Tessie"...

Matt: That was the other half of making the band popular in Boston.

Songfacts: How did that come about?

Matt: The Red Sox pitched it to us. Dr. Charles Steinberg, who was involved with the Red Sox organization, was also a bit of a baseball historian. And I guess he had been talking with Jeff Horrigan, the sports writer, about how the song "Tessie" was the unofficial anthem of the Royal Rooters, who were basically turn of the 20th Century Red Sox supporters. They were a supporters club, kind of like hooligans, if you want to put it in a soccer sense. They follow the team around and they even have a band in the stands and taunt the players on the other team. And they'd sing "Tessie," which was a Vaudeville hit at the time. It was a song about a woman singing to a parrot. Nothing to do with baseball. So they presented it to us: "We'd like you to re-do this." I'm not sure why they picked us, but thank God. We listened and thought, What are we gonna do with this pile of crap tune? If you could only have heard it - it just seemed unusable. So we deconstructed the whole tune, looking at the chord structure, and pieced it back together as maybe a Faces or Rolling Stones kind of live song, obviously with less talent. And then Jeff Horrigan and Ken (Casey), our bass player and fearless leader, got together and re-wrote the lyrics to have to do with the Sox and the Royal Rooters themselves. We recorded it, and it just took off. That was in the 2004 season, which was a very lucky thing for us, because that was, of course, the year that broke the curse. When "Tessie" stopped being sung in 1918, that was the last year that the Sox had won the World Series, and it came back in 2004.

It was hard work on the team's part, and luck of being in the right place at the right time for us. I would imagine if they'd blown it, that song would be forever known as an awful reminder of those sad times. (laughing) We were extremely lucky. It was awesome, too. We actually played the song in Fenway Park on the hallowed field - you're not even supposed to look at the grass, let alone be on it.

We were in the stands on the July 24, 2004 game where there was a bench-clearing brawl and A-Rod got a little slappy. We got to see these intense games first hand, and it was just ridiculous being able to be involved in that season. It's something to tell your grandkids about, because people waited so long, through so many blown victories, so many near misses. But so many decades and that finally happened. And wow, we were somehow involved. Responsible? No. But involved? Yes.

Songfacts: People think, What can music do for me? Well, I can express myself, maybe I can meet girls. I don't think you ever imagine something like this.

Matt: (laughs) No, definitely. Let me tell you, I started playing drums when I was 9, that wasn't on the agenda. Just tattoos and chicks. Well, chick, I should say. Baseball wasn't on the agenda. Awesome and unexpected and very pleasant surprise.

Songfacts: Did you listen to Aerosmith growing up?

Matt: I started listening to music when they had to go into rehab for years. I think I was in like 6th grade or something when they came back from Permanent Vacation. But they were the bad boys from Boston. You know, Joe Perry and Steve Tyler, I mean, they were definitely a legendary Boston band. I had an uncle who would see them in a small town as Tom Gardner, see them in a bar that held 150 people. We played with them at the Comcast Center, which is an outdoor pavilion type thing. And they treated us like gold. They treated us better than some bands half their size and status. Their crew were saints, their management were awesome. They don't forget the faces of their fathers, they don't take things for granted. They were nothing but gentlemen to us, and that won't be forgotten.

Songfacts: How cool. Well, I got a compilation in the mail recently that has one of your songs on it for the 2010 Warped Tour. So you guys are gonna be doing Warped Tour again this year, right?

Matt: Yeah, we're doing about a week.

Songfacts: Oh, that's not so bad. How many of those have you done?

Matt: I'd say five or six at least. When we first did it, it was just in Amherst, Mass. Then the second time it was a couple of dates. Then we've done the whole thing a few times. And then the last couple of times we've done it we did maybe just two weeks here, two weeks there. But this time, I think, only about a week.

Songfacts: You're like elder statesmen of Warped.

Matt: Yeah, I guess. It'll be interesting to see what the popular bands are. Because it started off as kind of a punk tour, and I don't know what the heck it is now. But Kevin Lyman, I gotta hand it to him, he puts this thing on every year.

Songfacts: Tell me about the album you're working on now.

Matt: We're at a practice space five days a week putting songs together, throwing ideas down, writing lyrics. With seven guys in the band, it's kind of tough to all sit down and write, so it's a multifarious strange collaborative effort with different amounts of collaboration from different people.

Songfacts: What can you tell me about the album?

Matt: Well, it's in the seminal stages. We've been working for months now, but at the same time there's so many ideas that none of them are all shored up. It's aggressive punk rock with flourishes of folk. And there are some aggressive folk with flourishes of punk rock. A few different directions, as always. But I think where the last album seemed a bit darker and more introspective, this one is a bit more hopeful. This one, especially, with the lyrics that I know have been written, there's a bit of cynicism, but there's also a lot of hope. With the latter being a very good thing. The former being an important thing.

Songfacts: Since you're an expert on Irish music, what do you think are the best Irish songs?

Matt: Well, thank you for bestowing that honor on me. I don't think I'm an expert on a hell of a lot. But my favorites, and not taken from a political perspective whatsoever, because it's none of my business, I love "Come Out Ye Black and Tans," "At The Rising of the Moon" is a great tune, and "My Brother Sylveste" is a great song. Those are some of the bigger ones. You know, if I never heard "Oh, Danny Boy" or "Smile Again," it would be just fine.

Songfacts: Unfortunately, I hear that a lot.

Matt: I'm sorry, don't we all, you know? "The Broad Black Brimmer" is also a very good one. Again, these are mostly political songs, but I'm not a proponent of the political content. I think because they're such opinionated songs and so important to the writers, it comes through in the music and in the vocal delivery. You know, if somebody has something to say and they're pissed off, and you translate it to music, it usually sounds pretty damn good.

June 23, 2010.
Get more at dropkickmurphys.com.

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  • William Lorigan Brady from Niagara Falls,nyLooking forward to seeing you all in Niagara Falls, NY
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