Boston Irish Americans Dropkick Murphys tell Adam Shaw they are punks first and foremost
The first rule when listening to The Dropkick Murphys is to remember that they are not an Irish band. As lead singer Al Barr explains, they have their own identity and they don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are.
“We are a punk band. We are an American punk band,” he says. “We have no interest in coming across as Plastic Paddys.”
This might seem dismissive and somewhat surprising given their name, their sound and their links to the archetypal Irish-American city, Boston. But, as Barr continues, there is a deep-rooted pride in their Irish origins; it is merely a case of defending their position as a standout, rather than an imitation.
“When we came to Ireland in 1999, the first thing I noticed was how open, how friendly and how kind everybody was,” he says.
“Then I did a few interviews and people were asking whether we fully understood the heritage and if we thought it was okay to just jump on board.
“They were like ‘we don’t need people telling us what we need to do in our own country’.
“I explained that that’s not what we were about – we’re a f*****g American punk band.
“We’re proud of that, but we’re also proud of our heritage and we’re very proud to have created a new genre – Celtic punk.”
Barr acknowledges that there would be no point even trying to imitate the traditional Irish music scene because, even if they wanted to, they couldn’t.
“I remember walking through Cork and on every street corner there was some 17-year-old kid signing like an angel and I asked myself why I even bother,” he says.
And while he might not be a huge fan of Irish music, he has the utmost respect for the country and its people – “I always say 300 Irish is worth 3,000 anywhere else because there’s so much passion there” – and says his personal connection as a Scots Bavarian is “close enough”.
Tim Brennan, on the other hand, along with many other members of the band, has a great affection for Irish musical culture, something he attributes to his childhood.
“The rest of us are all Brennans and Kellys and Caseys,” he says. “We were exposed to Irish music as kids from our grandparents and then, when we got a bit older, we all fell in love with The Pogues.
“I’m in awe of the Irish in general, really. You get these guys who come straight off the boat, they join a construction company and they work their balls off.
“And they continue to do so to this day, you can’t drum it out of them. That’s why they end up with such successful businesses.”
The spirit of the men and women who left Ireland to seek new fortunes has – sort of – been replicated by the band in the production of their latest album. For the first time, they abandoned their beloved Massachusetts and made their way down to hot, dusty Texas to record. There were fears and anxieties, naturally, but, like many who came to the New World in the 19th century and since, things turned out pretty well.
“We were resistant to the idea because you’re often averse to leaving your comfort zone but, once we got there we realised that it wasn’t too bad at all,” Barr explains. “There was a certain tranquillity and peacefulness which we had never experienced before. “I needed to be put somewhere and told I couldn’t leave until it was done. It was a great experience – dare I say, magical – and I’m really glad that we did it.”
Brennan likens it to the recording version of being on tour – that you go there for a specific purpose and that’s all. “It was much less stressful than recording at home because you could truly immerse yourself in it,” he adds. “When you’re at home, you still have to go about your daily lives but here, things were very streamlined.
“And it was cool being in that weird environment. Seeing a whole dead cow skeleton was pretty awesome.”
The new album, 11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory, is “a little bit out of the box” in the sense that it is a development on previous offerings. Brennan explains how it is a culmination of figuring out what the band does best and mixing together their various styles, rather than bowing to segregation.
“It used to be a bit of ‘first there’s a punk song, then there’s a rock song, then an Irish folk song’ but then we started mixing it all up,” he says.
“We then got pretty good at that so we decided to then push ourselves even further which is what you get with this record.
“It’s still very much a Dropkick Murphys record but we just see it as another little improvement as we really tried to think even more about the writing.”
Speaking of typical Dropkick Murphys records, you could do worse than The Warrior’s Code and its renowned track I’m Shipping Up to Boston. The iconic opening, made famous by its use in Martin Scorcese’s movie The Departed, has pumped up many a listener.
The two explain that it almost didn’t make it onto the album but, following the emergence of some additional space and a Brennan-inspired rewrite, it snuck on. Now it’s undoubtedly their most well known song and, after it was cut down to just over two minutes, it remains one of their favourites to perform.
“We don’t get tired of hearing it, particularly now that it’s a two minute song,” Brennan says. “We get so excited playing it and, seeing 500 or 5,000 people jumping up and down to that song, it’s intense.”
There’s no escaping the Irish influence on I’m Shipping Up to Boston but, at the same time, you could hardly call it a traditional Irish song. That, in itself, encapsulates the Dropkick Murphys. Their dominant genre is both Celtic and punk. Many of the band members are Irish but also American. And they are proud to be sprinkled with green without forgetting their red and black.
“Musically, Ireland is very important to us,” Barr says. “But, at the same time, we have to be very respectful and make it clear that we recognise our place in the food chain.
“As I’ve said, we’re an American punk band, and always will be. But we’re always willing to reach into some Irish folk.”
11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory is out on 6 January and the band will play the Brixton Academy on 27 January.