Ken Casey of Boston Celtic rockers Dropkick Murphys told David Hennessy about their new album, breathing new life into Woody Guthrie’s words and how Donald Trump is ‘the gift that keeps on giving’.
Well known Celtic rock group Dropkick Murphys were initially pulled together in 1996 by Ken Casey for one gig and so that he could win a $30 bet.
There was no grand design beyond that.
But almost 27 years later, the band have just released their eleventh album.
Entitled This Machine Still Kills Fascists, it is an album unlike anything else they have brought out to date and brings the words of Woody Guthrie to life more than 50 years after the American singer- songwriter’s passing.
The album was created in communication with Woody’s family with Guthrie’s daughter, Nora curating a collection of her father’s never-published lyrics for the band.
Guthrie was a folk singer famous for his left-wing protest songs.
Notably anti-fascist, anti-violence and anti-war, Ken says Guthrie’s 1930s lyrics carry messages relevant to class struggle and the fight against Trumpism today.
Has this tribute to Woody had been a long time coming?
“Yeah,” Lead singer and bassist Ken says. “20 years.
“I met Nora and the family and was invited down to the archives 20 years ago, which was, still to this day, one of the greatest things I’ve ever had the opportunity to do in my life.
“I got to go into a special temperature control room and wear the special white gloves that helped keep the paper intact and stuff, to hold the pieces of paper that he wrote the songs on 80, 90 years ago.”
Does it feel like Woody’s present when working on the album and in touch with his family? “It really does.
“Nora’s son Cole, 20 years ago was a teenager who was a punk rock fan and listening to Dropkick Murphys.
“And that’s how we met the family, Cole told his mother about the band and it started from there.
“And now Cole’s in his 30s and we had Cole on this album as a guest.
“He plays dobro guitar, and he sang some backup vocals.
“To me, it just brought the whole thing full circle.”
This is not the first time Dropkick Murphys have used Woody’s words with great effect.
It is nearly two decades since they covered Woody’s Gonna Be A Blackout Tonight, and a few years later Ken discovered a few scribbled lines about Boston in Woody’s archive and used them for what would become their hit I’m Shipping Up To Boston.
It brought them to a bigger audience as it featured on the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s The Departed which starred Jack Nicholson as a character somewhat inspired by Whitey Bulger.
It remains one of their best-known songs.
“I always say that I’m Shipping up to Boston’s success didn’t so much change our career trajectory in the cities we were already going to, but it gave us the ability to go to- I’ll just make an example- Fargo, North Dakota.
“We had never been there.
“The way we brought our career up was by going to Detroit, for example, and playing to 100 people in 1997, and then coming back in ‘98, and playing to 200, and so on and really building the fan base.
“And then we were able to go to cities that we had never gone to before.
“And I’m Shipping up to Boston gave us a little bit wider reach.”
Although Ken does not believe the words to the track are Woody’s finest, he is glad he did not write the lyrics himself.
“The majority of our songs come from a vocal melody and then we build.
“Well, we had the music to I’m Shipping up to Boston done and finished and I was just kind of getting around to writing the lyrics.
“And the minute I looked at the lyrics to I’m Shipping up to Boston, I said, ‘Oh my God, that goes in the song’.
“They’re definitely not some of Woody’s finest lyrics.
“I’d love to have a conversation with him now and go, ‘What the hell was that all about?’
“But I will tell you what would have happened if I wrote the lyrics.
“I would have wrote a lot because it opens up to a pre-chorus section that I definitely would have wrote words over, but there wasn’t enough words in Woody’s lyrics.
“So we had to leave that whole part instrumental and that brings you to the chorus.
“And I think that whole section being instrumental, which is not typical of something we would do, is what makes the chorus seem so big, because you gotta wait for it.
“So if I wrote the lyrics to that song, I would have wrote a pre-chorus, and I would have screwed it all up.
“So I think the fact that that particular song had very few words on the paper kind of made it what it was: Simple, simple and catchy.”
This album was a long time coming and the challenge was always finding the right time to pull it together.
When co-lead vocalist Al Barr took a leave of absence from the band to care for his ailing mother, the band was apprehensive about making a normal Dropkick Murphys album but it was a chance to finally take on the Woody project they had long planned.
“We had been talking about the Woody album but we were always like, ‘Well, when are we going to squeeze that in between touring cycles?’
“And with Al being off, it just seemed like, ‘Well, we don’t want to go make another full Dropkick record without Al so let’s do something different and it just seemed like the perfect thing to do in this time period.”
The new album sees the band put down their trademark guitars for a more acoustic sound.
“If we did this any sooner, we wouldn’t have done it fully acoustic or it would have ended up just sounding more like a Dropkick record.
“But after 26 years, we were ready to challenge ourselves to do something different.
“We probably wouldn’t have been good enough players to do it earlier, to do it fully acoustic like this.
“It was a challenge because we didn’t want to do it acoustic and have it sounding like two old guys on a barstool, we wanted to still make it powerful and there was a challenge to that because you can’t use the power of an electric guitar to make it powerful.”
Woody Guthrie wrote songs for the common person and made a point of showing up when it counted most, often performing at fundraisers, benefits, and rallies to champion working class causes and condemn greed, war, and unchecked capitalism.
This is something he and Dropkick Murphys have in common with the Boston rockers known to support community events and union causes.
However, asked what the man himself might say about this album now, Ken thinks it a bit sad that his words resonate so much still.
“I think if you said to any artist, ‘Hey, how would you feel if you were still relevant almost a century later?’
“I think they’d say, ‘Great’.
“But I don’t think that in this instance, hoped that his lyrics would be so relevant, because between the rise in authoritarianism and fascist tendencies in America, the corporate greed being at an all-time high, workers’ rights potentially being at an all-time low. The issues with climate and migration with them having to leave Oklahoma with the Dust Bowl.
“You think about drought and fire and extreme heat, I think we’re on the verge in America of having migrant issues within our own country.
“Where there’s climate migration where people in California have to move to the East Coast or something because that I don’t know how anyone lives with that impending threat of your house burning down at any moment.
“It’s just terrifying, you know?
“I’m sure Woody would have had a lot to say about the states, Donald Trump and the MAGA movement.
“I’m sure he would have had a lot to say about companies like Starbucks and Amazon who are profiting while actively being anti-union and breaking workers that tried to unionize within those companies.
“If you’re Jeff Bezos, if you just gave up one rocket trip to the moon, you could share that (wealth).
“I’m all for capitalism, probably more so than Woody was.
“But at some point when you’re profiting at those levels, you really need to share some of that with the workers that made your company so profitable.”
During a recent gig, Casey called Trump ‘the greatest swindler in the history of the world’.
Does he have more hope now that he is gone? “He ain’t gone.
“He is like the gift that keeps on giving.
“He won’t shut up and he keeps dividing.
“In some ways out of office, he can say even more inflammatory things and attempt to divide more than when he was in office.
“90% of it is just based on feeding his own ego.
“If you had told me America was going to be taken down by a demagogue I’d have said, ‘Well, couldn’t it have been like a Brad Pitt or somebody like that? Donald Trump?’
“It just seems so stupid that he’s been able to fool so many people.
“But I think he preys on a lot of the things that were bubbling under the surface anyway, people’s fears.
“It’s just sad.
“I also think that a lot of it has to do with that Obama was the president before and there’s still a lot of people that just can’t handle that we had an African-American president that did a great job.
“I just feel like there was backlash to that.
“That showed to me a lot of the true racism that existed.
“Obviously there’s overt racism in America, but there was a lot hiding in the darkness too and Trump said, ‘Come on out of the darkness’, and they did.”
You’re an Irish American, anyone talking about building walls is kind of saying that your ancestors who went to America wouldn’t be welcome now..
“I say that to our fan base. I say that from the stage a lot, ‘If you claim to be a proud Irish American, you don’t get to say, ‘Sorry, we’re full now’.
“Because the irony really is disgusting but not everyone was raised in that mentality unfortunately.
“My favourite line on the new album is on the song, The Last One, and it says, ‘How can you worship the rich man who sees poor folks and refuses them?’
“Woody’s overtly political in a lot of songs but I like a song like that where he kind of just takes a political statement and breaks it down to just humanity.
“Like, how about a little fricking kindness?
“And that’s what’s lacking in Donald Trump for sure. Kindness.”
Ken is much more impressed with Trump’s successor, Joe Biden.
“I think he’s awesome.
“More than anything, I find Joe Biden to be a guy that has some kindness in his heart and that’s what we need.
“But for whatever reason, he’s divisive to half the country too.
“And I would say America needs a president that unites, but the problem is there’ll never be a centrist Republican that will win anymore because they’ll never make it out of their primary.
“You have to be a nut job to make it out of a Republican primary, and the same with the Democrats.
“I think Joe Biden might be the most centre Democrat you will ever see elected because I only think he made it out of the Democratic primary because they knew they just needed someone that could beat Donald Trump.
“I think in most cases, the Democratic primary will also skew farther to the left.
“So you have America far right and far left, where the majority of Americans are somewhere a little bit more in the middle, you know?”
Dropkick Murphys are known for their energetic live shows, their sound that fuses influences like The Clash and The Sex Pistols with The Pogues and The Dubliners.
The band will be touring the states soon and come this side of the Atlantic in January.
What is it like when they get to play Ireland, the home of so many of their inspirations? “You know, it’s funny.
“Back in the old days, you felt where you were a lot more.
“Our first time in Ireland, we booked that show through a friend and we had not met online, these were friends that actually wrote you a letter and you stayed in touch and then you got a phone call. ‘Oh, I’d like to book a show for you in Ireland and my band will play with you’.
“And when you came, that friend or friends were introducing you to half the room and you knew the people and nowadays with touring life, honestly it’s just a lot more anonymous to where you are.
“But Ireland has treated us amazing.
“But that’s just the Irish way, I think people have always liked us too, because as much as we kind of wave the flag for our Irish roots, we’ve also not been one of those stupid American bands who speak about Irish politics and sh*t like that.
“We’ve got enough problems with our own politics, you know what I mean?
“And I’m sure there’s still an element of the Irish that think we’re plastic paddies or whatever.
“But coming from a city like Boston, the roots are pretty real.
“It’s not so much like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s my last name’. I mean, you’re raised around the culture a lot and definitely around the music for sure.”
I’m surprised to hear you get seen as ‘plastic’. It seems being Boston- Irish, a bit like being London- Irish, is its entire own identity within the wider subset of Irish though…
“Yeah, I 100% agree with that.
“I think we’re definitely a different breed,” Ken laughs.
“I think some of it has to do with being raised with that chip on your shoulder somewhere we had to fight for acceptance and then went on to carve out a nice existence for ourselves and I think there’s a sense of community to it.
“Maybe being London-Irish is almost more like being New York- Irish.
“Whereas Boston, it’s a big city but with a small city feel because everyone knows each other and I really mean that, everyone knows each other.
“It was just a good place to grow up and the Irish roots here are strong, but maybe not as strong as they used to be because Boston, like a lot of places, has been gentrified and people have been spread out and stuff.”
Established in 1996, Dropkick Murphys released their debut album Do or Die in 1998 and This Machine Still Kills Fascists is their eleventh album.
But when Dropkick Murpys first started, there was no great vision of their great career. In fact, it was all to win a $30 bet.
“I was bartending in my early 20s and this kid said, ‘Hey, you’re always talking about starting a band. My band has a show on three weeks’ notice, and I dare you to open for us’.
“And I was like, ‘I’ll take the bet’.
“I didn’t even have a band, so our original goal was to win this $30 bet and just do it for a laugh.
“And we literally put Dropkick Murphys together on three weeks’ notice.
“That shows you where the expectation level was.
“If a door opens, you never know where it’s gonna take you and it’s been quite a journey for sure.”
When asked if Ken could see the band going for another 26 or 27 years, he says: “I’m sure if you had asked the Rolling Stones that question, they would have said no, and here they are.
“I don’t think a band necessarily sees that but at the same time I guess you never know.
“I never saw the first 27 so we’ll take it a day at a time as they say.”
Well you started 26 years ago on a $30 bet so…
“Did you just challenge me to a $30 bet? I’ll take it.”
It seems Dropkick Murphys just bet The Irish World they can go for another 26 years. That’s not a bet we would mind losing.
This Machine Still Kills Fascists is out now.
Dropkick Murphys will play Ireland and the UK in January.
For more information, go to dropkickmurphys.com.