Interview: Al Barr of Dropkick Murphys
When Mike McColgan departed from the greatest band in the world’s greatest city, some people thought the party was over. The Rat closed and things were looking grim by the end of 1997. But the Dropkick Murphy’s beat the trading deadline by adding Al Barr to the lineup. There is no argument that McColgan was phenomenal, and it’s obvious that Ken Casey is the leader of the band and keeps the crowd fired up with his banter. But Barr has lead the sing-alongs for the past four years, and has done an incredible job. Onstage, Barr lends his microphone to the audience in nearly every song, adding to the ever-present camaraderie of a Murphy’s show in Boston.
On September 27, 2002, the eve of a performance at the Bayside Expo Center in Dorchester, Verbicide‘s Jackson Ellis had the chance to chat with Barr about “personal politics,” Shane MacGowan, and the Bruins. He may not be Irish, or from Boston, but he is a Gaelic bastard and a New Englander. Regardless of what he is, he’s a great singer and puts on the best show in town. Ladies and Gentleman, Al Barr. -Christopher Connal
Why was the Saint Patty’s show in Boston chosen to be released as a live album, as opposed to any other show?
I think that’s the time of the year when everybody’s “Irish,” and it’s a big celebration in Boston anyways. We always traditionally play [on Saint Patrick’s Day], and we’ve been trying to record ourselves live for years now, and have never managed to get a good rendition down. It’s always something, you know, not enough of the audience, or we’d play horribly…the [Saint Patty’s shows in Boston] were good because we had three days of performing at the same club, so we could keep everything set up and the mics where they needed to be, and we had three days of 75 songs to pick through — at least, the ones that we didn’t fuck up! (laughter)
Were those performances at the Roxy?
No, actually they were at the Avalon.
Speaking of the traditional Irish aspect of the band, Dropkick performs a lot of traditional songs.
We do a few of them, yeah.
And a lot of your traditional covers were originally by the Dubliners; do you have any other favorites?
Well, the whole band is rooted in Celtic and Irish music — with the exception of myself, though I am Scottish and that goes with the Celtic family — but I’m not “Irish.” Growing up, I had a lot of folk songs in my house; at family gatherings or when my father had co-workers over or parties, there would always be someone pulling out a dulcimer, or a banjo, or an acoustic guitar and singing, and people would gather around and watch and sing along. I’ve had music in my life for my whole life.
It must have been great recording with Shane MacGowan [of the Pogues] in the studio; what was that like?
It was an experience! It was pretty cool to have him be a part of it. Recording isn’t the “funnest” thing in the world, though some people might think it would be…
As Ian MacKaye says, it’s like being in a laboratory.
Yeah, it’s pretty boring, but it’s very exciting to have someone like Shane MacGowan around — you know, he’s Shane MacGowan! (laughter) So you’re gonna get what you get, and Kenny [Casey, bassist/vocalist for Dropkick, and producer of Sing Loud, Sing Proud!] was put in the position where he had to kind of direct Shane MacGowan…and he’s screwing up the words in “The Wild Rover,” and Kenny’s gotta tell him that he’s singing the song wrong! (laughter) And how do you go about doing that with tact?
Is it true that you played a festival with the Pogues this summer?
Yes, actually we played with the original lineup of the Pogues this summer, and Joe Strummer.
Wow, where were those shows?
That was one show in London; it was a phenomenal day in my life.
That’s incredible. Are you bringing that act to America next year?
I wish! I wish we had control over that kind of thing. We were just glad to be there and being allowed to be onstage to watch them performing; they were both impeccable that day. The Pogues were amazing, especially considering that we drank with Shane until we went to bed at around four or five in the morning, and when we came down around noon he was still in the same chair and hadn’t left! We were all banking on the fact that he wasn’t gonna make it, but he was really good.
This brings me to another question: PJ Kilroy’s down by the St. Mary T stop on Beacon Street: is it, or is it not, the best place for a beer in Boston?
You’d want to go to place called O’Malley’s, and that’s where the younger guys [in the band] frequent; they’ve got a bartender there, Red, who they swear by. You won’t catch those guys going anywhere else.
Dropkick has always enjoyed a powerful sort of bond with their fans at live shows. Has the band reached a consensus on how to talk with the audience when it comes to the current turmoil in the world, 9/11, and so on?
Do we get political on stage, do you mean?
Yes, is there a certain way the band approaches those subjects?
More importantly than anything, I think our shows are just a time for unity and a time for people to come together, and not be out for blood — I mean, I think people need to be out for blood for the people that did these things, but I’m just talking about people in this country who need to heal a bit. Hopefully, that’s what we did when we did that tour right after it happened. That was our way of trying to put something else in people’s heads for a little while. There’s no sense in whipping people up; the media does that enough. I think there’s enough misinformation, and we’re all fed it on a daily basis. You have to really be careful what you’re buying into, and not gobble everything up that you hear about. But definitely, the band is, 100 percent, proud to be American, and we’re totally behind the country in terms of being united against this kind of shit. But at the same time, like I said before, there’s a lot of sketchy details that we’re not always made aware of.
In the “bio” section of the Dropkick web site, fans can read about the band’s values. Do you think that fans are drawn more to the music or the message of Dropkick, or both equally?
Well, I think that there’s people out there are “either/or,” and then there are people into both, and then there are people who are just like, “Who fucking cares, I just wanna drink some beer and have some fun.” Obviously you get your “WWF mentality” out there too, but I think people are drawn to the fact that we’re not just singing about, you know, “the girl in the blue sweater,” but actually talking about some things that might mean something.
Such as class issues and solidarity in the working-class…do you know of any other bands that are similar to Dropkick — not even musically in the sense — but in getting a similar message out?
I think there’s been music going on about that for years, in all genres, whether it be folk or rock or country; there’re too many bands to count. There are all kinds of working-class music, and I think we’re just another working-class band in terms of where we come from.
Speaking of politics, what are your thoughts on Massachusetts politics?
Well I live in New Hampshire, see, I live in the “Live Free or Die” state. Not only am I the non-Irishman, but I’m the non-Bostonian in the band.
That must be kind of a pain, do you have to travel a lot to practice?
I live an hour north, so it’s not that bad. I was in a band for 10 years before I was in Dropkick Murphys that was based in Boston.
What band was that?
A band called The Bruisers. So it’s not bad, I just do what I have to do. As far as politics go, I think politics are pretty fucked everywhere you go. And that’s about as deep as I want to get about it! (laughter)
So I suppose it would be unnecessary to ask you about Mitt Romney or Shannon O’Brien!
Yeah, like I said, these people…they’re all a bunch of corrupt people that are eating well everyday, that’s all I have to say about that…you know what I mean? We’re more into personal politics as a band — it’s not because we’re not aware of what’s going on, don’t get me wrong, but at the same time, for me, as a music fan, when I come through the doors, personal, universal themes, like family, reaches me and touches me more than some guy getting up there soap-boxing about his fucking opinions. Because you know what? If you want to do that, stop playing your instrument and go run for office and do something!
That’s what bothers me about the whole political aspect; you get these people that sit up there and jack off, but what are they really doing for that time? What is that really solving? They’re talking to a room full of people who may or may not agree with them.
And who may or may not even vote, for that matter. And you can’t say anything back to them because they’re speaking over a P.A. It’s just not the forum for it, in my opinion. But whatever; I’m sure people are going to disagree with that! (laughter)
On a lighter note, it seems like everywhere Dropkick go, people are chanting “Yankees suck!,” even at little colleges in Maryland.
Isn’t that great?
That was Doug’s experience when you played at Western Maryland College last spring.
It’s a great thing! Kenny’s been able to convert people that are non-New Yorkers — obviously, you can’t do that in the New York area, although Kenny did get onstage at the Long Island Irish Fest and shouted “Yankees suck!” after we’d won over the crowd! (laughter) Even the cops that were at the side of the stage afterwards were like, “Hey what’s with your bass player?” A whole island forms around him when he starts talking like that!
That’s great! Where’s the strangest place that you’ve come across Yankee hatred and Red Sox pride?
I’ll tell you, in Japan you can probably find it, we’re able to find that everywhere! You’ll find someone with the Bruins jersey or a “B” on a cap out there, and it’s funny — it will be in some town like Wichita, who knows.
So you guys are all big Red Sox fans?
Sure, you support your home team; I’m not really a sports guy, period, but if I’m in a room those guys, well obviously I’m not going to say, “Hey, well what about the Yankees?” (laughter) I’m a New Englander, so I’m going to support the New England teams.
How did you guys arrange for the Bruins to play “For Boston” before games? Did they come to you or did you approach them?
That’s a funny story, actually. One of the guys on the team, I forget which guy, had gone to that school [Boston College] and had heard it. The guy who plays the music [at FleetCenter, where the Bruins play] played it once, and the guy on the team who went to BC heard it, and requested it again and again. I guess the brass with the Bruins were like, “We can’t have this fucking song, this is a BC fight song, we can’t have that for a Bruins game!” Well, the guy on the team requested that they get the song back on the PA, and I think he was leading in scoring right then, so I guess they put it back on. It’s kind of funny; everybody was telling me that they were playing it. I actually was there for it one time.
That must be a great feeling seeing them skate out to your version of it.
Well, I’m considered the “jinx;” I’m the reason they had a losing streak last season. Last year, while I tour, I said, “Jeez, every time I watch the game with you, they lose,” and all the guys looked back at me in horror and were like, “You’re the reason!” So I’m not allowed to watch anymore. (laughter) But that’s alright with me, because like I said, I’m not the “sports guy!”
That’s pretty funny though, it sounds like real typical New England sports fans!
Oh yeah, for sure! You’ve definitely got some superstitious guys.
Thinking back over the years, at least as long as you’ve been in the band, what song really stands out as capturing all the essentials of Dropkick?
Well, the first song that I ever sung with Dropkick Murphys was “Curse of a Fallen Soul,” and I think that songs still holds up today as the one, but there’s a lot of them that do — “Boys on the Docks” does too. Both of those songs, once again, are about personal politics.
Yeah, but what about “The Spicy McHaggis Jig?”
That’s more close to Spicy’s crotch than anybody’s heart! (laughter) But that’s good for a laugh; it’s a good tune to get some of the girls onstage to dance with Spicy and hopefully someone will flip up his kilt and give us a little show.
I’ve always liked how you bring girls up onstage to dance with you.
We’ve done stage invasions for years, and we still do them when we’re allowed to, but then it usually becomes a penis farm on stage and the thing is, if you see about 20 200-pounders up there, you’re not gonna go up there — I wouldn’t be there, but I’m up there already, so there’s nothing I can do about it! So that’s why, when we play that song, it’s time for the ladies to come up and rule the stage.
As a veteran of the DIY scene, do you see any major changes in the way bands “grow up” today?
Oh, Jesus Christ, are you kidding me? You can’t even compare it; it’s apples and oranges. In the inception of punk and underground music, it was, point blank, never meant to be big — and when I’m saying this, I’m not complaining about what it’s become, and I’m definitely a part of it today — but it’s definitely not what it was 15, 20 years ago, when it was 20 kids at a youth hall and you’d get DRI or GBH or somebody to come through. It’s just totally different now; it was never supposed to be big.
I suppose, though, you could argue that when it first started and you had three bands like the Sex Pistols, Ramones, and The Clash exploding, it actually did have a lot to do with fame, and then perhaps, after that “burst,” it became something else.
But the thing is, the Sex Pistols were the only band to get notoriety at the time, it’s an afterthought with The Clash and the Ramones; and when you look back historically, of course you have to mention those two other bands, and they have a lot more than the Pistols in terms of what they left behind in music. But it was the Pistols that got all the attention, when it was the Ramones who inspired the Pistols!
In terms of American hardcore and punk, it was always a small thing, and like I said, it’s just different now. Now you’ve got booking agents, you’ve got “punk” tours — punk tours that make money — and there’s nothing wrong with any of that; I don’t see anything wrong with anybody paying their bills with what they do for a living. People should be able to do that. Anybody that says different, well, you know what, they’re getting money somewhere — they’re living with their parents, or someone’s fucking paying their bills for them, and they’re just a hypocrite. It’s just different completely different now, it’s…”TRL” now. (laughter)
If it’s not “TRL” yet, it’s on it’s way.
It is and it isn’t in a lot of ways — I mean, we’re not going to be.
I heard on the radio on my way home from work today a “punk block” where they played a Ramones song followed by a New Found Glory song — two bands on such different ends of the spectrum.
There you go, you’ve got the way punk was, and, basically, what most people’s idea is of what punk has become. And then you’ve got the core people who are still living with the whole mentality that it is still underground, and there are people who don’t like Dropkick Murphys because we sell more records than a punk band should, in their eyes. There is still a core of people, some who give us shit because we sell records — well, I’m 34, I was around in ’82 and ’83, and I saw those bands, and a lot of these people who pass judgment on people my age and on shit that I have to say weren’t around then. They don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. I mean, read a book, that’s great, read, read, read; dig some shit, taste it, and then you lift it a little bit! People with their heads up their asses…
I can tell it’s kind of a touchy subject…
Ahh, no, no, no, I’m just like that…it’s not a touchy subject at all, it just sickens me sometimes; you’ve got these people out there that have been into punk rock for two years, they got a million tattoos, and all of a sudden they’re “Mr. Cool” and they’re on the Internet saying, “Oh, this band’s a bunch of fuckin’ sellouts.” We’re doing this for a living. Jesus Christ, 19 years I’ve been singing in bands, you know? But whatever, you know what I mean?
(laughter) You’re like, “oh Jesus Christ;” don’t worry about it!
I’m not, I love it!
Well, my sister’s dog is chewing a giant rubber blowfish, so if you hear what sounds like heavy breathing in the background, that’s what that is, that’s not me.
Sure, good cover-up. (laughter) Anyway, to wrap up, who’s doing the bulk of the writing these days, and do you have any new studio albums on the way?
We’re all working together on this new record, and that’s all we’ve been doing lately. We were in Boston this morning, actually, at the crack of dawn working all day on new material. I can’t tell you when — not because it’s a secret but just because we don’t know! — but sometime next year we will drop a new record, but right now we’re in the factory.
Are you recording at the Outpost [in Stoughton, MA] again?
We might, but right now it’s too soon to say.
Well that’s pretty much all I got for you!
Well, I really appreciate the interview man, you asked good questions…it was a good interview, see, you got me all fired up! (laughter)
I give a lot of the credit to Doug and Chris because they wrote the bulk of the questions, but thank you very much!