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 and a determination to carry on until the band 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. 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!”