Last month, the Dropkick Murphys’ Ken Casey and Tim Brennan attended the funeral of the man whose scally-capped likeness was depicted on the band’s first ever t-shirt, back in the mid ‘90s when they were playing hardcore in Boston basements. The death was from an opioid overdose, part of an epidemic the Murphys deal with in their extensive charity work and on their latest album. 11 Short Stories Of Pain & Glory (out today) contains brawny, arm-in-arm responses to drug addiction (“Paying My Way”) and the Boston Marathon bombing (“4-15-13”) as well as their trademark bagpipe-punk covers of a couple Celtic classics. But a sappy, sentimental, obligatory outing this is not.
The Murphys are on the front lines of the tales they tell, visiting the victims of violence and addiction they sing about, opposing the onslaught of fascism and assaults on worker’s rights. Bassist Ken Casey had to beat down a Nazi-saluting stage-rusher nine years ago, long before Donald Trump’s politics emboldened undercover racists. Work is never done. A Dropkick Murphys album arriving every couple years has been a dependable institution for almost two decades; multi-instrumentalist Tim Brennan explains to Billboard why their sound and purpose is evolving more than most realize.
I’m interested in the opening track, “The Lonesome Boatman.” It has a similar feel as [2005 classic] “Shipping Up to Boston”; I could picture it pumping up a massive sports arena crowd.
Tim Brennan: That one is a cover of an instrumental Irish song… We heard that and knew we wanted to see how it’d end up. As far as it being the first song on the album, I don’t know if we always intended that. But once we got all those crowd vocals on there, I think we realized that it was a good tone-setting song — albeit an instrumental.
That actually harkens back to the old days of the Dropkick Murphys. For example, [1998 debut album] Do or Die starts out with “Cadence to Arms,” an instrumental… Kind of a raucous, crowd-pumping-up-type of song like that.
You guys have mentioned that the new album is a response to the opiate epidemic and how “Paying My Way” is about overcoming addiction. Is this something you’ve seen particulate affect Boston’s people?
Yeah, definitely. Obviously because of where we live, that’s where we’re most familiar with it happening. But it’s been a giant problem up here. Ken and I just played at a funeral last week for a very young guy who overdosed, and Ken’s been to about 20 other wakes and funerals apart from that. So it’s definitely something that’s a real problem in the area, and I know it’s a problem in a lot of places in America right now.
The one Ken and I did last week was somebody who was a friend of the band at the very beginning — before the band was even called Dropkick Murphys. Ken had a friend who bet him he couldn’t put a band together to open for this other guy’s band, with like three weeks’ notice. So he put together a band, and I think they wrote two songs — one of which was “Barroom Hero” [from Do or Die] — and then they played a bunch of cover songs and that was it. They were called The Snots and they had a crummy, handmade t-shirt with a cartoon drawing of a guy with a scally cap blowing a snot-rocket out of his nose. It was supposed to be the cartoon of this guy whose funeral we played at last week.
I feel like we’ve definitely done a lot of things where people asked us to show up and play because we’re the Dropkick Murphys. And it might have been a veteran or somebody who was from the area and was a giant fan; we’ll do that sort of stuff. But I feel like most of the funerals and wakes have been from this opioid thing, have been people that we personally know.
Do you think it comes from people being prescribed opioids for pain and then getting addicted?
Yeah, I think it’s a couple different things. It could be like how people get into bad habits with drinking too much. It could be emotional or mental pain that they’re dealing with. But then, at the same time, there’s many people who are having accidents, breaking a leg or something like that, getting prescribed these pain medicines and then when they’re done with them, they’re sick or don’t feel right because their body’s gotten used to it… Ultimately people are getting prescribed them by doctors who aren’t super concerned with the long-term effects, or people are hitting the streets trying to find them.
I remember a few years ago at one of your shows — in New York at Terminal 5 — at the very end that guy came onstage and was Nazi saluting, and Ken went over and tackled him. With Trump and the white nationalism that’s been getting coverage lately, are you guys concerned about having to deal with stuff like that again?
You know, I don’t think we are. We’re certainly not thinking about it at the moment. Hopefully that’s not something that ends up happening because of the election or anything like that. But I think we’ve tried to make it fairly clear over the last 20 years that while we love everyone coming to our shows and we love our fans, people like that are not welcome at our shows. Period.
Many people saw in that video — because it was online and got lots of pickup — that right away Ken saw what was going on, and went over and took care of business.
Yeah, I mean unfortunately, that’s something we’ve dealt with before. Especially in the older days when the band was just starting to get more exposure; there are people who are confused about the whole punk rock thing. And in the early days the band was — and I don’t mean that in a negative way — lumped in with a lot of the street punk and Oi! stuff.
Unfortunately, that sort of genre of music could attract some real boneheads that are incredibly misinformed about life. And that’s not to say that that’s the only genre of music where that happens, but it was definitely — just because of the whole skinhead connection — something that the band certainly had to deal with a handful of times. But like I said, we’ve always tried to make it known that’s not something that we’re going to abide by.
And you guys have been really supportive of unions and workers’ rights in the past. With Trump being elected, is that something you see being a big point of emphasis again?
It’s definitely something that we’ve always touched on. Who f–king knows what’s going to become of the country when the Trump administration is in full swing and everything. All we can do is continue to do what we do… But that’s something that’s always been close to the heart of the band and we always will continue to support. So if something comes up where we need to pay specific attention to that, we’re gonna do it.
Since [longtime member] Scruffy Wallace left the band in 2015, tell me about your new bagpipe player.
His name is Lee Forshner. He lives down in Florida and he recorded the bagpipes for the album and he comes on tour with us and everything.
What’s it like recruiting a new bagpipe player?
It’s tough because there’s a lot of bagpipers, but there aren’t a lot of bagpipers used to playing in a rock and roll band… It’s got to be a combination of somebody who can play well and who isn’t tied down mentally by the way that they learned how to play bagpipes with a pipe band and all that stuff. And it has to be somebody we can get along with because we’ve gotta live with them on the road for six months out of the year. Luckily we found the perfect combination of all of those in our buddy Lee.
Is there anything else you’d like to explain about the album?
I hope people go out and get the record and are as excited about it as we are. Both sonically and in the songwriting, I think this is by far the best thing we’ve ever done. And I know people say that about their new albums all the time, but I can honestly say that I’m so proud of this one and I hope everybody is super into it.
Having such a defined place in music, I can see how it can be a challenge to keep reinventing yourselves and avoid doing the same thing.
The other challenge is that because we’re put into that genre I think a lot of people think they know what the Dropkick Murphys sound like but in reality have no idea, you know what I mean? There’s a lot of people who write about us, talk about us, and treat us like, “Well, it’s March, so it’s the one time a year you can get away with listening to the Dropkick Murphys again.” And that’s sort of heartbreaking for me as somebody who really cares about the music because I know that there’s so many more dimensions to it than that. So sometimes it bums me out that people that don’t really have their finger on the pulse of what we sound like think that they do, you know what I mean?
I think there’s a lot of people who, when they hear the name Dropkick Murphys think, “HUHH YAHH HEY,” like a weird bunch of American guys singing Irish music. But there’s so much more to the band and to the songs than that, and I think that when people hear this album they’re going to hopefully realize that maybe we’re not exactly what they thought we were.