On ‘11 Stories,’ Dropkick Murphys see troubled times — and rays of hope
The Dropkick Murphys’ fusion of punk-rock brawn and Irish music’s storytelling tradition might have seemed unexpected when they started two decades ago, but that combination has made them one of Boston’s premier rock exports. So it might not be too surprising that what kicked “11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory” into gear was a cover of a Rodgers and Hammerstein song.
The band’s raucous yet sincere cover of the ballad “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from the 1945 musical “Carousel,” catalyzed the writing of “11 Short Stories,” which was inspired by the way the opioid epidemic has devastated the lives of people around the band, both those they know personally and through their charitable foundation The Claddagh Fund. The album, the group’s ninth, comes out Jan. 6.
“That was unfortunately a big focus of our lives, just because of what was going on — losing so many friends and relatives,” says bassist-vocalist Ken Casey during a chat at the Dropkicks’ memorabilia-stuffed South Boston rehearsal space. “It’s also a lot of what the band does with our charity, so we’re kind of just surrounded by it, and any time you’re really in deep with something heavy it’s going to affect your writing.
“I like to say that the official start of writing the album came when we decided to tackle ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ I wanted to make this song an anthem for that cause and people fighting that cause. The lyrics to that to me sum up the tragedy of it all, but also the hope. You’ve got to have hope — you’d better find it somewhere.”
Casey is passionate when talking about how the opioid epidemic has ravaged his community. (“The way it’s going now,” he says, “it’s killing more people than handguns and melanoma. Why it’s not front-page news every day, I don’t understand.”) Songs like the redemption anthem “Paying My Way” and the charging “Rebels With A Cause” paint portraits of people on the edge — although those songs are tinged with the possibility of freedom from that precipice.
“As much as I’ve been so surrounded by death, I’m also surrounded by people that have gone on from the depths of despair to do the greatest, most unbelievable things with their lives,” says Casey. That includes people whose lives have been touched by the Claddagh Fund, which supports charities benefiting youth, veterans, and people who have dealt with alcohol and drug addiction.
One of those addiction-related organizations is Boston’s William J. Ostiguy High School, which is populated by students who want to learn in a sober environment. “Ostiguy High is amazing,” says Casey. “We give kids graduating scholarships to college from the Claddagh Fund. You’re talking about these kids that were close to death, and now their whole families are there watching them graduate high school. I was down at the Cape on vacation a couple of years ago and this couple came up to me and they both went to Ostiguy High and both got the scholarship and graduated.”
“11 Short Stories” also has the band’s first song about the Boston Marathon bombings, “04/15/2013.” The track paints a picture of a city coming together in grief with determination and clear-eyed grit, with the refrain “We’re all just people trying to make our way” echoing throughout.
“It was something I felt like we had to tackle at some point,” says Casey, “but you can’t do it unless it’s perfect — and when I mean perfect, I mean even in a musical sense. I don’t want it to be too much of a ballad because I don’t want it to bring people down, but it obviously can’t be some raging anthem either. I was trying to find this middle ground of something that was like sentimental, but not too downtrodden.”
“11 Short Stories” was recorded at the Texas studio Sonic Ranch — the first time the band had recorded an album outside of Boston. “It allowed people to really focus and kind of streamlined [the process],” says guitarist Tim Brennan. “It was a little bit more relaxed because of the fact that everybody was there all the time.” That relaxed process also is reflected in the music’s relative openness.
“Over the last couple of albums we’ve started getting used to how the space in between the notes is just as important as what we’re actually doing,” says Brennan. “It took a long time. I mean, we’re even up here playing [the ‘11 Short Stories’ track] ‘Blood’ at practice and there are moments where we feel like we have to start doing something because nothing’s happening. But that’s just how it goes. I think it’s a little more sparse than your average Dropkicks release, but in the most beneficial way possible.”
While “11 Short Stories,” which is being released by the band’s label Born & Bred Records, has its serious moments, it’s by no means a somber record. “First Class Loser” is a shout-along portrait of “the type of guy you’d cross six lanes of traffic to avoid,” its acidic lyrics delivered with a wink and surrounded by a back-of-the-bar vibe.
“We feel like a record should have ebbs and flows, so we’ll want to write a song like ‘First Class Loser’ because it’s so lighthearted,” says Casey. “The record’s not out yet, but I’ve told a bunch of my friends like, ‘Oh, you’re not going to believe the new record we wrote. I wrote a song about you.’ They’re like, ‘Oh, no way. That’s so cool.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah. It’s track five.’
“Every record should have multiple emotions,” he continues. “We still make records envisioning someone sitting down and listening to them as whole entities.”
Titling the album “11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory” is also a nod to the Dropkicks’ roots in Irish folk music, which manifest in ways beyond the addition of a bagpipe or a tin whistle.
“The storytelling tradition [in Irish music] has been probably the biggest early influence on the band. When we started, I remember the first reviews in little punk rock magazines saying, ‘The Clancy Brothers meets the Ramones,’ ” says Casey. “We never actually envisioned having the wherewithal to add the instrumentation. We just thought our only influence from Irish music would be to take that storytelling approach. After we put out our first album, we’d go on tour and all of a sudden kids would be showing up like, ‘Hey, I taught myself how to play this mandolin.’ ”
The Dropkicks celebrated their 20th anniversary in 2016, and in those two decades they have become a Boston institution. Their songs are staples at the city’s sports arenas, and their fans, particularly the ones from this area, are loyal. In March, the band will be back at the House of Blues and Agganis Arena for another run of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
“That’s the number one thing we have to offer to Boston — it’s not some outside perspective. We’re honest,” says Casey. “That’s what attracts a lot of our fans. They look at us and think, ‘These guys are just the same as me.’ There are no pedestals, even in the way we go about our business in the show.
“I always say I’ve probably shaken hands with 90 percent of the people that listen to the band, and I like that because it’s like I feel like I can say, ‘Thank you.’ ”