A month of nationwide touring may sound like an odd way to take it easy, but a few weeks on the road before the holidays is actually a break between breaks for the perennially nomadic Boston Celt-punk band the Dropkick Murphys.
“We did a year of touring for The Meanest of Times,” says Al Barr, who shares vocal duties in the band with founding member Ken Casey, referring to the band’s 2007 album. “Our bagpiper Scruffy Wallace’s wife had a baby, so we came home for that. And my wife’s having another baby, so we’re going to take December off for that. We’ll probably go over to Australia for January and part of February, and then we’ll tour straight up until the St. Patrick’s Day shows.”
Those St. Patrick’s Day shows are a Murphys tradition, and the object of hundreds of unofficial fan pilgrimages to Boston over the last decade. There’s a lot of Irish in Murphy-brand punk, which got its start in the basement of a Boston barber shop in the mid-1990s. Before then, electric guitars and bagpipes were rarely found together on the same recording.
The Dropkick Murphys offer a blue-collar perspective in their music that mirrors the band’s mashup of traditional Irish music and American punk. The group’s anthems are instilled with a working-class soul that stands in stark contrast to the rage-at-any-cost approach of many of their contemporaries.
“It’s different when you go see Jello Biafra, or a band like Anti-Flag, where they make it a point to be overtly political,” Barr says. “When someone comes out of a show like that saying, ‘I can’t believe what they were saying up there!’ I have to wonder what they expected in the first place.
“I love having that kind of conversation,” Barr says about the political overtones common in the punk world. “But the time and place have to be right for it. I may get up on stage and tell people to go vote, but telling them to vote for a Democrat or vote for a Republican gets too close to telling them how to think, and I don’t think our fans don’t come to our shows to hear that. I’d rather encourage people to look around them and work on what they can reach.”
From their support of organized labor to their association with the Boston Red Sox, an eye toward the subject matter of everyday life has given the Dropkick Murphys a crossover appeal rare in punk.
“We don’t want to be thought of as ‘the band that does that one thing’ any more than we’d want to be ‘the band that has that one song,’” Barr says of the band’s nods to the Sox. But it suits them, and the regular-guy anti-mystique it generates makes them seem approachable.
They’re a working man’s band in more than one sense. In the pre-MySpace age of the Murphys’ 1996 inception, the road was often the best—and sometimes the only—way to spread the word. A spate of self-recorded early releases and the accompanying touring regimen of the late ’90s caught the eye of Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, who signed the band to his Hellcat Records. The Murphys’ first Hellcat release, Do or Die, sold more than 200,000 copies with little promotion and even less radio or TV airplay.
After a decade with Hellcat, the Murphys’ success allowed them the opportunity to form Born & Bred Records, their own one-band shot at the label game.
“We stopped short of calling it Dropkick Murphys Records,” Barr says. “We never had any major issues with Hellcat/Epitaph, but anyone who says that they’ve never had a single problem with their label is either dreaming or they’ve just been signed. That’s just the way it is.”
Despite a working relationship with East West Records and its parent company, Warner Music Group, Barr is adamant about Born & Bred’s indie cred. “With Born & Bred, we don’t answer to anyone,” he says. “We don’t have to send demos to anyone at the label, or ask for permission to put something on the album.” As Barr recounts it, Warner’s Independent Label Group handles the minutiae of distribution, leaving the Murphys to their own devices creatively.
The Meanest of Times, Born & Bred’s first release, is a testament to the band’s post-Hellcat momentum as a statement of DIY pride. The album’s riffs might have more twang and the sound is a bit fuller than previous releases, but the biggest difference between it and its predecessors is the label on which it was released. That kind of consistency brought a sigh of relief from hardcore Murphys fans. Losing nothing while gaining a sense of freedom, the Born & Bred-era Dropkick Murphys are maintaining a steady approach to their work, belting out more songs on life as the man on the street.