It’s a Boston Thing

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Liza Lentini
·24 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Click here to read the full article on SPIN.

Ken Casey and I are rivals. No, not really. But our high schools were, less than eight miles apart or about 20 minutes away—if you take 93 South, Route 1 South, 95 North or Route 128, as the locals still call it. It’s all the same freaking road, which may very well be the most Boston thing ever. Or maybe, quite possibly, the Dropkick Murphys are the most Boston thing ever: their accents, their influences, their continued devotion to community, defined by undying loyalty and a heart as complex and intricate as a Boston downtown cobblestoned street map. This Celtic punk band formed originally in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1996 is as Irish-Boston as they come, defined by their shit-kicking special brew of passion and sentimentality, even when they’re singing about getting drunk or punching you in the face.

There are a few things you accept when you’re raised in the Boston area, which Ken and I both were.

More from SPIN:

“I grew up four [subway] stops from Harvard Square, so it’s pretty somewhat of an urban upbringing, even though I was in the suburbs, in terms of just getting on the train and going wherever,” Ken tells us. “I just felt like you could just go anywhere, do anything, you know what I mean? You get to the train, and you could be in Harvard Square, you could be in Kenmore Square… My father died when I was seven. I was an only child, and I never felt alone. I always felt like I had a ton of friends and things to do and places to go. It’s such a small big city that everyone knows each other. That was good for me. Probably some people hate that. Whereas if you were in New York, there’s probably a little more anonymity to life.”

Back then, you simply accepted that no one, literally no one you knew acknowledged an esoteric “r” in a sentence, and if they did they were nerds or from—Lord help us—“out of state.” You also accepted that you or someone you knew well, very well, both boys and girls, would end up in a fistfight, usually on school property and usually on lunch break while onlookers gnawed on white-bread Flutternutter sandwiches. And, finally, if you yourself weren’t starting a garage band, the kid down the street was, and so was his cousin, and they’d all cover Aerosmith’s “Dream On” and Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” and surely the Standells’ “Dirty Water” would find its way in there somewhere. Maybe they’d suck, maybe they’d be great—but, oh my God—they’d all have dreams of playing Great Woods or the Worcester Centrum, and opening for a future band like Dropkick Murphys someday.

Luckily, neither Ken nor I cared much about high school sports and, as Ken puts it, he wasn’t much into high school itself, either. “I was a high school dropout type of guy,” he says. “I started at Catholic Memorial, got booted out of there and then I came back one to two times and dropped out at Milton High School. School sports were not a thing to me.” Ken explains that he made money in his hooligan years dubbing and selling hockey-fight VHS tapes from one of notorious gangster Whitey Bulger’s convenience stores in South Boston.

“I was a chronic truant after going to Catholic school my whole life when I had my first year at public school. After being absent for probably 40 days before Thanksgiving, the school just said you might as well get a job for the rest of the year. It was more like, ‘You’re not getting promoted anyway so you might as well work for a year and not waste that time anymore.’ Eventually, I grew up at some point.”

We both agree that more kids should be encouraged to go into trade work. He’s encouraging his middle child, now 15, to pursue it.

“I worked for three years after without going to college,” he says. “I tell you every kid should have to do that. I went back to UMass in my early 20s because when you get out there working every day after high school, suddenly college starts to look a little more appealing.”

Dropkick Murphys
Dropkick Murphys

To get a hold of Ken I posted something on Facebook and, as he says, he got about four texts to contact me. We don’t know each other. But Vyv, who I’ve known since we were little girls in Brownies, sent me a message that he was “down” for the interview because she’s known the band (and Ken) since forever ago. Tricia told me he wasn’t home, he was at hockey practice with his son, because of course, she lives down the street. Jeff told me to ask about some guy I’ve never heard of but apparently will spark crazy stories. And, hey Ken, Garrett says “hi.”

Therefore, even before it started, Ken’s interview was already very Boston, a city that prides itself on its people and its loyalty. If you grew up there in the ’70s and ’80s like we did you weren’t even aware of how enveloped in the immigrant culture you were. And no matter where your great grandparents came from, you knew all the old Irish singalongs, whether you wanted to or not: “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” “Danny Boy” — all of them. If they weren’t in your house they were in the corner bakery playing on an echoing transistor radio and, of course, everywhere on March 17th.

“It’s funny…” he reminisces. “Even though my grandparents weren’t from Ireland, but my great-grandparents were, that kind of family dynamic was centered around the matriarch, or whatever, was definitely Irish music, but I feel like my family, kind of, rebelled. My grandfather was Irish to the core and proud of it, but he was a big Frank Sinatra guy, maybe because [Irish music] got shoved down his throat so much. My mother was wicked and hip and liked reggae and stuff. I felt like I got my introduction to Irish music more from the community I had. Five, six of my immediate closest friends’ parents were off the boat from Ireland. It just seemed like every party or wider family event or other people’s houses, it was definitely every Irish song, whether you don’t even know it, you know it. It’s like osmosis.”

While “The Star of Donegal” and the like was surely an underlying influence, it was the Ramones and the Pogues who helped Ken and the band form their signature Celtic punk sound.

“I just remember when the Pogues came along when I was like 16 going, ‘Oh, whoa. They just made my grandparents’ age music cool,’” he laughs. “I didn’t necessarily like Irish music as a kid. I certainly never put it on my own at 14. I would have gone, ‘What the fuck. Why are you playing old people music?’ Then they made it for my age. You knew all the songs already because they did obviously their fair share of traditional songs as well.”

He was pretty-near finished with his degree at UMass, but then, on a dare, he decided to start a band. “I had a dare from a friend that said, ‘You’re always talking about starting a band, I dare you to open for my band,’ he explains. “To win a $30 bet, I accepted the challenge and still haven’t been back to finish my last year of college yet.”

“Seriously, is that how it all happened?” I asked.

“Yes, I was working, I was bartending at Symphony Hall and working construction while I was going to school. All the bartenders at Symphony Hall were teachers because you got the summer off there as well because they went out to Tanglewood. You’d have worked two jobs during the year and then you’d have summer off. I was working fill-in. My friend’s father, who’s a Boston cop did all the details there. He got me the gig, at doing fill-in. The way you got a full-time bar, there was literally a guy that was in his 80s died, and I got his bar,” he explains.

“It was a lifetime change, you got a pension out of there for a part-time job bartending,” he explains. “So, for a second job, as a teacher it was, you just didn’t give it up because it was really, really good.

“The kid that I worked there with, he was going to Berklee College of Music and he was a fill-in bartender and he said, ‘Hey, my band has a show at Club Three in Somerville and I dare you to put a band together and open.’ We did, just for a joke. We had probably 50 of our friends there just to make fun of us. They’re like, ‘You have a band, you didn’t have a band yesterday…what?’”

And that, kids, is how it’s done. Twenty-five years later, some say their defining platinum-selling single “I’m Shipping up to Boston,” featured in the 2006 movie The Departed, is the one that defines them. Others might say it’s their epic, turbo-charged live shows. Ten studio albums later—including 2021’s Turn Up That Dial—it’s possible they’re defined by their longevity in a world where, let’s face it, Celtic punk wasn’t the prescribed recipe for success. But it sure as hell was for them. Though drummer Matt Kelly, vocalist Al Barr and guitarist James Lynch have been with the band for actual, literal decades, Ken is the only, technically speaking, original member.

Two of the guys had been in bands before and two of us hadn’t,” he says of how they started. “My friends started saying, ‘Would you guys do that again? That was hilarious.’ We [played live] a few more times, like that, and wrote a few songs on the way. Then the original drummer for the band was actually the lead guitarist in an old Cape Cod slash Boston hardcore band called The Freeze. They were doing a couple of reunions and he said, ‘Well, why don’t you play in front of people you don’t know and do it for real?’ We were like, ‘Holy shit, that’s kind of intense. Let’s not get crazy over here.’ But we did it.”

The name, Dropkick Murphys, was inspired by professional wrestler John E. “Dropkick” Murphy, a Massachusetts native who also owned and ran the Bellows Farms Sanatorium, a rehab for alcoholics, in Acton, Mass.

So, I have to ask: Have you ever dropkicked anybody?

He lets out a huge sigh. “I would probably say yes,” he admits, with a faint hint of regret. “I don’t know how my form was from a wrestling perspective, but I would say the odds are better that I have than I haven’t.”

“Know anyone with the last name Murphy?”

“Tooooooo many,” he groans. “I can’t escape them…and they all want free shit from the band because of it.”

In 1996 “Macarena” was the top song that year. Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Celine Dion ruled the charts.

For the love of Mike, how did Dropkick Murphys make it work?

“Man, I don’t know, I think people liked what we were going for,” Ken says. “Back then we were just a four-piece. We didn’t have any of the Irish instrumentation, but I think from a delivery in a lyrical style, you could still get the hint that it was like that. Like early, early reviews like Maximum Rock’n’Roll would say, ‘The Pogues meets the Ramones but more on the Ramones side.’ I think people got what we were going for, even when we weren’t quite there yet. They just took to it, even though we were very, very rough around the edges still. Then we found our home at The Rat [the Rathskeller] doing all-ages shows.

“I was already involved in the scene before I had been booking shows at The Rat. Always matinee stuff in the day. To book our own shows, I would just put us on to the shows, I was already booking with bands that I liked.

“Thank God for The Rat, because that gave us a place to build the fan base. There was six, seven, eight local bands that were selling out The Rat, and we were one of them. What we would do is we’d have an all-ages matinee. We still had our jobs and everything. We’d bring in seven bands from seven of the cities, give them all the money, they’d go back home from Boston. ‘We just played out to 800 kids and made money.’ That never happens in DIY punk rock, so when they repaid us in their city, even if nobody knew us, they were so grateful to repay what a good time they had in Boston because this city was so strong that, you know, if they had to drag their dog and their grandmother out to fill the place they were willing. I give all credit to the mid-90s Boston punk scene and The Rathskeller for being able to launch us out of Boston.

“We had one of those old MBTA handicapped vans called The Ride — we used to tour in that. You could stand in it, so we had a funnel going out the back window. You could stand and pee into that, so you never had to stop. We took off the front part of the roof at Logan Airport, at one of those low overhangs, so it’s peeled back like a can opener taking the top off, so if it rained, I was the copilot and the map guy, and I would have to hold an umbrella over me and my bandmate who is driving. If it rained, it was chaos.

“We would get pulled over a lot,” he says. And then, imitating a cop: “’What the fuck is going on here?’ We would always say it just happened.”

We marveled over how any of us ever got our cars back then, essentially held together with flour paste and prayer, legally on the road. “Somebody always had a guy that knew a guy that would give you an inspection sticker no matter what,” he says, and we laugh ‘cause it’s crazy and true.

From Aerosmith to the Cars, the Pixies to Tracy Chapman, New Edition, New Kids on the Block, Aimee Mann, J. Geils Band, — Boston has always been known as a thriving music hub. Thanks to Berklee College of Music and a condensed college and cultural scene, the tiny walking city made it easy to experience unknown bands as part of—if not a requisite—for living there. Downright dark and dirty, there was a definite hierarchy amongst the smaller clubs, The Rathskeller (a.k.a. The Rat) was considered the Kennedy Compound of gritty, small stages, and everyone from The Police to the Talking Heads played there. Dropkick Murphys, too.

“The Rat’s the first place my mother ever had a drink with her fake ID when she was a kid, so it all goes full circle, you know?” He says, waxing nostalgic. “We had kind of a beef with the Middle East [another club in Cambridge] because the very first time I went over to give our first [EP] Split 7inch to the booking person, I went upstairs and in the office, the lady was like, ‘Leave it at the bar’, which I thought was a little weird because she was the booking lady. I left it at the bar. Then, I ended up talking to someone I knew, and then I saw the bartender throw it in the trash, so I always had a thing about them, but we did have some big shows, and we had our record release party for our first album there.”

The size of the smaller clubs varied so widely, I was curious how he would gauge venue versus audience capacity in those early years.

“I don’t know. Look at how many kids would show up. I think it was like 1,500 kids showed up to The Rat, and when they told them that that two-thirds of them couldn’t get in, they got a little rambunctious in the line and stuff.”

“Good thing there wasn’t a fire,” I say, sounding old.

“I’ll tell you one weekend that was worse than a fire, there were three shows in one weekend,” Ken says. “We were on one of them. We played the show, it might have been with the Business from England, and then Toxic Narcotic had a show, and then it was like a one o’clock matinee, a four o’clock matinee, and then, I think, Sheer Terror was playing that night. There was a raw sewage leak. So, in an effort to dry it up, they threw sawdust or kitty litter or something down on the ground. Then, when there was a pit, it would stir up the dust…and everyone would breath it in. Everyone had sinus infections…”

When he puts it that way, an actual shit show is for sure and certainly worse than a fire any day.

Dropkick Murphy's Ziggo Dome
Dropkick Murphy's Ziggo Dome

Credit: Paul Bergen/Redferns

Love it or hate it, and for better and for worse, there’s no denying that Boston is about community. In 2009 Ken started the Claddagh Fund, a charitable foundation that honors the three qualities of the traditional Irish Claddagh ring — friendship, love and loyalty — raising money for underfunded nonprofits that support vulnerable populations in need.

“The band’s charity foundation will hopefully live on after the band,” Ken says. “The days that will come where we don’t want to be touring the world, but hopefully the charity work is how we can all live on.”

They’ve even collaborated with the Magic Hat Brewing Company to create a beer called Barroom Hero, where sales help raise money for “underfunded nonprofits that are supporting veterans, children’s charities and helping people who are on a path of recovery.” The band’s devout commitment to helping others is as synonymous with their reputation as their signature Celtic sound.

Why is it so important to give back?

Ken explains. “We have always had this weird dynamic as a band. A lot of us weren’t cut out to be musicians. We were cut out to be fucking regular people,” he says. “We always had this mixed thing with like being in a band, especially in a band that has success, you almost feel guilty about it. For instance, we used to play, we used to practice — now we have our own rehearsal space that’s just us but back then we were in those buildings where there are 20 bands in a jam spot type rehearsal space, with all the rules.

“We used to rehearse at 7:00 a.m., just because we felt we had real jobs and we’d do that. Every rehearsal spot has that kind of a semi-homeless guy that runs the place and they give him a free practice space that he lives in. The guy would be like ‘What the fuck. I’ve been around music for 50 years and I’ve never seen a band rehearse at 7:00 in the morning. The reason you get in a band is that you don’t have to get up at 7:00 in the morning.’ That’s just like how we all made it, so that we could accept what we do for a living and the other piece was the giving back side. As you get some popularity it was so easy. People would be like, ‘Hey can you donate tickets at a meet-and-greet’. I was like, ‘Yes, no problem.’ Then, I got to be somewhere with the sports guys in town that I grew up admiring and watched how they carried themselves off the ice or court. It was just kind of like this is what you have got to do. This is how you give back. From a fan base that then translated worldwide, it just seemed like…the next right thing to do. All the band members, we’ve had our own struggles with things that we do hands-on. Whether it’s my dad’s suicide or some of our own troubles as teens, whether it’s alcohol and drugs we’ve all overcome, thank God. Those have created some things that are near and dear to our hearts. That it’s a privilege to be involved with.”

Part of enjoying his success is having been able to tour with his idols, including Stiff Little FingersJake Burns, the Clash’s Joe Strummer, and the Pogues’ Shane MacGowan.

“The first time we had SLF join us on tour we actually got off to a very bad start because Bruce Foxton from the Jam was playing bass for them at the time. Bruce was the first one to walk in and he was a fucking asshole. ‘Hey, Bruce, so nice to meet you.’ He says: ‘Get everyone out of this dressing room.’ The tour was only a week or something that they were with us. We just never even really talked to them. Then, on the last night of the tour, Jake slipped a note under saying, ‘Sorry, about Bruce he’s a cunt.’ Something to that effect. When we saw Jake the next time we just got along so great. I’ve got so much respect for that guy. It’s great when you meet your idols and they are not assholes.

“I’ll tell you a lot of those old British punk bands…the mentality of we’re all in this together…that was America that created that mindset. These guys all thought they were going to be the next fucking Who. Half of them felt like they got fucked that they weren’t, and now they’re bitter.”

But Ken has a true affinity for Stiff Little Fingers and even has that band’s name tattooed on his arm.

“We’ve had Stiff Little Fingers on the road with us a couple of times and then we’ve had Jake come out solo and one of the best times ever was, I think the tour was us and Rancid and Jake. The third bus was Jake and then some of the sound additional people on the tour. That bus broke down and we had to split people up on the bus. We were like, ‘We’ll take Jake.’ Because he would be up telling stories all night.

“We’ve had a good connection with Stiff Little Fingers. Jimmy Riley, their old drummer who lived in Boston drove us on our first-ever European tour in 1997, with the theory, ‘Oh, Jimmy will know he’s way around….’ Jimmy would get so lost all over Europe. We would be late for every show. We would say, ‘Jimmy, what the fuck?’ He said, ‘I was fucking drunk in the back of a bus. I didn’t know where we were going.’”

The new album Turn Up That Dial is not only the result of the 2020 quarantine, but it’s also DKM’s contribution to a happier, hopeful new beginning. Everything about the album signals fun and better times ahead. Only DKM could record a song like its third track “Middle Finger” and make it sentimental in spite of itself: I’ve broke a lot of hearts, and I’ve broke a lot of rules/Yet somehow I survived/With a bit of dummy luck/But I can never keep that finger from sticking up.

As Ken says, they wrote the album with the hopes of cheering themselves up.

“I mean, Jesus, well, nothing excites you like new music and being in a nine-month musical bubble where the world shuts down. We wanted this to just be fun and about music.

“I mean actually the last song, “Wish You Were Here”, is sad and sentimental. It’s actually about Al, my bandmate, losing his dad. For the general public listening to it, it does definitely make you think, ‘Man, all the people that we lost this year.’ That’s the end of the album kind of looking back. The first 10 songs are really supposed to be just having fun and get your mind off stuff. For me, I like political music and I like aggressive stuff, but ultimately music should be about forgetting about your problems, you know? You ever put on headphones and close your eyes and just go away? The world’s fine for the next three minutes.”

They created the album they thought the world needed now, very different from 2017’s 11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory — personal also, but with a different resonance.

“Sometimes, also our albums are like one bounce back as a reaction to another one,” he explains. “The album before this was definitely a lot to do with the opioid epidemic because it was just like, ‘Man, people were dying at a rate.’ I mean, even still and I don’t want to get political here… I’m by no means a COVID denier. I wear the mask everywhere, but in my certain circles, I’ve certainly lost more people, even in this year, to overdoses than to COVID. That’s not to say COVID is not serious, I’m just saying fucking look at what else is serious the world somehow doesn’t take seriously. People can’t go on with their daily lives letting people overdose and drop like flies because they think it can’t happen to them. But now we’re to the point, who doesn’t have someone in their family they know that’s overdosed and died?”

As live performers, they’re legendary, and it’s where their desire to connect with their crowd demands that they give a thousand percent. If you ask their fanbase, they always deliver.

They’ve even brought bagpipes on tour, for crying out loud.

Ken reveals the secret formula to being a kick-ass live band: “Energy, smiles, just let it all go,” he says. “Whatever is going on in your outside life just leave it at the door for an hour and a half. One of the greatest things that I’ve probably ever done is, probably 95% of all shows we’ve ever done, I stay and talk to everyone in front afterward. You really feel like you get immediate feedback. Sometimes there might be an asshole in the crowd. For the most part, you do get a good experience.

“You actually get people saying what it does for them and stuff. To me, on the other side as a fan is what I’m looking for in a show, is just to be able to come and get lost in that and not think about. If the band is great, you really don’t have time to think about your problems because they’re holding your attention, you know?”

“I try to look at it as a full-contact sport. There definitely needs to be sweat and there should be a little blood, probably.”

So, for a band that’s living the dream…what do you dream of now?

“For us probably maybe getting to open for AC/DC, that would be the final frontier for us,” he says. “That would be epic. The crowd probably wouldn’t like us because AC/DC is one of those bands you’re going to AC/DC, you want to see AC/DC. We can set ourselves on fire and walk off into the sunset if we open for them.”

So many musicians of Ken’s status crave a “normal” life, filled with balance and family, and Ken seems to have achieved that, staying close to his Boston roots.

“I just think growing up around here, I keep going back to what I said earlier with that everyone knows each other…. It’s just like, if I ever got a big head from this, I have one of my friends I grew up with, ready to smack me back down to size. We’ve been in L.A., in New York and this is just…we just live a normal life. You can take your kids to the hockey rink and you do your normal stuff. It keeps it all so grounded, and thank God for that because when you’re on tour for sometimes nine months a year, you’re so…you need to have something to come home and be grounded. Boston itself keeps you grounded.”

To see our running list of the top 100 greatest guitarists of all time, click here.