Dropkick Murphys’ Ken Casey goes acoustic on his new album
With over 25 years behind them, the Boston Dropkick Murphys are true punk veterans. Their latest album, however, is something entirely new for the band while trading on a much, much older act. This machine still kills fascists is a collection of 10 songs based on previously unreleased lyrics written by the late great Woody Guthrie.
The Celtic band are well-known for their amplified, heart-pounding guitar outbursts. But you won’t hear that here. The album does not feature a single amp. Instead, Dropkick Murphys did the most punk thing they could think of by presenting Guthrie’s anti-fascist, proudly working-class lyrics against a purely acoustic backdrop.
The record is named after the words Guthrie scrawled on his guitars in the 1940s during World War II: “This machine kills fascists.” “As a weapon against ignorance or hatred, music can cast such a wide net to reach people and get their attention, more so than a news article or something like that,” says Ken Casey, l lead songwriter of the Murphys, in his earthy Bostonian. accent with a vaguely Irish cadence. “It may come to you in a more subtle way.”
The group has gone through significant line-up changes since its formation in 1996, but founder Casey has always been at the heart of this group. The original line-up – Mike McColgan on vocals, Casey on bass/vocals, Rick Barton on guitar, Jeff Erna on drums – played in the basement of a friend’s barber shop before taking their raucous punk rock infused with Irish folk on the go. A year after forming and a few EPs later, the band were signed to Hellcat Records and, along with producer Lars Frederiksen (Rancid), released their debut album. do or die in 1998. McColgan quit mid-tour the same year. Al Barr took his place.
Today, Casey and Barr lead a multi-talented band of musos that includes Matt Kelly on percussion, James Lynch on rhythm guitar, Tim Brennan on lead guitar, accordion, mandolin, bouzouki, piano and whistle, and Jeff DaRosa on banjo, mandolin. , guitar, bouzouki, piano and harmonica.
When it comes to guitars, Casey says “the guys pulled out the right ones for [This Machine Still Kills Facists]”.
Brennan relied on a 1968 Gibson Country Western, a flattop acoustic also beloved by Sheryl Crow, but with a narrower neck and lighter construction than the original late 1950s version. Lynch wielded a Gibson J-45 from the 1960s, with its golden mids and full, juicy basses, plus a small-sized Martin 000 acoustic for some overdubs. The power of the album, however, lies in the story rather than the instruments.
Woody Guthrie, who died in 1967, was an American folk pioneer hailed for his ability to wield poetry as a weapon in the fight for socio-economic justice. He fought for peace even when his country did not want it. When World War II broke out in 1939, Guthrie left Texas for New York, where he wrote and recorded Dust bowl ballads in 1940, a record that chronicled the Depression-era dust storms in his Oklahoma home in the mid-1930s, which had driven many young and active Okies to California in search of work. Although not part of this record, the same year he released the iconic song This land is your land.
“It took us 26 years to get started,” says Casey. “I don’t know if we would have been ready to do it earlier. The plan was to make this album for 20 years, since we went down to the Guthrie archives [in New York, at that time]. But if we had done it the first time we talked about it, it probably would have been an album that sounded like our normal stuff. It was really a challenge when we got to the studio and decided not to use amplifiers. It’s one thing to make an acoustic album, it’s another to not even go through an amp.
Without the amps, pedals, and wall of electrical noise, there was no room to spoil a lyric, miss a beat, or deliver a line with no integrity. Rather than effects, the band relied on a few other old-school studio tricks to create unusual sounds.
“For the small parts where we wanted the guitar to sound overdriven, we ran a piece of paper through the strings to create an overdub,” Casey explains. “It creates a buzzing effect. Obviously this cuts some of the strings off so it has to be done in an overdub format, but we used it in Talking jukebox and Cadillac, Cadillac during certain instrumental passes, for more punch. We used a lot of cool little tricks to get the extra boost we could, but for the most part the intensity had to be gained through song delivery and arrangement. It made us a better band, that’s for sure.
Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, had collected her father’s lyrics for Casey and the Murphys, recognizing Woody’s spirit in these like-minded rebels. Involved throughout, Nora and her daughter Anna Canoni were co-conspirators with the band in their lyrical choice and production.
There are also other high caliber collaborators, including Nikki Lane, Dom Flemons and Evan Felker, forming more than two decades of ties between the band and Guthrie’s legacy – Dropkick Murphys referenced the lyrics and philosophy. of Guthrie as early as 2003.
“We first went to the archives in 2001 and took 10 or 11 unreleased lyrics,” says Casey. “But at this point we were so busy. We were touring nine months a year and releasing one album a year.
These unheard lyrics debuted on The Murphys’ 2003 album Blackouton the song It’s gonna be a blackout tonightas well as on top I ship to Bostontheir most beloved track, from the 2005s The Warrior’s Code.
That 2001 encounter at the archives established a lasting friendship between the band and Nora. Casey remembers holding the original handwritten lyrics, to which Guthrie had attached anecdotes, dates, and locations for future reference.
“Woody would always write a little anecdote or a sentence about whatever came into his head when he was writing it but, at the same time, it was a puzzle because he never wrote the music, so we had to say, ‘How should that sound?
Although the band steered clear of amps, you’re unlikely to confuse a Dropkick Murphys album with the folk of Pete Seeger or Nick Drake, even acoustic. There is nothing sweet about this emotional and political album.
Of the 20 songs recorded for the album, half were retained. The first cut, that is, there will soon be a second volume. The Murphys are therefore confident. And why shouldn’t they be? If any group could piece together Guthrie’s puzzle, it’s them.
“We mostly stuck to the instrumentation that we’ve always used,” Casey says. “On Talking jukebox, we used the tuning pegs on the banjo to create a guitar solo sound, but that was tuning and detuning the banjo pegs on the fly. We focused on rhythms and opposite rhythms. You can’t just sound a loud powerchord, you have to get into the nuances. There weren’t so many new instruments being used, but the way things were recorded was different.
The amp-less album shouldn’t have been a totally alien concept for the band’s fans either – last year Turn up that dial also had acoustic elements.
“Our last record had a lot of acoustic songs and just one electric, so it was a lot more acoustic in a percussive sense,” Casey explains. “We had already taken it in this direction and now we have stripped it further. The goal was to make an acoustic but powerful. We didn’t want to look like a bunch of guys on stools in a pub. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not what we were looking for.
Guthrie’s words may have gone unheard for over 50 years, but their sentiments are unnervingly relevant to the turbulent world of 2022.
“Who would have thought,” Casey muses. “I’m sure Woody wouldn’t have wanted his songs to be so relevant because it meant bad times happened in some areas.”
Dropkick Murphys has always been a political band. Casey acknowledges that this album and the next volume represent an even harder shift to the political left, which not all fans will appreciate. But the Murphys founder thinks the band’s fans are at least ready to listen.
“If you play with good intentions and with integrity, even if people don’t agree with your message, they’re more open to receiving it,” he says. “Most of the time my discussion with the fans is about how the music lifts their spirits and gives them hope. The band’s core fans always look a little deeper into the heart and energy of this one. People these days just read the title, not the whole story. We’ve had people say, ‘What’s going on here?’ project, taking Guthrie’s lyrics and trying to do something different. The feedback so far has been really good. A lot of these songs we’ve been rehearsing that will sound really good live electric in the future.
That’s the plan. The band kicked off its five-week acoustic tour to sit-down theaters in 30 U.S. states in October, before returning to the full, caboodle punk-pirate rock spectacle fans are accustomed to for future tours. Meanwhile, the acoustic tour, like This machine still kills fascistsis a whole new experience.
“This tour is all sit-down theater and we’ve never done anything like this before. We thought that with this thing, we would create an alter ego. So [from here on] one in five tours are seated in a theater, acoustically. It is important to give people different experiences. You don’t want to play at the same place in every city every time. We try to create some diversity.
That said, just as politics is in the DNA of the Dropkick Murphys, so is the big fast and loud Celtic punk.
“We will never escape this,” Casey says. “It will always be our main sound because it’s what we do best.”
This machine still kills fascists is now available.