In town to promote their upcoming new album 11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory, we had the great pleasure of chatting with Dropkick Murphys vocalist, Al Barr. In London as part of a press and promotional tour we spoke at length about loss, drug addiction and the band’s ripping new album.
Barr: Yeah, we just got here last night about 11:30, so yeah we just flew in from Berlin, Germany and we were in Paris, France the day before that so were here on our press tour.
Congratulations, I would be painfully jet lagged just from what you’ve said, just from Germany to Paris, all of that, that would have killed me!
Barr: Well, we’re used to it, you know what I mean? This is what we do, I mean, you know, you get tired but that’s kinda the nature of the beast and we’re here for such a short time that actually if I was here for 3 or 4 days I would get used to the time here, but then I would have a harder time getting back home but we’re leaving tomorrow already so I should be able to slide right back into U.S. times.
That’s always a bonus. Now the first big question, I want to talk about the upcoming album. This is the first one you’ve recorded away from Boston, it was in El Paso, I believe? What was the motivation to leave your home town and do it literally out in the sticks?
Barr: Well you see, we’d killed somebody and we wanted to get out of town so it was important that we had things calm down for a while, it was a perfect cover… and to record a record. No, every record we’ve done, don’t check around for that story that didn’t happen, every record that we’ve done we’ve done in or around Boston and, which has been great, because it’s always nice to be home but the problem ends up being you’ve always got your foot in your other life as well so there’s always, you’re not ever in the womb if you will, you’re only in the womb for those few hours whilst you’re at the studio then you’re stepping back into your other life, and my other life is my wife and my 3 children and so then there’s that whole period of when you’re kinda moving, you’re moving through the purgatory back into that other life then back into the purgatory of the womb of the creativity again.
What my point is that there’s all these interruptions so you’re never having a complete stream of creativity because you’re always interrupting it with it’s 6 o’clock and I gotta go home or I’ve gotta meet somebody or I told my son I’d take him to the movies or you don’t really need me as you’re doing guitar parts. This way we got out to the desert and we were away from our comfort zone and, I think, we were all kinda nervous about how it was gonna go. Once we got out there and we realised that we were 30 miles away from anywhere, it was kinda magical, that sounds kinda wonky but it was, it was really kinda magical that what happened when we were there was having never done it that way, being all together, having our meals together, just always being together until we would go to sleep for a while at night then you’d role out of bed and literally walk a few hundred yards and you’d be in the studio again. It never felt like you left the project so that was completely different from anything we’ve done before and I think that is definitely reflected on this record.
Check out the song “Paying My Way”
Now of course you were away from your family for a long time and as I understand it there was very little reception or difficulty staying in contact. Did that help or have a huge effect on the band whilst recording?
Barr: No, if anything it was one less distraction. You knew that if you walked 10 paces in this direction you’d get the Mexican service, all of a sudden that would show up on your phone and you’d be like, wait a minute, I’m not in Mexico and I don’t want to get charged for an international call then if you walked 10 paces the other way you had maybe half a bar of whatever El Paso had to offer. There were only a few rooms in the house where you could actually speak to anybody on your phone. At first that freaked me out but then you were like well we’re here to do this so you’d end up just leaving your phone in your room and didn’t even take it with you, you were just focused on the task at hand which was just trying to make the best record that we’ve ever have and when you’re talking about a 20 year career that’s a challenge in itself to not repeat yourself, trying to be relevant and vital and have something more to say and I feel that we’ve done all those things with this.
Now, having listened to the album it was a lot more emotional than anything I’ve heard before. It still had the same Dropkick Murphys feel to it, but do you think being isolated in that way contributed to how the album came out?
Barr: I think that there’s been a lot that’s happened in the last few years in the personal lives of the band we’ve had an opioid and heroin epidemic going on in New England right now and its touched the lives of all of our families, my family in particular, I lost my brother-in-law 2 years ago to an overdose, since we’ve been over here Kenny lost a family member to an overdose, it’s a real epidemic right now back home and it’s not being talked about, doctors are just prescribing pain pills to these kids, then the prescription runs out and an $80 oxy on the street or a $100 oxy on the street if you can find it verses a $15 bag of heroin.
Now they’re cutting heroin with fentanyl and fentanyl is what they give you in the hospital when you’re being put under for an operation and it’s 100 times stronger than heroin so that’s what killed my brother-in-law, they mixed the heroin with fentanyl and when my sister found him dead in the car the needle was still full, he’d literally just injected the tiniest amount in him and it killed him immediately, and he was a big guy, it just shows you how strong this shit is, it can kill a horse.
I do want to extend my, well I’m sorry that happened to you guys. That brings me onto my next question about the charity foundation that you’ve built yourselves and you are supporting. I won’t try to pronounce it, as I know I’ll get it wrong, but can you tell me a bit about that?
Barr: Yeah, the Claddagh fund. Well the band has always gotten behind our causes in and around Boston then when we’ve been on the road we’ve had people, for example, a few years ago we flew in from Japan and we started, well the Warped tour had already been going but we had 3 and a half weeks booked so we came from Japan and went right into the Pittsburgh Warped tour and on the way from the airport to the venue to start the Warped tour leg of this tour it was brought to our attention that the local stage hands union was on strike.
Now the Dropkick Murphys are all Boston musician union members so we were not going to cross that picket line so when we got there we went right into Kevin Lyman’s office and said Kevin, Kevin’s a friend of ours, so we said Kevin I hope you understand that we will not be able to take to the stage today because, as union members, we can’t cross the picket line and he, of course, understood right away but it was one of the heads that was there of picketing that came to us and said actually we’d like you guys to go onstage and if you could wear our shirts and bring some attention to the cause that might help us. So that’s what we did and there’s 10,000 kids in front of the stage and we remember they had scabs working the stage and they saw us putting on our local 3 shirts and one of the guys tried to rip the shirt off of all people Kenny and that’s the one guy in the band you don’t want to touch. So I look over and see Kenny taking a poke at the guy and squaring up and the guy pussed out right away which was a good thing because we were coming at him next. Then we took the stage and brought some attention to what was going on, we said that make sure on your way out you honk and wave to those guys picketing out there, you know they’re the local stage hands here in Pittsburgh and they’re getting screwed by all these clubs that don’t want to use them and don’t want to pay them, they don’t want to give them their health benefits and that ain’t right.
A week later they called to tell us they’d won all their concessions and that the strike was done and they were all going back to work and they tried saying that we had a big part in it, but we wouldn’t take any of that credit but we felt honoured to be able to help when we could and that’s always been our mind-set.
Back in 2009, as our popularity grew, we saw more opportunity where we could use the power of the band to do some good. We’ve always been an approachable band, we’ve been the band that someone could walk right up to and talk to. We’re not this band that closed itself off from our fans. It’s like we’ve put a tip jar on stage, well we don’t really put a tip jar on stage, but it’s almost if we will it’s set up with our merch every day and it’s our way of bringing attention to veterans causes, especially right now, recovery is one of the biggest things we’re getting involved in and because of the epidemic right now at home so it just made sense that, as our fans are so generous and so giving and caring and we’re such a family based band, that we establish a charitable arm of the band and that’s what the Claddagh is.
So how can people donate to this charity? How can I get people in England for example, have we got the website?
Barr: You can go to the Claddagh fund website you can find a link to it on our Facebook, you can find a link to it on our website it’s not hard to find. We’ve established this and there’s a chapter in New York City now, there’s a chapter in Philadelphia and it’s catching on. It’s an amazing thing – when the Boston marathon bombing happened, I hope I’m not jumping your questions here, but when the Boston marathon bombing happened we were on tour in California and we wanted to get back to Boston immediately of course. It was our gut reaction, the knee jerk reaction was to get on a plane and not play that night and get home then, on reflection, we said what the hell are we gonna do back there when we could do good out here and bring the healing power of music and keep that going.
What we did do right away for Boston was to put t-shirts on sale and it was literally 2 days into the production when the t-shirt company called and said they had to outsource and have people come in at night to work the printing presses because the orders were overwhelming us. In less than a week we’d raised over $400,000 and when I’m saying that we’re not talking about the Dropkick Murphys we’re talking about our fans and the outpouring of generosity that came from the world. It was unbelievable, it was really inspiring and heartwarming to see, if we didn’t love them already, we loved them now, but we love our fans, they’re the greatest.
That did sort of answer my next question, but 11 Short Stories Of Pain And Glory, it’s, I’ve already said, it’s got the sound of the Dropkick Murphys but there’s a level of emotion that, if I’m honest, I’ve not heard before and the one that stands out is “4 15 13”, which is about the Boston bombing. Can you tell me anything about the thought process behind that song at all?
Barr: I don’t think consciously any of us, when it happened, said we’re going to write a song about it, the immediate thing was trying to raise money for charity for the need of it by playing our own benefit at the House of Blues then joining some real rock legends on stage at the Garden later on for an even bigger benefit – we were just doing our part where we could.
When we sat down to write this record it was a matter of reflecting what had happened these last few years and obviously that was a big tragic event that happened and we felt being the ambassadors we’ve been called of Boston I think we felt the need to address that. In doing so we needed to be really careful that it was done in a respectful and tasteful way that didn’t cheapen any part of it. People needed to know the sincerity of what’s behind this song because this isn’t that long ago and there will be people that lost somebody there that might hear this song or was affected in some way that’s going to hear this song so we wanted to be real careful that we presented it in a respectful way.
Check out the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone”
It did come across incredibly respectful and it’s one of my top songs on the album and if I’m honest it sounds a little different from what I’ve heard from you guys before whilst still maintaining the sound that you have. What songs personally for you have hit that emotional level with this new album?
Barr: With this I like “Dead End Kids” a lot, I really like the vocal attack on that with Kenny and I going back and forth. I really like “Until We Meet Again”, I mean I love the whole record, it’s great. In saying that, we recorded enough material to release a second album at the end of this year, so we’ve got a whole other album in the quiver so there’s a second part coming as well which will be made up of other songs that you guys haven’t heard yet. I am really, really excited about people hearing those as well as these ones you’re going to hear on 6th January when this record comes out. So there’s a lot in store for the Dropkick Murphys and for fans of the Dropkick Murphys.
That’s answered my question. Now, you guys have been going for 2 decades now, heading into your third decade so congratulations. I’m going to skip past that and just ask, did you guys ever expect to be at the place you are now? Being able to raise awareness for charities and other issues around the world, did you ever expect this was going to happen?
Barr: No, I don’t think any of us ever expected this. I mean having joined this band 18 years ago and not being an original member but feeling close enough to being an original member, Matt the drummer has got 19 years, I’ve got 18 and Kenny is the founding and original member with the 20 years but, as Kenny told this story, he was a bar tender at Symphony Hall and he kept talking about how he was going to start a band. This guy he worked with had a cover band that played bars said I bet you $50 that you can’t put a band together and open for us by this date, and Ken said I’ll take that bet, so the band started on a bet and that was really what Kenny had intended from the beginning and what it’s become today.
When people ask me in the last 18 years what was the greatest moment so far I can’t even begin to tell you because there’s been so many I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around that. All I know is that to be a band that doing music for 35 years that I’ve been doing music and to be able to attach the word carrier to it, that’s pretty cool man because I thought my career was going to be dishwashing or prep-cooking or cleaning toilets or unloading trucks or doing any of the other millions of jobs to play music in the early days. So to be able to pay my rent and to be able to sit here now in London in the Gibson store, I don’t know man the whole thing has just been an incredible journey and I’ve got nothing but gratitude.
One last question, I write for a Canadian website, so when can your neighbours to the North and U.S. expect to see you guys come over and play these new songs for us?
Barr: Well it’s funny, you announce the first tour and Facebook was overloaded with people who were excited then the other half were mad that they weren’t coming to their area. All I can say about that is hang on, hang on, because it’s only January 2017 and we’ve got a whole other 11 months after that and we’re coming out with a second record at the end of that year so you’re going to be tired of us, but we’re going to be everywhere.