Photo by Derek Scancarelli
Since his band’s inception, Dave King has fought the notion that Flogging Molly only plays “drunken Irish music.” It’s taken him years to shake off that perception. Still, many music fans group the band in the same vein today. And King will admit it, in the past it seemed like some listeners didn’t want the band to stand for more than that anyway.
But what Flogging Molly actually represents is way more meaningful. That became clear as the 54-year-old Dublin-born singer and guitarist painfully groaned as I coerced him into ranking his studio records (they’ve also released a few live ones). “It’s not so bad,” I assured him, hell, journalists are taught to kill their babies at the get go! This should’ve been easy for him, right? Not really. For King, whose music has played an integral part in his personal and global identity, marriage, and upbringing, it became clear that there was no record he was particularly less proud of than the next. Perhaps that’s why his five albums over a 16-year span were reflected upon nearly chronologically. The approach was to take time creating new records, rather than pumping them out in a rigid album cycle. King attempted to rate the records based on his memories associated with the writing and recording process. Of course, as all musicians do, the group has grown and changed with age. As King says, the songs are all so different, but really, still the same.
5. Swagger (2000)
Swagger, that’s the foundation right there of everything we’ve done. Still to this day, we go back to these tracks and they’re so much fun to play, especially given that we didn’t really know what we were doing at the time. There’s a session that was never released from this album where we just sat around with traditional Irish instruments and we looked back on it like, “What the fuck?” We’re so proud of it that we might even use it on our next album. We might get some flak from some purists saying it isn’t Irish traditional music. But I like to think that we’ve proven once and for all, at the end of the day to me, that is pure punk rock. People were sitting in their home making this kind of music because they weren’t allowed to say anything. That was always important to me growing up as a kid.
That was your first album and you recorded with Steve Albini. Were you deliberately going for a famed rock producer there?
Not particularly. Steve was the first one to really say he was absolutely ready to work with us. With him, there was no red tape. We were a live band and we knew if anyone could record our band in a live situation in a studio, that it would be Steve.
At that point, did you have any concept that Swagger would shape the trajectory of your life?
No. You don’t know what lies ahead. If you’d told me back then that I’d be playing Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre and doing Jimmy Kimmel’s show, I’d say you were off your rocker. We were just doing the best we could. It wasn’t a grind. No one was trying to be better than anyone else and no one was out to prove anything. It was the beginning. We were discovering ourselves. That record kicked off with “Salty Dog” but then we had songs like “These Exiled Years.” But, there were signs there which indicated there was a lot more to this band than what your first interpretation might’ve been.
Well look at Speed of Darkness and Float and compare it to what you were doing on Swagger. With Albini, you had the hard and fast drums and vocals, but the newer records have a much more grandiose and tailored sound. It almost feels like you all realized that you don’t have to play 100 miles-per-hour to record a Flogging Molly song. Does that make any sense?
Exactly. We were a raw band when we were doing the first album, we were all, shall we say, a bit younger. But then again, on Swagger, you’ve got a song like “Life in a Tenement Square,” which was a really hard song to sing and write. It reminded me of a time in my life when things were dismal and there was no future, and there I was in Chicago with Steve Albini. We were starting to go and play and people were catching on to us. I had never experienced that before.
Well you had released a live album before even hitting the studio right?
We put one microphone on the stage and one in the crowd and recorded it. That’s how we raised the money to make Swagger. We were told there wasn’t a record company in the world that would sign us. We had to do it on our own, there’s something to be said about that.
4. Within a Mile of Home (2004)
There are times when I consider this my favorite album. I really love the way the songs go into each other. It seemed to fit from beginning to end. There’s “Screaming at the Wailing Wall,” “Factory Girls,” and “Tobacco Island.” I loved the way all those songs interwove. I remember that being a very conscious decision. On this current tour, we’ve started playing “The Spoken Wheel,” the quiet little acoustic song, which we’ve never done live before. It’s been very powerful. The last track, “Don’t Let Me Die Still Wondering,” I wrote that the day Johnny Cash had passed away. It just came out really quickly. It never really seemed like hard work to write our songs, but when we all got into that room together, there was something there that was very special. That became very evident on this third album. We really found our feet and got the vision.
Do you think this record when you really broke through to mainstream notoriety? There was a time when you couldn’t escape hearing “Seven Deadly Sins.”
Well, we were on a tour bus as opposed to being in a van, so that was nice! [_Laughs_]
3. Drunken Lullabies (2002)
Ugh, you’re killing me, man. Let’s put Drunken Lullabies next. This was also recorded in Chicago with Steven Albini. So back then, we’d never toured before Swagger, so we kind of didn’t know what to expect, then we did the Warped Tour and we released Drunken Lullabies shortly after. Things were starting to get really exciting. People were coming to see us and the crowds were getting bigger. Our little record company, SideOneDummy, decided they could see the potential. Songs like “The Son Never Shines (On Closed Doors),” obviously “Drunken Lullabies” and “What’s Left of the Flag,” were all doing great. “If I Ever Leave This World Alive,” that became an instant hit with our audience for some reason. We could play that song 50 times in a row every night and it wouldn’t have mattered to them.
Do you remember where you were when that “Drunken Lullabies” banjo riff came together?
That was a fluke! [_Laughs_] I didn’t really know how to play the banjo, but someone loaned me one and I was just sitting at home and fucking around with it and I wrote that riff. To be honest, I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew that it was gonna be pretty fun, but the way it came out was phenomenal. I could feel it as I played, “This is what I’m talking about!” I wanted a riff that the minute I played it people recognized it. I got lucky with that one there!
When you look back at Drunken Lullabies, do you see any songs that rose above the “drunken Irishmen” concept you felt pigeonholed into?
“The Son Never Shines (On Closed Doors),” I love that song from top to bottom. I wrote that one in 15 minutes. It’s about my mother. I hadn’t seen her in about eight years, that’s why it’s spelt “son.” It’s about me never knocking on her door. It was very emotional. She just passed away over Christmas…
I’m sorry, Dave. Were you able to reconnect with her before she passed?
Oh god, yes! The reason why I couldn’t see her for eight years was because I had problems with immigration. A lawyer filled out my paperwork wrong and it screwed me. I couldn’t go back home. It sucked. “These Exiled Years” off of Swagger, is based on the same thing. I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere. I couldn’t leave America. The band couldn’t go to Europe or Canada. When I went home after not seeing her for all those years, she opened the door and she didn’t know who I was. That song is a tough one. I can’t sing it live anymore, not now anyway. Maybe I will in the future, but now I can’t. It’s funny, we’re not supposed to be an emotional wreck of a band! We’re supposed to be a drinking party band, right!? [_Laughs_]
2. Float (2008)
My second favorite album would have be Float. We recorded it in a studio in the middle of Ireland. It was at the Grouse Lodge in Westmeath. It was an absolutely incredible experience. Michael Jackson had been there just before us. It’s very isolated and it actually had its own pub! It was an old Georgian house that they built a compound on and put in this beautiful studio. You felt like you were in the middle of nowhere and no one could disturb you. We were all living together. It created a great atmosphere for the album.
What year was this?
It was during the summer of 2007. I think we spent two weeks. I remember the weather not being too bad; it wasn’t completely pissing rain everyday. [_Laughs_] It really relaxed the band. You didn’t need the extra time for everyone to get their heads together. They fed you there, you slept there, you drank there, you ate there; you did everything there. We could work until four o’clock in the morning, which we usually did. There was no pressure. And we went through seven kegs of Guinness, which is pretty good!
That’s a keg of Guinness every two days.
[_Laughs_] There are about 80 pints of Guinness in each keg! We definitely had our work cut out for us.
Do you pour the Guinness after you’re done writing and recording or while you’re in the studio?
I don’t really do any of that until after the session is over. But we actually wrote Float in Wexford, the village that Bridget [Regan] and I were living in. What was great is we would go to the local pub every night after writing and we’d play a session of new ideas to the local people. We definitely had fun doing that album.
Was that the first album you made after you two got married? Was writing any different once you were husband and wife?
It was the first album! It was between Within a Mile of Home and Float that we decided the bullshit was over we needed to be together and that was it. But absolutely not, in fact it probably made it a lot easier. We always got on anyway and we’d been together for a long time playing music before. We were always on the road together. I wouldn’t say it’s a perfect world for a lot of married couples doing what we do, we’re basically around each other 24 hours a day, but we wouldn’t want it any way else. We rarely spend a day apart and we’ve been like that for 15 years. I’m very lucky.
As far as the contents of the songs on Float, some of those tracks got pretty heavy right?
There are a lot of songs, like “Us of Lesser Gods,” that even though they aren’t heavy musically, they’re very powerful songs. That was one thing about the band that we were never afraid to do, we sing what we want to sing about. Over the years, we’ve lost quite a few fans because for some reason they can’t… I don’t know how to explain it, we get a bad rap from nationalistic-minded types of people. We give our views about how we feel, not just about America but the world in general. It amazes me, do you even read our lyrics? Around that time, we became aware that some people thought we were, or wanted us, to just be some drunken Irish band.
But it was way more than that…
It was way more than that and a lot of those fans didn’t like it. But this was also when we started getting into the realm where people were conscious that we are more than that. Thankfully a majority of the people loved it. But you’ll always have the people that don’t.
That one song “Punch Drunk Grinning Soul” was about depression and suicide right? That’s far off from a drunken sing-a-long.
It is. It was inspired from my village in Ireland. This young man, he’d be down at the pub and was a very bright spirit. He’d always have a good time. Then one night all of a sudden, he decided to go home into his shed and hang himself. It reminded me of a lot of the soldiers that were coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan that were coming to our shows. They would explain their situations fighting with depression. It hit me that we all might seem like everything is perfect on the outside, but it might not actually be that way. My wife Bridget’s father was a Vietnam veteran and was in the Detroit police force for 36 years, so he would suffer from it too. At the time, so many people were going through PTSD. It is a song about depression. We all suffer through it. “Punch Drunk Grinning Soul” is when you’re grinning on the outside, but getting punched in the fucking head inside.
1. Speed of Darkness (2011)
This was written mostly in Detroit when it was going through hard times. The songs reflected this, like “The Power’s Out” and “Don’t Shut `Em Down.” They’re songs of struggle.
What’s your connection to Detroit?
My wife and I were living there. Every fifth or sixth house was boarded up in our neighborhood. You could feel a bad energy. We wanted to stay a part of that energy and we wanted to write there. We didn’t want to leave for a place like Grouse Lodge where we knew we would have fun or be relaxed. We wanted to be there for the grit and grime of the city that not only my wife was born in, but I love very much. We tried to get a studio to actually record the album in Detroit, but we couldn’t find one! There was no studio that could accommodate the band! It was really sad. But even just singing about it, we would try to do our part to make a more positive atmosphere about Detroit. Now it has so many things that are going on right now and so much positive energy that it’s amazing. It’s becoming a different city. We ended up actually recording the album in Asheville, NC.
Did the band feel the most sonically sound going in the fifth time around?
You could feel it. There are three or four songs on that album that were done in one take. It’s great because it gives you so much more space and time for creativity when you’re nailing things quickly. If the energy is right, you don’t fuck with it!
Derek Scancarelli finds himself in the same old mess singin’ Drunken Lullabies. Commiserate with him on Twitter.