Formed in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1996, the Dropkick Murphys have grown to embody Boston over the past 20 years. Known for their continuous local touring, raucous St. Patrick Day concerts, and countless counts of disturbing the peace, the tight Celtic punk band has made a name for themselves with their gritty and homegrown music.
Their only Platinum-selling single to date, “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” was featured in the four-time Academy Award winning film about Boston mob and cop relations, The Departed. And if you find yourself at any sporting event in Boston, you’re almost guaranteed to hear one of their tunes ringing throughout the stadium.
But the Dropkick Murphys are not only recognized by Bostonians for their riotous live shows and grungy anthems. In 2009, they founded the Claddagh Fund, an organization that helps fund substance abuse programs and veteran rehabilitation. They dedicate a portion of all of their ticket sales to these causes and participate in a variety of benefit events whenever they’re back home.
Their newest album, 11 Short Stories of Pain and Glory, is similarly impactful, shining a spotlight on Boston-specific issues like the opiate crisis and the Boston bombing. This is because this band is much more than just a St. Patrick’s Day staple in Boston – they’re an institution. They care about where they’re from, and they care about where their city is going.
We had a chance to talk with two members of the band, Tim Brennan and Jeff DaRosa, about their newest album, what it was like to record this album outside of Boston, and how they go about tracking their unconventional instruments.
The first thing that I was immediately aware of when listening to this record was that you guys are a band that has been around for two decades now. I wonder how you approach your writing and your recording process, keeping things fresh while still maintaining who you are at your core as a band.
Jeff: I think a lot of it has to do with just trying to come up with things that are fun for us to vibe to. Also having new members – I’m a new member, I came in 9 years ago – and different personalities keeps things fresh.
Was it difficult coming into a band that was already established and had been around for 15 years or so?
Jeff: It wasn’t because I had been friends with them for so long. I’d always kind of followed the band, and it was kind of fun to come in and have something established, a template for how the style was, so that I could build on that. We’re always trying new things with every album.
With this album, you guys recorded for the first time out of Boston. For a band that really embodies Boston, how was that experience for you guys?
Jeff: Yeah, we went this place called Sonic Ranch Studios 30 miles outside of El Paso right near the border of Mexico. I literally ran to the border every day, just as part of my daily ritual. It was a great experience.
We’ve recorded in Boston so many times that we felt like it would be a good idea to get away from our families and our friends and our routines and to just lock ourselves away from the world in a way to really hone in on what we’re doing.
It really worked out. I was a little nervous because we had always made our records right near home, but once we got there, we realized it was actually the most creative environment we could’ve put ourselves in.
Tim: The setting was very different. Putting six New Englanders in the middle of the desert like that is about as far away from home as we could get. Apart from the physical aspects and differences between Texas and New England, just the area that we were in felt a little bit different. We’re used to recording in the city, but this studio sits on acres and acres of pecan farms. It was a little bit more serene than we were used to, and it ended up being a more relaxed process.
This album dealt with some heavier subject matter – the opiate crisis in New England, the Boston bombing. Do you feel like going to El Paso gave you guys a chance to take space and reflect in a way that recording in Boston wouldn’t have allowed for?
Tim: I don’t think it’s something that we really thought about at the time. When we’re writing, we write everything at home. Probably 98% of the time we know what we’re going for when we bring a song into the studio as far as it being fairly complete. So we wrote mostly everything at home close to all of that subject matter. But in retrospect, getting out of town did give us some perspective.
Jeff: I feel like it all came together [down there]. One song kind of triggered another song. We started with a cover song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” inspired by the opiate crisis happening by us. One thing kind of leads to another and next thing you know, you kind of have a theme going.
You guys are known for being a faster, raucous, punk party band. But a song like “4-15-13” plays like more of a slowed down introspective look at what happened in Boston on that day. Did you know going into the studio how you wanted that to sound?
Tim: We had the bare bones of it – we knew we wanted to play an acoustic along to Ken singing the words. But production-wise, that was one song that we really fleshed once we got into the studio.
When you have subject matter like that, you don’t want to write a really solemn, slow sort of ballad about it. And then at the same time, it shouldn’t be smashed into a really fast punk song. So I think finding that balance in between those two and making it a song that is more of a listener – one of the songs that when we play live, people pay attention to a little bit more than just sort of going nuts – was really important to us.
There are definitely a lot of moving parts in a Dropkick song. A lot of unconventional instruments, too, like the bagpipes and the bouzouki. What does your studio process look like in terms of recording everything?
Tim: We typically multi-track. James and I will make a scratch track for Matt to listen to while he’s doing the drums. But depending on the song and how we want to approach it, there are some songs that we’ve done live. Like on Going Out in Style there’s a song called “Take ‘em Down,” which is a little bit more of an acoustic-y feeling song, and we did that live.
Jeff: I look at the bouzouki as just a bigger mandolin because I string it the same way. I usually use it for droning – it almost sounds like a 12-string in a way. We mic it like it’s an acoustic guitar. I do the banjo and the acoustic the same way. It does help you keep things fresh, coming up with an idea on a bouzouki rather than just an acoustic guitar. You can write differently and come up with different things. I’m sure the writing and recording process is a little bit more nuanced with the bagpipes.
Tim: I’m not a bagpipe player, so I use electronic bagpipes when I’m writing to map out the bagpipe line and record the demos. Then Lee, our touring bagpipe player, learns those parts and comes into the studio to record them.
The recording process is a lot of trial and error. We found out that in order to make them sound really good, we have to triple-track them. One bagpipe sounds kind of thin, two of them sound like they’re out of tune with each other, but three has this weird phasing thing going on that sounds really cool. So we do at least three tracks of bagpipes on each song.
With all of those instruments, do you guys have any staple gear that you always tour or record with?
Jeff: Yeah, definitely. Deering made me my own signature banjo – the Dropkick Murphys Deering Banjo – and that’s the instrument that I’m most proud of. I play a new Gibson J-45 that I love. We all play Gibsons. I just got one of the new American Pro Telecasters, too. I use mandolins from a small company out of Oregon called Weber. They made me a couple of really nice custom mandolins.
The studio in El Paso was really cool because they had great gear. I got to record a lot of electric on this album, and I got to use a 1975 Telecaster, kind of like the Keith Richards black one, and that was running through a 1959 Tweed Deluxe. The perfect combination – I put it on everything. We also recorded with an old, old Martin D-18.
Tim: My number one live guitar is a 1968 Gibson ES-345, and that is by far my favorite instrument that own. I record most of my parts with that going through a vintage Fender Bassman Head and then usually into some sort of smaller 2x12 cabinet.
Other than that, I have a Gibson Barney Kessel Custom that is probably the best-sounding guitar that I own. It’s got these really nice vintage PAF pickups, so I use that for recording a lot. On this album, I started using a lot of Fender Jazzmasters for a lot of solos and texture overdubs. I’ve gotten into those recently, and I really like them a lot.
The Dropkick Murphys are currently on tour in support of their newest album, 11 Short Stories of Pain and Glory. To check tour dates, buy tickets to a show, and purchase their album, check out their website here.