Q&A: The Dropkick Murphys' Tim Brennan Talks New Albums, Woody Guthrie, And More

Mar 10, 2023 at 3:22 pm
The Dropkick Murphys.
The Dropkick Murphys. Photo via Dropkick Murphys/Facebook

Since their beginnings in 1996, the Dropkick Murphys have gone from being Boston’s rock ‘n’ roll underdogs to their champions. Their mix of traditional Irish and Celtic music, punk rock, and Oi, combined with their vehemently pro-union, pro-working-class lyrics and energetic live shows have earned them millions of fans across the globe, generating over half-a-billion streams and selling more than eight million albums worldwide in the process.

Their latest releases, 2022’s This Machine Still Kills Fascists and the upcoming Okemah Rising, are unlike anything the Dropkick Murphys have done to date: full albums of songs that bring Woody Guthrie’s words to life. Not a tribute album or a collection of covers, these albums mark a collaboration between Dropkick Murphys and Woody Guthrie — artists separated by time and space, but connected by a common philosophy: to create something entirely new. Both albums see the band writing original music around previously unpublished lyrics of the late Guthrie in a unique collaboration, with the band finding a common philosophy in the timeless and timely lyrics of the “original punk.”

Their current lineup, consisting of Ken Casey (vocals), Tim Brennan (guitar, accordion), Jeff DaRosa (banjo, mandolin, bouzouki, guitar, harmonica), James Lynch (guitar), Matt Kelly (drums), as well as touring musicians Kevin Rheault (bass) and Campbell Webster (bagpipes, tin whistle), just finished up a first-ever acoustic, reserved-seating theater tour in 2022 and a fully electric tour of Europe earlier this year prior to kicking off their St. Patrick’s Day 2023 tour on March 1, which culminates in four sold-out shows in their hometown of Boston the weekend of March 16-19 (including a livestream of their St. Patrick’s Day show on Friday, March 17).

The tour will stop in Louisville tonight at Old Forester’s Paristown Hall. LEO caught up with guitarist Tim Brennan ahead of the show.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

LEO: To start this off, I want to thank you all for doing the three free livestreams during COVID. Those were phenomenal!

Tim Brennan: Yeah, we're so glad that everybody enjoyed those. But truth be told, it was partially a selfish move because we wanted to play, you know? We know nothing else other than being on tour and playing music, so that was a tough run. I had been in the band for probably, like, 17 years at that point, and we had never stopped for one second. We had just constantly been working for so long, pretty much since the band started, so that was legitimately the first break we ever took. Granted, by the time all that was over, it was like, ‘Alright, we need to get going again.’

So the Fenway Park livestream, how did that come about? (Note: the following is referring to the livestream “Streaming Outta Fenway,” a full no-audience concert where the Dropkick Murphys performed live on the field at Fenway Park in Boston on May 29, 2020, featuring a special appearance by Bruce Springsteen, who appeared remotely to perform two songs with the band).

Well, man, I don't even know (laughs). Luckily for me, I get to just show up and play the guitar and write music, but that's about where my jurisdiction ends. I don't even want to know the legwork that went into that one. But it was so amazing to get to do, and we were so glad to do anything at that point. The fact that we were getting to play again, and on top of that, we were getting to do it on the field in Fenway, it all felt very special. Of course, we wish that the seats were full of people, but we took what we could get.

Did you get to warm up or anything before that? Or did they just set you all up and it was time to go?

There was a lot of rehearsal for it. Luckily, they let us in there a couple of days before, so it wasn't a total run-and-gun, but it was pretty close. We broadcast that live, so there was that added pressure of it happening in real time. I think the stream was on a Friday, so we went there Thursday and we were doing a full-on, I suppose what you would call a dress rehearsal, and everything that could go wrong went wrong (laughs). We walked in Friday and we were like, ‘Oh my God, this could be terrible.’ We had that dud of a rehearsal on Thursday, and then we were able to go in on Friday, and everything pretty much flawlessly worked out. If you go back and watch that, when the credits are rolling and we're all on the field high-fiving, that was genuine (laughs). We were so excited that we had just pulled that one off.

And then to bring in Bruce Springsteen — I don't think anybody was expecting that.

I know, least of all us! But we're so glad that worked because that was a technical feat in and of itself. Because he was on the Jumbotron, that was one of the things that we were trying to suss out on Thursday, how to do that, and it just was not working. Even if we played the most flawless show you've ever seen, if it gets to the part where Springsteen shows up and everything goes sideways, that's all people are gonna remember. But it was so great, and we were so thankful to him for agreeing to be a part of that, and it all worked out wonderfully.

How are the crowds taking to the new songs?

Great! We were so nervous about the acoustic tour that we did in October because we've never done anything like that before. And going into the first night, I don't think anybody knew what to expect, really. A lot of the places we played were pretty much seated theaters, and for the majority of the show, people would be up on their feet standing on their seats. It was so great.

How challenging was it reworking the older songs into acoustic?

Sometimes it was challenging. We definitely went through a few versions of different songs before we got them to where we wanted them. We realized, especially when we were in the studio doing the records, that there were a lot of cases where we would be like, ‘Alright, we need some sort of dynamic here.’ Normally, we would just bring in another electric guitar or something, and that would take care of it for us. For [This Machine Still Kills Fascists and Okemah Rising], we had to figure out clever new ways to do things, and we learned a lot in that process. And I think that helped us rework some of those older Dropkick songs into acoustic versions. There were some songs that we played basically the same as they are on the records, just with acoustic guitars, and those ended up fine. And then there were some songs where it was clear that we had to figure out a fun, clever way to turn this into an acoustic version. 

To be honest, the ones that were the hardest work to get them to where they ended up, those were the most fun. And we would come to “Barroom Hero” or something like that, which is a classic straight-up punk song, and Ken [Casey] would say to the crowd, “We've reworked some of these songs, like this one, and it’s going to be a lot different. Don't worry, this is not how it's going to stay for the rest of eternity, this is just for this tour.” And there would be nights where Ken would say, “Is everybody enjoying this?” and the majority of the crowd would cheer, but every once [in] a while you’d get a guy that would go, “No!” and Ken would say, “All right, well, just relax, sir. Next time you see us, it's gonna be back to normal, so don't worry.”

With the new albums, where did the idea come from to take Woody Guthrie's lyrics and write your own music around them?

Billy Bragg and Wilco did that back in the late 90s with the album Mermaid Avenue, where they had taken Woody Guthrie's words and had written their own music to it. So around 2002 or 2003, Nora Guthrie, who's Woody's daughter and sort of runs the whole foundation, her son Cole was a Dropkick fan. I think that he and his mom saw us and Woody as kindred spirits. They approached us and asked if we had any interest in doing this thing where we find some of the lyrics and put our own music to it. So Ken went down to the archives and sifted through some stuff and came out with a few songs, one of which was “I’m Shipping Up to Boston.” A lot of people don't know that was a lyric scrawled on a piece of paper by Woody. Ever since the band did that, there has always been talk of, ‘Well, it'd be cool if we could do more of that, or even a whole album’s worth.’ For years, we had kicked that idea around, then it was just a matter of the right place at the right time. Now that everything is digitized, you don't have to go to the archives anymore and put on white gloves and handle everything yourself; they can email you scans of his lyrics. So, Nora, being familiar enough with the band, went through herself and picked some out that she thought would work for us. Then Ken went through a bunch and picked out some that he felt would work. Then, before we knew it, we were working on 20 songs or so. And it was great. I mean, to even be asked if we were interested in doing something with those lyrics is one of the greatest honors that's ever been bestowed upon the band. We were just over the moon to be able to do it and so excited with how it came out.

When you all went in to record, were you planning on doing two records?

I don't know if that was ever the definitive plan. We knew we had more than enough material as far as the 20 or so songs. I don't think it was until we got into the studio and started putting them all down that we realized we had two albums worth of stuff here. There have been times in the past where we've gone into the studio with more than enough songs and thought maybe we'll get another album out of it, but that’s never really happened. When we got to the studio in Tulsa and started going through all the songs, by the time we were done with the basic tracks, we had, like, 21 or 22 songs. Obviously at first it was like, ‘Alright, we'll pick the ones that we liked the best.’ Then as we were going through, we realized these are all perfectly capable of being on an album. So the idea was brought forth that we should do two volumes of it. And if you look again at the Billy Bragg and Wilco stuff, they also did two volumes worth of [Woody Guthrie-written] stuff. Because there's such a wealth of material to work with, it's hard to put one to the side versus another one, because all the lyrics are so great.

Yeah, absolutely. I’ve listened to the new album [Okemah Rising] and none of the songs on it are throwaways. Usually when bands record two albums at the same time, the second album is generally just throwaway tracks. But this one isn’t.

That was one of the things that we were talking about it. We were worried that people would see [Okemah Rising] as like ‘Ah, here's the rest of the songs,’ but it's not really like that at all. We made sure that we had two albums worth of solid material. And they have two different feels. This one that's coming out [Okemah Rising], I think I would put a little more in the Dropkick category as far as the Irishness of it, musically speaking. I think with the first one [This Machine Still Kills Fascists], maybe we stretched our legs a little bit more. Not to say we didn't on Okemah Rising, but I think for people who were sort of scared of that first one because it was so different, this one is more along the lines of what people are used to hearing from Dropkick.

What was the decision behind releasing both albums so soon after [2021’s] Turn Up That Dial?

Well, Turn Up That Dial we did during the pandemic. We were in the studio putting down the basic tracks for Turn Up That Dial I think in December of 2019, then we went on tour throughout January, February, and came home at the beginning of March; that's when everything shut down. We weren't even able to resume working on Turn Up That Dial until the following fall. Then we finished the record, it came out, and normally we would hit the road and go tour for that album, but we weren't able to do that. And to tell you the truth, I think we just got antsy. We weren't able to go and play all those songs live that we had just put out. So the way that we work is we put out a record, we tour on it, and then we hunker down, write a new record, record it, put that out and tour on it. We had to skip the step of touring on the album, but we just kept moving down the line. And the next thing was, ‘Alright, well, let's write and record another album.’ I suppose the thought being that it's not a bad thing when we hit the road again to have a wealth of new material to choose from. Of course, you don't want to inundate people with too much new stuff. But at the same time, we were looking to keep working.

On This Machine Still Kills Fascists, the song "Dig a Hole" actually features Woody Guthrie singing. How did you all go about getting that together?

That was Ken; he found the audio of that and had the idea. We were in the studio doing demos for it, and he came in with that and was like, ‘How cool would it be if we took this and sort of used it as a backing track? We put our stuff over it and then we sort of trade vocals with him,’ and we all felt that that was a phenomenal idea. We got the blessing of Nora and the Guthrie people, who were also excited about the idea, and we just put it together. That's one of my favorite things on This Machine Still Kills Fascists, for sure. It's one chord the entire time, but his voice is so great on it, and the message of it is great.

The Dropkick Murphys are playing here [tonight]. Is there anything we can look forward to at the show?

It's just going to be your good old-fashioned, raucous Dropkick Murphys affair. We'll be playing some of the new stuff from the upcoming record. There's going to be some stuff from This Machine Still Kills Fascists in there, a couple of which we've worked into electric versions, and some of them are staying as they are on the record. But everyone can expect a great old-fashioned good time! The Dropkick Murphys’ latest album, Okemah Rising, will be available Friday, May 12, on the band’s own Dummy Luck Music, and their annual St. Patrick’s Day show in Boston will be livestreamed on Friday, March 17. Pre-orders for the new album are available at https://dropkickmurphys.store, and tickets for the livestream are available at https://dropkickmurphys.veeps.com.