Interview: The Dropkick Murphys’ Ken Casey on Woody Guthrie and Tulsa

Credit: Dave Stauble

Hard work, respect for others, and keeping the music fresh is the secret to band longevity.

It may be nearly twenty-five years since the Dropkick Murphys’ debut album, but the band is probably as popular today as they have ever been. They have also just released an album of Dropkick Murphy songs with Woody Guthrie’s unpublished lyrics, ‘This Machine Still Kills Fascists’, which they recorded in the home of the Woody Guthrie Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the legendary Church Studios, originally opened by Leon Russell. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Dropkick Murphy frontman Ken Casey over Zoom to discuss ‘This Machine Still Kills Fascists’ and the sense of awe felt when reading and handling Woody Guthrie’s original lyrics. He explains the overall experience was enhanced by being in Oklahoma and actually visiting Woody Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah. He also sings the praises of The Church Studios with its high-quality recording facilities and the pleasure of working with talented local musicians like the Turnpike Troubadours. The Dropkick Murphys may be proud of their punk credentials, but Ken Casey also shares the influence that the Rolling Stones and AC/DC have had on their music.  Finally, just in case any long-term Dropkick Murphy fans thought they were about to become a big hat band, Ken Casey unequivocally confirmed this was not the case.

How are you?

I’m fine, thanks.

You are coming up to your 25th anniversary next year, how does that make you feel?

Yeah, it is twenty-five years since our first album, but twenty-six years for the band. I’m getting old, haha.

Up to now you have been very clearly identified as Irish Americana culturally and politically, but you seem to have gone all Okie with ‘This Machine Still Kills Fascists’, how did that come about, and will you be wearing big hats from now on?

Haha, they don’t take too kindly to funny hats around here, I can tell you. We have been long-term fans of Woody Guthrie based on his beliefs, and we were first invited down to go through the archives of his unpublished lyrics twenty years ago, and at that point in time, they were kept in New York. We got to go down and actually hold the pieces of paper he had written the songs on in a temperature-controlled special room, and I had to wear special white gloves, and I had to hold them so gently. To hold those pieces of paper was unlike any feeling I have ever felt, I mean, I’ve been to the Louvre and seen the Mona Lisa and all that, but to hold these knowing not everybody got this chance was amazing. My favourite thing about all of Woody’s lyrics is that he would always date them, and write where he was when he wrote them, and a sentence or two about what was on his mind. Man, I don’t even think to keep the pieces of paper I write songs on, let alone date them because, if you think about that, there is so much happening in the world in that time period that the difference between a song written in 1939 versus one written in 1954, the date was very helpful, you know. It was just such an honour, and we’ve been talking about doing this album version for twenty years. You know what, I’m glad we waited until now because I think we are better musicians, and we are better capable to pull it off, and I also think the world needs it right now. Everything happens for a reason, and this album is coming out right now for a reason.

‘I’m Shipping Up To Boston’ is your best-selling single and its lyrics were written by Woody Guthrie. How do you view that track today?

Yeah, there I was twenty years ago looking through these deep powerful songs, fighting corporate greed, and solidarity, and “I’m shipping up to Boston to find my wooden leg”, and I’m like, holy shit, haha. But that is the great part of looking at his lyrics, you never know what you are going to find, comic, tragic, deep, silly. He was very well-rounded, and the words of ‘I’m Shipping Up To Boston’ just jumped off the page because we’d already written the music, and typically we don’t write the music first and the lyrics afterwards, everything normally stems from the vocal melody. We already had that song completely written and recorded, so when I saw those words, it was, holy shit, those are the words for that song. Who knew, and our career has been intertwined with Woody Guthrie for many years. His family, particularly Nora, has shown us a tremendous amount of respect, they’ve said they like the reasons we have said we are interested in this project, and that has been a great feeling.

How do you go about going through the archive, and deciding which lyrics you are going to use?

To be honest, mostly the melody just jumped into my head, a lot of them came together quickly, and a lot of them were a bit of a longer process. Sometimes he would type them out and do a longer version, but with some of these I was trying to decipher a lyric he probably did on his knee in the dark in the back of a box car, with a temperature that was not exactly perfect, you get the picture, haha. Just to actually transcribe some of them was a journey in itself, but I would say probably with about 75% of it I looked at it and the song was written in my head before I put the paper down. Obviously not all the nuance of it, but the general melody. Then some of it was a fun challenge, you know.

Have you asked yourself what Woody would have thought of what you’ve done with his lyrics?

According to his daughter, she said he would have got a huge kick out of you guys, haha. So maybe she is right, or he is rolling over in his grave, I don’t know.

‘This Machine Kills Fascists’ is acoustic, and Al Bell wasn’t available, how did that change the recording dynamics?

Because we went out to Oklahoma and Tulsa is obviously a big city and Woody’s museum and archives are currently there, and the studio was only about a quarter of a mile from the archive, so on a lot of the days, we would start out there, just walking around in there soaking up the vibes. One of the most impactful moments, though, was when we got in the car and drove down to Okemah, Oklahoma, where he was born and man, that is just small-town America. On the main street in Okemah maybe 20% of the stores are open, so you can see how the economic hardships have hit places like that. There are some statues, and we were playing acoustic in front of his statue, and an old man pulled up in a truck and he said, “Do you want to see some cool stuff?”, and he took us to this basement in a dusty old hall and there were all sorts of Woody Guthrie artifacts, including this five foot tall model of the home he grew up in, and just lots of really cool artifacts. And I’ve got to say, it really played a part in getting us into this creative mindset that really help us expand musically. I always used to call bullshit when The Clash went to Jamacia to record, but after what we did in Oklahoma, I really understand why bands do these things if they are trying to take music in a certain direction because it is helpful to be in the environment that music like that is created.

What did you learn as a band from soaking up all these influences?

I think it was just taking the gamble and seeing it pay off, which means you can take any song and strip it down and make any folk song as powerful as a punk song.

Some would say punk songs are just folk songs, anyway.

I’ve always known that, but to do it first-hand is a completely different experience, you know.

What was it like recording at The Church Studios?

Oh, what an amazing sound there, great local musicians came through and said hello to us.

Any big hats?

We had temporarily stepped outside of our punk mindset, haha, but no, it had just a beautiful big natural sound. The big room was just one of those rooms where an acoustic guitar sounds electric because the sustain of that room was just bellowing and booming. I honestly believe this record would not sound as powerful as it does if we hadn’t been in that room, it is an amazing studio.

Did you play bass on the record, did you alter it in any way?

I had surgery in 2008 because I lost all feeling in my left arm and fingers from an old accident, and I haven’t honestly played since then because our roadie Kevin who filled in for me, and who was a friend we grew up with, and we let him keep the gig. I will say, he is a far better musician than me, and since 2018 I’ve just been singing because I like being able to get to the crowd with the microphone. I will say this though, when I thought of this, I thought it would be very challenging for the bass playing, and I thought I’m glad I’m not playing bass, haha. It is a very different approach for sure, because there is just a lot more muting and a lot more finesse, and I don’t know whether I would have been up for the challenge, haha, but Kevin is a fantastic bass player. Just the different way we got sounds, we put pieces of paper between the strings to get an extra buzz, we did things to make certain solos sound like someone had stepped on the pedal, or something, and it was just a piece of paper between the strings. So, there were lots of fun tricks, like using the tuning peg on the banjo to get that bending sound on ‘Talking Jukebox’, it was really fun with all the different techniques, and I think we created something fairly unique.

As is the norm these days, you’ve released a number of tracks as singles with videos and they seem to have done well.

Yeah, that is the new way, sometimes I’m the opposite because jeez, we are giving away half the surprise to people, but I suppose you almost have to spoon feed people. That is why we have started to make slightly shorter albums, we used to make sixteen-song records, but people’s attention span doesn’t cover that. We can see it from the touring, so say we go on tour two months after an album, and everyone knows the songs on the front half of the album, but they don’t know track ten of the album until you come around again two years later on another tour. So, it really is beneficial to put them out a little bit ahead of time in smaller segments, you know.

When you were in Tulsa, had the Bob Dylan Museum opened?

It opened right after we left, but we did get to go in and see the setup because they were all working on it together. There was a Springsteen display being put up in the Guthrie archive that we got to see before it opened, so there were a lot of cool things behind the scenes that we got to see. I think that the Dylan and Guthrie archives are side-by-side is such a draw for the city, it is really cool.

You’ve already alluded to it, but if you think of all the artists Woody Guthrie has influenced, it is amazing.

Oh, the list goes on, and a lot of people on that list I’m a great fan of, so that is what makes this whole project that much more humbling. He influenced all these people, yet we are getting the opportunity to go in and do this. Anyone on that list would have loved to have had the lyrics to the ten songs that we just did and have a go at them. We are grateful we got to be chosen to do this.

Is there going to be a Volume 2, or is that pushing it?

Volume 2 is already done and recorded. We recorded twenty songs in the session, and we chose the first ten based on the fact that the first ten all had a bit more of a minery, darker, feel to them, and the other ten have a little bit more of a bright, happier tone to them. Not necessarily lyrically happy, but they have a brighter sound to them, maybe a little bit more similarity to The Dropkicks, not electric though, they are still acoustic. So that is how we separated them, and we are talking about releasing Volume 2 in either March 2023 or September 2023 depending on how everything shapes up.

What do your local fans think of your musical adventure?

Yeah, obviously a real Dropkick Murphys fan should get it, and support it. We definitely have an element of America that doesn’t like the message that the Dropkick Murphys and Woody Guthrie espouse, but just because somebody doesn’t like what we do has never stopped us in the past, haha. In fact, we may do it harder just to spit them, haha.

I assume you will be touring ‘This Machine Still Kills Fascists’.

We are going to do a full theatre tour in October and November in America, and we will be over to the UK and mainland Europe, on a tour that was scheduled originally in 2021 but was postponed a couple of years because of COVID. On that tour, we will probably just break down for four or five songs in the middle of the set and do some acoustic songs. And then there are funnier songs on this record, like ‘All You Fonies’, that have electric guitars, so we will do some of them electric, as well.

How easy is it to mix acoustic and electric in the same set?

It is fine because we have other songs that are acoustic, and we have ballads on every record, so we have newer songs that may be one electric and one acoustic. We have been playing the song ‘Two 6’s Upside Down’ all this past summer on the tour. The guitar techs bring the guys’ acoustics out, and off we go, so we don’t really change the setup too much. On this theatre tour in the fall, we are going to do some really different things with a new set design and all that, but on a normal tour, it really is easy for us to go back and forth between acoustic and electric.

Who are the main influences on the Dropkick Murphys, apart from Woody Guthrie and punk?

I definitely think normal hard rock, like the Stones and AC/DC, and it has an equal influence on the band as punk and folk music, you know. I’m always going to give a shoutout to the Stones and AC/DC, you can’t go wrong there, haha.

Has your longevity surprised you?

I guess we have always taken that perspective that you are only as good as your last album, and you have got to play your arse off every night as if it was your last show, and if you keep that enthusiasm and you keep that perspective, and you are lucky enough to have a local fan base, then yeah, there is no reason why you can’t or shouldn’t continue making music. I think sometimes for a lot of bands they let the business side of it chew them up and spit them out, the constant touring begins to pull on them, and maybe alcohol starts to come into the picture between band members. We have always treated this like family, we treat each other with respect, we treat the people we work with, with respect, we work hard, and we don’t worry about anything else which can take care of itself. I am surprised how long it has lasted, and I’m very grateful, but I think work ethic and the fact we have put ourselves as people and our families first, and not the money or chasing popularity. If you chase popularity, you are not going to find it.

Why is this released on Dummy Luck and not Born & Bred?

This is a new label going forward, we’ve shipped out distribution partnerships and all that to PIAS Worldwide, who have been a great partner with us in Europe previously. As we changed over all our distribution stuff we switched over the name. Dummy Luck is a line from a song on the last album, and sometimes I think that is the positive test, it goes with keep it simple, stupid, haha.

At Americana UK we like to ask interviewees what they are listening to now, the top three artists, albums, or tracks?

Coincidentally, we had them join us on the record, Oklahoma’s Turnpike Troubadours, and they are pretty much heavy on my list. I’ve been listening to a lot of Dylan, more than I’ve probably done throughout my life.

A big Woody Guthrie influence, haha.

Haha, I’ve always liked Dylan, but I’ve gone on a bit deeper dive, but man, do you hear that Guthrie influence more and more, the more you listen. I know he is a big name over in England, but I’m always trying to let Americans know about Gerry Cinnamon, and I love his music, and nobody knows about him in America. That is my full-time job, get Gerry known in America.

Is there anything you want to say to our UK Readers?

We feel it is important for us to bring Woody Guthrie to our audience, but hopefully, fans of americana will give the Dropkick Murphys an honest listen, and not just judge us based on what they have heard before and think of this as just a punk record.

The Dropkick Murphys ‘This Machine Still Kills Fascists’ is out now on Dummy Luck Music.

About Martin Johnson 401 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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