Dropkick Murphys’ Ken Casey: “I’m only a few bad decisions away from turning back into the savage that I was”

Dropkick Murphys vocalist Ken Casey reflects on the band’s longevity, sobriety, growing up and why getting emotional is punk as fuck…

Dropkick Murphys’ Ken Casey: “I’m only a few bad decisions away from turning back into the savage that I was”
Mark Sutherland

It’s taken 25 years, but Ken Casey’s life has finally come full circle.

On May 2, it will be precisely two-and-a-half decades since he first stepped onstage with Dropkick Murphys, at the 60th birthday party of one of his friend’s fathers. As you might expect, the Dropkicks’ bruising brand of Pogues/Clash-inspired Celtic punk rock didn’t go down particularly well with the assembled sexagenarians, but Ken wasn’t too bothered. After all, it was the Dropkick Murphys’ second gig that really mattered.

A student at the prestigious Berklee College Of Music had bet Ken couldn’t get a band together in time to support the music student’s own group. Ken – who was then studying at the University Of Massachusetts and had never picked up an instrument – managed it and, while the Berklee man welched on the $20 wager, notes that accepting the challenge has “paid off in other ways”.

Indeed, it worked out so well that he dropped out of college and dedicated himself to the band. But, 25 years, 10 albums and one global pandemic later, Ken has finally bitten the bullet and gone back to college to complete the course he left behind in favour of punk rock stardom.

“I’m a glutton for fucking punishment,” he chuckles as he dials in via Zoom from his Boston box room, stuffed with sporting memorabilia. He’s currently going “balls to the wall” to finish the course online before live music comes back and he has to tour to promote the Dropkicks’ brilliant new album, Turn Up That Dial.

Singer Ken and his bandmates – co-vocalist Al Barr, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Tim Brennan, guitarist/banjo player Jeff DaRosa, drummer Matt Kelly, guitarist James Lynch, bassist Kevin Rheault and bagpipes player Lee Forshner complete the current line-up – have spent most of the preceding 25 years on the road, working their way up from Boston’s punk sweatbox The Rat (aka The Rathskeller) to the dizzy heights of London’s Alexandra Palace, the last gig they played before coronavirus kicked in.

Ken has found “a new lease of life” since an operation on an old injury sustained while working on a building site (not a motorcycle accident as the internet seems to believe) temporarily prevented him from playing bass. That leaves him and Al free to “run around like we’re teenagers again” and the band is similarly rejuvenated; Turn Up That Dial seethes with irrepressible, rabble-rousing anthems such as Middle Finger, Smash Shit Up and the greatest song ever written about a member of The Clash stealing someone’s dessert: Mick Jones Nicked My Pudding.

But then Ken has always lived his life like a man who knows he’s lucky to still have one. His father died by suicide when he was just eight, with the Dropkicks leader dropping out of multiple high schools as he fell into drink and drug abuse.

At 21, however, Ken “put down the drinking and the drugs and turned my life around”, meaning he’s one of the few sober people at the Dropkicks’ legendarily raucous live shows. He’s recently clocked up 30 years of abstinence, instead dedicating his spare time to everything from boxing promotion and bar ownership to political and charity fundraising. But he’s not about to take anything for granted.

“I’m only a few bad decisions away from turning back into the savage that I was,” he says. “I see so many musicians let things go to their head. They start to think they can walk on water – and that doesn’t usually end well…”

How does it feel to have clocked up 25 years of Dropkick Murphys?
“We were just doing it for a laugh and here we are, 25 years later, still doing it for a laugh! The key to life is low expectations – and we couldn’t have had lower expectations! Obviously, it’s become our career, so it’s not like we don’t work hard at it but, in terms of who we are and where we fit in the music business, we exceeded our goals the minute we walked onto the stage at that birthday party.”

Is it still as much fun as it was back then?
“Oh yeah. What good is success and popularity if you all want to stab each other? You watch some of these documentaries on bands and say, ‘Holy shit, they had such great success – but they all seem so miserable!’ Twenty-five years is a big part of your life; I don’t want to look back and go, ‘That sucked!’”

Did you expect the Dropkicks to make it?
“No. We were so not destined to be in this line of work. We would rehearse at seven in the morning. The guy who ran the rehearsal rooms would say, ‘I’ve never seen a band practise at 7am, what the fuck are you doing? People get into bands so they don’t have to do this!’ But it made us feel like we had a real job, because music always seemed like such a self-indulgent lifestyle. We always wanted to bring a work ethic that made it seem more like a nine-to-five. That sounds crazy even coming out of my mouth, but it made us feel we had a purpose.”

How did your father’s death affect you?
“It was just me and my mother growing up in a two-room place, she was a hairdresser so she cut hair in the kitchen and the other room was where all the ladies sat under those big old hairdryers. I’m trying to watch Bugs Bunny and there’s a bunch of ladies surrounding you with hairdryers – that would drive any kid to take to the streets! One thing led to another and my life spiralled out of control. I was a very rebellious, troubled, angry teenager. I had every problem you could have. And I always feel in my core that, without making a conscious effort to be an adult, I’m going to be that angry kid. That’s what Middle Finger is about, it’s not about giving the finger, it’s about trying not to give the finger – and the troubles that arise when you fail.”

Cod psychology would say that you lacked a strong male role model – yet you were very close to your grandfather…
“Yeah, my grandfather was definitely that role model. Believe me, it would’ve been worse if it wasn’t for him. He was a bit of a wild man himself. He would say, ‘Don’t take shit from anybody.’ It’s a fine message. But at the same time, you’ve got to watch that message to a kid. I twisted that sometimes like, ‘My grandfather said I could do whatever I want!’”

What prompted you to get your life together?
“I don’t want to go too far into the ‘guy talks about recovery’ stuff because I don’t like to talk about that, but hitting rock bottom in my life was what got me to change. And I also didn’t want to be the person that disappointed my grandfather. He died nine months after I got sober, so he got to see me start the other path, which was nice.”

How close did you come to a life of crime?
“I used to make bootleg hockey fight videos and sell them out of the local gangster’s video store. That doesn’t necessarily make you a criminal, but that world was very much around me and very much an option. Many people I know succumbed to chasing the easy buck. That’s where the looming threat of my grandfather was at its strongest. As much as I broke a lot of rules and got into a lot of trouble, you knew you didn’t cross certain lines or you would have felt the wrath. He was a guy that you feared a little bit, so that kept me in line.”

The early years in the band must have been tough…
“Oh yeah! We bought one of those vans with a high top, it was great because you could stand up in it, and we had a funnel you could pee into out of the back window. We hit a low overpass though and the high roof peeled back like a can opener. We toured for two more years with the roof like that! Our original guitar player Rick [Barton] did the driving and I was the co-pilot with the maps and, when it rained, I’d hold an umbrella over us while we drove. We’d get pulled over by the cops and they’d say, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’ We’d always tell them it just happened, and keep touring. Thank god for that umbrella!”

Dropkick Murphys songs are a curious mixture of rowdiness and sentimentality. Does that come from you?
“Definitely – we’ve always tried to cover the gamut of human emotions. It’s always best to write about what you’re passionate about and if it’s something that technically may not be punk rock like the love of your family then, guess what, fuck off. It’s going to be a better song because you wrote it from the heart. No person is always just angry, no person is always just happy – there’s sadness, happiness and anger in every life.”

The governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, and former mayor Marty Wash – now Joe Biden’s Labour Secretary – are both big Dropkick Murphys fans. How does it feel to have friends in high places?
“I’ve got plenty of friends in low places, too – but the ones in high places are really good people. We’re not in the position of ‘backing politicians’ but the mayor and governor are both really solid people that we knew before they were in politics. Who you are as a person is what really matters.”

It was easy to forget that under Trump…
“Well, you put a shitty person in charge, what did you expect? Friends that I’ve had my whole life got swindled into believing what that snake oil salesman was selling. It ruined lifelong friendships and family relations. We really want this record to be about moving forward out of that too, not just the pandemic. That might be wishful thinking because divisions are deep, but when you don’t have a guy pouring gasoline on it every day on Twitter, it’s a little bit easier to have hope.”

Do you have any regrets about your career?
“No, no regrets, we’re very proud of the fact we’ve done it our own way. It’s like, if the music industry is on Highway 1, we’ve always been pottering around on 1A, the little road beside it. Now, it’s flipped to where we are. Everybody wants to be on 1A, where they’re more streamlined and connected with their fans. We’ve become the model. Not because we had a plan, that’s just how it unfolded! I could honestly say I’ve shaken hands with 90 per cent of our fanbase over 25 years – and that’s because I want to know who they are. That’s a sure bet for catching coronavirus nowadays, but I really hope we get to the point where we can not only play shows, but they can be normal again, where the crowd’s sweating all over us and spitting on us when they sing back. That sounds disgusting, but it’s great. I can’t wait.”

Dropkick Murphys’ new album Turn Up That Dial is released April 30 via Born & Bred Records

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