Dropkick Murphys Drummer Matt Kelly Reflects on the Band's 20-Year Run


  • Kerry Brett
This week, Quincy, Mass.-based Irish punk band Dropkick Murphys kicks off its 20th anniversary tour with two shows at House of Blues where there’s a Green Room, a kick-ass sound system and attendants in the bathrooms. The guys have certainly come a long way from their humble roots. Early on, the band played basement parties as it cut its musical teeth by playing DIY venues in the Northeast.

“In many cities, there’s a thriving ‘basement’ scene, especially in places with few all-ages venues,” says drummer Matt Kelly in an email interview. “We did basements in Providence, around Boston, Baltimore, and a couple in California. Those days, it was the four band members and our T-shirt guy Brian driving around in an MBTA high-top van, and doing small gigs like most bands have done at one time or another. Good camaraderie, long overnight drives, bad food, bad women and lots of memories.”

Back in 1997, the group even played the cellar of a squat house in Baltimore.

“We drove forever to get there, and by the time we showed up the crusty punk bands whom we shared the bill with had packed up and left,” says Kelly. “Here’s the setting: abandoned/occupied apartment building; people shooting up in the bathrooms; the basement we played had a dirt floor; the “stage” was made out of pallets and carpet, where my drums and cymbal stands just wobbled around and sank between the pallet boards; about three songs into our set, [bassist] Ken [Casey] broke one of two bass strings I’ve ever seen him break (and he plays a left-handed bass…about as ubiquitous as hens’ teeth); [guitarist] Rick [Barton's] amp blew up…and all the other band people were gone…so we were done. We’d driven 10 or so hours to play three songs!”

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones gave the band its first big break; MMB’s Dicky Barrett and Joe Gittleman were fans of original Dropkick guitarist Barton, who was rhythm guitarist in the seminal Boston punk band, the Outlets, a Boston punk band that Kelly says was "legendary." 

“I think that the Bosstones guys knew that Rick was in this band, and we were kicking up some dust in the Northeast and California, so I think they just asked us on those two points,” he says. “I mean, this was before the Boys On The Docks EP was even out, and months before Do Or Die was even recorded— so I think they took a pretty big gamble taking us on the road. Luckily, we went down very well in the States and Europe, playing to huge crowds. After those tours, I and Brian (our T-shirt guy) were homeless, so we ended up moving into the apartment that Dicky and Tim had been renting from Joe Gittleman’s mother. The Bosstones guys were always great to us, and I think that first tour taught the guys in our band a lot about the manifold aspects of life on the road.”

After the band put out a series of EPs, Hellcat Records signed the group and released 1998's Do or Die, which was produced by Rancid's Lars Frederiksen. The album kicks off with a bit of bagpipes and then the songs come fast and furious; each track features gang style vocals and noisy guitars that owe more to the Sex Pistols than the Pogues. 

“It was a special time to say the least,” says Kelly. “We did pre-production for Do Or Die in Rick (Barton)’s grandmother’s garage, which was our de facto practice space. Lars had flown out from San Francisco and was crashing on some of the guys’ couches between pre-pro sessions. Half the songs we were going to record were also previously released on other 7-inches and the Boys On The Docks EP, but Lars guided us and gave us a lot of tips on more crafty song arrangement and definitely on sounds. Basically, we tightened the screws on a lot of those songs and changed them for the better. Other songs, specifically ‘Caught in a Jar,’ were in their infancy before I joined, but we played that one a few times before pre-production started… but again, Lars helped us trim the fat and perfect it. Other songs were just riffs or lyrics (or both) that we put together in the practice space up to and during pre-production. It was definitely a fun time and I look back fondly on it. We were really going for it, and the camaraderie we shared wouldn’t be matched again till almost ten years later in our existence.”

The guys went to the Outpost in Stoughton, Mass., where the Bosstones had recommended engineer Jim Seigel. Also, Rich Spillberg (Wargasm) contributed as assistant engineer and “all-around one-man comic relief act.”

“It was nice to work on instrument sounds and get that killer, killer guitar sound,” says Kelly. “To this day, while I may blush at some of the (DRUM!) takes that Lars let make it onto the final cut, I love the guitar sound and all-around feel of the album. There was a hell of a lot of thought put into the song order, the guitar sound, layout, the fat guys in hardhats on the front cover, and the final mix. Actually speaking of which, the record label had the album remixed because they didn’t like how it came out. They somehow got their hands on a ‘musical life-sucking machine.’ The new mix, which the label preferred, was dull, flat, and bereft of life. We were definitely NOT having THAT! It was a big blow to us because the original mix was exactly how we wanted it. So the long and short of it is, at the end of the day the band won out and the better mix is what you hear.”

“I'm Shipping Up To Boston,” a song with lyrics penned by Woody Guthrie, has taken on a life of its own. It’s prominently featured in Martin Scorsese's The Departed and can be commonly heard at sporting events and on television as a theme song for many sports teams. So what is it about that song that resonates?

“I have no idea because before the songs was featured in the film, it was one of our ‘also ran’ songs,” says Kelly. “It was second- or third- to last on the album (not a very flattering spot for a ‘hit’ song), and playing it live was like an exercise in statuary…nobody moved when we played it. It seriously took that movie to get anybody excited about it, and now it’s a platinum-selling single. I don’t get it! Fine with me though! I guess it’s better than hearing more Beyonce or Modern Country or other garbage.”

Given the fact that so many punk bands don’t last for more than one year, let alone 20, Kelly admits he’s shocked the group has endured fro two decades.

“It was something that happened so quickly that it sort of took us by surprise and I personally hadn’t thought about that,” Kelly admits. “The ten-year mark seemed to take forever, but the last ten years seemed to have happened twice as fast! It was always just 'let’s go for it,' and that attitude helped keep the focus, at least myself, in a perpetual state of determination to be as good and intense as we possibly could— or can…and time just shot by.”

Dropkick Murphys 20 Year Anniversary Tour with Tiger Army, Darkbuster, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 17, and Thursday, Feb. 18, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $32.50-$40, houseofblues.com.

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